*Note: This was a review written by me for a previous website.
When it was announced that Disney was going to be dropping all of the currently existing extended universe material for Star Wars, outside of the Clone Wars television show, it left Dark Horse in a bit of an awkward position. On one hand they still have several months left on their contract to publish Star Wars comics before Marvel takes over next year, but on the other hand all of their titles no longer matter in the scheme of things. As near as I can tell the only exception to this is Star Wars: Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir, which has the dubious honor of being the first comic series to exist as canon in the new continuity. The problem with this is that it may slip through the cracks unless Marvel is able to get the reprint publication rights. The remaining question to my mind is how far in advance was this planned to be part of the new continuity, or did it just make it in as a salve for Dark Horse’s ego? Given that it is an adaptation of unproduced Clone Wars scripts it probably only made the cut as a technicality.
The story itself takes place somewhere in the sixth, and final, season of the show. For those of you who have not followed the show and are wondering why Maul is alive after being rather blatantly dead at the end of The Phantom Menace, apparently it is because his hatred was so great that he managed to will himself to survive being cut in half. He found his way to the outer rim and crafted a new lower torso for himself, and then roamed around in refuse piles as little more than a creature of rage for years before he was found by his brother, Savage Opress, and rescued. He spends some time recovering, and since then he has waged a fight against both his former master and the Jedi. Along the way he brings several crime cartels and mercenaries under his control, which he fashions into a rough army called the Shadow Collective. He also acquires a darksaber along the way, which replaces the double-bladed saber he lost at the time of his death. He gets some of the best toys, really. The last time he appeared in the cartoon series he had been captured by the Emperor and was being held prisoner, which is where we pick up the story in this collection — not that you would know most of this from what the comics themselves tell you.
As noted above, this was originally planned to be a four episode arc of the animated show, and that kind of shows through here. Parts of it seem rushed, and the battle scenes were definitely designed with a longer form narrative in mind. For instance, when General Grievous bombards one of Maul’s strongholds from orbit the city goes from near pristine to in ruins within the span of a single panel, and the bombardment does not last much longer than that. It is easy to see how this would have been an extended sequence in the television show, but would eat up too much page space here. This gives an abrupt, unsatisfying feel to a lot of the action scenes, and makes me wish that they had gotten the budget to work these episodes into the series. Some of the fights that were abbreviated here would make for some truly epic animated sequences. Even letting this series expand into a fifth issue may have helped in regards to this, and that is not a recommendation I make often.
On the flipside, the shortened fight scenes give way to a more in-depth narrative structure which shows the various dark side players maneuvering each other around in a game of backstabs and betrayals. All the major players are here (Maul, Sideous/Palpatine, Count Dooku, Mother Talzin, and General Grievous), which gives the book a certain weight to it. The interplay between each of the characters is the highlight of the book, and the best reason I can think of to recommend it. Granted the ultimate outcome is rather predictable when you factor in who can and cannot die, but how you get there is pretty entertaining. The few Jedi characters here suffer from the same conundrum as you have a squad that has three characters clearly around in Revenge of the Sith and one who is not. For the few characters who we cannot account for in Revenge of the Sith it does at least provide a certain degree of closure to their stories, which were first started in the cartoon in most cases. Some of them do survive to fight another day, but many do not. It is entirely too easy to figure out who that will be simply from the needs of the overall story, but that is one of the challenges of writing a story between two other stories that have already been solidified as canon.
The thing to keep in mind with this book is that coming into it with at least a passing knowledge of the events of the Clone Wars cartoon really is required for full enjoyment. The book clearly expects you to be familiar with some of the major players — even those who were not the movies — and does not give them proper introductions. It also never really bothers to explain how Maul is alive, or in control of the Shadow Cartel, or even his motives for hunting down Dooku, Grevious and Sideous. Certainly you can infer some of these points from his actions, but overall it expects you to have a working relationship with what happened after the movie. Strangely it does not market itself as a Clone Wars spin-off, which may have helped alleviate any potential confusion and instead it is presented as a stand-alone story about Darth Maul, which it decidedly is not.
This, naturally, raises the problem inherent in Darth Maul himself, which is that he is a bit of a non-character himself. In the movie he was pretty much just an antagonist designed to look cool, but lacked even the smallest amount of characterization outside of that (okay, he was shown to be a skilled hunter/tracker, but that about exhausts it for characterization). Some deeper motives were added later in comics and books, but those do not count anymore so that leaves him a blank slate. The cartoon gave him a purpose and story for the few seasons he was in it, but even there he was basically seen as just another bad guy — albeit one that most people feared. We are often told how much people fear him, and so rarely get to see why that is true. It is true he also got to add “seeking revenge” to his lengthy list of motivations, but outside of that he was back to doing his routine as a dangerous bad-ass everyone worried about at night. There are certain moments with the Shadow Collective where he is given a chance to be a leader, but most of the time his plans boil down to “you distract them by dying, and I will fight the leader”. It is hard to see him as anything other than a thug with cool body paint and a black lightsaber. In fairness, it is also possible that he works better as a being of pure destruction, rather than as a fleshed out character. Attempting to make him even remotely sympathetic could take away from some of his edge, and make him less of a mysterious force of destruction. It is a tough line to walk, and rather than do so it looks like the writers have decided to just leave him as unambiguously evil and dangerous. Ultimately I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, but the more stories he appears in the more profound the problem becomes.
If you are up to speed on what is happening in the Clone Wars, then this is an excellent addition to your collection which helps tie up some loose ends left behind by the series’ untimely cancellation. If, however, you know nothing of the cartoon series and are only aware of what has happened in the movies then I would recommend staying away. There are characters and subplots here which are never properly introduced or explained, and there are still open threads after it is finished that are not picked up in the movies. If you want some extra Star Wars fun to enjoy while waiting for Disney to start pumping out the movies then there is an entire back catalog of excellent stories which will serve better than this. If you want something to fill the itch and is in current continuity, though, you are out of luck until the new Star Wars cartoon starts or until the three new titles launch next year. Or, better yet, go and enjoy Star Wars: The Clone Wars (it is on Netflix Instant Watch) and then come back and enjoy this book.