SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: Thrawn #4, by Jody Houser, Luke Ross, Nolan Woodward, Clayton Cowles and Travis Lanham, on sale now.
One of the best things about Marvel's Star Wars comics is they traverse several eras. New books like Poe Dameron are based on the current movies, while Darth Vader and Thrawn take place prior to 1977's A New Hope.
The latter, in particular, offers deep insight into the fan-favorite villain from the Expanded Universe, fleshing out his role as a major power-player in the Empire.
In Thrawn #4, the Chiss warrior's mettle as a true strategist comes full circle, illustrating just how he was able to move from being a soldier in the Unknown Regions to one of the Palpatine's chief military strategists. Most importantly, we finally witness the genius Thrawn moving from the rank of Commander to Admiral.
The issue opens up with Thrawn and his aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, heading to Cyphar to mediate a land dispute between the indigenous Cyphari species and human colonists. The Empire has a big stake there due to "doonium" (a metal used for starship construction) and "tibanna" (a coolant gas needed for hyperdrives and weaponry) being smuggled off-planet. Thrawn is sent, not only because these items are being traded to rebel factions, but also because Palpatine's new order is losing out on taxing the substances.
As the duo arrive, they become suspicious of the humans, whose justice committee makes it seem like the Cyphari, namely the Afe clan, are wrongfully accusing them of raiding their grain. Thrawn theorizes the humans are indeed the antagonists, although they're raiding the Afe territory for something more sinister. Vanto is stunned as Thrawn quickly starts putting pieces together, discerning the humans are raiding the Afe fields to extract "scarn" -- a raw material used to make the illegal drug called "spice." What's even more important is Thrawn figures out the operation's mastermind is a long-time enemy of the Empire: a shadowy pirate called Nightswan.
Thrawn uses this revelation to escalate the situation, calling Colonel Wullf Yularen to help stop the drug trafficking. As the humans, led by Clay Tanoo (one of the justice committee members Thrawn suspected earlier) make their raid, Thrawn sets a trap resulting in a gunfight. Thrawn has advised his soldiers to set all weapons to stun, though, so he can capture and interrogate his prisoners. Vanto's in awe as Thrawn's trap works seamlessly, but Tanoo informs him since the scarn is yet to be refined into spice, it isn't a crime. However, the Commander remains one step ahead, actually holding Tanoo to find out the location of the other smuggled items, and to track down Nightswan.
Shockingly, Thrawn orders his army to eviscerate the land in the dispute -- an action Vanto maintains will not go down well with the Afe contingent, or his bosses, as he'll be destroying the Empire's assets. When the successful Commander returns to the Empire's capital city of Coruscant, though, his case is protected as the fields he destroyed were poisoned by the humans as part of the scarn extraction, indicating he was really protecting the Afe region and the Empire's vested interest there. Clearly willing to do what was right for the Empire, even if it meant drawing the ire of superiors, the super-intellectual and highly intuitive Thrawn gains the admiration of Governor Tarkin, and is finally promoted to Admiral.
Vanto's also promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and Thrawn is given his famous Star Destroyer -- the Chimaera -- to continue enforcing Palpatine's laws. However, the issue isn't done showing why Thrawn is ascending the ranks at rapid speed, as he's still concocting plans to show up the other Admirals. This is seen by Thrawn disobeying orders yet again and opting to head to Batonn's Scrim Island to deal with an Imperial Garrison, which has been taken hostage by insurgents; obviously, to once more prove he's in a league of his own.
Another notable point is Thrawn's promotion being backed by Lothal's Governor, Arihnda Pryce, which continues to put him on a collision course with Nightswan. Most importantly, this chain of events sets him up for the famous battle of Lothal we recently saw in the Star Wars Rebels' series finale and a destiny as one of the Emperor's most ruthless instruments during his reign of oppression.