When was the last time you heard of a comic based on an existing property gain Eisner hype? Or even see any semblance of widespread critical acclaim beyond “it really fleshes out the universe?” Seems like comics that work in the realm of existing universes are kind of brushed aside, right?
Comics that work from established properties are in a precarious position, with expectations that are simultaneously higher than typical comics yet somehow lower. Fans of the properties are usually more critical because they have set expectations for established characters and their own ideas for how their stories should play out. Yet for readers who aren’t fans, there’s an ill-conceived notion that comics centered around established properties are lesser than original superhero stories or creator-owned series.
And because of this, Greg Pak and Raffaele Ienco’s Darth Vader isn’t getting the respect or widespread acclaim it deserves.
Star Wars has always used every medium possible to expand the evolving narrative of the galaxy far, far away. From the Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s and Dark Horse’s sweeping line of era-spanning comics from the 90s and 2000s, to the recent wave of new Marvel Comics under Disney’s refined canon, the franchise has especially leaned on comic books as a means to expand its universe.
I haven’t really read much (or any) of the various Dark Horse series, or the original Marvel Comics run, but I have read every in-canon comic that has been released since Marvel Comics was given the publishing rights once again in 2014. And, for the most part, Marvel’s seemingly never-ending line of Star Wars comics have been very good to great, with maybe a couple of releases missing the mark. Particularly, every comic book iteration of Darth Vader has been utterly outstanding.
Kieron Gillen’s initial 2015 volume of Darth Vader showed readers the ruthlessness of the titular character as he tirelessly sought out the identity of the rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star, while simultaneously introducing the world to Doctor Aphra. Then, in 2017, Charles Soule helmed Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith, which gave fans a glimpse into the emotional turmoil of the final stages of Anakin Skywalker’s transformative descent into Darth Vader. Both of these runs were beloved by fans, so when Marvel announced a third volume slated for 2020 from writer Greg Pak (Hulk, Weapon H, and Star Wars: Age of Rebellion) and artist Raffaele Ienco (Batman: Sins of the Father and Postal: Deliverance), there was a very high bar to reach both in terms of canonical importance and overall quality.
Despite being just seven issues in, Pak and Ienco’s Darth Vader has easily met the precedent set by each volume before it. This is not just a good Star Wars story — this is a fantastic canon story and is one of the absolute best comics on sale right now, period.
A Simple Narrative with Complex Emotional Themes
Comics, especially contemporary titles, can sometimes confuse narrative complexity with quality storytelling. That’s not to say that complex stories aren’t enjoyable — they just have to convince the reader that all the complexity is worthwhile and oftentimes fall short. This is why the best and most memorable comics are often simple narratives that save their complexity for the emotional themes at play.
All of the best comics in recent memory can be simply boiled down; Mister Miracle (2017) is about a man struggling to balance his professional life and family life; Saga is about two parents trying to safely raise their daughter during times of war; hell, Watchmen is simply about a man trying to end the Cold War through any means possible. All of these stories present incredibly complex emotional scenarios that engage the reader, but they’re presented through a straightforward, relatable story. And Darth Vader is no different.
So far, this run is just about a man trying to discover how his son was hidden from him. The reader won’t be bogged down trying to connect the dots of each issue, or trying to figure out what multiverse a specific character came from. It’s easy to follow and immediately emotionally challenging. Even if you’re not a Star Wars fan, you should be able to understand what emotional state Darth Vader is in during this book (which takes place immediately after Empire Strikes Back), and why his search for answers is so engaging. This is a mere few moments after Vader had extended his hand to his forlorn son and was soundly rejected, so right from the get-go this story has high emotional stakes.
And because of the simplicity of the overall narrative, the emotional weight of Vader’s journey is that much more impactful. As Vader travels the galaxy searching for answers, he’s forced to confront his past (sometimes literally) and reconcile with the decisions he made. Each pit stop Vader makes ensures another piece of his old life as Anakin Skywalker is resurrected, and he can’t help but think about all he has lost in his pursuit of power. Throughout this simple journey, readers watch a man slowly break apart as he is faced with the destructive consequences of his life, and each issue is chalk full of exchanges and images that will make the reader feel everything Vader feels.
Speaking of visual imagery…
Crisp, Clean Page Layouts That Show A Mastery of the Medium
Modern comic fans and creators like to poke fun at the nine-panel grid of yesteryear, but there’s a reason it’s a staple of the medium — they’re clean, crisp, and efficient ways to move a scene along in a comic book. Pak and Ienco don’t employ any nine-panel grids in Darth Vader, but the foundational ideas behind these grids are at play in every issue.
Action sequences in this run are energetic and easy to follow, unlike other modern comics where readers either get lost in the chaos or don’t feel the intensity of the fight. The neatly arranged panels of Darth Vader give each and every encounter a very definitive sense of motion, allowing for each of Vader’s saber swings to be felt or for the rumble of a giant beast to be heard. More importantly, however, is how these page layouts allow Ienco and Pak to juxtapose timelines with one another and have greater control over the reader’s perception of Vader.
Since this run sees Vader revisiting so much of his past, many pages and panels feature quick flashbacks to Vader’s life as Anakin Skywalker. Rather than use multiple pages to show an old scene that would disrupt the flow of the story, Pak and Ienco instead place these flashback panels directly next to the action unfolding in real-time. This puts Vader’s inner thoughts (that dwell on the past, hence the flashbacks) at the forefront of the reader’s consciousness, allowing the reader to easily get into the mind of Vader and understand what he’s feeling. The reader better understands how painful otherwise mundane moments are for Vader because they’re presented with a visual representation of Vader’s thoughts right alongside his actions.
These well-structured pages allow Pak and Ienco to leverage their greatest strengths as comic book creators — the ability to control time. Whereas other comics have panels without established boundaries that bleed into each other allowing certain moments to almost coagulate, the crisp layouts in Darth Vader give each moment a definitive and controlled length. Ienco and Pak use this control to their advantage in the best way possible. Being able to control time allows the creators to force a reader to linger in a specific moment, whether to feel the emotional severity of a scene or to contemplate the actions of a character or to simply soak in the scenery.
There are numerous examples of Pak and Ienco controlling time in this book — either through the pace of a fight or for a lingering stare at a relic to convey more emotion — but the best example comes in Darth Vader #7. In this issue, Vader is back on Mustafar and he is crawling his way through the ruins of a Separatist mining facility when he comes face to face with the rotting corpse of Nute Gunray. It’s a surprisingly ghastly image for this franchise that would be memorable regardless, but the fact that three separate panels depict this corpse in the middle of the page forces readers to confront this gnarly image just as Vader must physically and emotionally confront this corpse.
Even as the reader moves to the next page, the image of Gunray’s decaying body lingers in the peripherals of the reader’s eye just as the slaughtering of the Separatist leaders lingers in Vader’s subconscious. So just as Vader can’t escape the weight of his past, the reader also can’t escape the ghostly ramifications of Vader’s actions. This is just one example of many masterful uses of page space and layout, but it’s the most powerful and memorable.
Not Overly Relying on Well Known Characters
One of the pitfalls of comics based on existing universes is the tendency to rely on well-known characters to carry the story forward. This isn’t always a bad thing, either — I mean, the main Star Wars comic has been fantastic since Marvel began publishing it in 2014 and it entirely relies on well-known characters. But sometimes relying on established characters can come at the cost of development, world-building, or earned empathy. So the fact that Darth Vader pulls from the depths of canonical character ranks to tell its story is just another reason why this series is so unbelievably good.
Obviously, I get the irony of praising this book for not relying on overused characters when it stars the most iconic villain of all time. Outside of Vader, though, Pak and Ienco choose to focus on characters who have little to no screen time in the greater Star Wars universe. This means readers have less expectations about what the characters should act like or do, so there’s more freedom for the creators to develop these characters and the story ends up feeling more fresh and original. Darth Vader is brimming with background characters from the films and entirely new characters that give this series a life of its own without relying on the star power of Luke Skywalker or Emperor Palpatine.
Using these virtually unknown characters also allows for more accessibility in the narrative, meaning readers don’t have to be die-hard fans to understand what’s happening. Sure, if you know who Sabe is, or why Ochi of Bestoon appearing is such a big deal, you’ll get a bit more enjoyment from this series. But there’s so little known about these characters as is that non-Star Wars fans will essentially be on the same footing as the die-hard fans when reading this book. I host a Star Wars podcast here at AIPT, and even I had to Google a character who was revealed in issue #7! So it doesn’t matter how much you know about the galaxy far, far away, the characters that Pak and Ienco choose to use allows them so much more freedom to carve out their own narrative so that any comic fan can enjoy this series.
A Story With A Purpose
A problem with mainstream comics, particularly superhero stories, is that the overall narratives can feel aimless or pointless because they’re beholden to never-ending legacies that have evolved over decades of publication. Any character growth ends up happening at an infinitesimal rate and the status quo is rarely upended much. So when a comic comes around with a very clear purpose, readers tend to take notice. And Darth Vader clearly has a purpose — to show readers when and where Darth Vader’s regression to Anakin Skywalker truly began.
In just these seven issues, there’s been more character growth for Darth Vader than there has been in an entire year of Spider-Man, Batman, Thor, or any other mainstream superhero comic (with the exception of Daredevil, which has been phenomenal, too). Vader is being physically and mentally challenged in the most grueling way possible, making it clear he will actually experience change and growth by the story’s end.
Simply put, it’s clear this series will follow Vader along the archetypal hero’s journey (or in this case, villain’s journey). He’s had his call to adventure (wanting to find out who hid his son from him); he has supernatural aid (the Force); he’s crossed into the unknown to begin his transformation with the help of a friend (encountering Sabe and searching for clues with her); he’s facing challenges along the way (Sabe ambushing him with the Amidalans and the Emperor finding out about his activities); now he’s reached the abyss, or the death and rebirth stage (Emperor torturing him and leaving him for dead on Mustafar).
Soon he will transform, atone for his actions, and return changed — and that change will lead perfectly into his reversal we see in Return of the Jedi. Sure, the structure of the story is easy to see coming, but it’s the substance of this particular story that gives it strength and purpose. Readers of Darth Vader know right from the start what this book is aiming to do for Darth Vader as a character, and that’s not something that happens all that often in modern comics.
As a die-hard fan, I often get asked if I’d enjoy certain comics, books, or games if they weren’t based on Star Wars — which is basically asking me if there’s actual substance to the content or if I am just blinded by the property it is attached to. And I think that’s a fair criticism; I often ask myself that same question. Unfortunately, sometimes the answer is no, and the fact that it is Star Wars makes a particular title seem better than it is (Jedi: Fallen Order, is the perfect example of this).
But with Darth Vader, I’ve been asking myself a completely different question: “If this wasn’t Star Wars, wouldn’t we be talking about this book as a possible Eisner winner and one of the best titles of 2020?” And the answer to that question is a resounding and emphatic, “yes.”
This series is simultaneously a masterful comic book and a deeply authentic Star Wars tale. It breaks the mold of both modern comics and licensed properties in a way that should be making massive waves within the comics and Star Wars communities. No over-complicated story of multiverses or time travel; no flashy or gimmicky artistic choices or page layouts; no fan-servicing cameos to distract readers from the story. Just an incredibly dialed-in, gorgeously rendered tale of a man exploring his most destructive moments — and it just happens to be set in the world of Star Wars.
Pick up the book and see for yourself. You’ll be blown away.
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