Star Wars: How Shadows of the Empire Became a Gritty ’90s Epic
In the 1990s, Lucasfilm decided to take Star Wars in a much darker direction with Shadows of the Empire.
This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
Star Wars in the ’90s
The ‘90s were the dark ages of Star Wars. George Lucas’ happy cinematic accident was still a beloved pop culture tentpole, and the entertainment industry was still busy learning from its business model. But it was also a time of relative quiet for the franchise. Another film with the main cast was implausible, and the excuses for new merchandising were slim to none. So Lucasfilm started brainstorming new ways to capitalize on the Star Wars brand and ensure all of its media channels were fully functional before the arrival of the Prequel Trilogy.
Enter Shadows of the Empire—a mad scientist’s experiment in cross-promotion that would make editors at Marvel weep at the complexity of its moving parts. This multimedia initiative was designed to tell one large narrative across various mediums, with each platform contributing an important piece of the story. To get the full Shadows experience, fans would have to read the novel and the comic books, play the video game, listen to the soundtrack score, buy the toys, collect the trading cards, etc.
When Shadows was conceived by Lucasfilm heads Howard Roffman and Lucy Wilson in 1994, it was intended to be set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. This era has always been a “safe zone” for expanded universe material to play around in. In fact, it’s still mined by Marvel and Disney for tie-in material to this day. Shadows would join the ranks of the classic Marvel comics with the giant talking rabbit (who was never considered canon, sadly enough) as an expanded universe story set during the actual trilogy itself.
After the pitch was tossed around the Lucas subsidiaries, a memo from LucasArts designer Jon Knoles changed their minds. He suggested setting the Shadows project after The Empire Strikes Back instead of before it, as this was a.) fertile ground for storytelling. and b.) way more intriguing. And he wasn’t wrong. This new setting made the task of telling a huge movie-like story a way to test the boundaries of the franchise before its inevitable rebirth for Episode I.
Post-Empire was a sweet spot for Star Wars to hit at the time. If you couldn’t already tell by its name, there was a push to make Shadows “dark”—which basically translated to “’90s as fuck.” This slick new edginess would keep Star Wars relevant in a time of geek culture dominated by the over-muscled caricatures of Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane and the low-tech barbarism of Mortal Kombat. Instead of behaving like it was still the early 1980s, it was time Star Wars hit puberty and toughened up some.
Even in today’s climate saturated with spin-offs, webisodes, and other ancillary materials, telling one big cohesive story across different media formats is still a highly experimental undertaking. There had to be a center to all the tales that would be told under this umbrella, an axis on which all peripheral events spun around. This anchor point was the bestselling Shadows novel published by Bantam in 1996.
Writing the Book
For all intents and purposes, Steve Perry’s Shadows of the Empire was to be considered “the movie.” It had what everyone was craving—a new adventure with the core characters the audience loved and the promise of mature themes and content.
Steve Perry was hand-selected to be in the Shadows talent pool by Bantam editor Tom Dupree as payback for writing a quick and dirty novelization of The Mask for free. Perry’s background writing for Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, and Spiral Zone made him a shoo-in for the job. Designing the core narrative of an intricate brand opera would be a collaborative process best suited for a writer with a background in television. (That he’d written novelizations for Dark Horse’s Alien graphic novels might have also helped.)
Before long, Perry found himself writing down page after page of notes during a lengthy creative meeting with all creative stakeholders at Skywalker Ranch in the fall of 1994 to keep track of the many different needs every licensee had for the story. Each medium demanded their own set pieces, action scenes, and settings to be interesting. Perry would think up ways to sew these into the pockets of his overarching story.
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Armed with his reams of notes, the author banged out a 25-page outline detailing all major action beats for the primary story arc with suggestions on how they could cross over. The outline was well-received, even if it came back with a ton of notes. But the cooks in the kitchen found it agreeable, and that was all that was needed to move the crazy Shadows train forward. Perry got to work at tackling the manuscript at the beginning of 1995, making his own version of a missing Star Wars movie from his home office in Oregon.
The storyline of Perry’s Shadows book follows the adventures of Luke, Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca in their efforts to locate their carbonite encased buddy Han Solo. Their quest takes them through the galaxy’s criminal underworld, where they meet gritty new ‘90s characters that either try to kill them or help them out. In the process, Luke becomes a badass, Darth Vader gets a new nemesis, Chewie gets a haircut, the droids get to drive the Millennium Falcon, and Princess Leia gets to be sexually objectified like crazy. Okay, that may be an oversimplification, but basically, Shadows is a story about Star Wars that’s not quite told like a Star Wars story—but it is an entertaining page-turner. Yet the risks Shadows takes are really just recycled moments from the Original Trilogy, a classic symptom of being a media tie-in novel.
However, the book did intrigue readers everywhere with certain storylines it juggled, like the attempted assassinations of Luke Skywalker, the details behind the “many Bothans” tragedy hinted at in Return of the Jedi, and the Empire’s dealings with the Black Sun crime syndicate. Reading about the hijinks of the Skywalker twins and friends during a mysterious era is always intriguing, and Perry did as much justice as he could to the voice of the characters.
If Shadows of the Empire has a main character, it’s probably Xizor himself. After all, this villainous character was being fleshed out long before any official creative meetings had been held. The Dark Prince was the mascot for the grim darkness of Shadows and the underworld it would explore.
Based on the plot outline he turned in, Steve Perry received notes with very specific instructions from Bantam on how they wanted Xizor to behave, citing the Godfather films as a tonal guideline. Bantam wanted an evil clone of Aristotle Onassis, the infamous Greek tycoon that married Jackie Kennedy. They wanted a villain who was corrupt, crafty, and had enough hubris to take on the franchise’s most beloved big bad: Darth Vader himself.
When creating this major expanded universe villain from scratch, the creative team at Lucasfilm approached the task just like they would for any creature you’d see in a Star Wars film. Xizor’s design process fell somewhere in the middle of thoughtfully crafted and painstakingly conceived. Xizor was meant to have an “exotic” flavor to his appearance, which designers translated as looking vaguely Asian. Yet Prince Xizor was more than just a vehicle for bizarre cultural appropriation. He was the powerful leader of Black Sun, a criminal syndicate functioning on the Outer Rim.
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His reptilian style inspired a new race of beings for the Star Wars universe: the Falleen, who lived on a planet called, ironically enough, Falleen. As a Falleen, Xizor could breathe underwater and secrete pheromones to manipulate the opposite sex, which were so strong that even our favorite tough cookie with the hair buns fell under his thrall. His olive skin tone also changed according to whatever mood he happened to be in. And that iconic claw pose of his? That was inspired by the unused concept art of Bib Fortuna.
Meanwhile, Xizor’s seduction of Princess Leia—or, rather, the quasi-Asian lizard dude’s date rape of Star Wars’ headlining female character—was awkward. In this sequence, Xizor uses his pheromone powers to roofie Leia into submission after forcing her to wear a revealing outfit. Shadows went beyond the humiliation of tricking Alderaanian royalty into wearing a kinky slave outfit for a giant slug. This was technically assault. When Perry received feedback on his story outline asking for Xizor and Leia to go all the way, he refused. He didn’t want to deal with the backlash from the fans, as such an event would incite the same emotional reaction as killing off a main character. So instead, Leia gets out of the situation by kneeing the Falleen studmuffin right in his iguana dick, then dashes off (pun intended).
Perry handled Prince Xizor’s character incredibly well considering all of the creative suggestions he received. He knew the Dark Prince wasn’t just a character, he was a test for each member of the Skywalker family. Xizor spent literally all of his time and energy obsessing over Luke, Anakin, and Leia, discovering their weak points and pressing their buttons. In this respect, Xizor is an embodiment of the novel’s central theme: vulnerability. The vulnerability of each member of the Skywalker family.
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A new protagonist was also introduced—Dash Rendar, aka ‘90s Han Solo. Although Dash was conceived by Perry himself, that didn’t mean he had any more creative control over his character than he did with Xizor’s. Lucasfilm and Bantam both made it clear they didn’t want an exact carbon-copy of Kylo Ren’s dad to fill the void he left behind. They did, however, want a substitute space pirate to act as a guide through the wrong side of the interplanetary tracks.
Dash was the macho middle ground between Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise—a smuggling mercenary that traveled around the galaxy in his Outrider (aka ‘90s Millennium Falcon) with a droid named Leebo riding shotgun. He held a lifelong vendetta against the Emperor for ruining his family after his brother crashed his freighter ship into Palpatine’s private spaceport museum. Rendar helped Rogue Squadron fend off the Empire’s forces during the Battle of Hoth. He even helped the “many Bothans” that died steal the new Death Star plans! Despite all of this, Luke still thought he was kind of an asshole. Hmm. Maybe that’s because the Force told him Dash was secretly made out of cardboard, old issues of Youngblood, and testosterone.
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If Dash Rendar were to be described by one word only, it would be “functional.” He doesn’t serve a function for the Shadows narrative per se, but boy does he ever for the multimedia campaign. After all, Dash was the star of the video game component of Shadows of the Empire, which featured his participation in the Battle of Hoth. I wouldn’t say that Dash is a person, but more of a Frankenstein’s monster of pastiches culled from Star Wars and its imitators, stitched together with Harrison Ford’s casual cockiness. Basically, he was an endless library of “shit Han Solo says.”
The real fan favorite of Shadows turned out to be a character that still doesn’t have a decently sized action figure to this day: Guri, Prince Xizor’s deadly fembot bodyguard. She was the only replica droid trained to be an assassin—a hybrid of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Sean Young in Blade Runner. Compared to Princess Leia, Guri was a lightning rod for pent-up sexual tension in the Star Wars universe. In fact, Xizor took advantage of her more built-in “intimate” functions whenever he could, which only amplified the rapey nature of the crime lord.
Much like Han Solo’s sugar-free counterpart, Dash Rendar, Guri the sex assassin was a Steve Perry original. The femme fatale was conceived as a character who would be loyal to the paranoid Falleen leader, someone he could trust. Since Xizor could never trust another living being with his life, he bought a synthetic humanoid for nine million credits to be his lieutenant, enforcer, and information gatherer. Basically, she was like having a ninja as your personal assistant, which further reinforced the vaguely Asian motif surrounding the Dark Prince. But it was strongly suggested that he used her to run everything, and probably couldn’t handle the weight of his responsibilities on his own.
Luke & Leia
Core characters were subject to redesign as well, specifically their wardrobe. Lucasfilm wanted to visually convey to the audience that their heroes were in between two very distinct eras (Empire and Jedi.) While Chewie and Leia got “extreme” disguises to play dress-up in, Luke Skywalker’s wardrobe was meticulously reconceptualized.
Lucasfilm’s Lucy Wilson would send notes to Dark Horse’s cover artist Drew Fleming on the Jedi knight’s garb, asking him to “please dress [Luke] in the same black outfit he shows up in RotJ…the same black long-sleeved top, pants, and boots…but make his tunic a khaki color and give him a utility belt with various tools/etc. hanging off of it…”
But playing with Luke’s fashion choices wasn’t the only way that Shadows of the Empire illustrated that Luke was in a transitionary phase. Jon Knoles wanted the overarching narrative of the project to tie up a loose end that had been bugging him since the early ‘80s—where did Luke get his new green lightsaber?
Thus another plotline to juggle was born, one of Shadows’ most interesting: Luke’s quest to build his fancy new weapon. Watching young Skywalker learn how to build his own based on Obi-Wan’s instructions was fascinating for aspiring Jedi everywhere to read, but there isn’t as much symbolic weight behind this act as there could have been in a film made by Lucas. At least it was treated as a pivotal step on the protagonist’s figurative journey to becoming a Jedi Knight and not just another MacGuffin to scratch off the list. (Or was it?)
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What’s frustrating about this sidequest is that it takes the place of a solid character arc for Luke, which is a shame. Dealing with the fallout from Vader’s reveal at the end of Empire would make Anakin Jr. the most captivating character in the dramatis personae. But no, learning his father’s secret doesn’t seem to affect Luke’s inner world much at all. Why wouldn’t we want to know what our hero’s state of mind was during this mysterious stretch of time?
If Shadows didn’t give us insight into its most pivotal character, it did give us a glimpse at Leia’s emotional landscape following the loss of Han. The first loss of Han, rather. If anyone was at their “most vulnerable” here, it would be the Princess—someone who fears showing weakness. SotE’s journey into the seedy Star Wars underworld caused all of her issues to rise to the surface, making Leia the heart of Perry’s book.
Despite the third-person take on her inner-monologue, Leia was treated as a character best handled from a distance. When she’s not being objectified, harassed, or protected from objectification and harassment by Chewie and Lando, she’s busy pulling up her sleeves and getting to the nitty-gritty of propelling the novel’s major plotlines. As such, Princess Leia comes across as the Skywalker that’s the real hero here.
The only real worthy piece of continuity from her storyline was how she got the Boushh disguise she wears in Jedi, a detail that most fans probably never wondered or cared about.
The attempted Han Solo rescue, which is the driving force early on in the story, obviously turns out to be the MacGuffin that leads the Skywalkers and their friends on other adventures. The video game tackles the earliest part of this mission, when Dash tracks down the bounty hunters who were originally tasked with capturing Han. Fighting his way through the planets Ord Mantell and Gall, Dash finally locates Fett and his prized slab of carbonite. Leia, Lando, Luke, and the Rebellion launch a rescue mission that sparks the Battle of Gall. It fails and Fett gets away again.
Fett’s struggle to get the frozen Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt’s palace on Tatooine is the major subject of the Shadows comic. On his way to the desert planet he is attacked both by the Rebels and rival bounty hunters Bossk and Zuckuss. Ironically, he even has to hide out in an asteroid field at one point to fight off his assailants. Ultimately, Fett proves why he’s the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy, outsmarting his pursuers and getting the payday.
Things get more intricate from here. Prince Xizor, who vows to avenge his family after they’re killed by Darth Vader before the events of the book, plans to destroy Vader by killing his son and replacing him as the Emperor’s right hand. Xizor tries to have Luke assassinated several times in Shadows, only to be thwarted at the last minute every time by Rebels or Vader’s own bounty hunters. Vader, on the other hand, is still trying to find Luke and turn him to the Dark Side, which brings him in direct contact with the leader of Black Sun. The only reason Vader can’t Force choke Xizor out of an exhaust port is because the Emperor needs the crime lord to finish the construction of the second Death Star.
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Which brings us to the mission to steal the Death Star plans. Dash and Luke are informed by Bothan spies that the plans are being transported in a fertilizer freighter called the Suprosa. The Rebels launch an intercept mission. You can actually play through this mission as Dash in the Shadows video game.
After some maneuvering, Xizor has Luke captured on the planet Kothlis, where the plans are being decoded by the Bothans. Luke manages to escape Kothlis with a little help from the Force, Lando, and Dash. Vader, who arrives on Kothlis too late to pick up Luke, is informed by his bounty hunters that there’s a rival group of bounty hunters trying to kill young Skywalker.
Meanwhile, Leia is kidnapped by Xizor, who tries to seduce the Princess in his palace on Coruscant. Shadows of the Empire is in fact bookended by rescue missions, as Luke and his friends infiltrate the Imperial capital to save Leia from the evil crime lord. The story climaxes in spectacular fashion in a space battle above the city planet between the Rebels and the Empire, as Xizor attempts to escape but is stopped by Vader, who shows absolutely no mercy.
Shadows of the Empire ends right before Return of the Jedi begins: Luke, Leia, and friends prepare to go on a daring rescue mission to save Han Solo from the clutches of the dastardly Jabba the Hutt, their latest adventure ultimately only a detour.
Dark Horse gave Steve Perry a shot at telling a follow-up story in 1998 with the Shadows of the Empire: Evolution miniseries. Without so many requirements and stipulations from different Lucasfilm branches, Perry was given the freedom to tell a snappy, focused, personal story about Guri. The underappreciated badass got her time to shine in the Star Wars limelight, and although there may be too many panels (and pages) devoted to her posing around suggestively, the story did give her character a sense of resolution. As far as Perry was concerned, Guri was the only loose end from Shadows that needed to be dealt with (or the only one he felt the most inspired to tackle, anyway.)
What’s interesting about Evolution is that much like Shadows itself, it’s built around the absence of a pivotal character. It’s Prince Xizor, this time. His spirit still permeates throughout Ron Randall’s gorgeous panel art, much like Han Solo’s did in the Shadows adaptation. In fact, Evolution is loaded with so many references to Xizor that you expect him to show up during its final moments. But no, in the true spirit of Shadows of the Empire, this turns out to be one big tease.
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Instead, we get a highly convenient Dash Rendar cameo at the very end. Guri runs into him at a bar after she gets reprogrammed and loses her memories. Diet-Han looks alive and well to me, so the end of the N64 game was definitely canon (Rendar fakes his death during the space battle above Coruscant). But the romantic overtones of their chance encounter suggest that the two run off into the sunset together, which is a patronizing fate to give a character whose independence you just spent five issues celebrating, is it not?
Because Episodes I-III tainted Star Wars for a good long while, Shadows of the Empire became an instant obscurity. After all, it was an outdated snapshot of a dormant brand waking up after a long nap to get back to work. Maybe bored gamers may have dusted off their N64 cartridges on lonely Saturday afternoons to play through the Battle of Hoth again in the early 2000s. But that was the only way anyone interacted with this brand experiment again.
Filling a movie-sized hole in the public’s imagination without a movie was a great opportunity to begin the process of redefining Star Wars. Yet even after taking in all Shadows related materials (not including the Sourcebook, sorry folks), I don’t feel as satisfied as I do when I actually see a Star Wars film—even when it’s a bad one. There’s an aura of incompleteness that haunts Shadows, that attitude of “hey kids, you need to read x to understand y” that I found so distracting. Even Perry’s novel, the supposed focal point, suffers from the inclusion of characters like Dash who are obviously shoehorned in for other purposes that are counterproductive to telling an already crowded story.
For a book that was advertised as being so dark, Perry’s Shadows shied away from going too deep into Luke’s psychological scars from the events at the end of Empire. That’s it’s biggest problem: for a “personal” story, Shadows is impersonal, prioritizing shallow action over emotional complexity. In fact, there’s more “darkness” in Empire’s surreal Dagobah cave scene than there is in 300 pages of Shadow’s novel and ten hours of its video game combined.
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What Shadows most prepared fans for in terms of Star Wars’ future was the business side of the galaxy far, far away, introduced through Black Sun’s shady dealings with the Empire. While I was reading these scenes, I couldn’t help but flashback to countless scenes of council meetings to discuss tariffs or something. Granted, Shadows’ meetings between Xizor, Vader, and the Emperor were far more engaging, but the signs were there.
The Shadows initiative garnered enough success that it later served as real time inspiration for the Clone Wars marketing campaign in the early aughts. The concept of telling a movie-sized story in the negative space between film installments was ahead of its time, and couldn’t be pulled off in a pre-gaming era. Which is why the mid-90s (a literal negative space for Star Wars) was the perfect time to pull off a crazy stunt like this.
As a whole, the Shadows experiment may have added an extra slimy texture to Star Wars that hadn’t been there before. Exploring the darker corners of its universe through various media formats defined its nebulous gray area in ways the older films couldn’t. This was the most important lesson Lucasfilm learned from Shadows of the Empire, as it helped change Star Wars from a lost movie franchise into the rich multimedia brand experience it is today.
Secrets of Shadows of the Empire by Mark Cotta Vaz
Believe it or not, Stephen Harber is actually Supreme Leader Snoke. Follow him on Twitter at @onlywriterever or visit his website for updates on more Ewoks movies that will never happen.