I was pretty much done with Star Wars for quite a while. Lame prequels, nonsensical George Lucasness and general overkill had soured the enthusiasm of a guy who once went to Toys R Us at midnight to get new action figures before the first prequel even came out. Recently, however, I learned my 6-year-old nephew had been playing Lego Star Wars and had taken an interest in a certain galaxy that ain't nowhere near here, and had enjoyed seeing Phantom Menace in 3-D. That made me start thinking about seeing the original film in theaters when I was a wee one, the Millennium Falcon playset I so cherished, that funky Star Destroyer toy with the Darth Vader no-helmet chamber, the three-story Death Star playset, the Cloud Car and the dorky-ass gonk droid, then I remembered hearing Dark Horse Comics promoting a Dawn of the Jedi series that was supposed to reveal the actual origins of the whole Force thing. I figured if there was ever a good place to start reading Star Wars comics, that would be it.
However, when I went into my local comic shop, they'd apparently sold out of that. So I asked the fine gents if there were any of the myriad SW books they'd recommend, and they pointed me to a five-part miniseries called Star Wars: Agent of the Empire, which is all about James Bond-style space adventures without any Jedi malarkey bogging it down. It makes perfect sense that that would be the best one, since the biggest problems with the prequels were excessive Jedi malarkey and no goddamned Han Solo. Seriously, all the dumbness of the prequels could have been forgiven if there was any character in any of those three movies with the charm of Han Solo, a character disconnected from all the aforementioned malarkey and more concerned with being awesome. That, coupled with noting that this five-part series called "Iron Eclipse" was being written by John Ostrander, scribe of the Hawkworld and Suicide Squad books of which I'm such a fan, made this a sell. I picked up the first three issues on a lark, in true Starboy & The Captain of Outer Space fashion, like I was some kind of crazy Space Captainface or something.
Anyhow, enough goof. This story is set in the pre-A New Hope era, focusing on a secret agent working for the Empire ("The Stormtroopers are the Empire's hammer… this man is its scalpel!") named Jahan Cross. Lord save me from fantasy protagonist names – somehow, the older I get, the less tolerance I have for names that feel like some dude I know came up with it as a name for his D&D character when he was 12. It's why I tried to give a book called Valen The Outcast a shot a while ago, and couldn't really make it past the title. Jahan might as well be Jayden Ayden Brayden Cayden, etc., i.e. every child's name in the last ten years. But, that's a completely minor nitpick that speaks of being an old and crusty guy who's just read a disillusioning Alan Moore interview. He usually just goes by Cross. Standard, but acceptable.
Cross, as rendered by Stephane Roux with a young Steve McQueen/Lee Marvin look, works as an undercover operative, and the series opens with him taking a corrupt colonel down after gathering tons of evidence against him by skulking about for a week in his Imperial Research Station. What exactly makes a colonel any more corrupt than he already is by working for the Empire? Selling high-end droid tech on the black market. The first issue establishes him as a Bond type – super-skilled and thorough, but rash enough to rankle his superiors. There's even an alien droid-maker named Alessi Quon serving as his Q, servicing his Human Replica Droid named Inga-44, a quietly competent intel/battle-bot. Apparently, it is possible to have "skin-job" droids like Battlestar Galactica, but Cross prefers his droids to look like droids. The Empire is known for its disapproval of aliens – I remember that much from my Star Wars RPG days – but Quon is so great, he's an exception – and I suppose that's why we've got another white guy protagonist. If the Empire is speciesist, they're probably racist, too.
Regardless of my overanalysis, Ostrander writes this book with a fun tone, giving Cross enough humanity to make us like him despite who he works for – and that is helped by making him an old Imperial Academy pseudo-buddy with Han Solo, who appears in the first issue and returns in the third to hopefully become fairly regular.character. Cross is traveling into the uncontrolled corporate sector, investigating a secret project called the Iron Eclipse, which is nothing more than an antigravity resort on the surface, but there's certainly more going on here. While he's trying to figure this all out, Cross also dons a space tux, flirts with dangerous women, beds hot aliens, gets framed for murder, makes off with a high-end speeder bike and generally frustrates the hell out of Sergeant Myrsk, an alien cop trying to be a hard boiled detective but generally turning out to be a chump, albeit a likable one.
It seems that Ostrander is basically giving us cool Han Solo-style adventures without having to mess too deeply with the well-established (and likely fiercely defended by hyper-nerds) canon of our favorite Corellian. That point is driven home in #3, when Cross is on the run from the fuzz and needs a change of clothes, and he runs back to Solo to throw them off the scent and get his cool Bespin outfit to run around in as a loaner. Sure, Cross is smoother in his spy style than our beloved scruffy-looking nerf-herder is in his ruffian pirate ways, but it's still a lot more fun than turgid morality plays among the Jedi set. The art from Roux is also really solid and energetic, although it's odd how he seems to morph styles back and forth between pages here and there, but that might also be a factor of inking and coloring.
Overall, Star Wars: Agent of the Empire is a cool little series, full of intrigue, high-octane chase sequences and Han Solo. Truth be told, that's what you want out of Star Wars stories more than anything else. Let's get some bounty hunters up in here, and we're set.