By Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, and Edgar Delgado
It’s a good time to be a Star Wars fan. Thanks to the incredible efforts of the Disney Corporation in its own going quest to decide the future of America’s popular culture Star Wars has resumed its place at the head of the pop pantheon. After nearly a decade in exile with blow upon blow of problems from the prequels to the special releases Star Wars has coming roaring back with a vengeance in theaters, on TV, in games, and, most pertinent here, in comic books. Taking the reigns of the Star Wars EU Marvel has turned this tired franchise from a mixed bag with little to no quality control into a power house of modern comics, to the point that Darth Vader stands today as one of the best comics of 2015 and one of the best villain comics of all time. Between two ongoing series and a smattering of minis Marvel has made their mark on Star Wars and made it well, capping off their incredible first year with a 6 part event series entitled Vader Down that concludes in this issue.
Given that the Vader Down arc really is just one story played out across 3 comics over 2 months this will be more of a look at the story as a whole than just this final 6th. This is still a knock-out conclusion but it’d be difficult to discuss it without going into detail about the 5 previous issues that set it up and the broader Marvel Star Wars EU it takes place within. Set in the twilight zone after A New Hope but prior to Empire Strikes Back the Marvel Star Wars comics, Darth Vader in particular, have been pretty ruthlessly focused on Vader’s quest for the lone pilot who destroyed the Deathstar and his discovery that said pilot is his son Luke. The series has done a lot to transform Vader from the imposing if empty walking leather monstrosity of the films to a much more 3 dimensional character. He’s still every bit as menacing, as demonstrated throughout the past 5 incredible issues, it’s just that now his menace is backed up by real and conflicting human emotions. What Marvel is essentially doing with the Vader comic is showing everything that went into Vader’s offer to Luke to join him in Empire Strikes Back; both in terms of wanting to embrace Luke as a son and growing increasingly distrusting of the Emperor.
A lot of that bubbles over throughout Vader Down, the story of Darth Vader being lured into a rebel base planet in search of Luke Skywalker but set-up for a double cross by rival apprentice Commander Karbin. Most of the story is an amazing blend of action and miscommunication as the multiple sets of heroes, villains, and those in between rush across this tiny desert world all trying to accomplish their own goals, usually resulting in a lot of fighting and bloodshed. The action has been absolutely stellar, Marvel has always put a lot of effort into getting the best of the best to illustrate and color their Star Wars titles and everyone is in top form here. However, what really ends up selling Vader Down is the emotion behind the story. Though everyone is getting an arc, including some very compelling stuff about Han Solo’s developing friendship with Luke and Leia, the core of the story rests on the shoulders of Darth Vader and Leia and it’s one of the cleverest and most subversive uses of their characters ever conceived.
Leia and Vader are the two characters most involved with driving the plot as Vader hunts for Luke and Leia organizes the rebel forces. What’s so brilliant is that the series inverts their standard roles as a way of drawing a creepy parallel between father and daughter. Vader’s whole goal for the story is to find his son but out of reasons so muddled between the lines of personal advancement and genuine attachment that it seems like not even Vader is sure what he plans to do if he finds Luke. There’s even a point where he rescues Luke from Commander Karbin’s forces, a hint of things to come in Return of the Jedi. Vader’s quest for Luke becomes an externalization of a quest for humanity that’s all the more tragic when you realize how doomed it actually is. Even though his motivation might be clear Vader is still murdering his way through 1000s of people, even Imperial troops, all in the hopes that finding his son might give him back some semblance of the humanity he’s still throwing away.
Leia is the opposite; her mission is to kill Darth Vader, no matter the cost. It’s shockingly rare to see her as violent and angry as she is here, this isn’t even a tactical strike for her, it’s about revenge. It becomes very clear how much more of a veteran Leia is compared to Luke and Han, for her this rebellion is hardly new and it’s had a tremendous cost all its own. More and more you see how Darth Vader becomes this perfect symbol for her, the one man upon whom she can heap the crimes of the entire empire and all the hatred that evokes. She becomes so deadly and ruthless in her quest to exterminate her father she becomes like unto his mirror image, willing to throw away countless rebel lives in attack after attack all to try to reclaim some small measure of recompense against the man who took her home away. It’s all so beautifully nuanced and reflective while taking time to emphasize the WAR in Star Wars with amazing impact.
While Vader Down #1 had the best artwork Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado are still top notch artists who do great work on this book. Delgado’s color palette remains perfectly suited to the overlap of gritty desert war and techno space opera while Larroca is one of the best Marvel artists for capturing facial likeness. They’ve also got a good talent for framing, using the context of a scene or even the placement of panel to imply so much about a character’s words and thoughts. This has always been invaluable for imbuing Darth Vader with greater humanity given his expressionless face but they make great use of it for other characters, including a superb series of close ups on Leia in the opening.
Darth Vader #15 and the Vader Down event series overall stands tall as one of the best Star Wars stories ever told, especially if you only enjoyed Force Awakens rather than being blown away by it. The action is stunning with brilliant uses of the force and a true sense of dread and malice all informed by the kind of raw and honest emotions you find in life during war times. More than that, the small scale, character focus, and lack of continuity shake-ups makes this easily the best event comic Marvel has done since Siege. It’s Star Wars done right and it’s comics done right.