Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Lost Command

I quite quickly became fascinated with the very concept of Darth Vader as a comic book leading man while reading this collection of one of Dark Horse's millions of Star Wars branded miniseries. So much of the character's most appealing traits, so many of his signifiers, so many of the things that make us think "Darth Vader" and, if you're like me, "cool," are aural rather than visual—The deep, golden voice echoing in the helmet, the unnerving breathing noises that sound like an intensive care ward, the theme song—that I was curious to see how the character worked in a purely visual medium like comics.

Certainly there are cool visual elements to the character design as well, including the cape, the all-black costume that threw him in such sharp contrast when flanked by his all-white henchmen and the occasional gray-uniformed bureaucrats and flunkies and his imposing size, but none of that stuff seems as important to me as the way Darth Vader sounds, or the way a Star Wars movie sounds when he enters a room.

Then there's the mask-face, which is even more fixed and frozen than the Doctor Doom mask that allegedly inspired it; Doom's human eyes can at least always be seen glaring through the little square windows in his iron mask, but Vader's face has no more emotion than a plastic action figure of the character. He simply cannot emote visually, and it was up to James Earl Jones' voice acting and the guy inside's gestures and poses to convey anything about what might be going through the character's mind.

So here he is starring in a comic book, which has no sound save what the writer and letter can suggest through occasional sound effects (And here writer W. Haden Blackman and letterer Michael Heisler eschew trying to simulate Darth's breathing, reserving sound effects only for typical comic book occasions; that is, there are WHAMs and BOOOOMs and KER-RACKs for punches, explosions and hull-breachings), and in which his face, gestures and poses will do all the emoting for him, save what the reader can get out of Blackman's dialogue for him.

Rick Leonardi, who penciled the book, and Dan Green, were certainly up for the challenge, and the book held not only my interest but also that initial fascination I mentioned. There are all kinds of images of Darth Vader moving and acting in ways that seem fairly alien to the image of the character I'm most familiar with (the one in the first three Star Wars movies, seen scores of times a piece; I've read a handful of Star Wars comics before, although their number and complexity frighten me from reading too many in the same way that X-Men and Legion of Super-Hero comics have frightened me, but this is the first I've read in which Vader was so prominently featured). The image at the top of the post is a good example. That's Vader leaping into battle from a flying troop ship, although, taken out of context, he could just as easily be skipping, dancing, or tripping.

I love the simplicity of his face; two circles for eyes, a small circle for a nose—which makes him seem a bit like an old-school, 1920s or '30s cartoon character, one of those species unspecified animal men that The Animaniacs spoofed—and a mouth that looks like the cow-catcher on an old-timey train. Darth Vader's face is practically an emoticon.

Leonardi and Green do manage to wring emotion from it though. Context is usually used to tell us what he must be thinking or feeling, but most action scenes merely have him making the above face, and thinking and feeling whatever Darth Vader's mask must think and feel.

Some scenes tilt his head, so that the rim of helmet seems to form an angry eyebrow line, eclipsing a chunk of the wide eyes to make an angry face (Cover artist Michael Kutsche achieves something similar, although his photorealistic art is such more emotionless than Leonardi's pencil and pen creation, which can achieve a degree of animation). A similar effect is achieved by lighting him from below (a standard filmmaking trick).

The artists also use the medium in ways that late-seventies, early-eighties filmmaking couldn't (at least, not very easily), having their Vader's cape not only flutter dramatically, but occasionally flare up, like raised bat-wings, or whip behind him. Even simple tricks, like a single motion line and careful positioning can suggest a powerful, active Darth Vader unknown from the films, by suggesting he has leapt superhuman distances.

Blackman makes it easy on his artists in several ways. This series is apparently set directly after the conclusion of Revenge of The Sith (that's the last one they made, although it's technically supposed to be part 3, if Star Wars isn't your thing), and so Natalie Portman's character is still fresh in his mind (which becomes a plot point near the climax), and so there are many memory and dream scenes in which Vader appears as his human, un-masked self. There are several scenes in which he's shown out of costume to various degrees as well, and the climax involves him getting banged around so badly his mask and helmet come off, revealing a character that looks like someone Frank Miller might have drawn in a Sin City strip.

The story involves the son of Grand Moff Tarkin (one of my favorite three-word phrases), who has gone missing. Two feuding search parties are formed—one lead by Vader, and another by Tarkin's kid's pal and they are forced to work together (Helpfully, Vader's Storm Troopers wear white, the Imperial officer douchebag's wear black). This leads to a bunch of action scenes, as Vader and company fight and kill a whole bunch of folks while closing in on their prey. There's some more personal, character-driven stuff—this is meant to tell of how Vader came to give up on the happy memories of Natalie Portman and embrace the dark side more fully, and how he ingratiated himself to The Emperor with his cunning and ruthlessness and power—and it's all quite ably communicated, but, as was the case when I was eight, all I really want to see out of Star Wars is laser-swords and laser guns, space ships and monsters.

The artwork is great throughout. Colored by Wes Dzioba, it's all very comic book-y, with a degree of chunkiness and flatness, and an almost tossed-off quality to many of the panels and the thick, black lines that compose them. In contrast to many of the Star Wars comics I've seen, this didn't look overly fussed-over, and, it may be worth noting, that perhaps because of its setting in the fantasy time-line, it's full of humans and occasional droids, but no crazy aliens, the palette is white and blue and gray and black, and the vehicles and machinery all have a lived-in, down-to-earth feel about them. This is the galaxy far, far away as it appeared in the the first trilogy, a galaxy that looked like you could probably find it somewhere in the continental United States.

I'm not sure if this book would be of any interest to those with no interest in Star Wars—it's hard to say for me at this point, but I think it functions as a complete enough unit that even someone with no prior knowledge or experience would be able to follow it, but if you have no interest in Star Wars, then I suppose even seeing how Leonardi draws that emoticon-mask in a comic book story won't exactly be enough to draw you into picking this up. But it's perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with it, and the artwork is top-notch and, to my amateur's eye, even better than much of what you can find in the many other Dark Horse minis.

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