Darth Vader #1
Writer: Kieron Gillen (W), Salvatore Larroca (A), Adi Granov (cover)
February 11, 2015
(This essay contains minor plot spoilers for Darth Vader #1.)
Last month, I raved about how much fun I had reading Star Wars #1. In that piece, I mentioned enjoying something cool Darth Vader did, and talked a little about how the audience’s familiarity with Vader could be a disadvantage. He’s been a big part of our culture since 1977. And now that everyone knows all about his childhood too, “it’s easy to take him for granted and forget how dangerous he is.” But just 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case.
Back in 2000, I took my younger brother and sister, aged seven and six at the time, to our local Museum of Fine Arts to see Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, a traveling exhibition of props, costumes, and other items from the original Star Wars trilogy. The full Darth Vader costume and helmet were displayed on a very tall mannequin. It’s quite imposing when you stand in front of it. In a separate room, they had Vader’s mask mounted on a pedestal so visitors could really appreciate it as a work of art. The room was dark and silent and empty except for the mask and the overhead spotlight shining down on it. The kids got quiet right away. We stood in front of the mask, the three of us alone in the room. Because whispering suddenly seemed like the right thing to do, I began to kneel down so I could whisper closer to their ear level. But instead, my brother and sister (already regular churchgoers) also dropped to their knees reflexively.
I started giggling and explained they didn’t actually need to kneel in front of Vader and I was just trying to talk quietly to them, but that moment has always stuck with me. That artifact in that setting instilled a sense of reverence in us that was both ludicrous and completely sensible. Darth Vader represents immense power and will. He’s scary…unless you start to think to hard about the guy who’s in that suit. We didn’t know much about him yet in 2000, and what we learned in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith did a lot to damage his street cred.
So that’s the great trick writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvatore Larroca have to pull off in Darth Vader #1. For this series to work, we have to care about Vader, and fear him, without the spectre of annoying child/angsty teen Anakin getting in the way. As much as some readers may want to, we can’t un-know what we know about pre-Vader Anakin. He’s that grumpy-faced brat who got dispatched to wipe out the padawan pre-K because handling grown-up Jedi was still for grown-ups, then got himself dumped into lava by his former master. The Vader of this comic just recently ran into Obi Wan after 20 years and killed him–kinda sorta–in a way that likely proved unsatisfying and anti-climactic. One of the major strengths of Gillen’s approach to writing the character is that he uses what we already know from having seen all six extant Star Wars films to inform the way we perceive Vader in the comics.
Because you know who else can’t forget who Anakin used to be? Emperor Palpatine! And he uses it against Vader all the time. He still treats him like the easily manipulated chump of Revenge of the Sith. Palpatine is a terrible father figure, and I do not care for his managerial style one bit. He freely insults and belittles Vader following the recent incident where the Death Star got blown up, to the point where I felt sympathy for Vader. I really wanted to see him strike back at Palpatine, and in the moment, I was immediately able to thanks to my memory of Return of the Jedi. It’s immediate catharsis! Part of me gave a little cheer! That was an unexpected delight–it bridged my knowledge of the prequel trilogy and Jedi to make it pay off right there in my brain. I may have gotten a little misty when that happened. This is the piece we were missing between “Nooooooooooooooo!” and his ultimate “take this Dark Side and shove it” maneuver. It’s a very cool move on Gillen’s part, and it made me care enough about Vader’s feelings and goals that I could see how he can carry his own series beyond a few issues.
Even as Palpatine won’t let him forget the dumb kid he was 20 years ago, we also get to see why Darth Vader is feared throughout the galaxy. He’s NOT that kid anymore. He has mastered the dark side of the Force, and it serves him well anytime he gets into a fight. He’s able to pull off some amazing moves that late ’70s/early ’80s special effects couldn’t handle. Larroca’s art made me laugh out loud at several points because Vader’s body language during fights is so calm and relaxed, like Bruce Lee with a lightsaber, and Vader gives us several chuckle-worthy deadpan reactions.
Let me say that again: these drawings of a motionless, expressionless mask, got laughs from me. Comic timing is tough to pull off in sequential art, but Larroca aces it. His work is outstanding throughout the book, and I can’t wait to see more. He also does an especially great job with this double-page spread in which Vader visits Jabba the Hutt’s palace.
I’m not going to get into major spoilers here. Reading this issue was a joy and I don’t want to ruin that for you if you’re planning to read it. If so, be aware that the plot of this series happens concurrently with the plot in the main Star Wars title, which is two issues into its run. You don’t have to read it to understand the action in Darth Vader, because the necessary plot points are explained, but I recommend reading both series if you’re enjoying either one of them. They’re so fun.
In fact, on the day Darth Vader #1 was released, I made this cake to celebrate at my shop because I never pass up an opportunity to cook my comics.