SDCC: Gillen Explores the Dark Side in "Star Wars: Darth Vader"

In 1977, writer/director George Lucas transported moviegoers to a galaxy "far, far away" with the first of his "Star Wars" films and captured the imagination of a generation. Part of the reason for that success -- the characters. From intrepid heroes like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia to vile villains like the imposing and armored Imperial lord Darth Vader, there was always someone worth rooting for or against. In the films that followed, Vader was revealed to be an even more complex and intriguing character than even his initial appearance would suggest and his popularity grew to near mythic levels. Today he is widely regarded as one of the greatest villains to ever stalk the silver screen.

The original "Star Wars" trilogy documented Vader's various misdeeds as well as his redemptive demise. A prequel trilogy showed how a young Jedi knight named Anakin Skywalker became corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force and was transformed into Vader. While "Star Wars" fans have seen much of the Dark Lord of the Sith's life on film, there are still many fertile periods of interesting history left to explore.

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In February 2015, writer Kieron Gillen and artists Salvador Larroca and Adi Granov will take readers to one of these periods with their new ongoing series from Marvel Comics, "Star Wars: Darth Vader," announced yesterday at the publisher's "Cup O' Joe" panel at Comic-Con International. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the series, which like Marvel's other recently announced "Star Wars" ongoing series will be set in the time period between a "New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back," and examines how Darth Vader deals with the aftermath of the destruction of the Galactic Empire's first Death Star.

CBR News: Kieron, when we talked about your departure from "Iron Man" you said you left the book because you were given an opportunity that was too big to pass up. I assume "Star Wars: Darth Vader" was that opportunity?

Kieron Gillen: Yes, this was the project I was referring to. It's unlike anything I've done before and it's such an enormous thing for Marvel and Lucasfilm. Also, part of it was I thought I could really kill on that book. Putting aside Darth Vader being one of the greatest villains of all time, the Star Wars mythos, and the very interesting time period when the story is set I've wanted to write a villain book forever. I've thrown the idea around a few times and if anyone has read my stories they know I tend to spend a lot of time with my villains.

So all of those things came together and it was like, "Yes! This is great! I get to do the story of Darth Vader from the end of the first "Star Wars" film to the start of " The Empire Strikes Back!" It's a big story too. It's not just that I want to write Darth Vader. It's that I get to write this story of Darth Vader and it's all in canon. As far as Lucasfilm is concerned, this is what happened.

Let's talk a little bit about your sense of the title character. "Star Wars: Darth Vader" begins after the end of the "A New Hope" film and the destruction of the first Death Star. What do you find most interesting about Darth Vader during this time period?

So when me, Jason [Aaron, writer of Marvel's "Star Wars" series], and Jordan [D. White, the editor] were going over the period one of the most amazing things was all the stuff that happens between the movies. There's just so much meat on the bone. We never know when Darth learns that Luke Skywalker is Luke Skywalker. Anyone who has seen the three prequels know there's a tremendous amount of emotional weight on that scene. We also never really see Luke learn to be a Jedi. That journey is sort of passed over.
Those are some of the real obvious ones, but there's quite a lot more in there. And for me specifically, the problem with a villain story is you need an actual story to make it compelling because Darth going around and just being a victorious force of evil is pretty tedious. You need an antagonist; ideally antagonists. You need a problem for him to overcome. You essentially need a narrative arc.

So at the end of the first "Star Wars" film he's the sole survivor of the greatest military disaster of all time. And more importantly he let the Rebels escape with the plans! He chose to let them escape with the plans. There are lots of people to blame for the Death Star. It's not like it's just Darth's fault, but he certainly foots some of the blame.

Then the next time we see him in "Empire" he's more powerful than ever. He treats people in "Empire" with more contempt than he treats them in "A New Hope." So something happens between those two films. There is the question of what the destruction of the Death Star actually created. So this story is basically the fall and rise of Darth Vader and all the things that happen along the way. That's why it interests me.

When I talk about this I tend to use the film "The Godfather" as a reference in terms of how it worked and that it featured a villain protagonist who we're still interested in. The second reference I use is "House of Cards." This is a man who is an incredibly powerful member of an organization and he feels he is being slighted. This is him choosing and being forced to do things he maybe wouldn't have done originally and to rebuild and change his power situation.

So basically Darth starts our story in relatively low standings and he's troubled by some lingering questions from our inciting incident like who was that guy who blew up the Death Star? Why the hell did Obi Wan come back? That's kind of where I see him at the start, and despite the fact that we know the ending in some ways, we know Darth is around in "Empire," this is still compelling. It's the same reason why anyone would be interested in the prequels; that question of how did they get from A to B?

The story feels classical and almost operatic. Darth is an operatic character. He's got a level of grandeur to him and that's something you don't want to lose. That's how I see Darth Vader.

There haven't been as many Stars Wars comics and books about Vader during this time period as there have about the Rebel Alliance heroes' adventures after the original film trilogy, though there are a few including Marvel's original "Star Wars" comics and the Alan Dean Foster novel "Splinter of the Mind's Eye." Are you familiar with any of the previously told stories from this time period? Are they influencing or informing your work on "Darth Vader?"

The Lucas people have put those other stories under their "Legends" banner. So I'm free to take stuff that we find interesting and want to reintroduce, but I'm not constrained by that. The concentration here is what is the purest burst of the concept of "Star Wars," and specifically the idea of Darth that we can do?

So that's kind of the way I see the old material. If you were to look at my pitch documents to the Lucas people you'd see I ask for the most random stuff. "Can we have this?" I'm very free with taking stuff from the Expanded Universe that I think might be interesting to reintroduce. I've never worked at a company that's rebooted their universe, but in some ways I imagine it's a little like this. Anything that looks really good, insane and sexy I may use, and if there's other stuff I don't want to use that's fine.

So the most important thing for me is that I want this book to feel like something that actually exists in the "Star Wars" universe between the two movies. I kind of want my Mum or anyone who loves Star Wars to be able to pick up this comic and read it and get it as, "Here is something that feels like 'Star Wars' and excites me in a Star Wars-ian way."
That's primarily Jason's book, though. I have a different job. I'm doing an Empire book. So I have to make it brilliant and interesting in a completely different way than Jason's "Star Wars," while at the same time make it work as part of "Star Wars." [Laughs] That's a fun challenge. It's part of what attracted me to the title.

When you talked about Vader you mentioned how the book will have a certain political component to it. Will have sort of an espionage and fugitive-hunting vibe as well?

There's a little bit of that. I don't want to go too deep in this, but I did hint that this story is sort of Darth operating outside of his normal parameters. So it's almost like Darth doing something inside the Imperial organization and not necessarily with the Emperor's permission. Darth builds his own private KGB might be a good way of putting it.

I rewatched the movies and took notes and you know how there's that scene with Darth and the bounty hunters in "Empire?"


Well A) Darth is a complete micro-manager. [Laughs] And B) he's familiar with these guys. He says, "no disintegration," which is a wonderful beat, but it also says he knows a lot about them. So how did Darth get to know these guys? That question is one of the inspirations for some of the ways in which my story goes.
To go back to the "House of Cards" analogy he's doing these things that he doesn't want other people to know about, while at the same he's completely doing the Emperor's bidding in different ways; that kind of secret tension between this is for me, and this is for you. That's one of the things that really drives the book.

So yes, we are using Boba Fett. [Laughs]

What can you tell us about some of the other supporting characters that will surround Vader in this series? You just talked about some familiar faces, but will we see some new ones as well?

Making new characters for "Star Wars" is tricky because you want them to feel "Star Wars." So when I'm thinking about new supporting cast I'm like, "What isn't in 'Star Wars,' but what would make sense in 'Star Wars?'" It's this incredibly rich world with all these alien races. So it's like, "Which one of these designs can we build a new character around or build upon?" Or if I'm building a character that's entirely new how can I make them feel "Star Wars" in terms of the structure?

That's kind of a wanky writer's answer. [Laughs] What I really mean is the thing with Darth, if we go back to the idea of the grandeur, means that I don't do internal captions for him. The Punisher has captions, but Vader is like him in that both characters need to have a distance to them. You should be scared of Vader, and if you get too close, especially during this period, you kind of lose that. So having a supporting cast allows us to focus on some people who are little different. Boba Fett is a serious dude, and Darth Vader is the most serious dude. New characters allow us to do some different beats.

So there will be some familiar supporting characters like Boba Fett, but there are also characters I'm inventing. There are some characters where I'm riffing on "Star Wars" concepts to create a new character and there are some alien races who never really had a major character in the movie and I'll be trying to create a character from that race. So there will be familiar races we know as well with different twists on them.
The problem with the Empire is that by definition and design it's faceless. There's the Stormtrooper uniform and that kind of fascistic grip of it all, and that means there's a lot of dudes that aren't necessarily interesting to read about. [Laughs] One of those dudes is quite cool, but not as everyone in your cast. One of the joys of this book though is that we can bring in sketchier characters. You get those bounty hunter guys, and you get people who are just as ethically questionable and evil, but can act in a different way.
That's one of the things I think people will like about the book. Several of the characters I really love. There's new characters I made up, and there's quite a lot of droids. You've got to remember Anakin made droids as a hobby when he was a kid. This is a guy who was a hyper genius. So I pick up on stuff like that and use it. And of course the great joy of droids is that you can tell them not to tell people stuff. They're not as quite "fallible" as humans.

I assume we'll see new and familiar antagonists in "Star Wars: Darth Vader" as well?

Definitely, especially any one who's related to the crime side. Jason and I have some interesting plans for the Rebels as well. One of the ways I describe how this book works is Vader has so many enemies, but he is the arch-enemy. He's the guy everybody is afraid of and basically on the run from constantly. In my book that's what he does on Tuesday. So he's overworked, but he doesn't complain about it. He's the hardest working man in show business.

There's lots of interplay between my book and Jason's, but not in a way where you have to read them both, but if you do you'll see how they operate as an elegant machine. It's like when I was on "Uncanny X-Men" and Jason was on "Wolverine & the X-Men." This is not something we're unfamiliar with and it worked very well.

Let's move from characters and story to the artists providing the interior and cover art for "Star Wars: Darth Vader," Salvador Larroca and Adi Granov. What do you feel they bring to the book as artists?

They're both amazing, but one of the secrets about comic art is that artists do their best work when they are passionately engaged with a project; if they really care, and the formative experiences of many of the members of this generation of comic book creators revolve around "Star Wars." When we met with Lucasfilm, Axel [Alonso, Marvel Comics' editor-in-chief] talked about the length of the queues when his dad took him to see "Star Wars." And "Empire" was the first film I ever saw at the cinema.

We're kind of dealing with a founding myth here and when you're seeing Salva and Adi's art you can see the love there. You can see them thinking, "Wow! This is a chance to do this and really go for it!" That's one of the things that elevates the book, not that it needs much elevation. It's one of those things that I think people can really tell. Adi's Darth cover is one of the best pieces he's ever done as far as I'm concerned, and I'm a person who loves Adi.

In terms of more general stylistic things they both have that larger cinematic feel as in they're both entirely capable of giving something that feels like "Star Wars," and as I said earlier that's kind of the point of the thing. We want this to be as Star Wars-ian as we can possibly make it with everything that made us love Star Wars in it, and at the same time, giving entirely new things and playing with the concepts in interesting and novel ways. That's the high concept.

They seem like an especially good fit for a book with an armor clad protagonist considering their experience with Iron Man.

Yes! Darth Vader versus Iron Man! [Laughs] Seriously, they're both people who really know their hardware. They both come from a photo realist tradition, but at the same time they're entirely capable of drawing convincing machines. Those are useful talents when you're doing a book that is A) cinematic and B) technical.

Earlier you touched on my final question about what it's like to be working with Jason again, and it sounds like these will be separate experiences that interconnect in such a way that you'll get a richer perspective on this era of "Star Wars" if you're reading both. Is that accurate?

Yes, that's one of the fun things. It's just something Marvel does and it's something I've done with Jason, so it's not hard. Me and Jason can sit in a bar and chew stuff over. We've just come back from the Marvel summit and we're working out big things around issue #15 for both of our series. I'd like to think there's a mutual respect. Jason may think I'm a monstrous human being. [Laughs] Stuff gets done though, and there's a give and take.

With any kind of new collaboration there's always a teething phase, but we're both quite experienced with this. I mentioned Jason and I did this sort of similar thing on "Uncanny X-Men" and "Wolverine & the X-Men," but this is also similar to what me and Matt Fraction did on "Mighty Thor" and "Journey Into Mystery," only this is a villain book. You could argue that "Uncanny" was a villain book as well. Some people might be angry if you did though. [Laughs]

"Star Wars: Darth Vader" is a book that I left a book to do, which tells you about my emotional investment in it. I'm writing Darth Vader! The first time I try to write a light saber sound effect will be an interesting moment. [Laughs]

"Star Wars: Darth Vader" debuts in February 2015 from Marvel Comics.

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