For a lifelong fan of comic books and a lover of Star Wars what I’m about to say surprises even me. I just finished reading the Dark Empire miniseries for the first time. For real. How has it taken me so long to read this?!? I can absolutely see why this is considered such a classic! With all this excitement running through my being I thought it would be an excellent time to engage in an EPIC lightsaber duel. However, given the fact that my lightsabers are all the way downstairs and I’m lacking an opponent at the moment, I figured I’d talk about Star Wars, comics, canon, and the Expanded Universe instead.
For those of you not as immersed in the world of Star Wars insanity as I, here’s what I’m talking about. Obviously, Star Wars is the brilliant brain child of George Lucas. (How brilliant you ask? Well I’ll be team teaching a whole course just on the theological and mythological facets of the films. Huzzah!) Before the Prequel Trilogy would make its debut in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, the Star Wars Saga stopped with 1983’s Return Of The Jedi. However, under the guidance of George Lucas and in the hands of some exceedingly talented writers, the story of Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie would continue on for over twenty years in novels, comic books, video games, and so on in what would come to be known as the Expanded Universe (EU). The first major works in this growing Expanded Universe were Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire trilogy of novels (1991-93) and Dark Horse’s Dark Empire comic series (Dec. 1991- Oct. 1992). From this jumping off point, hundreds of works across a myriad of platforms would flow, each working diligently to connect to all elements of the Star Wars story presently in existence.
On 25 April 2014 Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy announced – after Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas in 2012 – that the old EU would be moved to the side. The tales were no longer to be considered “canon” (what is seen as an official part of the story) and rather be categorized as “legends.” This, it was said, allowed the immerging Disney Canon to grow without being constrained by decades of tales already told.
Some people were heartbroken. Others were ecstatic. And everywhere online (or, rather, in areas where we passionate nerds discuss passionately!) people argued about which stories were better. It’s always surprised me though that the “decree” of a corporation affects how someone will see a story. I’m not aiming to be judgmental here; I’m just pointing out something that’s always puzzled me. How can Disney tell me what is or isn’t “real” in a fictional world I am experiencing? It just seems odd…
I haven’t loved Star Wars forever. It’s not like my relationship with Spider-Man. Rather, I first traveled to a galaxy far, far away when I was around twelve or thirteen. From my very first viewing of A New Hope I was IN LOVE. I’d never seen anything quite like this before. Then, when I was in high school, I began to learn just how brilliant Lucas was and how full of academic merit his films were. But before I read A Hero With A Thousand Faces with Star Wars in mind, I read everything else I could find about Star Wars.
As my friend and fellow Star Wars fanatic Hannah (who’s also the other instructor in our epic Star Wars class) likes to say, we’re EU babies. We grew up in that era. I still remember that magical summer when I learned there were more Star Wars stories. I began devouring the novels. (Thanks Mom for buying them for me! I read a lot of books but you were the one who kept supplying them :).) I read The Truce At Bakura, The Courtship of Princess Leia, the Heir To The Empire Trilogy, the Jedi Academy Trilogy, Children Of The Jedi, The Crystal Star, Darksaber, the Corellian Trilogy, and on and on. One of my fondest memories from childhood is one summer, either between sixth and seventh grade or seventh and eighth, where I read something like thirteen or fourteen Star Wars novels over vacation. I sat in my parents’ porch or out on the big swing under the tree in our back yard wholly and happily absorbed in the world of Star Wars.
Disney’s announcement certainly didn’t change the way I saw those stories. They weren’t all of a sudden wrong to me. How could Disney affect that? I’m a product of my age and circumstance. As a result – no matter what occurred in 2015’s Shattered Empire comic miniseries or the Aftermath novel – The Truce At Bakura will ALWAYS be what happened after Return Of The Jedi to me. Those are my stories! And I love them!
It’s worth noting I don’t begrudge the Disney Canon anything nor am I angered by its existence. I’ve read nearly all the novels and comic books it’s produced since its inception. I’ve written before about how impressed I am with Marvel’s Darth Vader series too! So I’m intrigued by what new artists and authors will do with the characters I love and their new vision for the thirty years after Return Of The Jedi. But they can never supplant the stories I already know so well in my mind and in my heart. Because that’s the thing with art – it’s all about what speaks to us personally, what moves us. That is what will always leave the most important mark. That’s how art works. And I was shaped by the Expanded Universe!
That’s why I was so excited when I finally sat down tonight to read the Dark Empire series! For years I’d heard how amazing this story was, how definitive it was, how important it was. However, I could never find it. All the trade paperbacks seemed out of print whenever I tried to track them down and I couldn’t justify spending $50 or more on a used copy. So I pined. But last week I was at Barnes and Noble and I made a glorious discovery! There, nestled in the bargain books section, was Luke Skywalker: Last Hope for the Galaxy. This 1,000+ page collection of EU comics originally retailed for $100.00! But here it was, brand new and still in the wrapping, for only $34.96!!!! AND IT CONTAINED THE DARK EMPIRE MINISERIES!!! It was a good day :).
Written by Tom Veitch with art by Cam Kennedy, this series is set ten years after the Battle of Yavin. Luke Skywalker is now a full-fledged Jedi Master, strong with the Force. Leia has developed her powers as a Jedi Knight too, in addition to marrying Han and giving birth to their twins Jacen and Jaina. The series opens with Han, Chewie, Leia, and Threepio flying to the Emperor’s old palace to rescue Luke, Lando Calrissian, and Wedge Antillies who are embedded with Rebel forces battling one of the factions of the Empire that still remain strong. While there, Luke feels the Dark Side calling him. He forces (heh heh…no pun intended) everyone to leave, primarily to protect the new child Leia’s pregnant with, and surrenders himself to this energy.
Luke encounters a clone of Emperor Palpatine at the heart of this Dark Side Force storm. It seems the Emperor has been jumping from clone body to clone body for years, to continue his rule even after the power of the Dark Side had destroyed his body. He asks Luke to become his apprentice, to take his father’s place by his side. Luke struggles with whether or not he can use the Force to kill this old man, thus saving billions of lives. Ultimately, in a HUGE wtf moment, Luke agrees. He decides to give himself to the Emperor, to learn the Dark Side, and to defeat it from within.
Ultimately, I appreciate what they were doing with this narrative…but it bothers me. The idea of Palpatine living again and again in clones is a clever way of illustrating the reality that, unless we change what we’re doing and how we’re living, evil will always be born again and again, taking a new form in each generation. Luke turning to the Dark Side is an attempt to illustrate how we must understand evil to defeat it…but it’s really problematic. In the narrative, Luke seeks both the knowledge of what led his father to fall as well as a way to defeat the Dark Side from the inside. However, the idea of Luke willingly turning to the Dark Side for any reason (as well as the idea of Palpatine living on in an infinite array of clone bodies) undercuts the triumphant end of Return Of The Jedi as well as the overarching message of the Star Wars Saga. That’s troubling, even if the story is well executed and deeply symbolic.
Han, Leia, and Chewie go to Nar Shahadah to find a ship to fly into the galactic core to try and find/save Luke. Leia can sense the danger he’s in and sense that the Dark Side has him. Reading this comic I met Shug Ninx, Salla Zend, and Mako and all these characters I first saw in A.C. Crispin’s The Hutt Gambit! She would go back to make sure her 1997 novel connected accurately and intimately to a comic book from 1992. It’s a BRILLIANT example of the interconnectivity of the EU. Anyway, as Leia goes to the Emperor to save her brother, Veitch writes, “The same Jedi courage that led Luke Skywalker to surrender to his father on the Endor moon brings Leia into the mouth of the beast that intends to snuff out the last light of the Jedi…”
There is deep symbolism here too. It’s stated early on that, “Leia Organa, wife of Han Solo, already a mother of two, is, above all things, a Jedi warrior!” First, I love that Leia uses the Force so often and so competently in Dark Empire. But second, and symbolically, given this clear indication that Leia is a Jedi Knight AND the statement that she’s following in Luke’s footsteps at Endor, Veitch is underscoring Lucas’ paramount point at the climax of Return Of The Jedi – to be a Jedi is to commit yourself to a life anchored in love and faith in the power of everyone’s redemption.
I’m going to talk about the end of the story in the paragraphs between the two full page panel pictures below. If you don’t want it spoiled, feel free to jump past them to the conclusion below. If you’ve read it already or are bold enough to stare down a spoiler and force it to blink first, then read on.
Leia goes to save Luke, refusing to fight as that isn’t the Jedi way. While she is encouraging Luke to return to the Light Side, he rationalizes his decision to follow the Emperor in the first place.
Luke – “I found knowledge there…all the dark things father knew so well…the ability to control others…to destroy others, if I so choose….But I had to do it Leia. I had to know my father…I had to know why he chose the Dark Side.”
Leia – “And now you know what happened to our father…it’s time to come home, Luke.”
The Emperor – “Do not listen to her! Listen to the voice of the Dark Side! You power is immense!”
Luke – “The powers of control and destruction weren’t the only things I found in the Dark Side…I also found great isolation and sadness…I found fear. These are the feelings my father felt…the feelings even you feel, in you moments of darkest triumph.”
This is a deeply insightful look at what is wrapped in the heart of evil actions. Evil is born of isolation, sadness, and fear. How then do we battle the evil in our world? We do so with inclusion, acceptance, and a willingness to see what binds us and not what separates us. Ultimately Luke tells Palpatine, “No…I made a big mistake…I thought I had to save the galaxy all by myself. But the way of the Jedi is not a solitary path… Many have died defending the truth…many are together in this great war…together in the Force! My ally is the Force. Through the strength of the Force, you shroud of evil has been lifted from my mind.” Again, it’s all about loving community.
The Emperor unleashes the Dark Side Force storm once more, saying he in fact is that energy. Luke and Leia calm themselves, unite their abilities, and in the wash of Light Side life energy around him, the Emperor becomes cut off from the chaos he unleashed – a chaos he admits even he can’t control. It turns on Palpatine, devouring first him and then his command ship. Luke and Leia remark that the Emperor essentially “defeated himself.” This end is both a brilliant analogy for how evil works as well as a beautiful example of the strength of passive, nonviolent resistance. As Return Of The Jedi teaches, the way of the Light Side isn’t one of battle and destruction. Luke couldn’t kill the Emperor then any more than he could’ve killed him now. To do so is to give yourself over to the Dark Side. Rather, the evil destroyed itself when exposed to the Divine Light of life and love. Can you imagine a more poignant ending??
So now I’ve finally read Dark Empire and I can see what all the hype was about. I went in nervous as my expectations were very high. Yes, there were parts of the narrative that I found problematic when comparing it not with the story of Star Wars but with its message as myth. However, despite those little problems, in a welcome and surprising twist, it exceeded all my lofty hopes!
Dark Empire is an excellent example of why I love the Expanded Universe and what it’s always given me. It is an intricate tale – both fast and fun (the opening battle is captivating; I was hooked from the very first page!) and deeply layered with metaphor and symbolism. Dark Empire functions as much as a fun fantasy tale as it does a theologically rich piece of mythology. It adds to the Star Wars Saga while elevating the readers. As such, it took me back to the feelings of excitement I had when I was reading that pile of Star Wars novels over summer vacation as a kid…and reminded me of why I still find the story of Star Wars relevant and important to my life now.