Agent of the Empire: The Iron Eclipse
Agent of the Empire: The Iron Eclipse is a five part miniseries released in late 2011-early 2012. Note that the trade paperback doesn't come out until later this year (Oct. 24th) and I am simply reviewing the five individual issues as a collective arc.
Agent of the Empire: The Iron Eclipse is the first arc in a new series detailing the adventures of Imperial Agent Jahan Cross and his undercover missions in service of the Empire. An eclectic mix of James Bond and more conventional Star Wars themes, Agent of the Empire is a refreshing, fun miniseries that acts as a nice alternative to the Jedi/Sith wars and force sensitive centric action that Dark Horse has been keen to produce lately.
The most crucial way that Iron Eclipse pays homage to the James Bond franchise is in the plot structure. We are treated to an introductory mission, a briefing, gadget scene, sophisticated ball room schmoozing, romancing, several chase scenes, monologue prone villains, and an explosive finale in a fashion extremely similar to the Bond works. The similar aspects work well because they tell a fantastic story well within the realm of the Star Wars universe, and because the familiar format is such a readily usable structure. As a result of this, the book is a fantastic mix of action and quieter plot advancing/character driven moments that manage to strike a sensible balance early on and maintain that momentum for the entire arc. The central mystery, Jahan's investigations into the Stark family and their relations to the Iron Eclipse, is nicely constructed and contains the requisite dysfunctional family, twists and turns, and large scale threats that Jahan must find a way to stop.
Cross is a completely original character given a strong introduction in this arc. He is a no nonsense kind of character with the combat acumen expected of Star Wars heroes with a more suave side to boot. In many ways, he is the antithesis of Han, which makes their collusion in this series all the more entertaining. Wholly committed to truth, justice, and the Imperial way, Jahan is a compelling character because he genuinely feels he is doing the right thing, and his actions in this comic are no better or worse than any rebel protagonist we have had over the years. In a flashback sequence we learn of the motivations behind Jahan's utter aversion to chaos and disorder, and ultimately he goes a long way towards humanizing the soldiers fighting for the Empire.
We also meet a young Han and Chewie that play an essential support role for most of the comic. The two are in perfect form here, bantering and bargaining in much the same way as they did in the movies and fantastic Han Solo trilogies. Unfortunately outside of this cameo the rest of the cast is a bit on the boring side. The "Bond Girl," Elli Stark, is a completely straightforward character, the only one in her entire family, while Jahan's initial companion, droid death machine IN-GA 44, is an intriguing character that gets far too little face time. The antagonist suffers from being downright bizarre and, when all is said and done, pitifully non threatening and quite stereotypical. Outside of Jahan, my favorite original character was a Nikto police sergeant named Myrsk. Myrsk plays an important support role early on, complete with his own story arc, but vanishes for the climax of the story.
Artwork in The Iron Eclipse is absorbing and highly effective. Hands down the best element is the great use of facial expressions. The renderings aren't exactly realistic, but they go a long way towards bringing the characters to life, Han in particular gets one of his best treatments in the comics as the artists manage to capture his more youthful side without betraying the cautious and seasoned nature so essential to the character. Jahan benefits from a similarly skilled rendition, with a sort of aristocratic elegance mixed with the more conventional hard edged soldier. Everyone else looks good too, as eye candy if nothing else. The art is a bit disjointed due to a different penciller at work in the third issue, but it pales in comparison to the drastic transitions seen in past Star Wars comics, and the issue manages to hold up well regardless.
Another thing I enjoyed was the use of single color backgrounds for some of the more emotionally charged panels. Many of the action sequences feature one tone backgrounds which do a great job of keeping things focused on the task at hand, add to the excitement in the scene, and give the book a more retro feel. When more realistic backgrounds are used, they are at least on par with the usual fare, though nothing really outstanding happens with landscape shots or the little background details that can sometimes so spectacularly bring a comic to life.
With little in the way of flaws besides a surprisingly flat cast of original characters, Agent of the Empire is a pitch perfect homage to the James Bond films. Protagonist Jahan Cross is a wonderful addition to the Star Wars universe, and Han and Chewie are characterized and utilized smartly. Featuring gorgeous artwork and a strong story with plenty of mysterious elements, there is little reason not to give Agent of the Empire a look.