I’ve long considered Dark Horse to be the smartest and most resourceful comic book publisher. When they started out over twenty years ago, they made the conscious decision to not try to take on Marvel and DC at their own game. Instead, they published truly unique titles such as Concrete and Hellboy and were aggressive in obtaining the licenses to popular movie franchise like Aliens, Predator, and, their biggest coup, Star Wars. Let’s not forget that Marvel had the Star Wars license in the 1970’s and while they concentrated on the central characters from the first trilogy, Dark Horse has delved into the expanded universe, telling stories that were set thousands of years before the events in the first Star Wars film, as well as tales set well after Return of the Jedi, not to mention filling in gaps between the films.
For the past year, Dark Horse has been taking some of their most popular Star Wars trade paperbacks and graphic novels and releasing them, one per month, in a limited edition hardcover, only available in direct market retail outlets (i.e., no Barnes & Nobles or Amazon.com). Crimson Empire, the 10th volume in the series, was first published as a six issue series in 1997- 1998. This tale takes place about ten years after the destruction of the first Death Star and after Luke Skywalker has defeated the last of the Emperor’s clones. The empire is fractured and looking for new leadership, and still looking to crush the rebellion. Stepping forward, and nominating himself as the new ruler is Carnor Jax, a member of the Emperor’s Royal Guard.
The book sheds some deserving light on the members of the Royal Guard. These Crimson cloaked warriors were always shrouded in secrecy. A back story takes readers to the distant planet of Yinchorr, a desolate planet with no strategic value. It was here were potential Royal Guardsman received their harsh training. Often having to fight to the death to prove themselves worthy to the Emperor as well as Darth Vader. The Guardsman’s training was perhaps even more strenuous than that of the Jedi.
On the planet of Phaeda, a mysterious man has just entered a local watering hole and is confronted by several soldiers and Stormtroopers, killing all of them single-handedly. This man turns out to be Kir Kanos, a former Royal Guardsman marked for death by Carnor Jax. Kanos uncovered a plot by Jax to have inferior clones of the Emperor, thereby sealing his fate. Still loyal to the Emperor, Kanos and other loyal Guardsmen battled Jax’s forces but were overwhelmed by superior numbers until only Jax remained. Now, on this insignificant planet, Kanos finds himself in a strange alliance with local Rebel forces when Jax tracks him down and is willing to destroy the entire city to kill his enemy.
Here is a great example of an outstanding Star Wars story with little reliance on the core characters. Luke Skywalker and Vader make brief cameos in flashback sequences only. The book holds it own on the strong plot and the powerful enmity between Carnor Jax and Kir Kanos, two mortal enemies. You just know that one of them is not going to survive; it can be no other way. The art is by two veteran artists, and two of my favorites: penciller Paul Gulacy and inker P. Craig Russell. I’ve been a huge Gulacy fan ever since he worked on The Master of Kung-Fu in the 70’s and his pencils are perfectly rendered by the poetic inks of Russell. These 30th anniversary editions are really quite handsome and a must have for collectors.