The best Star Wars characters Disney left behind
Entertainment Weekly recently published our selection of the 100 best Star Wars characters. The ranking was compiled by my wonderful colleagues, and I was happy to celebrate luminaries from the galaxy far, far away. But the list hurt my heart. It honored the current Star Wars canon, which is a broken history.
I grew up long before the Disney takeover, when the Expanded Universe spread through books and comics into videogames and customizable card games. I remember when Leia and Han had twins. I remember the Empire's shadows. I remember so, so many Wedge Antilles books.
Lucasfilm has reclassified all that as "Legends," which, whatever. It is just what Star Wars was, for the precise length of some entire youths. Consider this list that follows a salute to absent friends. The ranking is hyper-personal and helplessly incomplete. The Expanded Universe was a big place before it was nothing at all.
20. Kyle Katarn
A Rebel-affiliated mercenary who debuted in 1995's Dark Forces as, basically, the First-Person-Shooting hand holding various weapons. Sequels sent Kyle down the Jedi path, offering players the chance to choose Dark or Light. This was mind-blowing moral-ambiguity stuff, a full decade pre-BioShock. In theory, Kyle was basically Luke Skywalker's Force stuff plus Han Solo's gun stuff, but the ethical avenues made him a more paradoxical figure: a dashing stalwart hero who would randomly scorch Stormtroopers with lightning or mind-choke them with the wave of a hand.
19. Carnor Jax
The Expanded Universe was full of remnant Imperials seeking to rebuild the old Empire in their own image. But only Carnor Jax was a space-samurai with a fully customized suit of armor and a killed-all-my-sworn-brothers backstory. The 1997 Crimson Empire comic reimagined the red-robed Imperial Guards as an oddly noble warrior cabal, destroyed from within by Jax, a traitor with delusions of grandeur. And his name was CARNOR JAX. What a name!
18. Princess Nampi
The answer to the question "What if Jabba met someone bigger, scarier, hungrier, and hornier than him?" Things got impressively gross when Tatooine's sluggiest crime lord was captured by Nampi, a gigantic, purple, tentacle-armed mega-worm with significant food appetites that double as mating habits. A standout monstrosity from a series of Jabba the Hutt comics that Dark Horse published from 1995-96.
17. Mirax Terrik
Corellia was sort of the Australia-New Jersey of the Expanded Universe, a planet full of endearing rowdies with loose yet noble morals and raucous career trajectories. Case in point: This second-generation smuggler, a childhood pal of fellow Corellian Wedge Antilles who became a key figure in Michael A. Stackpole's Rogue Squadron series. Friendship with Wedge earns you big points as far as I'm concerned, and Mirax found herself in a full-on rom-com situation when she met Corran Horn, a daredevil X-Wing fighter. They didn't get along, because his dad arrested her dad, and then they really got along.
16. Exar Kun
The Emperor was a bad guy for, what, half a canonical century? This fallen Jedi turned the galaxy to chaos and then spent millennia as a nefarious not-quite-dead Dark Side spirit, long enough to almost take down Luke Skywalker. He's a major antagonist from Tales of the Jedi, a.k.a. the Old Republic, a.k.a. Star Wars with maximum tunics. Come to think of it, Exar Kun's whole thing — flowy-haired, handsome, hero-type turns bad before his ambient evil lingers as a temptation for sensitive young good guys — was very Sephiroth. I miss all the Sephiroths, man.
So [deep breath], in Aaron Allston's first Wraith Squadron book, someone joked about an Ewok who flies X-Wings with the aid of prosthetic limbs. Then a complicated top-secret mission required Wedge to fly his X-Wing while hiding behind an Ewok puppet to make it look like "Kettch" is real for any passing enemy pilots. Then Kettch kind of actually became real when the Wraith Squadron bad guy performed spiteful genetic tests to make his own Ewok pilot. Wraith Squadron was so great.
14. Anachro the Hutt
Penciller Cam Kennedy brought his marvelously grimy talents to a trio of Boba Fett comics written by John Wagner. Things got a bit Pulp Fiction before they got ultra Titus Andronicus, but the series also conjured up one of Star Wars' sweetest characters. I'm talking Anachro the H'uun, a lady Hutt who just wants her (evil) husband and (evil) dad to get along.
13. Nomi Sunrider
Think it's hard to be a Jedi Knight? Try being a single mother and a Jedi Knight. Essentially the only Old Republic hero who doesn't wind up dead or fallen to the Dark Side, Nomi stays true to her noblest instincts while beefcake alpha bros like Exar Kun and Uliq Qel-Droma turn evil. She became Grand Master of the Jedi Order and raised her daughter to become a top-notch Jedi Knight — because moms get it done.
12. Ysanne Isard
Imagine an Imperial willing to do all the stuff most Imperials wouldn't want to do. That's "Iceheart," the former Intelligence chief and main antagonist in the Rogue Squadron novels. Her particular zest for enhanced interrogation was traumatic to read about back before torture was, like, America's foreign policy. Points added for her bespoke red uniform.
11. The Wampa Who Isn't From Hoth
Shadows of the Empire looks like an inscrutable event from here in the future. Essentially a movie-less movie, it comprised a cycle of multimedia stories. Much of the narrative has aged terribly, from the "seductive" pheromone-radiating baddie Prince Xizor to Dash Rendar (whom I prefer to call "Wan Solo"). The tie-in Nintendo 64 game — a pioneering work of 3D engineering — now looks like something a 7-year-old could build in Minecraft. But the game is still totally awesome, and no moment in the game is awesomer than the revelation that Wampas have apparently gone transplanetary. This brown one lurks in Gall spaceport and often takes out a squad of Stormtroopers before they even arrive. There's even a cheat code that allows you to play as the Wampa. So cool.
10. Tenel Ka
A warrior princess who despises her own royal bloodline, Tenel Ka is a prime example of how the Expanded Universe often cliff-dove into the realm of High Fantasy, importing very Dragonlance-y archetypes into Star Wars. At one point in the Young Jedi Knights series, this character loses her army in a friendly lightsaber duel… and then chooses not to avail herself of the whole cyborg-limb-replacement thing, mainly because she is so badass she only needs one arm.
Some names define a decade. In the '90s, the name was Ken. Ken from Street Fighter II. Kenny from South Park. Ken Starr. Ken Burns. Two Ken Griffeys, father and son, on the same team, in the 1990 season. And then there was — stop me if you've heard this before — a mysterious Force-sensitive orphan who turned out to be Emperor Palpatine's grandchild. Actually, Ken's existence in the kid-friendly Jedi Prince series only barely ever qualified as canon. But as a Jedi fanboy with a Dark Side ancestry, the guy made for a unique entry point for young readers into the franchise. Did I mention he was raised by a droid named DJ-88? Spin, DJ-88, spin!
The Rogue Squadron comic books had a high fatality rate, which gave those stories a tension not really present in other series (which tended to sequelize unkillable movie characters or prequelize iconically dead characters years before their death.) The best pilot was unquestionably Ibtisam, a cheerfully mouthy yet bighearted Mon Calamari Rebel who was a legit threat in the cockpit or on any crash-landed planet. She had a star-crossed workplace romance with Nrin, a Quarren Rogue whose race was the ancestral enemy of Ibtisam's people. "FISH-FACE MAKES OUT WITH SQUID-FACE" was the headline news here.
7. Qwi Xux
Before the Death Star was designed by boring ol' Galen Erso, it was the product of this brilliant captive mind. Qwi Xux (pronounced… actually, I have no idea, I only ever read her name) was an Omwati raised in a kind of imprisoned education. She was given an elite Imperial tutorial… but the students knew that failure would lead to the destruction of their entire village. Qwi developed an understandably skewed vision of reality, believing that the Death Star would be used for peaceful missions. She also helped create the Sun Crusher, a Mega-Death Star that could blow up entire solar systems. She later fell in wuv with Wedge, which earns you big points as far as I'm concerned.
6. Davin Felth
Few things conjure up the glory of the Expanded Universe more than the cover of Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, an anthology of tales about the glorious weirdoes from the wretched hive. No character was more poignant than Davin Felth, a rando Stormtrooper rediscovering his conscience on a mission to track down some renegade droids. Technically, Davin still sort of exists — he's the guy saying "Look sir, droids!" in A New Hope — but the specifics of his journey seem to have been decanonized. (Though Finn's turncoat heroism in The Force Awakens is very Felth-y.)
5. Jacen Solo
There are certain unfailing certainties in the Star Wars multiverse, and one is that Leia and Han will have a son who turns to the Dark Side. Some context is key here, though. In the Young Jedi Knights series, Jacen was a cheerful and thoughtful fellow, a bit of a goof next to his tough sister Jaina and his sorta-crush Tenel Ka. "Noble dork" was not really an obvious hero archetype at the time, but he was a charming YA wingman. Imagine, if you will, that you just stopped reading Star Wars books sometime around 1998. Years passed, a decade or more, and you googled "Jacen Solo," only to discover reams of Wiki-literature on his fatal descent into galactic monstrosity, including a name change (Darth Caedus) and a significant number of intra-Skywalker family killings. Gotta admit, solid metaphor for the general descent from the '90s to the 2000s.
4. Grand Admiral Thrawn
Yes, I'm cheating. Yes, Thrawn has made the reality jump into Disney's ongoing Star Wars adventures. But neo-Thrawn will never do everything the Grand Admiral did in author Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy. Which is a shame, because that Thrawn's multi-lateral plan of attack is awesome, involving a Dark Jedi clone, a lost fleet, some Force-damping lizards, a mining operation, some smugglers, just so much. The concept behind the character wasn't necessarily too complicated — what if an Imperial officer was smart, and not stupid? — but Zahn gilded his strategy with Thrawn's evocatively mysterious personality, making him a blue-skinned, red-eyed, unfailingly smart enigma.
3. Bria Tharen
A.C. Crispin's excellent Han Solo origin trilogy dug deep into the amoral quagmire of the Imperial-era galaxy, tracking the future Millennium Falcon pilot through shadowy criminal underworlds. His journey started with a scam religion whose victims included this highborn Corellian. Initially a love interest, Bria winds up forming the Expanded Universe's most vivid depiction of the dawn of a Rebel consciousness, as she recovers from outright enslavement and dedicates herself to liberating the galaxy. Her tragic end prototypes Rogue One, but Bria's a much more electric and fascinating Rebel than anyone in the Disney era, equally adept at undercover operations and high-stakes raids, willing to sacrifice her relationships (and herself) for the greater good.
2. Corran Horn
Okay, but like, what if Han Solo was also Luke Skywalker? Rogue Squadron's ace pilot is, yes, a brash yet lovable Corellian who turns out to be a Force-sensitive potential Jedi with a murky family history and some daddy issues. He's also the best example of a kind of hero who popped up constantly in the Expanded Universe, a (relatively) normal person with zero famous family relations who takes down the Empire one tough job at a time.
1. Mara Jade
Another Zahn creation, and one of the greatest complete lives ever lived in the Star Wars universe. Mara Jade was raised in the brutal employ of Emperor Palpatine. A prize student, she became one of his best assassins, with spy training, pilot skills, and stray Force sensitivity that made her one of the most dangerous people in the galaxy. The end of the Empire sent her into the gray corners between Dark and Light, where she wound up working as a smuggler. The events of the Thrawn trilogy turned her into a hero, capable of taking down an evil Luke Skywalker clone and a Dark Jedi in practically the same breath. There's an argument to be made that no non-Zahn writer ever really knew what to do with her after his book The Last Command, but she married Luke Skywalker and was unquestionably the coolest person in her marriage. Her tragic death > all the tragic deaths in the sequel trilogy, frankly. If Disney greenlit a Star Wars movie about a powerful woman with a difficult past struggling with her own sins and the moral complexity of the universe, the film would be praised for its boldness and probably compared to Yellowjackets. But the Expanded Universe got there a long time ago.