Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dark Empire

When this series of comics came out the early 90's, I was excited. This was before the explosion of the Expanded Universe and right around the same time the Heir to the Empire Novels came out. This was GREAT! Or at least that's what I thought at the time. I quickly bought up the early issues of the comics only to be a bit disappointed.

Overall, I found the plot to be an interesting and even original one. The central idea here was that the Emperor had planned ahead for his death. Through the use of arcane dark-side talents, his 'spirit' was able to return to a secret cloning facility where he was 'reborn' in a younger version of his body. As the Empire descended into chaos and the Rebellion (now the New Republic) steadily drove them back, Palpatine plotted and prepared in his secret lair. Finally, he let his presence become known again—unleashing a new fleet of war machines on the Galaxy, headed by his massive 'World Devastators', these gigantic ships were essentially self-building factories. They would rip up huge sections of planet surface—melting down the 'raw materials' of cities. These 'recycled' materials would be sent to interior, automated factories to churn out new war machines (including automated TIEs for defense)—they would also be used to increase the size of the World Devastator itself. Thus, as it destroyed, the machine became more powerful.

The New Republic is thrown back by this renewed assault and Luke, having sensed Palpatine's return, decides to play a dangerous game and 'pretend' to submit to his power. The plan was to learn the Dark Side's weaknesses by studying from the 'inside' as it were. But things don't quite to go plan. Luke begins to fall. The climax takes place when the Emperor reveals his intention of claiming Leia's soon-to-be born child to become the vessel of his spirit (seems the cloned bodies keep 'burning out' due to the corruption of his dark-side energies). Leia manages to turn Luke back to the light and together they defeat the Emperor—causing him to be consumed by a massive dark-force 'Storm' of his own creation.

Like I said, overall, I find this story line interesting. But in this case, the devil is in the details—those are what bug me and ultimately ruin the experience of the Dark Empire series. I will begin with the superficial—the artwork. Normally, if the story is good, I can forgive a lot. In this case, though, I have to say that the artwork was just... crappy. Every scene in the book seems to be done in either reddish or greenish tint, with characters and environments rendered in very sharp contrast. I imagine that other graphic novels were an influence here—things like 'The Dark Knight'—supposedly 'gritty' and 'graphic'. But for Star Wars? Well, it didn't work for me. It came across as kind of sloppy, with details 'glossed over' by indecipherable shapes and 'greeblies'. But then, artwork is a very subjective thing. That's why this is just a minor 'complaint' about the series.

The first real 'deal-breaker' for me is the fact that Dark Empire and Heir to the Empire seem to have been written in completely different universes. The intro to Dark Empire makes no mention of Thrawn (a major character from Heir), even though the series supposedly takes place just one year after his death. Also, at the end of the Heir, the Empire was broken and in full retreat. And yet in the first pages of Dark Empire, we see they have not only thrown the New Republic off of Coruscant, but are able to do so even while they are fighting amongst themselves. It seems clear (to me at least) that Dark Empire was written to fit in directly AFTER the Original trilogy, with no interposing story line. It was intended to show the Empire still powerful, but in chaos, with the Rebellion growing in strength, poised to take on the weakening Imperial factions vying for power. Unfortunately, NONE of that seems to fit with the political situation we are shown during the Heir to the Empire novels. This seems to be a case of two creatives working in isolation from each other, then a bunch of people trying to put duct-tape over the cracks in the story line.

Another major problem I have with Dark Empire is the overall tone of it. I know that with a title like that, you have to expect the story to be serious. But part of the appeal of Star Wars is an overall optimistic tone—and a sense of humor. In this series, you see very little of either. There are no snappy one-liners. Things seem very grave throughout the entire series, with VERY few rays of sunlight (literally or figuratively). Some folks may like dark and gritty, and it can be a part of star wars, but when it grits and grinds through an entire series, it gets old. The end result for me is that it just didn't feel like Star Wars. It felt like your typical, lat 80's, early 90's dark and moody graphic novel.

One of my BIGGEST peeves in the Star Wars universe is the ever expanding scope of Force powers—to and past the point of belief. Dark Empire has a LOT of this. Okay, so I will buy off on the Emperor's power to resurrect himself (and that requires a lot of buying off). I can MAYBE even see his ability to summon a gigantic, ship-swallowing energy storm in space. this series, he uses this storm (what looks to be a black hole) to deftly pluck Luke and Artoo from the surface of a planet and somehow transport them into a dungeon ship...and all of this while he's not even anywhere close to the star system they're in. Right. And then later, Luke makes a freaking duplicate of himself—a seemingly tangible illusionary double. Hoookay. Whatever. I hate this.

Strangely enough, the Resurrection thing seems to be the biggest problems a lot of people have with the story and I don't mind it that much. I can see the argument of some folks that by having the Emperor 'reborn' you are kind-of taking something away from Vader/Anakin and his whole 'bring balance to the force' destiny. Folks say that by having the Emperor reborn, it detracts from Vader having 'killed' him in Return of the Jedi. I don't see it that way. Anakin, through that action, saved his son and his soul, and had a hand in the downfall of the Empire. Even if the Emperor does return, it doesn't take away those facts.

And as far as the prophecy goes....well, that depends how you interpret it. In my mind, Anakin 'brought balance' quite literally when he turned against the Jedi. In the end, only two 'major' Jedi survived. Balanced by the two major Sith. On a more metaphysical level, the Jedi order seemed to be stagnating and decaying right along with the Republic it served, and even though what Anakin did was horrible and evil, it DID bring about a 'rebirth' of the order. I like to think that the prophecy was speaking of a pivotal moment of change, and that Anakin could have 'brought balance' either by good or evil. Unfortunately, he ultimately chose evil, but either way, the prophecy came true. The clone Emperor is then, for me, a shadow of his former self and the last 'obstacle' Luke faces prior to coming into his own as master of a new Jedi order.

Now, onto other peeves about the story—there was this particular plot hole: Artoo, while hanging out with Luke and the Emperor, manages to shut down the Entire Imperial fleet of World Devastators, just by hacking a computer console. Guess the Emperor didn't forsee THAT one.

So, here I am kind of on the fence about the Dark Empire series—and then Dark Empire II and Empire's End come out. Well. I am not at all 'on the fence' about these two interlinked works. It seems to me to be a rehashing of the same plot. The Emperor is reborn AGAIN (I can buy it once, but not twice. It is just lazy plotting at this point). He has ANOTHER super weapon! This time, it is a huge gun that shoots 'bullets' through hyperspace that can destroy an entire planet. Uhhh... riiight. Oh, and he once again tries to use Leia's kid as a host for his spirit. Yeah. You lost me at '... the Emperor is reborn again...'. There may be some redeeming features of this story (in fact, I used a few elements in my own campaign), but overall I think it is shoddy, schlocky work built upon an already unstable foundation with the first series.

I should point out that, like my impression of the movies, my feelings about these comic series have changed over time. Unlike the prequels, however, my opinion of Dark Empire has deteriorated. The little nags and problems have built over the years to the point where much of this just seems unsalvageable. Still, I included most of this (Dark Empire I) in my Star Wars RPG campaign—and it worked. I think that if I had it to do all over again, I might set the whole series earlier—prior to the Heir to the Empire stuff—it seems to fit better in that chaotic time when Imperial Warlords were battling eachother for control. About the only problem I see is the whole 'using baby Anakin as a host' subplot. But that could easily be omitted. Of course, that wold put a bit of a wrinkle in Mara Jade's backstory (a character from Heir to the Empire), as the 'reborn' Emperor would probably try to call her back into service... blah. No. Probably better to just leave the story where it is, but change it's scope up a little—maybe omit the whole 'Coruscant gets destroyed' section. I'll have to think on it.


  1. I always could look past the nagging problems and I enjoyed the original Dark Empire. Dark Empire 2 was complete garbage, but the first was salvagable.

    Things I had a problem with:
    Interior art (though the Dave Dorman inserts of the covers were AWESOME!)
    The Eclipse and a superlaser mounted on yet-another even-bigger star destroyer.
    The whole ruse of "ghost Luke". I could see this working for a bit, but not for a long time.
    Force Cages. What...was there a big demand for these?
    Imperial Sentinels or whatever they were called...the oversized genetic Imperial guards who basically just stood around.

    Things I loved about it.
    World Devastators.
    Seeing some of those "other powers yet unknown" that were always hinted at by WEG for the various powerful Force characters.
    Emperor's spirit not disappearing and him figuring out a way to come back (granted, I would have used a Force possession rather than clones, but that's how I can fix any holes with that).
    Battles on places other than Tattooine or Endor.

    This blog is a good read. Thanks.

  2. Overall, I have to agree. The first WAS salvagable. If the core idea (the Reborn Emperor) is good, then I can forgive a lot. I can't help but want to 'tinker' with it, though—especially if I ever ran another campaign like my old-school one.

    The covers and inserts WERE awesome. I should not have omitted that!

    Eclipse...yeah, just more of the same.

    Ghost Luke... yes, maybe VERY brief, but in my own game, I'd explain it away as part of an 'Affect Mind' power- where Luke Convinces someone that they just saw him. The whole 'illusion' thing is something I never bought into.

    Force Cages- well, I could kind of see some of these things being left over from the Jedi Purge, or even from an old Sith stockpile.

    Sentinels- didn't mind the concept, but yeah.. they did NOTHING.

    World Devastators- GREAT IDEA. An original superweapon for once!

    Other Force Powers- I actually liked the 'epic scale' of the powers the Emperor used. But in honesty, unless you were running a very high-level dark-side campaign (something I'd never do), they weren't particularly useful from a game perspective. They were still interesting to read about, though.

    The Emperor's resurrection. You either love the idea of this or hate it. I am in the love it camp. I thought it was a great idea. Still do.

    And thanks for reading!