Star Wars: Dark Empire Trilogy (hardcover collection)
When Dark Horse Comics acquired the license to publish Star Wars comics back in the early nineties, one of their first contributions to the saga was Star Wars: Dark Empire, following up Timothy Zahn’s acclaimed Grand Admiral Thrawn novel trilogy. Just like Zahn, Dark Empire writer Tom Veitch handled the Star Wars title with utmost responsibility. This is a story that not only continues the adventure and excitement of the original film trilogy characters but also explores the nature of the Jedi path as well as the seductive power of the Dark Side. As a result, it is an examination of the classic forces of good and evil, the most relevant concepts of the Star Wars franchise as a whole. And, best of all, it is not afraid to take this exploration to dark places. Still one of the best Star Wars comics of all time, and even one of the best Expanded Universe stories period, the Dark Empire trilogy is a must-read for any Star Wars fan.
Ten years after the events of Return of the Jedi, during a time in which Emperor Palpatine has resurrected his own spirit and embodied it in a clone of himself, the Galactic Empire has regained a vast portion of its power and its territory. While the Republic battles to take back the galaxy, Luke realizes that the only way the Empire can be defeated is for him to defeat Palpatine, but even as he takes the most surprising and desperate measures to do so, he is proven to be no match for the Sith Lord. For him to conqueror the Emperor, he’s going to need the help of Han, Leia, and a few Jedi he picks up. Still, though, with the Emperor’s apparent immortality and his continual invention of progressively devastating weapons of war, victory is anything but likely. This is a time of desperation for both Luke and the Republic. Dark Empire rarely allows us to catch a breath.
Right from the start, the comic takes such a daring turn on the Star Wars mythos that it's almost surprising that Lucasfilm allowed it, but it is handled perfectly and pays off well: Luke submerses himself in the ways of the Dark Side so that he can learn its secrets and conquer Palpatine. In fact, he goes so far as to become Palpatine’s apprentice directly. Even though he is doing this because he feels he is strong enough to break free from the Dark Side’s grasp when his task is completed, there are constant hints that part of him may in fact want to accept the Dark Side as his destiny. One of these hints lies in his entrance into the comic, in which he momentarily appears as a silhouette of Darth Vader. This transgression of his also leads to one of the single most disheartening images imaginable in the Star Wars universe: Luke kneeling before the Emperor. Though this portion of the story comes to a close at the end of Part I, it becomes a part of his life that will haunt him throughout the Dark Empire trilogy. More importantly, however, his story serves as an illustration of the allure and the power of the Dark Side. Even a Jedi as resolute and good-natured as Luke Skywalker is not insusceptible to its seductive power.
In Part II of the trilogy, Luke, now aware of his inability to control the Dark Side, turns to another method of restoring order to the galaxy: seek out and train Jedi to fight alongside him. This portion of the story works, though not as well as Part I. It is a necessary direction for the plot to go, but for a world that has supposedly wiped out all Jedi of the days before the Empire, Luke and Leia seem to stumble across too many Jedi that had simply been hiding in various corners of the galaxy as well as some Jedi descendants that are Force-sensitive and, thus, immediately susceptible to training. This possible flaw is remedied by the fact that Veitch uses these new Jedi to continue exploring the nature of the Jedi way as well as the story of the Republic facing a threat that could bring its final demise. This portion of the story also brings up one of the books briefest but most interesting subplots: Luke’s falling in love with one of these new companions. The comic does not devote much attention to this subplot but instead allows it simply to add to the Jedi Master’s underlying turmoil and to show us that, for all he’s been through, Luke Skywalker is still not ready to devote himself fully to the traditional beliefs of the Jedi.
Whereas Parts I and II of Dark Empire both run six issues in length, the final part of the trilogy is only two issues-long. This is not a problem in itself, but it ultimately feels like the comic needed at least one more issue to complete the falling action. When the climax is reached, there are only four pages left in the entire collection, which makes the ending feel rushed and even a bit contrived. Granted, this ending does not cover the most important concerns of the work -- the threat of Palpatine is resolved in the climax -- but the loose ends are tied up in a single act that essentially amounts to a huge stroke of luck on the side of the Republic. In the end, the ongoing story of the Empire itself is treated almost as if it isn’t something Veitch cared about, even though it played a significant role in Dark Empire as a whole. Fortunately, the comic’s most pertinent issues are handled well despite this final contrivance.
Aside from the story of Luke’s ongoing struggle along the path of the Jedi, there is plenty of action throughout Dark Empire, especially during the middle portion of the collection. Han and Leia spend a lot of time dealing with smugglers and pirates on Nar Shaddaa and elsewhere, trying to acquire some help for the characteristically risky missions on which they embark. Since smugglers and pirates aren’t always the most honest people to deal with, you can bet this leads to a good bit of classic blaster-based action. There are even appearances by some of the galaxy’s most famous bounty hunters, still hoping to score the enormous bounty on Solo’s head after the death of Jabba the Hutt. And if that’s not enough, the Millennium Falcon itself has a lot of page-time throughout the comic. It seems like Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy couldn’t resist playing with the Falcon every chance they got, but it always fits into the story. More than anything, Dark Empire is a serious comic, but it also knows when to have fun.
For the vast majority of the Dark Empire trilogy, the art is phenomenal. Though artist Cam Kennedy retains a meticulous attention to detail, he also draws and shades the characters with a focus on dramatic effect (though Chewie is an exception here, as he is often given a bare-looking face, causing him to look more like a Yeti than a Wookiee). Most of the panels throughout the comic are monochromatic, establishing a mood for the events on the page as well as further intensifying the dramatic nature of the work. Even the layout of the panels is great. Instead of illustrating each beat of a scene with monotonous illustrations, Kennedy focuses on drawing fewer and larger images to emphasize the most important parts of any given sequence. Rarely are there more than five panels on a page, and many have only two or three. Unfortunately, Part III of the story, which, albeit, comprises only about fourteen percent of the collection, loses Kennedy for artist Jim Baikie, and Baikie’s style does not fit the story. Though the panel layout remains similar, the art during this portion of the comic is frequently exaggerated, especially on depictions of characters’ faces. The effect is more cartoonish than the rest of Dark Empire, which slightly undermines the seriousness of the work. Overall, though, this is a visually stunning comic, whether you’re looking at a splash of Imperial wreckage or a panel of characters gazing at celestial bodies.
The artwork in this comic is beautiful.
Dark Empire is one of those Star Wars books that captures the mystery of the Jedi and the Force even as it relies upon the Jedi concept to carry its story. This is a time of uncertainty for both Luke himself and the Republic as a whole. As a result, the characters turn to acts of desperation to give them a chance at victory. Sometimes this works. Other times, they have to be rescued. That is what makes this comic so laudable. It treats its characters as fully human, regardless of how heroic they might be. They are not above certain temptations, and they are not above making mistakes, but in the end, they never give up hope that they can overcome the darkness facing them. So, as often as that desperation can be their downfall, the inextricable hope that guides their actions is the source of their triumph. Perhaps there are times when transgression and failure are necessary stepping stones on the path to victory.