Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
It’s well-known by now that when Disney announced a new age of Star Wars stories, much of the established expanded universe went out the window. Whether you agreed, disagreed or were indifferent to the decision, it’s been done and there’s nothing that can change it. However, it did pave the way for a fresh start with a whole host of new canon capers to pad out the space between the movies.
I’ve recently been playing catch-up with all of the works published within this rebooted EU, which hasn’t been too hard given that’s it’s nowhere near as convoluted as the continuity that came before it. There’s a handful of novels that so far seem to have met with varying degrees of success, but where Star Wars is really excelling away from the screen at the moment is on the pages of Marvel comics.
A number of titles have been put out under the franchise’s banner and almost all of them are well written, slotting in seamlessly next to both each other and the movies. So in this first of a few articles examining the new continuity, I’m going to review the comic collections that have already hit shelves. This may mean there’ll be mild spoilers for some of the stories.
The best way to structure the discussion is probably to analyse each of the titles in their chronological order. That puts the four part tale Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir at the forefront, which was actually a Dark Horse publication. I’m not going to dwell too long on this one because it’s really more of a love letter to fans of The Clone Wars TV series than it is a companion to Disney’s new endeavours. However, it is considered canonical, so let’s have a look.
For anyone unaware, The Clone Wars brought Maul back from the bowels of Naboo and let him loose in the galaxy to accumulate a criminal empire that served as something of a wild card in the conflict between the Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems. Often acting as a thorn in the sides of both, he was eventually subdued and taken prisoner by his former master, Darth Sidious. This left his fate up in the air when the show finished.
So Son of Dathomir picks up from there and revolves around Palpatine manipulating his one time apprentice in an attempt to destroy Mother Talzin – the woman from whom he took Maul in the first place. She is the leader of the Nightsisters; an order of mystical Dathomirian witches that Sidious has long perceived to be a potential threat to his ascendancy.
It’s an enjoyable read in which all of the major villains of the prequel trilogy come into play, including Dooku and Grievous. It even features a supporting stint from Obi-Wan. That being said, it does have one glaring issue, which doesn’t come from the way it’s written, but rather from its lack of any real resolution. Maul’s fate is left open ended again, so fans are still left contemplating how he met his ultimate end. While this doesn’t detract from the comic’s success on a structural basis, it does leave it feeling like a missed opportunity.
The next narrative chronologically is Marvel’s Kanan: The Last Padawan. While the protagonist of this particular series is Kanan Jarrus from Star Wars: Rebels, it is an extremely compelling comic that can be appreciated by anyone, even if they haven’t seen a single episode of the show. Looking at it from a standalone viewpoint, it’s a fascinating insight into the aftermath of Order 66 for a Jedi who wasn’t involved in the Skywalker saga. We all know what happened to Obi-Wan and Yoda, but what about those Jedi who may have eluded assassination out on the fringe? That’s where this tale comes in.
The first six issues are essentially an origin story that details how young Jedi-in-training Caleb Dume had to adapt and evolve in order to survive in the immediate aftermath of the Empire’s rise. It’s an intriguing account of how he is forced to abandon all he knows and forsake the Force so he can continue to confound the clonetroopers who were meant to murder him.
Adopting the name Kanan Jarrus, the teenager takes us through all corners of the Star Wars universe, from the Jedi to the Empire to piracy, and gives readers a whole lot of adventure to eat up in the process. The second arc, First Blood, – which is currently ongoing – flashes back to when Kanan was chosen to be the padawan of Depa Billaba and is shaping up to be just as enthralling as the first.
For those who are familiar with Rebels, this also adds a completely new dimension to the character seen on-screen. In many ways, Kanan acts as an Obi-Wan type figure to the young Ezra on the show as the latter starts to discover his affinity with the Force. However, this comic does away with that perception by reminding readers that Kanan was barely a padawan himself during the Jedi purge. It rounds the character out extremely well and serves as a great companion to the novel, A New Dawn, which I’ll discuss in a later article. All in all though, the Kanan comics are accessible and entertaining and definitely don’t require knowledge of Rebels to be appreciated.
From here, we flash forward to the very end of A New Hope, which is where the Princess Leia one-shot series starts. This fun five parter addresses an issue that the first film more or less sidestepped; the fallout from the destruction of Alderaan and Leia’s emotions surrounding it. The narrative focuses on the fact that she didn’t seem fazed by the matter in the movie by teaming her up with Alderaanian rebel pilot Evaan Verlaine, who perceives the princess to be cold and uncaring.
Together, they embark on a quest to unite refugees of their homeworld who are scattered across the galaxy. It does a good job of exploring the guilt and anguish that Leia bears about the loss of her planet and the obligation that she feels to what’s left of her people as the sole surviving member of the royal family. It also features a fascinating scene on Naboo that hints at Leia’s latent Force abilities when she encounters a portrait of a monarch who, unbeknownst to her, was her birth mother.
The Chewbacca one-shot series takes place in and around the same time as this and while it still has two issues to go, unfortunately it doesn’t add much to either the character or the wider mythology of the movies. It sees the Wookiee separated from the fold and, given the fact that he doesn’t speak “Basic”, it’s very much reliant on unknown supporting players who don’t make much of an impact.
The Lando one-shot, on the other hand, is an entertaining throwaway tale about a misadventure that he and Lobot had some time before they came to Cloud City. It becomes especially interesting when it’s revealed that their seemingly insignificant actions have attracted the attention of the Emperor himself. It captures Lando’s slick sensibility perfectly, but it does such a good job of building up the bond between him and Lobot that it leaves you wondering why Lando left him to the Imperials on Bespin at the end of Empire without so much as a second thought.
After all of the above, we get to what really works with these contemporary comics; the Star Wars and Darth Vader series. These two ongoing adventures follow the “big three” of the original trilogy and cinema’s most notorious antagonist in the time between Episodes IV and V. Chronologically and narratively, both series intertwine with one another, with the first arcs of each being especially connected.
The Skywalker Strikes story is the epitome of a page turner and is one of the best expanded universe tales I’ve ever come across. Reading the account of how Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie ambushed the Empire on Cymoon 1 is a true treat for fans and actually comes close to capturing the feel of watching another movie with the core cast.
The portrayal of the protagonists is spot on. Luke’s quest for further knowledge of the Jedi to continue his training is well recited, as are his feelings about the loss of Obi-Wan. Much like Leia and Alderaan, this is something that’s not addressed much in the movies and these comics attempt to make up for that. They successfully convey the sense of self-doubt and depression with which Luke is burdened due to the loss of the only individual he’s ever known who could guide him towards his destiny.
The one thing I would take issue with though is the fact that Luke comes face to face with Vader ahead of The Empire Strikes Back. This is something that happened in the earlier EU too and personally I prefer to think of their original iconic duel as the first meeting between the two. Having said that, it is handled better and more subtly here than in the old canon.
The second arc of the series, Showdown on Smuggler’s Moon, features a great plot for Han and Leia, further fleshing out their relationship post-A New Hope and pre-Empire Strikes Backs. The addition of Sana Solo also works a lot better than I expected. There seemed to be a lot of backlash when the character was first announced and admittedly I turned my nose up at the idea myself. However, it adds a new dimension to Han’s rogue-ish ways and its resolution should appease anyone who objected to her addition in the first place.
Luke’s story isn’t as exciting in this arc, but it ends in a way that incites anticipation for what’s to come, while also tying nicely into the Vader series. Speaking of which, by far the best characterisation in any of these new narratives is that of the dark lord himself in his own concurrent comics. They may well represent the most well-worked portrayal of Vader in any non-movie material to date.
The series doesn’t shy away from the fact that the man beneath the mask was once Anakin Skywalker. Instead, it very much embraces it. What we’re shown over the course of the comics is someone who is still haunted by the tragedies of his past and Padmé’s passing in particular. And they do so while still staying true to how he handled himself in Episodes IV – VI. The writers reconcile the expanse between Anakin and Vader by acknowledging all of what we’ve seen on screen so that it feels like one and the same individual, without compromising how he came across in either trilogy. It really is masterfully done and adds plenty of depth and dimensions to the character.
Vader’s obsession with finding the pilot who destroyed the Death Star and his turmoil when he discovers who it was also nicely mirrors Luke’s own quest to find relics of the Jedi Order and his struggles with failing in the Force in the adjoining series. On top of that, the inclusion of the extremely likable Doctor Aphra does a lot to humanise Vader and show that he’s more than a mere monster, while the demented droid duo Triple Zero and BT-1 act as endearing dark doppelgangers for Threepio and Artoo.
Both the Vader and Star Wars series seem set to continue for the foreseeable future as they slowly wind their way towards The Empire Strikes Back. The latest arc, Vader Down, has only had its first issue as I’m writing this, but already it looks like it’s going to be just as good as what preceded it.
Now, we come to the comic that I was originally most intrigued about and actually read first; Shattered Empire. While it pales in comparison to the above two series, it’s still an enjoyable tale that takes place in the wake of the Empire’s upheaval at Endor. Han, Luke and Leia have prominent parts to play across the four issues, but the main focus is on the parents of Poe Dameron; a character with which we will undoubtedly become very familiar going forward.
At this point though, he’s still a babe in arms as his Rebel soldier mother and father, Shara Rey and Kes Dameron, continue the clean up after the second Death Star’s destruction. The former fought in the skies above Endor during the battle against the mechanical moon and accompanies Leia on a mission to Naboo soon afterwards. This makes reference to the princess’s visit to the planet in her own standalone series and once again hints at her latent Force potential when she stumbles onto the scene of the climactic clash between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Maul some thirty six years beforehand. It’s a nice nod to both the prequels and the careful continuity of these new narratives.
Shara later finds herself entangled in an escapade that sees Luke attempting to retrieve a tree that Sidious stole from the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. It’s unusual in that its significance is never really elaborated on, leaving one to wonder whether it will come into play again somewhere down the line.
Given what is officially known of Poe’s position in The Force Awakens, this series seems to sow the seeds of why he may be close to Leia in the upcoming movie and probably hides hints as to the franchise’s future which will become clearer coming up to Christmas.
That’s it for the fresh canon comics at the time I’m typing this, but there are certainly a lot more on the way during December and into the new year. Right now though, I’m trekking through the new novels to cap off my consumption of the contemporary continuity. Once I’m done, I’ll follow this article up with an analysis of the literature beyond the pages of Marvel. May the Force be with you all until then.
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