By Jason Aaron, Mike Deodato, and Frank Martin Jr
One of the unfortunate but often unacknowledged truths of the Star Wars extended universe is that most of it ranges from mediocre to absolute garbage. Yes, the Thrawn trilogy is fun. Yes, Knights of the Old Republic is a legitimately great game. And yes, some of the Clone Wars episodes are pretty great, but those are the rare exceptions not the rule. The unfortunate truth is that the bulk of Star Wars extended universe material has been far more Yuuzhan Vong and Droids the animated show rather than Rogue One or Star Wars Infinities. That said, Marvel’s takeover of the Star Wars brand has been an incredible jump in quality; better concepts, better stories, better execution all around. A big part of this is just quality control and the fact Marvel have been producing a shared universe of content since the ‘60s. They’re professionals with access to a much larger talent pool and a genuine understanding of the impact this series has and the prestige it’s been aiming to reclaim after the failure of the last decade. Now, as Force Awakens looms, we’ve got the latest major shake up in Marvel’s shared Star Wars universe: Vader Down, and it’s amazing.
Written by Jason Aaron, one of the most valuable authors of 2015, Vader Down is a story that will be passing through all the major Star Wars titles, which is a little paradoxical given it’s possibly the most stripped down and focused story to ever hold the title of an event. Like all of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, the story is set in the middle ground after A New Hope but before Empire Strikes Back, with the empire hunting the galaxy for the rebels and specifically the pilot who blew up the Death Star. Meanwhile, Darth Vader’s position in the Empire has been called into serious question over his failures, a fact that has forced Vader into a more distant and pragmatic role as he schemes against the Emperor and discovered that Luke is his son. Now, in Vader Down, Luke and Vader face off in an epic opening space battle before they both crash-land on a distant and uninhabited world. Luke must survive as the rebels rush to his aid and run smack into the most dangerous man in the entire galaxy.
The primary goal of Marvel’s Star Wars universe has always been to tell good stories by digging into the unexplored minor elements of standard characters. That’s the central driving thing behind great books like Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and Lando and it’s been peppered throughout Star Wars and Darth Vader as well. However, there’s been a sort of secret background goal running just under the surface of all these comics as well, one that’s been so perfectly crafted it’s almost undetectable till right here and now when it bursts out of nowhere and onto the page. Marvel’s entire Star Wars experiment has been working to make Darth Vader cool again. It’s strange to say that’s an ambitious goal, but at this point in Star Wars history it kind of is. As cool and imposing as the visual of Darth Vader remains, 2 decades of brand dilution, the abysmal realization in the prequel era, and cameos in pop art and Soul Caliber have devalued Vader’s currency in the extreme. All of which is a real shame because the central idea of Darth Vader is still one of the great villain concepts of all time, standing tall alongside other all time greats like Darkseid or Dr. Doom, who actually inspired Darth Vader’s look and identity.
That goal has informed a lot of the background comics in Marvel’s current run, especially Darth Vader which has subtly emphasized Vader consolidating power and pushing him into a much more solo state. Vader is an imposing force, but we’re used to seeing him with an army at his back so contriving events to throw him out of the Empire’s good graces has already stripped him of his largest asset. Vader Down takes things even further, pitting he alone against an entire rebel battalion and then reminding you why Darth Vader is the second in command of the most devastating empire of space Nazis the world has ever known. Seriously, a good 2/3rds of this comic is epic space battles of Vader taking on multiple rebel squadrons and absolutely crushing them. Jason Aaron remains one of the cleverest writers when it comes to integrating all aspects of the Star Wars universe into a fight scene and that’s on full display here, including some great moments of Vader using the force mid dog fight. What really sells it though is Vader’s ruthlessness. We’re used to big showy modern villains who feel the need to monologue and quip, but there’s none of that here. Vader actually barely speaks in the whole comic and comes off truly more machine than man, especially in his mannerisms and physicality.
This gets into the amazing contributions by artist Mike Deodato and colorist Frank Martin Jr. Deodato is supremely talented at big, wide double-paged spreads of space battles and barren vistas and they really sell the book, but the smaller moments are what makes this comic. One of the great triumphs of Darth Vader has always been that creators can wring emotions out of someone with no facial expressions and that’s on full display here. His every tiny movement and physical gesture convey so much, though he’s at his most haunting whenever he uses the force. The force grant Vader an immediacy and distance that’s truly chilling, a simple flick of his hand and people are dead, no remorse, no question, no grand speeches or one liners, just death. As mentioned this fits perfectly with the idea of Vader as a more mechanical being, he makes no unnecessary movements or statements; a robot wouldn’t need them so neither does he.
The fact that Marvel keeps making genuine magic out of this franchise while continuing to test the boundaries of what could be done with the material is frankly staggering. Darth Vader has already secured its place on the best of the year list and Star Wars is the most exciting and vibrant look at the mythos since Knights of the Old Republic, but Vader Down proves that they’re capable of not just telling great Star Wars stories but making Star Wars work to tell great comic stories. The interconnected formation of this story and the building structure of stranded character and ticking clocks is something that needed a comic book to tell the story. In a world of bloated events like Secret Wars or clunky franchise management like Original Sin, it’s great to see there are people at Marvel who know how to make great event comics, even if they’re set in a galaxy far, far away.