Disney capitalized on its acquisition of Marvel and Lucasfilm by releasing several limited series books starring iconic and beloved Star Wars characters. Perhaps the most exciting was Marvel’s Darth Vader comic in 2015. Writer Kieron Gillen’s story tread new ground (for the updated Star Wars canon anyway) by picking up Vader’s thread immediately after the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope. Cast from the Emperor’s good graces and threatened by a slew of rivals ranging from ambitious imperial officers to opportunistic dark side adepts, Vader fights to reclaim his station and prove himself worthy of the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith.
The series boasts several exciting twists and turns and plenty of red lightsaber-twirling action while also offering a poignant character study of Vader himself. Marvel’s Vader must confront and finally accept the failures of Anakin’s past in order to overcome the obstacles of Vader’s present. The story’s narrative ambition, combined with artist Salvador Larroca’s dynamic style evocative of the films, and successful introduction of several new characters and angles to such an important and intriguing aspect of Star Wars lore makes for a riveting and fun experience. The book is not without its glaring, space slug-sized flaws, however, and the series proves how difficult the creatives have it when developing new material for Disney’s now never-ending Star Wars saga. Looking at you, Han Solo spin-off!
15. AWESOME: ART AND STYLE
From the first page of Issue #1, Larroca and the editorial team establish the series’ scope, action, and visual potential through a clever adaptation of a cinematic style evocative of the mainstream Star Wars films yet uniquely suited for a comic. Each book’s page composition feels effortless, like watching a well-edited film, rising and falling naturally with the dramatic and emotional needs of the narrative. Beautifully wrought settings like the underground cities of Shu-Torun are a delight to explore as Vader chokes, slashes, and glowers from one foe to the next.
The consistency of the series’ creative team is crucial to giving Darth Vader‘s story an identity and greatly enhances the excitement in returning for each and every chapter of the book’s 25 issues. The work of the series’ cover artists (that’s Mark Brooks from #16 above) is dynamic and fantastic, capturing many sides of the Dark Lord’s persona.
14. AWESOME: EMOTIONAL FLASHBACKS
Although there is plenty of awesome Sith action as Darth Vader carves enemies up with his crimson blade and dodges claw swipes from raging rancors, Vader‘s most powerful moments are the quiet ones. The series is mainly able to explore his inner struggle against the haunting failures of Anakin Skywalker through the actions of its well written main character. What Vader says — and more importantly what he doesn’t say — keeps the reader hungry for any opportunity to explore the Dark Lord’s true mind.
When the emotionally powerful memories do surface, they enhance the story and the readers’ understanding of Vader. Often, they come in quick flashes — like Vader recalling his first kiss with Padme on Geonosis. By the series’ end, Vader’s flashbacks demonstrate his full commitment to the dark side and his path going into Empire by mentally hurling Anakin’s ghost into the fires of Mustafar himself.
13. SUCKS: GOING TO TATOOINE
One of the biggest mistakes that the series makes in Issue #1 involves Vader traveling to his old home world of Tatooine. Vader barging into Jabba’s palace to slice up Gamorrean Guards and force choke the Hutt gangster sounds awesome, but it’s not exactly right for the character.
A huge part of why Obi-Wan continues to hide Luke on Tatooine with the Lars family is because he knows that Vader would never, ever venture there. Tatooine is the center of all Anakin’s pain: it was the place where he left and later buried his mother and the site of the enraged Jedi’s slaughter of an entire Tusken clan. The story fails to address whether or not Vader feels free of these burdens after Obi-Wan’s death or the discovery of his son and honestly comes off as a little fan service-y. Two different Skywalkers get away with choking Jabba out?!
12. AWESOME: A WORTHY ADVERSARY
Vader matches wits (and sabers) with plenty of foes through Darth Vader‘s run, but one of the more intriguing and challenging adversaries for the Dark Lord comes in the form of Cylo. In perhaps a nod to Palpatine’s clone scheme from Dark Horse’ Dark Empire comic, Cylo has cybernetically enhanced himself into immortality — able to endlessly rebirth himself in new, similarly augmented bodies.
Cylo secretly works with the Emperor to produce force sensitive adepts capable of challenging and replacing Vader should the Dark Lord prove unworthy. He also commands a fleet of organic whale-ships and even manages to activate a kill switch for Vader’s armor, literally bring the Sith to his knees before Cylo. Unfortunately for the good doctor his kill switch plan didn’t account for the power of the dark side — and Vader’s indomitable will.
11. AWESOME: THE DROIDS
Triple-Zero and Bee-Tee are more than just dark foils to Threepio and Artoo — they’re cold-blooded assassin droid killing machines used to great effect by Darth Vader and Dr. Aphra during the series. Sporting a vehement hatred of organic life forms and a slew of powerful weaponry, the two droids add a comic element to the story and explore the concept of droids’ rights and societal status in the Star Wars Universe.
Some deadly droid antics include Issue #18, where Triple-Zero pitches the idea of draining the blood of their enemies (or allies) to power a droid weapon of his own design. Vader passes on this “more man than machine” idea, surprisingly. Although that doesn’t stop the droids from convincing their “meaty” foes that their droid army is equipped with that capability.
10. SUCKS: VADER’S REPLACEMENTS
Due to Vader’s failure to safeguard the Death Star, the Emperor reveals that he’s prepared a slew of potential replacements to challenge the Dark Lord. Everyone but Cylo is uninteresting, ridiculous, or barely offers even the slightest challenge to Vader.
Tulon Voidgazer is meant to have some sort of scientific/technologically-based powers that mirror those of the Force in some ways but those abilities — and her character — are never explored. The Astarte twins, Force-sensitives trained and engineered by Cylo, come off as weak, short-sighted, and ignorant. It never feels even remotely possible that they could take down Vader in a lightsaber duel. Commander Karbin, basically General Grievous 2.0, spins four lightsabers from his mechanical arms at Vader and is little more than a reference to the prequels who also stands absolutely no chance.
9. AWESOME: DARTH VADER
Everyone knows Darth Vader is totally powerful, totally fueled by the dark side, and totally likes to open up military promotions through the liberal use of force choke. The series explores aspects of Vader’s character that most Star Wars fans might not know about and manages to make Vader both more relatable and more formidable in the process.
During the Shu-Torun War, Vader demonstrates that he’s both a brilliant and unpredictable tactician, commander, and warrior who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in combat. Actually, he prefers doing things himself when it comes to combat! He fights a blasted rancor, bends blaster bolts, and mind tricks Cylo’s whale-ships into flying into a nearby sun! The series also showcases Vader’s keen strategic mind as he navigates Imperial politics and how dangerous and fragile even the Dark Lord’s position is within the New Order.
8. AWESOME: PREMISE
In the series, Vader’s got to get over on all these Imperial stooges if he wants to reclaim his previous pre-Death Star debacle status as the baddest (or second baddest) Sith Lord in the galaxy. By placing Vader at a low point before Empire, readers are able to see the character in desperate or otherwise completely unexpected situations that make for compelling scenes and stories in each book.
The narrative characterizes Vader as very much alone in the world, even more so now that he’s out of Palpatine’s good graces. Ultimately, this drives Vader’s arc as his accomplishments motivate him to not only fully come to terms as the evil dark sider he’s become, but to embrace that identity and use it to overcome everyone standing in his way…including the Emperor himself.
7. SUCKS: LUKE SKYWALKER
One aspect of the narrative that felt like it was treading over old ground was the focus on Darth Vader’s obsession with Luke Skywalker. Vader secretly questing to find his son is the least interesting portion of the story and takes away from the impact of their first face to face meeting during their duel on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back.
With a universe as big as Star Wars, there’s ample space to explore characters and conflicts apart from the mainstream films, even if Darth Vader is the star and it’s set between Episode IV and V. Also, wouldn’t Luke’s identity be pretty common knowledge after the Death Star’s destruction? I feel like his name would be broadcast out of Rebel HQ to every corner of the galaxy as a beacon and rallying call to swell their ranks. Maybe that’s a little nitpicky though…
6. AWESOME: THANOTH
One of the most interesting characters is Inspector Thanoth, Vader’s adjutant who is assigned to investigate a stolen shipment of Imperial credits. Guess what? Vader stole the credits and Thanoth quickly deduces that. The surprising turn comes in Issue #20 when Thanoth proves to be as manipulative, far-sighted, and clever as the Dark Lord when he reveals that he actually wishes to align himself with Vader against the Emperor. Thanoth sees Vader as the future of an “eternal Empire.”
Thanoth is a true believer in the New Order. His devotion to the Empire, and not the Sith, and desire to safeguard it is a mindset not really explored in the new canon. Mostly, Imperial officers come across as fearful of their Sith masters, but Thanoth is actually critical of them. He’s also a realist and super chill about Vader needing to murder him to safeguard his plans.
5. AWESOME: DR. APHRA
The rogue, sarcastic, and supremely capable Doctor Aphra is a complex addition to the Star Wars lore in the pages of Darth Vader. She is written in the vein of Han Solo…but with more time spent studying than smuggling. Although, she does do her fair share of illicit and illegal jobs.
Aphra becomes the wildcard ally of Darth Vader as he works to undermine, discredit, and destroy his enemies. She resourcefully serves the Dark Lord well while realizing her time in his favor will be brief — no matter how well she does. Through Aphra, the series explores how the endless stream of galactic warring — from the Clone Wars to the present — has become normalized. Conflict had a hand in Aphra’s traumatic past as well as making her into a skilled mercenary.
4. SUCKS: ALSO DR. APHRA
Dr. Aphra honestly works best when she’s not directly interacting with Darth Vader. Their dialogue together feels out of place and it’s strange to see Vader respond to Aphra’s super casual and almost meta-level understanding of who the Dark Lord is within the greater universe.
One of the most problematic details regarding Aphra occurs in issues #24 and #25. After falling from Vader’s graces, Aphra somehow hatches a plan to go over his head — directly to the Emperor! She even manages to sneak into Palpatine’s private quarters. Seeing her interact with Palpatine is like fan fiction. Aphra even tells Palpatine Vader’s secrets to save her skin except any info about Luke… just to prove to Vader that she wasn’t fully betraying him? Why not tell the Emperor?! Also, she survives the vacuum of space after Vader attempts to execute her. .
3. AWESOME: NEW LOCATIONS
One of the most exciting aspects of new Star Wars stories is traveling to wondrous locales around the galaxy. Darth Vader showcases some of the most unique and intriguing worlds to date since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm. The creative team capitalizes on their opportunity throughout the story and never relies too heavily on established locations (besides Tatooine).
The vast and dangerous underground lava pitted cities of Shu-Torun are the site of exciting and explosive battles between the Empire and rebellious ore mining factions. More cool places that appear in the story include the shipyards holding the under-construction Super Star Destroyer Executor, Cylo’s monstrous living whale-ships, and the Spire at Anthan Prime’s nebula. New worlds also become visual and thematic touch points that bridge important and familiar ones to the present story, such as Naboo, Tatooine, and Mustafar.
2. AWESOME: EXPANDING THE LORE
One of the main criticisms of the prequel films, as well as Star Wars media in general outside of the original trilogy, is the reliance on nostalgia and familiarity to get “meat in the seats.” Often, creatives seem to feel that newer characters, settings, and even storylines need to be comparable to the iconic ones that preceded them in order to be relatable or interesting.
While Darth Vader‘s premise relies on established Star Wars canon, it completely utilizes the opportunity to explore new corners of the galaxy and adds significantly more to the lore than it borrows from. The defunct “Legends” Expanded Universe is a myriad trove of unending stories and concepts, but it’s only natural that many of those ideas will naturally either be recycled, adapted, or re-purposed for emerging media — as seen recently in Star Wars Rebels. Overall, Vader is a more original and unique Star Wars comic.
1. SUCKS: NO DARK SIDE SECRETS
It seems natural to believe that an entire series about Darth Vader would unveil some new mysteries regarding the Force and the dark side, but Darth Vader is quite skimpy on the revelations. In fact, new details about Star Wars‘ most interesting concepts have been sorely lacking in all post-acquisition Star Wars media.
The last relevant information regarding the nature of the Force hasn’t been dropped on audiences and readers since Yoda was balancing atop Luke’s boot in the swamps of Dagobah. Darth Vader could have shed some light on the nature of the dark side and of Vader’s Sith training under Palpatine. Perhaps Marvel’s latest series centering on the Dark Lord’s early days immediately after Revenge of the Sith will make up for this.
Han Solo: A Star Wars Story opens in theaters May 28, 2018 and The Last Jedi opens December 15th.
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