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INTERVIEW: Gillen’s “Darth Vader” Prepares for the “End of Games”

by  in Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Gillen’s “Darth Vader” Prepares for the “End of Games”

At the end of the first “Star Wars” film, “A New Hope,” the Galactic Empire’s Death Star was destroyed and Darth Vader fell from the good graces of his master, the Emperor. Considering he’s become one of pop culture’s most relentless and imposing villains, it’s no surprise the Dark Lord of the Sith was back in good standing with his master when the “The Empire Strikes Back” began. Still, Vader had to fight a long hard battle to restore everything he lost; one that tested his calculating mind, prodigious strength and powerful Force abilities.

Marvel Comics’ “Darth Vader” ongoing series by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca has shown the many different struggles and careful machinations the former Anakin Skywalker has engaged in to win back his good favor. Those conflicts and manipulations have earned him a number of allies like Doctor Aphra and her killer droids, Triple Zero and Bee Tee, as well as a multitude of adversaries like the renegade cyberneticist Doctor Cylo and the Imperial investigator known as Inspector Thanoth.

RELATED: Gillen & Aaron’s “Vader Down” Tests “Star Wars'” Heroes and Villains

“Darth Vader” #20 kicks off a new arc titled “End of Games,” which will have a huge impact on both Vader and the allies and antagonists caught up in his struggle. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the arc, which will include a twisted and fun homage to the old “Droids” cartoon; how the fallout from the previous storyline, “The Shu-Toran War” sets it up; the role archetypes play when he designs new characters; and the infamous faces and vehicles that will figure into “End of Games,” like the Emperor and Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, the Executor.

CBR News: One thing that’s become clear over time and makes this series so enjoyable is the fact that while “Darth Vader” shows your lead characters’ actions and desires and examines how they affect the greater “Star Wars” universe, the individual stories are very diverse in terms of genre. Was that your intention going into the book or something that developed organically over time?

Kieron Gillen: That’s always my approach to most things in terms of, “What haven’t we seen yet?” I don’t like doing the same thing again and again because things kind of get boring.

The first arc was like a quest story. The second one was essentially like a weird crime novel. The third one was “Vader Down,” our big crossover action story. It was basically a Marvel-style crossover in the “Star Wars” universe. The fourth one, which we just wrapped, was, “Okay, we’ve seen Vader in some small scale stuff. Let’s put him in the middle of a war. Let’s do ‘Star Wars’ and underline the word ‘Wars.'” So we put him in this command position and showed off how big a “Star Wars” story can be.

The variety of what “Star Wars” is, to me, is kind of one of the keys to the franchise. That was one of the reasons why we made up all these extra characters like Aphra and the droids; to be able to have different moods.

RELATED: “Darth Vader Annual” Confirms: Sith Lords Don’t Dance

I imagine the other appeal of being able to do different stories is you have a regular and reliable artist in Salvador Larroca who can tackle anything you give him, correct?

Yeah, Salva can draw anything. And you can tell he loves Star Wars. You get the scale and imaginativeness of it all, but also there’s a real power that comes from changing the tone of a story, but keeping the same visuals. I didn’t really think about this until your question, but you have more room to experiment when you have a set artist, because the artist keeps an aesthetic tone to the whole thing. Having a set artist makes everyone sort of fall forward into the rhythm of “Star Wars.”

One of the ongoing plot lines you two have been exploring in “Darth Vader” has been the mysterious antagonist, Doctor Cylo. Early on Cylo says he’s programmed himself so he can’t hold grudges, but I have to wonder if that’s true. This most recent arc certainly makes it seem like he risked everything for a chance to take out Vader.

There is an element of, “Me thinks you [doth] protest too much,” but there are parts of Cylo’s plan that involve being frustrated by Vader in a number of ways. So maybe they’re not grudges. Maybe it’s more that he’s become obsessed by a tactical problem. I’m sure if Cylo were asked to justify what went on in the arc he would say, “That was a coldly rational decision. Risky? Yes, but it was my only option.”

Exactly what the Emperor was doing with Cylo and all of this is where we’re going next. The next arc starts with the Emperor basically saying to Vader, “Okay, this is what’s going on.”

When Cylo reappears I’m betting we’ll see his cybernetically enhanced pupil Morit, but will we also see more of Morit’s sister, Aiolin?

If if it wasn’t clear in the book Vader did indeed stick a lightsaber through her. She was probably dying anyway, but Vader did kill her. It might have been a mercy killing.

That’s one of my favorite scenes in the book. It’s very dark because Morit sacrifices his sister because he views her more as competition and then Vader does the mercy killing. Because Vader has been there. We never actually make it explicit, but there is the fact that this is all very familiar for Vader.

At the same time there’s deniability. Vader killed her after she gave him information. Did Vader keep her alive just to get further information? Was it coldly cynical with no empathy for “Oh yeah — I’ve been burned by lava too.” We’ll never know. The push and pull between what are Vader’s motivations and how complicated they are, i.e. what’s going on beneath the mask, is absolutely the heart of the book.

Yeah, one of the great things about Vader is because of the mask readers are often forced to decide what emotion he’s feeling in certain scenes. For example, when he pulled Aiolin out of the lava in Issue #19 I had a sense that he felt bad for her, but that’s not implicit on the page with something like a facial expression.

Exactly, to me, that’s one of the great joys of the book. He could have pulled her out because no one deserves to be left to die like that. Or it could be, “I really need information from this girl. I can’t let her die.” And then it’s, “Oh, I’ve got the information. Bye.” [Laughs] It’s a question of how cynical are you toward Vader.

That’s one of the big reasons why we don’t do internal narrative for the character. You get flashbacks, but you never say what the flashbacks mean. [Laughs] Or how Vader feels about those flashbacks. You know he’s angry over the memory of being lied to, but what does that mean? Why is he angry?

I think the level of enigmatic grandeur to Vader is absolutely key. That’s why people fell in love with him in the first place.

This last issue also showed how Triple Zero and Bee Tee helped Vader win the Shu-Toran War. You seem to be enjoying the chance to bounce those characters off of Vader without having their master, Dr. Aphra, there to serve as a buffer.

Yes! [Laughs] They were useful this arc. They got stuff done.

I think even Triple Zero is aware though that he’s walking on dangerous ground. He almost doesn’t want to push it too far, and I know it’s like, “How much do you believe Triple Zero when he says anything?” Especially when he says, “I didn’t do that.” Triple Zero is a bit of a troll, isn’t he? He quite likes creating a response. So he’s fun.

In issue #20 there’s a back-up story. It’s a 30-page issue and we have a 10 page story of Bee Tee and Triple Zero going off by themselves and having a little adventure, which is kind of on the way to what their next mission is. It was fun because ended up being a really dark take on the old “Droids” cartoon. It’s like, “The Adventures of Triple Zero and Bee Tee, mainly involving murder.”

[Laughs] Speaking of the droids, it feels like their master has sort of become the new link between this book and Jason Aaron’s “Star Wars” series. Before Vader was searching for Luke and now he’s looking for Doctor Aphra, who’s playing a big role in the current arc of “Star Wars.”

You’re right. Vader’s current problem has flipped. His original problem was, “I need to find Luke.” Now his current problem is, “I don’t want Aphra to tell anybody anything.” There’s a question about how he really feels about that. He’s definitely sent people to try and kill her though. That implies he doesn’t mind her being dead.

So would he prefer her alive? Does he want to interrogate her? With Aphra the question always is how useful is she to him versus how vulnerable she makes him. The push and pull between those two things is absolutely key.

Of course, strictly speaking we don’t actually know if she’s even alive. We don’t know if she survives the “Rebel Jail” arc in “Star Wars.” All we know is that Thanoth says he knows something. And Thanoth is perfectly capable of lying. [Laughs]

We talked about the changing tone of the arcs, and this next arc is kind of like the culmination of all our stories so far. The idea is very much the final confrontation between Vader and Cylo, why the Emperor organized that, the final confrontation with and secrets of Aphra, and all those other elements. Vader is tasked with hunting down and killing Cylo and all the remaining rivals, while Triple Z and Bee Tee, with a little help from Black Krrsantan, are sent after Aphra.

So there are quite different tones between the two of them. We’ve got Vader doing the big weird space fantasy stuff. We don’t have a Death Star moment, but we have the closest we can get to a Death Star in this time period. Meanwhile you’ve got a separate plot with Bee Tee and Triple Zero that’s kind of a Western. There’s a wonderful bit where they walk into town and it’s kind of like, “Howdy, stranger.” [Laughs] As you can imagine there’s fun there.

You mentioned the Emperor figures into this arc and you seemed to enjoy writing his past appearances in this book, including this year’s “Star Wars Annual.” What’s your sense of what makes Palpatine tick?

He’s not quite Vader. With Vader you literally don’t know how he feels.

The Emperor is a proper universe-scale villain, to say the least. I took every single passive aggressive boss I’ve ever worked for and I sort of channeled them for the Emperor. His management skills are really mean.

That’s how I dug into him. He’s a man with a big plan. There’s more about the Force and the Sith in this arc. You’ll get the Emperor coming clean and giving a “This is what I’ve been up to” style speech. Of course the question is how much of that can you believe?

There’s a lot of the philosophy element even. There’s an issue in this arc which is like if this arc were “The Empire Strikes Back” this would be our dark cave on Dagobah sequence.

One of the things I always loved about the Emperor is the sense of how amused he is by himself.

[Laughs] Yes, I definitely think the Emperor is somebody who laughs at his own jokes. He’s definitely somebody who likes his own material.

As you mentioned, we also got a hint at the end of Issue #19 that Inspector Thanoth would be returning in this arc. Thanoth is an original creation and it feels like the inspiration for him was the desire to pit a Sherlock Holmes-style mind against Vader. Is that a fair description?

Yeah, that’s right to the core. With a lot of the characters I generally look to archetypes. I say “Star Wars” is kind of like playing the Blues in terms that there is a core to it and an archetypal power to that. 

With Aphra I looked at the Indiana Jones style archeologist; the two-fisted adventuring doctor character. I thought that would work well. So I put her in the book. Then I needed an antagonist for our second arc, which was basically about Vader trying to pull off a crime. So I thought it would be useful to put in a genius detective, which is also a wide archetype.

That gives Vader a very unique problem in that he’s dealing with competence. Vader is known for choking people who fail him. Now Vader’s problem is, “This is actually someone I kind of want on my side. This guy is quite useful.” That tension is kind of what drove that second arc. There was kind of a denouement of Vader seeming to get one over on Thanoth and them kind of agreeing that they were on the same side. With what happens next you can reread those sequences and go, “Okay, maybe Thanoth didn’t quite buy it.”

Next time I watch “Empire Strikes Back” and I get to the parts where Vader is force choking all the command staff that fails him I’ll imagine him thinking, “Why couldn’t I have Thanoth here?”

[Laughs] Yeah. It’s like, “He wouldn’t have messed up.” Bless him.

Can you leave us with some final teases of what you have coming further down the line in “Darth Vader?” It seems like one of the things you’re setting up is the introduction of Vader’s Super Star Destroyer that we first see in “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Executor.

As I said, this arc is the closest we get to the Death Star in the time period, and that’s the Executor. A lot of this arc floats around the Executor. That’s our main, big visual. It’s our first double-page spread in the issue. Here is the Executor. So clearly, that’s a big thing in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Because the Executor is enormous. I probably shouldn’t say any more about that. It is absolutely key though.

“Darth Vader” is still a highly amusing book to write, which is a weird thing to say, because I genuinely cackle while writing it. Vader allows me to access weird, primal emotions. I really enjoy writing Triple Zero and Aphra is still fun. We missed her. It didn’t get austere since we still had Triple Zero in the book, but Vader’s relationship with Queen Trios in this past arc was very different than the one he had with Aphra. They’re very different people. So this arc kind of feels like we’re getting the band back together one last time because nothing will be the same after this.

That sounds like me in Marvel crossover mode. [Laughs] But really, nothing will be the same. It’s kind of like, “Who can possibly survive this one?”

You’ve said before that “Darth Vader” is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Are we nearing the end of that story?

I can’t give a real answer to that question. We are definitely coming to a climax here though.

“Darth Vader” #20 is scheduled for release May 11 from Marvel Comics.

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