Saturday, 12 August 2017

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad - A Look Back at Star Wars: Crimson Empire

This column normally takes a look at obscure comics. For every every sixth month, instead of taking a look at a comic that nobody talks about, this special edition will take a look at a comic I feel not enough people talk about.


Star Wars: Crimson Empire by Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley and Paul Gulacy – 1998 – 2012

Contains Massive Spoilers

What's cooler than the Emperor’s Imperial Guard?

Crimson Empire was a mid-nineties Star Wars Expanded Universe comic following the exploits of Kir Kanos, last of the Imperial Guard. It was followed by a sequel in 1999, Council of Blood and after nearly a decade and a half, finally concluded in 2012 with Empire Lost. Crimson Empire is an all time classic, and Council of Blood, in my opinion anyway, manages to outdo even that. Empire Lost? Not so much. I'm going to take a look back at all three books, talk about what makes the first two so great in the face of their weaknesses, and why Empire Lost failed to escape it's own.

But first, a little history.

Crimson Empire was a follow up to Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy's Dark Empire, one of Dark Horses' Star Wars mainstays at the time. Dark Empire was framed as the official continuation of the Skywalker saga, with a plot that saw the resurrection of the Emperor in a clone body, and Luke's flirtation with the Dark Side. It was well revived at the time, but fans clashed over Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which also framed itself as the official continuation of the Skywalker saga, albeit in a different way.

While Dark Empire and the Thrawn Trilogy don't directly contradict each other, and supposedly both slip into the EU time-line seamlessly, they do feel like they're from alternative universes. Dark Empire drew heavily from science-fantasy, with an anything-goes kind of attitude to the force that brought us talking trees and ancient tribes. Thrawn on the other hand was much more interested in the military aspect of the setting, exploring the politics of a post Return of the Jedi universe.

This was even reflected in the artwork, where Empire had a fantastical, almost concept-art inspired style to it, Thrawn's artwork was crisp and detailed, with every character, ship and blaster drawn like you were almost looking at stills from the films.

To put it bluntly, Dark Empire was interested in the Stars, and the Thrawn Trilogy more interested in the Wars.

I still prefer Dark Empire, but only by a very slim margin. In the end, it was Zahn's approach that won out, and the EU would embrace more detailed and coherent world-building instead of the kitchen sink approach, and do away with the more 'Space-fantasy' inspired aesthetics.

Out of this came Crimson Empire. While obstensively a follow up to Dark Empire, it has more in common with the Thrawn books. The artwork is crisp and brand loyal, and the story is concerned with the minutiae of the Imperial Guard's back-story.

And from this approach comes Crimson Empire's two most prominent characters, Kir Kanos and Mirith Sinn. Kanos is a gruff, brooding, reluctant anti-hero, Mirith is a smoking hot, red-headed femme-fatale with a dark past and a penchant for latex catsuits.

If you're a fan of the Star Wars EU, you'll probably notice those descriptions not only match that of Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade, but also a dozen other EU characters I could name. Despite feeling cool and expansive at the time, the Star Wars Expanded universe really suffered from a lot of it's writers having similar tastes, and as such is rotten with brooding badasses and sexy seductresses. Heck, if you only had a passing familiarity with the characters, you'd be mistaken for thinking that it is Mara Jade on the front cover of Council of Blood.

Now this didn't bother me at the time of course, but going by today standards it's easy to see Crimson Empire starting on the back-foot, with a bunch of character archetypes that are far too common even now. That Crimson Empire is still a classic, though, is because it shines through in spite of these limitations.

Crimson Empire's story is a fairly straightforward one, Carnor Jax, one of the Empire's last Imperial Guard, has manipulated his way to the throne by conspiring against the clone Emperor and killing off his compatriots. He didn't reckon, however, on his old sparring buddy Kir Kanos surviving. So Kanos teams up with the rebels in an 'enemy-of-my-enemy' alliance to finally bring Jax to justice.

It's a standard revenge plot used to info-dump some back-story about the Imperial Guard through flashback. Nothing particularly complex or new. Ultimately, it's safe to say that Crimson Empire has more style than substance.

But what style it has. From Jax's dark-lord design, to General Antilles Super Star Destroyer emblazoned with Rebel Alliance sigils, to the Emperor being overly polite to his prospective trainees while Vader berates them in a wonderful good-cop/bad-cop routine, to Jax and Kanos' final, issue-long duel, and Dave Dorman's amazing, amazing covers, there isn't a moment when pure style isn't just bleeding out of the page.

Stradely's artwork is just incredible, where even just a close up on some leather gloves can become visceral and vivid. If it wasn't for some incredibly unfortunate moments with Sinn's boobs I'd say the book had some of the best artwork of all time.

With a grim and uncompromising ending, Crimson Empire may not be the most original of stories, but the writing and artwork have such style that it burns itself into your memory like the burning Empire sigil on the cover. It's a book as cool and badass as the legendary Imperial Guard long deserved.

Of course there was no way a story as badass and memorable as Crimson Empire wouldn't be commissioned for a sequel. While Jax had been brought to justice, his conspirators on the Imperial Council still lived, and it would be up to Kanos to track them down and bring them to justice too.

It would have been easy for Council of Blood to simply repeat the revenge plot of Crimson Empire, but Richardson and Stradley had more loftier ambitions in mind. Council of Blood instead focuses more on showing us an Empire in decline, with the major villains of the Star Wars films now long gone and the rest slowly being undone by backstabbing and bureaucracy.

The whole experience has a great feeling to it. The Imperial's situation is reminiscent of a receding Eastern Roman Empire slowly becoming Byzantium. The story is chock full of characters with ulterior motives and goals, including the self appointed 'Emperor' Xandel Carivus, sleazy Hutt Grappa, the sympathetic ally Baron D'Asta and the first appearance of Nom Anor, herald of the Yuuzhan Vong.

Despite the story having a sharp focus along a closely nit series of plot-lines, the Star Wars world has never felt bigger, drawing inspiration from both the same hard science-fiction and pulp fantasies that the original films did. The Vong's presence here is particularity interesting, since Anor's intentions are never revealed within the comic itself, surrounding the character with an air of mystery and dread.

With this expanded focus, Council of Blood brings with it the depth that Crimson Empire lacked. The titular council is made up of believable and well rounded individuals with their own goals and motivations on display. Plus there are a lot of cool little details in how it serves as a companion piece to Crimson Empire, like how in the original Carnor Jax's elite guard were simply black armoured stormtroopers, exposing Jax's arrogance and pride at being that last of the 'true' Imperial Guard. Come Council of Blood, the fact that Carivus' own men do wear the red of the Imperial Guard slyly hints at his attempts to subvert the Imperial pecking order.

But if you thought that all these wider themes would mean that style would take a back seat you'd be sorely mistaken. This really shines through when it comes to the characters. Grappa is spiteful, petty and melodramatic in ways Jabba never was, and his Zanibar allies feel genuinely fucked-up frightening. Gulacy's art is even better this time around, and the space battles and combat really sing with intensity. It's everything you could possible want in a Star Wars comic and it fits nicely into six solid issues.

You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned either Kanos or Sinn in my praises for Council of Blood, and that's mainly due to the story being more of an ensemble piece. This is no bad thing though, Kanos and Sinn spend most of the plot being manipulated into place by other characters, and Kanos is at his best when he's just getting out his blade and cutting folks up as his bounty hunter alter-ego Kenix Kil.

Council of Blood wraps up nicely, if less spectacularly than Crimson Empire with Kanos flying off into the stars, still loyal to the dead Emperor. It would be a bittersweet and fine ending for most stories, but seeds were sown for a third in the trilogy, and the EU's tendency to reference and interconnect everything leaves the story in an odd place, with no mention of Kanos in the EU after his vow to kill Luke Skywalker.

I suspect Richardson and Stradley asked writers to hold off using Kanos in other stories, with the intent of concluding his story on their own terms. Kanos would show up, however, in a couple of short comics, though I've only read one, which deals with Kanos' time as a bounty hunter, and it doesn't really add anything to the main canon of the trilogy.

So Kanos would hang around in continuity limbo until 2012, and I was ecstatic to find out we'd get to see the end of his journey in Empire Lost. The hype only increased when I looked at the back of the book and saw what appeared to be him tussling with New Republic versions of the Senate Guard from the Prequel Trilogy.

“Cool,” I thought, “It looks like Kanos is going to be doing battle with his metaphorical successors. That's interesting, resonant and a symbolic way to round off the trilogy.”

As it turns out, these guys never actually show up in the comic.

The moment you open the book something just feels... off. Gulacy's art, once the shining star of the series, looks awful here. I'm not sure if the problem is Gulacy doing his own inks this time around or if Michael Bartolo's digital colours are a bad fit for his style, but the whole thing is a mess. The characters look wooden, stiff and uncanny. There are some seriously questionable panel compositions that look melodramatic and comical, but overall the art is just bad, bad, bad.

The disappointments wouldn't stop there though, because the problems of the 90's era EU would finally be coming home to roost.

A few pages in we're finally reunited with Kanos, who looks more like Commander Shepard from Mass Effect here, and this only cements my lack of enthusiasm.

See, I could go on an extremely long rant about how the default male option from a sci-fi RPG saga represents everything wrong with the diversity of character we have in storytelling today, but it'd take me too long. So let me put it like this:

When I started reading Empire Lost, I expected seeing Kanos again would be like coming home to an old friend. Like slipping on a comfortable old jacket. But after years of characters like John Shepard, Marcus Fenix, Kyle Katarn, Alex Mason, Christian Walker, latter day John McClain, Bill Roenick and many, many other gruff, brooding white guys, Kanos just didn't hold any appeal for me any more. It's like going back to the old café you used to get breakfasts from as a kid and realising that the breakfasts don't taste all that different from the millions you've eaten at Denny's.

This wouldn't be too bad if Empire Lost handled Kanos like Council of Blood did, but this is the character's swan song, so it's got to give an emotionally satisfying ending to what feels more like a collection of tropes in armour than an actual character.

Empire Lost's biggest problem of all is the weird intersection it sits between the original Star Wars Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, the 90's EU and the 00's EU, all of which have their own themes and aesthetics that struggle against each other.

This is most prominently seen in the use of Luke, Leia and Han. In Crimson Empire and Council of Blood, the Skywalker clan never appear, spoken only of in hushed whispers. This gave them a mythical sort of status that loomed large over Kanos' street-level adventures. Seeing Kanos and Sinn interact face to face with Luke and Leia just kind of feels at odds with the story Crimson Empire wants to tell. Mirith Sinn dressed in a leather fetish catsuit standing next to Carrie Fisher as classic Leia can't really get any weirder.

There's loads of other issues like this. Prolonged foreshadowing to the New Jedi Order series sits awkwardly in the plot. Boba Fett shows up to confront Kanos, which should have led to an awesome showdown, but instead only serves as a pointless cameo. Having a rogue Imperial fleet using Prequel-Era ships sounds like a cool idea, but seems to serve no more purpose than the Fett cameo. Finally, all references to the Dark Empire series have been dropped in favour of nods to the Thrawn saga instead.

All this clutter leads to Empire Lost lacking an identity of its own, when it's preceding books both had a strong unity of vision. It's a shame too, because Empire Lost is filled with good ideas. The main villain, Devin was a former assassin for the Emperor, and his back-story is a mirror to Kanos'. However, Devin is just kind of pulled out of nowhere with little foreshadowing, and fails to serve as the 'Evil Kanos' that the plot needs him to be.

Still, there are moments where that familiar style still shines through. The first panel we see Kanos back in full regalia sent a shiver down my spine, and the final battle between the classic Imperials and Devin's prequel-era splinter group is a great thing to behold. Another nice detail I like is Han and Leia's war weariness and their optimistic relief that an end to the conflict is finally in sight. This is kind of sad in light of where the Star Wars galaxy was to go after the story's conclusion.

Even so, the whole book fails as a satisfying ending for Kanos. The original Crimson Empire was framed as a tragedy. A story of a good man bound by a code of honour that drives him to acts of violence in the name of an evil regime. If ever there was to be a fitting end to Kanos' tale, it should have been his own death, by his own hand, or in a final misguided confrontation with Luke.

Instead, we get Kanos' redemption. Now don't get me wrong, I would still have been happy with Kanos turning from the Emperor and renouncing his original vows if it was written well, but in Empire Lost this all happens far too quickly and easily. Where the previous books hinted at Kanos' doubts, he still had a ways to go at the end of Council of Blood. Here though? It just takes one conversation with Devin for Kanos to throw down his arms and turn to the New Republic. It doesn't feel earned, and smacks more of a reluctance to tell a more daring tale.

In the end, Empire Lost just sleepwalks along to a conclusion. While it is interesting to see the Republic win the battle that finally closes the book on Palpatine's Empire, it could have been so much more solid than this. The demands of Empire Lost to serve as a satisfying conclusion were much higher than that of both Crimson Empire and Council of Blood, and it misses the mark horribly. I can't even say that the art saves it.

I don't know if I'd have been happier without Empire Lost. On the one hand it's nice to finally find out just what happened to Kir Kanos and Mirith Sinn, but soon enough the new mandate from Disney hitting the continuity reboot button would render that little titbit mostly irrelevant anyway.

Still, in the words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad. The entire Crimson Empire saga has been re-released by Marvel now, and it's well worth the entire package. So what if Empire Lost is a disappointing ending? Crimson Empire and Council of Blood still stand up well today, and that's worth any trade off in my opinion.

Crimson Empire is a mixed bag in every respect, but the good outweighs the negatives so much that I still think they're some of the best Star Wars comics ever written. Maybe one day we'll see a retelling of the saga in the new Marvel continuity (now there's an idea to play around with), but until then, if you want to see a gripping tale where the legendary Imperial Guard are rendered as power-armoured space-ninjas, then Crimson Empire's got your back.


Jack Harvey 2017. Star Wars: Crimson Empire is (c) Disney/Marvel/Dark Horse where appropriate. Images used under fair use.