Pipeline #1016: "Darth Vader": Year One

Darth Vader #5 cover detail
(Photo: Adi Granov)


Darth Vader as Superhero?

"Darth Vader" is a great superhero series. Or, maybe, supervillain.

I think.

I've only read the first ten issues, now. The series recently wrapped up after 25 issues and a lot of critical acclaim. I'm playing catch up.

But, in just those first ten issues, I see a lot of the same characteristics of some of my favorite superhero series -- everything from Peter David's "Hulk" to Larry Hama's "Wolverine" to sections of Chris Claremont's "X-Men." Name just about any book of the last thirty years featuring a solo character and a large supporting cast. (Anything Spider-Man, for sure. "Captain America" is good for this, too.)

Take a single character who you really can't change all that much and make him the underdog. In the wake of the first Death Star's destruction, the Emperor has effectively demoted him and is still ticked off.

Surround him with interesting characters who play off him well directly and can be more easily changed by the story arc. The story of the first batch of issues is Vader putting together a team of aliens and droids to help him find Luke as well as find out what the emperor is doing behind his back.

Darth Vader on Tatooine has echos

Send them all on a series of quests. This ragtag group adventures across the Star Wars galaxy to find clues and resources.

Make sure to have some internal conflicts amongst those characters, also. When you're working for Darth Vader, the last thing you can ever assume if your future good health.

It's a "formula" that works. I use the scare quotes there on purpose. "Darth Vader" isn't writer Kieron Gillen stealing anything, at all. It's just good storytelling. Sometimes, those story structures might fit a certain pattern or remind you of something else.

"Darth Vader" is an incredible superpowered being in a costume striving to overcome overwhelming odds. He surrounds himself with a support system. He's starting a team and he's filling it with quirky personalities that can say and do all the things that Vader can't, just by the definition of his personality.

Crossing Over

The series crosses over very gently with the main Marvel "Star Wars" title in a couple of major ways in this first batch of issues. It's a couple of nice intersections that fit in very well. You won't realize it if you aren't reading the other series, so it doesn't create any dependencies on that series. It only rewards the reader who is.

There are also a few references -- important ones, for Darth Vader's character -- to the prequels. Good to see those aren't being ignored. They're just as "real" as Chapters 4 - 6 in the world of "Star Wars," so there's no point in wasting what might help you. Gillen found a couple of ways, in particular, to reference those movies in the comics in a way that helps the story.

I only found myself lost once or twice on specific alien species. It felt like I was supposed to know them ahead of time, but I didn't.

It's not a big deal and doesn't block you from enjoying the story. Much like the comic book crossovers, it rewards those who know without leaving the rest in the dark.

The New Folks

Darth Vader, Triple Zero, and Aphra
(Photo: Adi Granov)

The biggest new character is Aphra, who is basically the Star Wars version of Indiana Jones, if only his morals were a little hazier. She's a fast-talking, smart thinking archaeologist who will work for the highest bidder. In the opening story arc she can stand up to none other than Lord Vader, even if it's from nervous energy more than the will to survive. That comes later...

She's surrounded by the breakout stars of the book in my mind: 0-0-0 (Triple Zero) and BT-1. These are basically R2D2 and C3P0 if they were homicidal maniacs. Imagine Tony Daniel's delivery as C3P0 as Hannibal Lecter crossed with a touch of Rowan Atkinson. Every panel he's in and every line of dialogue he gets is a winner.

Triple Zero loves torture in the Star Wars Universe

Gillen has the knack to mix in humor with character and exposition seamlessly. It helps to be able to go back and forth with that in a series like this, that might otherwise get so relentlessly serious and dark.


The Art of "Vader"

Salvador Larroca's art style continues to evolve for this title, combining photorealism with an artistic flair all his own. In this case, it's his thin ink line style. He adds texture all over the place with series of small broken thin lines, and it works. It reminds me a bit of Moebius' style, where those short thin parallel lines would indicate some kind of texture.

Colorist Edgar Delgado is a great match for Larroca's art. He does a lot of work with color as mood, using a minimum of colors in scenes to give each a distinct atmosphere. He follows Larroca's lines to a T, adding the right shadow work and the right textures and gradients in the proper places. Most of all, he lets the art shine, and doesn't overpower it with his colors in any scene.

Star Wars star ship detail
(Photo: Salvador Larroca)

It looks like Larroca is using some 3D models to make his spaceships. For a modern artist, that's a must have tool to play with. It takes out the grunt work of drawing proper perspective and technology, and gives the artist a chance to concentrate more on the storytelling and the "directing" of those models.

Larroca draws ships cleanly while still adding his own style to them.

But it's the directing that's even more important here. He can draw the ships easily, so the work needs to be done first in the shot selections, just like any movie director might think about before starting.

Unfortunately, Larroca stumbles on a couple of occasions. There's more than one spaceship scene where I got lost as to what's going on. One plot that relies on a spaceship trick took me about three reads before I saw what was gong on. I'm happy Gillen is restricting himself and letting the art tell the story, but when it gets iffy like that, a couple of well placed captions would be helpful in seeing what's going on.

Star Wars Spaceships Doing Something

I'm still not sure what's happening here. Are the "ion torpedos" those twin red laser beams in the bottom left? But that looks like a growth of the explosions in the same positiong from the original panel happening above it. I'll just roll with it.

When you think about it, drawing two spaceships dueling in space is a heavy load. You have to establish who is flying which ship, where they stand in relation to each other and what their size is, and then show motion in multiple directions in a way that's easy to follow. They say drawing car chases in comics is hard and that it takes an Alex Toth to pull it off. Starship battles don't have a road, so it's more unpredictable and potentially harder to follow.

Larroca pulls off other parts more readily, though. He's good with a variety of locations and aliens. From the insides of spaceships to the insides of small homes to Hutt's home and asteroids in space, he can get all the perspectives and details right on those locations. It's nice to see a series like this span the universe so widely, without feeling like just a Greatest Hits replay. When Vader or his crew revisit a place we've seen before, it's always for a specific reason.

There's also a great diversity of aliens and droids in the series. The ones that are meant to look like ones you know (such as 0-0-0 and BT-1) look right, and the newer designs have strong designs and personalities.

So while there are some serious issues with storytelling at key moments, the vast majority of the series I've read so far works well for me. Maybe it's a blind spot in my ability to "read" spaceships on the page? I hope not, because I love a good spaceship fight scene. Are they capable of being caught in sequential narrative just as well as motion pictures? I'm not sure yet.


"Darth Vader" Is Worth a Read

All 25 issues of the series are available today in single issues, trades, and digital. If you want to read it, it's out there for you. If you're feeling thrifty, do as I did and wait on a "Star Wars" sale at Comixology when they'll be on sale for 99 cents each again.

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While I'm less than halfway through the series now, I'm enjoying it enough to commit to reading the rest of it at some point. It's an impressive body of work for Gillen and Larroca. It ties in well with the Star Wars mythology without being weighed down by it, and has a lot of new pieces in it to make it new and exciting. You're getting the best of both worlds here.

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