Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vols 1 – 3

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A number of months ago, Brown’s Review made a firm statement that it intended to “avoid” Darth Vader.  This arose after reading Tarkin by James Lucerno, which is as much a buddy adventure between the future Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, as it is a biography of the book’s namesake.  While Tarkin, itself, was an enjoyable read, what we found off putting about it was that it opened a door into the mind of Darth Vader.  One of the key attractive elements about the Dark Lord of the Sith in the Original Trilogy was this exclusion from his thoughts behind the mask.  We can only know Vader by his actions and words, which makes the Imperial enforcer frightening in his unpredictability and mysteriousness.  As a result, we boycotted Lords of the Sith, and for a while, we also avoided Marvel Comics’ Darth Vader series.

Our resistance to the latter fell apart as we delved into Marvel’s Star Wars title, which opens up its first three issues with the appearance of Darth Vader, and months later, went full on cross-over with the Darth Vader series in the “Vader Down” storyline.   In order to have the background to appreciate the Vader Down story, we examined the Darth Vader title, already put somewhat at ease with Vader’s treatment in Star Wars.  It was a decision well made, as Darth Vader presents the redemptive villain of the Original Trilogy exactly the way we hoped for, and avoided pulling away too much of the armored shell that encompasses the former Jedi Knight, Anakin Skywalker.  Thus, while we are still avoiding novelizations involving Vader, we are now happily engaged with the comic series.

The first three issues of Darth Vader, written by Kieron Gillen and art by Salvador Larocca represent the quality we had expected from the initial issues of Marvel’s Star Wars.  The art is at a high level, unfortunately for the other title, very obviously contrasted by the first issue of Darth Vader including ‘flashbacks’ which show similar scenes but illustrated much better.  Likewise, the writing quickly picks up the voices of the familiar characters we know from the Original Trilogy, such as Vader and Emperor Palpatine, and feels unique to the newly introduced characters.  The series begins abruptly on Tatooine with Vader making an unexpected visit to Jabba the Hutt.

The decision to start Darth Vader’s story on Tatooine, the home of his birth is an interesting and bold one.  If anything can be said for decisions related to Anakin Skywalker and the sandy planet, throughout the Prequel Trilogy, almost every time Anakin Skywalker visited the planet resulted in something which resulted in fans slapping their foreheads or groaning.  As the first story arc continues in the first three issues, it becomes very clear that Gillen has decided to own up to the past as established by George Lucas for good or bad.  In regard to Vader’s visit to Jabba, which involves no little amount of bloodshed, Vader threatens the crime boss into helping him on a personal matter.  It is a callback to our only other previous experience involving a Jedi in the throne room, Luke’s appearance in Return of the Jedi.

In that scene, Luke’s attempt to negotiate with the Hutt is an utter failure which ends with Luke falling into the rancor cage.  With Vader, the Sith Lord not only handedly kills and cuts down Jabba’s muscle, but pointedly does not step onto the trap door which in a few years would snag his son.  If not to make the situation any more clear, Jabba attempts to laugh away the fact that Vader’s ‘Jedi’ powers will not work on him.  Vader, in turn, teaches Jabba the difference between a Jedi and a Sith, and promptly Force chokes  the giant worm.  With this introduction to Vader, we cut away to Coruscant a day earlier and into the presence of the Emperor.

Seated in his palace, the former Jedi Temple, we receive the rare moment of Darth Vader being strongly rebuked after reporting the events of Star Wars, issues 1 – 3.  His failure to stop the rebels is compounded by the disaster of the Death Star and Emperor Palpatine’s anger is livid.  For brevity’s sake, Palpatine places Vader on probation and under the command of General Cassio Tagge, the very fellow whom Vader Forced choked in A New Hope.  It is a humiliating assignment, which will begin after Vader completes negotiations with Hutt to resupply the Empire with the materials it needs to keep its war machine running.  The conversation between Emperor Palpatine and Vader concludes with the Emperor asking if there is anything else to report, to which, and we are gifted with flashbacks of Vader’s recent encounters with Luke Skywalker, and treated to Vader’s silence on the matter.  Presumably, then, we are expected to believe Palpatine is unaware of Luke, a state of thinking which definitely changes by The Empire Strikes Back when we meet the Emperor for the first time and in the brief conversation that follows, orders Vader not to allow ‘the son of Skywalker’ to become a Jedi.

The first issue wraps with one more piece of evidence that the creators are not afraid of Anakin’s past established by the Prequel Trilogy (or more unconvincingly, blithely unaware of how strong its negative reception is).  After informing two bounty hunters (Boba Fett and Black Krrsantan) that he wanted information on the identity of a certain X-wing pilot is and information on an Imperial agent Vader spotted conversing with Palpatine, we are treated to evidence that Vader has massacred a village of sand people, echoing Attack of the Clones.  It’s radical decision to go with this concluding panel, as it speaks volumes not just about the creators, but on Vader, who apparently is still filled with so much rage he seeks out the people who killed his mother and again, kills them all.  In a way, it also comes across as a bit petty, as one might think Vader would have better things to do than to indulge in finding a village of sand people eviscerate with his lightsaber.

The next issue is essentially a set piece to propel the story into the third volume and can be summarized rather quickly.  Vader reports to General Tagge, who in the manner Leia ascribed to Grand Moff Tarkin, goes beyond simply holding Vader’s leash, but makes it a short one at that.  Tagge assigns an officer to spy on Vader and report everything the Sith Lord does, which ultimately means Tagge has assigned a man to die, knowingly or not.  While providing us with Tagge’s perspective that a vast star fleet should have been the product of the resources placed in the Death Star, the main plot concerns Vader being directed to hunt down and take out what amount to space pirates raiding material convoys.  Vader does this with ruthless abandon, but in the process of taking out these enemies of the Empire, programs a droid to plant false information revealing his new ‘care taker’ to be in league with the pirates.  His fate is sealed and Vader orders the droid to self-destruct to cover his tracks.  The droids selfless execution of its orders does leave Vader with one understanding, droids are reliable and trustworthy.

The role of droids and their presence in Darth Vader’s schemes lead to the setup in the third issue for new characters to join Vader’s under the table pursuit of the identity of the rebel pilot, but also to provide him with a shadow resource to pursue his own goals in his current chastised state within the chain of command.  This leads him to Dr. Aphra, a tech genius and ‘rogue’ archeologist who pursues forbidden or banned technology and droids which are surrounded with the aura of death and mayhem.  She’s also something of a Vader fan, mixing fear for her life with excitement at the prospect of being forced into Vader’s service.  Her special abilities, specifically involving droids, are what drew her to Darth Vader’s attention and for that purpose, she also activates two droids to help her help him pursue his goals.

The first droid is a protocol droid with glaring red eyes known as Triple Zero, which in addition to the usual abilities of a protocol droid, also has the habit for draining blood from victims and an outlandish desire to do harm upon living things.  The second droid is a prototype “blastomech” droid, developed under something referred to as the “Tarkin Initiative.”  Named BT-1 and described as “entirely homicidal,” the droid was envisioned as a specialized assassin droid.  Given the propensity by the Rebels’ Chopper to kill, it can be said that BT-1 is not a leap in the imagination.  BT-1, however, packs an arsenal of weapons, blasters and explosives, which would make Chopper giddy at such an armament.  With our anti-C-3PO and anti-R2-D2, again, reverse mirroring Anakin Skywalker’s associations with the aforementioned droids, the story comes to a close with Dr. Aphra’s adrenaline fueled combination of fear and excitement responding to a question poised to her by Vader, “Where can I get a droid army?”

In a final call back to Attack of the Clones, Dr. Aphra asks Vader with no comprehension as the ramifications of her question, “How do you feel about a secret mission to Geonosis, Lord Vader?”  A panel is set aside entirely for Vader’s response and it’s one thick with silence, simply an image of Vader’s face with a background of almost entirely darkness. We know Vader’s, or should we say, Anakin Skywalker’s past concerning droids and Geonosis, one which involved a secret mission with his future wife, Padme Amidala. But, the comic refuses us entry into Vader’s mind, we aren’t allowed to know what his true reaction is to Dr. Aphra’s question, only that we know something is happening behind the black reflective eyes of his mask.  In the next panel, after this illustrated pause, Vader simply responds, “I have no feelings regarding Geonosis.”  This is the Darth Vader of the Original Trilogy, who’s mask doesn’t just hide his ruined face, but hides his thoughts and emotions.  We can only guess what they are, while wondering if those around him may or may not become his next victims.

The first two issues of Darth Vader assure us that the writers and illustrators know who Darth Vader is, and how he behaves, it is the very last page in third issue which fully reassures us that not only do they know Vader, they know how to depict him in a manner which reflects the greatness of his cinematic presence.  The art by Salvador Larocca is flawless and arguably one of the best examples of Marvel’s reentry into the business of telling Star Wars stories.  Likewise, Kieron Gillen’s writing infuses characters with the personalities we expect and originality for those characters new to the Star Wars universe.  Every Star Wars fan should pick up and catch up the Darth Vader title, just now on its 16th issue.  It’s well worth the time and expenditure.

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