I have a special emotional attachment to the comic book mini-series Shadows of the Empire. Issue #4 sports a beautifully painted Hugh Fleming cover featuring Leia and Chewie in their bounty hunter disguises but it ALSO contains, in the editorial section, a letter from a young fan complaining about stuff that happened in issue #1. This young fan felt like Rogue Squadron’s dialogue was “forced and unrealistic,” and his name was Ryan Britt. (The Dark Horse people were nice enough to publish my letter, and I’ve forever believed the improved dialogue in the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron series must have been a direct result of my complaining.)
But listen. The comic version of Shadows of the Empire was a town of space-crazy, populated by characters with insane names. What? You don’t remember Big Gizz? Let’s remember together.
Any Star Wars fan alive in the 1990s will remember the long con that was Shadows of the Empire. It had a soundtrack, it had toys, it had an infamous N64 video game, a novel, and of course, a comic book mini-series. And yet, there was no film. So what was the long con you ask? Clearly, it was all a pretense to allow George Lucas to insert Dash Render’s Outrider into the special edition of A New Hope a year later. Right?
Actually, as a marketing tool to ramp up the fanbase about forthcoming Star Wars projects, Shadows of the Empire worked big time. Set in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Shadows could play with the familar while also making up random shit left and right. This was also an unintentional harbinger of the revisionism which would rock the galaxy far, far away through the special editions and on into the prequels. Here was a piece of multi-media asserting new characters and events into the Star Wars mythos and then acting like they’ve always been there. Remember Dash Rendar? He’s your favorite! And it doesn’t end with Dash Rendar, you’ve also got Spiker, Jix, Furlag and…Big Gizz!
Unlike the Steve Perry novel, the comic book series focuses more on the criminal underworld aspects of Shadows of the Empire, with the aforementioned gang-of-guys-with-ridiculous-monikers frequently getting in on the action. Big Gizz’s gang is primarily working for Jabba the Hutt/Black Sun and is on a mission to get rid of Luke Skywalker. Jix on the other hand is working for Darth Vader and has infiltrated the Big Gizz swoop-bike gang in an effort to get rid of Xizor and to protect Luke. (Read that sentence out loud to yourself. I’ll wait.) Most of this stuff is fairly uninteresting, but the comic book does give us the first depicted chase through Beggar’s Canyon. (Not counting the 1981 radio drama depicting Luke racing through the stone needle with Biggs. It’s weird to think that Beggar’s Canyon has never been depicted in any of the Star Wars films.)
But the real focus of the Shadows of the Empire comic books is keeping up with what is going on with Boba Fett. Not surprisingly, all the other bounty hunters are trying to screw Boba Fett over really hard in order to get their hands on the carbonite-encased body of Han Solo.
This culminates in a sequence in which Boba Fett is a prisoner on his own ship, complete with scummy lesser-bounty hunters taunting him. This leads to Air Force One meets Die Hard shenanigans, with Boba Fett showing these chumps that no one knows his ship better than him. Famously, Boba Fett kind of kills IG-88 early on in the series, which is totally contradicted by both the video game (you kill him!) and tons of subsequent stories/novels/and comic books. The action in this series is nice, and of the various Boba Fett-centric Star Wars stuff, it’s some of the best. Having Boba Fett half-talk to himself/half-talk to the frozen Han Solo is pretty great and a nice little insight into Boba Fett being more than just a faceless killer. He’s got thoughts and opinions about stuff!
The “famous” seduction of Princess Leia at the hands of crime lord Xizor is dealt with a little bit in these pages, but most of it comes across a little more believably in the book. Xizor, in many ways, represents the problem with the majority of the Shadows of the Empire characters: we have no idea how to pronounce his name, he doesn’t have a cool outfit and we don’t know what he does. From the perspective of sheer little-kid appeal a new Star Wars character needs to do something, otherwise what the hell kind of action figure can you make out of them? Look kids, it’s Prince Xizor, with crime-world manipulating and creepy sexual pheromone powers! This, among other things, make Xizor an inherently lame antagonist. Meanwhile, everyone from Jix to Bigg Gizz have a believability on par with Griff’s gang of hover board baddies from Back to the Future II.
And yet, there’s great moments here. Watching Luke slowly get better at being a totally legit Jedi is still as heartwarming to me today as it was when I read these comics as a kid. Plus, if you ever wondered about the many Bothans dying to bring the Rebels the Death Star plans, you get to see it! And it’s sad!
Further, though I find Dash Rendar’s faux-Han Solo routine to be annoying, he’s not the worst character in the Star Wars universe, and his existence in all the various forms of Shadows media is pretty consistent. I always found the Beggar’s Canyon level in the video game to be more exciting because I’d read the comic. Or maybe it’s vice versa. In any case, despite some of it’s inherent lameness (seriously say “Sheezor” out loud and try to take yourself seriously) Shadows of the Empire did manage to achieve it’s goal of feeling like it was real Star Wars without releasing a film.
And though what came later might have been less nuanced, and more ridiculous, for me, these comics represented the last time of Star Wars tie-in innocence before the new wave of marketing kicked into hyperdrive. Because even if parts of it were silly (again Big Gizz) it seemed like these writers and artists were having a lot of fun. And they were doing it without the aid of anyone “bombad.”
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.