Well, it’s official.  Star Wars VII has a title: The Force Awakens.

Since Star Wars is on everyone’s mind, including mine, I thought I’d take a moment here on the Kirkus Blog to look at Star Wars comics, and specifically, some of my favorites.

There’s a vast span of time after Return of the Jedi in 1983, and the publication of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire in 1991. A lot of people like to call this “the wasteland” as far as Star Wars is concerned. During that time period, you basically had some (good, some bad) arcade games, a pair of family friendly Ewok Movies (Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor), and the Marvel line of comics, which ended in 1986, to sate your Star Wars cravings. Those Marvel years are collected in several omnibus editions, which begin with Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago... Vol. 1. I’m including these on the list because they are important in that they kept Star Wars alive beyond the movies. The early issues, of which 1-26 are collected in the first volume, are rough. The characters barely look like the actors, and the stories are simple and kind of crazy. But as a kid reading them, I didn’t know that. For that kid, it was freaking Star Wars.

It was much later, when I went back to reread those old books, while still collecting the new ones, that I saw the rough edges in storytelling. Later in the run, they tried different things, amping it up and delivering some great stories (Jawas of Doom?). But it took a while to get there. If it weren’t for these books, though, all we would have had for years were those god-awful Ewok movies….

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I used to buy my comics at Sierra Comics in Fresno. When they closed, I was incredibly sad, lost and adrift until I found Heroes Comics and Cards and all was right with the universe again. I honestly can’t remember which I was Star Wars Dark Empirefrequenting when I saw the solicitations for a new Star Wars limited series from some company I’d barely paid attention to before: Dark Horse. At first, I was leery. Marvel had done some good stuff and some bad, but when it had ended, it was the end of an era. No more Star Wars comic books. And maybe that was a good thing? But just months before, I’d bought and ravenously consumed Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, so I figured what the heck? And preordered.

Holy crap. Star Wars: Dark Empire blew me away. This was nothing like Marvel’s books. For one, the art is out of this world. And the story? The Emperor is back? Cloning? Han and Leia being hunted by…Boba Fett? Luke goes over to the Dark Side? Leia at the heart of a Jedi Prophecy? World Devastators? Massive space battles and Jedi/Sith Force duels? It was everything a Star Wars fan could ever want. Here was the dark and gritty Star Wars I’d been craving. And it was part of the continuity established “officially” (see my rant on the Functional Nerds podcast about the EU continuity) in the Thrawn novels by Timothy Zahn.  

Following Dark Empire, Dark Horse released Dark Empire II, and Empire's End, which are all collected in the Star Wars: Dark Empire Trilogy.

The Dark Horse run on Star Wars produced a lot of fantastic sKnights Old Republictories and titles. Next on my list takes us back in time long before the movies—Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This has it all. I almost want to call it the golden age when Jedi Knights kept the peace in a wide and varied galaxy and we got to read and devour every morsel and crumb Dark Horse was willing to feed us. The story begins with Commencement, and the slaughter of a group of Padawan—apparently at the hands of their own Masters who form the secret council known as The Covenant (not to be confused with a group using the same name in the Halo series of video games). Now hunted by his own Master, Zayne Carrick is trying to clear his name and discover why the Masters murdered their own Padawans. He’s willing to do whatever it takes, even if it means partnering with an outlaw like Marn Hierogryph, and junkers like Jarael & Camper. And the Covenant is willing to do whatever it takes to stop Zayne, who they believe might bring about the next wave of Sith and plunge the Republic into a new, dark war. 

The story is fast-paced and compelling with tons of undercurrents, threads—and humor! I love when a story is so well-written and includes moments to make you laugh as well as keep you on the edge of your seat. It ran for over 50 issues and took Star Wars to new places, or old places—you know what I mean.

In addition to The Old Republic, Dark Horse also went into the future beyond the movies—by 125 years—to bring us Star Wars: Legacy. In it, the Empire is back, fueled by an alliance with a new Sith Legion led by Darth Krayt. The Sith hunt down the New Jedi Order founded by Luke Skywalker, knowing that as long as Jedi surStar Wars Legacyvive, so will hope and resistance. The story begins with Sith hunting the last of the Skywalkers, Cade and his father, Kol, and succeeding in killing them. Or so they believe. Though Kol sacrifices himself to save the Jedi, Cade is rescued by a group of smugglers, pirates and bounty hunters, and works to become one of them and earn their trust. 

Cade keeps his Force skills hidden, especially his ability to bring the dead back to life, until faced with his own past and the future he never wanted. This book has more of an edge than the previous ones. Cade is very much the reluctant hero, but it works well. He is a hybrid—part Luke Skywalker, part Han Solo.

Leave it to Dark Horse to manage something few other comic books publishers have been able to pull off—a crossover event I actually liked. Star Wars: Vector bridges the various Dark Horse Star Wars titles with one time-crossing storyline. Split into chapters, Chapter 1 involves Zayne and Gryph during the Mandalorian invasion of the Old Republic. Trapped on the planet Taris, Zayne and Gryph fall in with a Jedi on a mission to destroy an ancient Sith Artifact. When that artifact falls into the hands of one of the Mandalorians, all hell breaks loose. Chapter 2 takes place 4,000 years later during the Star Wars: Dark Times book (which I haven’t talked about). This is the time of the new Empire, where a young Lord Vader is seeking a way to free himself of the Emperor’s influence and control. He Star Wars Vectorwants an apprentice of his own, someone who can help him overthrow the Emperor. What he finds is a 4,000 year old tomb, and an ancient Sith Artifact even he may not be able to control. Chapter 3 takes place during the Rebellion era and involves Luke and Leia finding the Jedi Celeste Morne, entombed by Zayne 4,000 years ago, and learning she is not what she appears to be. Chapter 4 is the final piece of the story, and takes place during Star Wars: Legacy. Cade Skywalker teams up with Celeste to assassinate the new Sith Emperor, Darth Krayt.

With Marvel now back in control of the Star Wars line of comic books, new movies on the horizon, and an entire Extended Universe full of novels recently chucked into the trash-can of history, it’s fun to read through these comics and see how Star Wars was kept alive during “the wasteland” and beyond. I think any Star Wars fan would enjoy the books I’ve outlined here today.

Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and 2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine (Editor - SF Signal), and 2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fancast. He lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012, 2013, and 2014 Hugo Award. In addition to his Kirkus posts, he writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal and Functional Nerds.