Star Wars fans will get a major peek into the early days of one of the series' most popular characters on May 25, when Solo: A Star Wars Story hits theaters. The movie reveals the events and people who helped shape Han Solo into the swaggering, supremely confident, occasionally boneheaded, but always lovable space pirate and scoundrel we first met in the original 1977 film, played to perfection by Harrison Ford.
Solo, starring Alden Ehrenreich as the young Han, is the first movie to explore the character's backstory. So casual fans can be forgiven for thinking that this is completely new territory. But longtime and die-hard followers of the franchise know that much of Han's history was revealed in novels, comic books, and other materials published in the decades since the line "May the Force be with you" was first uttered.
Up until the moment in 2012 when Disney purchased Lucasfilm and decided that pretty much everything comprising the so-called "Expanded Universe" would no longer be considered "canonical," the details presented in those materials, to a certain percentage of Star Wars fandom, were part of the Official Gospel. Those fans were not pleased when they were told that the stories they enjoyed so much didn't "count" anymore.
It is quite possible that Solo will have story elements and plot points in common with the Han-driven novels and comics, and may even improve upon them. But there is no denying that those earlier tales blazed a trail, one that may be overridden by the new movie, but can never be fully extinguished. After all, many of those stories are still — or back — in print.
The earliest glimpse into Han Solo's past came in the comic book Star Wars #7, written by Roy Thomas and published by Marvel in September 1977. It was the first story to pick up where the original movie left off, and includes a throwaway line from Han when he and Chewbacca spot some sort of priest on a backwater planet. Han can't identify the clergyman's exact religion, and comments, "I guess I shouldn't have skipped so much Sunday school as a kid." Sunday school? Does such a thing even exist in the Star Wars universe? Would a young Han Solo have been attending it? For that matter, is there even a day called Sunday? In those nascent days of the franchise, anything was possible.
Far more substantial pieces of Solo's past were explored in 1979, in both comic book and novel form. That year, author Brian Daley launched a trilogy of novels — Han Solo at Stars' End, Han Solo's Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy — that featured Han and Chewie in adventures set before the original movie, primarily in an area of the galaxy known as the Corporate Sector, away from the conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Jabba the Hutt is mentioned, but only as a possible investor in one of Han's business schemes, rather than the angry crime boss who put a price on Han's head.
The novels also featured two droid companions for the Corellian pilot and his Wookiee first mate: Bollux, an aging labor droid, and Blue Max, a small computer probe stored in Bollux's chest cavity. Along the way, Han becomes romantically involved with a woman named Jessa, a blond outlaw technician who, along with her father, Doc, helps make repairs and modifications to the Millennium Falcon that enable it to maintain its status as "the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy."
Daley, who passed away in February 1996, discussed his work on the novels in a Q&A six months before his death. "When I was hired to do the first Han Solo [novel], I was told that it had to take place before, not after, [Star Wars: A New Hope]," he said. "I could not use the Force or any other mental or PSI powers. I could not use Vader, the Empire, TIE fighters, the Rebellion, or any of the other major characters from the movie, save Han and Chewie."
He further explained that he used the old Bing Crosby/Bob Hope "Road" movies as an inspiration. "Bing and Bob constantly used humor to cope with the fact that life's often a string of perils, disasters, and enigmas interspersed with opportunities for lechery—which is pretty much how Han often sees things," Daley said. "There's also the Woody Allen influence: You can't overcome the absurdities of life, but you can maintain your sanity by cracking wise, by letting the irony flow. A good punchline is itself a victory over those who would destroy you."
Over at Marvel, writer Chris Claremont introduced another woman from Solo's past, smuggler Katya M'Buele, in Star Wars Annual #1. As Han explains to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, he and Katya once crewed together on a Corellian rim-runner. After she's killed aboard the Falcon by a demon-like creature sent by an old enemy, Han reveals that Katya was a friend—"and a lot more."
Katya is also notable for being the first black character to appear in a Star Wars story, about a year before the introduction of Lando Calrissian in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. (Incidentally, this story's status as part of the Star Wars canon came into question immediately upon the release of Empire, since Claremont has Han, Luke, Leia, and company visiting a planet that was saved during the Clone Wars by Obi-Wan Kenobi and his two pupils: Darth Vader and Luke's father. Oops!)
In late 1979, Marvel's British department, Marvel UK, published a three-part tale written by Archie Goodwin, "The Way of the Wookiee," in Star Wars Weekly #94-96. Set days before A New Hope, it shows Han and Chewie on the fateful voyage in which they had to dump cargo that belonged to Jabba, to avoid being caught smuggling by Imperial forces. This, of course, leads to Han's sizable debt to Jabba. The story, which was not published in the U.S. until several years later, also establishes that Han had spent a lot of time on the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk — no doubt an extrapolation of the close relationship established between Han and Chewie's family in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special that aired on November 17, 1978.
Goodwin, who died in March 1998, is widely regarded as one of the best writers and editors ever to have worked in the comic book industry, and to have worked on Star Wars. "The material makes an incredible playground," he wrote in 1991 about the movie series. "The characters and their universe were a pleasure [to write]."
FROZEN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
With Empire leaving Han in a block of carbonite and in the hands of Boba Fett, the Marvel series, which embarked on a long run of stories taking place after the second movie, was left without one of its key characters. Han did appear, albeit in a flashback set shortly after A New Hope, in 1981's double-sized Star Wars #50, written by Goodwin. But nothing could be done with him in the "present day." David Michelinie, who wrote the comic book for about a year and a half between Empire and 1983's Return of the Jedi, also went the flashback route, in Star Wars Annual #2, published in 1982.
"When I was first assigned to [Marvel's] Star Wars series, Lucasfilm gave me only two restrictions: I couldn't have Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader face off against each other, and I couldn't get Han Solo out of his carbonite prison," Michelinie tells SYFY WIRE. "So, quite simply, the flashback story in Annual #2 came about because I wanted to write Han Solo, dammit! And since annuals were almost always stand-alone stories, that seemed the perfect place to finally tell a Solo tale."
The story featured Han, before A New Hope, on the planet Ventooine, on a quest for an extremely rare spice, during which he gets caught up in a political uprising and a romantic interlude with Chrysalla, the beautiful ward of the planet's sinister monarch. The biggest revelation, in terms of Solo history? Han says that he received his trademark blaster as a gift from his mother. (Though he may have been joking.)
Although he was writing a younger Solo, Michelinie says that he tried to "convey the same character I'd seen in the first two movies: Reckless, self-serving but loyal, cautious but courageous, quick mind and quick wit, with a surface motivation to line his own pockets while still doing the right thing in the end. Whenever I'm involved with licensed properties ... I feel an obligation to stick as close as I can to what's been established. (Although I did like the bit where he says his mom gave him his blaster!)"
Alas, Michelinie only got to write Han that one time. "I wasn't on the book for very long," he explains, "and the monthly issues I worked on with artist Walter Simonson were pretty much taken up by current continuity."
Michelinie's successor, Jo Duffy, inherited the same restrictions, so her use of Han was extremely limited until after Return of the Jedi. Still, during the pre-Jedi period, she managed to do one flashback story featuring Solo prominently, in which she got to touch upon his past. In Star Wars #70, Duffy jumps back to a period shortly after A New Hope, in which Han, accompanied by Luke and Leia, runs into a trio of smugglers he knew years earlier: fellow Corellian Rik Duel, bad-girl vamp Dani, of Zeltros, and Chihdo, a Rodian (the same species as Greedo). The trio would become prominent later in Duffy's run, but at first they were there for just a one-shot appearance—and to bring some lightheartedness.
"With Rik I wanted to do a worse version of Han, because a) it would be fun, and b) it would highlight what's good about Han," Duffy tells SYFY WIRE.
After Jedi, with Solo back in the main cast, Duffy introduced a new character, Bey, for whom she had major plans that would have revealed much about Han's backstory. Bey was a tall, white-haired Corellian who had been an "older brother" figure to Han when they were kids, someone who had protected him and taught him how to fight.
Due to an odd scheduling decision on Marvel's part, Bey first appeared from out of nowhere in Star Wars #99 and 100 — but his proper introduction wasn't until #101. Regardless, this great friend of Han's turned out to be only half Corellian — the other half was Nagai, the sinister alien species that basically took over the Empire's role as the main antagonist group of the series. Duffy planned to reveal even more about him— but then the series got canceled with #107, published in mid-1986.
"Bey was going to be Han's illegitimate older half-brother," Duffy reveals. "They had the same father. The father was with Bey's mother before he married Han's mother. I saw the father as this strict, unyielding, illegitimate-son-rejecting, not-much-better-to-his-younger-son jerk. We weren't sure Han was ever going to know that he and Bey were brothers, but Bey was going to know. And we were going to be flashing back to their adolescence together."
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
After the cancellation of the Marvel series, the Star Wars license lay more or less dormant for the next five years. But in 1991, writer Tom Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy relaunched Star Wars as a comic-book property at Dark Horse Comics, with the six-issue mini-series Dark Empire, which introduced elements of Han's history that were embraced by fans and other writers for the next two decades.
"Lucas and his people were incredibly generous toward us," Veitch tells SYFY WIRE. "George gave us 'carte blanche' (his words) to make up a story that took off from the end of Return of the Jedi. That included expanding on Han Solo's story."
Veitch and Kennedy established new locales and characters that figured into Solo's past, including the moon Nar Shaddaa (nicknamed "The Smugglers' Moon"), which orbits the Hutt homeworld, Nal Hutta, and serves as home to some of the galaxy's most notorious underground figures. As per Veitch, it's also the place where Han learned the smuggler's trade.
"I would say the idea for Nar Shaddaa came first, as a context for talking about Han's past," he says. "Once Nar Shaddaa set the stage, characters from Han's early years just started showing up!"
Characters introduced in Dark Empire included Han's former lover, the smuggler Salla Zend, as well as his old friend, the half-Corellian master mechanic Shug Ninx, with whom a young Han used to hotwire ships and take them for joyrides in the skies over Corellia. There was also the grizzled smuggler Mako Spince, who had known Han since they were classmates at the Imperial Academy.
Like Katya M'Buele, Salla Zend was depicted as a black woman. This was purely coincidental, Veitch says. "Or maybe a matter of unconscious memory. I'm sure I read Chris' story when it came out in 1979, but haven't thought about it since. Maybe Chris and I were decades ahead of time, giving Han a black girlfriend. I was hoping Salla would appear in the new Solo film, but no such luck."
After Disney purchased Lucasfilm, Nar Shaddaa and Nal Hutta were deemed so useful as concepts that they, like Grand Admiral Thrawn, were reintroduced in the new continuity.
While Duffy didn't get to establish any members of Han's family, author Roger MacBride Allen did, in three novels published in 1995 under the umbrella title "The Corellian Trilogy": Ambush at Corellia, Assault at Selonia, and Showdown at Centerpoint. MacBride introduced Han's hateful, lookalike, older first cousin, Thrackan Sal-Solo, who became a major player in Corellian politics, supporting isolationism and exhibiting racism against non-humans. Later authors would get plenty of mileage out of the character, establishing him as the cause of a second galactic civil war, decades after the fall of the Empire.
But in 1997, it fell to author A.C. Crispin to map out the key moments in Han's life, from his childhood to his first moment in A New Hope, in "The Han Solo Trilogy," comprised of The Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn. It is this trio of books that will likely be the most affected — as in, overturned completely — by Solo.
Across the three books, Crispin incorporated nearly everything that had come before, including the Brian Daley novels, Thrackan Sal-Solo (whom she fleshed out as Han's sadistic childhood bully and tormentor), and Han's relationship with Salla Zend. She depicted the first encounter between Han and Lando, and the falling out between them that Lando alludes to in Empire. Crispin even name-checked Katya M'Buele, and while she presented her own version of the cargo-dumping incident that made Han the target of Jabba's wrath, she also found a way to acknowledge the 1979 comic-book story that covered the same ground.
In terms of new elements, Crispin introduced Garris Shrike, the ruthless and abusive criminal who took in the orphaned Han as a child and used the boy and other parentless children in various confidence schemes and thefts. Shrike is possibly the template for the character of Beckett, played in Solo by Woody Harrelson.
Crispin's novels also established a young woman named Bria Tharen as Han's first true love, whom he met when he was around 19 and just starting to make his own way in the galaxy — perhaps she's the forerunner of Qi'ra, Emilia Clarke's character in Solo. As depicted by Crispin, Han and Bria were star-crossed lovers, never quite able to get together permanently, though they also never fully moved on from one another. Rebel Dawn shows Bria having joined the Rebel Alliance and becoming a leader in the operation to steal the Death Star plans. Since we didn't see or hear about her at all in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it's safe to assume that, when it comes to the Star Wars universe, poor Bria might as well be among the half of the population that got snuffed out of existence by Thanos's finger snap in Avengers: Infinity War.
Crispin, who passed away in 2013, told TheForce.net in 1997 that she had enjoyed the challenge of constructing a believable backstory for Han. "It's like playing 'reverse dominoes' — making up an early life for the character based on hints in the movies," she said.
GOING (TO SEE) SOLO
Despite the fact that the new Star Wars canon erases, figuratively speaking, most if not all of their contributions to the saga (remember, much of the material is still readily available, under the banner "Legends"), Michelinie, Duffy, and Veitch all express interest in seeing Solo and discovering the "official" version of Han's background.
"A new movie in the Star Wars universe, directed by Ron Howard? Hard not to be hopeful about that," Michelinie says.
"At this point I've read about a hundred reviews of the film, so I pretty much know the whole story," Veitch says. "I will definitely see it when it opens — but my expectations are tempered by what we have all read online."
"I just want to see a great story that stays true to the character we know and love," Duffy says. "Since it apparently includes Chewie and Lando, from my standpoint, in terms of audience satisfaction, we are already halfway there."
As for all of the history that had been established in the pre-Disney Expanded Universe, Duffy isn't giving up so easily. "As far as I'm concerned," she says, "everything all of us did under George Lucas's aegis is canon!"