This was a truly illustrious series, cruelly cut down in its prime! That Dark Horse Comics felt unable to continue with one of the strongest creations in years is a damning indictment of the comics marketplace, but also of consumer patterns and outlooks.
What made this series so good? For me the answer is a simple one – actual moral complexity and ambiguity! No, this was not the wearying, easy cop-out attitude of: Oh, it’s all so grey and complex, can’t decide anything. No, this was smartly mixing up the good and evil, forcing the reader to question what they consider the terms to mean and at what level – for instance, is the good of the individual always supreme when set against that of states and worlds?
At the same time, in only its second story, it took its lead character, the coolly calculating and pragmatic, though not entirely amoral, Jahan Cross and set him on a collision course with the worst aspects of his employer. It’s interesting to note the common attitude embodied by both Rodas Borgin, who Cross was sent to support in his attempt to become the leader of Serenno, and the Isards, towards those they consider their lesser and, as such, entirely disposable – people like Cross!
Cross’ resolution of the dilemma he ends up in is creative, smart and quite, quite convoluted. It is a great shame that we will probably never get to see the consequences of his actions here for, though Cross believes he has constructed a perfect scheme, there really is no such thing! This is particularly true when your boss is Armand Isard and you work alongside his terrifying daughter, Ysanne! If anyone was going to put two and two together to get four, it would be these two.
That said there is a counter-argument that doing such would place Cross on the road to rebellion and that is a too well-trodden road. There’s a great deal of persuasive force to this outlook. Especially as it’s that ambiguity that makes the character work so well. Well, that along with being freed from simple heroic shackles. It’s the same appeal that Han Solo taps, especially after shooting Greedo. (Yes, I subscribe to that side of that debate.)
So, we have smart, well-spun stories depicted in excellent art – I haven’t always been a fan of Fabbri’s art but it’s flawless for the Hard Targets arc – so what on earth went wrong?
Part of the story is in the cost of comics relative to other entertainment options. For instance you can likely buy a hardback book for the cost of a standard-size comic collection, termed TPB, or a DVD series or even a Blu-Ray disc! This is what comics are up against. At the same time the greater sales and different economies of scale mean these rival options can be cheaper while offering more! Books? Only have to pay for author, agent, publisher, printing. Movies? They are not cheap but if you know it will sell enough, the price can be adjusted accordingly. In contrast comics have the writer, artist, inker, colourist, editor and printing – far more to pay for and a much smaller consumer base. And then there’s the price of comics, now regularly $3-4 per issue! If you are to spend $15-20 on 5 comics or a TPB, it has to be worth it.
Then there is the strange perception, which began on superhero stories, that if a story has no immediate impact on continuity it does not count! Might this have played a part in Agent of the Empire’s fall? Certainly. It’s set 3 years before A New Hope, the Empire is on top and it’s staying there.
Might the lower profile and social perception of comics played a role? Highly likely. Comics are still, despite the success of graphic novels and films based on comics, seen as a lesser narrative option. While people have no objection to audio-visual entertainment, there’s a strangely dismissive attitude to comics: Word and pictures, isn’t that for kids?
Yet, even if those were all overcome would it have succeeded? If there had been a big marketing campaign, perhaps playing on the Bond element, would it have done better? Hard to say, not least as the Bond tag is a double-edged one. It would attract some but repulse others, if only on the basis: Star Wars does James Bond, what’s so special about that?
So, what would be my final conclusion as to the cause of death? I would place it to be a combination of low sales and consumer neglect. Clearly, there is but one remedy – tell other people to buy the collections. Obviously volume 1 didn’t sell that well either, but first stories are tricky. Agent of the Empire improved immensely in its second volume, but lo! The axe had already fallen! But, what if both volumes were to sell well? Who knows? Perhaps a resurrection might be on the cards.