Sunday, October 05, 2014

Let's check in with our old pal Darth Vader

Gabriel Guzman
The most popular, the most talked-about and, I'm willing to bet, the most successful Darth Vader story by a comic book artist of the year is going to end up being Jeffrey Brown's rather darling Good Night, Darth Vader, a children's book in the spirit and style of his cartoon collections Vader and Son and Vader's Little Princess.

But what, I wondered the other day, does Darth Vader do when he's not reading bedtime stories to his two little rebel rascals? I ordered a handful of collections of Dark Horse miniseries whose titles began with the words "Darth Vader" to find out, and in short order three hardcovers of rather recent vintage all appeared. Two of these were written by Tim Siedell, the other by Haden Blackman (the latter of whom wrote another Darth Vader miniseries that did not yet arrive).

All three were set during the time between the end of Episode III and the beginning of Episode IV (or, as I used to call it, "Star Wars"), and all three were well-written, well-drawn and served as perfectly distinct and complete unto themselves stories. It didn't seem to matter which order I read them in, as they didn't continue storylines from one volume to the next, and each of them was perfectly accessible on its own. I note this only because the Star Wars "Expanded Universe" is such a daunting place; these comics that Dark Horse publishes all come with an elaborate timeline with various symbols to let you know which era of fictional history they're set in.

Perhaps if I strayed farther from the stuff that was in the movies, I would get lost, but if one knows even just the most basic of basics about one of pop culture's most famous villains—he was a basically good guy who turned into an evil facist half-robot space wizard before recovering enough of his former goodness to die in an attempt to atone for his career as the galaxy's worst villain—then one knows more than enough to navigate these stories.

In addition to the aforementioned commonalities, all three are character studies of the title character. There are seemingly big, epic events in each, but they are events Vader moves through, events that are used to throw the character in sharp relief. The big, formative events in his life are the ones that occurred on the big screen in the movies. These are instead little essays on his character, two of the three told through point-of-view characters wrestling with what to make of Vader, the other following him at some remove.

What was striking about his comics portrayal is, first and foremost, just how powerful Comic Book Vader is vs. Movie Vader. Not only can this Vader leap and flip about in ways that the poor guy stuffed in the plastic suit couldn't, especially not in the pre-CGI days of the first trilogy, but his use of the Force is powerful enough that he can create force fields, throw ships and boulders and huge trees about and, in one neat scene, part a stampede of monsters the size of dinosaurs.

In the movies, he just used the Force to wave away a couple of Han Solo's laser blasts, throw some space junk at Luke and occasionally choke British character actors (actually, there's a scene where he Force-chokes a guy in one of these stories, and the victim is hauled several feet up into the air in the process, as if yanked up by an invisible noose).

I don't know if this is simply because the budget-less nature of comic book special effects allows Vader to be portrayed as more spectacularly awesome and powerful, or if there's some sort of power inflation inherent in serial comic books that allows him to get more and more powerful the more comics he appears in (the way it works with superheroes, basically) or if there's some in-story rationale, like the fact that Vader was most powerful and skilled in the ways of the Force coming right out of the Clone Wars, and he got weaker as he aged (Similar to the way Obi-Wan Kenobi was a total bad-ass when he was young enough to be played by Ewan McGregor, but by the time he was old enough to be played by Sir Alec Guinness, he wasn't able to do much more than sneak around and engage in half-assed fencing).

At any rate, the Darth Vader that appears in these comics is like the Darth Vader that likely existed in the imaginations of little kids playing Star Wars in the 1980s.

It was additionally interesting to see that movie costume integrated into the all-drawn environments of the comic books, particularly since the settings of these have more in common with the brighter, shinier, faker-looking prequel trilogy than the more run-down, beat-up and lived-in settings of the original trilogy of films. In some cases, Vader seems particularly foreign as a visual element within the stories, a drawing of a movie costume guest-starring in a comic book.

Granted, there are awesome elements about that costume that translate well—the shadow the big, vaguely samurai-shaped helmet casts, the billowing black cape, the red laser sword, the all-black garb that makes him pop when standing before crowds of soldiers clad in all-white armor—but several others that don't, particularly the almost goofy-looking face and the quilted-looking, padded armor (One story, however, makes pretty good use of the frozen, expressionless nature of the face mask which, unlike so many other masks in comics, betrays no emotion whatsoever; at least with, say, Dr. Doom you can see the pupils of his eyes through the eye-holes, and hints of his mouth).

The most surprising of the three books I read was probably Star Wars: Darth Vader and The Ghost Prison, the one written by Haden Blackman, which featured rather nuanced, dimly-lit, painterly artwork by Agustin Alessio (It's not a style I generally gravitate towards, but works well here, given the character and the milieu's cinematic origins).

This is one of the Vader stories told through a point-of-view character, in this case a promising young graduate of the Empire's officer training program named Laurita Thom. He and his entire class are on Coruscant to celebrate their graduation and their first assignments (These would be the guys in gray uniforms and matching hats of the sort that Vader would choke in the movies, and who would have small, background roles answering space-phones or telling Stormtroopers to look for the heroes over there or something).

Their instructor at the academy, a charismatic leader with a different point-of-view on how the Empire should be run from that of The Emperor, who attempts to stage a violent coup, one that badly injures Emperor Palpatine, and leaves only a handful of his most loyal followers to protect him while he heals. These include our hero protagonist Thom, Vader and some guy named Moff Trachta, who, like Vader, has lots of robot parts.

Together the trio must find a secret and secure place to treat the Emperor's wounds, and somehow rally a force powerful enough to take back Coruscant before the coup can grow too wide. The answer is the one in the title, an oddly, I want to say uncharacteristically topical and political locale, the Jedi's version of Guantanamo Bay.

Apparently during the Clone Wars, the Jedi erected a "ghost prison" in which to house their opponents who were too dangerous or too powerful to be dealt with by the Republic's traditional justice system. "Dooku recruits cyborgs and mind readers, shape shifters and trained assassins," Space Sam Jackson says in a security recording discussing their Space Guantanamo. "Even Force wielders. The Republic security forces can't contain such threats. That duty falls to us."

"When this conflict ends, bring these criminals to trial we will," Yoda tells Ewan McGregor, who is uncomfortable with an off-the-books black site space gulag. "But while war rages, in our care they must remain."

The equivalency of The Jedi with the Bush administration is, here, pretty uncomfortable, and it's strange to see then-Jedi Anakin Skywalker, a mass-murderer who the Jedi Council wouldn't tell about the prison, arguing for transparency and justice. Hell, when Vader damns the Jedi for their secret actions, it's kind of hard not to take the evil space dictator/warlock's side of the argument.

"Always remember what you have heard here," Vader tells Thom. "The Jedi believed in shades of gray... when there is only what benefits The Empire, and what does not"

Change "what benefits The Empire, and what does not" to "right and wrong," and you've got a compelling argument, although I'm not sure who is more wrong in this case, the Jedi council or Vader.

There's little point in trying to suss out a political or moral judgement on real world events from the story, though, as it seems Blackman looked to Guantanamo more as inspiration for a plot point then as something to weigh in on in this Star Wars miniseries.

The bad guys go to the Ghost Prison, where they either kill or press-gang all the prisoners, and then return with their new army of even badder guys to fight the other bad guys.

There are no shades of gray in this story, just shades of black, and the blackest of them all comes out on top. Even more than the other two, this miniseries connects the various versions of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader into a single character, but it's through Thom's eyes we see him, as a powerful, ruthless model of an efficient force serving the empire, one that is, ultimately, too ruthless to be emulated by anyone who would dare do so.

Tim Siedell's Star Wars: Darth Vader and The Ninth Assassin, which features the work of two pencil artists and four inkers, is a much more straightforward (and more shallow), action adventure sort of story, although it too is basically a bad guy vs. bad guy story, with the main focus of the story essentially being to demonstrate what an incredible bad-ass Darth Vader is.

So there's this guy who wasn't real keen on the whole Galactic Empire taking over everything, whose son Vader killed (Although, to be fair to Vader, the guy's son was in the midst of trying to laser gun down one of Kit Fisto's people in the middle of some kind business meeting, and Vader just light saber-ed the laser blast back at the shooter).

He would go to any length, pay any price (and good Lord does he ever pay a high price!) to get revenge on Vader. He's already hired eight assassins, and is now in the midst of hiring a ninth. Hence, ...and The Ninth Assassin.

To do so, he plans to draw Vader to him, and there is some elaborate, conspiratorial shenanigans involving an assassination attempt on The Emperor and a semi-mystical Cult of The Headless Snake. (Quick question: They have snakes in Star Wars...? Well, that's a dumb question, I know they have 'em in the Dagobah system, still it seems weird to hear reference to a normal Earth animal, instead of something with a funny, made-up name).

And so Vader searches for the Emperor's would-be assassin, while an assassin stalks him, which fills a good 100 pages or so of nasty bad guys being nasty and demonstrations of bad-assery in the superhero comic tradition of this one guy being able to, like, kill 20 guys between panels then getting his ass kicked by another guy.

This is what the ninth assassin looks like:
I like how he looks like a sort of off-brand Vader, like he was maybe one of the early sketches that the costume designers for the first Star Wars came up with when working on Vader's costume.

Siedell's Vader is, in this book, a little sassy, even sarcastic, and it's fun to imagine some of his lines as spoken with James Earl Jones' gravitas through his respirator. He also pulls a Batman at one point, disappearing mid-conversation with two of those red guys who guard The Emperor to jump out of his spaceship while it is in space.

The artwork in this book is much more traditionally comic book-y, which would be a good thing, although the change in artists is rather jarring. There are some pretty strong designs in it, particularly the new humanoid characters, like the assassin, his handler and his employer, but the creatures that menace Vader and friends in the later parts of the book are a little less than inspired.

Still, if you want to read about Vader out bad-assing an ultimate bad-ass, this is a pretty fun, fleet read.

And that brings us to Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows the Clone Wars-iest of the three. This one is also written by Siedell, an features excellent artwork by Gabriel Guzman.

The protagonist, and point-of-view character, is one of the clone troopers from the Clone Wars, who developed a hatred of the Jedi when he got shot in the face and fell off a transport, landing in the desert of whatever planet he was fighting on (To be fair to the Jedi, it would not be unreasonable to think the guy shot in the face and fell out of the ship was dead, although I don't know, can't they sense that stuff?).

He survived, and, after some soul-searching and hard-living, he gave himself the name "Hock" and ultimately rejoined the army of the Republic which, by that time, was now the army of the Empire. He heard tales of Vader, and came to respect the storied warriors strength and ruthlessness and fighting prowess. Oh, and the fact that Vader hated the Jedi as much as he did sure helped.

This then is another story about Vader that is the story of another character. Hock is a bold, even audacious Stormtrooper (although they're still wearing their older, Clone War-style helmets in this), one who's not above breaking the neck of his commanding officer when he realizes his commanding officer is being dumb. During a series of dramatic battles during a campaign against a doomed-to-defeat but nevertheless stubbornly defiant rebellion on that planet.

Eventually circumstances allow Hock to meet the rebel leaders up close and personal, and up close and personally as he sees Vader, whose actions on the ground in the battle includes some child-killing and, at the climax, cutting down an infirmary full of wounded who would rather stand up against Vader and get cut down then kneel before him.
I wonder: Did he kill more children as a Jedi Knight or as a Sith Lord...?
Siedell plays the ending rather equivocally, with Hock's narration telling us he can't remember what exactly he said to Vader to try and stop him from killing all the defiant wounded, and, when Vader pauses after Hock's desperate little speech, he's not sure if he's considering Hock's words, or deciding whether to kill him before proceeding to light saber all the others, or to kill him afterwards (this is the story which makes note of Vader's completely inscrutable face) and, on the final pages, whether Vader comes back to haunt Hock in person, or if it's simply Hock's fear that he one day will that scares him into silence.

Cry is maybe the best of these three, if only because it finds a balance between the virtues of the other two, having the point-of-view character and outside-looking-in character study of Vader that Ghost Prison offered, and the more comic book-y, drawn-looking art and Vader-being-a-bad-ass of Ninth Assassin.

But really, there's not a bad book in the bunch, provided you have at least a modicum of interest in the character to begin with. And I should know; a modicum is the exact amount of interest I have in Darth Vader.

Oh, and Cry also features this image:
I don't know why, exactly, but the sight of Darth Vader with an R2-D2-like astromech-droid riding in his ship really excited me. I know the Empire would eventually do away with astromechs—you don't see 'em in any TIE fighters in the original trilogy, even if the Republic used them in the prequel trilogy—but I really like the thought of an evil, black-colored R2-D2 working with Darth Vader as he flies around the galaxy, slaying Jedi survivors and putting down rebellions. This being Star Wars, I imagine that droid has a name, a Wookiepedai entry and maybe even a trilogy of prose novels written about him.

1 comment:

Benjamin McDowell said...

He had one.