By Haden Blackman, Rick Leonardi, Dan Green and Wes Dzioba
For years, Darth Vader was the ultimate big bad; an asthmatic, light saber wielding black behemoth of a threat content to fight off redemption in the name of power. The prequels came along and provided, to some, unasked for back-story to the villain many revered as the ultimate cinematic villain. Fortunately, there were writers outside of the immediate Lucas cosa nostra well equipped enough to manage these new found character developments and explore the finer inner workings of the beloved, infamous character. Haden Blackman is one of these writers and together with Rick Leonardi, Dan Green and Wes Dzioba, Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Lost Command is a rich examination of the struggle, regret and wrath battling for dominance against the darkness inside of the former Anakin Skywalker.
Taking place during that story-ripe nebulas era between Episodes III and IV, this collection sees Darth Vader, recently ascended to his powerful position as the right hand man of the newly appointed Emperor, sent on a mission to rescue the lost Admiral Tarkin from within the Bermuda triangle of space, the Atoan System. Besieged by nightmares of his unattainable life with Padmé, he dutifully and brutally follows the Emperor’s orders as he plows through Atoan strongholds, taking few prisoners. Those he does take provide less than helpful information; they are prisoners for a very short time thereafter. As the Atoan body count starts to rise, the high priestess of the system, Lady Saro, appears and offers to take them to Tarkin in exchange for being named Queen of The Ghost Nebula, which in addition to being pretty bitching album title, is not necessarily Vader’s to give. In time, Vader relents and the story begins to take a turn from fun, if not shallow, space marine adventuring towards a raw psychological study amid some surprising narrative twists.
Haden Blackman pilots the script like a veteran tie fighter, initially lulling you into thinking that the core of the story is a simple mission gone wrong yarn. Instead, once the story pivots away from the setup in Act I, the focus begins to lock on to the inner turmoil of Vader and the mission begins to be more of a background concern. The final Act is very well done, particularly the restrained predicament Vader finds himself and the overall use of flashbacks and nightmares, combined with a little outside interference, to a life with Padmé that never was nor could be, is very effective. Blackman makes it clear that we’re witnessing the strangling of the last remnants of Anakin Skywalker, stripping away the limbs of humanity from the mechanical husk of a Sith lord. It works well and avoids hitting you over the head with symbolism, which is very welcomed. Because it’s really about that battle, the supporting cast feels a little hollow and character’s motivations not entirely clear, save for Lady Saro who is handled appropriately complex. Next to Vader, she is undoubtedly the star of this book; mysterious, strong, manipulative and compassionate all at once. It would have been nice to see the Atoans fleshed out a little more with most of their cultural traits explained through dialogue and not shown to the reader. They are relegated mostly to being goggled henchmen that speak in an indecipherable language making it difficult to either empathize for or root against. That’s a minor complaint in a book that is otherwise impressively structured and paced, with dialogue, locales and themes that feel authentic to the Star Wars universe.
Rick Leonardi was handed a challenging task in penciling this story arc with requirements that include intricate machinery, harsh terrestrial landscapes, interstellar dogfights, and of course the main man himself. Here’s the thing about Darth Vader: his mask is incredibly difficult to render on a two-dimensional plane. Leonardi mostly succeeds in capturing a nearly untranslatable facial accessory with the right angles, but there are a few awkwardly looking panels when he faces straightforward. Luckily, Leonardi’s best work is when the helmet is off and the texture of Vader’s face pocked with scars, wrinkles and cracks allows the rage and fury to be perfectly conveyed. Seriously, there is a sequence of three pages towards the conclusion that are fantastic. Darth Vader, hulking and heaving, is drawn in a style wonderfully reminiscent of Frank Miller at his best. Which makes it all the more apparent that there are some pages that Leonardi was clearly more interested in than others, as some sequences are inexplicably flat and sparse in detail. The dogfight scene in particular stands out as more closely resembling flat two-dimensional polygons as opposed to mechanical wonders of aviation engaged in heated combat. Background and foreground locations alternate between detailed and expressive (the tar-pit planet is especially well done) but his character work is definitely his strength in this book. Dan Green has the unenviable job of inking a character adorned in all black, but he never falters and the sand particle-fine shading on Vader’s exposed face is exquisite. Wes Dzioba’s colors compliment his cohorts with a saturated palette that pops and really well done lighting effects. Essentially, the art team as a whole is at their best in scenes that are in intimate, enclosed, dark spaces and occasionally, and ironically, lackluster in the wide open expanses of space.
Being fluent in all things Star Wars is not a necessity to enjoy The Lost Command, but having a rough understanding of the tragic background behind Anakin Skywalker does help give the struggle depicted here the proper gravitas. When the art shines, it’s brighter than a light saber and nearly as sharp. At 120 pages, this is a meaty and worthwhile character study that does great justice to the preeminent science fiction franchise. For any fan of Darth Vader, which should be everyone, give this book a chance to show you just how despairingly dim the dark side can be.
Editor’s Note: PST! Did you know you can get this collection, and more, while also helping out a great cause in the DARK HORSE STAR WARS HUMBLE BUNDLE?!