Written by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley and illustrated by Paul Gulacy, Crimson Empire first premiered in 1997, and followed the exploits of a former Imperial royal guard Kir Kanos, as he tries to seek justice for the recently departed Emperor Palpatine following the series, Dark Empire. While both stories are no longer considered canon following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, upon reading the Crimson Empire, it continues to hold up today, and leaves me hoping that there may still be a place for Kir Kanos in the new Disney mythos.
As Crimson Empire opens, the reader is given a visual parallel to the opening sequence of New Hope, with the first image being that of a ship. However unlike in New Hope, where we are seeing the underbelly of an Imperial ship, a perspective that makes it seem all encompassing, Crimson Empire opens from a position looking down at the Imperial ship. Right away, readers see that this is not the same Empire that threatened the galaxy as it once did. They are not traveling in a star destroyer, but a vessel made to look smaller when compared to the asteroids surrounding it.
The very next scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. Stormtroopers believe they have trapped Kir Kanos, only to find out too late that they were in fact walking into his trap, and are immediately blown to shreds by a bomb. This scene demonstrates the complex dichotomy of Kir Kanos. He was himself an Imperial guard, swearing allegiance to Palpatine and the Empire, and yet here is being hunted down by the very organization he served. In addition, the reader is given immediate insight that Kir Kanos, as an Imperial guard, is a vastly better soldier than the Imperials we have seen before. Imperial guards are not the same stormtroopers who bang their head on a door frame, or struggle to hit the broadside of a door. Instead, as the story unfolds, the reader is shown that they are calculating warriors, who are trained in various fighting styles and military tactics. As Kir Kanos proves throughout the story, even a squad of stormtroopers is outnumbered against a single Imperial guard.
Richardson and Stradley excite readers interest in the characters and story by playing off of the familiar archetypes and themes from the original movie trilogy. For example, when we first meet the main character Kir Kanos, he is a shrouded figure who understands how to effectively navigate through the underbelly of the galaxy. After bribing the commander of a local Imperial garrison, we see him in a bar surrounded by Imperial officers. As he sits in silence, he is approached by one such officer who accuses of him of eavesdropping. At first, Kanos attempts to de-escalate the situation, but similar to Han Solo’s shoot first nature, when things begin to turn south, Kanos immediately slays the officer and other Imperials in the bar. Not only does hip rip through these forces with ease, we see the power with which he strikes as he shatters a stormtrooper’s helmet with a single blow from his blade. Immediately, readers are drawn to Kanos for calm under fire, just as viewers were to Han in the cantina, however it is clear that while he may be fighting against the Empire thereby giving the impression he is the “good guy” of the story, he does not do so with the same heroism as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. Like Vader, Kanos is cold and unwavering. He wipes out the entire bar without breaking a sweat or showing any remorse, and sets the tone that while he might be currently at odds with the Empire, he is very much the anti-hero. For comic fans, Kir Kanos is an amalgam of Batman and Wolverine. He is a cold and calculating master strategist like Batman, while also being the “best at what he does,” if what he does is violently decimating his enemies like Wolverine does.
Crimson Empire is full of further examples of various archetypes. In Mirith Sinn, we see qualities of Princess Leia, Sish Sadeet is the Chewie of the story, while Tem Merkon is much like Lando on Cloud CIty, if Lando looked like a deranged homeless man, and not Billy Dee Williams. By playing off of a familiar themes, Richardson and Stradley are able to immerse readers in the story, while also flipping these themes on their head. Our hero still believes in Palpatine’s cause. He is not a good guy, and were Kir Kanos to be shown in the original trilogy, everyone would despise him for being a villain. However, this is not the original trilogy. There is no longer a galactic Empire, but rather, a Crimson one. The rebels have regained the galaxy, and the remnants of the old Empire are being run by another former Imperial guardsman, Carnor Jax. Who as we come to find out, was more than willing to betray his emperor for the chance of power.
Throughout the story, readers are given glimpses of the grueling and deadly process Kir Kanos endured to become an Imperial guard. From gladiatorial sparring matches, to Vader coming in and reminding everyone of both the power of the dark side, as well as their place, the time spent on Yinchorr gives readers insight into the sacrifices Kanos and the other guardsmen had made. Ultimately, the final test is for Kanos to fight to the death with one of his friends and fellow guardsmen candidate. This turns out to be a pivotal moment in the story for two reasons. The first is that the climatic battle between Jax and Kanos echoes back to their training on Yinchorr, serving as possibly the best way to separate valedictorian from salutatorian. More importantly however, in the closing moments, Kanos reminds readers that friends are a luxury he will never really know. His path began with this realization, and the story comes full circle with his striking down of Sadeet. In that moment he reminds both Mirith Sinn and readers that while Kanos may be the hero of the story, he is not a hero. He isn’t Han, who despite his questionable past learns to let his guard down and welcome friendships and love. Instead, Kanos remains an agent of the Emperor, the same man responsible for the fall of the Jedi, the Republic, Alderaan, and countless other horrors. He is the quintessential anti-hero, and Richardson and Stradley are sure to remind readers of this at the conclusion.
While Crimson Empire would eventually go on to spur a subsequent trilogy, expanding the adventures of Kir Kanos and his supporting cast, the first volume introduces readers to compelling characters, and a unique perspective where we find ourselves rooting for the Emperor’s Empire. Despite the fact that the story no longers exists in the current Star Wars canon, with the upcoming release of Rogue One, set in the days before the fall of the Empire, there is a chance that the tale of Kir Kanos is not over yet. If nothing else, maybe after reading Crimson Empire, fans might look differently at the statuesque guardsmen from Return of the Jedi, knowing the deadly prowess and sacrifices each has made to earn them the title, Royal Guard.