So in the most inevitable news since the invention of daybreak, the Star Wars license will be returning to Marvel in 2015. Just in time for the release of Episode VII in theaters. Dark Horse Comics has held the license for 23 years, longer than many people reading this have been alive. They've still got another year left, and a raft of high-profile projects to finish, but there was never any real doubt. The fix was in the moment that Disney bought Lucas.
When Marvel was purchased by Disney back in 2009 (five years ago!) a lot of people, myself included, assumed that this meant Disney's comics licenses would naturally devolve onto Marvel. This hasn't really happened, a least not as definitively as many predicted. Marvel publishes some Disney comics, but so far only a few special projects like the theme-park tie-in Seekers of the Weird. It became obvious soon after the purchase that Disney wasn't buying Marvel because they wanted a publishing firm who could take over packaging and production duties across multiple licenses. They wanted boys' toys and action films, and this was a smart decision because Marvel is the best franchise-generating machine in Hollywood. The idea that Marvel would suddenly, say, become responsible for shepherding the Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks reprint projects that Fantagraphics oversees is laughable in hindsight. (I asked a high-ranking Marvel rep online years ago if they were planning on bringing those projects in-house and he seemed confused as to why I would even ask such a thing.) Boom published Disney comics until 2011. It's worth noting that since the expiration of Boom's license there have been no new Disney comics featuring Mickey, Donald, Scrooge, or any other of the company's most popular characters.
Star Wars, however, is different. Star Wars is an IP factory that, despite its tremendous success according to every available rubric, is viewed by Disney as underperforming. The lack of new movies, the reliance on small-ball enterprises like The Clone Wars television series to maintain brand visibility, and a basic refusal to exploit the brand's central trademarks to their fullest - from the moment Disney took charge of Star Wars, changing these policies has been their first priority. So, despite the general goodwill among fandom towards The Clone Wars (mollifying many of the same fans who were disappointed by the prequel films from which the series descends), that show got the axe. It is being replaced by another show more proximate to the original Trilogy. I'm certain that Disney, looking over the state of the license in the wake of their purchase, saw a landscape littered with hundreds and hundreds of stories set in something called an "Expanded Universe," filled with characters and ideas only marginally connected with the original movies. I think there's a big and very important difference here between seeing the large and diffuse nature of the Marvel Universe as an asset to be cherished and seeing the diffuse nature of contemporary Star Wars as a problem to be solved. Every Marvel character is a potential franchise, at least on paper (and the proof of concept here is the fact that we have a Guardians of the Galaxy movie coming later this year), whereas every tertiary Star Wars character reflects the progressive diffusion and weakening of the central brand.
Marvel is a fantastic brand, but it's also proven to be a very diverse brand. You can have The Avengers and Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man and The Wolverine and, even aside from the different studios involved in the production of these films, they can be different things while still sharing that tiny red & white logo in the corner of the movie poster. Star Wars is different: Star Wars isn't an umbrella for a number of similar properties, it is the property. And in terms of core strengths, it is unarguably an underexploited property. There have only been six full-length Star Wars movies, but from those six movies an entire universe of licensing has emerged. Disney doesn't want to just be selling Cad Bane toys based on basic cable television shows for eternity. It wants to pump out new movies every year, movies that aim for a far larger audience than basic cable. That's the brand's core strength, and it hasn't been even remotely tapped-out. Say what you will about Lucas, but he only made six movies: he could have made twenty by now, if he'd wanted.
Every long-running sci-fi or fantasy series eventually accrues massive amounts of secondary media, but I would argue that the dearth of new Star Wars movies has historically given the Expanded Universe media a prominence in Star Wars fandom that comparable franchises' novels and comics simply do not possess. When Dark Horse received the license in 1991, Star Wars was a dead letter. The "Expanded Universe" was barely a thing, and their first comic books were sequels to the first prose books to prove that post-movie Star Wars had an audience - Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. Is it possible now to remember back to a time when Star Wars wasn't ubiquitous? Dark Horse got in on the ground floor of the franchise's long and painstaking resuscitation, a rebirth that occurred over the span of the nineties and culminated with the release of Episode I. That Dark Horse kept the license as long as they did, and even after Star Wars had resumed its place among the first-rank of licensed properties, speaks volumes to Lucasfilm's loyalty (as well as, it must be said, Marvel's general disinterest in licensed properties at the time).
Now, nerds have a long memory. I am dead certain that somewhere out there in the great world there are fans who are looking forward to once again buying "real" Star Wars comics. There are probably even a few brave souls who entertain the notion that Marvel will simply pick up with issue #108 (in spirit if not in deed) as if the subsequent thirty years were just a bad dream. That's probably not going to happen, but I would be surprised if there wasn't still a vocal component of fans who are happy that the books are finally back at Marvel for the simple reason that the books started at Marvel in 1977. Just the fact that I formulated the sentence as "finally back at Marvel" betrays that fact. Marvel is the default.
Marvel almost certainly did not want the license, and all the trouble it represents. For the last fifteen years or more, Marvel has pointedly eschewed seeking out big-ticket licenses, vocally preferring to develop their own franchises. What outside licenses they have developed in the last decade have been literary: authors such as Stephen King, Jeff Lindsay, and Laurell K. Hamilton, genre fiction with a built-in audience and less in the way of red tape in the form of likeness approval and action-figure tie-ins. But Star Wars is unavoidable. The size and importance of the license for Marvel and Disney means that the company is going to have to either expand in order to deal with the specific demands of the license or publish far fewer books than Dark Horse. There is undoubtedly some support for the latter option within Marvel. I would bet anything that part of the company's mandate going forward will be to simplify and streamline the brand's cross-media presence: meaning, fewer (if any) books focusing on characters who haven't appeared in movies. I don't see Marvel being particularly enthusiastic for maintaining a strong backlist of Dark Horse's Star Wars books. If you are still holding out on any Dark Horse Star Wars volumes, now would be the time to track them down, because chances are good that most of the books won't be coming back into print anytime soon, save possibly as expensive hardcover Omnibi. (On the plus side, maybe we'll get reprints of the old Marvel series in a better format than Dark Horse's flimsy softcover Omnibus editions.)
It needs to be said, even aside from whatever changes Marvel represents for the future of the franchise in comics, that the advent of Episode VII will cause significant upheaval across all Star Wars licensees. The reason is simple: as soon as Episode VII hits theaters, a large chunk - if not the majority - of Expanded Universe media will cease to function. So far Lucasfilm has managed to keep their EU timeline relatively clean by maintaining some degree of consistency across different media. (Compare this to Dr. Who's anti-canon canon or the incredibly complex multiverse of Transformers continuity and you begin to see how much effort must have gone in to maintaining the consistency of the EU.) Episode I didn't cause as much upheaval as one might think, for the simple reason that Lucas had long maintained an embargo on most pre-Episode IV stories, based on the fact that he always intended to tell them himself. But that is not the case for post-Episode VI stories. The moment Episode VII hits theaters, every previous Star Wars story taking place after the events of Return of the Jedi fades to white with the finality of the pre-Crisis multiverse after Crisis #10.
My best guess is that the post-Dark Horse, post-Episode VII Expanded Universe is going to be simplified significantly. I would be extremely surprised if any titles carry over from the Dark Horse license, and also surprised if many of Dark Horse's stable of Star Wars creators survived the changeover. I imagine the same goes for any extant novel series or continuity. Marvel is going to want to make as big a splash as possible and that means they're going to do everything they can to differentiate their books from the previous regime. One of the difference between Star Wars and other possible licenses is that I don't see Marvel having much trouble enticing A-list talent to want to work on the franchise. (That might not even be a bad thing: Hickman, for instance, could be uniquely suited to write good Star Wars stories.) I'm guessing that, at least early on, Marvel is going to want to focus on stories directly connected to or adapting movie continuity and characters.
So this is the shape of Star Wars in 2015. Lucas, for all his faults, had a singular vision for the franchise. He didn't flood the marketplace, even though he probably could have. His reticence to make new movies helped maintain a certain cachet, and his willingness to allow the Expanded Universe relative autonomy to explore the mythos appeased an enthusiastic fanbase who might otherwise have grown frustrated by the dearth of new films. This is going to change. Whether or not all of the more abstruse corners of the EU are pared down (and I tend to think they will be, in the name of streamlining the franchise and focusing efforts on supporting the movie continuity above all else), it will change as an entire generation of EU stories are undone with a single gesture. No more Thrawn, I'm guessing, no more Mara Jade, no more Yuuzhan Vong.
I suppose there is a chance that the new Lucas could continue to support pre-Episode VII Expanded Universe continuity, but I tend to doubt it. That's not the kind of thing that Disney tends to encourage. Again, the difference between Marvel and Star Wars here is that Marvel has already shown they know best how to manage their IP, whereas every decision Disney has made regarding Star Wars since purchasing the property strongly implies that they believe Lucas had mismanaged the property by neglecting to exploit it to its full potential. Dark Horse's relatively sleepy and consistent family of Star Wars titles seems to represent a model of precisely what Disney will attempt to avoid going forward.