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

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. 


The Tragedy of Darth Vader’s Helmet

One of the earliest memories I can recall is that of a nightmare. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, but I remember like it was yesterday.  I was standing in a room surrounded by darkness when suddenly a pair of red flaming eyes appeared. As I approached these bloody lights a form started to appear around them, a skull-like shape, but it wasn’t a face, it was a helmet, it was his helmet. I remember waking up screaming and running to my parents’ room, when my mother asked me what was wrong I just said: “He was in my dreams, Darth Vader was in my dreams”.

Since that day, and until recently, the helmet of Darth Vader represented for me evil itself. But after seeing all of Clone Wars and Rebels, and reading tons of books and comics, my point of view changed, what once was a symbol of horror and cruelty, soon became the embodiment of tragedy, loss, and guilt. I believe that Darth Vader’s helmet is the perfect visual representation of Anakin’s journey into the dark side… and back.

Throughout the saga, Vader’s helmet fulfilled three main roles (other than helping him breathe), show Anakin’s transformation into the dark side, show Anakin’s guilt and regret, and show Anakin’s vulnerability (granted this is in situations when the mask is removed or damaged). Let’s see some examples. 

The first time the mask appears in the movies chronologically is near the end of Revenge of the Sith in the scene where Darth Vader’s armor is assembled. The last piece of the suit to be adjusted is the helmet, and just when the machines are putting it on Anakin we see a glimpse of his point of view: the eyes of the mask open up, almost like it’s come to life, and show red lenses that will forever change Vader’s point of view. One can even say this is the point the dark side completely clouds Anakin’s vision. 

Just after this moment, we see the mask settle into Anakin’s face and the headpiece being placed, this is the true birth of Vader, the final moment in his transformation. One of the reasons the coronation of the Lord of the Sith is so important is that this is the moment when Anakin lost his humanity. For many the face is the “most human” part of the body, it’s the part we concentrate the most on, it’s where the eyes are, the so-called windows to the soul. So the moment the mask is put on Anakin’s face, it’s hidden in a skull-like prison. What once was a symbol of humanity is now a symbol of death and tyranny. 

The animated series also has some key moments that show Vader’s helmet as the symbol of Anakin’s tragedy. At the end of The Clone Wars, when we see Darth Vader going through the wreckage Ahsoka left behind, there is a moment in which Vader looks into the sky, and if you watch very close, through the red lenses of the helmet, you can catch a glimpse of Anakin’s eye, filled with regret and guilt about the fall of Anakin and Ahsoka relationship. Later on, in Rebels, we see the reunion of these two, culminating in a duel. Vader’s helmet is damaged and once again we can see Anakin’s eye, this time showing both vulnerability and guilt. This is the last time they will ever be together and Vader/Anakin knows this, Vader took away any chance for Anakin and Ahsoka to be friends, brother and sister. Anakin sees this, and he sees it through the helmet, through the veil of the dark side, and for a moment he realizes everything he has lost. 

And this brings us to the original trilogy where we see some of the best uses of the helmet, or in most of these cases the absence of it. In The Empire Strikes Back we see the helmet being put on Anakin’s scarred head, this is the first moment we see Vader as a human, as someone who is not pure evil, it gives us a chance for redemption. 

Later in the movie, we see Luke having a vision where he sees his own face in Vader’s helmet. This is his worst nightmare, to become Vader, and this is represented through the helmet. Luke is afraid to be trapped in the same skull-shaped prison that his father is trapped in. 

And finally, there is the most iconic moment in which the helmet is involved. The redemption/death scene. In his last moments, Anakin asks Luke to remove his mask just so he can see Luke’s face with his own eyes. In a scene that makes a perfect parallel to Vader’s coronation, the helmet is removed and Darth Vader is no more. The prison is broken, the veil disappears, Anakin is finally free. 

And that is what everything is about. Ever since he was a little boy in Tatooine Anakin has been a slave, a prisoner, and the helmet brings that to life, it’s the symbol of his lack of freedom, the embodiment of Anakin’s tragedy. 

Anakin’s journey is one of my favorite stories ever, it’s the story of a little boy consumed by his fears and the way he is able to overcome them. The fact that we can see that journey represented by a weird piece of plastic encapsulates why I love Star Wars, because it brings so many ideas and themes to light in the strangest and most amazing ways.


Star Wars: The Failure of the Skywalkers

Key Gunray is the galaxy’s foremost expert (self-described) on Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. The following piece is based on his own findings and does not reflect the stances or opinions of this establishment.

ed. Sir Traagi Culo’uss

I am honored and humbled to be able to share my new findings here at The Bar’leth Journal of Antiquities. Being the foremost expert on such an elusive subject as Jedi Master Luke Skywalker typically means that my expertise is largely in the form of fun facts that breathe life and context into an essentially ubiquitous war hero. That prevalence is precisely why I felt the need to reach as many as possible with my recent findings, which I believe supply some context for his disappearance. 

Typically, I treat any recordings of Master Skywalker with great skepticism. In nearly three decades of chronicling his adventures, I have maybe seen minutes of footage, and own even less. A tip about the last Jedi Master in action was likely too good to be true, but with his recent disappearance, any information about him is especially important to uncover. While I do not believe the newly discovered footage will materialize any leads on his current whereabouts, it is an incredible artifact from the brief period where Luke Skywalker was the hero of the galaxy rather than the failure he would come to be.

The recovered footage is not time-stamped (it is also lacking any audio), but I believe the time frame can be reasonably gleaned from Skywalker’s physical appearance and the mission he appears to be accomplishing–that of reestablishing the Jedi Order by collecting force-sensitive children to train them in the ways of the force. My best guess is this would be somewhere around a decade into the New Republic, when he had time to be galavanting about, dragging children into his dormant religion.

By this period of time, the Master Jedi’s reputation had grown from war hero to galactic legend, whose feats (allegedly) included healing, seeing the future, and even creating black holes. At a certain point, the tales become ridiculous, but the point is clear: Luke Skywalker is one of the greatest heroes the galaxy has ever seen.

The reality, as demonstrated by this footage, is that the power Skywalker wields as a Jedi Master is more terrifying than it is inspiring–more destructive than sacred.

The ownership of said footage is currently under dispute by multiple owners. A brief description of its contents will follow. 

> An X-Wing docks. <

> Shortly thereafter, a cloaked figure is seen walking down a hallway. <

> A number of fourth-degree battle droids disengage from their previous task, targeting the approaching enemy. <

> The cloaked figure, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (identified by his green lightsaber and use of Force-derived powers), engages the droids in various formations and in varying numbers. He eliminates them all with stunning efficiency. <

End Description.

For many, the footage confirms more or less what one would expect of a Jedi Master, especially one of Skywalker’s caliber. This is the kind of adventure most would expect from him, a heroic last-minute save and a demonstration of his great power.

However, historian that I am, I’ve come to view the footage in a different light, namely the context of the Skywalker family and the galactic legacy to which Skywalker belongs as the son of Darth Vader. The event in question is particularly reminiscent of one particular battlefield tale of Lord Vader’s, at least as relayed by rebel soldiers, and has significance in its parallel action as well as historical context.

By way of a preface, although the following is almost certainly true, there is no material proof of it occurring. It is an old rebel legend, widely used in rebellion propaganda all the way through the end of the war, both to underscore the terror-struck by the figure of Vader alongside the heroism, tenacity, and perseverance of the average rebel soldier (including my good friend Greth Ewdard, noted survivor of the encounter). Nonetheless, the following is an approximation of what occurred and is not necessarily the exact truth of the matter.

The legend takes place over Scariff, just as the battle there closes. The rebels are escaping with the plans to the Death Star, unknowingly pursued by Vader. The carnage has been related to me many times, each iteration slightly different, but a few elements remain constant: the rebels are easily dispatched, Vader goes untouched throughout the engagement, he advances slowly, methodically, but perhaps most importantly, the effort turns out to be a great failure. Lord Vader displays his great mastery of the Force in much the same way his son Luke would around a decade later, but their respective missions result in markedly different outcomes. Luke’s adventure leads to the addition of a new student to his temple, whereas Vader’s culminates in what may well be his greatest disappointment as a military commander: the destruction of the first Death Star.

This, however, is where I must remind you of our own historical context, two decades removed from Skywalker’s great child hunt. His New Jedi Order was, indeed, a failure. As far as we know, the Jedi Master did not train a single Jedi to mastery, nor even to a point from which they could reasonably leave to continue their training alone, a fact often considered especially disappointing given the tragic storm that destroyed the temple structure itself.

It is possible, even likely, that Skywalker’s disappearance led to the First Order gaining the opportunity to grow in power enough to now wield a troubling amount of power throughout the galaxy (Senator Leia Organa, however, Skywalker’s twin sister, also has a hand in that, although that is perhaps a subject for another time).

Luke Skywalker, like his father before him, was impressive. He had proved himself time and again that he had everything it took to be a hero. Yet, he failed. The whole galaxy required his assistance, including his students and, ultimately, himself. But he failed, just like his father before him. The legacy of the Skywalker name is one of heroism across the Galaxy, but I hope that this understanding evolves through the coming years, with my expert assistance, of course. The more we bring history of this sort into the light, the better prepared we are to confront the horrors of the future—and the present.