You know the feeling. Sometimes it seems even to a Star Wars fan like there’s nothing new to explore. Too long until the next film. Too long since the last. TV series’ episodes are too short and you don’t feel like starting a book. Video games bring nothing new. Is there a medium you haven’t explored? Turns out that always, there is.
Graphic novels are not the first thing that occurs to most people when thinking about Star Wars. Yet there have always been some, however, truth be told, they never had been the center of attention and there probably was a reason for it. With the new era and the new canon, however, more graphic novels are being published all the time. This time, they are meant to 100% connect to the films, filling the gaps and telling untold tales about the original Star Wars characters. One of them is Darth Vader.
Initially, I managed to get my hands on the first two collected volumes of Darth Vader stories: Vader and Shadows and Secrets. The individual stories originally started coming out in 2015, later being compiled into several volumes, with the last one finishing in October 2016. Published by Marvel, the comics-book giant, one would already expect some quality. The team of Kieron Gillen (the writer) and Salvador Larroca (the penciller) certainly did a lot of hard work.
Darth Vader has been getting a lot of praise since the release of its first part. I consider myself a relative amateur when it comes to graphic novels, but even from the little insight I have, I must say that Darth Vader is graphically very well done. It probably is not the top of the tops for the ultimate comicbook enthusiasts, but the art is good, it captures the action very well, it is easy to follow (also for more “casual” audience) and evokes the right feel, complimenting the plot.
About the plot then – or rather about the atmosphere, first: the story may be a bit darker than what we are used to from Star Wars, but only in its tone. Certainly don’t expect hectolitres of blood or similar features. The darker tone stems simply from the fact that the central character is Vader, and his story is fairly dark. The tale is set between Episodes IV and V, which is the time when the Empire still rules with iron grip. There is hope, however, and the topic of Luke Skywalker certainly comes to the front at some point. Indeed, if you have ever wondered how much did Vader know about Luke before The Empire Strikes Back, here is a story for you.
Vader is not the only protagonist, however. The other important character (equally important, at least throughout large part of the story) appears fairly soon and she is going to be with us (and with Vader) until the end of the tale. She is Doctor Aphra, an archaeologist and tech expert. The immediate association with Indiana Jones is not out of place. Aphra is a conscious nod to another of George Lucas’s famous characters. She is a freelancer, operating mostly outside the law, and that is exactly the kind of person Vader needs now. After Battle of Yavin, he finds himself falling out of the Emperor’s favour. He needs to gather his own resources to protect himself from being ousted by power-hungry rivals: admirals, officers, scientist experts who share the recently rising trend claiming that the Force is obsolete and technology (even with the failure of the first Death Star) is the way forward.
All the characters in the story, including minor ones, have pretty well-rounded personalities. Or they are at least entertaining, which is the case of the two droids who join Vader’s team at the same time as Aphra, the murderistic duo of Triple Zero and Beetee (“Blastomech” BT-1 droid). They are effectively an evil take on C-3PO and R2-D2, and an obvious callback to famous Legends assassin droids such as HK-47. They are fun, especially if you like the murderous jokes, and in any case, compliment Dr. Aphra and Vader nicely.
The graphic novel manages to capture in a very convincing manner the characters’ hidden emotions and inner struggles. The end of the first volume, when Vader learns some fundamental truths, is one of the best things I have read in a while. Occasional hints to the prequel trilogy are also emotionally powerful, for example the case of Vader visiting Geonosis (and doctor Aphra asking him whether he’s ever been on that planet before). Such moments also form a nice bridge between Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, the bridge between old and new trilogy which most fans have so far missed.
The tale flows fast and seamlessly and keeps you interested. It is very well possible to just sit down and read the whole thing at once (if you aren’t in a rush). I assume most of the readers start to feel the same way as I did: start sympathising with Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra, wishing them success, not the least because their enemies are just disgusting, arrogant or slimy. A way to make one root for the Imperials – or at least for some of them. Despite not being sure what to make of her in the beginning, I learned to like Doctor Aphra, most of all with the glimpse of her past we get during her visit of a physician on Naboo in the second volume.
Summa summarum: the graphic novel handles Darth Vader perfectly, keeping him in-character and what more, keeping him at the same time in-character as former Anakin Skywalker, which is no mean feat. The supporting characters are interesting in their own way, or at least amusing. In any case there is nothing worth complaining about except for maybe some ridiculous cyborg designs among Vader’s rivals (for myself, I just ignored those). The story does not disrupt the film canon and indeed does what it should be doing: expanding on it. The themes (the Force vs. technology, the growing tension between Vader and the Emperor, Vader) are well in line with what we know from the original films. There are many places where the reader knows more than the characters and the story intentionally plays on it, but it isn’t overplayed.
Darth Vader is a must-read if you like any one of those: Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, the Skywalker family, witty scoundrel heroines, murderous droids, plotting inside the Empire and criminal underworld in Star Wars. And for the rest… it’s a graphic novel. That means you can take it and read it during a boring journey on the bus, train or plane, or just on a lazy afternoon.