Before Star Wars: Rogue One takes off, a history of the X-Wing series

Before Star Wars: Rogue One takes off, a history of the X-Wing series
Image: Andrew Liptak 

This piece was originally published in March 2015 on the Barnes & Noble Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog. Alas, Rogue One wasn't a Rogue Squadron movie, although there was a film about the unit in the works for a while, although that seems to be on the back burner for the foreseeable future. It's been updated with some minor edits.

When the Walt Disney Company announced the title and date for the first standalone Star Wars film, Rogue One, the teenage Star Wars fanboy in me may have emitted a high-pitch squeal: it looked like a callback to one of my favorite books in the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Michael A. Stackpole's Rogue Squadron

Rogue Squadron is the infamous an X-Wing fighter group that appears in A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Beyond the films, the unit has enjoyed an extensive life in numerous games, comics, and novels in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and has consistently been part of some of the more exciting, unique stories from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. The mere possibility of a major film about them is enough to rouse my inner geek.

When George Lucas’s Star Wars hit the big screens in May of 1977, the film was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, a technological marvel filled with dazzling space fights. In particular, the culminating snubfighter battle was one of the greatest action scenes ever set to cinema. Throughout the series, the iconic X-Wing fighter captured the imaginations of boys and girls as they reenacted their own adventures, first with toys, and later a series of blockbuster video games, including 1994’s space combat simulator X-Wing and multiple sequels and spin-offs.

Building a Galaxy: Expanding the Universe
While the Star Wars franchise is best known for its films, it’s also well-known for its sprawling novel series, the Star Wars Expanded Universe. While it’s no longer canon, it kept Star Wars going for decades, and still retains a loyal following.

In the wake of the success of the video games, Bantam Books, then publisher of the Star Wars novels, began to explore the feasibility of bringing them to the page. The publisher brought in author Michael A. Stackpole, who had experience in the gaming  industry. Initially, he was unenthused at the idea of adapting a game. “Back in 1995, computer games weren’t big enough to support novels,” he said.

When editor Betsy Mitchell explained that they were specifically targeting the X-Wing franchise, Stackpole immediately changed his mind: “Oh hell, it’s Star Wars, buy it.” When the decision was indeed made to begin publishing X-Wing books, Bantam went to Stackpole and his agent, who had experience writing military and tie-in stories, with an offer for four novels. The author immediately accepted, and his editor, Tom Dupree, announced the series.

Shortly after he was brought on, Stackpole met with a pair of editors, Lucy Wilson and Sue Rostoni, at Skywalker Ranch, where they discussed the story and where his books would fit in the overall universe. Over the course of their meeting, they also asked him about writing comics. “I told [them] that I was a fan, had always wanted to write comics, but any deal I’d set up had fallen through,” Stackpole remembered. A couple of months later, Dark Horse Comics also offered him the job to write a new series about the Rogue Squadron. Because he was already writing the novels, he could easily coordinate the stories between one series and the other.

Dark Horse comics wanted to tie their comic series into Stackpole’s novels. Because of his relative inexperience in the comics industry, Stackpole was assigned to write the broad outlines of each comic arc, and was paired up with another author, Mike Baron, who had already been working on other Star Wars properties. The production of the comics was rough: editor Ryder Windham noted that in retrospect, there were problems with the artwork, resulting in some changes in the creative team that took a few issues to sort out.

Stackpole spent hours playing (“researching”) the games to get the feel for the X-Wing’s cockpit, eventually mirroring some of the missions into his books. He also began to develop his story arc.  He was encouraged to use a minor character from the films: Wedge Antilles, a member of the squadron who managed to survive the entire trilogy and had developed a fan following. At first, he was skeptical, but after consulting with several other Star Wars authors, he agreed that Wedge would allow for some more freedom of movement.

The comics came first. In 1995, the first comic book issues of Star Wars: X-Wing came out, taking place in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor. The stories followed the unit as they fought against a retreating Empire. The first arc, Rebel Opposition, appeared in July 1995, and the second, Phantom Affair, appeared in 1996. In all, the series ran for 35 issues, later collected into a series of graphic novels.

With the comics underway, Stackpole set to work on the novels. Setting the events of the novel series several years after the comics, he brought in a new cast of characters while retaining some of the core figures: Wedge Antillies, Tycho Celchu, Wes Janson. New faces, such as Corran Horn, Ooryl Qrygg, Nawara Ven, Rhysati Ynr, and Gavin Darklighter soon filled the pages as the Rebel Alliance staffed up a newly reformed Rogue Squadron. In the aftermath of the book announcement about, he realized that he was writing a trilogy, with an additional installment tacked on at the end. He structured the resurrection of the Rogue Squadron in a broad arc centered on the capture of Coruscant, the Imperial Capitol. Originally envisioned as a series of military science fiction adventures, he looked to what other Star Wars novels had already done.

Michael A. Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron novels unlocked Star Wars’ vast potential
Showing a bigger world beyond people named Luke, Leia, and Han

“I noted that since the Zahn books had the New Republic in control of Coruscant, that it would be cool if I could chronicle the campaign to take the Imperial Capital world,” Stackpole said. “I figured that, if for no other reason than the historical significance of that action, readers would want to read the books.”

The first novel, Rogue Squadron, hit bookstore shelves on January 1st, 1996, following the new generation of X-Wing pilots who were stepping into the high-profile squadron. As they trained for their work, they’re tracked by Kirtan Loor, an Imperial intelligence agent, who’s tasked by his superior Ysanne Isard to stop them at all costs. The squadron finds combat, and their mission is soon clear: they’re on their way to take over Coruscant. The second novel, Wedge’s Gamble, places the unit on Coruscant in advance of a major attack by the New Republic. On the ground, the squadron forms the advance team to take down the planet’s defenses. Several of the team members are captured, and in the next installment of the series, The Krytos Trap, released in October 1996, Stackpole looks at the aftermath of the invasion. Finally, Stackpole’s arc comes to an end in 1997’s The Bacta War: As Imperial Admiral Isard threatens the galaxy’s supply of Bacta, the squadron is put into action to secure the vital medial resource.

The books were a stunning success. Stackpole recently recalled, “when Rogue Squadron came out, no one (except for me) thought it would hit the New York Times best-seller list. No one. We were off into unexplored territory, so when it hit, folks were stunned.”

More books were needed: Stackpole signed on for a standalone novel, I, Jedi, and a new installment to his series, Isard’s Revenge. Bantam, however, wanted more X-Wing novels sooner rather than later, and at his urging, they approached Aaron Allston, who agreed to write three additional books. Allston created a new group, Wraith Squadron, tasked with special operations activities. Like Stackpole, he focused on a new cast of characters, retaining only Wes Janson and Hobbie Klivian, who had minor appearances in the films. Allston’s Wraith Squadron appeared in March 1998, and was followed in July by Iron Fist, while the final installment of his trilogy, Solo Command, hit bookstores in February 1999. His stories were styled differently than Stackpole’s, blending a new sense of humor into the books, something that became his trademark. The Wraith Squadron stories focused on different characters and adventures, eventually tying into several other novels in the Star Wars canon.

In 1999, Stackpole released his final X-Wing novel, Isard’s Revenge, which once again returned the action to the Rogue Squadron as they worked to track down Ysanne Isard shortly after the events of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Later that year, Allston followed up with his own finale, Starfighters of Adumar, which took place years later.

As a teenager who mainlined all of the Star Wars novels, I came to Stackpole and Allston’s novels at the end of catching up on a decade’s worth of novels, and they very quickly shot to the top of my list of favorites in the franchise. Rogue Squadron and its sequels did something unique up to that point: they showed that the Star Wars universe was filled with characters that were just as interesting as the famous heroes. In doing so, they helped to create a much wider canvas for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, opening up the doors for numerous new adventures. Star Wars, it turned out, wasn’t dependent upon Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Chewbacca. Other characters could lead their own stories and do just as well.

Stackpole brought a new sense of reality to the Expanded Universe as his X-Wing fighters juked and dove against their TIE Fighter opponents. His pilots worried about fuel consumption, how fast they could loop around, and how much ammunition they could carry with them. At the same time, he plays with intergalactic politics, as Admiral Ackbar works with the administration of the New Republic to figure out how to best defeat the Galactic Empire. In many ways, the X-Wing series was where the rubber met the road: these were the stories of how the Rebellion won out over the Empire, not because of an inherent goodness to their cause, but because of the dedicated individuals who manned the front lines and sacrificed themselves to win. And where Stackpole put together a military science fiction series, Allston showed us that he could make the world fun. Where else can you find a special operations squadron that created an Ewok pilot who uttered the infamous line, “Yub, yub, Commander?”

After the end of the X-Wing series, Stackpole and Allston were frequently asked about the possibility of more installments. Their characters appeared throughout other entries in the franchise, with some, such as Corran Horn, becoming almost as well-known as characters from the movies. Over a decade later, fans would get their wish: in 2012, Aaron Allston published a tenth X-Wing novel, Mercy Kill, which took place decades after the original series. Sadly, Allston passed away two years later, in 2014.

The successes of television shows like Battlestar Galactica prompted hopes that someday, Lucasfilm would put together a television show about the exploits of the Rogue Squadron. Now, in 2015, it seems that our wishes might come true, in a slightly altered venue. The title of Star Wars: Rogue One, starring Felicity Jones, certainly seems to indicate a connection to the fabled military unit. While the Star Wars Expanded Universe has been removed from the central continuity of the series, there’s nothing to say that new adventures won’t continue in some form.

For his part, Stackpole is excited for the new films. “I am incredibly thrilled at the Rogue One announcement,” he said. “It proves just how much the Rogues are loved and valued by the fans and the folks making decisions at LucasFilm.” Going one step further, he noted that he hopes that there’ll be room for a couple of cameos for himself and fellow Star Wars author Timothy Zahn. “In my heart of hearts, hope they’ll cast Timothy Zahn and me as pilot extras so we can die horribly in a battle scene.”

And if this upcoming film follows the Rogue Squadron, Stackpole notes that it’s all due to the love of the franchise by the fans. “It reconfirms for me the power of your love for the Rogues.,” he wrote on his blog. “This movie will be about the Rogues, but it’s being made because of you.”