It is not an easy task for a writer to make an interesting story with a villain for a protagonist. It is true that in recent years we have seen a bit of an upswing in stories of that nature, but even so doing them right is something that rarely occurs. For every Breaking Bad or Sopranos there are dozens of corpses of books, movies and shows that have tried and failed to replicate the success. The Star Wars franchise has never shied away from these challenges, though, and the old extended universe is peppered with stories that have dark leads. Darth Maul and Darth Vader have headlined a number of book and comic titles each, Darth Bane was the star of series of well-received books and even the Darth above all other Darths, Darth Sidious (aka the Emperor), had a book dedicated to his rise to power. Even in the new extended universe we already have two books (Tarkin and Lords of the Sith) that star villains, and the first comic series in the new continuity (Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir) also follows that tradition. There’s certainly something to be said for a good villain’s story, and Star Wars has its share of good villains to follow.
The trickiness to writing villains as protagonists is actually in finding antagonists for them. Most commonly we’ll find that the antagonists will be villains worse than the protagonist, but it is hard to find many who are worse than Vader. He is, after all, one of the absolute first villains that comes to mind when people are talking about bad guys. Heck, he even has a gargoyle at the National Cathedral in DC modeled after him, which puts him in pretty elite company. The other option is to have the villain fighting against heroes, but not have them be particularly good heroes. In some extremely rare cases they can even go up against truly heroic heroes, but this only works in specific story structures (see for instance Breaking Bad‘s last season).
The story of the first issues of Darth Vader takes a bit of a mid-path between the extremes. Vader’s main opponent in the series so far is actually the Emperor, but not in a direct sense. Palpatine is mad at Vader for the loss of the Death Star in A New Hope and his further failures from the start of Star Wars v1: Skywalker Strikes, and is justifiably on the lookout for a replacement for Vader. While Vader is trying to worm his way back into the Emperor’s good graces he also wants to find out who the powerful force wielder from the Death Star was — which gets mostly covered in Skywalker Strikes — giving him a plot to follow that doesn’t require him to move out of character. There’s plenty of material to work with here, and thanks to the fact that Vader is already an established character we know pretty well the book doesn’t have to spend much time convincing us that we need to care.
Like Skywalker Strikes the first several issues of Darth Vader are actually divided into a couple different stories. The first follows Vader as his leash is controlled by Grand General Tagge (one of the few Death Star survivors) as punishment for his failures. In this capacity he is followed by a weaselly Imperial operative who is meant to report on Vader’s movements to Tagge. As you might imagine weaselly characters don’t last long around Vader, and this rat doesn’t outstay his welcome. But this does flag up a bit of an issue for Vader long-term as a book: the need for a supporting cast. Fortunately one comes along quickly in the form of Aphra, a Han Solo style scoundrel who is apparently not distressed to find herself working for Vader, and two droids: Triple-Zero and BT-1. As you might expect from Star Wars one is a protocol droid, Triple-Zero, and the other an astromech droid, BT-1. The twist here is that Triple-Zero has some additional programming added which makes him a sociopathic killer — fans of HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic should make note of Triple-Zero because they are very similar — and BT-1 has a weapons arsenal that makes R2D2’s shock probe look pathetic. The three of them bring an interesting atmosphere to the book, and really do help it rise up from what could otherwise by a rather generic Vader adventure.
Homicidal, emotionless droids are nothing new to writer Kieron Gillen as they have featured prominently in several past Marvel titles by him, and Triple-Zero is about as entertaining as any of them. While he does seem to enjoy his work it is his casual indifference to the consequences which is so oddly endearing. When you pair him with Aphra, whose apparent apathy about working alongside someone who famously murders anyone for the smallest slights gives her a weird sort of charm, we find a book that mixes a diverse cast of characters rather well. I am not sure how well they would hold up outside of this particular environment that Gillen ahs crafted for them, but as a group they are interesting to read about.
The second story follows our newly formed group of sociopaths on their hunt to reopen the droid factories on Geonosis from Attack of the Clones in an effort to arm Vader in the event that the Emperor decides to replace him. This serves as a nice visit to some famous Star Wars locations while also providing an interesting story in its own right. It makes sense that Vader would turn to an army of droids to protect himself since he saw exactly how useful they were during the clone wars. That said the story itself isn’t overly entertaining, and it gets by mostly on the personality of the new characters (Triple-Zero in particular).
Wrapping up the first arc is Vader tracking down Cylo-IV, who we met briefly in issue one. As the final two issues roll around it is pretty clear that there is a lot more to Cylo-IV than it initially appears, and his plan ends up being rather interesting. Some of the other characters introduced at this point are in dire need of a personality, but hopefully that will come in the next arc. Right now they are just too obviously psychopathic to be interesting and lack any depth beyond being murder machines. Remember, they need to be presented as worse than Vader so we can feel good about rooting for him, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting (see Gus from Breaking Bad as an example of how it can work). They are just too cartoonish as villains to take seriously at the moment.
The plot of the six issues is nothing particularly special to write home about at this point, but there is a lot of potential here for future issues in the series. Kieron Gillen is an extremely talented writer so I am more than willing to take it on faith that he has an entertaining game in mind for our villainous protagonists. Until then the characterization of our four leads (well, three, BT-1 hasn’t proven to be all that interesting, but there’s not much you can do with astromechs) is strong enough to keep me reading issue to issue.
There’s a lot of potential in this series, and despite a plot that is largely forgettable (I had to re-read it a few time to remind myself what happened) I do rank it as the best of the initial three launch titles for Marvel. Now that we have a cast in place and the basic premise for the series established I have high hopes that this series will be a worthy purchase month after month. The one thing it is really lacking at the moment is a worthwhile antagonist for Vader to fight. Obviously the Emperor can’t remain in the role since we know how that turns out (though establishing friction between Palpatine and Vader does help make Vader’s turn against him in Return of the Jedi a bit more fluid), and Cylo-IV and his band of followers don’t really work as credible threats at this point. Grand General Tagge could certainly fill the role, but I suspect he’ll be more of the boss who is a nuisance rather than being an outright opponent to Vader. Either way, I’m sure we’ll find out what Gillen has planned soon, and I can’t wait to see what it is.
You can preorder volume 1 of Darth Vader on Amazon now.