Since I had considerable travel time to kill on my aforementioned vacation, I brought some leisurely reading along with me. As a reward for completing yet another piece of non-fiction, I packed two Star Wars comics in my carry-on. While I wasn’t terribly thrilled with either, they did the job of making my brain a little mushier.
Star Wars: The Stark Hyperspace War takes place a dozen years before Episode I and tells the story of the last galactic crisis to befuddle the Jedi Knights before the discovery of a certain slave on Tatooine. While I never felt like the conflict had the grandeur to be called a war, it was nonetheless a very interesting debacle: notorious pirate Iaco Stark persuades some less-than-reputable barons of industry to join him in a plot to bleed the Republic’s treasuries dry. I liked the conflict in that it was different from the majority of clashes in Star Wars lore; here, the weapons of choice are cyber-terrorism and economic embargoes, not lightsabers and starfleets. SHW gives die-hards the pleasure of seeing familiar characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in their earlier days, and of seeing future enemies, like noble Mace Windu and cowardly Nute Gunray, being forced to work together, as well. A pivotal player in the story is a member of the Tarkin family, and while the inclusion initially seemed forced, it works out nicely at the end, even going so far as to offer explanation for how future Grand Moff and destroyer of Alderaan Wilhuff Tarkin initially staked a claim on the galactic scene. Unfortunately, these glorified Easter eggs for the Star Wars faithful are not enough to make the comic worth its while. The art (pencils by Davide Fabbri, inks by Christian Dalla Vecchia, and colors by Dave McCaig) is soft and shallow, reminiscent of animated features of the 90’s that came from Fox and Universal. The story never acquires any true momentum because the narration is unbelievably passive. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story told in flashback that felt so distancing. Writer John Ostrander has been duly praised for his work on other Star Wars comics; SHW is clearly a blight on an otherwise impeccable record.
Star Wars: Mara Jade: By the Emperor’s Hand is a bit more enjoyable. MJ is a total character piece; the action is focused almost solely on and seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Mara Jade, one-time enforcer of the Emperor’s will and future wife of Luke Skywalker. This is MJ‘s strength. The story itself is mildly interesting (Mara must face enemies both known and unknown in the weeks after the Rebel victory at Endor), but since it is written by Timothy Zahn and Michael J. Stackpole, the former who created the character back in 1991 for the relaunch of Star Wars as a viable franchise, its feels so right. No one understands this woman like Zahn does, and as such her narration, her thoughts, and her decisions are flawlessly in character. Unfortunately, this is also the comic’s weakness. You see, at this point in her life, Mara Jade is a bitch. A frosty, combative, selfish, ruthless bitch. Sure, Zahn and Stackpole toss in a few moments that show Mara’s underlying heart of gold, but those glimpses are fleeting and few and far between. Mara’s sole objective in the story is to survive, and to deliver swift and violent retribution to those who wronged her when the opportunity presents itself. She mourns a kindly bartender, but thinks nothing of slicing her way through fellow Imperials who she believes are on the wrong side of a rapidly unfolding struggle for Palpatine’s throne. She’s a bit of an anti-hero; on the few occasions where she makes a mistake and gets her butt kicked, I was kind of happy. Appropriately, the art by Carlos Ezquerra, with color work by James Sinclair and Chris Chuckry, is gritty, unpolished, and realistic. A great deal of action happens in shadow or dimly lit crevices and corridors, and the few locations that are well lit are unsavory at best. The colors are washed out and faded, perfectly capturing the “used universe” motif. I do wish they could have drawn Mara with anything other than the permanent scowl on her face, though. But, if the snarl fits…