7.30.2010

COMICS: “X-Wing: Rogue Leader”

NOTE: This column was originally supposed to run on Wednesday the 28th. It is running now because I A) Fail at auto-publishing, and B) Fail at checking my site to make sure things are auto-publishing.

It’s Wednesday, and that means new comics. But since I don’t really buy single issues anymore I’m going to start doing something else instead. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to recommend titles to people over the last month or so, and every time I’ve recommended Dark Horse’s old Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron monthly. Running from 1995 to 1998, this is a book that I absolutely loved when I was younger and I have always been ready to throw out a recommendation for it. It’s been a long time since I read so much as a single issue though, so I’ve decided to revisit this particular nostalgia factory in the interest of having comics to talk about on this site and, for the next few weeks, I’ll be covering this series on a story to story basis.

As we begin, I’m already going to have to amend myself. You see, back in the fall of 2005, Dark Horse ran a sort of revival X-Wing series without series mastermind Michael A. Stackpole. Going back to before the beginning of the original series, X-Wing: Rogue Leader ran for three issues that served as a follow-up The Return of the Jedi and a direct lead-in to the original first story-arc, The Rebel Opposition. As such, I’m going to have to start here if I’m going chronologically. Which is a shame, because Rogue Leader totally sucks.

And with that? Here we go, here we go, here we go:

Rogue Leader Cover

STATISTICS:

Script: Haden Blackman

Art: Tomas Giorello

Colors: Michael Atiyeh

Issues: 3

Run Dates: September ‘05 - November ‘05

BACKGROUND:

Oh my god, I barely even know where to begin. I mean…just issues out the ass. First off, I can’t even figure out what the rationale was behind it’s publication. It’s a prequel to the original series, taking up a week after the Battle of Endor, and leaving off just a few days before the mission to Cilpar that makes up The Rebel Opposition. It’s a very tight time-frame, the events of the story taking place over the course of only a couple of days. This is perfectly acceptable, I suppose, but I just have never gotten the why of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, the arc does highlight an important moment in the continuity of the series: the passing of leadership over Rogue Squadron from Luke Skywalker to Wedge Antilles. But why now? This arc was released in 2005, nearly eight years after the end of the original series and seven after the end of the series of novels by Mike Stackpole and Aaron Alston. And it was released a full year before Dark Horse started re-releasing the old series as part of their Omnibus project. So basically we have an isolated incident. A short-run series released without fanfare, which can have no chance of continuation because it would actively clash with the rest of the continuity. So we’re left with the idea of a quick cash-in; something that I’ve found Dark Horse to usually be above. I just can’t find the logic in it.

But who cares about that crap? Logic and commercial viability are for nerds. We’re talking about Star Wars comics, and that’s serious business.

WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT THEN:

So, it’s a week after the Battle of Endor. The Emperor and Vader are dead, the Empire is in disarray, and the Rebel Alliance is running a clean-up operation in the forest moon’s orbit. Luke Skywalker is fresh back from the events of The Truce at Bakura (a novel I could have sworn took place over more than the span of two days) and is putting together a small group of pilots for a mission to monitor Imperial activity in the Corellia system because…there’s an absence of Imperial activity there? And this merits pulling pilots from firefighting efforts, funeral detail, and hunting stormtrooper guerilla squads? I guess if Luke Skywalker wants a mission then he gets a mission. Here are our Rogues:

Luke Skywalker

Luke Skywalker: Rogue Leader

He’s Luke Skywalker. Come on. I don’t need to explain this. He’s a Jedi, an X-Wing pilot and he’s also kind of a dick in this book. Just sayin’.

Ten Numb

Ten Numb: Rogue Does Not Have a Call Number

Ten Numb is the token alien in this series. He does next to nothing. And since he doesn’t appear anywhere else in continuity he is all but guaranteed to be dead by issue three. He also leads his own B-Wing squadron, so why was he chosen for this? Hell, why did he go along with it?

Tycho Celchu

Tycho Celchu: Rogue Prettyboy (Nine)

Tycho is usually a much better character than he is presented as here. The conflict and duality that are inherent in the character takes a backseat here to the, “Oh, ain’t he handsome,” factor. A-Wing pilot.

Wes Jansen

Wes Jansen: Rogue My, What a Comically Large Gun (Five)

I had a horrible time finding a decent picture of Jansen for this. He’s either obscured or in the background for most of this arc. His is a character who is also not quite there for this story. He does things, but he doesn’t feel like anything more than an extra. Also an X-Wing pilot.

Wedge Antilles

Wedge Antilles: Rogue Awesome (Two)

This book is pretty much Wedge and Luke’s show, which is fine since it’s a passing of the torch thing. He’s really the most thoroughly developed character in the book, but it feels like it was done at the expense of everything and everyone else. He also spends the entire book dressed like Han Solo. No excuse is ever given, but I’d like to imagine it’s because the artist and colorist thought that he was Han Solo. And honestly? The alternative is that all Corellian pilots dress the same, which is boring as hell. Our last X-Wing pilot.

After some perfunctory scenes wherein we are introduced to our characters and they are given their mission, the Rogues are quickly off to Corellia, and its capital city of Coronet. They quickly check into a bar, and Luke reveals that he has pulled everyone from their very important assignments so that they can take some shore leave! Yes! Wedge is no longer pulling Star Destroyer sized chunks of debris out of declining orbits, and Ten is no longer putting out fires on the surface of Endor’s moon because why? Because Luke Skywalker decided that he wanted to have a vacation in enemy territory! Why that’s perfectly okay! I don’t know why he didn’t just say so. He didn’t have to misappropriate Alliance materiel and personnel for that. I’m sure that they would have just let him go if he asked. He’s only Luke Goddamn Skywalker. It’s not like this is the first time. He’s the king of flaking out and going off to do whatever he wants.

So we get a little bit of exposition about Corellia, and a little bit of “I’m getting too old for this shit,” dialogue between Wedge and Luke (galactic heroes AND crotchety old men by age twenty-two?) as they set up kip at a cantina so Tycho can go be handsome at the ladies. Unfortunately, further tedious pleasantries are interrupted by the arrival of the plot, in the form of some stormtroopers launching a rocket into the middle of the cantina. Are they assassins? Crazy? Reactionary remnant forces acting out a terrorist plot? Who knows, they’re dispatched quickly and easily. But that’s okay, because as our heroes round the corner they come face to face with an entire army of pissed off Imperials who are more than willing to fight them for the opportunity to question one another.

And that’s it. That’s the first issue. Luke Skywalker shanghais his buddies and a complete stranger into going on vacation under false pretenses and then they get into a fight. It’s twenty-two pages of nothing interesting happening. Almost all of the dialogue is exposition, and it isn’t even decent exposition, and the sole other action sequence at the beginning (Tycho and Jansen fighting a giant Gorax on the forest moon) is handled so quickly and cleanly that it might as well only be mentioned in passing later. They don’t even bother to report on what happened when they radio in after the fight. It’s like nothing that anyone does matters, which is fantastic luck because it’s like none of them care.

But it has to get better, right? Not really, no. Things are probably going to get spoiler-ish from here on out, so skip ahead to the art section if you’d like to remain pure.

Issue two is mostly fighting and chase sequences, but as with the fights in issue one, everything seems too easy. Rogue Squadron is supposed to be sort of an elite force. In the future they’ll sort of be portrayed as a group of Marines; going forth and taking names in any situation or environment. That shines through here, but it’s kind of done in an effortless way. The characters are all just insanely competent and the writer either failed to come up with a challenging scenario for them or decided that it wasn’t necessary. (I’m not familiar with Haden Blackman’s other work, so I don’t know if laziness is his MO or not) As a result, we just sort of coast through the episode until about two-thirds of the way through when we’re introduced to our villain, General Weir.

And General Weir is a problem too. There is absolutely nothing about him that is interesting. He’s fanatical Imperial villain #3,698,425. He sneers and struts and tortures and hates aliens and he thinks that the Emperor is forever. No effort is ever made to develop him at all, and since he isn’t actually introduced until more than halfway (!) through the story, there isn’t any room to do so either. If this were the beginning of a new, larger series where he could serve as a recurring villain then he could have some potential, but since he never shows up in continuity ever again, then the dedicated Star Wars reader knows that, like Ten Numb, Weir will be dead or captured by the end of issue three. So in the end, all he is is another trite villain of the week, whose sole distinguishing characteristic is that he wears glossy black Scout armor with bright red bandoliers crossed over his chest. No, I am not joking.

lol

In This Picture: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

So we have weak action, weak characters, and a villain who looks like he dropped out of a remedial course for GI.Joe bad guys…dare we ask what happens next? Well, when confronted with the combined might of four guys, our fearsome villain and his army turns tail and runs, taking the time to quickly capture Ten in a moment of startling incompetence. The rest of the Rogues give chase as Weir pulls his men off planet and limps back home and, as the issue ends, Ten wakes up to find himself in Weir’s secret underground fortress, badly beaten and minus one hand. Such villainy!

And then issue three rolls around, and if you thought things were flimsy before, well, whoo-boy. Weir has amassed a huge subterranean storehouse of ships and walkers and gear, and he even has the men to run it all. He’s planning on starting his own COUNTER-rebellion, to avenge the destruction of the Empire which, as all of the exposition in issue one informed us, has not actually been destroyed. He’s totally rebelling though, and he’s going to do it with all of the information he has pulled out of Ten during off-screen torture/interrogation sequences. Apparently the little dude took all of three minutes to break.

Luke and the gang track Weir’s ships to his base but need to get inside. They enlist the help of the native Selonian population by promising them really, really hard that the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead and gone. The Selonians agree to lend aid, but are never seen again. Seriously. They just vanish. I guess the offer of aid only extended as far as the door. So, once again, four guys armed with handguns face off against a vast display of Imperial might. And apparently the Rogues just look so absolutely badass that Weir orders an emergency evacuation as soon as they show up. Weir runs in a TIE, Wedge and Tycho pursue in similar fashion, and Wedge gets to shoot the villain down and punch him in the face. Meanwhile, Jansen finds Ten dead on the interrogation table (called it) and Luke fights the entire Imperial force on his own off-screen.

It could have been a great, large action sequence but it’s all handled so ineptly you can barely keep track of it. Everything is over before you know it and all of the surviving characters are suddenly back with the fleet at Endor. Wedge asserts that he wants to keep fighting more now than ever, Luke hands over control of the squadron, and Wedge goes to meet his new pilots and give a terrible little speech about freedom and inspiration. The end.

I don’t really know what to say at this point. The whole thing is like a clinical case in completely screwing the comics pooch. I’m not sure that Blackman could have written anything more flat and uninspired if he had been trying to and was also suddenly Mark Millar. It fits into the continuity of the rest of the series, and I guess it’s an okay prologue since it’s all uphill from here…but really now. It’s just bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.

A VERITABLE PARADE OF ARTISTRY:

So, I’m really not crazy about the art in this arc either. I guess that probably isn’t a surprise at this point, but there it is. And it isn’t that the art is genuinely terrible, it’s just wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it’s thoroughly middle of the road, sometimes it’s got that soft-edged, hyper-real John Cassaday look, and the rest of the time it looks sort of like the stuff that Cam Kennedy did on the Dark Empire series; all hard edges and weird crosshatching and deep, saturated colors. The comparisons aren’t exact, but on a page to page basis we’re seeing some very different looking work.

Further, characters lack consistency in their depiction--again, not badly, but enough to be noticeable. There are some serious scale and anatomy problems that crop up (Luke practices the Jedi art of not having any frigging bones several times), and Tomas Giorello has a fantastic knack for displaying some of the most flat and lifeless splash pages I’ve ever seen. There’s also a real lack in consistency in the way that Corellia is portrayed. We never really see enough of it to establish a good geography, but there are enough descriptions of the planet and her people for the art team to be able to put something together that at least holds up. The city of Coronet also has the tendency to look ridiculous; all silver-age sci-fi city spires, weird lights and shiny surfaces. It doesn’t look all that much like a city just shaking off the shackles of Imperial oppression. And the cast of extras is populated largely with humans dressed in silly hats, giant boots and puffy clothes, all done in mismatched neon jungle prints. In the end, Coronet looks like it belongs on Krypton and it’s inhabitants all dress like Vanilla Ice. It’s strange and kind of embarrassing to look at, especially given Giorello’s predilection to only using shadow for dramatic effect. A substantial portion of the second act is set at night, but even that all seems to be lit by an even, all-encompassing light source.

The book has some lovely technical art though. The arc’s one big dogfight is kind of flat and silly, but the ships look tremendous for the most part. There’s a lot of transition in the art department over the course of the Rogue Squadron book, and it isn’t always a pretty read, but the technical art is pretty steadily great throughout. So I guess Rogue Leader has that going for it.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of other little things. There’s some nice use of white-space and unconventional panel shapes in issue three, where Luke and Wedge stand on the bridge of a Star Destroyer and look out into space and the interior of the ship has been whited out so they are standing in a void staring out into a void. It’s a trick panel that isn’t really special in an average or better book, but it stands out nicely here. There is also a panel in issue two where Luke has an epiphany and the panel is shaped like an exclamation point. It’s a little bit of literalistic silliness that I can’t not include a picture of:

blz18

Finally, this book has what I think is the single most lovingly detailed likeness of venerable internet meme-machine Admiral Ackbar looking pleasantly surprised that has ever been put to paper:

blz22

A Hickory Farms basket? Why, you shouldn't have!”

LAST NAIL:

So Rogue Leader isn’t very good. That’s not really a surprise for me. I knew it wasn’t very good when I read it the first time. It was the revitalization of a beloved series though, so what can I say? I had hope. And because I still have hope, I’m going to forge on with the rest of the series despite this rocky start. Because, hey: It can’t all be nostalgia, can it?

Next week: The Rebel Opposition

-Sean

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