A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
I started reading these comics. For the first time, though probably not the last, I’m joining Kirr and MizzeeOH in reviewing classic Star Wars comic volumes. Today, I’ll be reviewing Crimson Empire II: Council of Blood, brought to us by the same people who made Crimson Empire.
The new Emperor Carnor Jax is dead, but his Imperial Interim Ruling Council lives on. As several groups plot their own Imperial takeover, the squabbling Council itself is obsessed with one another and the threat still posed by Kir Kanos, assassin of Carnor Jax. In the meantime, Hutt crime lord Grappa is involved, one way or another, in almost all of the capers… and the threat posed by his own temper.
Despite my succinct wrap-up, the best way to describe this comic is all over the place. Oddly enough, it’s impossible to describe it that way in simple terms. There are a small handful of main plots, no more or less than most novels or graphic novels, yet it just comes across as unnecessarily messy and convoluted.
The original Crimson Empire (reviewed here by NJOE member MizzeeOH) was an epic tale, which displayed a man’s life story and the way betrayal by his colleague resulted in crashing it to the ground. From there, the revenge plot takes its shape and concludes, after mixing in briefly with the martial politics involved with all of the above. And that’s it. I could complicate it by bringing in the dynamics between Sinn and Kir. It’s obviously a very self-contained story, with no need for a sequel.
But Crimson Empire, of course, was a huge hit. So, like any smart publishing company would do, Dark Horse made a sequel. With almost none of what made the original such a hit.
Backstory of an enigmatic group of warriors is replaced with the modern day running of a crime empire, itself a rehash of Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. A Vader-esque Overlord is replaced with a group of squabbling Council Members, who would go on to set the precedent for any group of powerful Imperials in future literature. Expert violence in full-on Star Wars meets trained assassin style is replaced with momentary spurts of combat and assassination. Crimson and oranges remain the same, but the dark browns and purples of combat are replaced with the tans of combat of a less physical sort.
But does the sequel, nevertheless, hold up? Is the premise, that Kir Kanos is an epic assassin in the mold of Boba Fett with shinier wrapping and a mission yet to complete, good enough to overcome the lesser story that must be told?
Yes or no, despite their common goal, Council of Blood is a very different story from that of its predecessor. This is a tale of political intrigue, of how Black Sun and the mysterious group represented by Nom Anor (later to be identified as the Yuuzhan Vong) manipulate the Council and how speciesism and personal ambition stand in the way of defending against these common threats. It’s about how a man who once simply strode in with obvious intent must adopt a new identity- and how he must consider the idea of adopting one for the rest of his life. He can’t avenge the Emperor forever, after all… can he?
While I’m not going to make a habit of reviewing covers of comics, I am going to touch on this one. The color difference on the Trade Paperback is the most notable thing about this cover, compared to the first. Rather than Kir Kanos standing in front of the flames of war and other imposing, crimson Imperial imagery, we get an unmasked Kir and several other, equally exposed beings. Not only is this story less about mystery, it’s saying, but it’s also not as intimidating. In story terms, that means there’s not as much badassery to go around. The background of the Council of Blood TPB is, in fact, pure white. And, finally, the reason why I’m mentioning the cover at all: Mirith Sinn, featured in a badass black jumpsuit with her red hair as the most distinguishing feature. I wonder, coming as it did on the heels of the Hand of Thrawn duology, if this could be anything other than an attempt to play off the popularity of Mara Jade. Seriously, in my eyes, this is an example of guilty until proven innocent.
Since the Imperial plot is the messiest (and the one that I’ve made the most negative drive-by comments on so far in this review), let me deal with that first. You’ve got the Council, humans and aliens, that Carnor Jax put together. Why did he do this? The plot required it, of course! Why would a Force-using sociopath with the intention of ruling the galaxy work alone, or with a hard-knit group of individuals he can trust?
The Council is an interesting group, made up of Givins, Devaranonians, Defels and Whiphids, in addition to humans. Bureaucrats, Nobles, and military leaders make up this eclectic group that is at one another’s throats for much of the story. Naturally, once several humans are assassinated, every non-human on the Council gets arrested. We can’t have progress in the stagnant Imperial courts, can we? In the midst of all this, a clone of Feena D’Asta, daughter of the Ruling Council’s Baron D’Asta, working for Black Sun, is pushing for the Council to sue for peace. Why this furthers the plans of a criminal empire who profits from the chaos and destruction brought on by the continuing war is beyond me, but that’s what happens. Maybe the idiot Chairman Nolyds is right when he says, “Isn’t it clear? She’s trying to split the Council and increase her own power!” The apparently useless and oblivious Xandel Carivus gets chosen to replace the assassinated Nolyds and, surprise surprise, he takes advantage of the emergency situation to make himself Emperor and take pretty much everyone prisoner over the course of the story. Oh, and now Black Sun wants to replace him with
a clone (which makes more sense than D’Asta, at least). You with me so far? Now let me lose you: Nom Anor, at this point a hidden, insidious plotter with an unknown purpose, is coordinated Carivus’s actions. Until Carivus changes his mind, and decides he doesn’t need Nom Anor for anything. Until he begs him for help. So Nom Anor wanted Carivus in power, but once he got there, he pretty much stopped caring, even going so far as to give him a “last scare” warning of what was in store for him before disappearing from his life. It’s pretty easy to deduce that the Vong (or whatever he was originally supposed to represent) was doing their best to weaken their most deadly threat up until that point, but it would be nice if the comic ever gave us that, or if anything made by Dark Horse ever followed up on that (maybe Invasion?)
Next we get to the underground plot. If you thought it was convoluted before, wait till you see what’s going on now.
Grappa is a Hutt crime lord, almost entirely based on Jabba except for the skull tattoo on his forehead. He has this interesting species of mercenaries working for him, the Zanibar, who require sentient sacrifices for their ceremonies and perform Grappa’s executions for him (in lieu of a Sarlaac). He also has his own pirate gang. You know, to establish his rep. Once Grappa’s established, we have the mysterious (and pretty obvious if you’ve read the first volume) Kenix Kil, who offers to prove himself and work for him as a mercenary. Why? Well, Kenix is really Kir Kanos, and his plan is to establish himself as a widely known and credible bounty hunter because bounty hunters are being hired to find him. He wants to establish himself at the level of Bossk or Dengar, and get invited to Ord Cantrell to find himself a la Empire. Never mind that this will likely take years– he has no other plans. A better question is how he plans to keep the Empire scared that long. But, if he knows the Council as well as readers will come to… it’s no surprise.
After Kano- I mean, Kil, a woman comes to see Grappa. She wishes to work for him as she uses his resources to find Kir Kanos and Grappa, in his all-powerful crime lord knowledge, dramatically reveals that he knows her as Mirith Sinn. This would be a little more dramatic if he didn’t have Kir Kanos working for him, or if he wasn’t completely oblivious to this fact. All-knowing crime lord my shiny metal- oh, wrong Sci-Fi franchise. Eventually, Grappa finds out through a disloyal subordinate of Sinn’s who she is, and sends her to the Zanibar, who have been pressuring him for more sacrifices. Kanos goes to free Mirith (who, by the way, does not look a thing like Mara Jade except for one or two panels toward the end), but in the meantime, slapstick hilarity ensues, as the short-tempered Grappa fries a Black Sun vigo for disagreeing with him, as well as several Zanibar and every single guest at his party who might someday run into Black Sun. As Black Sun demands information, Grappa stalls and the Zanibar manage to capture Kanos, who sacrificed his chance of escape to allow Sinn to escape. The Zanibar take Kanos to their middle-man, Grappa, who is so strapped for cash that he accepts their offer of 10% of the reward, before being attacked by Sinn and Kanos’s convenient acquaintance. Kanos is freed, and they leave Grappa to his fate with the Zanibar. I guess the others with designs on his life will never make it…
Throughout their escape, Kanos and Sinn discussed their lives before the death of the Emperor, and the future. Kanos discovers that the Emperor might not have been the Holiest of Holies, and that he’s going to need to let go eventually. This is echoed after the climax (which was really more of a foregone conclusion than a true climax), when Kanos decides not to go on a pointless bloodbath. Note that by this point, I’m so tired of the Imperial characters that I would have welcomed a a prison massacre.
All in all, the plot is pulled off, however flawed it is. I’ve pretty much touched on every negative of this convoluted mess– beyond that, it’s pulled off decently believably. Some things just never make sense, like why Black Sun wanted peace between the Empire and the Republic, or what exactly Nom Anor has to do with Grappa. Rumor has it, another sequel series to this was planned, and canceled. The plot certainly leaves that up in the air- definitely not as conclusive as the first book, though it does have a conclusion of all the local plots. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book that didn’t know whether or not it was going to have a sequel, though, you know the kind of uneasy ending Council of Blood closes off with.
The art is mostly pretty good, but it’s certainly not perfect. All the people look like people and the points are clearly illustrated. The biggest issue I had is fairly early in the novel, at the first assassination. While the volume has a fairly realistic style all the way through, one panel just seems so cartoony and ridiculous that I can’t help but wonder if Paul Gulacy felt a momentary need to parody everything in the book. Nolyds’s eyelids completely vanish as his face is stretched in surprise, almost as though he were wearing a mask someone was stretching taut at the top of his head. Another minor complaint I had was toward the middle-to-end, in what I believe is supposed to be Mirith Sinn giving Kir Kanos is a kiss. Her face is pressed against him, sure, but from the look of it I can’t tell if she’s actually supposed to be kissing him, or if she’s giving him a sniff, or otherwise just leaning against him.
While not as good as the original, Crimson Empire II: Council of Blood is still a pretty decently delivered story. The characters are frustrating by design, and you can’t help but root for the two returning characters to overcome every single one of these bumbling imbeciles. There’s some (possibly unintentional) fun, with such Easter Eggs as a droid named 4/NG (Ferengi), as well as just enough mystery plots and actions to keep both the more cerebral and the action fans reading. While CEII did not introduce Whiphids to the universe as I initially thought, it’s still one of their biggest early roles, in addition to the new addition of the Zanibar. If you can deal with the confusion and have some imagination, or if you’re a hardcore fan of Kir Kanos (or his template, Boba Fett), pick this one up, and give it a try.