What They Say:
Control of the Empire is up for grabs and Conor Jax begins his campaign to become the new Dark Emperor. On the planet Phaeda, wandering Jedi Kir Kanos finds himself hunted by Imperial forces. Conor Jax and Kir Kanos once fought side-by-side as part of Darth Vader’s elite Crimson Guard. But now they are sworn enemies, divided by death and betrayal. Only one will survive…
The Review: (please note that content portions of review may contain spoilers)
One of the absolute coolest moments I remember from Return of the Jedi was sitting in the theater on opening night was the grand scope that was presented when the feared Emperor finally arrived in the enormous hanger in which a seeming army of Imperial troops stood in mass for him to appear. But when the ramp descended the first thing the audience saw was not the man barely seen before who commanded the fearsome Darth Vader but instead the first person down the ramp was a crimson robed individual with a large visor helmet that concealed their face and seemed it might be a hindrance in battle but which looked when combined with the rest of the uniform like something far more regal than the Stormtrooper uniforms could ever dream of.
From there though they red robed guardians were relegated to the background and were even dismissed before Vader and Luke squared off so what they were capable of was left to the subject of people’s imaginations as outside of the Droids and Ewoks cartoons, a pair of live action Ewok TV movies and the winding down Marvel Comics Star Wars series it looked to the outside world like the franchise had peaked with the toy line sputtering out. Unlike the early days after the first movie when some novels were licensed that allowed for more expansion of the characters from the franchise even this seemingly profitable arm that kept readers in touch with their favorite characters (at least to judge by other franchises like Star Trek which was churning tales out in paperback on a regular basis) was being left to go quiet.
And then in 1991 Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire was published which once again signaled that stories would be taking place with the franchises characters (even if some of these stories wouldn’t be seen as cannon by Lucasfilm itself) and the news was received well and the continuation of their being a thirst for these new tales was borne out as many of the books found their way to major bestseller lists. In addition to the more standard form of books being published the comic rights had switched over to Dark Horse Comics and it to experienced a wave of new stories that played off this newly rekindled fervor allowed for new tales which expanded upon some of the ideas the film created and some which asked some provocative questions while also making twists to the features’ characters as these stories delved further into the universe that was created in the films.
One such tale that sprung up in this new Star Wars boom was Dark Empire which finally saw the light of day a few months after the first of Zahn’s trilogy hit bookshelves (set roughly six years after the events in Return of the Jedi in the universes timeline) which played heavily with some of the events that fans had taken as established. In the series it is reveled that Palpatine had figured out a method that almost ensured immortality as he had discovered how to transfer his consciousness from his Dark Side crippled body into a clone which could then be abandoned for another clone when that body was ravaged by the effects as well in an endless cycle. His plan was on the verge of succeeding until he was betrayed by one of his own Royal Guard, Carnor Jax, who had been making plans of his own to take Palpatine’s position and he’d collected a sizable powerbase in secret to accomplish this task.
Unfortunately for Jax the confession by the dying doctor who had been bribed by Jax to see to it that Palpatine’s supply of clones was ruined was overheard by one of the few remaining members of the Royal Guard who promptly makes his way back to where the last of the Guard in the galaxy were gathering to mourn their Emperor with news of the betrayal. Jax had recognized that there existence would be a major problem and attempted to wipe them all out. His plan was almost successful but one lone Guardsman, Kir Kanos, survived with one task in mind task- he must avenge his Emperor by punishing all those who had plotted against him. With Kanos on the run Jax is forced to commit sizable resources to try to track the man down as he knows what a danger to his plans that man can be.
With the vast resources of what is left of the Galactic Empire Kanos is eventually tracked down and while Jax makes his way to confront the man Kanos has an encounter with Mirith Sinn, a young woman in command of an outpost that the New Republic is looking to use to free those worlds that the Empire’s remnants still control. The meeting is one that is going to change the lives of both of them as Mirith finds a man of resolute character and will while Kanos finds a woman who has a deep loss that the Empire he served created and who is capable of asking the kinds of questions that Kanos isn’t ready to examine- and who is no slouch in the will department either. Fate moves in its own way though as events will cause the two to be placed on opposite sides and lead them spend years with enmity between them as Kanos and Jax finally meet in combat and only one will be walking away, assuming either manages to survive.
After the encounter with Jax, Kanos comes to recognize the value of stealth as he takes on the alias of Kenix Kil and works as a bounty hunter in order to raise funds in order to get closer to the Council that Jax conspired with to finish off the Emperor. While his skills serve him well in this role it is the information gathering it provides that proves more valuable, information that he also uses to keep track of Mirith. When he hears she is in danger he moves to rescue her, even though it threatens to disrupt his cover but is Mirith still hunting him or is there more going on behind the scenes of this new situation he has inserted himself into here than meets the eye with her?
When all is said and done will Kanos come to recognize what he was taught wasn’t the whole truth or is the former guard to the Emperor going to follow his training to the bitter end? When one of the former officials of the Empire reveals the power he has been hiding for years as he plans his move to strike and seize power for himself Kanos decide if he is prepared to serve a new master in the name of the cause he once believe immovably in or is he going to find that the years and journey he has taken has eroded the once solid certainty in his cause he once possessed?
Coming into this Star Wars tale I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the characters as I had seen years ago a two pack of figures that featured the lead former guards from the first comic in a toy store (and I may have bought it as I liked the look of the figures, I can’t recall now if I did or not and my Star Wars figures aren’t handy). While most of the figures for the guards were solid pieces of plastic with only movable arms these two were different as the seemed to be wearing mobility granting body armor with the robes over that rather than the more ceremonial robes of the standard toy so perhaps I was predisposed to like my introduction to this series based on a former Royal Guard because of the awe I still recall from sitting in a theater well over a quarter of a century ago. Or maybe I liked it because it was just that good.
When the tale begins the reader is introduced to the type of character that possessed the kinds of traits that would be seen as a strong hero in just about any media one could think of- he is focused, dedicated, unwavering in his belief and yet he acts only out of desire to accomplish his goal and doesn’t needlessly or wantonly attempt to create fights with everyone he sees who could be his enemy because of the side they have chosen in the long standing war that surrounded the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire- the only problem most people would have with labeling him a hero is the fact he is working for the wrong side. Kanos was raised with a loyalty anyone would wish for in a soldier and he is steadfast in his desire to see the men who betrayed the person they had sworn to serve punished in the manner that seemed most applicable. In pursuit of this cause he at times finds himself aligning along the same lines with members of the New Republic who in another time would have been his targets but given that they (other than Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia) weren’t directly responsible for the ultimate of the Emperor he generally has no malice toward him though he has no reservations about cutting them down if they choose to stand in his way either.
In a number of ways Mirith is his opposite side of the same coin. Dragged into a war she had no real interest in before he husband was cut down by Darth Vader she has become a resolute soldier in her own right as her natural talents for leadership and unwavering loyalty to her cause have placed her of command from where she encounters what is likely one of the few people in the galaxy more driven and relentlessly focused than herself. Perhaps it is some twisted fate that throws the two together and forces them to become enemies at the end of the first book or perhaps it is merely a reflection of where they are in their beliefs and loyalties that causes the situation, but the differences and clashes between them and their opposite ideologies brings in a good deal of interest and adds a sharp relief to Kanos’ personality.
Unfortunately things get muddled a bit in the second series that hit comic shops relatively shortly after the first wrapped up as the introduction of a new shadow player and new members of the conspiracy against the Emperor in addition to scenes that play out with a new Hutt and a somewhat creepy alien race adding to the mix drag things off to the side and force an uncomfortable new wedge into the equation that was doing just fine without their influence and the lack of developing these ideas fully slows the pace of the material and leaves a far less satisfying book than the original arc.
One wonders if there wasn’t a plan in place to build upon these events that then got waylaid as it would be more than a dozen years before the third (and at present final) arc in this series made its way into comic book stores. This time the audience is going to encounter a Kanos who is at a crossroads as it is clear the Empire he was indoctrinated to believe in not only no longer exists it was becoming apparent that it never did. And he isn’t alone in this crisis of identity as Mirith has found her new role as Leia’s chief of security as one that doesn’t suit her and she is pondering just what direction she should pursue in her life. When Kanos is framed for attempting to plant a bomb while trying to warn Leia and her skeptical brother (which a blood oath would justify) it is going to be up to the reunited pair to decide just what it is they need do to fulfill their own sense of obligation to themselves, be it past, present or future.
The original arc is one of the more fantastic pieces of fiction I’ve read in a while as the presentation of Kanos really hits the mark on so many levels as it presents such a blindingly resolute and established in his principles character and an opposite for him to reflect off that it draws the readers in to these archetypes that not only feel real and it does so in a manner that doesn’t feel forced or trite. In some ways perhaps it might have been better for that to be the only story told of the pair as from there really the only path open was to place them into a position to question their beliefs and their motives which makes them feel more real but also robs both of them of part of what made them so special. When the events surrounding fail to live up to the characters originally established one is left with a bit of a sense of loss that the continuation of their adventures couldn’t match what had come before. While the two following arcs (and the couple of single comic adventures also collected that take place in between) aren’t exactly pedestrian, it is in the first arc where the series really shines and takes hold and which allows it to fight for prominence among all of the spin off tales set in the Star Wars universe and which makes this collection one which fans need seek out if they want to see something truly special.
Generally it is held as common belief that the more depth there is to a character the more realistic and interesting they become but every rule has its exceptions and Kanos is definitely one of them. He is at his most interesting when he is singularly focused on revenge as his solid beliefs provide a far more intriguing character than the one he later becomes who losses the clarity of vision that having a myopic purpose held for him and he now has to wander almost in a rudderless fashion as he tries to pick up the pieces of what will be the rest of his life. When this is added to the other changes in tone of the stories themselves one can’t help but long for the resolute soldier who was certain of his goals and possessed the skills to see them carried out. That isn’t to say the stories that follow don’t have merit but they do pale a bit in relation to the original tale which by itself is almost worth the entire purchase.
Crimson Empire Saga presents the tale of the last loyal member of the Emperor’s Royal Guard, Kir Kanos, as he starts his new journey with purpose of his life shifting from protecting the Emperor to avenging his death which was facilitated by some traitors who had obtained a large amount of power for themselves after it looked like he had perished along with the second Death Star. This omnibus collects the three major Crimson Empire limited series as well as some of the tales that take place in between these stories which show the shift that occurs in the man as he encounters a woman who is as dedicated to her cause as he is to his and the effect that the two have on each other and how that impacts their approach to their lives. While some of the follow up material lacks the brilliance of the original Crimson Empire series that title is almost worth the price of admission alone making the rest when taking the release as a whole as many of them posses a charm all of their own. The book is a fantastic testament to the fact that interesting characters and stories can exist in the Star Wars universe apart from those shown in the films and they speak to the richness that exists waiting to be mined by the hands of a skilled storyteller.