The following review contains mild spoilers for Star Wars Annual #1.
Most comic book annuals strive to deliver big stories, often crossing over several characters from other franchises. You might see Spider-Man and Dr. Strange on the pages of Astonishing X-Men, and it isn’t surprising to see the Green Lantern make an appearance in a Superman comic. The new Star Wars Annual #1 takes an altogether different approach by giving us a complete story centered on a character who has never graced the pages of Marvel’s Star Wars line before. And it works, albeit with a few hiccups here and there.
In classic Star Wars fashion, Star Wars Annual #1 drops us into a story that has already begun. The comics themselves take place right after the destruction of the first Death Star, and the Rebel Alliance has placed spies throughout the galaxy to discover the Galactic Empire’s next move. One such spy is Eneb Ray, who has been stationed on Coruscant. We are told in the introduction that he has taken on an Imperial guise, under the alias of Tharius Demo. With a cool-sounding name and the promise of espionage, we turn the page with high expectations that we’ll find Ray embroiled in some sort of action sequence.
Not quite. Turns out, Tharius Demo is a bureaucrat. More specifically, a tax collector. Hey, they can’t all be action heroes.
Even Ray is disappointed that he has landed this particular assignment. He knows that there are men and women in the Star Wars universe who are destined to be heroes. But by his count, he isn’t one of them. He is familiar with the work of the Bothans, who in the future will organize the spy network that leads to the recovery of the plans for the second Death Star. He’s able to get data on various shipments, but he doesn’t seem to think he’s doing much to aid the Rebellion.
That soon changes when Princess Leia informs him that Senator Nadea Tural (who appeared once in a Star Wars Rebels comic) has been captured, along with other former senators who have been working against the Empire. He is tasked with the mission of infiltrating the Arrth-Eno Prison Complex and rescuing them before they can be executed. The plan appears to go smoothly, and he even meets a fellow spy named Coleet. Once he rescues the senators, however, things take a turn.
It turns out that Emperor Palpatine intends to be present for the execution. With the knowledge that he can meet Darth Sidious face-to-face, Ray forms a plan to end the Sith’s reign once and for all. The problem is that the Alliance has very few spies on Coruscant, and they will have to risk their lives in addition to blowing their cover. In short, they only get one shot at this.
At this point, we learn that Ray really is a bit of an action hero. And to some extent, this was already apparent. We’ve already seen his primary gadgets in action when he broke into the prison. He is equipped with a pair of special gloves that appear to be armed with an electromagnetic charge, making it easier for him to climb. They don’t do much in combat, but his grappling gun is another story.
The comic hits its greatest stride from there, and I don’t want to spoil the ending. Suffice to say that storytelling is this annual’s major strong point. Ray learns that he’s more of a hero than he thought, but he isn’t necessarily happy about this realization. Of course, this is hardly surprising. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the character is his constant inner monologue, and we learn from it that he has an extremely dark outlook on life.
As far as Ray is concerned, he’s no better that the Emperor. He sees himself as a ruthless, cold-blooded killer. He’ll do anything to get the job done, and he does not consider that to be heroic. In fact, he actually takes a little bit of pleasure in what he does. At the very least, he isn’t one to regret taking a life.
I’m definitely hoping that Star Wars Annual #1 will not be the last we see of Ray, and I especially hope that he returns with this particular creative team. Kieron Gillen, who is currently handling the excellent Star Wars: Darth Vader line, did a great job of writing a story that is simple and straightforward yet stays with you long after you have finished reading. The comic also benefits from the competent artwork of Angel Unzueta, who brought life to classic characters such as Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in the awkwardly titled Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Shattered Empire. His work on Leia in Star Wars Annual #1 is exquisite, staying true to the character while bringing out her youth and naiveté—no small feat, considering she only appears in a semi-blurry hologram.
I was also intrigued by the color choices of Paul Mounts, whose only previous work in the Star Wars comics that I have seen was on Jedi—The Dark Side. I’ve actually seen more of his work for DC, and he has a tendency to make his colors pop. Yet he is much more reserved here. While he does manage to breathe a sense of light and color into the characters, there remains a darkness to his work in this issue that does well to complement the overarching themes. It’s as if the colors were chosen to reflect the protagonist’s worldview, with characters appearing as if they are constantly bathed in shadow, regardless of the setting. Perhaps he isn’t quite that consistent with it, but darkness certainly overpowers light in this comic.
In some ways, darkness can be a problem. Ray is a great character, but his inner monologues do get a bit tired at times. His hubris is not without consequence, but it’s hard to follow a character who always believes himself to be right. Especially when there’s a notable scarcity of supporting characters, none of whom appear in more than a few panels. A protagonist like Ray generally needs a foil. And while he drives the story well without one, that’s almost a problem in and of itself. He appears to be the most competent spy on Coruscant, yet he’s been assigned the role of tax collector while a much more minor character has been assigned to infiltrate Imperial security. And if Coleet was somehow more qualified for the prison job, why was she not the one assigned to free the senators? With so few spies on Coruscant, it seems implausible that the Alliance wouldn’t make better use of their individual talents.
That said, this is still a very strong story. If Ray does return for another outing, one can only hope that we will get to know him a bit better. Without giving too much away, he finishes the story with a much better understanding of the Emperor’s grip on the citizens of the galaxy. Aspects of his worldview are challenged, while others are greatly confirmed. He knows what he is up against, but he does not fully understand what it means to be a hero. The notion of a character who has just discovered his potential for heroism while also beginning to lose faith in himself is simply too good to pass up. This might be the end of his character arc, but I truly hope that it is the beginning.
Star Wars Annual #1 doesn’t deliver a big crossover, nor will it give you the same look at classic characters that Marvel has been delivering through most of their recent Star Wars comics. Instead, it gives you a well-written, character-driven narrative that will leave you questioning whether or not our views of the world—or of ourselves—are ever as accurate as we think they are.
You also get to see a guy rip someone’s head off with a grapple gun. Who needs a lightsaber when you can do that?