by Brendan Hodgdon. This is RETROGRADING, where we’ve got a date with the Dark Side!
THE STORY: Star Wars: Dark Empire Trilogy
THE TEAM: Tom Veitch (writer), Cam Kennedy and Jim Baikie (pencils/inks/colors), Todd Klein and Lois Buhalis (letters), Barbara Kesel (original series editor). Originally published by Dark Horse Comics, reprinted material by Marvel.
THE YEAR: 1991-1992, 1994-1995. The dead years before the Special Edition re-releases and the Prequels, amidst the 90s comics boom. A perfect time to capitalize on a growing media marketplace with a semi-dormant franchise’s next big chapter.
RECOLLECTIONS: It’s hard for me to imagine a world without Star Wars. After all, the Skywalker Saga (that comes to an official close with the release of The Rise of Skywalker in a few weeks) is my favorite story of all time, and the most formative piece of fiction in my life. But as much as the films (yes, all of them) stand as such an immutable rock in pop culture history, the saga’s weight owes a great deal to the original Expanded Universe that kept this galaxy alive through the 1990s. And one of the cornerstones of that Expanded Universe was Dark Empire and its sequels.
The original miniseries from Veitch, Kennedy, and Klein hit in 1991, at the start of Dark Horse’s long tenure as Star Wars‘ comics home and directly after the equally-essential Thrawn novel trilogy by Timothy Zahn. It was here that Star Wars graduated from the standard (but well-done!) sort of tie-in work that was offered in the ’70s and ’80s towards something far more ambitious. This was where Star Wars became a breeding ground for a massive, interconnected network of comics, novels and games to officially, canonically continue the story of Luke, Han and Leia into the future. And far as opening volleys go, Dark Empire was a largely satisfying one.
And while the Dark Empire Trilogy may not have expanded the horizons of the Star Wars galaxy with the same steely confidence of Zahn’s novels, it was nevertheless a striking companion piece to them, in no small part due to the gorgeous artwork of Cam Kennedy. Being a comic, it’s appropriate that Dark Empire’s success should owe so much to the artist, and Kennedy really wins the day with his work on the first two miniseries. Kennedy’s sharp lines and eye for detail lead to fantastically-dense panels and pages, and his character and ship designs are often striking and dynamic. But perhaps his most remarkable work is in his colors, as he opts for monochromatic color schemes for different sequences. Whole pages are drenched in magenta and turquoise, and combined with his equally-liberal use of inks, Kennedy offers one of the most visually distinctive pieces of Star Wars lore.
On the writing side, Tom Veitch is an able partner to Kennedy, giving him solid story structure and lots of new elements to play with. New worlds, characters, and ships fill this trilogy cover-to-cover, and many of them are charming additions to the universe. But Veitch also has plenty of fun with the classic characters and imagining their voices as they’ve aged. Leia’s steely determination is complemented by her curiosity about the Force, Han’s buffoonery is only exacerbated by the increasingly-spiritual stakes of the struggle, and Luke becomes serene and focused to the point of inscrutability to the others. Blended with the strong personalities of the new characters, this growth makes for a lively adventure.
In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising thing about Dark Empire is how few of those new faces actually continued in the old Expanded Universe beyond this story. Many of the new characters (Imperial Executor Sedriss, Jem & Rayf Ysanna, Empajaytos Brand) are killed off before the trilogy’s end anyway, and those that aren’t (Salla Zend, Shug Ninx) were never heard from again. It’s surprising to consider that, despite Dark Empire‘s significance in the old canon, many of its components didn’t have much of a shelf life. It’s unfortunate, as many of these characters are memorable and entertaining figures that should’ve had the same longevity as the Grand Admiral Thrawns and Mara Jades of the old timeline.
It’s also fascinating to consider Dark Empire in relation to the films that have replaced it, both in how they echo each other and how they digress. Elements like a Skywalker falling to the dark side, the New Republic struggling to maintain order, a girl from a backwater planet getting roped into the conflict, an Imperial superweapon that can destroy a planet from across the galaxy, and (apparently) the resurrection of Palpatine are present in both trilogies. But while the films leaned into introducing new characters, and have committed wholeheartedly to the “failure” of the Skywalkers, Dark Empire takes a much more direct and old-school fan-friendly approach. Here we can see the natural ebb and flow of the Star Wars saga, the cyclical elements that will always be present in any telling of the Skywalker tale. I would certainly say we are better off with the Sequel Trilogy we have now, but there’s no denying the grand, dramatic fun that the Dark Empire trilogy (mostly) provides.
Where this comics trilogy falters is in its finale. Empire’s End feels too rushed by half, both in pacing and execution. It would be easy to lay this at the feet of replacement artist Jim Baikie, who has neither the clean lines nor solid colors that made Kennedy’s work so impressive. But Veitch’s script is just as stunted, as he crams into two issues a story that could have easily fit the six-issue length of its predecessors. On the whole, Empire’s End just doesn’t feel whole at all, and it leads to an otherwise-satisfying narrative to end on an underwhelming note.
But even with the subpar conclusion, the trilogy as a whole is strong, furthering the mythology and themes of the original movies in fun ways. Strikingly visualized and impressively dense, it was exactly the sort of mission statement the Expanded Universe needed. And as someone who was falling in love with Star Wars just as these comics were being released, I owe this trilogy a great debt. It doubled-down on my fandom for the galaxy George Lucas built.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? The Dark Empire trilogy is a comfortable curio, one that both laid the groundwork for the multimedia universe many Star Wars fans loved and served as a dry run for many of the elements that have defined the Sequel Trilogy era. While in retrospect it does feel more fan-service-y than anything else, it still offers a stunning showcase for Cam Kennedy’s art, and a fun riff on everything that makes the galaxy far, far away so resonant for so many.
RETROGRADE: 8 out of 10
You can purchase a collected edition of ‘Star Wars: Dark Empire’ from the Marvel Digital Comics Shop.