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Third time's not the charm
on March 18, 2008
This third volume of John Jackson Miller's KOTOR is not quite as satisfying as the first two. The humor's still there, as is a bit of well-scripted pathos, but the second half of the book becomes wordy, the conceptual work is a bit campy, and the story remains incomplete. If you're buying this volume as a stand alone, be aware the conclusion is in Volume 4.
Miller opens with a farewell, the Arkanian drifters Jarael and Camper saying fare-thee-well to the fugitives, padawan Zayne Carrick and Snivvian hustler Gryph. With no plan and no place to go - and no interest in paying full retail - Gryph hires a dim-witted Trandoshan to liberate private transport. Making orbit just as the authorities arrive, the trio don't realize they're piloting a provisioning ship (a mobile restaurant) until they fly right into the middle of a military convoy headed for the front. Unable to escape the armada, they follow to the planet Serroco, where Gryph sets up business and finds to everyone's surprise that while the Trandoshan may not be such a great criminal, he knows his way around the kitchen. But just as soon as things start looking up, the Mandalorians arrive and with them a Force vision of the future, a planetary inferno for the population of Serroco. To save them, Carrick has to convince the Republic forces to move off. And to do that, he has to turn himself in.
"Days of Fear" has all the elements that have made KOTOR such a remarkable series: humor, an emphasis on character over plot, cinematic storytelling, and beautiful art. It also offers one of those rare moments in comics, a scene that honestly evokes a warm feeling of sympathy and compassion. By "honest" I mean that the scene plays naturally. There is no special lighting, no large panels or exaggerated composition, no long-winded exposition - nothing to set the reader up, to say "Hey, here comes the emotional bit!" The scene is played low-key and for that it has all the more impact. Truly one of the best moments in comic books in recent memory. There is perhaps only one thing missing from this story and that is some background on the galactic political landscape. There's a war going on but we don't yet know why.
The second story here, "Nights of Anger," pales in comparison, though certainly not from lack of ambition. It finds Jarael sneaking back to her home world of Arkania in search of medical treatment for her mentor and traveling companion, Camper. Along for the ride is stowaway Mandalorian deserter Rohlan, who may yet turn out to be their savor after Arkoh Adasca, president of Arkania's planetary consortium, Adascorp, holds all three hostage. While they wait for Camper to be treated, Miller fleshes-out the history of his Arkanian drifters, genetic outcasts from a society valuing knowledge - and its application - above individual lives. Camper was himself a leading member of this society, a brilliant scientist conducting ethically suspect research for Adascorp. He has all these years been sought by the same to finish work on a project that will allow Arkania's rulers to intimidate the Republic into submission. To coerce Camper, Adasca needs Jarael. What he doesn't need is a troublesome Mandalorian, one who appears to be every bit as clever with a microscope as he is skilled with a blaster.
The plot is rather simple in summation, but what makes it work is the detail - and plenty of it, which comes to us courtesy of a panoply of talking heads. Presumably readers can look forward to a little more action in the concluding chapters, but to get there we have to put up with the set up, which includes some flinch-inducing camp. Arkania's two genetic groups are known as the Purebloods and the Offshoots, names that could have come straight from a 1970's Jack Kirby comic, as could the universe's new super-weapon, mammoth space-faring worms that eat everything in their paths.
The art in this volume is anything but Kirby-like, even Kirby-esque, though the work in the final two chapters may remind anyone familiar with 70's-era comics of Neal Adams. Harvey Tolibao is an incredible talent and I hope to see him doing more Star Wars in the future. The same is true of Dustin Weaver, who brings a clean Japanese anime influenced style and a great talent for depicting facial expression. Weaver covers two chapters in this volume, and the other third is provided by Brian Ching, a fellow who started out as the regular penciler for this book but whose work is looking more irrelevant with each passing volume. Not that Brian's work is bad, just that it suffers by comparison. At least to these eyes.
This volume not the best place to start reading this series. But with only two previous volumes, and both of them far better efforts than this third, you really should start at the beginning. You'll have fun reading your way here.