Sunday, June 8

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy (Dark Horse, 2009)

Reprinted from three six-issue comic-book miniseries (1995, 1998, and 1999) based on the prose novels by Timothy Zahn (1991-1993), adapted by scripter Mike Baron and various artists

I was there, nigh on two and a half decades past, when Star Wars seemed a fad of the past after a dearth of several years in the late 1980s after the completion of the “trilogy” with the appearance of Return of the Jedi in 1983. Little if any merchandising was being published when suddenly there appeared in 1991 a new novel, Heir to the Empire. I was there … but I didn't actually pick it up until it appeared in paperback the next summer, and read it during that bit of a lull in my graduate studies between finishing up my M.A. thesis and beginning my doctoral studies. I thoroughly enjoyed it, of course, picked up the paperbacks of the sequels – Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – as they appeared in paperback the next two summers. Together, they told one long, fast paced, intricate story that basically created what came to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Characters, worlds, concepts, a history spanning millennia would be elaborated by many other creators in both prose and comics – some even being “canonized” by incorporation into the revived film series, most notably the Imperial Capital of Coruscant, which was first named and described in Heir to the Empire.

Dark Horse Comics, a small “independent” publisher just getting on its feet, acquired the license to publish the Star Wars comics at about the same time as the prose Thrawn Trilogy was appearing, and worked closely with Lucasfilms to maintain a more-or-less cohesive continuity in the overall Star Wars brand. Although I have read very little of it, just a handful of novels and even less of the comics, it is a publishing and marketing coup that one cannot help but marvel at, given its omnipresence in bookstores and comic shops. Even though I have no personal attachment to it, I consider it a shame that the what everyone predicted when Disney acquired Lucasfilm a couple of years ago has now come to pass, that Dark Horse is losing its license to publish Star Wars material in favor of Disney's earlier-acquired Marvel Comics. I think there is no doubt that the quality and success of Dark Horse's efforts through the years contributed greatly to rejuvenating the Star Wars brand and making possible the prequel movies as well as the new movies that are now in production – and made it an extremely attractive property for Disney to assimilate. No good deed goes unpunished.

But the mid-'90s revival of Star Wars was synergistic, really sparked by the appearance of Heir to the Empire. Within a year of The Thrawn Trilogy's completion in prose, Dark Horse began closing the circle by beginning publication of the three six-issue miniseries collected here, adapting the prose novels into illustrated form, first as comics, then collected in trades, and finally in 2009 bringing them all together in a fairly massive hardcover edition. Which is what I found a couple of years ago and decided to pick up, to revisit that great story I remembered from nigh on two decades past. It actually sat on my bookshelf unread, for a couple of years, until just recently, in the wake of Dark Horse's announcement that their publication and distribution of Star Wars material would end later this year and their titles would become unavailable. I decided to pick up the other two of what I perceive as the key Dark Horse Star Wars collections – presented in volumes that more or less match this one – The Dark Empire Trilogy and The Crimson Empire Saga, and I started reading this one.

To be honest, I found it a bit disappointing. Although at twenty-or-more years' remove, my memories of the story are sketchy, they are fondly held. The problem is that even at a whopping 440 pages there is far too little space to translate the dense, driving prose narrative into graphic form. Mike Baron is quite straightforward in his introduction:

Adapting the novels was a simple process because Zahn writes so visually. Knowing there would be six comic books for each novel, I simply divided the text into sixths, making allowances for natural breaks and cliffhangers. I didn't invent any language. All the language is Zahn's” (p. 7).

There is just too much story here for that to work, however. It's a problem I noticed particularly in the second and third parts, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, where there are scores of annoying narrative glitches, discontinuities, characters mysteriously appearing and disappearing here there and yonder. The problem existed both at the micro-scene and macro-plot level, to the point of rendering pages and scenes on end basically incomprehensible gibberish. Had I not at least a general idea of the story's progress and where it was going, I fear I would have just given up. I pressed on, but frankly my overall memory of the story are not now much less sketchy than when I began.

There are bits I did enjoy. It was neat gaining more than my own mind's eye interpretation of characters created by Zahn whom I remembered distinctly – Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Taran Kaarde, C'Baoth (how the hell do you pronounce that? – “K'Bay-oth” or “S'Bay-oth”? – or something else? … I mean, I pronounced the planet as “Kor-uss-kahnt” until The Phantom Menace appeared and Qui-Gon Jinn told me it was “Kor-uss-sahnt”), and so forth. On the other hand, the artistic style is overtly inconsistent from part to part. The first is highly impressionistic with even established characters being difficult to recognise; the second is quite realistic, with the established characters closely reflecting the actors who portrayed them; the third is more generic comic-book style with far less resemblance between character and actor. Honestly, I preferred the middle style  for both the established and the new characters.

It was interesting how much of a nod was given to Grand Admiral Thrawn's uncanny ability to strategise against his New Republic opponents based on the artistic and design styles favored by the various races making it up, perceiving and exploiting weaknesses in their thought processes and adapting to and defending against their strengths. That is a fascinating concept that I had remembered being intrigued by in my original reading of the novels, and although I think it inevitably short shrift here, enough comes through to give credence to the military genius threatening the young New Republic. As an example of the serendipity with which life is filled, I was reading this volume at the very time I was encountering a similar artistically-based cultural comparison between Christianity and Buddhism in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, chapter eight.

All in all, however, I don't think this would be the form of the story I would recommend. If you're interested in what has been, for the past twenty years and more, the “official” story of the New Republic after the death of the Emperor and the redemption of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi – an future that has reportedly been rendered irrelevant along with the entire Expanded Universe as the “Disney” Star Wars Universe moves forward – I would instead suggest going directly to Zahn's original novels. A valiant effort, the graphic novelization of The Thrawn Trilogy is ultimately a shallow, unsatisfying overview that does not stand on its own.

May the Force be with you, and Thanks for reading.

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