Marvel’s ‘Darth Vader’ and the Unexpected Joys of Disney’s New ‘Star Wars’ Universe
When Disney acquired Lucasfilm and systematically eradicated most of the ‘Star Wars’ Expanded Universe, the most hardcore fans of the most popular genre franchise on the planet made their displeasure known, but to no avail. To paraphrase one of the greatest Jedi Knights, millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.
Disney didn’t buy ‘Star Wars’ so it could navigate a labyrinth of pre-existing novels, comics, and video games. More specifically, Disney didn’t buy ‘Star Wars’ so it could appease the niche group of fans who have kept up with the increasingly complicated Expanded Universe. It bought ‘Star Wars’ to please the much larger audience of everyone else.
So Marvel’s new line of ‘Star Wars’ comics, which are officially part of the new canon that also includes the ‘Star Wars Rebels’ animated series, are an interesting beast. After all, Marvel is another relatively recent Disney acquisition. These aren’t like the countless ‘Star Wars’ tales published by Dark Horse Comics over the past 20-plus years, which were sanctioned by Lucasfilm but generally made independently. Now Disney controls ‘Star Wars’ from top to bottom ... and the results, like the brand new ‘Darth Vader’ series, have been shockingly, surprisingly good.
In stark contrast to their competition across the aisle, the Marvel of recent years has embraced an eclectic mix of writers and artists, giving them access to the strangest corners of their superhero universe and publishing series that have been joyously offbeat. That sense of good taste has already extended to their new ‘Star Wars’ comics, with writer Jason Aaron and artist John Cassaday’s ‘Star Wars’ title (now two issues deep) shattering industry records and for good reason: it’s a terrific comic book. However, it’s writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca’s ‘Darth Vader’ #1 that really suggests how exciting and weird the new ‘Star Wars’ canon may be.
Set during the same time period as Aaron and Cassaday’s ‘Star Wars’ (roughly a month of so after the destruction of the first Death Star, as seen in the original 1977 film), ‘Darth Vader’ catches up with everyone’s favorite mutilated Sith Lord at an all-time low. Having lost the trust of Emperor Palpatine for failing to protect their new superweapon from a bunch of scrappy rebels, Vader has been reduced to an Imperial errand boy. But the man who was once Anakin Skywalker is nothing if not ambitious and the first issue sets up a character arc so clever that you can’t help but slap your forehead and ask “Why didn’t I think of that?” If ‘Star Wars’ ended with Darth Vader, the chief henchman of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarken, failing so spectacularly, how does he become an actual commander with his own Star Destroyer at the beginning of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’? This is the tale Gillen and Larroca want to tell.
Although not as action-packed as the main ‘Star Wars’ title, the first issue of ‘Darth Vader’ satisfies on a completely different level. With its large cast of power-hungry villains (the traditional heroes only appear in a flashback), this is essentially the ‘Star Wars’ universe refitted to the ‘Game of Thrones’ mold. And it feels just right. Darth Vader himself is nothing if not a cyborg, laser-sword-wielding Lannister. Cold, ruthless, and ambitious, his story is one of constant struggle and turmoil in the quest for more influence. If you dropped Vader into Westeros, he’d be just fine.
It’s this tonal difference that makes the ‘Darth Vader’ series so intriguing and promising. It would have been easy for Disney to impose a house style on their new ‘Star Wars’ content, to demand that every new book or comic or show feel the same and appeal to the same audience. The fact that the new canon already includes kid-friendly fare like ‘Star Wars Rebels’ and a comic as dark and offbeat as ‘Darth Vader’ is exciting. Sure, fans have every right to tear their hair out over the fact that their shelves of novels are now classified as “legends,” but so far, the new, Disney-supervised Expanded Universe has been satisfying and accessible in a way that the Thrawn trilogy never could be.
The key has been the same approach that has made Marvel comics so wonderful over the past few years: diversity. Don’t like ‘Darth Vader’? That’s okay, because Marvel is releasing a ‘Princess Leia’ miniseries from the superstar team of Mark Waid and Terry Dodson. Burnt by the prequels? Don’t fret, these new comics are OT to their core.
It’s this willingness to embrace so many different angles and accept so many different approaches to this universe that have lapsed fans all-the-more excited for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Maybe history will prove everyone wrong ‘The Phantom Menace’-style, but as of this moment, Disney seems to be letting creative people play in this sandbox and do as they please. If there is extensive supervision, it’s not readily apparent. After all, Gillen’s signature is all over ‘Darth Vader,’ with the writer of ‘Phonogram’ and ‘The Wicked and the Divine’ shaping the ‘Star Wars’ universe around his personal style. As someone who felt all of his enthusiasm for ‘Star Wars’ drain away after the prequels, and whose few attempts to dive into the original EU were rebuffed by impenetrable storytelling, this open-ended, artist-driven approach is a joy to witness.
Disney and Marvel and Lucasfilm have seemingly done the impossible by getting the world excited about ‘Star Wars’ again, but it would be so easy to botch it. What if ‘The Force Awakens’ is a disaster and Disney decided to start playing it safe, stripping the Expanded Universe of its personality and diversity? What if this accessible new canon quickly becomes as troublesome as the original EU?
It could happen, but I doubt it will. That Marvel has put some of their best writers and artists on the job bodes very well. They’re taking their end of this very seriously. And since Disney already has the likes of Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards, and Josh Trank on deck for future films, this approach seems to be uniform across all forms of ‘Star Wars’ media. What a novel idea: A massive corporation handing the keys to their most valuable asset over to smart people who give a damn. Let’s hope it sticks.