Vadercomic! Dark Side Represent!
Darth Vader 1, by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca
I picked this book up for exactly two reasons: 1. I like the idea of a story told from the perspective of Darth Vader, and 2. Kieron Gillen strikes me as a good choice to tell that story. I’m sure the prior has been done before, but I’m equally sure that it hasn’t been done by anyone as interesting as the latter. So it’s really the combination of the two that caught my eye. Gillen and Vader: killer funnybook tag team.
Vader, I’ve been intrigued by since childhood. He’s at once a domineering super-villain and a servant to an even worse super-villain. He seems to have his own methods and agendas, but we gain only the slightest insight into them in the original Star Wars films. And the prequels, maligned as they are…
(perhaps not without reason)
…add further shadings and tragedy to him, revealing him as a good man doomed to fall, the damaged pawn of misguided men on both sides of the Force. And, if you’re paying attention, you learn that he’s also a cuckoo, a powerful child created through Sith manipulation of the Force. He gets mistaken for Jedi Jesus, and in the end brings about the destruction of both orders.
That’s pretty freaking epic, which might make some wonder why I’m so hot on seeing Kieron Gillen write the character. Gillen excels at subtle character interactions and accessibly flawed individuals. Not the sort of thing you’d expect to be a good fit for Star Wars. Except…
See… See, that right there is exactly what I want out of this book: Dark deeds and webs of deceit. Machiavellian scheming between two of the greatest pulp villains of all time. And that, Gillen is great at. To understand why, and why that scene above is such a great example of it, we’ll have to cover a bit more background. This series picks up his story at a particularly interesting period in Vader’s life: the days following the Battle of Yavin, and the destruction of the first Death Star.
(It suddenly occurs to me that I’m tossing out Star Wars terminology as if everyone knows what the hell I’m talking about. Which, I mean… If you’re reading this, you probably do. I just had to marvel for a moment at the way I tossed off “Battle of Yavin” like it’s something I learned in high school history class. What a dork!)
Anyway. Vader. After the Battle of Yavin. As that battle’s sole survivor, Vader has to take the blame for… Oh, hell. Here. If they’re gonna be doing these opening crawls in these Star Wars books (and god knows I hope they keep that up), I might as well let them set the tone:
Okay, so. That’s “evil bastard comic” step one: write your “the story so far” text from the perspective of the evil bastards. And this one speaks well to Vader’s mindset. In the prequels, we saw Anakin become a true believer in not only the Sith Way, but also in fascism. Is he deluded? Of course. Deluded, and arrogant.
That’s evident in his surprise at Palpatine calling him out on his own failures. Yavin was a stunning military loss for the Empire. I mean, Palpatine had started work on the Death Star even before he wiped out the Jedi. It was the culmination of 30 or 40 years of meticulous planning and resource management, the manipulation of countless billions across the galaxy, and the maintenance of a sham democracy that he only felt safe dissolving once the damn thing was operational. Then he loses it to a slight design flaw! A slight design flaw, and the failure of his disciple to stop the young pilot who made the one-in-a-million shot that destroyed his life’s work. Needless to say, the Emperor is not well pleased.
And in his arrogance, Vader didn’t see this coming. He’s all, “Hey! I TOLD you that thing was a bad idea, man! Totally not my fault that your master plan’s in ruins!” Well, okay. Actually, he’s more like “That battle station pales in comparison to the power of the Force!” You know, just like in the movie. What’s funny to me is that Palpatine blows him off almost as dismissively as the Imperial military council does when he says it to them. It’s like, yeah… NObody wants to hear that religious mumbo-jumbo anymore.
That’s a great characterization of the Emperor, I think. That callous, arrogant practicality. With the advent of the Death Star, he came out of the closet as a full-on evil sonnuvabitch, and now he can’t even be bothered to fake reverence to his number one agent.
Such hubris. Fantastic.
But Vader. Lots of nice small touches here, little things that speak volumes about the mindset of the character. When Vader is describing the actions of the rebels he’s recently encountered (Han, Leia, and Luke, as it happens), he says that they tortured information out of some Imperial flunkie. They didn’t, of course, but Vader assumes they did. Because OF COURSE they did. It’s what HE would have done. And what he actually does do, to the same guy, a few panels later.
Which brings us, at last, back to that torture scene above, and why Kieron Gillen is a great choice to write this book. He’s writing these villains with aplomb, drawing on what we know about them from both film trilogies, and drawing the links between the two. He’s especially good, I think, at balancing the angry, impulsive young Anakin Skywalker with the more majestic, deliberate Darth Vader. That’s evident in how Vader responds to the punishments Palpatine hands down.
Essentially, he’s told that he’s now going to be kept on a short leash, and that leash chafes. First, he’s placed under the command of the one member of the Imperial military brass who’d gotten off the Death Star before it arrived at Yavin (I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s that disrespectful douche bag Vader force-choked in that meeting toward the beginning of Star Wars. Which, if so, is doubly insulting). Then he gets sent off on a demeaning mission to parlay with Jabba the Hutt for supplies desperately needed in the construction of the second Death Star.
More good work on Palpatine, there. He’s angry, but his punishments for Vader are mental rather than physical. Physical confrontations aren’t Palpatine’s style, and besides… it’s just barely possible that Vader could beat him. So instead he manages him. Insults and demeans him. Places him under the command of someone Vader doesn’t respect. That’s far worse than a slap.
Vader responds rather… violently.
That’s where the issue opens, I should mention: with Vader’s approach to the palace of Jabba the Hutt. It’s intended, I think, to play as a dark parallel to Luke’s entrance to the same place from Return of the Jedi. Something’s missing from it, but I’ll get to that in a minute. On the positive side, it speaks to Vader’s mood. He’s angry, and when he’s angry he acts out. He continues to show that anger for the remainder of his stay on Tatooine, taking his frustrations out on some Sand People (for old time’s sake, I guess). And then he really gets busy.
He conducts some personal business with Jabba, then deals in secret with some bounty hunters (which, yes, means Boba Fett). One of them, he sends to kidnap a guy who he thinks is part of some secret plan Palpatine’s not informing him of. The other, he tasks with getting him information on this Force-Sensitive young rebel pilot he’s become obsessed with. This young rebel pilot who knew Kenobi, and who’s now running around with Vader’s old lightsaber.
So now Vader’s scheming, too. Proving, I suppose, that he can wield as well as being wielded. Is this the first crack in his devotion to Palpatine? The first time he’s doubted? The first step toward that final decision he makes that sends both of them plunging to their deaths in Return of the Jedi? For now, I choose to think that it is. And I like that it’s caused, in large part, by Vader’s discovery that his son is still alive.
But I mentioned that something’s lacking in Vader’s confrontation with Jabba. There’s a fan-service aspect to it, of course, but I think Gillen covers his ass on that. Jabba’s an established power in the Outer Rim, and it’s precisely the Outer Rim that’s causing the Empire trouble after the Battle of Yavin. The Senate helped them keep the outlying planets in line, you see, and… without that… or the Death Star to threaten them with, they’re… they’re losing… their iron grip and…
I’m sorry. Did your eyes just glaze over? I know that’s the kind of stuff everybody on Earth but me thought was boring in the prequels. But screw you guys. That shit’s fascinating, and Gillen handles it well, really earning his inclusion of The Character You Know From the Movies in this case.
So what went wrong? Well, the whole sequence is honestly a little bit clumsy. Check out this dialogue exchange, for instance:
I’m sorry, but that’s too wordy by half. The same line is better-delivered in Jedi. And when your dialogue sounds bad next to George Lucas dialogue? Yeesh. That’s not good. It just sets a bad tone, coloring my opinion of what follows. So I found the rest of it, with Vader explaining that the Mind Trick is a Jedi thing, and that the Sith don’t do that, to just be kind of flat. Pedantic, even.
But there’s also something missing, some dramatic essence that would make the whole thing more interesting and fun. That might be down to the general lack of dramatic flair in the art of Salvador Larroca, who’s great at drawing hardware, but whose work can be a bit lifeless. “Plastic” might be a good word.
So, yeah. Art and dialogue neither one firing on all cylinders. That’s never going to make for engaging reading, no matter how compelling the dramatic underpinnings are. And because that’s the scene that opens the book, I was really impatient with the rest of the issue. Honestly, all that character interplay I’ve been rambling on about didn’t even occur to me until I sat down last night and reviewed the stuff between Vader and the Emperor. That’s much better, and more interesting besides. But the Jabba stuff takes up the whole first half of the issue, so… The grade’s going to suffer a bit.
Speaking of which… What’s my final word here? Half of this book is great, the Darth Vader comic I always wanted but never had. The other half, the half with the fighting and the action, isn’t so hot. It’s a mixed bag. I want to like it, but I’m not sure it was worth the five dollar price tag. Not even at 34 pages. So this one’s going to be a real wait and see kind of thing for me. My fascination with all the evil scheming might compel me to pick up the next issue. But my dissatisfaction with the lack of compelling action (also an important part of the Star Wars experience) might lead me to leave it on the shelf. Or at least, to wait til I can get the story at a more reasonable price. I mean, I’ve waited almost 40 years for this book. A little while longer ain’t gonna hurt.
Oh! And as a post-script…
This issue includes the cover of the next, which…
HAH! That is the sassiest Vader ever! It’s like he’s top model at some kind of nerd fetish fashion show!
And with that, I leave you…