Darth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen (writer) and Salvador Larroca (artist)
Darth Vader (Volume One): Vader by Kieron Gillen is just as good, if not better than, Star Wars (Volume One): Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron, both of which came out recently from Marvel. Marvel now has the rights to the Star Wars comic books, and so they are reissuing quickly all the Star Wars comics that were put out over the years by Dark Horse. In addition to these reissues, they have started several new series. Most are short, four- or five-issue series, including ones about Princess Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca. But the two main series are Star Wars and Darth Vader, and they are fantastic because Marvel has assigned to these tasks two of their best writers (and almost equally good artists). In other words, these books are near-perfect.
I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, since I’ve only seen the movies, and like most people, only liked half of those. But I loved the recent film enough to do some exploring in the world of Star Wars comic books. I’m glad I did because these two comic book series are even better than the recent movie, in my opinion. Darth Vader: Vader takes place right after Episode IV and runs along the same time period as Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, both of which collect the first six issues of their respective series. In fact, both books end on the exact same scene with Darth Vader, but in Vader, we get the scene from his perspective, so we finally know what he was thinking during this pivotal meeting with . . . . (well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?).
Darth Vader: Vader tells what the Dark Lord is up to behind the Emperor’s back after the Emperor makes his displeasure with Vader clear. We watch Vader run the Emperor’s missions for him along with his secretive side-missions. For example, he goes to meet with Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, and Jabba refers to a private agreement between the two of them. In Vader, we find out what this private agreement is: It turns out Darth Vader had an unofficial meeting with Jabba the day before he shows up with the Stormtroopers in an official capacity. He asks Jabba to find him a few men to run some missions for him. We see one of these side-missions in Skywalker Strikes; we see the other in Vader.
The best part of Darth Vader: Vader is the character Aphra. Much like the recent movie is worth seeing because of the strong female character Rey, Vader is worth reading because of Aphra, another feisty, strong, intelligent female. Aphra seeks out dangerous weapons and androids and is very smart in working with them, though that she is working with them in the first place is questionable on multiple levels; she also describes herself as a “rogue archaeologist.” Darth Vader seeks her out halfway through this collection, and to me, that’s when this volume really hits its stride: The dynamic between Aphra and Darth Vader is excellent fun to watch. Even though Aphra says she’s frightened of Darth Vader — and she clearly is, as she should be — she has enough self-confidence to speak back to, question, and even joke with Darth Vader, even though each time she does so she could discover that she has elicited her own instant death by light saber.
Salvador Larroca’s art is just a little better than the art of John Cassaday in Skywalker Strikes, but their art is compatible. Both capture the likeness of the original actors without seeming cramped by this necessity, and both artists are good at capturing the feel of the movies, particularly in the action sequences. The colorists are good as well. These are beautiful books.
Though these two series do not need to be read together, they probably should be. My guess is that it’s best to alternate between each series with every volume at the very least. You could read an issue or two in Skywalker Strikes and then a few issues in Vader, and so on, but it works fine to read all of Skywalker Strikes before reading all of Vader, as I did. However, if you plan on reading the Darth Vader series at all, I strongly suggest reading this first volume before reading volume two of Star Wars (which comes out in late January 2016). If you have even the slightest interest in Star Wars, you will enjoy these books. They are fun, quick reads that will satisfy even the most casual fan of the Star Wars movies. And though you may want to skip some of the smaller series I mentioned earlier in this review, you do not want to miss Darth Vader: Vader. At the very least, you’ll want to meet the smart, fast-talking, ethically-questionable Aphra.
It’s only natural that a comic book series focusing on Darth Vader would exist; after all he’s one of the most iconic villains in film history. There’s plenty to be mined from his career as a Dark Lord of the Sith, and from what he was up to when our rebel heroes were making plans against him.
Set almost immediately after the destruction of the first Death Star, Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 1: Vader provides a compelling look at how Vader operated within the power structure of the Empire: dealing with lackeys, going on missions, and trying to accumulate power independently of the Emperor.
That last one makes up the most interesting part of this series. Anyone who has seen the trilogy knows that the Emperor is manipulating Vader (and has done since his childhood), but this explores just how delicate their balancing act is. Even as the Emperor secretly preps replacements for Vader, Vader goes in search of his own allies and resources.
Right from the start, there’s a splinter of mistrust between the apprentice and his master, and seeing the cracks appear makes their confrontation in The Return of the Jedi all the more satisfying.
Among Vader’s secret allies are two droids that are clearly Dark Side versions of C3-P0 and R2-D2 (their sadistic streaks made particularly chilling given their familiar designs) and a young archaeologist/thief called Doctor Aphra, who finds herself recruited by Vader to assist him in accumulating information and resources.
Their strange bond forms the crux of the series: although Aphra is intimidated by Vader, she enjoys working for him and has no moral qualms about what she’s required to do. As for Vader, his feelings are far more inscrutable, though you get the sense Aphra reminds him a little of Ahsoka Tano.
In fact, there are plenty of wonderfully subtle call-backs to Vader’s past — for instance, when Aphra asks him how he feels about returning to Geonosis, you can FEEL the strained pause before he answers. Writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca also find clever visual ways to get around Vader’s impassive nature (and of course, his lack of facial expressions): when he discovers the true identity of the young pilot who blew up the Death Star, hairline cracks appear in the glass of the window he stands before.
It’s great stuff, with plenty of strong characterization and an interesting look at what the Dark Side was up to while the heroes were out saving the day. Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt appear in roles that have purpose (as opposed to requisite cameos) and another villain named Cylo is introduced, who provides a new perspective on the technology and belief system that has shaped Vader’s life.