The year is 1980. You’re sitting in the theater watching Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back for the first time and you get to the decisive duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Luke is holding his own, but it isn’t enough. You’re on the edge of your seat as Luke is trapped hanging for his life. Luke’s fate now rests in the palm of Vader’s hands. While Luke is reckoning with his mistakes, Vader drops the bomb of all bombs, “I am your father”, cementing himself as arguably the most infamous villain in cinematic history. The Empire has the Rebellion on its last legs, the galaxy under its heel.
Fast forward to 1983 and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker is introduced as a completely different character from where we left him. He’s a bold, brash, wickedly talented Force user on his way to becoming the first Jedi in a generation. The Rebel Alliance makes its last stand on Endor and defeats Emperor Palpatine at his own game. And the most evil granddaddy of them all, Darth Vader, is brought back to the light side of the Force, completing a prophecy once thought impossible.
So what happened? What transpired in that mysterious, undetermined amount of time that could change the course of the galaxy? If you consult Legends, you’ll be told the story of 1996’s Shadows of the Empire. If you were to consult the newly installed canon timeline from 2014-2019, you’d be at a loss. Disney/Lucasfilm mostly left this period of time alone.
There were the occasional stories though: Forces of Destiny showed how Leia got the bounty hunter garb she wore to Jabba’s palace; the first level of 2017’s Battlefront II followed Inferno Squad trying to keep the Empire’s secret trap for the Rebels hidden; the junior novel Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure exists, but didn’t move mountains, as its main purpose was to set up The Force Awakens. That’s really it; nothing truly substantial to fill in the gap.
Then 2020 came around. After spending the first few years with the Star Wars license filling in the blanks between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Marvel relaunched a number of titles to be set in that fabled period between Episodes V and VI. The flagship Star Wars title was to be written by Charles Soule. Greg Pak was tasked with Darth Vader. Alyssa Wong tackled Doctor Aphra. And Ethan Sacks got a brand new Bounty Hunters comic.
Eventually, the four stories would lead into the new canon’s version of Shadows of the Empire. In 2021, Charles Soule brought us War of the Bounty Hunters, featuring the stunning return of Crimson Dawn led by Qi’ra, and a massive crossover of all the series. Very exciting. But did this twist accomplish anything?
I pose that question because sure, the return of Solo: A Star Wars Story‘s Qi’ra made headline news all over. It shone a very public light on the comics for the first time in a long time, which in 2021 is very hard to do. Myself and other comic fans alike are invested in the continuing story being told on the page. However, the general public is more concerned over whether Qi’ra and Crimson Dawn will return on the screen in shows like The Book of Boba Fett.
You can’t necessarily blame them either. Star Wars in its purest form is a visual medium. The comics are niche. End of the day, Qi’ra’s return has stolen the spotlight from the little things being done in this era of comics to build the larger Star Wars story towards its climactic moment.
To put it in sports terminology, the Star Wars galaxy is heading towards its Super Bowl. It’s got to win a championship or bust. On the day, Return of the Jedi can do a lot of the heavy lifting, but you got to get your reps in during the off-season. The comics represent that off-season. The return of Qi’ra is that one great playmaker picked up in free agency, but forgetting all the other pieces that make up your team is dangerous. That’s what I want to shine a light on today: Luke’s journey, Vader’s introspection, Leia’s turmoil, Lando’s decision, Aphra’s wackiness, Boba Fett’s side quests, and more. While having Qi’ra back is great, and her story along with the on-screen possibilities it brings is arguably more compelling than ever, there are things getting lost at sea.
Because at least one person out there has goat to still be the NFL Playoff spirit, let’s pretend it’s halftime. At the time of writing, Darth Vader #20 was the last issue until March. The game has taken the kind of twists and turns that even my Minnesota Vikings would be jealous of, and as we head into the second half, it’s not slowing down. So let’s get down and dirty and figure out if this era of comics has been up to snuff and is up to the future task of building Return of the Jedi to be an even greater champion than it already is.
I surmise this comes down to two people. I’ll give you three guesses as to who. Luke doesn’t have to become the burgeoning Jedi Master we see in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, but he does have to be developed enough to walk in with the bravado he displays in Jabba’s Palace. Luke also has to have the kind of wisdom in the Force to be able to guide his father back from the dark side and face the Emperor. Then, there is that other elephant in the room that folks latch onto regarding Luke’s potential tampering with the dark side.
For Vader, meanwhile, it’s a question of what direction you want to take him in. It wasn’t long before that Palpatine told him that Luke was the son of Anakin Skywalker — yes, I know the 2015 Darth Vader comic already covered how Vader actually found out who Luke was, so we must pretend that doesn’t exist if you want any of this to flow nicely. That revelation has to be haunting for a man turned machine whose only tie to that humanity was his lost wife Padmé.
No matter what though, Greg Pak cannot make it obvious Vader will turn back to the light side. Of all the moments you can get away with cheapening in the movies, Vader saving his son in the Emperor’s throne room is not one of them. The more Vader can tap into the darkest parts of his soul, the better.
The First Quarter: The Initial Story Arcs
Father and son are the centerpiece to this era of Marvel Star Wars comics. Writer Charles Soule understands that. His first arc centers all around Luke and him dealing with the news of Vader being his father. Our heroes return to Cloud City, where Luke searches for his lightsaber to get some of his old self back. After failing to find his lightsaber, Luke didn’t give up. He continued to search for answers and came upon Tempes, gaining a new yellow lightsaber along the way.
Elsewhere, the Empire isn’t giving up the hunt. Commander Zahra, former pupil to Grand Moff Tarkin, seeks to destroy what’s left of the Rebels. Meanwhile, Leia is doing her best to reform the Rebel Alliance with Operation Starlight. Things get hairy, and Shara Bey, Poe Dameron’s mother, is stuck on an Imperial Star Destroyer with no way out. All the while, Lando Calrissian is trying to figure out what he wants to do. Either rebel, help Lobot, or stick to his old scoundrel ways in secret dealings with Jabba the Hutt.
If you couldn’t tell by just that brief description, Soule understands the assignment. Outside of Luke, he knows the Rebellion needs to reform, since it never got a chance after the Battle of Hoth. It’s a reminder that the little things make or break a continuous story. The Empire Strikes Back left the Rebellion on the ropes and Soule is continuing that thread. The Empire is convinced the knockout blow is coming, and the lengths the Rebels have to go to stay afloat is telling.
If you remember from the end of Revenge of the Sith, Vader didn’t know the truth behind what happened to Padmé. The last he saw of her was her unconscious body before dueling Obi-Wan. The Emperor told Vader that she died because of the anger she forced upon her. Now, knowing that was a lie (from a certain point of view), he went to Naboo and the tomb of Padmé Amidala to find answers. Along the way, he ran into Sabé, a former handmaiden of Padmé, who launched an attack to kill Vader.
After showing Sabé mercy and failing to convert Luke to the dark side, Palpatine punished Vader cruelly, leaving him right where he started, on Mustafar as a broken, beaten carcass of a man. Forced to rediscover the meaning of why he chose the dark side in the first place, Vader traipses Mustafar and the galaxy along with Ochi of Bestoon to uncover Palpatine’s own hidden schemes on Exegol. Yes, that Exegol. After thinking he is ready to take on and conquer his master like all Sith apprentices before him, Palpatine instead counters Vader’s assault and shoots him down once and for all.
One aspect of the Star Wars mythos that hasn’t really been explored in the films is the nature of the Sith. Masters live only to be killed by those who would supplant them, often being their own apprentices. Palpatine tells the tragedy of Darth Plagueis, and Kylo Ren killed Snoke, but that’s it. There was a double meaning to Vader’s lines to Luke at Cloud City. He truly meant it when he offered Luke to be his right hand man after they destroyed the Emperor. He wanted to take over. Only now it has been reinforced just how tall of a task that truly is.
Darth Sidious’s aura in Return of the Jedi suddenly feels more palpably (dad joke achieved) daunting for Luke to overcome. By using The Rise of Skywalker elements to do it, one could say it strengthens that part of Episode IX too. I won’t, but someone might. Throughout all of this, Greg Pak never makes it clear what Vader’s feelings are about any of this. Despite torture and nightmares about his past, Vader’s helmet conceals all emotion. Which is the way it should be.
So now that we’re all depressed, let’s talk about Aphra. She lives in her own little bubble of the Star Wars galaxy. Each and every issue packs weird Star Wars in the best way while also shining a light on who Aphra is as a person. While navigating dangerous business with the Tagge Corporation, she and her gang travel to mysterious haunted lost cities, hunt for rings that allegedly grant eternal life, investigate High Republic artifacts, and more. Just a normal day’s work. Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention everyone’s new favorite wookiee.
If it wasn’t obvious, Alyssa Wong’s Doctor Aphra has no intention at the moment of adding anything to Return of the Jedi. Spoiler alert… that is fine. Star Wars has room for any and every kind of story, and if Wong wants to keep Aphra away from the other goings-on of Marvel Star Wars comics, more power to her. Aphra’s only real connection to the saga at this point is Darth Vader. They are a fated pair, and time will tell if they ever reunite. Until then, enjoy the ride.
Ethan Sacks’ Bounty Hunters is the misunderstood black sheep of Star Wars comics at the moment. There is no point in dissecting why as we aren’t here to talk about that. At the end of the day, the story of the comic has a purpose for existing: the idea of squabbling in the Star Wars underworld coming to some kind of an end is a noble cause. If that happens, that would tie nicely into the end of Return of the Jedi. The galaxy is coming back together after decades of Imperial rule. Wouldn’t it be just grand if any of the crime syndicates could get along too?
This series even has connective threads to Episode V in the very beginning. Boba Fett gets sidetracked while bring Han Solo to Jabba. His quest for vengeance leads him to the main character of the series, Beilert Valance. We follow Valance as he protects Cadeliah, the young girl who could unite the crime families in peace and harmony. The comic stretches our understanding of canon just a tad, but without it we wouldn’t get…
The Second Quarter: War of the Bounty Hunters
All four series would come together under one roof. The roof of the re-emerged Crimson Dawn. Boba Fett loses Han Solo on the way to Jabba the Hutt. This leads to a galaxy-wide auction held by the one and only Qi’ra. Anybody who’s anybody received an invite: the Empire, the Rebellion, the Hutts, bounty hunters, crime syndicates, Aphra, and more. However, Aphra gets out of dodge the moment she locks eyes onto a surprise guest. Darth Vader crashes the party, and chaos breaks out. Luke is also late to the party in his X-wing and walks right into Vader’s trap. He threatens to kill a frozen Han if Luke does not meet him. Luke decides he isn’t ready, instead goading Vader into a dogfight above.
This diversion gives Leia, Chewie, and Lando their chance to save Han. Jabba, seeing the bigger picture, lets the Empire take Han, but Bokku, another member of the Hutt Council, feels slighted. He unleashes the might of the Hutts upon the Empire to take back their prize. The chaos comes to an end when Boba Fett and Beilert Valance break into the Executor and steal back Han Solo. Finally, Boba Fett completes the job and gets Han to Jabba the Hutt.
Charles Soule handled the five-issue miniseries, and it felt like a big deal. Consequently, our four ongoing series were subject to often replaying the same events again and again, therefore not feeling as important. The first quarter momentum from the initial stories was set aside for a big galactic event. While maybe not the most riveting read if you’re a completionist, it did come with its pluses for our discussion today.
Luke was able to find Mon Mothma and company, bringing them back into the fold. Once arriving at Jekara, Luke’s dogfight with Vader played out. Luke initially got the better of Vader, but backed down from finishing him off. Vader made Luke pay, doing the exact opposite of backing down. The only reason Luke survived was because the Emperor continued his petty games with Vader, demanding he personally end the Hutt rebellion. Because of that failed mutiny, Jabba the Hutt was re-established as the kingpin of all things crime in the Star Wars galaxy. Amazingly, Leia and Qi’ra were also able to meet face-to-face aboard the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars issue #18.
Leia spends the issue reflecting on what Han meant to her after failing to rescue him. Han was Leia’s hope, and she admits it only came back when there was a chance to save him. Qi’ra and Leia share an intoxicating dynamic. One is morally noble, the other is questionably noble. Leia shows strength in this moment of reflection with the woman she knows Han once cared for. She decides to focus on her duty to the Alliance over her love. Moreover, Qi’ra shows her own strength within Crimson Dawn. Her reach expands beyond anything Leia or anyone could fathom.
War of the Bounty Hunters saw the galaxy’s symbol of hope lose it and attempt to find it all over again. This adds more weight to her plight when she eventually decides it’s time for the Rebellion to save Han. Despite its flaws, War of the Bounty Hunters reframed Han Solo as an important figure worth fighting for.
Two-Minute Warning: Crimson Reign
There are a number of ways to approach the two-minute warning. You can play conservative and run out the clock, or you can continue to ride that momentum you’ve built in the second quarter to strengthen your chances at winning.
Charles Soule took that idea and raised his game to the next level. Crimson Reign #1 hit comic stores last December, and if you thought War of the Bounty Hunters was ambitious, Soule said “hold my blue milk”. Following the events of War, Qi’ra unleashes a plan to destroy Palpatine and Vader. She has recruited a who’s who of Star Wars names, including the Knights of Ren, into the Crimson Dawn and started a syndicate war the likes of which the galaxy hasn’t seen before. Each phase of her plan is deliberate. Her secret agents across the galaxy wreak havoc, no matter where they are hidden.
In Star Wars, Soule has resumed his examination of Luke. After failing to confront his father, Luke travels the galaxy to strengthen his connection to the Force once more. The search falls short. He even goes to Lothal from Star Wars Rebels, where he feels the presence of a Temple, but can’t uncover the way in. Rebels shows how it was lost at the end of the animated series, and the portal to the World Between Worlds with it. Soule demonstrates very clearly that despite everything, Luke is still just as lost as the day he left Dagobah.
Which brings us to Star Wars issue #20. Finally, Luke finds Gazian, where he encounters a vergence in the Force. It’s trippy and it’s weird, and there Luke meets Elzar Mann from the High Republic era. Elzar offered Luke the kind of lesson that nobody else could give because Luke wasn’t ready to hear it. The Force is more than just the Jedi and more than just the Sith.
If you could point to a moment in time when the real journey to Return of the Jedi began, it’s right here. In this moment, when Luke is fully enveloped in the Force, he is taught what it means to be a Jedi. It’s more than just helping and saving people because you can. It’s about giving up your own self to see deeper, to understand your role in any given moment. The kind of deep selflessness that Luke needs if he is to save his father.
In a lot of ways, the Jedi of the High Republic era and Luke are cut from the same cloth. Elzar especially is at constant odds with himself as far as his role to play as a Jedi. The High Republic emphasizes following your own path in the Force no matter where it may lead. I won’t rehash ad nauseum takes about the prequel trilogy Jedi, but this is Luke’s first real taste of an understanding of the Force beyond “the dogmatic narrow view of a Jedi” as was once told to Luke’s father.
This level of connection, spanning from the High Republic era all the way to The Last Jedi not only strengthens our understanding of Luke in Return of the Jedi, but it strengthens the Star Wars story as a whole. The Jedi are a constantly changing brand, and now Luke has permission to forge the destinies of not only himself, but the future of the Jedi Order as well. Whether that path leads to the light side, dark, or a combination of both, as we have seen Luke portray, is a path Soule has now set in front of our hero.
While Crimson Dawn is so far mostly absent from Star Wars, their role is more prominent in the other series. Bounty Hunters has rejoined the Cadeliah storyline. Crimson Dawn hopes to snuff out any form of peace among the syndicates, and Cadeliah is the only path to that as seen in Crimson Reign #2. Beilert Valance is forced out of the equation, now in servitude to Vader in his own hunt for Crimson Dawn’s secret agents. Darth Vader by proxy heavily features Crimson Dawn, and will bring back Sabé in the coming issues to probably test Vader some more. Sabé has, of course, joined Crimson Dawn’s ranks. I think?
Doctor Aphra, meanwhile, has gotten weirder than ever. The end of War of the Bounty Hunters saw Aphra come into contact with a thought dowser, an ancient weapon used by the Ascendant. The Ascendant is an ancient dark side cult that toyed with weapons that even the Sith wouldn’t dare use. The plot thickens as it’s revealed Crimson Dawn desires these artifacts.
Moral of the story is that, quite often, the final two minutes of a half are wilder than the rest. Am I right, Cincinnati Bengals fans?
Hey, I’m a Vikings fan. I suffer more than you.
The Second Half Game Plan: The Hidden Empire
After whatever comes in the Crimson Reign stories, Charles Soule is writing the third and final part of his trilogy, titled The Hidden Empire. At this time, it is unknown if this will be the end of comics in this era. If it is, this could be the last we ever see of some of these characters (unless this is all just an elaborate ruse to get Aphra her own Disney Plus show *fingers crossed*), so it’s crunch time. Qi’ra and Crimson Dawn have brought the hammer down and rallied the team. Now it’s up to upcoming issues, like Crimson Reign #4, where the Knights of Ren will be storming Vader’s Castle to raise the bar further.
If you are still with me at the end of this examination of Star Wars comics, I want to assure you I did not mean to keep you here this long. As I revisited the stories told thus far, I found myself with a deeper appreciation than ever before of the storytelling depth that can exist in comics. And the more I dug into this topic, the more nuggets I found that enrich elements of Return of the Jedi. The Emperor is more foreboding than ever. Leia’s hope for a better galaxy is restored after being taken away from her. Darth Vader regains some of his humanity only to deal with it in the only way he knows how: death and destruction. Meanwhile, Luke’s journey is just beginning, and he is on a path only he can carve.
Not every tale has to be a part of a larger saga for it to be great. We’re seeing that with Doctor Aphra. And not every story has to be great for it to matter. We’re seeing that with Bounty Hunters. The journey to Return of the Jedi is right on schedule, and there’s still a lot of game to play. It’s time to see these comics push towards the goal.