Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca’s “Darth Vader” series stands tall as the best “Star Wars” comic released by Marvel. Seriously, if you have any love for “Star Wars” and you haven’t read this series yet then you need to fix that! So when it was announced a few months after “Darth Vader” ended that there would be a new ongoing series featuring everyone’s favorite Sith Lord, there was good reason for skepticism. “Darth Vader” was a complete story that was well-liked by just about everyone. Why would you even want to compete with something like that? It would seem that this project was destined for failure… except that one can never count out Charles Soule.
While I like to consider him “ruthlessly competent,” he’s also not one to shy away from a tricky remit. This is the man who gave us “The Death of Wolverine” after all and made it work out better than you’d expect. Though the timing of this new “Darth Vader” series in proximity to the previous one certainly does it no favors, Soule shows that he -- and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli -- are up to following the high standard set by the previous creative team.
We see that right from the start which picks up during Vader’s unveiling at the end of “Revenge of the Sith.” It’s a dynamic opener that gets you right into the character’s head before showcasing his rage in a potent double-page spread. (There are also some subtle retcons of the same scene from the film that I appreciated.) Once Palpatine regains control of the situation, he informs his pupil of the current state of his Galactic Empire and informs him of the task ahead. In order to be worthy of working at the Emperor’s side, Vader must obtain his own lightsaber by taking it from a Jedi and imposing his will on it. It’s a task easier said than done in the wake of Order 66.
I believe that Vader’s main appeal lies in his intimidating badassery. Whenever he shows up, you know that the good guys have their work cut out for them and that their best option is to run away as fast as they can. He also doesn’t suffer fools, as many people working under him have found out the hard way. It’s an easy appeal to grasp, yet one that presents difficulties when making him the main character of a story. How do you preserve the character’s appeal and still deliver a story that has credible drama.
Soule’s answer, as you may have guessed, is to take the character all the way back to his start. Before the name Darth Vader meant anything to anyone in the galaxy. When random bandits would look and see some weirdo in funny armor and think they stood a chance against him. When Jedi would only see a pitiful creature twisted by hate and not realize the true depths of his power. Setting this story at the start of Vader’s career and making it all about his rise to power is a great setup as it sidesteps a lot of the expectations we had about the character at the start of his previous series.
It’s also a more challenging setup as well. Soule isn’t having the character re-establish his badass credentials, his job here is to build them from scratch. I think he does a pretty good job here, starting off with some soft targets like the aforementioned bandits and then some clone troopers who are clearing out an installation Vader needs to get info from. Things get more interesting when Vader encounters Jedi Master Kirak Infil’a and we see some genuine multi-issue struggle there. I wish that Kirak had been fleshed out more as a character, but what we learn of him here is good enough for the purposes of the story. Particularly in the way that he effectively forces Vader to utilize his own ingenuity and mechanical skills as opposed to the brute force approach the character has employed up to this point.
I also like Soule’s take on Vader as someone who has accepted his current lot in life and is determined to make the most of it. You can argue that he may have come to this acceptance too fast, but it’s something that we all knew was going to happen so I’m not all that bothered that it was glossed over. Yet there are two things here that I’m curious to see if the writer will pursue further. The first is how Vader decides to work out some of his anger issues via an unnecessary fight with some clone troopers. It’s understandable that the character would be letting his rage drive his actions at this point, but it’ll be interesting to see if this was merely a one-off encounter or if he’ll continue to get in these kinds of fights as the series goes on.
The second is how he’s tempted with a vision of redemption. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the specifics of this, suffice to say that Soule at least opens the door a bit to the idea that the character could come back from all that he has done. We all know that’s not going to happen so bringing it up as a potential story direction seems pretty unwise. As a one-time encounter, the sequence actually works pretty well since it feeds directly into that take on Vader that I mentioned above.
While the first five issues comprise an arc of their own, the final one is kind of an odd duck. It’s main thrust is to introduce the Grand Inquisitor and the Inquisitorius into the series, which it does competently but not all that compellingly. If you’re a fan of “Star Wars: Rebels” then you’re likely going to get more out of this than I did. I’ve seen enough episodes from the first season to not be confused by their introduction. Though I can understand their introduction here from a continuity perspective, the presence of the Inquisitorius seems rather superfluous to Vader’s story at the moment.
The issue at least gives us an excuse to have a sweet lightsaber fight between Vader and the Grand Inquisitor, courtesy of Camuncoli. He’s been doing strong, energetic work on “Amazing Spider-Man” for years now and he turns in work that’s just as good here. Camuncoli makes the action exciting and easy to follow and makes Vader a suitably imposing figure -- possessing an angry dignity even when he’s struggling. One issue people may have with his work is that it’s not very subtle; fortunately, this isn’t the kind of story which demands that kind of thing.
So this new “Darth Vader” series turned out to be much better than I was expecting. Setting it during the title character’s earliest days helps greatly to set it apart from its predecessor, and the first arc indicates the creative team knows what it’s doing. The question here is whether or not they’ll be able to convincingly build Vader’s reputation over subsequent volumes, or if things will degenerate into a “Kill the Jedi of the Week” situation. “Imperial Machine” is good enough to give it the benefit of the doubt that it’ll hew closer to the former than the latter.