Just read: Marvel's 'Star Wars' & 'Darth Vader'

"Just read" is a blog where I blog about something I just read. I'm trying to read more this year and I'd like to keep a record of that; blogging will theoretically help that cause.

Over the past few months, I've started chronicling my foray into comic books by blogging about the Batman trade paperbacks I've been reading. In an effort to keep myself from blowing through my Batman list too fast, though, I branched out and picked up a few other titles as a breather between Batstories. 

I picked up the first two volumes of Marvel's Star Wars title -- Skywalker Strikes and Showdown on Smuggler's Moon -- in addition to the first two volumes of their Darth Vader title -- VADER and Shadows & Secrets. Additionally, I bought Vader Down, which is a crossover event between these two titles and fits nicely at the end of each of the first two volumes. In total, these five trade paperbacks comprise about 15 issues from each of the runs.  

The decision to pick these up wasn't as easy as it might seem for a big fan of the movies. I love Star Wars more than just about every other media property, and I felt myself really, really taking a liking to comic books as well -- I've yet to be disappointed by any of the Batman volumes I've read, and I've been enjoying those much more than I anticipated -- but the Star Wars books seemed super iffy to me. Obviously, Marvel's got as good a track record as any other publisher, but the idea of putting the ginormousness of Star Wars onto a colored-and-inked page seemed potentially underwhelming (for reference, I've never read any of Marvel's past Star Wars work). I equate Star Wars with grandiose shots of star destroyers rumbling overhead, and just as much with booming soundtracks that make your seat shake. In fact, I just bought tickets to see a marathon of the original trilogy in a huge, fancy theatre mainly in search of the loudest viewing experience possible.

On top of that, how would an artist depict a Han Solo smirk or Princess Leia scowl or Luke Skywalker shoulder shrug the way we'd seen Ford, Fisher and Hamill do it on the big screen? And how would the writers be able to come up with novel storylines that take place between the lines of the existing films and other canon publications? All in all, it seemed like a tall order and I wasn't sure any comic book would be able to live up to the huge expectations I will forever place on any official piece of Star Wars-related media.

Pleasantly surprised, joyfully wrong and extraordinarily excited: That's how I began to feel about halfway through the first Star Wars title. Skywalker Strikes, which collects the first six issues of Star Wars, begins with -- you guessed it -- a shot of a star destroyer flying over your head. (After, of course, the necessary scroll.) Yes! This was low-hanging fruit, but I was already smiling one page in. The storyline doesn't waste any time putting you in the shoes of your favorite characters, either. Han, Luke and Leia are on Cymoon I, attempting to shut down a huge Imperial production factory following the destruction of the Death Star. They're posing as negotiators from Jabba The Hutt, but Darth Vader shows up to negotiate for the Empire and things go to shit. 

Vader's confrontation with Luke in this portion of the story feels meaningful, and later Luke has a totally separate confrontation on Tattooine with Boba Fett. The stakes feel high during these moments, and you get these awesome character meetings that obviously never took place in the movies, but also don't ruin anything about the films or other published canon works. It's responsible and smart writing, exhilarating without being corny, and best of all, it's perfect for the diehard Star Wars nerd who can't get enough of seeing these characters. You get to see new interactions in a confined space that don't impact the overarching story, and it feels totally normal within the larger universe. We even get an official portrayal of the moment when Vader finds out that Luke is his son -- something the films never expressly provided and something the comic handles incredibly well.

Showdown on Smuggler's Moon sees Luke getting himself in some big trouble, kidnapped on a moon where no one knows he went, and the story is all about his eventual rescue. There's a lot here about Luke looking for clues that Ben Kenobi might have left behind for him as well, which gives Comic Book Luke a real purpose and mission throughout these early volumes. He's still not very good at being a Jedi, and in fact isn't a Jedi at all, but he's feeling his way around as best he can and worries constantly about the potential he may never become good enough. The character writing jives very well with the Luke we know from the films, and the writing for Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Vader, C3PO and the rest of the cast benefits from the same care.  

My issues with the art are very nitpicky, too; for every failed attempt at a Han Solo smirk (sorry, you just can't duplicate Harrison Ford's looks on paper, not really, anyway), there's a brilliant look at Luke or Leia that places you right into specific moments of the original trilogy. It's remarkably well done considering the high bar.  

As much as I enjoyed these two Star Wars trades, there's little doubt the Darth Vader series is where Marvel's making its money right now. It portrays Vader in a terrific light, as a badass but a badass on a pretty tight leash. He's not allowed to call the shots, really -- he did just oversee the destruction of a planet-sized weapon, after all -- so he's used more as a weapon than as a commander or general. This predictably makes him angry and hungry to get shit done. VADER opens with its title character visiting Jabba The Hutt, attempting to gain resources to make up for the Imperial factory that the Rebels destroyed in the first issue of Star Wars, and we see him kill a ton of people at Jabba's palace, complete with several memorable frames. The writing for Vader is well-crafted with a clever economy of words that matches the character's curt language in the films. This book introduces us to a character named Dr. Aphra, a scientist who's stolen a personality matrix for a C3PO-esque robot that specializes in torturing people. 

Vader employs Aphra (along with a couple of other folks -- some bounty hunters you might recognize) to help him get shit done (I'm just trying to avoid spoilers here), totally aside from his Imperial duties and under strict secrecy. Aphra is more than willing to help Vader, even excited, and her character is my favorite in any of the stories I've read so far. You wind up rooting for Aphra so much that you start rooting for Vader, as well; the stories make Emporer Palpatine feel like the Big Bad so you're free to sympathize at times with Vader and actually hope for his success as he uncovers a big and quite problematic secret the Emporer has been keeping from him. I was surprised to find myself in this mindset, rooting for Vader, but this dynamic is what makes this series so fun to read.

Shadows and Secrets sees Vader trying to continue his side operations with Aphra while simultaneously trying to covertly keep his side relationships hidden from the Empire, while the Empire is specifically trying to catch Aphra. It's a weaving and somewhat repetitive story at times, but it's satisfying in its conclusion and further cements an appreciation for Aphra's character. I would not at all be opposed to seeing her show up in a Star Wars side film at some point, a film that explores the dealings of the Empire between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.

The highlight of all this is Vader Down, the sole crossover event in Marvel's new Star Wars stories so far. It's a pretty tame crossover, consisting of a one-shot and two issues from each title, but what it lacks in  sprawling timeframe or setting, it makes up for in action and stakes. This crossover is a huge moment for the Rebels, who Vader has chased down to a base on Vrogas Vas in search for Luke. Vader finds three squadrons of Rebel pilots on training runs awaiting him as he drops out of hyperspace, but he starts slicing and dicing through them in his fighter ship. He kills tons of Rebels before Luke rams him in his X-Wing, causing both his and Vader's ship to go crashing down to the planet. Both survive the fall (obviously), and Vader continues to carve up the Rebels that come after him -- truly, the badassery of Vader in these comics cannot be overstated -- and he eventually has a confrontation with Leia. When shit seems to be going real south, a foe of Vader's within the Empire shows up and distracts him long enough for our favorite crew to escape.

To me, the best part of these stories has been seeing Vader in action as a foot soldier, more or less. He's still in charge at times, but he's leading small groups of forces on specific missions rather than calling the shots in a star destroyer from above. He's portrayed less as the Emporer's right-hand man and more like the most effective tool in a chest full of deadly weapons. This is something the films don't ever have a huge opportunity to explore, because Vader has to seem larger-than-life for the purpose of those stories, but that doesn't change the fact that we know he served the foot soldier role for several years. Seeing him do this -- and seeing Boba Fett get a lot of action, as well -- is really rewarding from a fan's perspective. Ditto for watching Luke feel his way through some of the earliest parts of his "training."

Like I've already written, these books surprised me with how well they executed the general Star Wars vibe and the stakes they manage to communicate in this format. I would absolutely recommend them to any big fans of the saga, and I've already started to branch out and purchase some of the character-specific trade paperbacks (specifically Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Lando). I plan on hitting both of the Kanan trades and eventually the Shattered Empire mini-series as well, while highly anticipating the Han Solo and Poe Dameron volumes due out later this year. Between this and Rogue One this winter, 2016 is almost as rewarding as 2015 for big Star Wars nerds -- and that, to me, is a huge, huge win for the franchise.

Skywalker Strikes (collecting Stars Wars 1-6), Showdown on Smuggler's Moon (collecting Star Wars 7-12), VADER (collecting Darth Vader 1-6), Shadows & Secrets (collecting Darth Vader 7-12), and Vader Down (collecting the Vader Down one-shot, Star Wars 13-14 and Darth Vader 13-15) are all available on Amazon at those respective links.