When C-3PO kvetches that suffering is his lot in life, it’s supposed to be a funny moment. After all, what could this shuffling, golden robot, little more than a phrasebook on legs, really know about suffering? More than we might think, it turns out. There will be spoilers below.
In between Star Wars movies, Marvel is filling in the blanks of what various heroes and villains have been up to in the thirty years before The Force Awakens picks up. This week, C-3PO gets a stand-alone comic explaining why he has a red arm. And it’s not the story you might be expecting.
Written and drawn by James Robinson and Tony Harris, best known for their collaboration on the ’90s DC series Starman, the book picks up with a crash where only Threepio and a handful of his fellow droids are left alive after a mission to rescue Admiral Ackbar goes off the rails. To survive, Threepio and his fellows have to somehow cross a planet full of droid-hating wildlife to reach a security beacon and deliver an Imperial protocol droid and what it knows to the Rebellion. Along the way, Threepio and his Imperial counterpart forge an unlikely bond over their role in the universe and their conflict.
It’s a simple setup and a well-worn plot, but Robinson and Harris use it as a jumping-off point to explore the exact nature of droids in the Star Wars universe. Droids, after all, are supposed to be just tools. Their memory is regularly wiped and they’re reused by both sides of the seemingly endless war between empire and rebellion. But protocol droids, unlike most, require a certain degree of sentience, even emotion, and the contradiction of having human aspects, but not truly allowed to be human is a central theme in the book. Threepio has been there since the beginning, and at one point we learn he remembers it all. It’s hazy, for him, and he only gets flashes, but Robinson implies that in some ways, his memory being repeatedly wiped may be something of a blessing. He wants to act, to prevent tragedy, but he can’t. His programming won’t allow it.
Harris opts for a pop-art-esque style, reminiscent of Star Wars merchandise art and ’70s comic book covers, and to be honest it doesn’t entirely work here, creating a bit more of a distance in places that robs a few moments of their impact. But he does succeed in making robots with unmoving faces and metal parts seem like they have genuine emotion, which gives the story heft where it counts.
Which brings us to the arm. It turns out he gets the arm from the Imperial droid he’s been escorting, who sacrifices itself to protect him and let Threepio fulfill his mission. The droid is sick of the memory wipes, the lack of free will, and the actions it has to take, and makes the only decision it’s really allowed to. The arm, it turns out, is a memory of sacrifice from an unlikely friend, and a tribute to what Threepio, of all characters, has to struggle with. You can see why it was left out of the movies. Threepio is little more than comic relief. But this one-shot might make you reconsider the fussy protocol droid, the next time you see him on a screen.