Dark Empire I
Dark Empire is the first Star Wars comic released by Dark Horse. It was released as a six part bi-monthly series from 1991-1992, and was collected in a trade paperback on May 1, 1993.
Dark Empire I is one of the most controversial, divisive, and important works in the Star Wars universe. Set roughly six years after Episode VI, Dark Empire is the story of Palpatine's return, and Luke's brush with the dark side. Also prominently featured are Leia's developing Jedi powers, and the World Devastators, powerful super weapons that are among the more interesting in Star Wars lore.
The main premise, Palpatine's resurrection, is somewhat trite, but also highly entertaining. His return enables Luke's character to develop in a previously unimagined way, and presents a more formidable foe than some random Imperial warlord. The authors do not waste this opportunity, and Palpatine is extremely well written throughout the book. The diabolical, scheming genius behind the Clone Wars and destruction of the Jedi is in full force here, and he presents a worthy adversary that allows one to overlook the overused plot device of cloning.
Much of the theory behind the premise has been decimated by more recent entries in Star Wars lore, however. For example, Palpatine claims he has died many times over the years, only to be reborn ("It was not the first time I died...nor will it be the last!"). This is a bit hard to swallow considering he only reigned as Emperor for about twenty five years, and was no more than eighty five years old at the time of his death. Also, according to both The Force Unleashed II and the Thrawn Trilogy, cloning force sensitives is supposed to be highly risky, with a tendency to create insane clones. Overall though, if you can get past the questionable explanation, the story itself is actually quite rewarding.
Leia's developing force powers are another important development here, and it works quite nicely with two exceptions. Firstly, she gets a lightsaber from a random stranger that shows up for one page, then isn't seen for the rest of the book. Secondly, she steals a holocron from Palpatine's lair that spews out one of the most laughable prophecies ever:
"...A brother and sister born to walk the sky/But reckless brother falls-into dark side's eye!/Jedi sister carries hope for future in her womb/Only SHE can save the Skywalkers from certain doom!/A Jedi-killer wants to tame her/Now the Dark Side lord comes to claim her/She must battle join against this thief/Or the dynasty of ALL the Jedi will come to grief."
This silly, young-adult level prophecy wasn't really necessary, and drags her otherwise excellent character development down, as it takes this nonsense to spur her to action for the final conflict.
Another minor sub plot concerns Boba Fett's return and continued pursuit of Han and Leia. This aspect starts off strong, with a great chase scene through the grimy streets of Nar Shaddaa, but ends in ridiculous fashion as Boba and Dengar are repelled by a planetary shield over the world of Byss. Needless to say, this resolution is more than somewhat anti-climactic, and makes Boba Fett look like a bumbling idiot.
The World Devastators are also very interesting components of this graphic novel. They serve as the catalyst for some phenomenal space battles and action scenes that really propel this book. The World Devastators also allow side characters like Lando and R2 to play a significant role in the story, making it feel like a more complete Star Wars tale.
As for characterization, it is almost exclusively good. Han is pitch perfect, as are the droids. Leia is good, even with the disappointing developments in her plot, and the Emperor is amazing as well. Luke is good, but his rationale for embracing the dark side is sketchy, and I find it hard to believe that he would willingly follow in the footsteps of his father, even if he thought he could resist the dark side's temptations. He isn't the focal point of the story, and his battle with the dark side goes on mostly offscreen. I still liked his character for the self sacrifice and compassion that he displays throughout the novel, but he probably could've been handled better.
The artwork in Dark Empire is unlike that of any other Star Wars comic I've read, and greatly enhances the characters and story.
Firstly, Dark Empire incorporates some new ships and designs, most of which are wonderful additions to the Star Wars universe. Chief among them is the World Devastators. These powerful superweapons harvest anything they can find, including enemy ships, and use them to produce robotic TIE fighters from their built in foundries. They look fantastic as well, somewhat resembling a headless, enormous AT-AT. They are executed in the classic Imperial style, and their design greatly adds to the menace presented by this sub-plot. Also new in this book are two Rebel ship designs: The E and V wings. E-wings closely resemble X-wings (see laser cannon design, astromech placement, and nose), but they possess enough distinguishing characteristics to be a solid addition to the New Republic arsenal. Also new for the Rebellion is the V-wing. These airspeeders look like a souped up version of the T-47 featured prominently in Empire Strikes Back. Though they didn't catch on like the E-wing, they are still a solid concept that fits the Alliance designs perfectly.
There are only a few misfires where design is concerned. Firstly, holograms and video feeds look extremely weird, and don't resemble future interpretations in the slightest. They feel much too organic for my tastes. Secondly, Boba Fett's new ship looked awful, and extremely generic. The enormous probe droids that can easily store ships the size of the Falcon are also a strange concept that I didn't care for.
As for the actual execution, the one color style prevalent throughout the book is daring, but mostly effective. This monochromatic color scheme does a great job of establishing an atmosphere on planets like Nar Shaddaa, where the slimy greens and browns do a great job of bringing the seedy element of the environment to life. By contrast, the blues and whites seen in Palpatine's sanctuary on Byss convey a more sterile, military environment. Other great aspects of the artwork are the haunted look in Luke's eyes early on, and the great looking space battles, and the duels between Luke and the Emperor. Lightsabers look great in this novel, even if they are somewhat devoid of color.
It doesn't do wonders for most facial expressions, however, and Leia's constantly vapid expression was definitely a drawback to this style. One of the original characters, Shug Ninx, also has some strange spots on his face that are never really explained, and he looks somewhat ridiculous because of it. The cloned emperor also looks extremely bizarre at first, with strange splotches all over his body. Overall though, the artwork is fantastic, but probably not for everyone. It isn't the typical Star Wars fare, but it does a great job regardless.
An illogical, but fun adventure, Dark Empire has everything you could ask for in a Star Wars work. Great characterization, battles, and an interesting, unique art design make this one of the better Star Wars comics.