In the fall of 2015, it was Star Wars that finally brought me back to the world of comic collecting after my seventeen year absence. Admittedly it felt a little weird returning to Books Galore after so long a time away. I felt a bit out of place, like coming home to find everything you remember similar…yet different. But the oddity of my return was soon eclipsed by feelings of excitement. I was back! I was reading comics again! Yay! And I was excited (after Jeff’s constant urging) to explore the Star Wars stories Marvel was adding to the new Disney Canon. Of all their comics, I was most excited for Darth Vader. As the months rolled by however, I found myself wrapped in a passionate yet frustrating relationship with the Dark Lord of the Sith.
You see, as anyone who’s been swooped up in the world of comic collecting can attest, it’s a fairly addictive habit. One title turns to two which soon turns to ten. So when I went back to Books Galore, I was going to be smart about it. I was only going to read Star Wars titles and not get sucked into everything else. My journey began with the monthly ongoing series Darth Vader and Kanan: The Last Padawan alongside the rotating miniseries Shattered Empire, Princess Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca. Then, come Christmas, Kalie fully opened the door to this world once more with wonderful gifts of Ms. Marvel and Deadpool trade paperback collections. As I balanced my Star Wars reading with a growing number of other titles from Marvel and IDW, I soon found myself (surprisingly) sort of bored with the Star Wars stories. In fact, I would cancel all of my Star Wars titles before the Obi-Wan & Anakin miniseries would see itself through to completion, making room on my pull list for titles I found more exciting, challenging, and fun.
The Disney Canon is almost exclusively anchored in the time period between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and here’s the thing…there’s only so many stories you can plausibly tell in those three years. Plus, there’s no real sense of risk or trial in any of the stories since we know all the major players survive because they are in The Empire Strikes Back. So these comics began to feel like biding time, wheels spinning with no forward momentum. I wanted to love it all; I did and I do. I’m a HUGE Star Wars fan! I’ve seen each film so many times I couldn’t even begin to count. I have multiple shelves dedicated to the Expanded Universe (EU) novels I loved as a kid. I had (more than) enough different t-shirts to switch one out every hour while we waiting in line for nearly twelve hours for The Force Awakens on opening day (and I totally did that while in line). And I’m actually team-teaching a course next year with my friend Hannah titled Star Wars and Contemporary Myth-Making. I love these characters and I love this saga…but the comics, by and large, were losing me. Disney seems to only want to give us prepackaged characters they know we’ll love in a time period they know we’ll love. It’s safe. It sells. But without any risk, where’s the excitement in the story?
I’m not saying the threat of a character’s potential demise is needed for a good story. There are EU novels (although only a handful) set between the films and I’ve enjoyed many of them! But what I want from my Star Wars is engaging stories that add something to the world of Star Wars. I don’t need to see Han Solo actually herding Nerf nor a weird bait-and-switch with a faux-wife. I don’t want Vader to encounter Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie so many times their relationship starts to mirror a cartoon where the heroes foil the villain’s plot every week. I’d argue those sorts of antics hurt Star Wars more than they help. Sure, there’s absolutely a place for stories that are just fun. And I enjoy those! But I want, I need, stories that also feel necessary and add new layers of depth and meaning to the Star Wars Saga. I think, when you choose to expand on what George Lucas has given us in the films, that’s what the stories should strive to do – be necessary. And the comics weren’t delivering so I left them by the wayside.
Yet this tale doesn’t end there. There’d be no post if all I was going to do was rant about becoming disillusioned with the new Star Wars comics (well, there’d be a post but it’d be excessively negative and thus a downer). You see yesterday I went to Books Galore to pick up the new comics awaiting me in my file…and I took home Darth Vader #23! What?? Plot twist!! When it was announced that issue #25 would be the final issue of Darth Vader, I knew I had to come back and see the conclusion of this series. When I decided I needed to see the end, Kalie gifted me with a wonderful birthday surprise of all the back issues I’d missed after I’d given up on Star Wars comics! Yay! There was an amazing and massive binge reading/rereading session and here we are. I felt the series that brought me back to comics warranted this reflection.
From its inception, the Darth Vader series has been in the very talented hands of author Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca. To my mind, they get Darth Vader specifically and Star Wars in general. I can hear James Earl Jones’ voice and Vader’s mechanical breathing echoing in my head as I read this comic. The panels, whether a battle in space or an intense exchange between two characters, visually feel like Star Wars. And they have given us some very important moments that the Star Wars story needed. (It’s worth noting this post will contain spoilers. To be specific, major spoilers of significant plot points will be included for moments in the first eleven issues, then only light spoilers of tone/thrust of the plot for the twelve issues to follow. Alright, are we all ready to proceed? Good.)
The series finds Darth Vader blamed (and essentially demoted) by the Emperor for the loss of the Death Star. Palpatine puts the now Grand General Tagge in charge of the Imperial Forces, making Vader report to him. During this interim where he’s fallen from Palpatine’s favor, Vader also learns a bioengineer, Cylo-V, is building potential replacements for him by the request of the Emperor. These would be second-in-commands use lightsabers but not the Force and are also part machine/part organic.
It’s a setup that is simultaneously interesting and frustrating. Watching Vader work outside of his master’s good graces is interesting but this is part of what came to really bother me about the series too. On the one hand, this is Vader doing what a Sith should do – plotting to eventually overthrow his Master. On the other, in the films Darth Vader is the intimidating, powerful, fear-inducing right hand of the Emperor. Where he goes, people tremble and then they die. I don’t like him sneaking around seeming like a little mole inside the Imperial forces. While it’s a way to make him protagonist and still a villain it feels…beneath him. Also, back to our time issue, this plot point can only play out for so long until it becomes unbelievable. It is obvious when The Empire Strikes Back rolls around Vader is second only to the Emperor in power and prestige.
The other pivot point for the plot of the series sees Vader trying to learn all he can of the Force-strong pilot who destroyed the Death Star. After an encounter with Luke in the Star Wars comic, Vader knows this pilot has his old lightsaber and that he knew (and perhaps was training with) Obi-Wan Kenobi. So Vader is looking for answers while jumping through the Emperor’s hoops. Both of these issues lead to two powerfully important moments in issue #6. Gillen presents a fascinating discussion of the nature of the Force and the Sith as Vader confronts Palpatine about his potential replacements:
Palpatine – “I am impressed. Gathering your own forces, acting outside my system. I would have thought such initiative was now beyond you. Perhaps you will triumph against the others…”
Darth Vader – “They are abominations. This is heresy.”
Palpatine – “You forget who is master and who is student. It is your duty to learn what I know. It is my duty to learn what there is to teach. You stand there, more metal than man, and talk of abominations? Were it not for my open mind, you would not be here. Everything is of the Force. Do not underestimate how much you disappointed me on Mustafar. I saved you – but you showed how far off the mark you fell…”
Darth Vader – “Cylo…has been training the twins for twenty years. All these years, you were considering replacing me.”
Palpatine – “The Dark Side is strength. If they defeat you, they are stronger. If you defeat them, you prove you are. This is the way of the Sith. I named you ‘Vader’ after you pledged yourself to the Sith. You proved yourself worthy of it then…I’m certain you will prove yourself worthy now.”
This exchange, this comic, feels necessary. This is what I’m talking about! This adds something of weight and value to our understanding of both Darth Vader and the Emperor. But it is the final pages of this issue where Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca take Star Wars to a whole new level. It moves from important and exciting to absolutely essential.
In the closing pages of issue #6, Darth Vader finally learns Luke’s identity. At hearing the name “Skywalker” he thinks back to Padmé, understands the Emperor’s betrayal, and realizes he has a son. We finally get to see Vader’s side of the revelation Luke will experience on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. These pages are, in my opinion, the BEST and MOST IMPORTANT moments produced in the Disney Canon. This – more than anything else I’ve seen – gives Star Wars new depth and emotion (all while honoring where it comes from). It also ties the Prequel Trilogy to the Original Trilogy in an essential way. For me, this stands with the best of the EU. Star Wars needed this moment and Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca gave me everything I wanted and more. Just look at what happens! Let the power of Gillen and Larroca’s work hit you…
How beautiful, terrifying, moving, and amazing are those pages?!? This moment, this scene, this issue is why I felt I owed it to Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, and the Darth Vader series to go back and finish it out once I knew it was coming to a set end. Any series that adds this to the Star Wars Saga warrants me being there for the ending too.
Issue #7 continues with this momentum, beginning with Darth Vader, Aphra, Triple-Zero, and Beetee exploring the Lars homestead on Tatooine. This too is a powerful scene. The emotion radiates off the page. This – Vader returning as he learns the truth, beginning to imagine how it all played out – is another necessary moment. It adds to the Original Trilogy and ties it even more to the Prequel Trilogy in the best possible way. In my mind, this can be the real strength of the Disney Canon. All the stories can be written with knowledge of both the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy. I get excited when writers take advantage of that. And when they do it with this sort of power? Whoa.
The rest of the issue is less emotionally stirring. For me, that’s the problem with an ongoing monthly series like this. By definition – when it’s bookended between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back – it needs FILLER. Annnnnnd it has to be set here because Disney wanted an ongoing monthly title with one of Star Wars most iconic characters in a recognizable time period…even if what he can do is limited. Still, as I’ve said, Gillen and Larroca make the most of what’s been given to them – exceeding expectations in many moments. Yet it was the growth of the filler moments that would make me cancel my Star Wars title the first time around.
With issue #10, we find another of these moments. This is another issue that feels important. Aphra goes to Naboo to talk to Thane, the mortician who prepared Padmé’s body for her funeral. After Triple-Zero tortures him considerably, he admits that she was no longer pregnant and affirms she had a son.
This gives Star Wars so much more. We can read these moments into the Original Trilogy now when we go back to it – we see Vader’s quest to know the truth in his discussion with the Emperor in the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. Vader is playing a larger game and these scenes then connect to the end of Empire in a way that both makes sense and gives it greater depth.
Dr. Aphra – and especially Triple-Zero and Beetee – are another wonderful creation to come out of this series. One of the most exciting facets of expanding the Star Wars story has always been the additional characters brought into the universe. The Expanded Universe has given us so many incredible characters and a few – Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Captain Gilad Pellaeon, of course Jaina and Jacen Solo, amongst others – who deserve to stand alongside the characters George Lucas created both in their dynamic nature and narrative importance.
Dr. Aphra is a sort of rogue archaeologist seeking violent and forbidden pieces of tech from the past. She falls into Vader’s employ as he uses her to gain both knowledge and resources through the course of the series. Their relationship is one that moves the narrative but also showcases Vader’s power and disregard for life. Aphra knows Vader will kill her when he’s done with her. She faces and owns that. All she asks is that he use the lightsaber through her neck, so it’s quick. She says her worst fear is being jettisoned into space – that’s a nightmare. Darth Vader assures her she’ll live as long as he has use for her.
This leads to one of, in my opinion, the most frightening and brutal moments Vader has in the series. In issue #11 Aphra finally gets Luke’s location from an information broker known as The Ante. As she’s learning this, Vader and his Tagge-ordered babysitter Inspector Thanoth arrive looking for whoever stole the treasure Vader had Aphra get to fund his side work. A fight erupts where Vader makes certain the Ante is killed and he gets to Aphra first. Then…he begins to Force choke her! Thanoth knows she stole the treasure so he’s getting closer to Vader’s treachery. Vader can’t allow Aphra to live. He has his lightsaber ignited, as she requested to be killed when the time came. BUT instead he chooses to suffocate her, as she would in the vacuum of space – her ultimate nightmare. It is a BRUTAL moment. But that’s Vader. He spares her only because she has the location of Luke and won’t tell him until later.
Aphra gives Vader someone to talk to as he navigates the world of the series – another character who fears him but is also willing to challenge him when needed. But then there’s Triple-Zero and Beetee. Essentially they are the dark versions of Threepio and Artoo respectively. At first I worried they’d be an annoying gimmick but I’ve come to really like Triple-Zero and Beetee. Their banter is hilarious! The tone of the characters provide a wonderfully dark comedic presence to an otherwise serious tale. As I moved through the series again on my massive binge reading/rereading escapade a few days ago, Triple-Zero and Beetee solidified their spots as two of my favorite characters in the new canon! The idea of macabre and sassy version of everyone’s favorite droid duo who just want to kill anything and everything has ended up being entertaining and weirdly endearing.
Kieron Gillen is also intimately aware of Darth Vader’s place in the Star Wars story. The very first issue of the series opens brilliantly with a SUPER intelligent nod to Return Of The Jedi. Vader is entering Jabba’s Palace to discuss business and this not only connects to the film but underscores how Luke was falling into the pull of the Dark Side when he rescued Han. I love this sequence. And, more recently, we return to this theme as issue #21 sees Vader readying to battle a Rancor – another parallel to Luke’s trial at Jabba’s. The comic book starts to end where it began with parallels to Luke in Return Of The Jedi. These allusions tell us, Darth Vader has walked the road Luke will walk. The question of Star Wars is, and always has been, what steps will Luke take on that path?
All of this is amazing but, at the end of the day, I still stopped buying Star Wars titles. With Darth Vader specifically, the problem was not the content of the stories, but rather the length of the title’s run. How can you create captivating and necessary stories every month when you have only a three year time period? Vader couldn’t have been in battle every day. We know what’s on either side of that point too. Also, Vader must spend some time “obsessed with finding young Skywalker” as well as rise again in prestige in the Empire. There’s too much side stuff happening without enough time to contain the story. Maybe the miniseries are the way to go? Give us glimpses of the characters at different points in the Star Wars Saga? I’m not certain. All I know for sure is that the pace of the stories and the nonissues of many of the plots caused me to quickly walk away from comics about my beloved Star Wars.
Yes, Marvel’s now giving us a comic book about Poe Dameron (which I’d be more excited about if it the first story arc wasn’t just leading up to where he was right before The Force Awakens began…because I’ve already read that story in the collection of short stories that was Before the Awakening). And yes, there’s an exciting new miniseries about Han Solo (that’s also @#$%&ing set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back). But once more there’s little risk and no substantial expansion of the world. I want world building. I want stories that impactfully add to the mythology (and are aware of their need to actually function as mythology) in Star Wars.
The Disney Canon isn’t giving me that. Buuuuuut I keep returning to it because I love Star Wars and I’m excited to see what comes next. That’s the thing, every story can’t be perfect. I loved the EU and my intrigue with the Disney Canon (and general love of Star Wars) means I’ll be finishing Darth Vader and am presently reading Han Solo too.
So yes, I’m frustrated with some of the narrative nothings I’ve found in the Disney Canon’s stories…but my passionate love of Star Wars (and some of the amazing moments I find in some of these stories) keeps me coming back. I’m clearly optimistic too :). So yes Darth, you’ve disappointed me but God save me I still love you! (Hopefully this ends better for me than it did for Padmé…)