Fundamental Comics: How ‘Star Wars: Dark Empire’ Expanded the ‘Star Wars’ Universe and Continues to Shape It Today

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Star Wars: Dark Empire I: Expanding the Universe
Writer: Tom Veitch
Artist: Cam Kennedy
Letterer: Todd Klein
Publisher: Dark Horse Comic
Publication Date: December 1991 – October 1992
No. of Issues: 6


Introduction

Published from 1991 to 1992, Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire series of comics became an important and foundational component of the Star Wars transmedia repertoire. What Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire [1991], Dark Force Rising [1992], and The Last Command [1993]) did for literary Star Wars is what Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s Dark Empire accomplished for Star Wars comics. Both series of stories rejuvenated and maintained interest in the Star Wars IP while providing the building blocks of new characters, worlds, ships, aliens, and stories that would not only support the burgeoning Expanded Universe, but provide material (or at least inspiration) for still-canon films and shows, as well.


The Plot of Dark Empire I

Six years after the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star, the galaxy is still in a state of conflict as the New Republic/Rebel Alliance continue to battle remnants of the Empire.

Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and C-3PO lead a rescue mission to Coruscant to rescue Luke, Lando, and Wedge who have been fending off Imperial raiders. After after being rescued, a Dark Force energy storm appears out of hyperspace and absconds with Luke, taking him to the Deep Core worlds of the Galaxy, to the planet Byss, the throne-world of the resurrected/cloned Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine demonstrates his newest super weapons to Luke, the World Devastators, floating fortresses that vacuum up materials and convert them into war assets inside internal foundries. Witnessing the Devastators attack Mon Calamari, Luke decides to submit to the Emperor and the Darkside in the hopes of learning its secrets in an effort to stop Palpatine.



The Rebels attempt to combat the World Devastators but to disastrous results. Leia senses Luke slipping to the Dark Side, and together with Han, mounts another rescue mission. Since the Core Worlds are heavily secured, they instead go the Hutt homeworld of Nar Shadda to arrange transportation. While on Nar Shadda, Leia, and Han dodge bounty hunters, including Boba Fett and Dengar, and rendezvous with past smuggling accomplices Shug Ninx and Salla Zend. Their ship, the Starlight Intruder, is able to get the Rebel heroes to Byss.

 

Han and Leia are eventually captured and brought before the Emperor and Luke. The Emperor desires Leia’s unborn third child, Anakin Solo, as the vessel to contain his next resurrection. Leia steals an ancient Jedi artifact from the Emperor, the Holocron, which contains historical information on the Jedi. Luke plants schematics for the World Devastators into R2-D2, and while Leia and Han escape from Byss, Luke stays behind to confront the Emperor. Though Luke is able to destroy most of the clones, Palpatine is able to posses a final one and subdue Luke.



The Rebels are able to use Luke’s information in Artoo to stop the Devastators; however, the Emperor in his mammoth flagship, the Eclipse, arrive at Mon Calamari. Leia travels to the Eclipse, and while the Emperor summons another Dark Force storm to destroy the Rebel Alliance, she is able to wrestle Luke from the Dark Side. Together with their combined Jedi powers, they are able to turn the Emperor’s storm back against him, destroying his ship in the process. Having been exposed to both the Light and Dark Sides of the Force and seeing the Emperor defeated again, Luke prophesies another new hope that the Jedi will rise again and that Leia’s children will be at the forefront of that new generation.


Reception

As a comic series, Star Wars was initially published by Marvel from 1977 to 1986 which included not only adaptations of the trilogy films, but also original stories that provided interesting adventures and characters (such as issue #8 which introduced Jaxxon the smuggler/space bunny). Interest in Star Wars was certainly kept alive during the first half of the '80s post-Jedi with these comics, along with the cartoon shows Ewoks (1985-1986) and Droids (1985), and spinoff Ewok films; however, by the latter half of the '80s, the only venue seemingly carrying the Star Wars torch was the role playing game published by West End Games.

However, with the arrival of the '90s, and almost a decade since the last Star Wars movie, fans were still eager for something new. The one-two punch of the publishing of Zahn’s books and the Dark Empire comics couldn’t have arrived at a more fortuitous time to interject Star Wars with much needed life and originality. Barbara Randall Kesel, who was the series editor at Dark Horse for Dark Empire, offers insight to the publication of the comic and their subsequent reception:

“The general perception (as I recall) was great anticipation. There was an audience of fans (even then!) eager for all things Star Wars, Cam’s art was a new style and the ‘adult-ness’ of the limited-tone watercolored art style made the book seem important, grown up, ‘serious.’ Tom really threw his all into making the characters real, and the lure of seeing Luke go bad really drew people to the book. Dave’s painted covers were very much in demand: comic-book fans had discovered specialty stories and new companies like Dark Horse and were REALLY drawn to how Dark Horse treated licensed books.”

Of course, the success of Dark Empire could be seen immediately after: a six-issue second series, Dark Empire II, was published between 1994 and 1995, and a concluding, two-issue mini series, Empire’s End, was published in the autumn of 1995. The Dark Empire comics would be recollected and revisited in trade paperback collections and omnibuses.  


Critical Analysis

By virtue of being one of the first, Dark Empire (along with Heir to the Empire) became one of the foundational texts of the Star Wars Expanded Universe that would shape subsequent Star Wars products for the next two decades. One of the most important aspects, as alluded to by Kesel above, is bringing a sense of “adultness” and “seriousness” back to the forefront to the IP. Star Wars has always had to juggle a pendulum of audience expectations, accessibility, and tones, catering the spectrum of children to adults. During The Empire Strikes Back, the pendulum swung toward the more serious and heavy gravity of tones and emotions while post-Return of the Jedi swung far, far more into children friendly territory with an emphasis on cartoons and Ewoks. Dark Empire effectively righted this juggling act back to the center, placating all tastes; the dark, almost monochromatic and gritty art gives a sinister, series edge to Star Wars, yet the quips from Han Solo (“They told me marriage to a Jedi princess wasn’t going to be easy...they were right.”) and C-3PO (“Too bad you’ve destroyed the Devastators, I’d feed you to them to be recycled!”) keep it firmly anchored into the moments of adventurous comedy the series is known for.

The reappearance of Boba Fett also fall into this situation of mixed tonality of seriousness and comedy. Fett, a long-time fan favorite of the series and instantly recognizable from his iconic Mandalorian armor, appears on Nar Shadda with Dengar, another noteworthy bounty hunter that appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. Fett’s portrayal in Dark Empire mimics his two appearances in the films. Initially exuding an air of cool, calculating, ruthlessness as in The Empire Strike Back, he subtlety switches over to a more comedic foil. In Dark Empire, he accidentally shoots a Hutt’s floating sled, sending the Hutt into the depths of Nar Shadda, followed by a scene of him crashing his ship into the planetary shielding of Byss, all the while arguing with Dengar. This subtle shift mimics Fett’s portray in Return of the Jedi where he is dispatched in a Charlie Chaplin fashion by being accidentally knocked into the Sarlac Pit by a blind guy with a stick.





One of the most important contributions of Dark Empire is its depiction of just what is takes to be seduced by the Dark Side. Viewers of the original trilogy were only treated to a black-and-white version of the Force (Jedis/Light Side/Good guys vs. Sith/Dark Side/bad guys), with only a few instances depicted or referred to in the film showing how individuals would turn to the Dark Side (specifically Luke angrily fighting his father on the second Death Star). This binary representation does not really demonstrate just how complex the Force really is. It would be over a decade later that Anakin Skywalker’s path to the Dark Side would be depicted in The Revenge of the Sith, so depicting Luke Skywalker slipping to the Dark Side in Dark Empire is a big deal. Luke resisted the lure of the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi, how could he possibly turn to it in Dark Empire?


In a way, Luke’s turn to the Dark Side anticipates and mirror’s Anakin’s conversion to Darth Vader, and both scenarios are orchestrated by Palpatine. Both Luke and Anakin have similar justifications to turn to the Dark Side: Anakin seeks the knowledge of the Dark Side to protect Padmé while Luke seeks the knowledge to combat Palpatine and his World Devastators (the principle difference between saving one person [Anakin] and saving the galaxy [Luke] but both desires are seemingly noble and altruistic at first glance). The Dark Side offers solutions to both heroes. There is some slight irony going on, however. For Anakin, the Dark Side’s promises are false, and Anakin is unable to save Padmé. For Luke, he is actually able to learn something from the Dark Side, learn about Palpatine’s World Devastators, and supply information needed to combat them. This is quite a feat, considering the difference between father and son: Anakin had over a decade of training of using the Force and the Jedi ways under Obi-Wan and others in the Jedi Council while Luke only had a short window of training with Yoda – in essence, Luke has been learning the ways of the force by himself, with no living mentor, in the years since the Battle of Endor, yet has some of the fortitude to resist the power of the Dark Side (with some additional help from Leia) while Anakin was unable to. Comparing and contrasting Dark Empire with The Revenge of the Sith, together they show how one can be seduced to the Dark Side, that even the most noble of heroes can be charmed by its allure, and yet, it is quite possible to be saved and return from the Dark Side: Anakin by the help of his son in The Return of the Jedi and Luke with the help of his sister Leia in Dark Empire. The end results is that Dark Empire helps illustrate the complexity of the Force and help erode the binary, black-and-white nature of the Force that had been portrayed up to that point (that is, until the prequel trilogy arrived with their Midi-chlorians). 



Relevancy Today / Why #StoriesMatter

On April 25th of 2014, it was announced that all aspects of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, of which the Dark Empire comics are a part of, would be rebranded as Star Wars Legends and made non-canon. The announcement also stated that Legends content would still be published, yet three months earlier Dark Horse Comics made the announcement that they had lost the Star Wars license that they had held onto for over two decades. The side effect of losing the license is that the physical Dark Empire comics (both part 1, part 2, and Empire’s End) have now fallen out of print with Marvel re-releasing them in digital only format.




Despite being rendered non-canon, Dark Empire still holds relevancy to Star Wars in the present day and is an important story that matters. (See Fanbase Press’ #StoriesMatter initiative.) The comic itself still acts as an entertaining and well-told Star Wars story on its own merits; however, Dark Empire, as a foundational EU text, still holds importance, in a historical sense, at shaping what Star Wars is today. Dark Empire anticipated quite a few Star Wars elements that are still relevant. As illustrated above, Luke’s fall to the Dark Side greatly anticipates the depiction of Anakin’s fall in The Revenge of the Sith, underscoring both the how and the why. The resurrection of Palpatine in the sequel trilogy was anticipated nearly two decades prior in Dark Empire. The importance of cloning, and though depicted somewhat differently, become even more solidified in Dark Empire which, of course, would lead it to being fleshed out further in Attack of the Clones. The World Devastators share commonalities with the floating, seismic tanks that Mace Windu fought against on Dantoonie in The Clone Wars animated series. The Empire’s infatuation of making their Star Destroyers bigger and bigger is, of course, kept in Dark Empire, as the Emperor’s insanely large Eclipse Star Destroyer sees some parallels with Snoke’s Supremacy Dreadnought. Dark Empire laid much foundational groundwork for Star Wars and the Expanded Universe/Legends. While Heir to the Empire’s Grand Admiral Thrawn has been granted the luxury of being canonized, it is still nice to see fractional elements of Dark Empire still remain within the greater canon.

Dark Empire introduced Star Wars fans to the Jedi Holocron, an artifact which contains much of the history and teachings of the Jedi. In a way, Dark Empire acts a little like its own Holocron, preserving the history of Star Wars in a prior incantation. The knowledge within Dark Empire may have been scratched out and painted over with new movies, comics, and games, and yet, its importance and historic significance isn’t plastered over so easily.





Bibliography

Barbara Randall Kesel, email message to author, January 24, 2020.

Fahey, Mike. “Dark Horse Comics is Losing the Star Wars License.” Kotaku. Last modified Janaury 3, 2014. https://kotaku.com/dark-horse-comics-is-losing-the-star-wars-license-shou-1493997099.

“The Legendary Star Wars Expanded Universe Turns a New Page.” StarWars.com. Last updated April 25, 2014. https://www.starwars.com/news/the-legendary-star-wars-expanded-universe-turns-a-new-page.

Miller, Craig. Star Wars Memories: My Time in the (Death Star) Trenches. CA: Fulgens Press, 2019.

“Star Wars: Dark Empire (1991).” Marvel. Last accessed January 22, 2020. https://comicstore.marvel.com/Star-Wars-Dark-Empire-1991/comics-series/57043.

Veitch, Tom. Star Wars: Dark Empire: The Collection. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 1995.




Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2020 19:00

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