Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing Darth Vader 21, originally released June 8th, 2015.
Taylor: One of the things film geeks have come to appreciate about Episode IV is the way George Lucas incorporated techniques pioneered by Japanese director and genius Akira Kurosawa into his movie. In particular, Lucas draws from Kurosawa’s most famous film, the Seven Samurai, which was eventually remade for American audiences as the Magnificent Seven. That Star Wars would be so closely related to a film about cowboys shouldn’t come as a surprise. In many ways, Luke and Han are heroic space cowboys fighting the their way across the open plains of the universe, battling against those who would oppress their freedom. Darth Vader 21 returns Star Wars to this western and in so doing cleverly inverts my assumptions about the motif in fun and new ways.
Vader is on his way to find and kill Cylo, but first he dispatches Triple-Zero and Beetee to the Cosmatanic Steppes to capture Dr. Aphra. They are successful in their usual way (lots of killing and shooting) and force Aphra to surrender. Vader is similarly successful in his pursuits. He finds Cylo hiding out in a Nebula and launches his attack. After crash landing on/in Cylo’s space-whale ship, he is confronted by another cybernetic monstrosity.
The western motif was apparent to me the first time I picked up this issue. They say you can never judge a book by its cover, but that old adage doesn’t quite hold true with comics. Often times the cover is foreboding, showing what might happen within the issue’s pages. Darth Vader artist Salvador Larroca and colorist Edgar Delgado do a wonderful job of creating an image that not only portends what will happen in this particular issue, but also the western motif of which I speak.
The saloon doors in the background are an unmistakable icon of the old west. We all are familiar with scenes from movies and TV shows where a lone and mysterious rider enters a saloon and everyone hushes up, waiting for trouble. The same concept applies here because Triple-Zero and Beetee are not only mysterious, they are terrifying. What I like about these saloon doors is that they aren’t actually even in issue itself. True, Aphra is in a bar, but the doorway is covered with beads, not shutters. Delgado and Larroca’s use of the doors, then, is all about style as opposed to narrative, but it’s a wonderful choice since, as is seen later in the issue, the motif of cowboys and the old west predominates this issue.
An example of this theme being played out comes when the scene pictured on the cover actually takes place in the book. Aphra has been drinking away her anxiety about being found by Vader in the Outer Rim when Triple-Zero and Beetee show up. A gun fight ensues with Aphra and the bartender just barely escaping a quick death.
As they do this, they jump over the counter in the bar and then return fire. Just like that, a shootout in the saloon has erupted. As I hinted at earlier, this is exactly the same type of action I could find in any number of Clint Eastwood movies. Along the same vein, Aphra, like many a character in Spaghetti Westerns, is a troubled soul trying to escape her past out west. The only difference is that Aphra’s West is the universe and the freedom she’s trying to gain is from the Empire. Still, even though the trappings are different, the story is almost exactly the same. In writing a story this way, Kieron Gillen has not only referenced one of America’s favorite movie genres, but also the original trilogy as well. Gillen is too inventive of a writer, however, to have Aphra walk away the sole victor of this battle. Instead, he inverts my expectation of how the shootout will end by having Aphra surrender instead of walking away the victor or dying heroically.
In similar fashion, Kieron references the tropes of Western movies in Vader’s storyline. As he attacks Cylo’s space whales, it becomes apparent to Vader that his quarry is about to escape. Despite what his wingmen say, Vader isn’t about to let Cylo escape. He crash lands his TIE fighter on Cylo’s ship just as it enters hyperspace to ensure his quarry doesn’t escape.
With his terse disposition and feats of amazing skill, Vader is very similar to the lone gunman who saves the local town from bandits. Just like the Man With No Name from the Dollars Trilogy, Vader is a solitary figure who works alone and is misunderstood by society. He has questionable ethics but he undeniably is fit for getting the job done, usually through violence. This brings me back to the Seven Samurai. In that movie you have a small group of noble samurai who stand up against countless bandits to protect the innocent. While Vader is similar to these men in that he’s going up against impossible odds, the motivations and forces behind his actions are completely different. Instead of standing up for the weak, Vader is asserting the will of those already in power. In setting up this conflict, Gillen references prime source material for A New Hope while at the same twisting that reference to almost unrecognizable lengths. In short, this issue is at once referential and completely unique.
Patrick: Taylor, I really like that idea that Gillen is taking things we recognize and then twisting them until they’re almost something else entirely. Those space whales are a pretty stellar example of this: obviously, we recognize a whale when we see one – even if it is 10,000 times the size of an Earth-ocean-bound whale. These whales are outfitted with enormous, Star Destroyer-sized cybernetics, effectively turning them into living battle stations. We’ve seen a lot of robotics imitating animals in Star Wars (we playfully refer to AT-STs as “chicken walkers”), but I think this might be the first example of the opposite of that. It’s similar to the concept of the Death Star — that’s no moon it’s a spacestation — but much more upsetting and biological. Naturally, this also makes for an uncomfortable reference to both Cylo and Darth Vader’s own mix of biology and cybernetics. The name of the game here is the natural world intruded upon by robotics. That’s not only consistent with some of the themes this series has been expressing lately, but it also makes for one hell of an icky image:
This actually drives me to another point that I wanted to make – Gillen and Larroca are increasingly focused on making sure Triple-Zero is frightening. In previous issues, the droid’s enthusiasm for draining human beings of their blood has been played for laughs (albeit, pretty dark laughs), but we aren’t afforded quite that distance anymore. Part of the reason for that development is that Dr. Aphra has more or less emerged as the genuine, vulnerable hero of the series and Triple-Zero has turned his focus to either capturing or killing her. But Larroca also knows that it’s time to start treating Triple-Zero like a legit monster, and that means keeping him out of his more threatening panels. We’ve talked about the incongruity of Triple-Zero’s appearance — he looks like the series’ ultimate wimp, C-3PO — and his murder-mania. Check out the scene where he threatens to murder an old Twi’lek for information on Aphra’s whereabouts.
For the sake of clarity, he’s in that second panel, but Larroca smartly withholds him from the rest of the page, even when he’s talking. In some ways, Larroca is playing a sub-game within the western genre motif Taylor identified above, and he’s turning Triple-Zero into one of those unstoppable slasher villains. He just keeps advancing, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop him. It helps that he has an army (and Beetee!), but Triple-Zero’s maniacal devotion to his mission is just unsettling. My favorite set of panels in the issue drive home the sheer, unrelenting power of his adherence to his own directive.
The first three panels here are seemingly from the exact same angle, the camera just dollied over a few yards. Aphra and the bartender have to duck and take cover from all the blaster bolts flying through the air, but this fucking psychopath just keeps walking. By the fourth panel, we can see that not even the loss of an arm dulls his commitment to either bringing Aphra in or killing her. That’s scary shit.
(What’s up with protocol droids losing their arms? I get that it’s kind of a running gag at this point, but I believe this is the second time we’ve seen Triple-Zero lose that arm, and Threepio’s been disassembled a number of times.)
One last point I wanted to raise: this is also an excellent issue for colorist Edgar Delgado. This series is usually stuck trading in blacks, blues, greys and browns, but both of these stories offer Delgado some more dynamic environments to imbue with vibrant pinks and greens. That nebula that Cylo is hiding out in is just straight up gorgeous and puts all the action on a dynamic canvas. It’s exciting to see that, even as the creative team steers into the finale, they’re still finding new tones and environments for the same psychologically rich storytelling.
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