Review: Darth Vader #1
“Darth Vader #1 is a testament to what the proper writing can do to erase mistakes of the past inflicted on a character. Gillen and Larroca show that Darth Vader is a character whose history can be examined without doing damage to his ominous nature.”
Darth Vader #1
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Release Date: Wed, February 11, 2015
The subtitle to this review should be “…or How Darth Vader Got His Groove Back”.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that, at least among folks of my generation, the Star Wars prequels were not met without some degree of negativity. While even though I admit that there are some bright spots to what I see as otherwise imperfect films—the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and a Dark Side-turned Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar is a joy to watch—the prequels did a lot to taint my overall perception of the Star Wars franchise. Though I could point to a lot of missteps that George Lucas and company made—midichlorians, Jar-Jar, gross ethnic racist caricatures—I think that, while reading Marvel’s Darth Vader #1, I figured out the main scar that the prequels left on the Star Wars universe:
The prequels completely defanged Darth Vader.
George Lucas has made a point of hammering home that the Star Wars films’ narrative arc are about the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, who would become the Emperor’s hand, Darth Vader. While the prequels are in part about how many of the connections hinted at in the original movies—from how Obi-Wan and Anakin met to how the Republic fell to Palpatine—the main thrust of those films are focused on how Anakin became a Jedi and eventually fell to the Dark Side of the Force. And although the movies did just that, the execution left something to be desired. Between the muddled plot, the sometimes ham-fisted dialogue, and the over- and underacting on the parts of many of the cast members (which could be blamed on the directing), the mystique of Darth Vader was stripped away, leaving a whiny child with mommy issues who decided to slaughter a bunch of young Jedi.
That’s why Darth Vader #1 was such a revelation and a pleasant surprise. Based on the previews and the creative team of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca, I had already planned to at least give the first issue a shot. The first two issues of Marvel’s Star Wars comic were so incredibly engrossing and fun that a comic revolving around the Dark Lord of the Sith had potential. Like I said, though, the letdown that was Episodes I through III made me wary. After all, the last time we peeked behind the mask to follow what makes Darth Vader tick left something to be desired.
Gillen must have realized that when penning the first issue, showing that the once-and-future Anakin Skywalker can be a force to be reckoned with while at the same time has a depth behind his cold demeanor. Like its sister title Star Wars, Darth Vader takes place immediately after the events of A New Hope, with Vader dealing with the fallout of the destruction of the first Death Star at the hands of Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance. The story spins right out of the events of issues 1 and 2 of Star Wars, right after Vader’s encounter with Luke on Cymoon One. The Rebels had interfered with the negotiations Vader was to have with Jabba the Hutt to secure direly needed resources following the Death Star disaster. The Emperor is quite displeased with Vader’s failures and sends him to Tattooine—a planet with which Vader has some familiarity—to negotiate with the Hutt directly.
Kieron Gillen is not a stranger to penning characters steeped in tragedy—look no further than to his work at bringing new layers of depth to Loki in Journey into Mystery if you have any doubt. Gillen manages to bring enormous depth to a character we’ve known for nearly four decades throughout various media just through his interactions with those he must deal with in some form. The Vader who faces down Jabba in negotiations is different than the Vader explaining away his failures to the Emperor is different than the Vader hiring bounty hunters to spy on Palpatine. Yet none of these shades of Vader feel disconnected from one another. They are all valid depictions of the Dark Lord that feed into one another necessarily because of his dark and damaged past and the future he wishes to create. Like the rest of us, Vader wears the mask and plays the role that is necessary for the situation in which he finds himself at a given moment.
And speaking of the past, while Gillen doesn’t necessarily dwell on the prequels, he touches on them just enough to acknowledge that the events in those movies have necessary consequences in the relationships and situations he finds himself presently. As Anakin, Vader grew up on Tattooine, so he had firsthand knowledge of Jabba’s grip on the underworld, and acquits himself accordingly when dealing with the Hutt. And one of the biggest connections to the prequels comes in a stunning two-page splash toward the end of the book, when Vader makes it clear that he does not forgive or forget past injustices inflicted on himself or those he holds dear, no matter how far he’s fallen to the Dark Side.
Salvador Larroca is not new to making emotion shine through masked men, as his work on The Invincible Iron Man clearly shows. The same can be said with his work on Darth Vader. While Larroca manages to maintain Vader’s mystique, we are also privy to what the Dark Lord is thinking just by the body language Larroca gives Vader. And like John Cassaday over on Star Wars, Larroca makes use of the comic medium to create cinematic action pop from the page to give the tale the feel of a Star Wars movie.
Darth Vader #1 is a testament to what the proper writing can do to erase mistakes of the past inflicted on a character. Gillen and Larroca show that Darth Vader is a character whose history can be examined without doing damage to his ominous nature.