I didn’t follow the old Star Wars expanded universe. I knew just enough about the characters and events of the legions of books and comics to recognize when something was being eluded to on The Clone Wars, but I never actually read any of the adventures of Jaina and Jacen Solo or Cade Skywalker, or Jaxxon. So when Disney (who I have still not entirely forgiven for the unjust, early cancellation of the aforementioned Clone Wars) acquired the rights to Star Wars and stripped the old expanded universe of the sacred label of canon, I couldn’t have cared less. And I certainly couldn’t understand the fervor of EU fans when all those novels and comics were downgraded.
With the recent conclusion of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca’s Darth Vader comic book, I’m beginning to empathize.
Set firmly in place in the new Disney Star Wars cannon, the Marvel Comics Darth Vader series takes place between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and finds the iconic Sith Lord taking his lumps for allowing the Death Star to be destroyed. Over the course of 25 issues the book details how Vader went from spinning out of control in a TIE fighter to standing authoritatively on the bridge of a pimped-out Super Star Destroyer.
That isn’t a series of events that I ever had an overwhelming need to know about, which I feel can be the downfall of the EU. Just because there isn’t a canonical accounting of any lapse in time between any two events in Star Wars doesn’t mean there needs to be. But Gillen and Larroca fill in the blanks so well that I’ll likely never watch Empire the same way.
Gillen and Larroca give us a Vader that hasn’t truly been seen since Empire Strikes Back. Their Darth Vader isn’t a tragic, fallen war hero. He’s an unadulterated force of nature. After the prequels and Clone Wars and even Return of the Jedi, we know so much about Darth Vader that at times it can be hard to remember he’s a villain. Not an anti-hero, mind you. A straight up bad guy who does and has done terrible things. This is the Vader we get in the Marvel comic books. He’s intimidating, mysterious and frightening.
More impressive still is the fact that Gillen and Larroca were able to sustain that depiction of Darth Vader through 25 issues of storytelling without diluting or overdoing it. They preset Darth Vader as if he is the shark in Jaws, or Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.
Their story never lapses into tragic flashbacks or dopey internal monologues. You can surmise what Darth Vader might be thinking at any given moment, but you never know for sure, and the character becomes all the more fascinating for it. The writing and art around the thoughts we aren’t privy to is so good that it almost feels like the whole series was written with thought bubbles that were erased before publication. The amount of pathos, contempt, rage and satisfaction Larroca is able to elicit from the same iconic, emotionless mask is absolutely staggering. It borders on a super power. Not enough can be said about Larroca, who did the art on every single issue of the series month after month, consistently turning out inspired work.
Gillen and Larroca’s Darth Vader book is one of the best Star Wars stories I’ve come across. It’s the kind of story that can make a believer out of someone who previously rolled their eyes at fans squabbling over the contradictory scraps of the expanded universe. Well, maybe not a believer, but someone who makes an effort to turn away from the squabbling before rolling their eyes.
Stories like Gillen and Larroca’s Darth Vader are the reason expanded universes thrive.
As a side note, if you’re hankering for more old school, villainous AF Darth Vader, be sure to check out Star Wars Rebels, where James Earl Jones reprises the role.