This is going to sound like something someone’s parents would say; but when I was a kid, you had to go to the comic book store to get your Star Wars fix. Other than some bonkers Marvel back issues, and the hot-off-the-press Zahn novels, in 1991, there was no new Star Wars other than this creepy, nearly gothed-out comic series called Dark Empire. If there ever was a piece of tie-in media that deserved to be promoted with the line “Not your daddy’s Star Wars,” it was Dark Empire. More like a Trainspotting-in-space than A New Hope, here’s how this whole shadowy green and purple-colored comic impacted Star Wars.
In the omnibus edition collecting the first six issues of the original run of Dark Empire there’s an introduction from Kevin J. Anderson where the novelist complains a little bit about all the problems Dark Empire was creating for his Jedi Academy trilogy of novels. In terms of the expanded universe chronology Dark Empire I falls right in between the Zahn novel trilogy and the Anderson novel trilogy, but this sandwiching is neither neat nor tidy. Because the Zahn books were still coming out, Mara Jade is conspicuously absent, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is never mentioned.
Further, Dark Empire writer Tom Veitch doesn’t seem too down with the whole notion of the New Republic or space politics in his comic, and so, thanks to an aggressive but unfocused Empire, he quickly establishes that the New Republic transformed back into the Rebel Alliance “overnight.” This retroactively allows the old school Star Wars folks to be back in their familiar gritty roles, made even grittier by the incredibly stylized shadowy interior art. Cam Kennedy’s super weird style creates an alternate version of Star Wars where Luke’s hair is occasionally spikey, all blasters shoot blue, and the blades of lightsabers are more like flames than focused lasers. The somewhat generic story of all the Dark Empire installments is mostly saved or at least obscured by the overpowering aesthetic of this interior art. Like it our hate it, this art was the comic.
Briefly, the first series concerns the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine as a clone of himself, revealing Palps has the ability to transfer his soul/essence/whatever into each clone, thus allowing him to live forever. It’s notable here that Star Wars went totally clone-crazy in the 90’s, a trend that continued into the prequel films. In fact, it’s possible the only truly hard sci-fi concept pervading all of Star Wars is the concept of cloning, even though it’s only explored in a logistical way, rather than in an ethical way. (Cloning is a convenient plot device in Star Wars, rather than a meditation on the nature of humanity. Robots in Star Wars are treated much the same way, which might be the ultimate proof that Star Wars is not science fiction.)
Dark Empire effectively reboots Star Wars back into being a story where the Rebels fight the Empire, again personified by The Emperor. This time around he’s got something we’re supposed to believe is more powerful than the Death Star: giant space vacuum cleaners called World Devastators. (Yes, even in the face of Spaceballs’ Mega-maid, real Star Wars had its own version of planet-suckers.) The conceit behind the world devastators is that they suck up all the technology and stuff on the planet and then convert it into awesome stuff they can use. Whether you really believe these things are a threat isn’t really the point, because the original Dark Empire is actually all about Luke Skywalker’s struggle to not turn to the dark side of the Force.
In a truly baffling move, Luke decides to pretend to turn to the dark side in order to “learn its secrets.” Ultimately this only results in Luke spying for the Rebels and then getting hooked on the dark side like it’s a narcotic. Luke is even drawn with hollowed red eyes and yellowish-looking skin to make sure we all get the message: KIDS! JUST SAY NO TO THE DARK SIDE OF THE FORCE! Though I’m kidding around a little here, it does feel like Luke has infiltrated a drug-ring and accidentally started sampling the product. And true to the tone of an afterschool special, only a member of the main character’s family—Leia in this case—can bring Luke back from the edge. The Emperor is heavy on reminding Luke about the “sickness” of Darth Vader, implying, like other addictions, that Luke’s heredity makes him predisposed to being hooked on the dark side of the Force; that it’s simply unavoidable. Although these themes originally emerged in Return of the Jedi, here they are given a dark and more compelling twist. When the Emperor insults Vader posthumously, it is keenly felt and briefly renders the Skywalkers as a family of broken-down addicts, struggling for the light.
I was chilled by the cover to the final issue, which depicts Leia heading into the heart of the Emperor’s ship in order to convince Luke to return. Unlike the moody Cam Kennedy interior art, the covers of the original Dark Empire were these wonderful movie-poster-esque pieces rendered awesomely by Dave Dorman. And while they may not have captured the mood of Dark Empire in the same way as the interiors, these covers all rocked, looked like Star Wars, and accurately depicted the events contained within each issue. And while my nostalgia glasses might be on a little too firmly here, it felt like there was something truly special about these Star Wars comics.
I don’t have much to say about the two subsequent sequels to Dark Empire—Dark Empire II and Empire’s End—other than I feel like they either tried too hard, or didn’t try hard enough. Dark Empire II mostly concerns the machinations of Luke and his new band of punked-out Jedi, who we have a hard time caring about. And while Anakin Solo is finally born at the end of this series, none of the main Star Wars characters are put in enough peril for the reader to really invest. Empire’s End then is a kind of mash-up of Dark Empire I and II, with the last cloned Emperor back again and a new weapon, which is really just called the “Galaxy Gun.” Notably, Empire’s End does not have interior art from Cam Kennedy, making its existence in this gloomy version of Star Wars dubious. While I have nothing against the attempt to do more with the kind of storytelling aesthetic mashed with creepy art, neither Dark Empire II or Empire’s End do much for me. By 1997, there were suddenly tons of Star Wars comics, rendering Dark Empire a strange ancestor, suddenly no longer relevant in the face of so many different, and albeit, more conventional titles.
But with its big themes about addiction, and an almost blatant reimagining of the Star Wars universe’s atheistic, the original run of Dark Empire will always remain a unique and elegant comic, for a possibly more civilized age.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.