I wouldn’t say that Ostrander was singlehandedly responsible for getting me to read “Star Wars” comics again, but the man has produced the best ones I’ve read in recent memory. As all things must, his time with the franchise seems to be winding down with these two titles. Though a third volume of “Dawn of the Jedi” is advertised at the end of vol. 2, I have yet to hear similar news for “Agent of the Empire.” Though I enjoyed both volumes, the division of labor in writing them seems to imply that he’s best at these things when flying solo.
I say this because of the two volumes I’m going to talk about here, he shares story credit with artist Jan Duursema on “Dawn of the Jedi vol. 2: Prisoner of Bogan.” They had a similar division of labor on “Legacy,” which I quite enjoyed, but a lot of the dialogue and caption text was pretty on-the-nose and heavily expository most of the time, and that’s even more true here. We’re constantly being told by the characters about what’s going on and their state of mind at any given moment as Xesh, the “Force Hound” who threw the Force out of balance after his arrival on Tython, is sent to the moon of Bogan to meditate on his connection to the Dark Side. It’s there that he meets up with Dagen Lok, a Je’Daii who became out of balance with the Force due to a vision of an invading army he saw in the planet’s chasm. Lok wants to prevent this vision from coming true by getting off Bogan, raising an army, and creating enough “forcesabers” to arm it. Naturally, he sees this latest arrival as his best chance to do that.
The end result crams a lot of adventure into this volume as the Je’Daii of Tython chase Xesh and Lok across several planets while the Rakatans make plans to recover their missing Force Hound. Except for the above-mentioned heavy-handedness with the exposition, it’s all executed pretty well with Duursema proving adept as always at visualizing the many varied races, vehicles, and planets of the “Star Wars” universe. As for the story itself, if you can get past the dumbness behind the Je’Daii’s initial decision to just toss Xesh on a moon with a crazy person, there are some good ideas underpinning it. Though Lok is presented as the main antagonist here, he’s not an outright villain as he’s acting in what he believes to be the best interests of everyone as he tries to raise an army to confront the coming invasion. Xesh also becomes a fairly sympathetic presence here as it’s not hard to understand why he’d side with Lok after being tossed on Bogan. The rest of the cast isn’t quite as developed, but it’s still interesting to see them deal for the first time with things that we take for granted with the Jedi -- like “mind tricks,” lightsabers, and force lightning.
Even if he can be somewhat on the nose about plot points and characterization, Ostrander has always had good instincts about where to go with them. The man also thrives on moral ambiguity and characters with complex motives and that’s evident again in “Agent of the Empire vol. 2: Hard Targets.” Once again, Agent Jahan Cross is doing the Empire’s dirty work only this time without the same moral certainty about his cause. That’s because after carrying out a successful assassination while at a lavish ball on Alderaan Cross finds out that the man wasn’t an enemy of the Empire and that he was likely used as a professional hitman by someone with the right amount of credits. He doesn’t get much time to reflect on that as the agent’s next job winds up being to ensure that the Empire’s choice to be Count Regent, a boorish and arrogant man named Rodas Borgin, is elected.
Cross has other ideas about how things should proceed after meeting the late Count’s son, but the young boy is also at the heart of a power play regarding the succession of the post. Ostrander constructs a tightly woven plot that has the agent crossing paths with his estranged diplomat father, pirate ex-wife and Boba Fett as he tries to find out who wants the kid dead. His exploits in that matter are efficiently constructed and propulsive, keeping the story moving at a fast clip right up to the end. Davide Fabbri provides the art and while his style is a bit more animated than Duursema’s, the man is no less capable a storyteller and he has plenty of visual style as well.
However, the series would fall apart if Cross wasn’t interesting but that’s not an issue here. Even though he’s working for the Empire, the man still believes in doing the right thing after living through the corruption of the last days of the Republic. It’s a conviction that’s tested here, yet he’s a clever thinker and capable of finding lateral solutions to difficult problems and lying to people’s face regarding his actions. That last part is the most interesting thing about this volume because it flies in the face of convention for these types of stories. Normally the protagonist comes clean at some point about his role in the sordid events that lead up to their current situation. Cross doesn’t do that here, and it leads to some interestingly charged scenes over the course of the volume when you realize that he may get away with everything.
This kind of moral ambiguity is rare in the “Star Wars” universe and that makes “Hard Targets” a compelling read overall. Yes there is the occasional bit of silliness, such as the ability of Cross’ ex-wife to go into a “coma” at will, yet it’s not too distracting. While I’m looking forward to reading the eventual third volume of “Dawn of the Jedi,” it’s more disappointing to know that there isn’t a third volume of “Agent of the Empire” in the cards at the moment. I can only look forward to being proved wrong about that in the future.