By Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, and Edgar Delgado
One of the most exciting development in comic books this year has been Marvel taking over the reigns of the Star Wars comic franchise from Dark Horse. It’s a major shift, heralded by Disney’s purchase of Lucas Arts and has led to some major changes for the Star Wars extended universe. Marvel is basically throwing out all previous extended universe installments in favor of all new stories set during the limbo period between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. Marvel has tapped a lot of talent for these projects like Mark Waid on Princess Leia and Jason Aaron’s stewardship of the main Star Wars comic, but by far the stand out has been Kieron Gillen on Marvel’s Darth Vader.
Darth Vader is at the frontline of Marvel’s efforts to redefine a lot of key elements of the Star Wars universe through their adaptations. In terms of everyone’s favorite Sith Lord, Gillen’s series has been doing a lot to shift him into more of a pragmatic schemer working for his own self-interest rather than simply a tool of the empire. That’s part of the reason this is set during the interim period after New Hope, that was the period when Vader really was the soul face of the empire rather than more of a tool for the Emperor. As such the central plot of the comic is about Darth Vader consolidating allies and resources to make his own moves against the emperor and other top-tier imperial officials.
It’s a clever approach, especially for a super villain comic. Often the key to making a villain likable is to zero in on the various qualities of a villain that are actually admirable such as ambition, resourcefulness, and a dogged refusal to quit despite numerous defeats. It’s most similar to Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula and Super Villain Team-Up comics though a lot of the actual space fairing plots are thoroughly reminiscent of Vanth Dreadstar only with inverted morals. What really sells the proceedings though is Vader’s unique blend of high stakes manipulation with ultimately petty reasoning. It’s most reminiscent, again, of how Vader was portrayed in A New Hope, willing to strangle people over the slightest insult only now it’s blended with the calculating planner we caught a glimpse of in Empire Strikes Back.
At the same time Vader’s expansion of his personal empire gives the series a natural format to touch on the entire Star Wars universe while also expanding key elements of it. This latest issue features both a squad of bounty hunters and a heist story involving imperial credits. Additionally, Darth Vader’s lieutenants are all thoroughly engaging, especially Dr. Aphra, a rogue archeologist who’s sort of the villainous lovechild of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. However, the best part of this universe expansion is in the role Darth Vader himself plays in the imperial structure. Even in A New Hope Vader was sort of an imperial anomaly, not technically part of the military command structure or bureaucratic government but still afforded supreme authority. He’s essentially this magic robot samurai who stomps around the imperial military with huge amounts of authority flowing strictly from his friendship with the Emperor, sort of like if the vice president had the force. This is one of those peculiar aspects of Star Wars as a science fantasy story; you have to make room in between all the spaceships and ray guns for the black magic wizards.
Artwork wise Darth Vader is just beautiful, probably the second best looking Star Wars comic aside from the main series. Salvador Larroca is on art duty and he captures the richly textured intricacies of the Star Wars mythos expertly. Everything he draws is imbued with a great amount of detail but never bleeds over into being cluttered, just well lived and with enough pieces to seem real. Edgar Delgado’s color work is also very strong. He’s called upon to do a ton of difficult light work in the series but he masters it flawlessly. There’s a sequence in the opening panels involving an asteroid explosion that’s just beautiful and a large part of that is owed to Delgado’s light effects. Another key element that both creators do a superb job with is the character design. Darth Vader is constantly introducing filtering new characters through the story and they all manage to maintain visual cohesion while also striking and memorable.
Darth Vader is pretty much everything Marvel promised its stewardship of Star Wars could be. The story is engaging in a classic, ‘70s manner while also digging into previously unexplored aspects of the Star Wars canon. The artwork is thrilling, the color work top-notch, the characters fun and imaginative, and the pacing work is perfect. Star Wars fans are probably already buying this, but if you’re a lapsed Star Wars fan or someone who’s always admired the series from the sidelines this is a great comic to pick up.