Saturday, June 24, 2017

Retro Dark Horse: Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand

Contempt briefly filled her face.  "You don't have the faintest idea who I am, do you?"

Luke shook his head.  "I'm sure I'd remember you if we'd met."

"Oh, right, " she said sardonically.  "The great, omniscient Jedi.  See all, hear all, know all, understand all.  No, we didn't actually meet; but I was there, if you'd bothered to notice me.  I was a dancer at Jabba the Hutt's palace the day you came for Solo."

Luke frowned at her.  No.  Her slim figure, her agility and grace - those certainly could belong to a professional dancer.  But her piloting skills, her expert marksmanship, her inexplicable working knowledge of lightsabers - those most certainly did not.

Mara was still waiting, daring him with her expression to figure it out.  "You weren't a dancer, though," he told her.  "that was only a cover."

Her lip twisted.  "Very good.  That vaunted Jedi insight, no doubt.  Keep going; you're doing so well.  What was I really doing there?"

Luke hesitated.  There were all sorts of possibilities for this one: bounty hunter, smuggler, quiet bodyguard for Jabba, spy for some rival criminal organization...

No.  Her knowledge of lightsabers... and suddenly, all the pieces fell together with a rush.  "You were waiting for me," he said.  "Vader knew I'd go there to try and rescue Han, and he sent you to capture me."

"Vader?"  She all but spat the name.  "Don't make me laugh.  Vader was a fool, and skating on the edge of treason along with it.  My master sent me to Jabba's to kill you, not recruit you."

Luke stared at her, an icy shiver running up his back.  It couldn't be... but even as he gazed into that tortured face, he knew with sudden certainty that is was.  "And your master," he said quietly, "was the Emperor."

"Yes, " she said, her voice a snake's hiss.  "And you destroyed him."

Luke swallowed hard, the pounding of his own heart the only sound.  He hadn't killed the Emperor- Darth Vader had done that - but Mara didn't seem inclined to worry over such subtleties.  "You're wrong, though," he said.  "He did try to recruit me."

"Only because I failed," she ground out, her throat muscles tight.  "And only when Vader had you standing right there in front of him.  What, you don't think he knew Vader had offered to help you overthrow him?"

Unconsciously, Luke flexed the fingers of his numbed artificial hand.  Yes, Vader had indeed suggested such an alliance during their Cloud City duel.  "I don't think it was a serious offer," he murmured.

"The Emperor did," Mara said flatly.  "He knew.  And what he knew, I knew."

Her eyes filled with distant pain.  "I was his hand, Skywalker," she said, her voice remembering.  "That's how I was known to his inner court: as the Emperor's Hand.  I served him all over the galaxy, doing jobs the Imperial Fleet and stormtroopers couldn't handle.  That was my one great talent, you see - I could hear his call from anywhere in the Empire, and report back to him the same way.  I exposed traitors for him, brought down his enemies, helped him keep the kind of control over the mindless bureaucracies that he needed.  I had prestige, and power, and respect."

Slowly, her eyes came back from the past.  "And you took it all away from me.  If only for that, you deserve to die."

"What went wrong?" Luke forced himself to ask.

Her lip twisted.  "Jabba wouldn't let me go with the execution party.  That was it - pure and simple.  I tried begging, cajoling, bargaining - I couldn't change his mind."

That exchange between Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker in the Heir to the Empire novel explains Mara's intense hatred for Luke and obvious disdain for Darth Vader.  She failed in her mission to kill Luke and, in doing so, her failure led to the death of her master at Luke and Vader's hands.  In that moment, she was torn from the life she knew and all the comforts that came with her position as the Emperor's Hand.

Her attempts to get Jabba to let her go to the Sarlacc Pitt is how the Dark Horse 6-part mini-series, Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand, begins.  The Emperor, disappointed in Mara's failure to kill Luke, sends her on a new mission to kill the Jeodu Dequc, a criminal cartel leader attempting to revive Black Sun under the name Black Nebula.  In the first issue, Mara Jade tracks down Dequc and early in the second issue, believes she kills him.  The Emperor recalls Mara to Imperial Center as a reward.  At Imperial Center, Mara decides to do more investigation into Black Nebula and soon learns it was not Dequc she killed, but an impostor.  Mara contacts the Emperor to tell him of her failure and during the mental link, she sees Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader strike down her master over Endor.  The rest of the mini-series is her running from the Imperials led by Ysanne Isard, directory of Imperial Intelligence, and getting a second chance to complete the Emperor's last mission for her, killing Dequc.  The series ends with her having severed her ties with the Empire, but still completing her final mission, killing Dequc and ultimately bringing down the nascent Black Nebula criminal organization.

This series came out in 1998 and does a great job tying together many Expanded Universe elements.  Mara Jade is introduced in Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novel from 1991, the book that kicked off the Expanded Universe.  Black Sun is the criminal organization led by Prince Xizor in the Shadows of the Empire multimedia event from 1996.  Also introduced in 1996 is the Rogue's nemesis, Ysanne Isard, from Michael Stackpole's X-Wing: Rogue Squadron novels.  Despite being integrally tied to the Expanded Universe, the writers, Zahn and Stackpole, do a terrific job using these elements, but not requiring readers to have a background in them.  For reader's more steeped in Expanded Universe lore, seeing how this story fits into the tapestry is a bonus.

Kilian Plunkett, cover artist for most of the 1994 and 1995 Droids' series provides the cover artwork for this mini-series.  The Interior artwork is provided by Carlos Ezquerra, co-creator of Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog.

Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand #1a - Dark Horse Comics, U.S. (August 1998)
Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand #2a - Dark Horse Comics, U.S. (September 1998)
Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand #3a - Dark Horse Comics, U.S. (October 1998)
Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand #4a - Dark Horse Comics, U.S. (November 1998)
Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand #5a - Dark Horse Comics, U.S. (December 1998)
Star Wars: Mara Jade - By the Emperor's Hand #6a - Dark Horse Comics, U.S. (January 1999)
The cover for issue #2 is particularly nice, showing Mara's reaction to the death of the Emperor.  The action-packed explosiveness on the third cover makes it my favorite.

The interior artwork by Ezquerra is interesting for a Star Wars comic.  His style is gritty and his human characters are distinct.  Where Ezquerra really shines is when he is drawing aliens, cities, and spaceships.  It is easy to see why many consider him the quintessential Judge Dredd artist, despite the number of strong artist who have worked on that character.

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