Everyone loves a good villain. While a protagonist can be great, and a hero can be fantastic, he or she rarely stands out unless they're pitted against a truly outstanding opposite number. You can likely think of a good thousand or so examples for this, but the big one people often come back to is Batman, thanks to his highly recognizable rogue's gallery. Yet, as great as they are, writing a story about a villain taking a leading role can be almost impossible at times. It's remarkably easy to push to far and turn someone off from watching a morally bankrupt maniac slaughtering innocents wholesale, or to overcompensate for their failings and accidentally turning the out-and-out monster into an anti-hero. Few indeed manage to strike the right balance, but Crimson Empire is one such story. In fact, it manages to beat the odds in more ways than you might expect.
The tale here follows one of the Emperor's Royal Guard, Kir Kanos, as he follow's his dead master's will. Hunting down those who assisted Luke Skywalker in killing his master, he has turned against the very Empire Palpatine forged, seeking to execute the usurpers who now lead it. Yet, as New Republic forces wage a guerrilla war on one of the Empire's outermost worlds, Kanos finds himself dragged into the conflict and questioning every side involved.
Perhaps the most laudable thing to cite about Crimson Empire is how it epitomizes the best of the Expanded Universe's qualities. This was a comic which took a few background figures - characters with no lines, perhaps two minutes of screen-time at the most, and not even a close-up - and fully fleshed them out. Throughout the story you see the rise and fall of this elite group, how they were formed, trained and dedicated themselves to Palpatine, and just what they were capable of. The story even drops a few interesting points without spelling its ideas out to the reader, like how their training mimics certain Sith and Jedi traits, and even leaves a few visual implications hanging for readers (and later authors) to follow up on. This is a story first and foremost, but the creators were always looking for fun ways to build upon what the films established.
In addition to this, the comic also quickly dispels that old myth that the EU required you to follow everything to understand it. Through an opening crawl style exposition dump, a villainous speech, and a few badass scenes by Kanos himself it quickly outlines all that has happened since Return of the Jedi. A New Republic has been formed, Palpatine was cloned and tried to revive the Empire but was slain in the attempt, and a ruling council is trying to reunite the fractured remnants of his domain. This makes the intro fairly exposition heavy, but it quickly breezes through the information while sticking to the satisfying details, and even throwing in new information for veteran readers, like how Palpatine's clones were actually sabotaged by someone within the Royal Guard.
Through this quite direct format, the story establishes exactly when and where it is, what the stakes are, who the chief players are and allows it to move on ahead. While this might sound crude at first glance, if anything it's a more pragmatic approach to the tale. Something which eschews the more common decompressed storytelling in favour of leaving space for bigger battles and character moments. Plus, when it does need to flesh out or develop an idea, Crimson Empire often delves into past moments of Kanos' life to better solidify his personality. This, combined with the fact he is effectively the tale's narrator, helps to give him far more depth than you might think at first glance, and makes him more engaging than the typical avenging villain.
Kanos is cold, professionally distant and blunt, but also honourable, respectful (in his own way) and doggedly loyal to his convictions. Closer in many respects to Talos Valcoran than the typical Star Wars villain like Malak, Asajj Ventress or Bossk, you can tell that he's a brutal killer and loyal to the near-definition of evil in that setting, but it keeps giving just enough good qualities to keep you engaged. Even when he ends up performing stunts you know are out-and-out villainous, they're usually directed against the Empire itself, at least until the very end. The comic goes to great lengths to show you how he viewed Palpatine, and even doubles down on it with some additional tragedy. You see, Kanos isn't simply a Royal Guard, he's one of the last two left in existence after they were betrayed and butchered. Where is the other one? He, Carnor Jax, is sitting at the head of the new Empire, having slaughtered his way to the top, even through his comrades in arms.
Jax himself is a much more traditional villain than compared with Kanos, but wonderfully so. The story frequently embraces many of the common evil overlord tropes but without unleashing the ham in his scenes or reducing itself to many common cliches. Better yet, while he treats his underlings as fodder and willingly sticks to the kind of treachery the Sith are best known for, he often avoids the stupidity typical of his kind. He never underestimates Kanos, and the few times the Guardsman gets the better of him is thanks to his underlings failing to comprehend just who they are facing.
The rest of the supporting cast play about with a few of the expected tropes, with Commander Mirith Sinn providing the role of a hard nosed Republic officer without diving head-on into Thunderbolt Ross territory. While few are offered any great insight, there's usually enough there to keep things interesting, suggesting greater depth rather than truly showing it. It really sticks to what helped Star Wars stand out in the first place, as by all rights it really is traditionalist space opera to a fault, but there's always enough of an edge or greater thought behind things to give it some surprising substance.
The comic keeps up a brisk pace from start to finish, but the highlights come from the constant action. This isn't relentless fighting, as there are breaks in between battles and moments for character development, but it's clear someone in the writing room was having a lot of fun thinking up these fights. From the opening bar room battle to the the showdown on the ruined Royal Guard training grounds, the tale here is spectacular in how it handles each fight. Every few pages you're offered something striking, some memorable scene to help highlight the battles, from Kanos managing to take out a TIE Interceptor on-foot to the surprising new arrival which forces a Star Destroyer to surrender. There's enough of these moments to always make you feel satisfied, and to think back to each fight one after the next. Plus, it helps that the final two major engagements are pure visual poetry. I will not show the fight in full, but here's how it starts:
While it might not be the personal gold standard for how to handle comicbook fights, the finale is always the one I have personally argued should be taught in classes. The one which highlights how best to present a duel between two old enemies, and to show how an elite squad can be overcome by a legend without making an open mockery of their skills. Frame by frame, how they are structured, paced and the fight escalates really is a joy to behold, and it even manages to overshadow the vastly bigger battles of the second act.
Still, this is far from a perfect comic and there are a few definite issues which arose while reading it. Which is something we'll get into next.
The artwork here is oddly very mixed in places which can give the sense that the story is uneven. Certain expressions and details seem strangely off at times, and while artists Paul Gulacy and Craig Russell are talented individuals, it's clear that certain panels were hard for them to pull off. The big epic moments, the ones which will stay in your mind, work well and many of the shock moments are extremely well detailed. At the same time though, background figures, features and even textures can seem sparsely detailed, as if they were skimmed over in order to get to the meat of things. It also doesn't help that there's some painfully obvious late '90s CGI at work in certain panels, specifically in the space scenes. Each sticks out like a sore thumb, and the the volume even has the misfortune to end on one such shot, which is disappointing to be sure.
Another definite problem which hinders the tale is how it sometimes requires you to accept stupidity to work. The core characters themselves are certainly fine, and many of these flaws are well hidden enough at first glance to help you overlook them, but it doesn't take much to pick out on certain ones. For example, the major battle of Crimson Empire comes about because the Imperial Commander of the planet launches an attack on the New Republic base. This was against Jax's explicit orders, and even with some additional incentive, he's still disobeying the commands of a man who will kill him for it, no matter what. This isn't hard to realise, and the story still tries to treat his execution as a somewhat shocking moment. In addition to this, the very existence of Jax himself requires something of a logical blind-spot to even be possible. He is revealed early on to be a powerful Force user, yet the reader is supposed to apparently believe that Palpatine never picked up on this at any point.
Matters are hindered further when you stop to realise that - while it's well handled for what it is - the establishing speech is an "As you know" conversation. The type where two characters are reiterating information they both know, purely for the audience's sake. It's almost forgivable thanks to why it's set up, but not quite, and it means that it's easy to be put off of the story early on if you pick up on this failing. A few other moments also seem to veer more towards narrative continence or simply sticking to what people know over anything new, especially when it comes to the New Republic. The whole dynamic of the war as it is presented in the system seems to regulate it back to the Rebels vs Empire style of combat, over the better armed New Republic vs Empire dynamic which should exist now.
Finally, and most pressingly, there's a very obvious sequel bait in the conclusion here. It's painfully visible that Richardson and Stradley were aiming for this to be a trilogy and, while the core story is excellently well resolved, it's hard not to sigh in disappointment to see something more satisfying being given up for this.
Really, despite its flaws, Crimson Empire remains a very solid story and a personal favourite from Dark Horse Comics. You have action, drama, a great deal of lore, and it even manages to sidestep the cliches you might expect it to embrace wholeheartedly. Kanos remains a villain right up to the final page - Just as devotedly loyal to Palpatine's memory as when he started, and he certainly doesn't get the girl in the end. In fact, the few cliches it does truly devote itself to are often presented so well, and executed so effectively, that it helps to remind you of just why they became overused in the first place. If you're a Star Wars fan after something in the bigger universe, or even just an exciting example of what the franchise can pull off with the right creators, definitely give this one a look.
Verdict: 8.5 out of 10