Before the Star Wars Expanded Universe underwent the Great Disney Purge of 2014, I didn’t check out the comics much. My wheelhouse was more the novels and games; not that some of the comics weren’t great, but a lot of them just felt superfluous and uninspired (which, admittedly, is rich considering the direction the Star Wars book canon went around the time Fate of the Jedi started getting released). Maybe it was a combination of the writers penning lacklustre tales and the artists making everything look homogenous across the board – seriously, much of the art in the Dark Horse era looks like it’s from the same overworked guy on most pages – but Star Wars and comics were two passions of mine that never really clicked.
That is, until Marvel started releasing multiple ongoing series in 2015. Not only did it click, it is now in danger of never coming apart from me until the next retconning board-wipe happens around the time Disney plan to release Episode IV.5 in 2060.
I spoke a little while ago about my enthusiasm for the new Darth Vader series in particular by calling it a remarkably twisted take on Doctor Who. Since we know Darth Vader will never die on the page, given his fate at the climax of Return of the Jedi, any attempt to milk drama from a cliffhanger regarding his safety would be pointless. Writer Kieron Gillen smartly circumvents that by crafting a rich array of supporting characters – notably the morally-flexible Dr. Aphra and her dynamic duo of deadly droids – and shaping a narrative trajectory built around drama that isn’t dependent on Vader being left in a new deathtrap at the end of each issue.
With that lack of focus on character mortality established, I was hesitant about diving into Vader Down. The premise offered by the title – Vader gets shot down on a planet where the Rebels subsequently swarm in to try and kill him – sounded both simplistic and self-resolving before I turned the first page. Luckily, Gillen and fellow Star Wars writer Jason Aaron make it perfectly clear that Vader’s fate isn’t the story’s primary focus. At least, his fate in terms of mortality isn’t the focus – his fate in regards to his position within the Empire is another matter.
Chiefly, Vader Down is an excuse to get the diametrically-opposed casts of both Darth Vader and the ongoing Star Wars series to meet, shake hands and get to know each other (or, rather, meet, exchange blaster fire and attempt to get out alive). It’s the first crossover the Star Wars ongoings have had since they started in 2015, and thus feels suitably epic in proportion to the scope of its six issues. Gillen and Aaron have crafted a crossover that’s less about universe-altering plot shake-ups and more about smaller character interactions. Both writers have done a fantastic job making their respective casts interesting and nuanced – a particularly impressive feat especially for Gillen’s cast of homicidal maniacs in Darth Vader – and there’s a sense of excitement when they cross paths with each other. Han Solo and Dr. Aphra exchanging blaster shots and verbal witticisms in equal measure is no less enjoyable than R2-D2 facing off with his black-clad counterpart BeeTee, the latter packing more heat than a barbecue pit. In terms of the few ongoing series plots with developments that stick in Vader Down, the most compelling is Vader’s continued attempts to get back in the Emperor’s good books, his battle against the Rebels serving as an opportunity to regain some face (though not the parts of it that were burned off on Mustafar).
Though the crossover does lack strong storytelling meat to go with its honey glaze of spectacle, that glaze is made all the sweeter by the art department. Salvador Larroca is the unsung hero of the Darth Vader series, continuing to demonstrate how to enhance Vader’s specter through strategic use of shading and lighting. Larroca manages to evoke some more nightmare fuel from the Lord of the Sith in subtle renditions of his mask features, particularly in the slightly narrower drawing of Vader’s eyes and mouthpiece. You almost see Vader as glaring when he fights the Rebels, the firm black plasteel of his mask slowly morphing into a terrifying grimace. Mike Deodato similarly brings his own admirable artistic corpus to the table, meshing well with Larroca; both artists excel at somewhat more realistic depictions of the characters which look more like their film incarnations, rather than anything overly cartoonish. It’s also definitely worth giving credit to artist Mark Brooks, whose covers for each issue – particularly the one chosen for the trade paperback, seen at the end of this review – each evoke a strong Drew Struzan feel. That meshes well with Jason Aaron’s stated intent for Vader Down to be ‘the movie of the Marvel Star Wars comic books.’
The end result of Vader Down is that it’s a big, pulpy popcorn story (or maybe it’s a honey-glazed ham; see the confusing metaphor in the last paragraph). It serves as a reminder of how both the Star Wars and Darth Vader ongoings are probably the most well-written Star Wars comics in a long time, and that sometimes it’s very cool to see Darth Vader do his one-man army thing. Who knows, maybe this is the story which gave Gareth Edwards the inspiration for Rogue One‘s iconic ending scene.
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
REBEL SOLDIER: “Darth Vader! Lay down your weapons! You’re surrounded!”
VADER: “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.”