For any Star Wars fan, it’s a familiar sight: a boy named Skywalker staring off into the distance under Tatooine’s twin suns. His past is a series of choices that were out of his hands to make and his future is as yet unwritten. He’s a kid from a backwater planet who will one day hold the destiny of a galaxy in his hands. You probably know the picture or recognize the description but in Darth Vader #7, Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca turn the image upside down. Instead of an idealistic and young Luke Skywalker looking towards the future, Gillen and Larroca show us Vader in that very similar pose on the Lars desert homestead, where Tatooine is a past that he cannot escape.
For decades after the original Star Wars, Darth Vader was the boogeyman, the giant bad guy of all of space who would get you if you were being bad. The black knight of Lucas’s story, he was the personification of evil. And then Lucas went and messed that all up and in the prequels told us the story of Anakin Skywalker, the whiny kid that Darth Vader once was. Gillen and Larroca are in the process of redeeming that whiny kid by giving us a composite portrayal of the various Vaders/Anakins that Lucas tried to show in the movies. Returning to Tatooine to track down the Rebel pilot that destroyed the Death Star, Gillen has Vader face is past in many ways. Walking through his stepbrother Owen Lars’ farm, Vader catches glimpses of a life he might have had if he had never left Tatooine.
Of course he did and the second third of the story shows Vader manipulating the galaxy all for his and his Emperor’s favor. Gillen is showing us a very different Vader than what we’re used to and it’s fascinating. That whiny, spoiled kid that we remember from the movies is now the second most powerful dictator in the galaxy. It’s a story that Lucas was never able to actually tell of Vader because “Anakin” didn’t exist as that kid. Gillen’s “hero” is both Anakin and Vader fully melded and that raises all kinds of interesting conflicts in the character. Taking all of the movies together, Vader is never a true hero or a true villain. He’s conflict personified in a way that Lucas’s heroes never are and that’s why he’s a perfect character for Gillen to play with. He’s so much like Gillen’s Loki that as we see glimpses in this issue of what Vader is up to (and also what’s happening around him that he’s completely blind to,) Darth Vader becomes a more full character than he was before. There is conflict within him as we can see the light and the dark fighting for control of this character.
While Larroca takes us through this internal conflict, Larroca has the unenviable task of trying to show emotion on an emotionless armor and mask. And in a lot of ways, that’s when Larroca works best. Like his Iron Man comics, Larroca has to carefully stage his artwork to portray emotion in Vader. It’s about the angle of Vader’s helmet or his stance that carries the weight Gillen’s story. All of the aliens and droids in this comic plays to Larroca’s strengths as his ultra-tight linework stimulates the imagination just like that original Cantina scene did. Everything looks like it should and that’s not always something that you can say about past Star Wars comics.
But shot angles and body language only get you so far in storytelling. Larroca’s ulta-tight line also produces a lot of lifeless, unenergetic drawings. The opening sequence of Darth Vader #7 features some of Larroca’s strongest and most evocative artwork as Vader walks through the ghosts of his own making. But as the story moves forward and Vader works to consolidate his power base throughout the galaxy, Larroca’s artwork becomes stilted and photo-like. There’s no movement or action in Larroca’s artwork. Even when he’s drawing Darth Vader swinging around a lightsaber, it looks like a frame from a movie, plucked out of the other 24 frames per second of one of the movies, with no real connection to the frame before it or the frame after it.
The lack of action or artistic movement is caused by the unwavering line that Larroca uses. Other than when he’s drawing in the shadows, Larroca uses this thin, solid line that hardly varies from image to image. His insistence on that uniform line weight throughout a drawing, a page and a comic, ultimately makes his line mean nothing other than a definition of contours and shapes. His line isn’t propelling any of the action and it’s not defining any of the emotion of the story. For as much work as he can do in scenes of defining both through careful staging, over 19 pages, it just makes for a very flat comic that only has a few moments that truly stick with with you rather than artwork which excites you enough that you need to see more of it and need to turn the page.