It was a dark time for the Empire…

Hey everybody! Welcome to more musings and ramblings on my favourite theme, Star Wars! Today I’d like to muse and ramble about the comic series Dark Empire, which was the first title to come from Dark Horse Comics all the way back in 1991.

Dark Empire

*sigh* I’m just going to say this, because there’s no mincing about needed here: I don’t like this comic. That might make a lot of you instantly stop reading this post and un-follow me, which is sad, but I can understand. The comic is seminal in terms of the meta, being the first thing produced by Dark Horse. It’s also had the Lucas stamp of approval (apparently), so could have been quite strongly considered as high-level canon until the recent announcement. But there are several issues that I have with it, which ultimately prevent me from enjoying it.

The story has got some really interesting things going for it, but the big plot point of the first six issues is just terrible: Luke Skywalker turns to the Dark Side. Why? Well, because Emperor Palpatine has returned, and has proven himself to be invincible, of course. Luke decides it’s best for everyone if he tries to infiltrate the Sith and learn the Emperor’s secrets, then he can defeat him. For me, this is just a stupid move. There is a huge plot-point in the films that Luke is able to resist the temptation of the Dark Side, which is kinda ignored here. Rather than being the great hero that the films portrayed him to be, instead we get a much more flawed design along the lines that Anakin Skywalker eventually turned out to be. Meh. But then I never really bought it when Ulic Qel-Droma turned to the Dark Side…

The series has been widely criticized, however, for bringing Emperor Palpatine back, thus negating the sacrifice of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Furthermore, in light of the prequels, bringing the Emperor back proves to be an even worse mistake because of what Vader/Anakin was supposed to represent, the Chosen One who would destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force. Of course, there is a whole argument about the need for the Sith if the Force is to actually be balanced, but I won’t get into that right now. Vader died destroying Palpatine, and yet here we learn that is was a pointless exercise.

What’s more baffling is why didn’t Vader know about Palpatine’s clones? Vader, who was the Emperor’s loyal enforcer and apprentice for 23 years, didn’t know about Palpatine’s contingency plans, and yet Luke, who just says “okay, Palps, I’ll join up with you” gets to learn about such a massive weakness within five minutes? Especially when the Emperor later reveals he expected Luke was going to try to betray him? Something seems off there.

However, apparently, George Lucas himself approved the idea of bringing Palpatine back through cloning. Assuming this to be true, and we have to have a story about a resurrected Emperor and whatnot, I still feel that the execution of the story is quite poor. Part of this, though, could be due to similar limitations as Heir to the Empire. Dark Empire was initially pitched as a story idea to Marvel Comics in the 1980s, but was ultimately turned down until Dark Horse were offered the licence. By then, Bantam were getting Tim Zahn to write the Thrawn trilogy, so some details had to be shifted around, notably the story was moved to 6 years after Return of the Jedi, rather than much sooner after the film – Zahn famously refusing to reference any of the events of the series prompting its placement in the timeline after his books. That said, it still had very little to go on, and the first six issues that form ‘Dark Empire I’ really feel quite lost somehow, like they’re not part of the continuing storyline. Where Zahn strove to insert his story and characters into the history of the universe, providing hints of events that had taken place in the five years between the sixth film and his book, Dark Empire seems to take a step back, and there seems to have been no effort to really dig into the backstory at all.

It’s a shame, because there are some really interesting ideas and situations that are presented over the course of the three story arcs. I categorically refuse to advocate Luke turning to the Dark Side, of course – indeed, the one thing that I can find to appreciate in that particular situation is that, once he’s there, he doesn’t really seem to do that much ‘evil’, which makes you wonder if he did actually shift allegiance at all. However, accepting the return of the Emperor, I thought the idea of him using the Dark Side of the Force so much caused him to rapidly decay, hence the need for clones, into which he transferred his consciousness when required, was entirely fitting for such a devious and manipulative man. Indeed, the idea of the Dark Side causing one to decay from the inside out is a much better explanation of the Emperor’s aged condition in Return of the Jedi that is the fact that he melted his own face when duelling Mace Windu. It also ties in to the idea that was to resurface in the Tales of the Jedi comics that would come out later, of Sith power being based partially on alchemy and twisting the forces of nature.

I also like the idea of him having a cadre of Dark Jedi, although the idea presented in Dark Empire II of the Emperor being able to ‘imbue’ what appear to be ordinary people with the Force seems definitely counter to what we now know to be the case, midichlorians and whatnot. Whereas Mara Jade is acknowledged to have a rudimentary Force ability that the Emperor amplified through his power, these other Dark Siders seem to be given that power much like one would confer a battlefield promotion. It seems a bit odd, to say the least. But Dark Jedi, yeah, that’s a nice idea. And indeed, it’s one that later sources have taken up. When Obi-Wan tells Luke that Vader helped to destroy the Jedi, it turns out he was being figurative in a sense, as he did manage to turn some to the Dark Side to serve as Adepts. It’s a cool idea, that there are two really badass Sith out there, but they also have this army of other Force users, nowhere near as powerful, but powerful enough. It’s also an idea that turns up much later, in the Clone Wars era comics with Count Dooku and his adepts.

Leia has a third child in the course of the series, which has always struck me as a bit odd. Zahn gives the Solos twins, and given how she never gets to see her kids because of the pressures of state, why would she want another? Maybe I have this view because I’m not a mother (obviously), but I’m more inclined to think that this is a holdover from the initial 1980s pitch, and was just never written out. It’s a pretty important plot point, so I guess it makes sense – after Luke sabotages the Emperor’s clones, Palpatine transfers to the only one left, which turns out to be genetically unstable. Hearing of Leia’s pregnancy, he determines that he would be best taking possession of her baby’s body and thus having the powerful Skywalker heritage as well as his own dark power, which would make him even more powerful. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, but never mind. I must admit, I think that plotline is wonderfully creepy, and should have worked out so much better than it eventually did – unfortunately, like a lot in this series, the execution just didn’t do it for me.

There are more superweapons than you can shake a stick at in Star Wars, and that theme continues here with the World Devastators and the Galaxy Gun (I’m not joking). Both are a bit inept, though perhaps not as bad as the Eye of Palpatine from Children of the Jedi.

I really enjoyed seeing Nar Shaddaa, the run-down, dingy spaceport moon that orbits the Hutt homeworld of Nal Hutta. It was good to see Han revisit his past, and having recently re-read the Han Solo trilogy, seeing Salla Zend and Shug Ninx for the ‘first’ time was a pleasure. Indeed, the smugglers are some of the best parts of the story as-is, for me. But…Boba Fett. Urgh. I’ve never been what you could call a Fett fanboy, and it’s gotten to the point now where everytime I see him pop up I just roll my eyes and sigh. When he was introduced in Empire Strikes Back (because I discount with vehemence that holiday special nonesense!) he was an interesting character, but popularity with the fans has led to this whole legion of insanity that has produced something like a cult of Fett, and now gives us these gratuitous appearances that often have no real bearing on the story. In the pages of the Dark Empire saga, this has never been more true – Fett tries two or three times to collect the ever-increasing bounty on Han and Leia, but fails each time. For the galaxy’s best and most-feared bounty hunter, he’s become quite the failure in that regard, and it’s all down to the fact that authors want to include him to appease the fanbase, but because it seems to have been an unwritten rule that Han should never be held accountable for dumping that shipment of spice, he never gets to collect. I don’t know how many times exactly now, but Fett has failed to bring in Solo so often over the years, his reputation in-universe should be in tatters by now. His purpose in Dark Empire seems to solely be to provide a sense of danger in Han returning “home”, but in reality, given the already-established bounty on Solo, literally any other bounty hunter could have provided that. Why not make a new one? It seems to be just laziness, always relying on the same person. Meh.

But as I said, there is still a lot about Dark Empire that I like. While the execution lets it down, I nevertheless appreciate the ideas behind a lot of the situations. As the series gets going, perhaps around the mid-point of Dark Empire II, we begin to see that sense of history that the first series lacked. Luke has managed to redeem one of the Emperor’s Dark Jedi, Kam Solusar (albeit entirely ‘off-camera’), who has joined the ranks of the New Republic (at least I think they’re calling themselves that again by this point…), and the two head off to Ossus in pursuit of Jedi lore to help reestablish the Order. Ossus appears in the old Tales of the Jedi comics, and we begin to see ties in to that era now that the comics universe has begun to expand (Dark Empire II began publication in 1994). By the time of the third of the series, which came out in 1995, we’re seeing all sorts of stuff, including Korriban and Onderon – we even get the Beast Riders and see descendants from the earlier series! But again, it’s all let down by the execution. Empire’s End in particular seems to have been rushed, a common complaint and perhaps not entirely unjustified – whereas the first two in the series ran to six issues each, Empire’s End consists of just two.

It’s been years since I first read these comics, and now that I’ve read them again, I feel almost sad that I’ve been so down on them. I’m going to give it some thought, then hope to produce what I would have written, with the situations present here. An interesting exercise in creative writing, perhaps, but we’ll see what happens. Dark Empire is perhaps still worth investigating, despite all these criticisms, because of the fact that a lot of subsequent material – most notably, the Jedi Academy trilogy and Crimson Empire comic series – reference it quite heavily. However, if you know the basics of the story, you can perhaps skip the actual comics themselves…

I feel really bad for being so negative about this comic now! What do you guys think? Tell me in the comments!

Dark Empire 2

Buy it from amazon:
Dark Empire
Dark Empire II (also featuring Empire’s End)