STAR WORDS: The Necessary Tentpole

I’ve raved a lot about the Star Wars comics here in my little column. Deservedly so, I feel. Lando, Princess Leia, and Shattered Empire were all excellent stories – well plotted, well paced, intriguing art, solid characterization, and satisfying endings. If the first three issues of Chewbacca are anything to go by, there’s more great things to come from Marvel. They hire good talent – solid writers and artists – to produce these books and that looks to hold true going forward.

And yet, the central title in the little comics experiment Marvel has embarked upon with the Star Wars brand is really only okay. It’s a mediocre comic and, unfortunately, only mediocre Star Wars. It’s frustrating as a fan because this comic tries to explain the last line of the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back: “The evil lord Darth Vader, obsessed with finding young Skywalker, has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space….” How does Vader know who Luke is?

When Marvel launched their Star Wars comics in January, there were two ongoing titles: Star Wars and Darth Vader. Kanan: The Last Padawan followed shortly and has been picked up as an ongoing series. Everything else has been a mini-series. The ambitious bit of the launch is that Star Wars #1 acts as the inciting event for both its own series and the Darth Vader run. It shows us the first face-t0-face confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in a cliffhanger ending. It’s a hell of a final panel: Luke stands defiant with his father’s lightsaber as Vader strides ominously down the hall, Obi-Wan’s voice whispers to Luke from beyond death, “Run.”

Is this all the advice Obi-Wan can give as a ghost?

Is run all the advice Obi-Wan can give as a ghost?

Issue two opens with Vader handily disarming Luke (not quite so literally as in the films) and pausing when he recognizes the boy’s lightsaber. The one he lost on Mustafar – taken by Obi-Wan Kenobi after their fateful duel. This forces Vader to ask many questions. Who is this boy? Why does he have my lightsaber? What did Kenobi teach him?

And therein lies the problem: all the interesting questions raised by the opening issues of Star Wars are explored in Darth Vader, which picks up neatly after Star Wars #2. It follows Vader as he unravels the mysteries around Padme’s death and the survival of his son. We see Vader come to terms with the fact that the Emperor has been using and abusing him for twenty years. The moment when Vader decides he can be, should be!, more than the Emperor’s lapdog is given to us in comic format. It’s brilliant. And it’s not in Star Wars.

That leaves Star Wars to follow the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia. In issue #4, we are treated [sic] to Luke throwing an epic tantrum and storming away from the Rebel fleet. It’s whiny and annoying and works to undo the character arc Luke went through in A New Hope. Leia picks up her own mission in issue #5 and reluctantly takes Han along as her pilot. Things don’t go well for either side in issue #6. Luke ends up scrapping with Boba Fett in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s hut. And winning. Somehow. Leia and Han run afoul of a Star Destroyer and take refuge on a planet wreathed in electrical storms – only to be taken captive by a woman claiming to be Han’s wife, Sana Solo.

No, it's cool. We don't need more on this for five months.

No, it’s cool. We don’t need more on this for five months.

You might notice I mentioned issues #2 and #4 but not issue #3 – that’s because nothing of substance happened in issue #3. The first three issues are basically the heroic Rebel trio fighting and failing against Vader then effecting a hasty and ill-explained escape. Two issues would be understandable – set up the situation and have a cliffhanger in the first issue, then a conflict and a resolution in the second. The third issue is extraneous. This sums up the problems with Star Wars: pacing. Three issues for a single confrontation with Vader. Two issues later and nothing new has happened other than toddler-like tantrums and interpersonal drama. The sixth issue drops a huge bomb – Han Solo is married! – but that mystery is carried for three issues too long.

There are moments when I want to love this series. Issue #7 is brilliant – which is problematic for the series as a whole because it’s a standalone side story. The issue is told as a spaghetti Western, framed by Luke reading a chapter from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s journal that he kept on Tattooine. Kenobi is the gunslinger with a dark past. He sees terrible things happening and only in the direst of circumstances does anything to help the people around him. It’s phenomenal storytelling. A poignant, touching tale told by a man who has regrets about his past, doubts about his future, and only a single hope remaining in the whole, dark galaxy. I highly recommend that everyone pick this one up – it’s a phenomenal story and well worth the read.

While issue #7 is easily the best issue thus far, it comes at a troublesome time for the series. Issue #6 opens up interesting questions and introduces a major mystery. That all got set to the side for a month to tell a tale from Obi-Wan’s diary. I understand trying to build hype but when issues 8, 9, and 10 didn’t resolve the question of who Sana Solo is, either, the mystery wore a little thin. Like the tawdriest of soap operas, flimsy excuses and the cheapest of cuts were made to string along any hope of drama related to her identity. Meanwhile, Luke again acts like the stupidest of teenagers and rushes off to the seediest place in the galaxy he can imagine, Nar Shadaa, with the goal of hiring someone to smuggle him into the old Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Once there he flashes his lightsaber, has it stolen, then gets captured and made to fight in an arena by a Hutt who looks like a pro wrestler. No, I’m not kidding.

Pretty sure Grakkus is the first Hutt to have six-pack abs.

Pretty sure Grakkus is the first Hutt to have 6-pack abs.

 

I don’t like recapping issues like this but it’s surprisingly difficult to talk about how the series is letting me down without pointing out these flaws. Luke, much like he’s been written by Jason Fry, Kevin Hearne, and a host of other authors in the time period between “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back”, has regressed as a character to the whiny farmboy who wants to shirk his responsibilities. Leia is overbearing and coldly distant, not the charismatic or compelling leader we see in other media. Han is brash and reckless, which is true enough to form, but he also lacks the charm and swagger that makes him appealing as a character. Even Threepio seems mishandled, more bumbling and useless than usual on a Battle of Geonosis level. The only characters given their due are Chewbacca and Darth Vader – and one of them doesn’t even speak Basic.

What’s more is I don’t see a respite in sight. The first major crossover event in Star Wars comics starts next week with Vader Down, which will hijack both the Darth Vader and Star Wars books until February. I’m excited for that run but it’s because of Vader, not any of the three Rebel heroes. Star Wars #12 needs to wrap up a lot of loose ends before it makes any sense that the title can swing over to Vader Down mode.

All in all, I feel that the Star Wars title is a necessary mediocrity. It’s the tentpole for compelling storytelling even if it isn’t delivering that story itself. Darth Vader is tied into Star Wars very tightly – it kicks off in response to Star Wars #1 and the two series interweave where Vader enters the story of Star Wars. Maybe it’s that Jason Aaron isn’t wrapping up any stories. His single issue of Kenobi’s journal is phenomenal – but it has a very clear, defined end where the ongoing title as a whole sort of limply moving forward all the time. Here’s hoping for improvements in 2016.

PK Sullivan

PK Sullivan

PK Sullivan is a writer and game designer living in Chicago. Originally from the northwoods of Wisconsin, his childhood was spent in Jedi training and pretending the Manhattan Clan were his friends. An abiding love of kung fu films manifested in his teenage years to round out his geeky interests. Aside from Star Wars, he enjoys genre fiction, cinema, and craft beer.

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