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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Comics Spotlight Review: Darth Vader #1


Look, I wasn't a bit fan of Star Wars #1, a totally fine book that offered precisely no real reason to read it beyond wanting to spend a little more time with the movie characters in their most recognizable incarnations. I still fully intended to try out both Darth Vader and Princess Leia, because there was a part of me that wondered if it was just writer Jason Aaron - someone whose work almost never connects with me - that was making me feel distant and disinterested. Darth Vader writer Kieron Gillen and Leia scribe Mark Waid are among my favorites working today; can Gillen help make one of cinema's great villains a leading man?

No. Aaron's script for Star Wars was fine, as Gillen's mostly is here, though both are almost obsessively referential. But then, everything about this is obsessively referential, from an opening sequence that borrows heavily from Return of the Jedi to a closing page that borrows from Revenge of the Sith - don't worry, though, it's not thematic borrowing or anything 'boring' like that, just some good old fashioned visual theft. Whew. I was worried that we might see something new for a moment.

After the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars and the destruction of a weapons manufacturing plant in January's Star Wars #1, Vader is on a losing streak - and the Emperor knows it. Assigned to bargain with Jabba the Hutt (because of fucking course) and removed from the Emperor's favor, Vader immediately begins to plot to get back to where he is in The Empire Strikes Back. He has a new superior to deal with and the mystery of Luke Skywalker to untangle, but you can't keep a good Sith down.

Look, Kieron Gillen is a strong writer. His Journey Into Mystery is one of modern Marvel's definitive works of fantasy in my book, and his Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine are absolutely phenomenal. Gillen gets 'cool' like few other comic writers working today. But at least in Darth Vader #1, he's hamstrung by the legacy of a character whose iconic stature in popular culture has long since eclipsed whatever humanity he may once have had. Vader's wounded nobility is still two movies and a lot of comics away; what remains is a series that badly wants to take advantage of his iconic nature, but which is thus far limited in scope. 

Artist Salvador Larroca is similarly trapped. The brief action of Darth Vader #1 is slim and stately, looking like action figures being posed for maximum cool but with no sense of movement or drama. These lightsaber and blaster duels are begging for someone like Genndy Tartakovsky to come in and introduce a little style and excitement. There is a bit of cleverness in Larroca's paneling, though, which mostly sticks to five-panel pages where each panel is shaped like a movie screen, exploding outwards only during the introduction of these larger than life characters. It's an interesting aesthetic, and I'll be curious to see if he can use it for something beyond, "And then this character you like shows up!" in future issues.

Only the decision to have Vader fallen from favor and stripped of his resources bodes well for the series' creative future. While we know where he will end up, if Gillen can play up the political machinations and find some way to give them stakes and consequences - both of which have been lacking from Marvel's Star Wars books almost entirely - then he may very well be able to massage this into a book that works, dramatically speaking. But it's hard to deny that this is the least interesting possible iteration of this character, and Gillen has his work cut out for him to make, basically, spraying grout into the tiny cracks of continuity between the first two films seem even remotely gripping.

There's an audience for this level of continuity-porn, just like that's an audience for any kind of porn. Any kind. But as much as I like Gillen, there just isn't much to Darth Vader #1 that makes it feel necessary. Salvador Larroca is mostly fine, Kieron Gillen nails Vader's spiritual authoritarian confidence, but while everyone was busy making a pretty, professional package, they seem to have forgotten to give us a reason why we should care. They may not have to, I suppose. This book could have been shit and it would have sold big on an absurd level, so the slick, polished competence on display will likely keep die-hards coming back for more. The regular comic shop crowd can safely wait and see where Gillen is going with this without missing much. I can see Gillen shaping this into a strong book eventually, but right now Darth Vader #1 feels overawed at being allowed into the world's most prestigious toybox.

Darth Vader #1 was written by Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Salvador Larroca, colored by Edgar Delgado, and lettered by Joe Caramagna. Published by Marvel Comics, Darth Vader #1 has a cover price of $4.99.
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