Monday, December 01, 2014

Review: Star Wars: The Crimson Empire Saga

One of the most peculiar aspects of the Star Wars fictional universe is that it started so small—a single film, which grew into three films—before getting so big. That first trilogy of films spawned tens of thousands of pages of prose novels and comics extrapolated from the characters and settings in those few hours of film, long before another trilogy of films was produced, spawning still more novels and comics and other media extrapolations.

Whether because fan enthusiasm was so great for those films, or because George Lucas and its other gatekeepers were so generous with licensing and letting creators in other media play with the franchise, or those same gatekeepers were simply trying to squeeze every last drop of blood from Star Wars (if every character in a film gets an action figure, then they need names, and if they have names, stories are sure to follow), or, more likely, a combination of those various factors, the fact of the matter is that every character, creature and machine in those damn movies has a name and, more likely than not, a rather elaborate story that only grows in the telling; pull at any string, and you'll find exhaustive Wookipedia entries referring you to various rabbit holes you can disappear into.

I grew up with the films (I was born in 1977, and a good chunk of my childhood was spent playing with those action figures), though my enthusiasm tends to wax and wane pretty dramatically. I find the so-called "Expanded Universe" to be a daunting, even scary prospect; having a shape and size somewhat similar to the fictional universes I spend so much time in—the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe—but infinitely more rigorously detailed and defined, and spread through a half-dozen different kinds of media, rather than just comics.

The fact that every character, no matter how small, seems to have at least a cycle of novels devoted to him, her or it is one aspect of Star Wars that I find endearing...and prohibitvely complex, depending on my mood at the time.

The Crimson Empire Saga is a about as perfect an example as I can think of when it comes to a minor on-screen cameo yielding an epic of back story and continuation—or, in this case, a saga. It says so right in the title!

As far as I recall, The Emperor's Guards were just a bit of art direction in Return of The Jedi, a couple of guys in striking, plastic-looking red burqas that appeared flanking The Emperor in a scene or two, possibly even three. They stood out sharply from the white, gray and black of the Bad Guys, lending a flash of color to the scenes they decorated and, perhaps, visually reinforced that there was something special about The Emperor, something that made him a bigger deal than plain old Darth Vader.
Star Wars: The Crimson Empire Saga is a Bible-sized, 500+ page hardcover collecting a trilogy of miniseries following Kir Kanos, one of only two guardsman to survive the post-Return of the Jedi years, as he struggles against the only other guardsman to survive. In the connected miniseries—1997's Crimson Empire, 1998's Crimson Empire II: Council of Blood and 2011's Crimson Empire III: Empire Lost—writers Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley tell the whole history of the Guard, who they are, where they're from, how they're trained, what their weapons are (in the movie, they appeared to simply be a gray plastic sticks), how others feel about them, and so on.

I really enjoyed the book, which also includes a few completely forgettable short stories from various Dark Horse Star Wars anthologies, and found it to be compelling-bordering-on-addictive reading. Like time recently spent with the Dark Times omnibi, I had a hard time setting it down once I started reading.

I suppose it helped a lot that all three of the collected series were drawn by Paul Gulacy, an old pro with an extremely distinctive style that I've always been quite fond of, a style so unique it's difficult to impossible to mistake his work for that of anyone else. That made reading such long-form work on a licensed project like this especially interesting, as a reader gets the opportunity to see costumes, vehicles and character designs we've seen in film, and/or animation and/or in dozens of other comics by dozens of other artists as drawn by Gulacy. Not only do we get to see Paul Gulacy draw, say, stormtroopers and Darth Vander and The Emperor and a Hutt and so on, but, in the final of the three stories, we get to see his drawings of the likenesses of various actors (Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher).

Fine print on the title page reveals this takes place seven years after The Return of The Jedi, and, according to the crawl that Crimson Empire begins with, this story is apparently set sometime after a bunch of other important Expanded Universe events I'm not privy to. Apparently in the ruins of The Empire, the Good Guys still haven't taken over the galaxy and made it all cool again—would the Ewoks have danced so happily had they known that the climax of that movie wouldn't really solve all of the galaxy's problems?

The galaxy is currently ruled by a council, and there's a would-be Emperor actually pulling the strings, former Royal Guardsman Carnor Jax. He dresses in a modified version of the red vinyl burqa, all black with some red lining here and there; his face plate is a big, black opaque field of a visor, giving him a look of frozen non-emotion sorta like Vader's, but with even less in the way of human-like facial signifiers. He surrounds himself with his very own squad of stormtroopers, who look like the garden variety, save their armor is all-black instead of all-white with black highlights. It's a pretty damn cool look, really, and is appealing in the same way that drastic, temporary color variations in familiar superhero costumes are cool.
After brief reference to something or other—Luke Skywalker and another Jedi or two destroying Palpatine clones, killing or grievously wounding some of the red guardsmen in the process?—Kir Kanos and the remaining guard meet to plot the avenge their Emperor's death, but they are slaughtered.

Kanos is the last surviving member, aside from Jax, and takes it upon himself to kill the traitorous Jax, the council and Skywalker and the other Rebel Alliance leaders, finally avenging his master. Okay, bad-ass badguy bent on murdering the grand hero of the Star Wars franchise doesn't sound like the most appealing of possible leading men for 500 pages of Star Wars comics, but, in creating the character and crafting their stories, Stradley and Richardson open wide the spiggot of one of George Lucas' original sources of inspiration: The samurai film.
Kanos is here the ultimate faithful ronin. His master and all of his master's other soldiers have been killed, but he so fanatically values loyalty and the code to which he had devoted his life that he continues to fight on for his master, valuing that vengeance above all else, up to and including his own life—and, Kanos being a bad guy, the lives of pretty much anyone else who gets in his way.

In the first series, or the first third of this collection, the story could quite easily be reverse-engineered into a samurai comic, if you switched space ships for boats or castles, blasters for bows and arrows and Kanos' bladed stick thingee for a sword. A mysterious cloaked figure, we first meet him killing Imperial soldiers in a bar on a planet still under their control. He's taken in by rebel fighter Mirith Sinn, a buxom redhead that Gulacy seems to take great pleasure in costuming and posing as provacatively as possible.
Circumstances and machinations puts Kanos between the Empire and The Rebels, but the strong, silent tough guy's only loyalty is to his dead Emperor, and kills the hell out of The Imperials, almost ambivalent to Sinn, her cleavage and her forces.

As the plot moves forward, it also jumps back to Kanos and Jax in-training. Apparently, the Imperial Guard first dress like Power Rangers for a few years, mastering their pointy stick fighting. At one point, they receive a visit from Darth Vader and The Emperor.
As for final try-outs, well, I guess Christopher Nolan's Joker read Crimson Empire at some point...
It should come as no surprise that Kanos faces and defeats Jax at the end, although, in an interesting twist, he also kills Sinn's bestie (the lizard guy in the panel above), who wants Jax taken alive and pumped for information rather than simply executed, and so Sinn vows to one day kill Kanos.

So you just know those two are going to end up together.

Council of Blood features the same creative team, save inker P. Craig Russell has been replaced with Randy Emberlin.

The plotting is here much more complicated, the genre seems less samurai movie-motivated than a sort of elaborate crime comedy, as filtered through Star Wars. Kir Kanos has found a dumb-looking yellow Robocop visor and adopted a new persona as a bounty hunter, a good way of avoiding all the bounty hunters after him, and soon finds himself working for Grappa The Hutt, who looks just like Jabba, but has a skull tatoo on his head and bright blue eyes (Gulacy draws hella good Hutts). Grappa also speaks English (or "Common" or "Basic" or whatever they call it in Star Wars jargon), and he eventually becomes a pretty comical character. Yes, he's a mob boss who throws those who disappoint him into a cage full of monsters and all, but he gets increasingly lost in his own schemes and attempts to play various parties against one another.

Grappa The Hutt is not the protagonist of the story, but it's easy to imagine the black comedy the comics could have been if he was, and if they just cut out all the parts with Sinn and Kanos to focus instead on Grappa. He even pulls a Weekend At Bernies with the corpse of an officer of the Black Sun criminal organization when space-Skyping with others in the organization.

As for the titular council, these are apparently the political types that Jax was exerting control over. They're on-panel a lot in this story, and, when they start getting whacked one by one, they blame Jax, and appoint their most foolish and most expendable member to be in charge. He is aided by some mysterious, hooded, black figure with some kind of space magic—Nom Anor? The story never explains who he is, and he just sorta leaves at the end.

By that point, Kanos kills just about everyone who needs killing, he and Sinn share their first kiss, and then he rides off into the sunset flies an X-Wing fighter into space, claiming that despite their attraction, her heart belongs to the New Republic, and his allegiance to the Emperor.

The final story finds Gulacy inking himself and Michael Bartolo replacing Dave Stewart as colorist. Kanos basically completes his transition from villainous protagonist to anti-hero to just-plain-hero in this story, which heavily involves the most familiar characters in the franchise.

Kanos has been spending the past few years bounty hunting, saving up money for his revenge on Luke Skywalker and the other one-time rebel leaders, who are now the The Man (Han is a General or something in the space army, Luke is a Jedi Master training other Jedi and Leia is a government lady having boring meetings while raising her three little rascals). Meanwhile, Sinn has taken a job as Leia's head of security. Before Kanos can head to Coruscant, however, he's taken by Boba Fett to a secret base where there is a small but powerful Imperial remnant that, like Kanos, strive to serve the late Emperor...although while Kanos has been intent simply on killing those who killed The Emperor, these Imperials essentially seek to replace them. They are lead by another would-be Emperor (I guess all the Star Wars comics set after Return of The Jedi are about dudes seeking to replace Palpatine...?), this one a guy in black armor with a pretty generic sci-fi eye-patch.

They profess to want Kanos as a living symbol of the old, fallen Empire that they want to restore, but he's having none of it. Instead, he escapes and heads to warn Sinn and the New Republic, unwittingly falling for a trap set by the Imperials.

There's a lot of political intrigue and skullduggery in this one, but the same amount of fighting, with Stradley and Richardson giving Sinn and Kanos a happy, if open-ended, ending, implying that they will eventually be together, while making it quite clear that Kir Kanos has abandoned his service of the late Emperor, having killed a bunch of traitors and would-be replacement Emperors, and more-or-less being forced into allying himself with Luke, Leia and the New Republic by the simple fact that they aren't as horrible as all of their enemies are.

Taken altogether, it, rather remarkably, reads like a single novel, albeit a long one. Rather than a series of three series, The Crimson Empire Saga seems more a graphic novel in three acts.

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