By Kieron Gillen, Savador Larroca & Edgar Delgado.
The premise here is the biggest sell. The end of #23 left Vader in a predicament. On his knees, his robotic systems shutting down. The former chosen one turned human BBQ was experiencing the Star Wars equivalent of locked-in syndrome. The promise for this issue is an internal journey. Darth, via the force, goes on a vision quest through his past.
It’s an exciting proposition. Sadly it fails in its execution.
The problems here are all in story. Nothing happens. For a book that costs $3.99, the paying reader deserves better than no plot:
1. Darth struggles to stand up.
2. He has a dream.
3. Then he manages to stand up.
That is the entire story your $3.99 gets you. The argument that this book works would be to focus on the importance of Vader’s vision quest. Vader’s dream is all about him finding his inner Anakin and killing him once-and-for-all. The idea here is that Vader collapses to his knees injured, within himself kills the last remnants of the innocent boy he once was, and then stands back up: The good within finally terminated for good. When he fell to his knees he still had a little Anakin left in him, but when he stands up it is gone. That, at least, is the idea being presented and the apparent justification for why we’re spending $3.99 to watch a man learn to stand. But this is not a one-shot. These 22 pages are a piece of a much larger puzzle and one cannot read this book without taking into account the entire Star Wars world around it. This book has to be acknowledged as part of a larger tapestry because that is how it presents itself. So from this P.O.V, Darth Vader’s #24’s minimal plot remains unjustified. Because why should a fan waste $3.99 (have we mentioned the price yet?) to be told the story of Anakin becoming Vader when said fan has already had to sit through three awful films to here that story? Not only that, but by pitching this as ‘the death of all that was left of Anakin Skywalker’, it completely undermines Return of the Jedi. And once again: We MUST read this as a piece of the larger Star Wars story. Perhaps as a solo 1 shot the idea of a man destroying the last of his inner ‘goodness’ has merit, but here we know it holds no value because we’ve seen that Anakin is the ultimate winner of the Anakin V Darth Vader struggle.
It feels like there was a more interesting way to present this. A way that acknowledges that the reader will have seen Vader’s ultimate redemption. Playing these vision scenes as the ultimate & final death of ‘Anakin’ holds no long term dramatic weight. An alternative take, perhaps in which there’s still a glimmer of ‘Annie’ left in Vader would not only solve the problem of undermining Return of the Jedi, but would be more interesting in and of itself. Let’s imagine a hypothetical (and highly improbably…) world in which a reader has no exposure to Star Wars outside of reading this Vader series. In that situation, it could be argued that Darth Vader #24 achieves what it set out to achieve because there is no prequel trilogy from which our hypothetical reader would have already obtained the information of Anakin’s descent to the dark side, nor no ‘Vader killing Palpatine’ moment to undermine. Yet still there are problems. In this scenario a reader would have followed a ‘bad guy’ for 22 issues, before being presented a vision unveiling he used to be slightly less bad. Interesting so far. But when he escapes his vision, all returns to as before- rendering the vision pointless. A flashback should only interrupt out story if it offers up new information that dramatically affects the tale’s trajectory moving forward. This does not do that. If the vision had been about revealing Vader still had something of Anakin left within, then it would have worked. That would give us new information to move forward with. And leaving this hypothetical world and returning to the real one, this slight tweak would no longer devalue Return of the Jedi and would no longer be a re-tread of the prequels. What Gillen made the issue about, cementing Anakin’s transformation into Vader, is the exact opposite of what it needed to be. If instead this had bee about Vader’s acceptance that there is still something of Anakin within him, and escaping his predicament that way, it would have been more interesting, would have not re-tread Revenge of the Sith and would have actively fed into Return of the Jedi pivotal end scenes instead of hindered them.
But it’s not all bad. If there’s any issue of any comic that proves artists need to start getting more credit for their work on comics, it is this one. Because Larroca near saves this issue with his continually beautiful work. There’s such dynamism to how he draws here that even Vader’s dreary daydream is stunning to look at. The way Larroca stages a dream duel between Vader and young Obi is genuinely clever and a classic example of comics at their best inventive. He does something only comics can do, proving why this story is a comic and not a film- something far too few comics remember to do. And it continues to be dazzling how much character he manages to breathe into Vader despite Vader’s face being hidden beneath his mask. Larroca is a master of the subtle. The tiniest variation in how Vader holds himself changes everything, and he works that well. Just the tiniest tilt to how Vader holds his head enables us to see every inch of pain on his hidden face.
Most of what Larroca has drawn so far in Darth Vader’s 25-issue run has been grounded in the most industrial corners of the Star Wars universe, capturing the feel of the empire. So it is an absolute joy to see him get to play with a couple other elements before this series comes to an end with issue 25. Namely getting to see him work with prequel characters and seeing how he presents the vision. It would be easy for an artist to get all too bonkers with how they conveyed the dreams. But Larroca has more tact. All dream sequences are illustrated almost as if they’re straight scenes, yet there is something ever so slightly off kilter about them. This is a man who would be a master at drawing storyboards for a David Lynch film.
There’s a brilliant sheen to Edgar Delgado’s colors, as if every page is recreating the effect of light bouncing off Vader’s perfectly polished armor. This whole series has been so steeped in beautifully industrial blacks & greys that it is a genuine, and wonderful, shock to get the bold reds of Mustafar in the dream. These colors perfectly reflect Vader’s emotional state in the two time periods we see him, contrasting between the red, hot rage of Anakin’s emo years with the cold greys of his future as a muted machine in service of ‘the man’.
Ultimately this is a truly beautiful issue, but the story is too flawed and too unsatisfying to allow this to sore. It’s best not to treat this issue as an issue, but instead as a series of wonderful images used to bring life to a dreary & misguided tale.