Welcome to Star Wars Week, where we’re celebrating all things from that galaxy far, far away. From retrospectives on old favorites to explainers on timely topics to Face-Offs between beloved characters and beyond, Star Wars Week features articles, videos, slideshows and more on the beloved franchise.
Star Wars fans have never been more spoiled by new content. Since purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney has so far released five new theatrical movies, with more in development. And that’s to say nothing of the numerous TV series, video games, comics and novels in the works. There’s more Star Wars than you can shake a gaffi stick at.
But as older Star Wars fans remember, it wasn’t always like this. There was a fallow period in the late ’80s and early ’90s where there was very little new Star Wars content of any sort. In these dark times, it fell on a small group of intrepid creators like novelist Timothy Zahn and comic book writer Tom Veitch to keep the spark of Star Wars alive. Thus, the Expanded Universe was born.
Read on to learn how books like Heir to the Empire and comics like Dark Empire helped keep the flame of Star Wars burning in an era when no new movies were on the horizon. We’ve even turned to Zahn and Veitch themselves to learn more about their personal experiences in exploring a galaxy far, far away.
The Dark Times for Star Wars
Strictly in terms of the level of new content being produced, the latter half of the 1980s easily ranks as the lowest point for the Star Wars franchise. With Return of the Jedi having come and gone and creator George Lucas only offering cryptic clues as to his plans for a potential prequel trilogy, fans were faced with the likelihood that there would never be another Star Wars movie. Even the Special Editions were still a decade down the road.
Marvel’s monthly Star Wars comic also wrapped up in 1986. While former Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter famously credited Star Wars with saving the company following an industry-wide crash, it was clear by this point Star Wars simply didn’t carry the brand cache it once did.
It is worth remembering this is a period when the franchise made some of its earliest forays into the TV realm with the made-for-TV Ewoks movies and animated series Ewoks and Droids. However, neither those projects nor their corresponding toy lines did much to appeal to an aging fanbase who had largely moved on in the years following Return of the Jedi.
“Probably if I was thinking about it at all, I was thinking that way or maybe hoping George would make more movies, but everything seemed quiet,” Zahn told IGN. “The soundtracks were in my regular rotation… for music I played as I wrote. It was not like Star Wars was gone. Probably I just assumed, ‘OK if that’s all, but maybe they’ll be back.'”
Zahn’s relationship with Star Wars at that point seems typical of so many fans of his generation, but as fate would have it, he would play a key role in helping revive a series many assumed was dead and buried.
The Origin of the Expanded Universe
The idea of relying on comics and novels to expand upon the mythology of the Star Wars movies was hardly new, even in the 1980s. Acclaimed sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster (who ghost-wrote Lucas’ novelization of A New Hope) penned the very first Star Wars spinoff novel in 1978, the Luke and Leia-focused Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. There’s also the aforementioned Marvel series, which spanned 107 issues and assorted specials between 1977 and 1986, as well as two trilogies of novels focused on the early years of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, respectively.
However, even at the time those projects had a dubious connection to the continuity of the films. As Foster once explained to Syfy Wire, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye only exists because he was contracted to pen a second Star Wars book that could serve as the basis for a low-budget, Harrison Ford-less movie sequel should A New Hope flounder at the box office.
Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy’s Dark Empire, along with Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, were the first in a new wave of Star Wars tie-ins that aimed to be more tonally and stylistically in line with the movies.
Veitch traces the genesis of what would eventually become Dark Empire to November 1988. He and Kennedy had recently completed work on The Light and Darkness War for Marvel’s now-defunct Epic Comics imprint. On a whim, and bolstered by the 1987 debut of West End Games’ Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, Veitch wrote a letter to Lucas pitching him on the idea of a new series of Star Wars comics. Surprisingly, it worked.
[Note: Veitch was gracious enough to share a lengthy excerpt of his forthcoming book about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and many of his quotes in this piece are taken from that excerpt and Veitch’s transcriptions of various Q&A sessions with fans.]
Veitch writes, “Three days later I got a phone call from a woman named Lucy Wilson [Lucasfilm’s Director of Publishing], who had worked for George since 1974, saying George wanted to see our work. I sent him the first three issues of L&D War and within a week we were offered the Star Wars comics franchise — not just the writing and art, you see, but the actual business itself of publishing new Star Wars comics!”
At the time, Marvel still held the comic publishing rights to the franchise, so Veitch began working with editor Archie Goodwin to craft a story pitch. As he recalls, they originally pitched two prequel stories – one dubbed “The Jedi Chronicles” set in the glory days of the Old Republic, and the other set in the aftermath of the Clone Wars, as the surviving Jedi were hunted down and slaughtered by Darth Vader. Bear in mind this was a full decade before Lucas began to flesh out the prequel era in The Phantom Menace.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%20sent%20%5BGeorge%20Lucas%5D%20the%20first%20three%20issues%20of%20L%26D%20War%20and%20within%20a%20week%20we%20were%20offered%20the%20Star%20Wars%20comics%20franchise.”]
Through Wilson, Lucas shot down both ideas, telling Veitch and Goodwin they had “carte blanche,” but only in the era set after Return of the Jedi. That seems to have been one of Lucas’ only firm rules at this nascent stage of the Expanded Universe. Eventually Veitch would get the chance to realize his Jedi Chronicles pitch in the form of Dark Horse’s Tales of the Jedi comics, a major source of inspiration for Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic games. But in 1988, the focus was all on the post-Return of the Jedi era.
Despite this auspicious start, however, it would be several years before Veitch’s first Star Wars project actually saw the light of day. As he explains, Goodwin left Marvel for DC in 1989, and with him left any desire at Marvel to rekindle the Star Wars line. It was only after Veitch introduced Wilson to Dark Horse Comics editor Mike Richardson that the wheels truly began moving again. The Star Wars franchise would soon shift to Dark Horse and remain there until finally returning to Marvel in 2015.
Veitch writes, “[Mike is] a masterful businessman, a powerful negotiator. In no time at all Lucasfilm had decided to pull the project from Marvel and give it to Dark Horse.”
Zahn’s entry point into the Expanded Universe during this period was much more straightforward. As he explains, he was simply approached by book publisher Bantam, which was stepping up its own efforts to capitalize on the mostly dormant Star Wars franchise.
“Some of the Star Wars writers say at panels how this was a dream come true,” said Zahn. “It was not a dream come true, because I never would have thought to dream it. It was not something I ever would have thought was even possible. When it was offered to me, it was, ‘Oh man, absolutely.’ Exciting, but also very scary, because I knew that if I didn’t get it right, you didn’t get the characters and the field of the universe right, the fans were not going to be happy with me.”
The Rise of Grand Admiral Thrawn
With Lucasfilm making it clear creators should stick to fleshing out the largely unexplored era after the events of the original trilogy, both Zahn and Veitch/Kennedy set about trying to determine what the Star Wars universe would look like a few years after the death of Emperor Palpatine. As Zahn reflects, his primary goal was “not wanting to do what George had already done.”
“I wanted to get something that felt like Star Wars, but wasn’t another Death Star, wasn’t another Admiral Ackbar, wasn’t another Vader or the Emperor, something new, something different,” said Zahn. “We hadn’t seen much in the way of Imperials who were certainly brilliant, aside from Vader and Palpatine.”
Zahn continued, “But [I was] looking at where we were left at the end [of] Return of the Jedi and extrapolating, what the politics are going to be like, what the military situations are going to be like, and then adding in characters who would fit the universe and feel like they were just maybe a little off camera during the movies.”
That was the catalyst behind the creation of Grand Admiral Thrawn, arguably Zahn’s most popular and enduring contribution to the franchise. Zahn told IGN he was loosely inspired by Julian Glover’s character General Veers, one of the few highly competent Imperial characters glimpsed in the original movies. Thrawn’s military efficiency was mixed with a heavy dose of Sherlock Holmes-esque brilliance and deductive reasoning. He’s also notable for being far more sympathetic than most of his colleagues, in part because of his unique status as an alien outsider in an otherwise xenophobic Empire. The result was an instant fan-favorite new villain.
Heir to the Empire introduced several other characters who would go on to play a recurring role in the Expanded Universe, including smuggler Talon Karrde, Imperial Admiral Gilad Pellaeon and Emperor Palpatine’s former assassin, Mara Jade. Mara in particular struck a chord with readers, and she would go on to become one of the most pivotal EU characters as she abandoned her vendetta against Luke, joined his New Jedi Order and eventually married her ex-rival.
Zahn said, “Mara was originally my thought of how Palpatine would have reacted to Vader offering Luke an alliance at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, that he might want to get rid of Luke and send an agent to deal with him when he showed up to rescue Han at Jabba’s. That was the nub of an idea that eventually became Mara.”
Classic Villains Return
Similarly, Veitch writes, “The main point I made to George, at the time, was that I wanted to do something really mind-blowing. We wanted to include familiar characters, machines and environments, so the readers would feel right at home. But we also wanted to convey the feeling of continually unfolding imagination — just as the films did.”
While both Heir to the Empire and Dark Empire revolve around a mastermind villain rallying the divided Empire to attack the fledgling New Republic, Veitch opted to resurrect Emperor Palpatine himself rather than create a new villain a la Thrawn. According to Veitch, that plot twist had its origins in conversations with Goodwin, as the two bounced around the idea of a copycat villain wearing Darth Vader’s armor to boost the morale of the dwindling Imperial forces. But Lucas was adamant that Vader himself not be allowed to return, except via dream sequences or holographic recordings.
Eventually Veitch settled on bringing back Palpatine via cloning, similar to how the character would eventually make his in-canon return in The Rise of Skywalker. As he explains in his book, Veitch’s primary goal in bringing back Palpatine was to test Luke’s relationship with the Force and explore themes central to the works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.
In his original Dark Empire pitch, Veitch wrote, “Sagaciously, Luke agrees to become the Emperor’s apprentice. He’s taking a great risk, but his strategy is to penetrate the Dark Side by learning some of its secrets. Our theory is that any significant conquest of the Dark Side of the Force would involve heroic assimilation of whole areas of the Emperor’s consciousness.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Palpatine’s%20return%20has%20always%20been%20a%20divisive%20plot%20point%20within%20the%20Star%20Wars%20fan%20community.”]
Palpatine’s return has always been a divisive plot point within the Star Wars fan community, with some (including Zahn himself) arguing it diminishes Vader’s sacrifice and redemption in Return of the Jedi.
“I sympathize,” writes Veitch. “But these folks were probably unfamiliar with the history of movie serials and comics, where great villains never completely die — they always return. Star Wars, as you know, was partly based on Flash Gordon, a movie serial and comic strip in which the principal villain, the evil emperor Ming the Merciless, is never completely killed off.”
Dark Empire also resurrected another iconic villain in the form of Boba Fett, who resurfaces during the course of the story to seek revenge against Han Solo.
“Of course Fett had to come back,” Veitch writes. “That’s a no-brainer, imho. Fett was a fan-favorite — and a bounty hunter that ornery is not going to be defeated (or digested) by some giant sand-squid. We got zero resistance from LFL.”
A New Generation of Jedi
Both Zahn and Veitch arrived separately at the idea of a married Han and Leia becoming parents to Force-sensitive children – the first in a brand new generation of Jedi Knights. Zahn created twins Jacen and Jaina in his Thrawn trilogy, while Dark Empire introduced their younger brother Anakin. Anakin would play an even bigger role in Dark Empire’s sequels, as readers learned Palpatine hoped to claim the youngest Solo’s body as a permanent host after his own clone bodies began to fail him.
“My idea was to call him ‘Anakin’ because he would embody both the light and dark aspects of the Skywalker lineage and suffer great inner conflict in his life,” writes Veitch. “As it turned out, this was how [Lawrence] Kasdan and [J.J.] Abrams came to visualize Han and Leia’s son Ben aka Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. In their story, the Dark Side takes over the personality of Ben Solo.”
Veitch continues, “My idea was to explore the Light Side of the Force as far as we could go. And if you know your Joseph Campbell, awakening the Light is what he is all about. The ‘Dark Side’ is secondary to him. The hero’s journey is into the Light.”
Veitch seems to have a certain amount of regret over how Anakin’s arc was handled in later EU projects, as the character never truly grappled with his inner darkness in the way his brother Jacen would in the Legacy of the Force series. By that point Anakin had already been killed off, with the character repaying a debt to his dead uncle Chewbacca and making a heroic sacrifice in the climax of 2001’s The New Jedi Order: Star by Star.
“My plan was that the Light Side would win out in Anakin after inner battles between the two sides of his being,” writes Veitch. “As I understand it, subsequent writers chose to make the Light Side consistently strong in Anakin, and that he died a hero. I have no problem with that, but a lot of stories about Anakin’s inner conflict didn’t get told!”
The Expanded Universe’s Growing Pains
Given the similarities between the Thrawn Trilogy and the Dark Empire series, fans might assume Zahn and Veitch collaborated closely to help flesh out the post-Return of the Jedi timeline. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Both writers describe that period as a sort of lawless frontier for the franchise, where individual creators were largely allowed to blaze their own trails so long as they adhered to the handful of firm restrictions laid out by Lucasfilm. Naturally, that free-form approach had its downsides… downsides which became increasingly apparent as the success of Heir to the Empire and Dark Empire resulted in many more novels and comics being greenlit.
“There was not a lot of continuity control or keeping track of everything everybody was doing,” said Zahn. “Part of the reason for that, I think, is that I’m not sure anybody really expected the Thrawn trilogy to take off… And the fact that the fans were out there and anxious to get into anything they could that was Star Wars, I think caught people a bit by surprise. They didn’t have a system in place to monitor all the writers that were now being contracted to write new books and stories and games. And they had to feel their way along with that.”
Veitch recalls his story outline for Dark Empire was completed several months before Bantam recruited Zahn to write Heir to the Empire, and only later were there attempts by Bantam and Dark Horse to coordinate the two projects. According to Veitch, some even floated the idea of canceling Dark Empire in favor of a direct adaptation of Zahn’s Thrawn novels, a prospect he found less than appealing (Dark Horse would later greenlight comic book adaptations of the Thrawn Trilogy from other creative teams).
A portion of Veitch’s book is dedicated to exploring the creative conflicts between he and Zahn in 1990, as the two offered notes on each other’s projects and it became clear their respective visions for Star Wars didn’t necessarily align. While the duo integrated their ideas to arrive at a relatively unified take on the post-Return of the Jedi setting, they disagreed over concepts like the aforementioned resurrection of Palpatine, Dark Empire’s depiction of a “Force Storm” and the physics behind a Star Destroyer entering a planet’s atmosphere. Though as Veitch notes, the Star Destroyer debate was finally settled decades later when Rogue One showed one of the massive ships hovering above Jedha City. After these early, sometimes heated conversations, both writers were largely left to their own devices.
Veitch writes, “They sent me the manuscripts, so that I’d make sure our stories were coordinated. But I wasn’t asked to give any more notes — nor was he. The one good thing from our spirited exchange in 1990 was that everybody backed off and let Cam and I finish Dark Empire.”
[widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=star-wars-rip-offs&captions=true”]
Instead, it fell on various editors at Dark Horse, Bantam (and later Del Rey) and Lucasfilm itself to attempt to coordinate the ever-growing lineup of Star Wars projects and build a cohesive universe. This resulted in a fair amount of continuity hiccups, especially as the Star Wars prequels began to arrive and contradicted elements of the Expanded Universe. For example, the Thrawn books reference the Clone Wars, portraying that conflict as something wholly different from what’s depicted in the movies. The 2008 Clone Wars animated series was also especially problematic in this regard. It effectively rendered all of Dark Horse and Del Rey’s Clone Wars-era stories non-canon in one fell swoop, thanks to major changes like the introduction of Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan Ahsoka Tano and the reveal that Darth Maul survived his battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
With Lucas himself taking a hands-off approach to the EU, creators were forced to course-correct and adapt to new revelations in the movies and the TV series as they unfolded. In response, hardcore Star Wars fans coined terms like “G-canon” (stories created directly by Lucas) and “C-canon” (stories set within the wider Expanded Universe) to indicate how closely a particular EU project aligned with the movies.
The End of the Expanded Universe
Following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012, the new owner of Star Wars set about streamlining and overhauling a franchise that had grown leaps and bounds beyond what it was at the start of the Expanded Universe. One of Disney’s first acts was to bring the Expanded Universe to a close in 2014, using the debut of the animated series Star Wars Rebels and its prequel novel Star Wars: A New Dawn as the starting point for a new, unified Star Wars timeline. Existing EU stories were re-branded as “Star Wars Legends,” indicating they no longer take place in official continuity. The Lucasfilm Story Group was then established as a new authority to help establish and maintain a strict continuity linking new movies, TV series, comics, novels and video games.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22At%20some%20point…%20it%20stopped%20being%20fun%2C%22%20writes%20Veitch.”]
Despite having so many of his own novels rendered non-canon by Disney, Zahn actually seems very happy with the new way of doing things under Disney. Zahn has maintained a consistent presence in the rebooted Star Wars line, penning an entirely new trilogy of Thrawn novels set before A New Hope. A second trilogy will begin with the release of Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising in September 2020.
Zahn said, “It’s really not a lot different, except that we now have more eyes on the project because we have – along with the Del Rey editor and the Lucasfilm editor – we also have the Story Group people to check the manuscripts for continuity, internal logic problems, things of that sort. And in general, the more competent eyes you’ve got in the project, the better it becomes. It adds to the time we have to assume it will take the Story Group to get to the project, because they’re dealing with everything else as well. But for me, it’s well worth it. I like having more people looking at the book before it gets out to the general public and finding all the stuff that I may have missed or the other editors missed. Just all of us have blind spots and the more people seeing it, the better chance those blind spots won’t slip through.”
Veitch, on the other hand, had left the Expanded Universe long before Disney wiped the slate clean. He makes it clear he has little desire to return.
“For several years it was sheer bliss. And that’s reflected in the work, I think,” he writes. “At some point, I think in 1995, it stopped being fun. But we had six great years. Maybe I will talk about all of that later.”
But while Zahn and Veitch’s respective Star Wars careers wound up having very different trajectories, both played instrumental roles in growing and revitalizing the franchise at its lowest point. Without stories like Heir to the Empire and Dark Empire, there may never have been the Star Wars boom in the mid-’90s that paved the way for Kenner’s Power of the Force toy line, the Shadows of the Empire multimedia event, the Special Edition re-releases and eventually a whole new era of movies and TV series. In true Joseph Campbell fashion, Star Wars journeyed through the dark and emerged in the light once more.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.