The original Darth Vader series, written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado, was part of the initial launch of Marvel’s return to Star Wars comics in 2015. After it ended over a year and a half later, October 2016, its epic story of betrayal, Sith machinations, and surprisingly well-laden doses of dark humor ensured it would live on in the hearts of fans new and old for years to come. Chris and I sat down to ruminate on the now classic series, which you can read below, discussing some of its various components that have led to its undeniable legacy in Star Wars comics as a whole.
Needless to say, there are spoilers for the entire series below.
Q: Do you think having the same creative team helped or would you have liked to see some variety?
Chris: I wanted to start with the brilliance of a single creative team. A lot of the discussion around Darth Vader as a whole was the fact that the artist and the writer never changed throughout the series. You don’t really see that a lot: as DC pushes out a ton of Rebirth titles a month, some books switch artist literally every other issue. With Vader’s finale, we never saw a change in the art style. I think, for the most part, this was a huge benefit for Vader, for a few reasons.
First of all, it allowed for a hugely consistent story. Threads that Gillen laid in the first arc laid the groundwork not only for that arc, but for the entirety of the series. As the series progressed and as details continued to build upon previous details, the series gained a lot more weight. No moments were truly thrown away because we knew that we would see them again at some point. This made Darth Vader’s plot an incredible tapestry of betrayal, treason, secrets, and death and destruction that has yet to be matched in a series of this type before.
Secondly, I think it helped every arc feel like part of the same story. I say this in comparison to Jason Aaron’s mostly good Star Wars main title. With each new arc (and Obi-Wan Journal entry), we’ve seen new artists come alongside Aaron. This has been a little jarring, at least for me. The first arc’s over-reliance on stills from the films was replaced by an almost too cartoony replacement in the “Last Flight of the Harbinger.” What should be an all-out horror fest with the SCAR Squadron is somewhat marred by over exaggerated drawing. The cartoonish style also makes some scenes, which might make sense in a film or cartoon, seem too out there: When Han and Leia chase each other down the bridge of the Harbinger, it’s an already risky scene, as the seriousness of Leia from the movies seems lost while the sexual tension that shouldn’t be present for years takes center stage. The creative team doubles that risk with over exaggerated humans “performing” these scenes. By having the same artist for every arc in Vader though, things like cybernetically enhanced Rancors, Boba Fett, Admirals, Star Destroyers, all felt consistent and they felt like they belonged together. The Shu-Torun arc felt like it belonged in the series as much as the initial arc, or Vader Down. Nothing felt too out of place, and I definitely think having the same artist helped that a lot. In the same way, this made Vader Down seem like less of an event, and more of just another arc in the series. We’ll return to this point, but that may be the only downside to having one creative team (We can argue whether Mike Deodato doing art for Star Wars’ parts of Vader Down was enough to differentiate it!).
Ryan: I think you hit it all really hard on the head, Chris. As much as I was curious to see what other writers might do with Vader or some of the new secondary characters introduced in the series, we got a little taste of that in the Star Wars series. My itch for someone else to handle parts of the story got scratched and also told me one thing: no one but Kieron Gillen deserved to be behind the Vader series. Aaron did a great enough job with Doctor Aphra, both in her bit parts in the Vader Down crossover and her extended stay in the awesome women-led beatdown of the “Rebel Jail” arc, but Vader never really got the focus and introspective treatment Gillen was giving him even if there was a chance by Aaron to do so. Gillen just seemed to understand Vader, to the point he, “…always describe(s) myself as lying in bed and thinking about ways Darth Vader can kill people,” (via IGN) while he showed the big bombastic nature of the character could still survive in the smaller, quiet moments. Subtly was afforded to Gillen and he took full advantage of it as his vision never wavered or had to accommodate someone else’s.
And we were certainly blessed to have Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado. Much like you said Chris, even things like cyberanimated Rancors to Dr. Cylo’s Whale Ships, his replacement creations, and normal SW things like Boba Fett and Star Destroyers meshed under their artwork. Breaking it up like the Star Wars series does with artists could’ve led to jarring inconsistencies, as I’m in total agreement the “Harbinger” arc just looks off, giving it a different tone than the story. Plus, as much as Gillen’s writing was important to the series’ portrayal of the character, Larroca’s ability to capture and pose Vader to get as much across as the writing (if not more so sometimes) was truly spectacular. It couldn’t have been easy to have to draw that suit of armor for every issue, but he rose to the challenge and made it look so damn good.
Q: Vader was explicitly made as a bridge between ANH and ESB for the eponymous character: how do you see ESB differently now?
Ryan: There are several things that I feel a little differently about now in ESB after reading Vader, but one of them actually concerns how first Return of the Jedi changed ESB for me and how Vader completes it. In RoTJ, it’s very clear the Emperor presents himself as fairly prescient, to the point I always felt like little could escape him. Once I felt that way about Palpatine, I always wondered why Vader would even try to hide his search for Luke, or even recruit Luke to his side, if the Emperor was just going to find out about it anyways. In the start of Vader’s final arc, “End of Games,” Palpatine essentially admits he isn’t as prescient as he’d like to have his apprentice think, since he had a preplanned victory speech to whomever would come out on top in Vader’s fight with Dr. Cylo’s replacements. Now I understand, besides the simple ‘I’m a Sith, I must kill my Master anyways’ stuff, Vader knows he can get away with things because everything he does is not all under the Emperor’s purview. In fact, the Emperor wouldn’t have known half of what Vader had accomplished on his own had Aphra not spilled the beans in the first place. In a way, Vader was like a dog on a leash who had yet to realize the leash didn’t really exist and seeing the moment he realized he was ‘free’ changed how I viewed Vader’s actions in ESB.
Also, there’s a lot more going on under the surface for Vader in his brief chat with the Emperor in ESB. Of course it wasn’t until he revealed to Luke that he was the young lad’s father that his obsession for finding the growing Jedi made sense, but the comics got to cover the big moment when Vader learned that truth himself (compounding the lies he’s learned Palpatine has kept all these years). The scene where he learns he has a son is what I would consider to be one of the series’ most iconic shots and moments, as it really sets the stage for his actions to come in the following movie. This affects his conversation with Palpatine in ESB, as it explains how he’s able to keep his cool when Palpatine drops what should be the surprising news (Anakin had a son) because not only does he already know, but he’s had a year or two now to dampen any response to such news (unlike his transparisteel cracking anger when he first learned). I now imagine somewhere under his mask he’s smirking, comfortable in the knowledge he’s outsmarted his Master, while it only emboldens his efforts to track down and capture Luke. And while Vader’s suggestion to Palpatine about turning Luke to their side is a clever way to mask his true intentions to turn the boy for his own purposes, he knows that if he doesn’t successfully turn his son, Palpatine will use Luke to replace him much like he already tried with Cylo’s abominations.
Chris: Absolutely – there is no denying that Vader on the bridge, his anger having cracked the transparisteel in front of him, will live as one of the most iconic scenes in all of Star Wars canon! Incredible. But I love the way you put that: the leash wasn’t long, it just didn’t exist. Seeing that Luke was alive was a huge push for Vader to step back a bit from Palpatine and really start to imagine a rebellion against him all his own. I think for a long time, Vader was mostly content learning under Palpatine because everything that he had was gone. We see a little tension between them on Ryloth (as seen in Lords of the Sith) when the Free Ryloth campaign took down his Star Destroyer, but not nearly enough to make us think that Vader would ever turn on Palpatine. Vader had, so he thought, nothing to live for: Obi-Wan had effectively weaponized Padmé against him, and in that, he lost his children. No longer: he has a son. It obviously started to cause Vader to second-guess why he’s under Palpatine anyway, if Palpatine really had nothing on him but lies.
I love a lot of your points, Ryan, and I think you said some things better than I would have. This might be a bad interpretation, but I thought it gave the “I am your father” scene a bit more of an anxious edge. Vader had just killed Palpatine’s would be replacements. For a lot of them, when he is finally free to kill them, it was no contest. When Palpatine played them against each other politically, Vader couldn’t do much. I can’t imagine he would want to be in that situation again, so knowing he has a son he hopes that he can find an apprentice of his own sooner rather than later. Look at the grandiose plans he sets in front of Luke right away: ruling together as father and son! I wouldn’t say that Vader is worried when Luke turns down his offer, but I can’t imagine Vader liked being in that sort of situation again. I think Vader has every right to see himself as the victim of everyone else’s political machinations, so he might have even saw Luke as an escape. Then the heartbreak: the son he just discovered, a link to Padmé, is taken away from him as soon as he gains it. I think all of this, his desire to be free of Palpatine’s games, and to reconnect with Padmé in doing so, would explain very well why he tried a last ditch effort to telepathically communicate with Luke on the Falcon in one of the final scenes from Empire Strikes Back.
Q: Was there anything else you would have liked to see from any of the characters?
Chris: I wanted to see more of Aiolin. I felt like, out of all of Cylo’s creations, she was the most interesting to me. For a while, she seemed to work as part of a pair with her brother, Morit. This changed on Shu-Torun when she came to Vader to turn on her brother. She was worried that she would be destroyed in his aspirations for more power, so she begged Vader to train her to be able to defend him. Now, the series did not have the time to devote to her, but the time spent was well-done enough that she had a convincing story with a strong emotional arc. It sucked to see her die! But given a few more issues, I would have loved to see more of her mind-set. If they knew that they were trained by Cylo in an effort to defeat Vader, what did the twins think of him? Did they see his power firsthand in such a way that they ever doubted their mission? Why would Aiolin turn to him rather than against him? Would she have followed the ways of the Sith and killed him after using him for his power? The series rightfully spent its time with Dr. Aphra and Vader, but I think seeing Aiolin somewhere else would be cool.
Ryan: Aiolin had more potential than what was allowed, for sure. Those are all really good questions when it comes to her as well, as each one speaks to more that could have been done with her character. In fact, most of those questions, especially the ones about how the twins felt in regards to Vader, could be applied to any of Cylo’s creations. They all got a brief moment to speak their peace on why they felt they could bring down Vader, but it always felt too short or slightly underdeveloped.
The character I wanted to have more of, despite her getting a full, well-written arc, was Queen Trios. “The Shu-Toran War” arc was hit or miss at times, but she was the most consistent aspect in my opinion, and her rise to power (starting with Vader and the murderbots cleaning out her house in the series’ only Annual issue) and learning to rule with an iron fist so that the Empire would never need to return was a pleasant surprise. I have two things I would’ve like to see more of with Trios: in a way you could’ve looked at Vader forging Trios into a better ruler as an amalgam of how he might’ve done the same with Padmé if she had joined him/he defeated Obi-Wan and the Emperor to become the Empire’s ruler; the other thing is I would’ve liked a quick little check-in with Trios to see how her rule was going before the series ended, even if it was just a one or two panel hologram chat with Vader.
Q: How did you feel about Dr. Cylo and his creations as the ‘primary’ antagonists?
Ryan: Overall my thoughts on Cylo might be a little mixed, but I really appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed Cylo’s dichotomy: on one hand, he essentially gave life to Vader, creating the suit that would host the Sith Lord ala Dr. Frankenstein, while on the other hand he was trying to craft the perfect weapon to destroy what he created. But his work was so good, as he liked to boast a lot, that he had already crafted his best creation and each one following it would be a pale imitation of what had come before. One could say the same thing happened to him as he transferred his consciousness from body to body, losing a little bit of himself each time as he became more science than man. And Cylo’s adherence and belief in science could never comprehend the final ingredient that truly made Vader special: the Force. But having Vader fight science, when everyone considers him to be more machine than man, and having him triumph was a great way of showing he’s still a man in that suit somewhere.
Cylo and his creations (Morit, Aiolin, Karbin, Tulon) all functioned well as ‘weekly enemies’ for Vader to face, as they never caused his power to be diminished in the eyes of the readers. As you stated earlier Chris, politics (like the watchful eye of Grand General Tagge or Inspector Thanoth) prevented Vader from outright attacking them, which made it understandable that each creation lived as long as they did. But the moment he was free to dispatch of them, he easily dealt with them, only serving to make Vader seem even more powerful and deadly than we’ve ever really seen before. And for Cylo, having multiple bodies (and the kill-switch to Vader’s suit) helped make his continued existence seem more palpable, as he could die at Vader’s hands several times if need be, therefore also not diminishing Vader’s power, but could still be a threat when he returned. It was a fun take on the comic trope where characters never really seem to die for long, but since they were all going up against Vader there’s no question he’d ensure they’d become Deader than Dead.
Chris: When we first see Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi, Ben says that Darth Vader has become “more machine than man”. Would he still say that if he knew who Dr. Cylo was? I think this question makes Cylo one of the best opponents Vader could have faced in this series. Legends comics were mostly focused on Vader hunting down Jedi in a rabid search for Kenobi. While these were never bad stories, they always portrayed the same Vader: hungry for revenge and out for blood. We never saw the nuances of his character outside of a few scenes in Dark Times. I attribute this mostly to the fact that the Jedi, as antagonists, don’t have the same amount of comparisons and contrasting points as Cylo and Vader do.
It’s as you said, Ryan: the Force in Vader is what connected him to his humanity in a way that Cylo would never know. The real crux of the series was to show, in which ways and to what extent, Vader might still have a connection to his physical body and the Force. Though Vader’s body was more mechanical than flesh, Cylo could remove and replace his mind in any body that he wanted to. Cylo in a way tried to circumvent his lost humanity by developing a sort of scientific means of using the Force. Vader was quick to point out that this was illegitimate and inferior to his use of the real Force. Vader, being rebuilt after being newly rechristened as a Sith Lord, probably already had a distaste toward science over the use of the Force. He even warned the Empire before: the Death Star, and the power to destroy a planet, was insignificant next to the power of the Force. Though Vader was right, he was blamed for the failure of the Empire’s greatest weapon. I think it was seeing the destruction of the Death Star, and the failure of science, that fueled Vader to never stand down to Cylo or his mechanized monstrosities. It was also, even unsaid, possibly something in his mind as he overcame Cylo’s shut down of his mechanical parts.
In seeing the Emperor’s trust in Cylo’s machines, maybe even over the Force as he builds a second Death Star, Vader would be much more tempted and excited to find an apprentice of his own and train him to overtake Palpatine. Cylo might have been perfect in that he was able to show us how much of Vader was still human (but not Anakin! Not at this point), but also a great way to drive a wedge between Vader and Sheev.
Ryan: I really liked how you approached this question, Chris. I found myself concerned more about how Cylo worked as a comic book villain in regards to the conventions of the medium and less about how he functioned from a storytelling standpoint. In particular, your point Cylo actually helps drive a wedge between Vader and Sheev due to the latter’s continual use of science after Vader has shown its insignificance next to the Force was my favorite and really represents the genius of Cylo as both villain and storytelling device.
Q: What are you thoughts regarding the Vader Down crossover event?
Chris: Vader Down was, in thought, supposed to be an incredible event tying together the mainline Star Wars series with the ongoing Darth Vader series. In a sense, this was a Star Wars version of the massive events that seem to come up yearly, even bi-yearly, in the Marvel universe. These Marvel universe events tie together the entire universe, matching up characters who may never have a chance to meet again, like obscure Inhumans and the Champions. At first, I thought that an event like this was a strange move for the Star Wars editors. The series had already been weaving in and out of each other’s series, so much so that arcs took place at the same time and showcased the same events!
The difference was that this crossover would literally come out after a one-shot kicked the event off, while the rest of the crossover was not a separate title. Instead, part 2 would happen in one of the two series, and the next part in the other series. This led to a lot of fun new opportunities: Gillen was able to write Leia and Han (and a bit of Luke, but not a lot), while Aaron was given the chance to write Aphra and the Murderbots. This was definitely one of the more fun aspects of the series. While both Aaron and Gillen wrote Vader before, original characters from both series didn’t appear in the other. Aaron ended up being able to write a fantastic Aphra and Gillen could explore the darker side of Leia.
Thankfully, the crossover tied in with Darth Vader’s series quite a bit. Darth Vader goes ham on the Rebel soldiers, killing them in all sorts of delightfully gruesome ways. As time goes on, Darth Vader comes face to face with Karbin, a monstrosity with a Mon Cal head on something akin to General Grievous’ body. At the end of the series, Darth Vader had taken out yet another potential adversary. The crossover was a huge opportunity to push Vader’s series forward. In terms of the continuing narrative of Gillen’s series, it felt like a natural third part.
As much as the crossover managed to contribute to Darth Vader’s story, I’m not sure that the story managed to tie in with the mainline Star Wars series much. We did get a peek into Luke’s training, and his connection with the Force, but so much was wasted! Vrogas Vos introduced a broken down Jedi Temple, something that seemed ripe for exploration. As the canon explores temples on Jedha, Ach-To, Devaron, Coruscant, and hints at others, it would have been a great time to explore another; especially after Luke had spent so much time on Nar Shaddaa because he was trying to find a smuggler to get him to the main Jedi Temple on Coruscant! Whereas it felt like a great part three for Vader’s series, Aaron’s story seems to be going along fine without mentioning it. Really, it feels like it could have been removed or told in a mini-series and served the same role.
Ryan: I definitely agree that Vader Down benefited the Vader series much more than the Star Wars one, but that’s mainly due to Vader having an overarching story while SW takes more of an anthology approach to each arc and vaguely mentions events from before. In a way, this was never going to effect SW as much as it would Vader, since Vader was trying to continue telling its story with the events within Vader Down while SW was just focused on telling tales about the Big Three (aka Leia, Luke, and Han). But that kind of took the ‘big event’ feeling out of this being Marvel’s first crossover because, like you said Chris, they already have shared events or minor crossovers already. In that way, Vader Down wasn’t as big or as memorable because it was more or less another notch in Gillen’s Vader series than anything else.
Despite that disappointing aspect, Vader Down was fine enough despite its plot driven nature because it had a truly frightening Darth Vader on display, Leia’s resolve in one of her darker moments, and Doctor Aphra getting in and out of various amounts of trouble with the likes of Han, Luke, Leia, and of course Vader. In fact, Leia has just as big of a role throughout the crossover as Vader it seemed, as it focused on how she doesn’t let revenge for Alderaan’s destruction consume her like a typical Skywalker would, and it was a pleasant surprise for an event called Vader Down to give her an important role too. It’ll be interesting to see how the next crossover, between Star Wars and Doctor Aphra (!), plays out compared to this one.
Ryan: The focus of what makes Darth Vader a modern classic for Star Wars comics is most definitely Gillen’s ability to write a truly compelling and nuanced character exploration of Vader, but it also benefited greatly from the dark humor and refreshing point-of-view afforded to readers by Doctor Aphra and the murderbots, Triple-Zero and BT-1. I didn’t think it could be possible for a series about Vader to feature a character (or three) that could outshine and compliment him along the way, but such is the beauty of Aphra and the dark mirrors of Threepio and Artoo. She afforded us a unique view of the galaxy: never truly taking any side and always looking for her next big score/chance to survive, while her recently awoken murderbots simply wanted to enjoy the torture and destruction of meatbags, hoping to one day turn on their master(s) and run free into the galaxy. She earned her place in fan’s hearts through her actions and humor while she built her place in SW history for outsmarting Vader so she could live to earn credits another day. But as much as I’d love to talk about Aphra all day…I already actually do in my reviews of her very own series! So of course there’s plenty more to be said for Aphra and the conversation looks to continue, thankfully, for the foreseeable future.
In the end, Darth Vader’s consistency, strong characterization, and ability to add meaningful context to the Sith Lord’s time and character between the classics A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back is what makes it a classic in its own right. Any fan of Star Wars, Vader, and/or very good stories should make the effort to read Darth Vader’s first Marvel series as I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. As I put in my review of series finale, “It’s sad to see such a fantastic series go, but it went out on top and on its own terms, tying everything up neatly in a well-honed package of Star Wars fun, Sith Lord anger, and heaps of black humor. Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, and Edgar Delgado have created a modern classic and capped it off in the best possible way. Was there ever any doubt?”
Chris: In my mind, the real success of the series was in the way that it handled an impossible task. How do you delve deeply into the mind of Darth Vader without ruining the mystery? This series richly exploring the mind of the Sith Lord without ever revealing too much. Flashbacks were given with no further commentary, giving the reader a look into Vader’s mind, but leaving the interpretation blank. The more we learn of Vader, somehow, the more elusive he becomes. The character we risk becoming too familiar with again becomes a spectre. All over again, Darth Vader has truly become one of the galaxy’s most terrifying villains.
Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth. Chris is the Sous Chef at the Mynock Manor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisWerms. You can follow the website @MynockManor.
All comic panel images credited to Marvel/Lucasfilm
Ryan previously reviewed every issue of the series here:
Vader (#1-6) | Shadows and Secrets (#7-12) | Vader Down crossover (#13-15) | The Shu-Torun War (#16-19) | End of Games (#20-25) | Annual: #1
He also talked about some of the series’ defining moments in the 2015 and 2016 comic years-in-review.
Doctor Aphra (and the murderbots) lives on in reviews of her series!
Chris previously reviewed “The Shu-Torun War” Arc.