Dark Empire’s Mediation on Star Wars’ Cycles Helped Shape the Expanded Universe Forever

Dark Empire’s Mediation on Star Wars’ Cycles Helped Shape the Expanded Universe Forever
Luke faces old struggles and old threats in Dark Empire. (Image: Dave Dorman/Dark Horse)

At the dawn of the ‘90s, Star Wars’ “dark ages” — with the end of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, new toys on the decline, and the movies long over in the eyes of fans and perhaps even its creator — suddenly ended in a brilliant flash. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire heralded a new, post-Return of the Jedi saga that would be told across books and comics for decades to come. But as forward-looking as the Thrawn Trilogy would become, Dark Empire was just as important for the ways it looked back.

Written by Tom Veitch, who sadly passed away last week, lettered by Todd Klein, and brilliantly illustrated by Cam Kennedy — starkly shadowed line art painted in sumptuous cool colours shot through with blasts of warm yellows and reds — Dark Empire is chronologically set after the events of Zahn’s trilogy of novels. Those books, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, covered the plans of Grand Admiral Thrawn’s attempts to keep the Imperial armed forces in control as he battled the newly christened Republic in the years after Return of the Jedi. But while Heir to the Empire and its successors looked to chart the future of Star Wars’ story beyond the movie trilogy, new threats in the cracks of the Empire’s blunting, if not outright destruction, at the time Veitch’s story in the pages of Dark Empire — which began hitting shelves just six months after Heir’s release — looked back to Star Wars’ immediate past.

Image: Cam Kennedy and Todd Klein/Dark HorsImage: Cam Kennedy and Todd Klein/Dark Hors

In hindsight, decades later, we can see the parallels between Dark Empire and the extended Skywalker Saga’s movie self in the conclusion of The Rise of Skywalker. Defeated threats return, old faces thought gone are back, and yes, Emperor Palpatine is very alive, a clone, and has dark plans for the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo. At the time, Dark Empire and the Thrawn Trilogy, were considered massive successes that proved the hunger for a new era of Star Wars — the birth of the legendary Star Wars Expanded Universe as we truly knew it. Without Dark Empire or Heir to the Empire kickstarting decades of books, comics, and games, the living history and future of the fictional galaxy far, far away would never have come to pass, its legacy secured in its keen influence on Lucasfilm’s own renewed direct returns to Star Wars on film and on TV — even after the EU was declared non-canonically to be “Legends” after Disney’s purchase of the studio in 2012. And yet, for those story reasons, at the time Dark Empire was seen as something of a weird side-step — rehashing the conflict of the movies, bringing back old villains like Palpatine and Boba Fett so soon after their seeming deaths, and seeing Luke struggle with the Dark Side’s temptation so soon after becoming a Jedi. Dark Empire, it seemed, re-litigated Star Wars rather than looking to the potential of its new future.

And yet, Dark Empire works and remains beloved three decades after the fact, because Veitch’s usage of these thought-defeated conflicts has a weight that Star Wars has tried to struggle with in all those decades since after Dark Empire came to a close. In some ways perhaps it’s fair to say that Veitch’s story set the template for Star Wars’ love of generational cycles of conflict that would be explored both retroactively with the prequels and then later on in the sequel trilogy: sins and evils of one generation worming their way into the next, and the next, as the next cycle of rebel heroes and future Force wielders rises to lay them low again. The return of the Emperor, youthful and renewed to literally prey on the flesh of the new generation — cloning shenanigans aside, Palpatine’s endgame in Dark Empire is to put his spirit in the body of Leia’s unborn child — is ludicrously silly in the way that Star Wars is ludicrously silly. But the way it serves as a catalyst for Luke to re-confront the evils that tempted him in the past provides Dark Empire with a thematic heart that goes beyond the continued story of rebel heroes and resurgent empires.

Image: Cam Kennedy and Todd Klein/Dark HorsImage: Cam Kennedy and Todd Klein/Dark Hors

Dark Empire leverages its thematic echoes to re-affirm that, should Star Wars continue beyond the films, its fights don’t so easily end with a celebration in the Ewok village and a destroyed superweapon. Zahn’s novels fleshed out the Imperial Remnant with new characters, but its very existence as a major threat in the early EU stories and in Dark Empire — striking back furiously with horrifying, previously unseen tech like the giant World Devastators, even as the Republic builds its own fleet, one seized Star Destroyer at a time — underlines that Star Wars’ key conflict was never so simple as to be won by one major victory. In choosing this time to go to the Emperor’s side — to save his sister and her child — rather than defy him, and momentarily embrace the power of the Dark, Dark Empire doesn’t undo Luke’s actions in Return of the Jedi, but emphasises that a Jedi’s struggle to resist the Dark and embrace the Light is a constant journey, one that can be marked by setbacks and triumphs in equal measure. For Luke in particular, Dark Empire is a story of perseverance, to challenge the love he has for his family and friends — the weakness Palpatine once mocked him for in Jedi — and embolden it by pushing himself to the brink of his temptations.

It’s fascinating to revisit Dark Empire, especially now after the Skywalker Saga has concluded again, and to see some of its plainest influences in Veitch’s writing and Kennedy’s haunting, striking art. They’re arguably executed much more strongly in Dark Empire than they are in The Rise of Skywalker, if only because, unlike its cinematic parallel, there’s less tangled material and potential for Dark Empire to extricate itself from before pivoting to its story of cyclical conflict. After all, there wasn’t really much before to extricate itself from. Alongside the Thrawn trilogy, Dark Empire led the way for Star Wars to live on beyond the films — even it it did so by returning to its biggest themes and conflicts and re-imagining them as ever-flowing, repeating lessons that must be returned to, endured, and re-learned from time and time again. In order to keep Star Wars going forever, Dark Empire realised that the past could never really be forgotten… just in some ways more literal than others.