The Dark Lord has returned relatively unscathed after being inconvenienced by the events of the recent "Vader Down" event, but tensions remain high between him and Emperor Palpatine in Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca's "Darth Vader" #16. Vader is as calm and cool as ever after presenting his master the remains of the cyborg who betrayed him, despite still having to jump through proverbial hoops to win back the Emperor's favor. While the emotional tension is there, there's also an encroaching sense of repetition as Palpatine's passive chastising of his apprentice continues and Vader continues to endure it, despite having his own personal motives.
Gillen seems to struggle with the short leash the series' setting gives him; were it not already known that Vader remains loyal to Palpatine until he tries to kill Luke, readers would be cheering for Vader to pop his lightsaber and lop Palpatine's head off at this point. Knowing such an event can't happen, though, requires Gillen to continue to put the lead character at a disadvantage in his own comic. However, while Vader continues to be portrayed in a subservient role as much a dominant one, Gillen still manages to eke out some genuine villainy from him. The story works better when Vader has others doing his bidding, and there's plenty of that in this issue.
Even then, Vader's character largely goes through the motions, despite all of the Vader-y kind of one-liners that sound right at home coming out of his mask. However, while Gillen's dialogue is perfectly in tune with the character, it's also exactly what readers have come to expect and nothing more. Gillen's storyline leaves little room for any kind of exploration or expansion, but then, neither does what little freedom he's allowed. Through no fault of his own, Gillen can do little more than put Vader through his usual paces, and -- while he does the best he can with what he's given, and does a commendable job doing it -- the momentum is akin to riding a bike in the basement; things have to slow down when getting too close to the boundaries.
Gillen's dialogue often has to convey what Larroca's art cannot: the eponymous character's emotional state. Clever staging and use of perspective provide some clue as to Vader's emotion at times, but it often has to be carried by Gillen's script. Both the writer and artist do a nice job of this, and -- when it comes to other characters, like Palpatine -- Larroca's art takes most of the load. He excels at showing the Emperor's range of expressions, from rage to surprise to glee, and -- in conjunction with the script -- pulls this off within the span of relatively few panels while making the emotional switches believable. Colorist Jose Delgado adds his own subtle touch with Palpatine's creepy yellow eyes; the shades are light but visible enough to supplement Larroca's art without drawing unnecessary attention away from it.
As usual, Larroca's visuals are beautiful, clean and realistic without getting mired in excessive detail. Larroca liberally pads the story with splash pages, though, and some are more necessary than others; one in particular is somewhat unclear until it's explained on the next page. The blatant plastering of the story's title across two pages bloats the story needlessly, and all of the visual air that's pumped into the pages make Gillen's relatively straightforward story seem a little thin for its allotted space. Mark Brooks' dark and iconic cover plays right into the issue's feel: it's evocative of imagery everyone's seen before, but it still looks great.
"Darth Vader" #16 is an approachable and nice looking comic, but it's also one that seems to tread on a lot of traveled ground before taking a shortcut to get where it needs to go. Those who know and love the Dark Lord of the Sith will get exactly what they're expecting here, but still may not feel all that satisfied afterwards.