1978 was a big year for Will Eisner. He invented… that thing where you take a massive pop culture hit, and lazily sort of mash it up with another massive pop culture hit. (He didn’t really invent that. Or the graphic novel.)
Star Jaws is a bunch of black-and-white, one-page “gags” about space and giant fish, squarely aimed at kids-those-days (looks like Scholastic distributed it, or helped), packaged in a mass market paperback. It was created during Eisner’s American Visuals Corporation period, when he was contracted to do PS Magazine and other commercial art projects. Keith Diaczun and Barry Caldwell assisted.
The “jokes” are often-incoherent placeholders for “cop writing a ticket” or “the teen wrecked the car” one-liners. The drawings themselves aren’t funny either; gag cartooning is not in Eisner’s range. What Eisner does manage to catch is a bit of the texture of 1975’s gritty, water-dappled Jaws, the “dirty spaceship” look of 1977’s Star Wars (which was partially inspired by Eisner’s junior, Wallace Wood). Pencils, watercolors, washes: the fiber pattern of the paper and the cover stock are of slightly higher production value than other paperbacks from the late ’70s, and hold the ink well, even if the cover image is cut off.
Star Wars is about a farmboy wanting to get the hell out Modesto (so desolate, it’s doubled by the Sahara Desert) with some cool new dudes in the best, souped-up jalopy in the galaxy. The Star Jaws universe was fashioned by a New Yorker; in both, humans are the most generic of white men and woman hemmed in by environments where the fantastic has become familiar, grubby. (The difference is that in 1977, baby boomer George Lucas could envision an outer space filled with wonder, the possibility of freedom, and glory; Eisner sees it as an increasingly crowded place where it will eventually be difficult to find parking.) Drawing goofy extraterrestrials and robots clearly fired up Eisner and Co. (insofar as they got fired up for this project); the lone gag that works is two aliens huddling together to conspire—“we’re alone” —over a table, which is an oddly shaped alien itself.
Will Eisner was in his early sixties in 1978; he had been running cartoonist shops for decades. It’s unsurprising he gives Brody’s quiet dignity to Darth Vader (and to a lesser extent, R2-D2). Robbed of James Earl Jones’s majesty, Darth Vader is just another middle manager at the Death Star branch, his gray flannel suit getting dirtier as he beats the fleet for another job (“There is a part in a T.V. soap opera. Can you act?”). Never quite the emperor, never quite one of the guys, the last page has a blankly intent Vader reading a copy of How to Win Friends, since he’s already mastered the art of influencing people.
Star Jaws is fueled by the same low-rent logic as 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special; cash in on the windfall while ye may, since comic cons hadn’t quite coalesced, comic shops’ heydays were yet to come, and no one knew there were going to be sequels and VCRs and forty-somethings with boxes of unopened toys and teaser trailers and spoilers. Since it’s from the dawn of the blockbuster as thirty years’ of film-goers would come to know it, I’ll just grab a metaphor from another Spielberg film. Star Jaws is the mosquito in the amber; not of any import in and of itself, but suspended, holding the promise of making something new out of something old and back again.