By Spencer Ellsworth
Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of the death of franchises. Star Wars' original home may have been Marvel, but Dark Horse has been building the Expanded Universe for the last twenty-four years, one Force choke at a time.
We don't know if Marvel will toss the DH continuity as it stands, but given the consolidation of Lucas's Story Group, it's a fair bet that the Expanded Universe is going to contract.
If they get rid of Mara Jade, I will riot.
For now, an era of incredible creativity has ended. In the 1990s, late-era baby boomers and early GenXers took over the franchise with gusto. They had seen the movies a thousand times, often in the theaters. The creators had been playing out their own sagas for years, and they were ready.
Let's raise a glass of blue bantha milk to an incredibly innovative and fun twenty-four years, and remember some of Dark Horse's best moments… and, for love's sake, some of their misfires.
(By the way, I have read a whole ton of Star Wars comics, but that ton is still a drop in the ocean. So bear with me. Or Wookiee with me, as the case may be. More suggestions are welcome in the forums.)
It was a hot day in 1994 when I finally tracked down a copy of Dark Empire, in a ratty little comic store in Phoenix. It had attained half-legendary status in my mind. It was mentioned in all the novels, and everyone on Prodigy had an opinion about it. This story was the opening salvo of Dark Horse's EU, and it landed like a nuclear bomb.
Cam Kennedy. Holy crap, this guy can draw, and he was born to draw Star Wars battles. There is simply nothing in any other SW comic to match the opening spreads of Dark Empire, in which the Falcon streaks across a wasted battlefield full of dead walkers, a downed ship, and… Ewoks operating a machine gun? Yeah! Kennedy's claustrophobic headshots and wide-lens battles are washed in dark, fluid, moody watercolors. The wasted, post-apocalyptic galaxy was colored for the Dark Side.
Yes, the art is fantastic. The story by Tom Veitch… well, at fourteen I loved it. The Emperor's back in clone form, Luke goes over to the Dark Side, and the Emperor wants to inhabit the body of Leia's unborn child. The World Devastators are giant vacuums that eat planet stuff and spit it out as Imperial war machines. And nothing really happens in Part II, except for the introduction of the even sillier "Galaxy Gun."
Not so much with the holding up. Still, we all bought it and wore it out and bought it again.
Tales of the Jedi was the next shot, a cool little miniseries about two trainees, long before Jedi trainees were called "Padawans". Ulic Qel-Droma was a foolhardy apprentice, and Nomi Sunrider sought to heal from the pain of her husband's death in the Force.
And then they fought, and loved, and fought again, as Ulic became a double agent among Exar Kun's dark forces, and was corrupted. Specifically, in five limited series: Knights of the Old Republic (not to be confused with the later series), The Freedon Nadd Uprising, Dark Lords of the Sith, The Sith War and Redemption, and if there's one thing that kills dramatic tension in comics, it's spread-out limited series…
By the time Ulic met his end and Nomi joined the Jedi Council, we were all too focused on Episode 1 to care.
Still, I've always liked Nomi, and her daughter Vima. The EU, right off the bat, added and expanded female characters to that sausage party far far away: Nomi Sunrider, Leia in Dark Empire, and that previously mentioned badass redhead we all dream about, Mara Jade.
Former assassin, Dark Side agent, smuggler and pirate turned Jedi. She is the baddest of bad girls, but never a sexy parody. Mara Jade: By The Emperor's Hand by Michael Stackpole and Timothy Zahn shows her filling out her last missions for the Emperor, deep in Jabba's palace, before she mellowed.
I'm not the only young man who dreamed of wooing this dangerous dame, I'm sure. She also came off well in the Dark Horse adaptation of Zahn's novels, especially in Olivier Vantine's angular, dynamic art for Heir To The Empire.
The whole EU got a shock from the prequels, which strayed into previously untouched territory, but also modified the rules. Two Sith at a time? "Padawans?" Qui-Gon Jin invented the ghost act?
But Dark Horse ran with it, exploring previously untouched pieces of the prequels' stories. Nothing was better for this than Purge, by Haden Blackman, Alexander Freed, John Ostrander and numerous others.
You know all the horrible stuff you wanted to see in Episode III? Yeah, I'm not just talking about Hayden Christensen killing kids and then getting hacked into a doorstop. I'm talking about Darth Vader torturing Jedi to death. Snapping their necks. Wasting a group of the few survivors of Order 66. This was when the Dark Side went extra-dark.
Of course, if you got tired of all this continuity, there was Star Wars Tales/Infinities. There were quirky, not-quite-canon stories of Tales .R5-D4 was actually a Jedi droid? Jar Jar's dad was named George and tried to convince his son to drown himself? Then there were the straight What If-style turns of Infinities, where Luke froze to death on Hoth, or his torpedoes malfunctioned in the Death Star. This was the place for creators to let their hair down and have fun. Peter David, Sergio Aragones, Timothy Zahn, Ben Templesmith, Jan Duursema and many others did.
Post-prequels, Dark Horse launched two of their best ongoings: Knights of the Old Republic, written by John Jackson Miller with various artists, and Legacy, by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema.
Knights of the Old Republic was such a brilliant concept and soooo good, and became the best of the ongoing Star Wars series. A group of Jedi foresee their trainees becoming Sith. With cold precision, they murder those trainees, except for one, who escapes, and is framed for the murder and as a Dark Jedi in the making. The result was a galaxy-spanning epic that begged to be purchased each month, with the hard-luck hero's journey at the heart of Star Wars.
Zayne Carrick fought destiny and the Force itself for fifty issues. You can get it in omnibus these days, and it's worth every penny.
I really, really, want to like Legacy. It shucks off lots of the dumb conventions imposed by the movies–the Sith now can have an army, the Empire isn't married to the Sith, and the Republic doesn't always have best interest at heart. And who couldn't fail to love the danger inherent in Cade Skywalker, great-grandson of Luke?
But the series blew its potential with an overcrowded cast, rehashes of the films' stories, and a waste of the interesting female characters. Cade sleeps his way through the disposable Deliah Blue and Darth Talon, and the story ignores the future Empress, whose own tormented legacy matches that of the youngest Skywalker. Legacy needed a good shave off the army of characters, and a plot that didn't adhere to the original trilogy's format. Still, it's a worthwhile read for the explosion of post-post-Jedi ideas.
These days, the big-ticket is The Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler and Mike Mayhew, the Lucasfilm version of the Beatles Anthology, polishing up George's early drafts and showing the various places where the tale could have gone. Two Jedi-Bendu traverse the universe, attack the Space Fortress, and protect the Princess of Aquilae. It is a little bit prequel, a little bit New Hope, and all fresh space fantasy.
There are hundreds of others. The X-Wing comics, Rebellion, Dark Times, Dawn of the Jedi, and the Clone Wars comics, The Stark-Hyperspace War, Golden Age of the Sith, Crimson Empire, the Vector crossover…
We'll miss you on Star Wars, Dark Horse. We'll miss the energy, enthusiasm, and experimentation.
Most of all, we'll miss the dark horse in Dark Horse, that spirit of adventure and enthusiasm and willingness to try all sorts of new angles on the galaxy far far away.