In the first three Star Wars movies, Darth Vader was a fearsome, enigmatic archvillain. The next three Star Wars movies attempted to show Anakin Skywalker as an emotionally turbulent figure of tragedy. The new Darth Vader comic gives readers both of those interpretations and more, enjoyably complicating a villain who been around for a whole generation.
Out this week, Darth Vader #1 is the next installment of a wave of all-new Star Wars comics being created by Marvel. From the very outset, the comic from Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca has a tricky premise to negotiate. Villain-centric stories are full of pitfalls that can turn off readers. One danger is that a certain beat—"boy, this character sure is evil"—can get hit over and over to the point it becomes boring and rote. Another danger: making the character too sympathetic and diluting the menace that seduced people into becoming fans in the first place.
From this first issue, it seems like Darth Vader's creators have heeded any and all Ackbarian warnings and are ready to avoid those particular traps.
Part of the creative team's success comes from casting the Dark Lord of the Sith as someone who's got an incredibly abusive boss. Return of the Jedi made it clear that Emperor Palpatine viewed Vader as a glorified henchman, a tool to carry out his plans and to be unleashed on the Rebel Alliance. That thread gets carried into this new comic, which follows the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, as the storytellers deliver a few great scenes that underscore how Vader never enjoys his liege's respect.
Gillen also gestures back at the prequel trilogy and makes use of the half-baked political intrigue in Episodes I, II and III. You get a sense of the Empire as a political construct powered by the will of one very old, very evil man.
It's an incredibly odd thing to feel sympathy for Darth Vader. But when Palpatine talks shit straight to his face, you pretty much can't help it. It's a reminder that Vader's a broken man, one who—even before his turn to the Dark Side—was seeking a father figure.
That brokenness isn't just emotional, as the body of the man once known as Anakin was burnt away years ago. The damage hasn't stopped him from being a powerful enemy, though. There's a great fight scene where Darth Vader takes out a whole room of Jabba the Hutt's thugs by barely moving. It's a great sequence by Larocca that makes Vader seem incredibly badass because of the economy of movement on display.
And the icing of the cake for longtime fans is seeing Vader perform this way while they know full well that his cyborg body isn't exactly nimble. He fights this way because he has to. But his enemies don't know that. It amounts a weird, satisfying reverse-FDR moment: a man-in-charge who must hide physical frailty to instill loyalty or fear.
Much of what makes Vader so intriguing as a character is the fact that he doesn't emote emphatically. That opaque helmet is a lid on top of a storm of conflicting feelings. All sorts of pride, regret, arrogance and sadness must be roiling under that mask. Larocca does excellent work in using lighting, camera angles and body language to imply the depth of Vader's emotional state. A tilt of the head this way or placing a clenched fist in the foreground of a panel are among the artistic decisions that sketch out a dejected, angry Vader.
Moments throughout the issue seem designed to seed the idea of Vader as more of a schemer than previously understood. An encounter with Luke Skywalker in the first two issues of the new Star Wars series—which featured Luke's thirst for revenge and Vader's snatching of the young Jedi's lightsaber, shown here from Vader's perspective—have sparked his own personal agenda. He needs to know who this upstart Force-wielder is and must investigate without Palpatine knowing.
There are wheels within wheels here and Darth Vader #1 makes it seem like it's going to be a wonderful experience watching them spin. Gillen folds in enough context to generate a modicum of sympathy but not so much that anyone thinks that redemption might be possible (not until Return of the Jedi, of course). This is Darth Vader, after all, and we know how his story ends. But the first issue of his new comic book series makes an excellent case for showing what else was going on as he marches towards his fate.