|Classic cover art by Dave Dorman for the DARK EMPIRE comic series.|
1991 was an incredible year for STAR WARS fans. Timothy Zahn had unleashed the first in the Thrawn Trilogy of books giving us a potent mixture of story, characters and action continuing the saga after Return of the Jedi which pretty much remains unequalled and unparallelled in its success in the franchise's Expanded Universe literary history. Then, by the end of the year, came an assault on our visual senses via the relaunch of the saga's comics dominion, via Dark Horse, picking up the rights to do a new series of adventures after MARVEL had given up the ghost and the unique opportunity at resurrecting its popular title (which had been axed before its time) - of course now, as of 2015, its a whole different story! Arriving to satiate fevered fan demand in comic stores worldwide, bouyed by atmospheric cover art by Dave Dorman (long before unfairly being left out of creating official sell-out CELEBRATION convention artwork), the unleashed Dark Side focused six-part epic that was Dark Empire.
Six years after the big Ewok party bash of Jedi, and the Empire returning events of the Thrawn Trilogy, things look gloomier than ever for the Rebel Alliance now that they've been pushed back from the main core by an enemy that's now at civil war with itself. Luke Skywalker remains the beacon of light and hope, but when he's captured by a clone copy of the resurrected Emperor Palpatine - whose life force transferred after his "demise" on the second Death Star - it now looks as if our former farmboy, possessing growing powers in the Force than ever before, has now seemingly swayed his allegiance towards the dark side of his family lineage (a scenario that Mark Hamill had ultimately wished had happened to his character in Jedi), with only Princess Leia, now a Jedi herself and capably using the Force and handling a lightsaber, heading into the deepest regions of the galactic core, on a rescue mission, alongside familiar support from Han Solo, Chewbacca and the other icons. Can Luke be rescued before The Emperor unleashes a devastating Dark Force wave against the last vestiges of the Rebellion?
Tom Veitch's script is a worthy continuance of the saga (especially with its major action sequences) and its epic scope, giving us new backstory and concepts still being used today (including some teases about the Clone Wars (which had still yet to be defined-Lucas at that time not yet focused on coming back to do the Prequels) and solidifying the use of Jedi Holocrons), whilst nicely developing Luke's character arc and bringing back The Emperor- an enemy too worthy to be left rotting at the bottom of the Death Star's reactor core. Here we get him not just in his decayed form but also as a new, more youthful and powerful opponent, culminating in his clashing sabers with Luke in an exciting finale sequence. The mixing of old and new characters (we even get to see one of Han Solo's former girlfriends!) is confidently handled, as is the further ease of bringing additional baddies back from the grave (like Boba Fett- and yes, I can hear all those fans cheering out there!). Scots artist Cam Kennedy's exhilarating and highly detailed art would be a genuine thrill to behold (I remember being in awe of the the first issue, in particular with its showing of the Imperial City ground civil war and Luke singularly taking on an Imperial Walker!), investing the saga with all-new kinds of weapons and technology - some of which would debut in of their time officially sanctioned role playing games - mostly on the Empire's side (immense world devastators, probots big enough to devour spaceships and remote controlled TIE fighters being just some of the stand-out examples), plus new worlds to discover (like the immense and treacherous purple rock formations of the fifth moon of Da Soocha, the Imperial power enclave of Byss, and the exploration of key worlds linked to the Classic Trilogy, like the moon of Nar Shaddaa or the water planet of Mon Calamari (brutally attacked by The Emperor's new forces). Special kudos to Kennedy for his distinct and atmospheric use of colour to heighten the drama in a way that I hadn't really seen done before in previous STAR WARS MARVEL comics - making the adventure feel more like a part of the filmic universe and its continuity than ever before.
J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan may never have seen this comic book series, but I can't help feeling that, like some of the early EU books, a lot of the upcoming EPISODE VII will inherit a similar spirit in dark storytelling (especially linked to the Skywalker lineage and the rumoured idea of their having the Empire and Rebels apparently in an uneasy alliance against a new civil war fraction), featuring likely character clashes between friends now distanced from each other, alongside a visual style and similar upgraded continuity to the visual motifs, spaceships, weaponry and armies previously seen during IV to VI.
Still one of Dark Horse's finest entries, and the first and best of the Veitch/Kennedy sagas, continuing to build on the returning heavy fan demand for new STAR WARS adventures, if you haven't read the original Dark Empire previously, it's well worth your time discovering.