Laughter in the Darkness // Comics to Cinema
Advance warning: This will include minor speculation and spoilers for the first teaser trailer for Star Wars IX. If you are trying to avoid any kind of information for this movie, Godspeed, and we wish you the best of luck.
Is anyone still here?
Excellent. Since I’m assuming you watched the recent awesome trailer for Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, you also heard the creepy as hell laugh at the end of the trailer. This laugh was delivered by the one and only Ian McDiarmid, best known for his role as Sheev Palpatine in the first two full trilogies of Star Wars. Even the most casual fans remember that Emperor Palpy was tossed down off a catwalk and down the core shaft of the Second Death Star, in arguably the best moment of Return of the Jedi.
The Emperor did die there, at least so far as fans in the 1990s were concerned. After all, it did look like he exploded after falling as well, and then the second Death Star exploded. However, writer Tom Veitch, artist Cam Kennedy, and Dark Horse comics had other plans.
You see, Dark Horse Comics had just obtained the Star Wars license in 1991. It had been just 8 years since Return of the Jedi had been in theaters, and Marvel had stopped publishing Star Wars comics in 1986. While Star Wars was still part of the world’s cultural subconscious, it was slowly going the way of other science fiction fads of the 1970s and 80s, like Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers. Star Wars novels had also died out in 1983, with only one novel being published since - Heir to the Empire, earlier that year.
With such a clean slate in front of them, and Lucasfilm not minding if writers went past Return of the Jedi, there was an almost infinite amount of possibility in front of them. The first thing they did, however, was begin a weird trend of recreating old threats or even reincarnating them.
Dark Empire was released in December of 1991. The story took place 6 years after Return of the Jedi, and time had moved on for our heroes. Luke has become a Jedi Knight, while Han and Leia got married and had kids. The New Republic was in full swing, while the Empire hadn’t really faded away as much as people would have hoped. However, something feels off in the Force, and Luke stays behind on a mission to see what that is.
Taken away to the distant and remote planet of Byss, Luke finds himself face-to-face with the Emperor himself.
In a remarkably prescient glimpse into Star Wars’ future, Sheev Palpatine had a facility on Byss crammed full of cloned bodies. He would use an ancient technique to transfer his spirit into a new body, and even had a plan to reincarnate as an even more powerful Jedi. Luke would fall to the Dark side like his father before him and become the Emperor’s thrall for several issues. Only once Luke helped capture Leia, however, would Palpatine’s plans come to light. You see, Leia was pregnant with her and Han’s third child, and Palpatine had plans to shove his essence inside the child once it was old enough.
Luckily, Luke and Leia are remarkably lucky, and Luke comes back from the Dark Side in time to help kill off Palpatine remarkably vaguely and also destroy his clone tanks. Amusingly, this book introduces the remote projection that would later be so controversial in The Last Jedi, used by Luke himself. As the book ends, however, Luke realizes the Jedi Knights will rise again once more.
Unfortunately, Palpatine wouldn’t be stopped by simple things like logic or death. He would come back in Dark Empire II, released in 1994. Rather than a one-on-one between Luke and the Emperor, however, Dark Empire II would play out much like the Empire Strikes Back. The Emperor, having found one last cloned body to shove himself into, lashes out against the Alliance by building a superweapon: the Galaxy Weapon.
Rather than a moon-ish space station, this was literally a giant cannon with engines that fired projectiles capable of vaporizing planets. Meanwhile, Luke would try to rebuild the Jedi with an ancient Jedi temple and the natives of that planet, while Han and Leia fled from Boba Fett… who had somehow survived his time with Sarlacc.
The trilogy would culminate with Empire’s End, released in October of 1995. For reasons I cannot find, Cam Kennedy would not return for this third part. Instead, the art was done by Jim Baikie, and it looks almost as good as the previous parts. At only two issues versus the six issues of the previous two chapters, it’s rather rushed. However, the story features the Emperor getting desperate
With his body revealed to be imperfect and unstable, Palpatine has a shorter shelf life than a birthday cake at a kid’s birthday party. His plan to annihilate all resistance and rule the galaxy doesn’t matter much when dying means being cast into the abyss of madness that is the Dark Side.
A final showdown on the planet of Onderon, already being evacuated under threat from the Galaxy Weapon, featured the Emperor and his guard against the fledgling Jedi forces under Luke’s tutelage. An ancient Jedi who had survived the purge at the cost of almost his entire body, Empatojayos Brand, was also on Luke’s side at the time. Finally slain by Han shooting him in the back, Palpatine tried to force his essence into the just-born Anakin Solo. Unfortunately, the Emperor's last desperate play was thwarted by the mortally wounded Brand, and Sheev Palpatine finally was dragged, kicking and screaming into the afterlife.
The Dark Empire series has actually aged pretty well in the almost three decades since it began. A lot of this is thanks to the moody art provided by both Cam Kennedy and Jim Baikie. Kennedy’s art is wonderfully detailed, with pages entirely drenched in tones and colors to suit the mood of the scene. While it can come off as “Star Wars in a Rave,” the lighting really enhances the mood of the dialogue in unexpected ways. A favorite example actually comes from having C-3PO show what can be interpreted as disgust for what Luke has done to R2 under the Emperor’s thrall.
Baikie’s art, as you saw, wasn’t nearly as intense on the mood lighting. The colors shift more often, helping guide the reader along with the page and highlighting characters over pages. While it’s not quite as dramatic, there’s a beauty in this work all its own. The final page featuring the destruction of the Galaxy Weapon and the Empire’s new homeworld is absolutely breathtaking.
Tom Veitch also has done some really good work on the writing. Characters feel pretty close to their movie counterparts, though diverged in a way completely different from their New Trilogy counterparts. Luke tries to infiltrate the Empire in order to find out about the Dark Side of the force and winds up repeating his Father’s fate all too well. Leia tries to become a Jedi and uses the Force for more than just flying through Space. Han is… well, Han is Han. There are also some wonderful comedy moments to lighten up the relentless drama, much like the movies themselves.
In all, I highly recommend digging through some back issue bins to dig these comics up. 14 issues of old licensed Star Wars comics might be the best way to experience it, but Dark Horse also put out several collections as well.
Now for the ultimate question: Does this pertain to the new movie? Maybe. When Disney bought the franchise, they chose to excise the entire original canon of expanded universe works. Books, comics, video games; all went into a non-canon location called “Legends.” Several writers of Disney’s canonical material have taken the chance to add in Legends material. Most famous of these is Grand Admiral Thrawn, who has his own new-canon novel now and has appeared in the animated work Rebels.
However, it would make a lot of sense to bring back Sheev Palpatine. After all, he was the big bad of the Original Trilogy, pulling strings behind the scenes and making the two original superweapons of Star Wars. The Prequel Trilogy was almost literally the story of the rise of Palpatine, explaining where he came from and how he came to power. With this pattern, and with JJ Abrams’ love of older actors coming back for new movies, it would make a lot of sense for Palpatine to have been the one behind Snoke, or for him to have been a contemporary of the gold-robed former leader of the First Order.
Of course, we won’t know the truth until someone leaks the movie, or until a future trailer spoils the twist that brings Palpatine back to the Star Wars universe. Until then, all we have is speculation, but it’s going to be one wild ride this Christmas when The Rise of Skywalker comes out.