All Too Easy: How Kieron Gillen Cracked the Darth Vader Code

Kevin takes a look back at Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader!

Darth Vader comics should not work. It’s easy to forget this right now, as Marvel currently publishes its third consecutive well-received volume of a Darth Vader ongoing – not counting multiple miniseries – but they shouldn’t. Dark Horse gave it many tries over the years, from countless dedicated stories in Star Wars Tales and Empire to a series of Vader-focused miniseries, all of which were entirely, aggressively fine. ‘Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows’, ‘Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin’, ‘Darth Vader and the Lost Command’; if you weren’t reading Star Wars comics at the time then you’ve probably never heard of any of these and frankly, you’re not missing much. You could read worse Star Wars comics – but you could also read much better ones. 

This sheer overwhelming averageness was not the fault of the writers involved. It’s really baked into the premise of a Darth Vader comic itself. Yes, Anakin Skywalker is probably the most popular character in his universe, but he’s also the one whose every life-changing moment has been most fully documented onscreen. We’ve watched his youthful dreams, his friendships, his fall, and his redemption. We know he cannot undergo much development or growth except what’s been seen already, so there’s nowhere to take him. And beyond that, Vader makes a lousy ‘point-of-view’ character: he is famously taciturn and has no friends with whom to break his silences or share his thoughts. Worse still in a visual medium like comics, his famous mask also makes it impossible for him to convey emotions that way either. This brings us back to where we started: Darth Vader comics should not work.

The fact that they do is down to Kieron Gillen, whose 25-issue run on Darth Vader from 2015 – 2016 represents one of the all-time pinnacles of Star Wars in comic form.  

Vader’s Voice: “You may dispense with the pleasantries, Commander.” 

The first thing Gillen gets right – the thing that bedeviled those Dark Horse comics and has tripped up other writers too – is the voice. And, just as importantly, the importance of using that voice sparsely. Despite being a near-constant presence on the page, Gillen’s Vader is never at any point the most loquacious character in a scene. He communicates almost exclusively in sharp, imperious bursts with just-slightly archaic language lacking contractions. The main exception is the Dark Lord’s well-documented penchant for hammy one-liners – an area where writers can easily err too far in the direction of either omission or exaggeration. Not so Gillen. “Your slowness is most aggravating,” he lectures a Rebel cell who think they have ambushed him; it’s just right for a character who famously couldn’t resist offering a dinner invitation to the Rebels he had entrapped. 

The ability to easily imagine James Earl Jones thundering his way through every line is necessary for a great Vader comic, but it’s not sufficient. After all, if your Vader is suitably untalkative, then you need someone else to carry the brunt of the dialogue – and that is where the run really takes off.

Vader’s Supporting Cast: “We would be honored if you would join us”

It is impossible to suitably summarize the broader effects of Doctor Aphra within the confines of this article. Others have written much more eloquently about what this rogue space archaeologist means for representation as both a woman of color and perhaps the most prominent queer character in the Star Wars galaxy. Brilliantly conceived, brilliantly written, and the only comics-original character to have sustained her own ongoing, – for almost sixty issues and counting! – Aphra is indisputably the biggest contribution to Star Wars made by this series, and probably by all canonical comics. But what if we strip away all of that, and focus exclusively on her contributions to these twenty-five issues alone? 

Even in this limited context, Aphra represents a carefully crafted masterstroke. Her compulsive over-sharing is a perfect complement to Vader’s imposing silence while her nervous humor prevents an antagonist-focused series from ever getting too dark. Except of course when it very deliberately doesn’t, as in one memorable scene where Aphra hands over an innocent retired doctor to torture and certain death, because she is after all a villain too, just one whose crimes are born more of self-preservation than glee or power-lust. The character’s sheer unpredictability allows her to shine every moment she’s on the page, while her rapport with Vader is never less than utterly compelling.

The same balance is struck by Aphra’s quite literal partners-in-crime, the delightful Triple Zero and BT, affectionately known as the Murder-Bots. These twisted and sadistic parodies of C-3PO and R2-D2 are kept just frightening enough to prevent them from becoming pure farce, and comedic enough that we can almost forgive the atrocities they commit – or more often and to their intense frustration, futilely dream of committing. 

This inspired posse of supporting characters make up a fundamental element of how Gillen transcends the limitations of Vader books past, carefully compensating for the limitations of his protagonist while highlighting his strengths. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive element of this balance is the underlying sense of dread that characterizes the characters’ relationships from the moment Vader first threatens to take Aphra’s life in her initial appearance. The certainty that our ‘hero’ not only can but will ultimately kill Aphra is vital to the reader suspending their disbelief that he would put up with her in the first place; the way in which this plot thread reaches its inexorable conclusion in the final issue is a highlight of the entire volume.

Vader’s Quest: “I will deal with them myself.”

The protagonist’s voice is note-perfect; the supporting cast is inspired. But that still leaves the major problem of, well, the plot, and more importantly, the character journey that goes with it. This is the single problem that has most bedeviled almost every non-film Vader story.  It’s not difficult to tell a story about Darth Vader doing cool things, but when every important stage of the character’s journey has been seen on screen, it’s very hard to tell a story in which Darth Vader experiences change in some meaningful way.

Gillen’s solution is a simple and elegant one. He avoids the most obvious routes of either telling a consequence-free adventure tale (most favored by Dark Horse) or relying heavily on flashbacks and parallels with the more innocent Anakin of the prequels (beloved of the Soule and Pak runs that have followed). Instead, Gillen finds his story in the cracks between those that have already been told.  Vader spends A New Hope as a lackey and ends it spinning off into space in disgrace; he begins The Empire Strikes Back as the unchallenged master of all he surveys, pursuing his own agenda with near-impunity. Gillen highlights this, and asks: Why? What happened? And how did it change him?

It is the answer to that question that gives Gillen both his story and the central journey Vader undertakes under his pen. We know Vader cannot permanently defeat our Rebel heroes in this period, yet we also know that he must have proven himself in some way that enabled him to turn disaster into personal triumph. Gillen fills the void by providing two new antagonists for the book, once again carefully calibrated to provide distinctive challenges. One, Doctor Cylo, is a Gillen invention who highlights Vader’s struggle with his machine side; the other, General Tagge, is a pre-existing minor character from the films who challenges his status in the imperial hierarchy. Following his demotion after the Death Star debacle, Vader is required to go rogue to overcome the pair, cleverly allowing Gillen to believably place him in the uncharacteristic position of underdog even in an inter-imperial power struggle.  

In this way, Gillen crafts a plot which places Vader in a context in which we have never seen him in the Star Wars movies, yet one which emerges as the entirely logical product of the choices made within those movies. The result seems simultaneously obvious and ingenious; of course something like this must have happened, but of course the reader had never thought of it before now. In this way, the series ultimately functions like Star Wars media such as Rogue One or The Clone Wars at their best, shading in new layers of depth around images and stories we previously thought already completed. 

Wrap-Up: “Your skills are complete.” 

There are many other successful elements of this book that could be discussed at great length. Salvador Larocca’s artistic strength in presenting inorganic material rather than human expression finds a more than suitable match here, for example, while the interactions between this book and the Star Wars title under Jason Aaron are a model in well-constructed comic book intertextuality. Yet when reflecting on the many levels on which this series succeeds, it is its fundamental improbability to which I find myself returning again and again.  

Because one more time: Darth Vader comics should not work. It was Kieron Gillen who changed that, and in so doing created the formula which has been adopted by Charles Soule and Greg Pak on their subsequent Vader ongoings. It was Kieron Gillen who made it so that readers would forget the fact that Darth Vader comics should not work, that the character should be too static, too taciturn, too visually inscrutable to thrive in this medium. He cracked the code not by ignoring the limitations of his subject matter but by tackling them head-on, and blending the pre-existing universe he found with his own innovative additions. In so doing, Gillen produced not only the first great Darth Vader comic, but perhaps the greatest Star Wars comic run of all time. 

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