It’s easy to forget, amidst the big movie releases and streaming TV events, that the Walt Disney Company didn’t just buy Lucasfilm to make movies and TV. There's a lot more money to be made than that. In fact, the vast majority of storytelling going on in Star Wars right now is taking place in publishing. Between novels and comics and children’s books, nearly every conceivable character has had new stories told about them, from Princess Leia and Darth Vader to Captain Phasma and Lando to Rebels’ Kanan Jarrus - in addition to the generically-named Star Wars comics that continue the story of the principal characters in between movies.
Some of this stuff is quite good. Some of it has even introduced new characters, like morally-grey archaeologist Doctor Aphra, who have become fan favourites in their own right. But little of it has pushed into areas of the Star Wars universe we haven’t really seen before. Principal subjects thus far have always been familiar to us from the movies and TV shows, and the stories, as spectacular as they might be, still feel like they’re filling in gaps rather than telling new stories.
Now, finally, Lucasfilm appears to be staking some new storytelling territory - somewhat - with the announcement of The High Republic, a new sub-brand launching this year. Set 200 years before the prequel films (but 3,800 years after Knights of the Old Republic, and 3,500 years after The Old Republic, not that either is canon anyway), it sees the Jedi at their height - described as “Jedi Knights of the Round Table” - in an era of optimism and exploration. So, Star Wars, but with a hint of Star Trek. They’ll be threatened (of course) by a group of hyperspace-using villains called the Nihil, whose concept art makes them look like a bunch of Mad Max raiders who escaped to another galaxy. Oh yeah - there's a ton of concept art for all this, which hints at its targeting for multimedia exploitation.
The High Republic will be told across all manner of written-word media, through a series of interconnected books and comics put together by individuals comprising a rather large (cumbersome, perhaps) writer’s room. According to a whiteboard in the above announcement video, the team was looking to tell stories about “relic hunters, university, dinosaurs, representation/diversity, Arthurian legends, rival houses, the Sith Empire, chaos agents,” and more. The first phase of the project will encompass the following titles:
- Light of the Jedi, a novel by Charles Soule due August 25, kicking off the brand with a disruption in hyperspace called the Great Disaster. It’ll feature a Wookiee Jedi, and a female protagonist who has some kind of musical connection to the Force;
- Into the Dark, a YA novel by Claudia Gray, which will centre on a bookish Jedi Padawan sent to the frontier and who finds himself investigating a mysterious space station;
- A Test of Courage, a middle-grade novel by Justina Ireland, which will follow a teenage Jedi stranded on a jungle moon with a very Star Warsy collection of supporting characters;
- The High Republic Adventures, a comic series by Daniel José Older, which will follow a pair of Padawan; and
- The High Republic, a Marvel series by Cavan Scott, which will be set on an installation called Starlight Station and will deal up-front with the Great Disaster.
Lucasfilm describes The High Republic as a “publishing campaign,” which won’t intersect with the movies and television shows “currently planned for production.” If the rumours are to be believed, The High Republic was also the setting for the film (or films) being developed by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Even if that wasn’t the case, The High Republic raises an important question about the on-screen future of the Star Wars franchise: how interested will audiences be in a set of characters they just straight-up don’t already know?
Sure, given the timeline, Yoda will be around and accessible to the writers, at the spritely age of 650 or so. But he’s really the only familiar face to cling onto in a cast made up entirely of new characters, no matter how derivative they may be of existing ones. The continued existence of Star Wars relies upon the creation of new stories with sets of characters, and The High Republic is Lucasfilm’s most concerted effort at doing that yet. Many (including myself) have been clamouring for such new stories, led on by promises of new stories by Rian Johnson or whomever is the latest on the Lucasfilm creative carousel, but there’s always been this nagging question of whether audiences actually want different stories and characters.
Lucasfilm will undoubtedly be watching The High Republic’s reception as a litmus test for future projects, just as it did the 1996 Shadows of the Empire multimedia event prior to the Special Editions and prequels. It’s playing to a smaller audience than the movies do, but it’s also a lower-cost, lower-risk venture than a $300 million production. Whether or not the intent is to potentially spin the brand into movies, the broad concept is potentially significant moving forward. The next Star Wars film isn’t scheduled until 2022; the success or failure of The High Republic in print, compared to safer series based on established characters, could stand to greenlight or cancel any number of potential projects.
All that prognosticating aside, will The High Republic be any good? It's certainly got some intriguing story ideas, and it'll be interesting to see just how fresh the new characters are. For my own part, I will likely not read much of it. I’ve only dipped my toe into a couple of the comic series; there’s simply so much material to keep up with, I’m never going to manage it all, which is alarming to someone who considers themselves pretty knowledgeable about Star Wars. But that’s fine: I am only one person, and Lucasfilm's strategy is very clearly intended to go after every reader demographic individually. After all, this is Disney we’re talking about. They will leave no quadrant unturned.