The creative team behind Marvel's Darth Vader, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca, more or less had their book figured out from its first scene. The in-continuity series begins with Vader entering Jabba the Hutt’s palace not long after the end of the first Star Wars film. He wordlessly murders two guards with his lightsaber, demands an audience with Jabba and, once he has it, finds himself berated by the sluglike gangster: “You arrive a day early, kill two of my guards, and expect me to deal with you?”
Vader stares at Jabba behind his expressionless helmet and intones, “I have only killed two. Do not make me reconsider my generosity.”
He’s beauty and he’s grace, he’ll slash you in the face: this is Darth Vader, distilled and served to Star Wars geeks in a rich and engaging way. His entry to the palace is, of course, a more violent echo of Luke Skywalker’s arrival in Return of the Jedi; Vader meeting with Jabba is an exciting new interpolation within a beloved mythology; and goddamn, that’s a solid threat. As you read the dialogue on the page, you can hear it in James Earl Jones’s sonorous basso profundo, and that’s the essence of what makes Darth Vader one of the best mainstream comics on the market: It builds inventively on the Star Wars mythos while remembering what made it resonant and sexy.
The series concludes with its 25th issue in October*, and it does so without having truly ever received the attention it deserves. The book has sold well, making it into the top 20 for comics-retailer orders most months since its February 2015 debut, but the comics commentariat has barely batted an eyelash at it — which is curious, considering the pedigree of its creative team and, well, it's Star Wars. When I recently tweeted my confusion about the lack of discussion about Darth Vader, Gillen sardonically issued an @-reply: “Niche property.” It has often felt that way.
Which is a shame, because throughout its run the book surprises and delights. The series has featured an intricate set of interlocking plots, most of them showing the Dark Lord in situations where his supremacy is threatened and he has to prove his mettle: a micromanaging Emperor forces Vader to work with people who question his decisions; Vader goes on a quest to learn more about the boy who blew up the Death Star, one which requires secrecy to avoid the attentions of the rest of the Empire; and, most prominently, we see the machinations of an inventor who believes he can render the Force obsolete through technological innovations. Throughout all of this, Vader’s accompanied by his covert allies, a rogue archaeologist named Aphra and two murderous droids (we’ll get to them in a bit).
These types of conceits are wisely chosen by Gillen because they don’t rely on the possibility of Vader’s death. We’ve all seen The Empire Strikes Back; none of us could think he’s in any serious mortal danger. Instead, the stakes are built around two other factors: Vader’s knowledge and dignity. The former has to do with Luke and his mother, the late Padmé Amidala. It’s never established in the filmic canon just how Vader gets from firing at some anonymous X-Wing in the Death Star trenches to not only knowing who that pilot was, but scaring the shit out of him by revealing that he’s the kid’s father. Here, we learn the winding, melancholy path that leads him to that information.
It involves the surreptitious hiring of the ever-popular Boba Fett to act as a spy, but that quest (which plays out in Darth Vader’s sister series, the bland Star Wars) isn’t nearly as interesting as what happens once Fett returns to Vader with a name: Skywalker. We see our protagonist, standing on the deck of a Star Destroyer, as he remembers two flashes from the prequel trilogy: Padmé telling pre-Vader Anakin that she’s pregnant, then the Emperor informing the newly minted cyborg Sith that his bride is dead. In the present, his fist clenches. We pan out and see that the airtight glass that faces the void of space is riddled with Force-induced spider-cracks. “Skywalker,” he says; nothing more.
Indeed, the greatest joy of the series is Vader’s dialogue — always brief, always chilling. When he and Aphra travel to the world of Geonosis on a secret mission, a local leader cries to Vader, “Has the Empire not taken enough from the Geonosians with your bombs?” Slicing her with his lightsaber, he simply says, “No.” He speaks with a queen during a complicated political crisis and tells her what to do; “It’s a deal,” she says; “No,” he replies while walking away, then half-turns to her, “It is simply how it will be.” There is no mua-ha-ha monologuing from the title character in Darth Vader, no internal narration — just a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the kind of pithy terrorizing that made audiences fall in love with him in 1977.
The supporting cast is top-notch as well, particularly sociopathic genius Aphra and the droids. The latter are a direct and horrifying riff on C-3PO and R2-D2 named, respectively, 0-0-0 and BT-1 — colloquially, Triple-Zero and Beetee. Triple-Zero is built exactly like Threepio, except he’s rendered in metallic black and is, as he puts it, “specialized in etiquette, customs, translation, and torture.” Beetee speaks in beeps and whistles and is trash-can-sized, but he’s an expert at assassination. They’re a consistent black-comedy delight. “You’re not going to get anything from me,” says a man from whom Aphra and company need information. “Oh, you are just adorable,” Triple-Zero says. “I love it when you play your part.” The droid does get what he wants, but Gillen and Larroca wisely let us imagine what terrors he inflicted on the poor man.
Then there's the concept of dignity. Everything about this comic feels elegant and momentous. Larroca and colorist Edgar Delgado are playing at the tops of their games here, capturing the fascistic, black-and-gray structures of the Empire and the mechanical, stilted embodiment of intimidation that is Darth Vader. Gillen presents us with scientific soldiers designed to replicate Force abilities and, right away, we see them as abominations — Vader may be a monster, but he’s a majestic one, and we want to believe in his awful magic. The character feels fully on-brand, and the world the creators have built feels comfortingly familiar, even when it introduces bizarre concepts like massive ships built out of space-faring whales. To read the comic is to fall in love with the Star Wars universe once again. If you need something to tide you over until the next movie — or to console you if it ends up being a dud — this won't fail you.
* This article has been updated to reflect that the series ends in October.