35 years after Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star, Star Wars is a multi-billion, multi-media empire.  Cartoons, novels, video games and comic books stretch from the beginning of history to the distant future.  They explore places and races that are both new and familiar.  This year, Dark Horse is giving a big push to their line of Star Wars comics with new titles and returning favorites. 

 

Agent of the Empire: This is a new title by John Ostrander, set several years before the original movie.  The high concept is Star Wars meets James Bond.  Jahan Cross is an agent of the empire.  He’s a spy and he does his job well, but he’s not a cruel bully or imperial zealot.  The first mini-series, Iron Eclipse, has brought in a few familiar faces.  Jahan’s supervisor is Armand Isard whose daughter was a major villain in the X-Wing series of novels.  Plus, a couple of smugglers named Han Solo and Chewbacca cross paths with the imperial agent.  There’s potential for more guest stars in the future.  Personally, I’d love to see the imperial assassin and Empire’s Hand, Mara Jade.  

 

The mini-series started out a little soft.  It had a big action sequence but not much more than that.  However, I saw enough potential in the concept that I decided to keep going.  My faith has been rewarded.  The series has steadily improved as the double-crosses have started to pile up.  We’re also getting a clearer depiction of Cross.  He will do what he must in order to fulfill his mission, including kidnapping.   But he won’t go beyond what’s necessary, releasing his hostage after he’s acquired his target.  That show of mercy may be seen as weak by other imperials but it makes Cross stand out.  It should provide more interesting dilemmas as the series progresses.  Can you afford to be a spy with honor while working for an empire that has none?

 

Crimson Empire III: The first Crimson Empire story came out in 1997 and the second in ‘98.  All three stories star Kir Kanos, the last of the Imperial Guard- the crimson clad guardsmen seen protecting the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.  Like Jahan Cross, Kanos is an honorable man who has given his loyalty to an immoral empire.  However, Kanos’ empire has long since been defeated by the Rebel Alliance and his duty is no longer clear.  He has some loyalty to the remnants of the empire but little sympathy for the traitors, tyrants and brutes who lead it now. 

 

It’s an interesting set-up and you’re never quite sure which way Kanos will turn.  Frankly, the other characters aren’t sure which way Kanos will turn either.  He’s greeted skeptically and treated suspiciously by both rebel and imperials.  Kanos must constantly convince people to trust him.  That’s difficult for him as he trained to fight, not to speak.  Kanos is a sympathetic figure with a weariness that comes from too many defeats and too much isolation.  Unfortunately, the art isn’t quite up to the concept at this point.  Paul Gulacy was one of the best in the business once but his characters look waxen at this point and it’s hard to connect with them emotionally. 

 

Dawn of the Jedi: This could quickly become my new favorite.  John Ostrander and Jan Duursema have been responsible for two of the best Star Wars series of the past dozen years: Republic and Legacy.  However, LucasFilm chose to end Legacy as they wanted to reserve the far future of Star Wars for the more profitable novels.  Ostrander and Duursema astutely chose to go in the opposite direction.  Dawn of the Jedi is the earliest setting for Star Wars to date.  It takes place shortly after the founding of the order, which is still known as the Je’daii.  They also throw in a few Easter Eggs for video game fans.  The Rakata Empire, an ancient and almost extinct species from the Knights of the Old Republic, show up here at the apex of their power providing a recognizable but independent foe for the early Jedi.

 

The first issue was a masterpiece.  It begins with a historical narrative, describing the appearance of the Tho Yor temples on various worlds and their eventual migration to Tythos where the new Je’daii order would begin.  It could have been dusty and academic, but it captured my interest and imagination even as it lifted my spirit.  That introduction allowed the reader to quickly become familiar with this new setting for Star Wars while also allowing Ostrander to jump over decades of build-up and into an immediate conflict between the fledgling Jedi and the expansive Rakata Empire.  Duursema’s art remains rich and luscious.  She easily captures the appearance of multiple species, even giving them uniquely appropriate body language.  It’s truly beautiful to behold.

 

Knights of the Old Republic: This is a returning series by John Jackson Miller.  The lead character is Zayne Carrick, a former Padawan who was framed for murder by his own Jedi Master.  At this point, Zayne is a free agent.  He has become fully trained in the Force but he has no allegiance to the Jedi Order and no interest in the Dark Side.  At the outset of this current series, titled War, Zayne has been drafted into the Mandalorian Wars.  These events are part of the backstory to the Knights of the Old Republic videogame and characters from that game have been known to appear in previous KotOR comics.  However, that’s an added pleasure for fans of the expanded universe and not necessary information for comic book readers.  I started the previous series unaware of the connections and enjoyed it immensely anyway.

 

The new series has been interesting so far.  Zayne is no longer the inexperienced Padawan.  He’s done a lot in his young life and is fairly confident in his abilities.  But, in many ways, he’s still an innocent.  He eschews blasters and is more interested in protecting survivors than in winning a battle.  He’s also still a little aimless as he’s drafted by one force and then another against his will.  Zayne continues to be tossed about by fate rather than someone who charts his own destiny.  That’s an observation, not a complaint, as it’s consistent with his past characterization.  I wish the art was a little better, though.  The original series had amazing art by Brian Ching.  The art on this series is passable, but not particularly distinctive.   

 

That’s not all.  There are other titles set in the past, in the future and in between.  Knight Errant takes place a thousand years before the movies and a generation before the Darth Bane novels when the Sith were numerous.  Invasion takes place during the Yuuzhan Vong invasion from the New Jedi Order novels, about 25 years after Return of the Jedi.  Darth Vader and Dark Times both follow the final movie, Revenge of the Sith.  The former shows the rise of a young Sith Lord in power and prowess.  The latter follows a former Jedi who has become an independent adventurer still trying to work for justice and peace.  There’s also a Clone Wars comic connected to the current cartoon, taking place between the movies Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Coincidentally, Dark Horse and LucasFilm recently announced the return of Darth Maul in both the cartoon and the comics at the end of the summer.  There’s a Star Wars series for almost everyone in almost every era.  

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Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on March 2, 2012 at 1:32pm

I read Dawn of the Jedi. While I enjoyed it, I don't know if I'd say it's a masterpiece. I'm also not widely versed in the expanded Star Wars universe either. I'm on board for now though. The art is excellent. I'd like to see Duursema do a super hero comic.

Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on March 2, 2012 at 2:26pm

I don't want to sound like I didn't like Dawn of the Jedi. I did. I just don't think I liked it as much as you did, Chris.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 2, 2012 at 3:27pm

Chris, what are your thoughts on Marvel’s Star Wars series? I am right now in the process of reading all 107 issues for the first time. (Whether or not I finish this project remains to be seen.) I’m nearing the end of the second volume (as reprinted by Dark Horse), but I’m planning to supplement the project with other related reading as well. Most of the stories leading up to The Empire Strikes back are pretty cheesy but good fun. I understand the series changed direction somewhat after that, becoming more in line with the movie franchise. I’ll likely start a discussion when/if I see this reading project through to the end.

My main are of interest (at this time) is the era covered by the movies, maybe a decade or two before or after. I read the intro to Crimson Empire III (in Dark Horse Presents) and liked it, but I didn’t even realize it was set in the Star Wars universe until a couple of pages in. All of the series you mentioned sound interesting, but I won’t be to that point for a while yet.

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on March 2, 2012 at 3:43pm

See I thought the 0 issue of Dawn of the Jedi is the way zero issues should be done. I thought it was great.

I might have to go back and revisit Agent of the Empire though, as I didn't care for what I read, and bailed pretty early.

This version of the Crimson Empire I think is okay, but it doesn't really knock my socks off. I think Iike Gulacy's art more than Chris does. I've been reading more Star Wars the last year or so, than I have in a long, long time, and i think I am burning myself out. In addition to playing the new MMORPG (which has great storylines btw)

Comment by Chris Fluit on March 2, 2012 at 4:19pm

I don't want to sound like I didn't like Dawn of the Jedi. I did. I just don't think I liked it as much as you did, Chris.

That's cool.  I liked it a lot.  So there's a lot of room to appreciate it before you match my enthusiasm.  At least Travis agrees with me.

Comment by Chris Fluit on March 2, 2012 at 4:31pm

Chris, what are your thoughts on Marvel’s Star Wars series? I am right now in the process of reading all 107 issues for the first time. (Whether or not I finish this project remains to be seen.) I’m nearing the end of the second volume (as reprinted by Dark Horse), but I’m planning to supplement the project with other related reading as well. Most of the stories leading up to The Empire Strikes back are pretty cheesy but good fun. I understand the series changed direction somewhat after that, becoming more in line with the movie franchise. I’ll likely start a discussion when/if I see this reading project through to the end.

I enjoyed the Marvel series.  I didn't follow it at the time but I was able to pick it up through the Dark Horse collection of trades.  It has its ups and downs.  As you note, it can be a little silly in the early going.  And it takes the various artists some time to figure out how to draw Chewbacca.  But the series improves as it progresses.  The period between Empire and Return is very good so you've just about reached the best part.  I especially liked the way that they used the combo of Lando and Chewie.  It was an interesting pairing.  I also like the late part of the run, with Ann Nocenti as the writer.  She invents several interesting characters, including one that has since graduated to the novels (and whom I included in one of my "Best 100 Characters" lists).    

My main are of interest (at this time) is the era covered by the movies, maybe a decade or two before or after. I read the intro to Crimson Empire III (in Dark Horse Presents) and liked it, but I didn’t even realize it was set in the Star Wars universe until a couple of pages in. All of the series you mentioned sound interesting, but I won’t be to that point for a while yet.

If you're looking for other movie-era Star Wars series, I have a couple of recommendations for you.  First off, you should try the Classic Star Wars trades.  They collect the newspaper strip with absolutely incredible Al Williamson art.  It's even better than the Marvel series.  (However, you can skip Russ Manning's fourth volume).  Next, you might want to try Star Wars Empire.  This is a Dark Horse series that's set between New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.  They do a great job of alternating stories of neglected characters, like Biggs Darklighter or a Stormtrooper, with stories about the stars, like Princess Leia. 

Comment by Chris Fluit on March 2, 2012 at 4:33pm

I might have to go back and revisit Agent of the Empire though, as I didn't care for what I read, and bailed pretty early.

I thought the first issue was weak too but I gave the second a try solely on potential and thought it was a lot better. 

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on March 2, 2012 at 4:34pm

...Chris , wasn't that Williamson " Classic " colorized/cropped/condensed versions of the strips ?

Comment by Chris Fluit on March 2, 2012 at 4:37pm

Yes it was.  The re-colored (or newly colored) strips looked great.  And they were up-front about the changes.  They removed panels that would have been repetitive in a continuous story but which were necessary in a daily strip.  I thought it read very well.  You can look at it as an adaptation of the comic strip, reconfigured for a different format. 

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 2, 2012 at 4:48pm

You know how I said I was planning to supplement my project with "other related reading"? One of those things will be to slot the three "Classic Star Wars" trades between volumes two and three of Dark Horse's reprinting of the Marvel series. I didn't know there was a fourth featuring Russ Manning art, but I already own the three Goodwin/Williamson ones. I read that series when it was in the newspaper but I don't remember much about it.

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