Friday, February 4, 2011

They're Bounty Hunters, But They're Not That Smart In Shadows Of The Empire The Graphic Novel!

The Good: Generally decent artwork, Moments of story, Well-assembled plot
The Bad: Some panels of artwork that are substandard
The Basics: Boba Fett seeks to get the frozen Han Solo to Tatooine, while Luke Skywalker tries to recover from the events on Cloud City in the graphic novel of Shadows Of The Empire!

It came as something of a surprise to me to discover that the only Star Wars books that I have reviewed before now were the novelizations of Revenge Of The Sith (reviewed here!) and Shadows Of The Empire (reviewed here!). I found this odd, because I have had both a novel and a graphic novel from the Star Wars saga on my shelf side by side for over a decade and while I have pared down much of the rest of my science fiction library, I have kept both the book and the graphic novel. Both of the Star Wars books I have on my shelf bear the same title, but tell very different stories: Shadows Of The Empire. Today, I decided to revisit the graphic novel of Shadows Of The Empire and I am generally glad that I did.

Shadows Of The Empire was an ambitious project that Lucasfilm used to test the waters for the re-release of the original Star Wars Trilogy to the movie theaters in the form of the Special Editions. One of the big questions that had remained for fans of Star Wars was "what went on between Episodes 5 and 6?" After all, The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) ended with a cliffhanger and Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!) begins at a vague point some time later. In fact, as one who likes to explore, argue and consider things, there is a fair argument to be made that between Leia's maturity, Luke's growth in skill into a Jedi and the way everyone trusts Lando, that the events of Return Of The Jedi occurred at least five years after the struggle in The Empire Strikes Back. But no, such is not the case. Like many works, at least those that neglect a strong understanding of character realism, the people in charge of guiding the Star Wars saga filled in the gaps with Shadows Of The Empire, a saga that takes significantly less time than years. With the graphic novel of Shadows Of The Empire, the story is much less integral to the events of either film and thus escapes many of the character problems that plague the novel by the same name. This graphic novel (or, more accurately, trade paperback anthology) tells a story unique to the comic book medium to fill in the events that bridge The Empire Strikes Back to Return Of The Jedi.

Boba Fett, having removed himself from the presence and influence of Darth Vader at Bespin, is soaring to Tatooine with the frozen body of Han Solo aboard his ship, the Slave I. Entering orbit of Tatooine, Fett comes under heavy fire from the droid bounty hunter IG-88. Despite a pretty spectacular space battle, both the Slave I and the IG-2000 (IG-88's ship) are crippled and need repairs. The Slave I limps to Gall where Fett works to make repairs on the ship. There he is ambushed by Bossk, 4-LOM and Zuckuss, rival bounty hunters who want a piece of the Han Solo bounty.

While Fett works to dispatch his competition and avoid Leia and the crew of the Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader hires a bounty hunter named Jix to keep a swoop gang from killing Luke Skywalker when he arrives on Tatooine. As part of a power struggle between Vader and Prince Xizor, Xizor is attempting to have Jabba's roving swoop gang kill Luke and Vader, seeking to prevent that death, has Jix work to undermine the gang and prevent the assassination of Luke. The stories converge when Fett returns to Tatooine to collect his bounty, still aggressively pursued by his rival bounty hunters!

Shadows Of The Empire was an ambitious multimedia project and the story that used comic books, anthologized in the trade paperback here, was actually the ideal one to use this medium for. After all, Fett is on arguably one of the simplest motivated missions of all time; return to the crime lord with the bounty to get paid. There is not much motivation beyond that, just like the "I want some of that money" is not the most impressive or complex motivation for those seeking to defeat him. As a result, readers need a book that does not require much in the way of character's thoughts, just a lot of actions that the characters go through.

With the Jix portion of the graphic novel acting as a subplot to break away from the bounty hunter plot, this is very much Boba Fett's story and the beloved, dangerous bounty hunter is given a chance to shine and show fans what he is made of other than being a tool for the Empire and a well-armored guy with a crappy jetpack that gets him killed. The graphic novel works well to keep the character inscrutable - we are not privy to much of his thoughts, though he does talk to the Slave I and the carbonite-frozen Solo - while providing a lot of action. Shadows Of The Empire opens big with a space battle between Slave I and IG-2000 that has a decent sense of tension and pacing.

The graphic novel medium is used quite well here because a description of a space battle, as many readers have found, either tends to be remarkably technical or terribly repetitive whatwith explosions everywhere, vectors and weapons coming into alignment and firing. Readers of science fiction read innumerable space battles in their lives and so in the graphic novel, simply seeing one works exceptionally well. As for pacing, panel to panel, writer John Wagner and penciller Killian Plunkett (penciller's being arguably the most important visual artists in comic books for achieving pace) have a great sense of timing and movement for achieving an original and exciting space battle, as they do with the battle between Fett and IG-88 over Tatooine.

It is also worth noting that the primary characters from the Star Wars Trilogy are not neglected in the graphic novel; Luke is focused on some as he tries to come to terms with Vader's revelation to him at the climax of the battle on Cloud City. He steps into Xizor's ambush by the swoop gang when he arrives on Tatooine. This is also handled with a wonderful sense of movement and pacing by the comic book artists. As well, in order to fit in with the larger mythos of Shadows Of The Empire, the graphic novel does not imbue Luke with magnificent new powers that make him an invincible Jedi right away, far from it. The attack is realistically restrained, but based upon the skills Luke had evident in The Empire Strikes Back.

What is troubling, though, is the way the bounty hunters are often portrayed. IG-88 is fearsome and cold, appropriately robotic as he hunts Fett in space. But Bossk, 4-LOM and Zuckuss lose almost all of their appeal as menacing and clever bounty hunters in the graphic novel Shadows Of The Empire. To be fair, their reputations are solely built upon a single scene in The Empire Strikes Back where they stand in a line getting orders from Darth Vader, but the implication is supposed to be that they are the most clever, ruthless and cunning bounty hunters in the galaxy. The way Fett finally resolves the conflict between himself and the others is almost ridiculous and it severely diminishes the idea that they are playing on anywhere near the same intellectual playing field as Fett.

As well, the solution makes Bossk, especially, look stupid as Fett more or less repeats the same maneuver that got him Solo in the first place. I pin this as a problem that Wagner lacked the imagination to work out. Wagner seems to be resting on the writing laurels of others (notably Lucas and others associated with The Empire Strikes Back) and is somewhat intellectually lazy in plotting out the final resolution of the graphic novel.

Still, it is enjoyable and fans of the Star Wars saga will enjoy having this chapter in the original storyline filled in and this graphic novel does that in a way that is exciting. The panels are brightly colored with wonderful color contrast, decent artwork - though some of the big battle scenes and backgrounds are glossed over or have characters posed in inorganic ways - and with a nice proportion of visual art to dialogue bubbles. Everything is eminently readable and enjoyable, though.

For other graphic novel reviews, please check out my takes on:
Star Trek - Spock: Reflections
Tron: Betrayal
Flight 1


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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