by Michael DeLaney and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Michael: The transition from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels was anything but seamless. By the end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin sure looks and sounds like Darth Vader but it’s clear that he’s still the irrational Hayden Christensen manchild underneath that black armor. With their new Darth Vader series, Charles Soule and Guiseppe Camuncoli hope to give us a more satisfying bridge between Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader than the prequels.
Perhaps the most jarring moment of the entire Star Wars prequels comes at the end of Revenge of the Sith when Darth Vader — one of the most intimidating figures in pop culture — lets out an embarrassingly desperate “NOOOOOO!” upon hearing of his wife Padme’s death. Darth Vader 1 doesn’t shy away from this cringe-worthy scene, but instead leans into it.
Camuncoli uses the language of the medium to breakdown the mere seconds of disbelief Vader experiences into four separate panels that show his internal reaction before he utters that same thought out loud in a force eruption that sends Palpatine flying into the wall. This is a bit of revisionist history on the artist’s part, as originally Palps stood motionless as Vader unleashed his sobbing wail. Letterer Joe Caramagna also polishes up some of George Lucas’ mistakes by taking that echoing “NOOOO!” and turning it into a short and powerful declaration of defiance — no exclamation point in sight.
I’d wager that these opening pages are a kind of mission statement for the new Darth Vader series as a whole: taking the events of the prequels as a flexible canon that can be bent a little to be taken more seriously. Lucas envisioned the reborn Darth Vader breaking free from his chains — and for some reason learning to walk — like the tragic Frankenstein’s monster. In contrast, the Vader we see here is an insolent child who’s tired of being lied to by his “father.”
Palpatine goes on to give Vader a lesson in Sith lightsaber construction: the crimson glow of a Sith lightsaber is the product of the pain and hate put into it by its bearer. This is such a simple and novel concept that combines the mysticism of The Force with the evil of the Sith. No over-complicated manipulation of midi-chlorians, just the basic marriage of the literal and the metaphorical that Lucas originally intended in Star Wars.
This new myth of the Sith lightsaber that Soule has crafted is an excellent “first mission” for the newly-minted Darth Vader. In order to solidify his place as Palpatine’s right hand, Vader must hunt down a surviving Jedi — because there’s always a few of those running around — and relieve him of his lightsaber so he can pour some good ‘ol fashioned pain into it.
Before he can do that, however, he must track down a vessel that was stolen from him. Any appearance of Darth Vader in the original trilogy — and Rogue One — elicits terror on behalf of those in his presence. As far as I can tell, Vader had yet to publicly present himself in his frightening robotic Samurai glory. When he confronts the group of thieves that stole his ship they aren’t conditioned with that innate fear. More than anything, they seem confused at the arrival of what looks like a droid who is wielding The Force. I’m sure it won’t be long before Vader’s terrifying legend spreads and grows throughout the galaxy. Though that means that he’ll have to leave someone alive to tell the tale.
Patrick, what did you think of this new Darth Vader series? Does it hold up to the previous series Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca? Any particular thoughts on the early days of the Galactic Empire? Did the propaganda and lies being told about the “Separatist Jedi” remind you of Secret Empire and/or our current political climate?
Patrick: I’ve actually been thinking the last couple months that I should revisit the prequels now that we’re living through populism’s inevitable transition to fascism. The difference between Palpatine and Trump is that the Emperor had a plan once he got power, Trump simply scammed his way into power, and now sits in the highest office without any conceivable agenda beyond self preservation. If there’s one place in this issue that does really ring true to the politics of now, it’s the Emperor bemoaning the lawlessness of the universe when he discovers Vader’s shuttle has been stolen. Just like when Trump insists that he’s an advocate for the “rule of law,” he’s really only concerned with what happens when crime happens to him (see his selective condemnation of “leaks”). The evidence for this comes a few pages later when Vader acts like Judge fucking Dredd and murders the dudes who stole his
car shuttle. That’s not the rule of law — that’s further lawlessness.
It is kind of amazing to see another Darth Vader series on the stands so shortly after Gillen and Larroca’s run, but Michael’s totally right to point out how both the characterization of the man and the series are completely different. That opening scene is probably the strongest point of contrast, which not only re-characterizes Anakin, but literally rewrites Revenge of the Sith. It’s not just an artistic flourish either, Palpatine responds to Vader’s outburst with a web of force lightning, and a warning not to touch him with the force ever again.
Camuncoli makes a meal of the religious imagery here, so let’s do the same. Vader’s essentially experiencing a baptism-by-lightning in these panels, bringing him into a genuflecting posture. It’s also impossible not to be reminded of the lightning attack that kills Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. That’s another example of Camuncoli leveraging the source material against the reader — we see birth and death in the same instant, a full tour of the sacraments. From there, it’s only a minor pivot to Palpatine knighting Vader with a red lightsaber. In one beat, Camuncoli and Soule invoke god, death and duty — it’s some masterfully efficient storytelling.
But for everything that is different about this series, I have to appreciate the ways Soule sticks close to the OT and Gillen’s characterization of the Sith Lord. When Palpatine abandons Vader on a nameless desert planet, Darth Vader goes into procedural mode, focusing on the “hows” rather than the “whys.”
Hell, these panels even leave out the “what” — we’ve got no idea what optical settings Vader is flipping through here, or how those settings help him find his ship. There’s no handy heads-up display and anything like that – for all we can tell, Vader’s just discovering the buttons to change the tint on his sunglasses. Letterer Joe Caramagna insists on differentiating this sounds with various sizes and colors of “KLK” sound effects. We can’t draw strong emotional or narrative conclusions from this moment, but we are settling into Anakin’s perspective, as evidenced by the constant return to his POV. This is understated in the best possible way — Vader is becoming a tool of the Emperor, and it’s that same impotence that we will see him rage against in the first issue of Gillen and Larroca’s series.
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