A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… the state of Star Wars was very different than what it is now. After Return Of The Jedi, there was no way of really knowing if there’d ever be another Star Wars film ever again. In order to keep the world and it’s characters going, it came down to a number of novellists and comic creators to chart a new course for the galaxy.
Join us, then, as we look back at one of the first comics of Star Wars‘ Expanded Universe, “Dark Empire” by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy, and how it changed the course of Star Wars and how it’s still relevant today.
Written by Tom Veitch
Illustrated by Cam Kennedy
Six years after Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance has established a New Republic over three-fourths of the galaxy. The surviving Imperial Forces are torn by civil war and harassed by rebel attacks. But when one of these raids ends in disaster, it will be up to Han, Leia and the others to rescue Luke Skywalker!
With the release of Rogue One only a month away, I’ve found my now annual Star Wars binging turn it’s head towards the Expanded Universe, or Legends as they’re now referred to. While I was born in ’93 and majority of the feverishly released novels and comics that made up the foundation of these Legends past me by until much later in life, one slipped through the cracks and changed how I saw Star Wars, as I’m sure it did many others. With it’s dark, intense homages to Drew Struzan’s movie posters in it’s cover art by Dave Dorman to the gothic, monochromatic interior art by Cam Kennedy, “Dark Empire” was a Star Wars comic that looked unlike any other Star Wars media before it.
While “Dark Empire” is largely remembered (and not even that fondly, to boot) for one story point, there’s something in the artwork that makes this comic still feel iconic. Despite being published in 1991, Cam Kennedy’s artwork fully embodies the science fiction art of the late ’70s/early ’80s. It’s hard not to see Kennedy wear his time working on 2000AD progs on his sleeve, even as he renders the Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers of Star Wars. Using panels that take up most, if not the entire page, Kennedy renders these gorgeous images that show the kind of battlefields that could only be dreamt of when watching the movies.
The first issue opens on a battle fought between opposing sides of the Empire with AT-AT’s trampling the debris of crashed TIE Fighters as they seek to claim the prize of a downed Star Destroyer all while the Millenium Falcon soars overhead. It’s an immediate first impression that “Dark Empire” could show scenes that filmmakers could only dream of.
While the artists working Marvel’s current slate of canon Star Wars comics have been praised (by myself, included) for illustrating comics that capture the look of Star Wars, Cam Kennedy didn’t seem beholden to that measurement. Sure, “Dark Empire” does look like Star Wars and the characters and ships capture the same look and feel as the films, but when it comes down to tone and style, “Dark Empire” couldn’t feel more unique. Largely, it comes down to the watercolour paints that Kennedy employs.
Pages are, largely, monochromatic and employs two main colour schemes. When dealing with Luke’s story and the presence of the Force, Kennedy washes pages in a sickly yellow/green hue with deeper, more blue greens giving depth to the page. This, mixed with how Kennedy uses inks to black out the shadows gives “Dark Empire” a deeply gothic feeling. It’s a darker, more intense and embodies a feeling closer to “Heavy Metal” than to Star Wars. Pages that follow Han and Leia’s quest are hued in rustic reds and browns; earthier tones that not only fit the roguish smuggler’s tone, but compliments the aesthetic of the worlds like Nar Shadaa.
As much as I will praise Marvel for creating a slate of comics that build the world of Star Wars in canon with well-suited creators, there’s something almost cookie cutter-esque to them. The canon of Star Wars has been set in stone now and every corner of the galaxy has been mined for stories. It’s only a matter of time before the stories start to blend in to one another. “Dark Empire” came at a time where there were so few stories exploring the galaxy outside of the movies that there’s something freeing about the unique-ness of it. Sure, Tom Veitch’s story often feels like he had no real communication with Timothy Zahn or Kevin J. Anderson, whose novels took place either side of “Dark Empire”, but it doesn’t really matter.Continued below
This was a comic created before the idea of an Expanded Universe having a structured timeline and having the comics and the novels co-exist really mattered as the number of them was so few. It stands on its own with its own ideas of how the galaxy survived after Return Of The Jedi. This is largest note of contention against “Dark Empire” and one that I understand, but disagree with. Spoiler alert for a 20 year old comic, but “Dark Empire” is the comic that revealed that Emperor Palpatine survived through the force and transferred his life essence into a clone body. At first, I understand the backlash against this because it undoes the major victory at the end of Return Of The Jedi and the cloning is the closest Star Wars really gets to hard sci-fi which goes against the tone of Star Wars.
However, consider this: this idea works on two levels. On one, Veitch is showing the Dark Side of the Force as an addiction that is debilitating and ultimately wasting. Veitch takes the idea that Force users are “luminous beings”, in Yoda’s words, and extrapolates that connecting to the Force elevates one’s life essence. The Dark Side, then, elevates your life essence only to consume it. Palpatine is so connected to the Dark Side that he is one with the Force enough to cause Force Storms in space and transfer his consciousness on death, but the draw back is that Dark Side is so strong that it will consume any mortal form he inhabits. This contrasts to Luke’s journey where he concludes that the only way to destroy the Dark Side is from within.
By embracing the same addiction, the same power that consumed his father, Luke attempts to finally do what Vader could not with the knowledge that, ultimately, Anakin still returned to the Light in the end. It may not be the most Star Wars-y story ever told, but as far as Veitch’s version of continuing Luke’s conflict with the Dark Side, confronting him with a challenge that must force him to deal with his family’s almost predisposition to be addicted to this destructive power is one that is, simply, fascinating.
When Lucasfilm announced that Star Wars‘s Expanded Universe was being considered non-canonical and relabelled as Legends, there was much outcry from fans who had dedicated their lives to these stories. While it may still sting that the version of these characters’ history that you loved could be changed on a whim, these stories still exist and they still matter. Luke’s challenge of the dark side and many of smaller details within this story still influence the course of events in Star Wars today, just in a much more abstract fashion. That, combined with the fantastic storytelling and artwork from the team of Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy makes “Dark Empire” stand the test of time as one of the most unique and engaging Star Wars comics.
If you’ve never delved into the world of Legends or if you simply haven’t dusted off your copy of “Dark Empire” in a while, I urge to consider revisiting these classic stories because you might be surprised at how relevant they still are.