An Autopsy for Agent of the Empire

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.

The Clone Wars: 2002-2005 – Looking Back at a Unique Experience

With Episode II: Attack of the Clones released and the much mentioned but little known about Clone Wars begun, the summer of 2002 saw the start of a unique piece of the EU. But in order to recognize just how revolutionary this was, we need to look at what had gone before. Previous bridge stories had been done but only in very limited fashion – The Approaching Storm gave little away of what Episode II would be about, while Splinter of the Mind’s Eye betrays a pre-Empire Strikes Back origin.

No, the best bridge stories up until this point were done retroactively, after the film had come out then there were stories filling in the gaps. Thus for Episode I there are the Darth Maul stories and Cloak of Deception. More significantly, the much praised Classic Star Wars run by the great team of Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson bridged Episodes IV and V, but ran 1982-1984! It could take full advantage of knowing what pieces needed to be set for Episode V to begin! The 1996 Shadows of the Empire project operated on similar grounds.

What Lucasfilm (LFL) seemed to realize is that they had a unique opportunity here, to tell the stories of the Clone Wars, to greatly expand and show the full scale of this vast galactic conflict. A twin track strategy was deployed – Del Rey (DR) would do a series of books, each focusing on particular aspects of the conflict, while Dark Horse Comics (DHC) would spin their own ongoing tale.

Of the two, I would judge DHC to have been the more successful. This is due to the two stories it told – one continued the story of Quinlan Vos, ultimately concluding it post-Episode III, while the other was on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. The latter was of particular importance given the disastrous portrait that was established by Episode II. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker only works if the audience has reason to care and want him to do well – in both respects Episode II failed completely for me. Where the film failed, however, the Expanded Universe would succeed.

At the same time what has since come to be known as the Vos epic took the character deep into dark territory as he attempts to do an inside job on Dooku’s operations. This evoked the likes of Dark Empire but it took advantage of the far greater space to spin a deeper tale. It looked far more closely at how a person like Dooku would work, what he would require of his minions and then showed why that was so perilous for a Jedi. In doing this it also drew fully on all manner of EU lore, with the planet Korriban making an appearance and dark-side creatures featuring.

DHC adopted a split focus; their Republic title would do a story of Anakin and Obi-Wan, then one on Vos, then something else, just to add variety – like the story of what happened to ex-Chancellor Valorum. There was one final, additional strand running through the entire set of stories and that was the corrupting effect of the conflict. That it was being used, in part, to kill Jedi but there was more to it. The greater part of the design was to subtly shift the galaxy towards a more martial, more militaristic, more imperial mindset. For instance, one early highpoint saw the Republic using AT-ATs!

DR’s books took more of a scattergun approach: Stover’s Shatterpoint was highly praised – for myself, it took the notion of being as brutally honest as possible about war while still being an entertaining read. In terms of showing the brutality of war, it still only likely scratched the surface but it went far enough to make the point that some pools are not to be dived into! The Cestus Deception was an interesting but not too successful attempt to breathe life into the clones. Jedi Trial was to be the story of how Anakin Skywalker becomes a Jedi Knight, but many saw it as more military manual than story. The Medstar books were a success, but then riffing on M*A*S*H in a SW setting was a great starting point. They were also a neat continuation by stealth of a couple of characters previously established by Michael Reaves.

Following this initial set, there were a few further works done, some bearing the A Novel of the Clone Wars tag, some not. One was Republic Commando: Hard Contact by Karen Traviss, a book that remains her best work by far. More significant still was Yoda: Dark Rendezvous, a tale of Dooku and Yoda with each trying to convert the other to their way of thinking. Alongside Shatterpoint, Dark Rendezvous consistently tops lists for best Clone Wars book. In a way it’s fitting as Shatterpoint was first and Yoda: Dark Rendezvous the last. The next book was a lead-in to Episode III, Labyrinth of Evil and it built further on the continuity the Clone Wars stories had built.

As DR brought their set of stories to a close with an eye on Episode III, so too did DHC. Vos’ infiltration, subsequent corruption and return formed the main spine of the overall tale, which culminated in a major battle on an outer rim planet. These Outer Rim Sieges continued into Episode III and were a major part of Darth Sidious’ plan to spread out and isolate the Jedi, so as to enable their killing to be much easier.

And then, in 2007, it was decided to re-set the Clone Wars, to tell the story again! In doing so, much of what was done here effectively got steam-rollered! But, far more importantly, is what this shows about the corporate mindset. The corporate mind is blind to things being unique, to things being one-off, to things being unrepeatable!

And Clone Wars 2002-2005 was all of this! We got a continuing story from one film to the next across 3 years! The whole time it was new territory, it had this mythic sense of momentum to it, that this would take us all the way into Episode III. While that film did what it could to show Anakin Skywalker’s better aspects, it was still a botch job. The real reason Episode III had an edge to it for me? Because I’d been reading the Clone Wars work, because I had a greatly expanded portrait of the friendship between Anakin and Obi-Wan – watching that fall apart was sad. Equally sad was the sheer blatant artifice of it too.

Reading it was quite, quite superb and it’s not going to happen again, not like that. Part of the fun was the surprise factor, that a project of such ambition was sprung on the fans out of the blue. I’m sure there’ll be attempts to re-engineer this, but like the attempts to re-create a character like Boba Fett, it’ll fail. Why? Because you only get to catch lightning in a bottle rarely. The years since have only emphasized this sense, only increased the sense of having seen something special. At the time it felt like this would be a real one-off and so it has proven.

Author Universes, Sales and Mini-Eras: The End of the Line!

It’s generally quite tricky to get truly accurate sales figures for Star Wars books but Publisher’s Weekly has some that make for an interesting read:

Year Title Author Sales
1999 Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Terry Brooks 1,419,852
  Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, Vector Prime R.A.Salvatore 200,000+
2002 Star Wars: Attack of the Clones R.A. Salvatore 784,750
  Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Destiny’s Way Walter Jon Williams 100,000+
2003 Star Wars: The New Jedi Order—The Unifying Force James Luceno 107,775
2005 StarWars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Matthew Woodring Stover 431,426
  Star Wars: Dark Lord, the Rise of Darth Vader James Luceno 137,661
2009 Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Sean Williams 103,232
  Star Wars: The Clone Wars Karen Traviss 101,146
  Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible Troy Denning 101,034
2012 Star Wars: Darth Plagueis James Luceno 31,543
Star Wars: Apocalypse Troy Denning 26,140

Source: Publishers Weekly

First, it would appear if you want big sales ensure you have a Star Wars movie to adapt – failing that, a cartoon will do.  But even in the case of the latter, the bump is notably reduced when you compare Clone Wars to the Prequel novelizations.

What is of more interest are the books by Luceno – both can be said to form part of what has come to be the Lucenoverse.  This is not a new development but rather the latest in a long tradition.  It has something of a companion in what has been dubbed the Reavesverse.  There should be nothing surprising in that authors like to build a sense of mini-continuity between their works.  It also can make for a more satisfying reader experience as they spot the links between works.

An early EU collaboration was between Veitch and Anderson in creating the Tales of the Jedi series, with Anderson using the villain Exar Kun in a trilogy set millennia later.  Veitch had set up the TOTJ project via the Dark Empire story that alluded to his fate.  In comparison to another creative partnership, this fizzled out quite quickly while the Zahn-Stackpole one was considerably more successful.  This saw the plots of Bantam’s run drawn together into a more cohesive form, with the authors sharing characters between them and working together on a couple of short stories.

Nor is it limited to books.  The work of John Ostrander, with his frequent artistic collaborator, Jan Duursema, demonstrates how it can work in comics.  Having done a very successful run on the Republic comic, they followed that up with the controversial Legacy comics and are now working on Dawn of the Jedi.  They linked their first two works via the device of long-lived alien characters amongst others.  Will they find a way for their latest work to tie in despite 25 millennia?  I would not bet against it happening!

But why do these mini-verses matter at all?  In every franchise there is a top-tier of works that receive the most attention.  For DC Comics it is Batman and Superman; for Marvel, Avengers and X-Men.  For Star Wars, it is the further adventures of Luke, Han and Leia.  However, just as comic fans find the more innovative and more creatively experimental works in the second-tier titles, so is it true for Star Wars.  Stackpole had his greatest success with a little corner of the EU called X-Wing.

That set of books worked by appealing to readers who were far more interested in the world of the EU than just that which the films presented.  It is for these people that the author universes really take off – Ostrander built an entire epic around the character of Quinlan Vos.  Michael Reaves, with a couple of collaborators, takes a handful of characters across the years and series.  It starts off in Shadow Hunter, continues into the Clone Wars series of MedSTAR and then into Coruscant Nights, with the latest book being The Last Jedi.  Do they sell big? Not at all, but that Reaves keeps being able to write books says they sell well-enough! Why?  Reaves’ work is quite traditional at heart – he gives you a set of characters to back, support and follow and then has various adventures happen to them.  He is also credited with doing Darth Vader justice which is an accomplishment in itself.

Luceno’s work is more subtle, but the major reason for why his work is praised is because it takes the quite rancid political plots of the Prequels and does something quite extraordinary with them.  He starts off by making Cloak of Deception raise Episode 1 up considerably, he then follows that up with Labyrinth of Evil, a Clone Wars story and very effective prequel to Episode 3, that in turn is followed by Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader.  Yet these 3 books are but the prologue to his finale, Darth Plagueis.  This was once deemed a step too far by Lucasfilm, the project got put on ice then got defrosted.  Why? Because it focuses on Sidious’ master!  This represents heights undreamt of for a miniverse book!

What is even more surprising is that Luceno’s 2 books – this and the prior Dark Lord one – both out-sold their Big 3 counterparts according to the Publishers Weekly figures.  Dark Lord beat the finale to the Legacy of the Force series, Invincible and Darth Plagueis went and stomped on Apocalypse, the Fate of the Jedi finale.  One reason might be that while the series finales have Luke, Han and Leia, albeit around 40 years later, the Luceno books have Darth Vader, the man who would be Emperor and the mysterious figure who instructed him!  In certain select instances then the film boost can be tapped in more subtle ways than just being a novelization or using the big 3.

Nonetheless, a large part of the thrill and enjoyment of author miniverses resides in the sense that they are a secret.  That not as many people know about them, so you, the reader, are privy to cool information that other people are not.  In this respect, like second-tier superhero books, they will continue to exercise appeal, regardless of whether this is reflected in sales.

Will there be such opportunities available to future authors?  Very hard to say given the Episode 7 announcement.  It does require too a certain confidence on the publisher as well.  One incentive for publishers is such sets of material, once they have gained a positive reputation, can sell very well and keep doing so.


The End of Illusions: Part 2: Big Three? We Don’t Need No Big Three!

Some riffs just can’t be avoided and the title’s one of them. My experience with the Big 3 can be considered to be a 3-phase one. Phase 1 was Bantam’s run that, along with Dark Horse Comics, got me interested in the EU in the early 1990s, around 1992. Phase 2 was the NJO / Prequel era of 1999-2006 and phase 3 is very minor due to a sense of despair at the late era direction favoured by Del Rey.

(That as fine an editor as Lester Del Rey’s name should become a kind of curse-word for SW fans is a sad outcome whichever way you slice it.)

I returned to SW in 1992, watched the films again, this time in Widescreen – yes, once upon a time that was something special – and was hooked. But where now? Zahn’s Thrawn books, only 2 of them, beckoned, as did Dark Empire and the rest was history. Bantam’s run was, by its nature, experimental – they had an unexpected universe they didn’t know what to do with so they experimented. Some of it worked, some of it did not, the former was raised up and the latter quietly forgotten.

Leia’s arc of rebuilding the Republic, dealing with numerous political hurdles, succeeding Mon Mothma and then making peace with a reformed Empire that she once despised was a triumph. Han’s arc was patchier, but his turn as General Solo in Allston’s X-Wing books was a high point, Zahn and Stackpole generally used the character effectively too. Where there is a void is once the kids are born! If Leia is too busy rebuilding the Republic then Han should have stepped in, I don’t see any reason for him not to except that children and their upbringing was perceived – and perhaps still is – as a woman’s job and men should not butt into that!

Why is this a big deal? One of the more rubbish plots in the later NJO had Jaina Solo, in a fit of teenager attitude, lay into Leia for not being around when she was younger. This never worked for me. The reason was simple. As a kid, my Dad was out at evening meetings a lot, the job demanded it – my Mum ensured my sisters and I knew why it was so. My parents had their own arrangement, my Dad looked after the bills, my Mum looked after us and it worked for them. Due to that, I had no reason to really resent him for being absent in that respect. I was old and smart enough to understand. Therefore, the notion that Jaina would not have been looked after, either by babysitters or Han, did not work. Plus, if she’s supposed to be smart, she’s smart enough to know why too. It would have been very satisfying for Leia to snap back she didn’t have to be, Han was! The only way Han and Leia’s marriage could work with two strong individuals is to divide up who’s doing what – Leia goes out for the career, Han is more free-wheeling but more in charge on the domestic front. Alas, the EU, at this early stage, lacked the courage to take this radical step. In many ways it’s understandable, but still a missed opportunity.

Luke’s arc of rebuilding the Jedi was not all that well-planned out, but, nonetheless, worked out well as the new Jedi play a key role in extinguishing the flames of the Caamas crisis depicted in the Hand of Thrawn books. It also, with reference to my fellow conspirator Lucas’s article on Jedi, Sith and Tunnel Vision, had Luke pull a blinder of a move. With the bulk of the information on the Jedi destroyed, Luke revives an ancient Jedi tradition he learns of from a rare Jedi holocron. In this tradition, one Master trained several students and often on a world where the Master had defeated and contained the dark side, with those places serving as testing grounds for apprentices.

1999 saw the start of the New Jedi Order project and it’s an undertaking that, even in hindsight, I can’t help but see as a missed opportunity. For all its successes, it still has a vast amount of untapped potential that it failed to tap due to squandering time on needless other plot strands. In some respects, the moves made for NJO were subsequently used again but with far less success for the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series. For me where it went wrong was in seeking to emulate Babylon 5’s 5-year TV arc in book form. It was also, despite setting them up as a truly terrifying adversary that was far beyond the ability of the Jedi alone to defeat, far too protective of its villains, the Yuuzhan Vong. Cue the Republic that Leia had restored to working order demonstrating suicidal incompetence to the point of being utterly destroyed, then the same plot that required the heroes to be ineffective for 2 years, permitted them to be effective for 2 years and win. In the end the only thing that really made NJO work for me was the utterly unexpected success that was its finale, The Unifying Force. It did what all strong conclusions do – finished well but in doing so raised up its predecessor volumes as well. I’m never going to be a big fan of it, but the success of the finale and how well it used Luke, Han and Leia along with other, newer characters cannot be denied.

Onto phase 3 then and here all those flaws that blighted NJO, yet were held back enough to prevent them taking over, are permitted to bloom in all their poisonous glory. After reading the Dark Nest trilogy, one of the most blatant set-up series I’ve ever read, my interest in the big 3 was severely reduced. The first Legacy of the Force book went and destroyed it completely within the specific era. I simply could not credit or buy into the events and characterisations being depicted.

So the end of the line? Not quite. There have been a handful of earlier set books over the last 6 years. There were 2 books by Zahn, but while sold as being Luke, Han and Leia I don’t consider them to be so, they’re more supporting cast. No, the big release for the trio in recent years has to be 2009’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover. It’s a masterclass in how to do a complete story, without giving any character in a large cast short shrift and convince the reader that, all appearances to the contrary, their heroes are in real jeopardy! Sadly, there has been no further Stover Star Wars books.

So what does it boil down to? The characters need to develop without leaving their essential aspects behind. Luke as a Jedi who won’t surrender to the dark works fine, as does Leia as the one politician you can actually believe in, with Han as the ultimate wild card agent. There have been attempts in recent years to move them away from this, to making Leia a Jedi (she was already as of 1992 but that got forgot!) and Luke more of a manager but neither has really worked for me. That and the amount of time that has passed – around 40 years!

The End of Illusions: Part 1: Not Really Liking the Big Three All That Much!

Credit for sparking this one goes to fellow conspirator here Lisa Schap, but she’s unaware of what she started! Do I like Star Wars because of the characters of Luke, Han and Leia or is it more than that? Do I even need the big 3 as they’re called at all?

In a way the OT succeeds where the PT mostly does not in running at a pace that sweeps the audience along. The result of this is that their attention is kept at all times and they do not notice the weaknesses. Those weaknesses being the characters! I’m fascinated to see what happens after ROTJ because, at that point, the characters work for me, but why do they not before? Because Solo’s the cocky bastard type I tend to dislike on general principle despite the considerable charm Ford’s portrayal gives him. Organa is, in a lot of ways, your standard aristocratic type and a ‘for the cause!’ evangelist. Don’t really like evangelists either. And Skywalker? He’s the fish out of water and in over his head who eventually wises up, but he is a bit of whinger in the OT.

But to be fair, these are their starting points! The whole idea of a character development arc is precisely that – so where do they go and what changes? It should also be mentioned at this point the OT, to a degree, delights in throwing gender stereotypes into a blender and generously splattering them!

Leia is the one who thinks she knows all she needs to, her foil is Han who also thinks the same way – in hindsight, of course they were on collision course! Luke is the one who’s far more aware than both of what he doesn’t know and needs to, give the kid some credit – he’s a fast learner. Until writing this I had not considered Han and Leia as being opposite mirror images, but it’s an interesting picture – Han teaches Leia that she can have some things for herself, that it’s OK to not share them with the world, while Leia brings Han into accepting the fight for the galaxy. And Luke? His arc is one of ascension, to gaining the knowledge and confidence he needs to be doing what is expected of him.

Back to those gender stereotypes in the blender! By rights, Han should be insufferably cocky, Luke too incompetent and Leia too cold and arrogant an aristocrat. There’s times when that happens, but the OT ensures it’s isolated incidents, mostly within ANH. Instead it tends to invert a few things – Leia’s the one who tends to keep her emotions under control, where Luke doesn’t and nor is she content to sit back and be rescued – instead in ANH the terms of rescuer and rescued flip around frequently between the characters. Now it doesn’t seem all that big a deal but it was cutting edge for 1977. Later ROTJ fanned the flames of controversy with Leia’s treatment by Jabba, which remains a hotly contested debate topic: Was Leia badly treated in character terms or not? For me, there is the little matter that she strangles the fat bastard that says not.

By the end of the OT, they’re all in different places and I want to see where they go from here in contrast to the films where I do want to see changes because, all in all, don’t like them all that much! Then again, if the screenplays are known to have weaknesses, then it’s also known to be in the characters – oh and let’s not forget the dialogue! Sometimes you need a better pair of hands to go to work. In the shape of Good win and Williamson on their Classic Star Wars run and Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, there are two excellent works that I’m inclined to say handle the characters better than the films. They can examine them more closely and bring their out better aspects more effectively.

Of the trio, Luke is likely the one I like most because he’s less out-right cocky, but inclined to do some really stupid stuff if he but thought about what he was doing – case in point, the Battle of Yavin! Fly around a moon-sized battlestation that’s going to annihilate a planet, then go into a narrow trench and hit this one small spot? But that’s also what makes SW what it is, people doing insane things and getting away with it! Outwardly confident characters who think they know it all? Nah, just not drawn to, I need to see some flaws and them then being aware of them, if only so they can turn them to their advantage.

The Emperor and his second Death Star are toast, Vader’s dead too, what happens now? Can you really consider the story over? Why would you not want to see Leia as the politician she’s said to be? Why shouldn’t we see her build a new government to take over from the Empire? That was the point of the rebellion. Equally, the Jedi knights, how is Luke to revive that idea? And Han? Han gets to stay the smartarse he always was, but not an insufferable loner who thinks he needs no one.

Part 2 will look at where they get taken, what has worked and has not and if these characters are needed for an Expanded Universe at all!