Today, Michael and Patrick are discussing Darth Vader, originally released August 5th, 2015.
Michael: At my old age of 27, I must admit that I have gotten a little curmudgeonly – especially where pop culture is concerned. I’ve seen so many different iterations of ideas and tropes that sometimes it’s hard to tell if something is cliché or if I’ve just put myself in a position to see the same story 10 billion times. Darth Vader 8 took all of my predictions and suppositions and knocked them flat on their ass. And this pleases me.
Last issue Vader, lifted a hefty amount of credits from the Son-tuul Pride; Darth Vader 8 gives us the story of how Doctor Aphra steals it all back. Along with Triple Zero and BT-1, Aphra hires bounty hunters Bossk, Beebox, IG-90 and Black Krrsantan (“Santy”). The team tracks the Star Destroyer carrying the loot and fakes an asteroid field disaster in order to get aboard the ship, steal the credits and leave without being detected. Due to complications, some of the credits were “lost” and Aphra’s team leaves with less of a payday than expected. Shortly after they leave…PSYCH! Aphra and Santy hoarded the majority of the score for themselves/Vader. Vader has now amassed his own droid army and small fortune, but he still has to deal with the chain of command problems on his hands. Grand General Tagge has assigned a new detail to Vader – Inspector Thanoth, who suspects foul play in the Empire’s loss of the Son-tuul fortune.
As I mentioned, Darth Vader 8 took me by surprise. At the end of the previous issue I was entirely ready to watch what I anticipated was the beginning of Aphra’s downfall. I had completely bought into the idea that Aphra had gotten greedy and decided to use her inside information from Vader, leading to her stealing the credits and ultimately leading to Vader force-choking the hell out of her. But no, that’s not what happened at all! Like the bounty hunters, Aphra duped me! Darth Vader 8 is basically Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca giving us an awesome Star Wars/Ocean’s Eleven mash-up. Marvel’s new Star Wars titles give us the opportunity to read genre fiction set in our familiar galaxy far, far away.
I think a heist set in the Star Wars universe is just a fun idea to begin with, and one that begs to be pulled off by bounty hunter scum (I only wish that Dengar was in attendance.) Bossk is the only bounty hunter from The Empire Strikes Back present, but Larroca wisely gives the remaining three bounty hunters familiar resemblances to tug on our nostalgia strings. The bounty hunters steal the humorous spotlight from Darth Vader regulars BT-1 and Triple Zero. The constant visual gag of the book is Beebox, who for all intents and purposes is a pint-sized Boba Fett. My favorite line of dialogue in this issue comes from IG-90 who warns Aphra that she better not have betrayed them, saying “Statement: you can’t hide from the bounty hunters.” Just the inclusion of the article “the” made this sentence so implausibly silly to me. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but if you take “the” out of that phrase it’s just a threat. Calling their collective group “The Bounty Hunters” kind of reiterates the point that these guys are not the best of the best… and kind of pathetic.
Eight chapters in and Gillen gives us an issue of Darth Vader whose title character is missing for nearly half of the page count. I think there’s a 50% success rate in that kind of gamble for a book like this (especially because I personally wasn’t completely sold on the whole “Team Vader” concept) but I’d go ahead and argue that this bet paid off. Gillen knows that it’s absolutely essential that you leave a character like Darth Vader out of the madcap space heist; it’d be as out of character as Batman shooting Joker square in the face. Once Vader does step onto the scene however, the book takes a huge tonal shift. It’s almost like we go from action/adventure movie to legal procedure. The whole notion of a “disgraced Vader” is so simultaneously brilliant and obvious, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. Having suits like Tagge tell Vader what to do is a lot of fun to watch because you know that deep inside that Vader brain of his he’s slaughtering everyone in that room like they’re a tribe of Tuskens.
I think it has more to do with our own personal projection and reading of a scene, but it’s fascinating how you can still read the emotions on Vader’s non-moving face. In the realm of comics I think that this has been achieved in a couple of different ways. Larroca conveys Vader lying or even being a little afraid when he casts the majority of his helmet in shadow – including his “teeth.” This happens a couple of times in this issue: when he tells Aphra he might help Santy get revenge, when confronted with Tagge’s allusion to the Son-tuul fortune being stolen and when he realizes that Tanoth is on his trail. I think that it takes a hell of an artist to give us insight into the mind of a guy whose “face” never moves.
Patrick! Did you enjoy the balanced whimsy and tension of this issue as much as I did? What do you make of these “Plasma Devils?” At first I thought that was Tagge’s new name for the Emperor’s cyborg pets. Any particular comments on the heist or Vader’s loosening grasp on his place in the Imperial hierarchy? Ready? Go!
Patrick: Poor Vader: dude never really has any control over the Imperial hierarchy. If he did, he wouldn’t have to choke dudes to death in meetings, or embezzle/steal billions of credits to do what would very well be his job if only he were more reliable. In a weird way, this series is almost Darth Vader’s Breaking Bad: the main character finds himself unable to prosper within the established power structure and turns to a life of crime to get what he wants / needs. You wouldn’t think that a villainous character would need to sneak around to be evil, but it’s a genius move by Gillen to but him at-odds with his own Empire on an administrative level. It’s so delightfully petty, but it’s also so horrifically relateable. That scene where Tagge assigns Vader the Case of the Missing Son-Tuul Fortune is beautifully intense, and neither Gillen nor Larroca let on whether or not Tagge knows to suspect Darth Vader. But that’s also so hauntingly familiar from my own experiences trying to get away with something. If you could just swap Vader out for a teenage me and Tagge out for any of my junior high school teachers, the scene would likely play out the same way, which really speaks to Vader’s impotence in this organization.
But it also says a lot about his desperation, too. I know seeing too much Vader feels like spoiling a magic trick to some readers, but I’m finding the insights into his character fascinating. What’s more is that the more we learn about him — even as we see him being scolded by his boss — makes him seem more threatening. Michael mentioned that it makes sense not to put Vader in the goofy heist because that doesn’t fit his character, but it is interesting to consider his role in the heist after the fact. He may not have been there personally blowing up the asteroid or cutting into the side of the ship or whatever, but he’s intimately involved regardless. Gillen allows us to get a read on Vader’s ambitions and the risks he’s willing to take without even having the guy in the scene or talking about him. That’s some masterful shit, right there.
The heist itself is awesomely cinematic, and throughout the issue, Larroca employs pages of long, narrow horizontal panels, imitating the wide movie screen. The series is always really good about letting action sequences speak for themselves, often passing by with very little copy to assist in clarifying the action. I’m sure this has always been the case, but I was struck by how little this series uses sound effects. I mean, we watch an asteroid explode into thousands of inconvenient pieces, and there’s literally nothing. That may be because they’re in space, and logically, there wouldn’t be any sound in space, but the rule holds true when our bounty hunters are within the artificial atmosphere of the Star Destroyer.
I can’t really begin to guess who’s decision that is, but it may go back to editor Jordan B. White. With very few exceptions, the other series have been void of sound effects as well. Perhaps this is to bring the reader’s experience more inline with the experience of watching Star Wars — wherein you’re see the word “KABOOOOOM” appear on the screen. I’m always fascinated by those visual storytelling tricks that try to emulate the feelings of other mediums — that may be part of why I’m enjoying Star Wars so much — and it’s cool to see Larroca adopting the language of heist cinema in order to tell the first half of this story. I love the motion of the camera implied by these two panels.
The upside-down panel is fun enough in it’s own right, but the fact that our eyes need to travel down to both zoom in on the action and orient the characters properly makes this feel like we’re using the fluid camera physics of Gravity or Interstellar. But it’s also got an almost aggressive amount of continuity between shots at radically different angles, channeling Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino.
And yes, sometimes my criticism of Darth Vader does sometimes turn in to listing/alluding to some of the best film directors in the world – Larroca’s just that good.
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