By Jason Aaron & Jorge Molina, with Matt Milla
Right from David Aja’s cover, it’s made clear we are getting something a little different from this arc. Whereas the previous twenty covers have been glossy, hope-inspiring pin-ups of the original trilogy gang in striking poses, reminiscent of Roger Kastel’s original The Empire Strikes Back poster, this is something different all together. Aja’s takes his usual style and runs with it. Smudgy colors, soft lines, heavy dot work and cluttered paneling create an image that feels like imperial propaganda. This cover is a letter of intent. It’s a brilliant way of letting us know that what unfolds in the following twenty four pages is not what we have come to know. In one clear image it captures the tone of what is about to unfold, establishing a grungier, messier tone. It conveys the message “Strap in, things are about to get morally iffy” without saying a word. It’s brilliantly simplistic and restrained.
The message conveyed is certainly accurate. In this fourth arc, an elite group of Stormtroopers take center stage with the classic gang not featuring. Some fans would have you believe that Luke is potentially one of the troopers in disguise. It’s certainly plausible, but for now at least it would seem this is an arc focusing purely on a group of Stormtroopers. It’s a sharp U-Turn from arcs of the past, which have been entirely centered around the classic gang of the original trilogy. However, if writing Southern Bastards has taught Jason Aaron anything, it’s how to flip P.O.V effectively. He makes sure there’s a reason beyond merely “for the hell of it” to change up which characters we’re following, and the reason here is tone. This is a very different issue from what we have come to know in this series. Up until now, the tone of Marvel’s new Star Wars comic has been very A New Hope. Everything is charming and bright and full of, rather predictably, ‘hope’. It’s been big, bold, colorful space opera at its best. Yet this issue takes a turn toward being a little more Empire Strikes Back. It’s grim, moody & and a sense of impending doom hangs over everything.
Though we have a new artist on board with Molina, he sticks to the rough frame work of what has been established as the Star Wars ‘house-look’. This is typically modern Marvel glossy stuff. The opening two pages are large wides establishing central planet Chagar IX that slowly draw closer until we got a final panel reminiscent of the opening of The Force Awakens, showing a squadron of troopers marching down a ramp onto the planet’s surface. This panel structure is wonderfully clever. Starting off with a look we are familiar with from prior issues Molina slowly, over the course of these two pages, draws us tighter and tighter in until we have a cluttered, claustrophobic image of soldiers. And then it is in this space we remain for the rest of the issue. It’s an intelligent way to segue from the style of the earlier issues into the more Band of Brothers feel we’re getting here. Because everything is drawn from ground level. We as a reader are tight in with Kreel and his squad in a manner reminiscent of THAT iconic sequence from Saving Private Ryan. Molina’s real trick here is framing and angles. He renders these as not action scenes we are watching, but actions scenes we are in.
It makes sense with this different mood that Milla wold bring a bleaker color palette than we have seen before in the series. Even the gutters are black. Chagar IX has a beautiful soft red light to its sky, invoking the sort of shades you’d associate with magma. This cleverly gives him the opportunity to bleed a little light into the story without turning it too cartoony. It may be a little color, but it’s hot color; a literal sense of doom hanging over the pages. Together with the real-world scuffs and scratches Molina’s brings to the armor the pair create a real sense of hot, sweaty, scrappy warfare.
All in all, this is adult Star Wars. The mix of grim imagery with more morally wobbly characters makes this arc feel like it might be riding the Rogue One hype train to generate a similar story. If that’s a conscious decision, it’s a clever one: Giving all Star Wars stories presently coming out a similar vibe is a clever branding tact. On this note, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the upcoming season of the TV show Rebels will feature Thrawn: one of the darker characters to step foot in the universe. and the latest mini is the grimly colored Han Solo.
This is an interesting side step for Star Wars, one that it hopefully keeps up for the rest of the arc.