The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: Darth Vader Annual #1.
In my recent review of Star Wars Annual #1, I noted that a good annual can subvert our expectations while still delivering a self-contained story that provides excellent entertainment. As far as self-contained stories are concerned, the new Darth Vader Annual is a success. Entertainment, however, is a much more questionable matter.
In fact, even a first glance at this comic does little to spur excitement. This is one of the more boring annual covers I’ve ever seen. Vader looks good enough, but he’s not really doing anything. Just walking against the wind in front of a plain white background. There’s even a variant cover that removes Vader completely, as if to tell the reader that they should expect no substance here. This is just as well, because we won’t be getting any.
The story of this new issue is nothing special. Lord Vader has spent a considerable amount of time trying to track down his son, but he now must attend to some Imperial business on the planet Shu-torun. The planet has been tasked with collecting ore to help the Empire keep building, and Vader is pretty much just there on a diplomatic mission to ensure they continue their work. He seems to suspect the possibility of an uprising, and he has brought a mysterious gift along to show them that the Empire is very much in control.
Right off the bat, the comic succeeds in generating interest in this new planet. It appears to be a rough, industrial world, not unlike that of Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith. But the locals are a very courtly breed, and the men who collect the ore are allowed to live as royalty. It’s nice to think of a planet on which those who do the hardest work receive the best pay, but Vader is a bit annoyed with their customs. Specifically, he’s annoyed by their love of dancing.
There’s a lot of mystery in the first few pages of the comic. Early in Darth Vader Annual #1, we are led to believe that the King of Shu-torun has instructed his citizens to overthrow the Empire. As for how they plan to do this, we know nothing. All we really know is that Trios, the King’s third heir, is to play a role in their plan. And since she is the one sent to greet Vader upon his arrival to the planet, we can rest assured that the plan has already been set in motion.
As for why the King doesn’t send either of his other heirs, that seems to be a bit of an awkward plot point. Perhaps he is wary of possible failure, but he also seems to have great faith in their abilities. His son Monthan is to become the future King, so it makes sense that the current ruler would want to keep him safe. But his daughter Hollian is to become a warlord, so it seems that she should be kept closer to Vader than anybody. Yet we really don’t see Monthan or Hollian outside of their introductions.
While Vader is busy dealing with Trios, we see that two droids have been dispatched on Shu-torun with a separate mission. This is the second mystery of the comic, as we are not told which task they are meant to perform. Anyone who has been following the Darth Vader line up to this point will recognize them as the protocol/torture droid 0-0-0 and the astromech/assassin droid BT-1.
Triple-Zero and Beetee are two of my favorite characters in the Darth Vader line, so it’s nice to see them leading the B story of this issue. They’re often the chief providers of comedic relief in this comic, as they are more or less a darker version of C-3PO and R2-D2. In fact, even their physical chemistry with one another is highly reminiscent of the classic droids. There’s one panel in Darth Vader Annual #1 which appears to have been drawn solely to draw attention to the resemblance.
There are other sources of comic relief in this issue, but it’s not too clear whether or not they were actually intentional. It wouldn’t be much of an annual if Vader didn’t do anything, so there naturally has to be an action beat at some point. You would expect the action to begin when Shu-torun finally makes its move against the Empire, but it actually begins just before that. It happens when a random citizen asks Vader to dance with his daughter, and Vader is less than enthused about the idea. If you need a visual aid for how corny this scene is, I’ll go ahead and give you a full page scan.
This page actually sums up two of the worst things about this comic. First of all, the writing by Kieron Gillen falls flat at times. It feels as if he’s just forcing a plot along for the sake of telling a story. He could have had Vader insult the locals in any way he chose, but he decided that their love of dancing should be the source of the dispute. Considering how well Gillen has handled the Darth Vader line up until now, this is highly disappointing. I have to give him credit for creating an interesting new world of ore and fire, but I also have to dock credit for his failure to move the story along in a believable way.
The other problem with the page above is that, if you look at the top panel, you’ll notice that no one really has a face. The penciling for this issue is done by Leinil Yu, who also did that boring cover art. This is his first stab at a Star Wars comic, but he’s going to be taking over the main Star Wars line after the Vader Down crossover event reaches its conclusion. This doesn’t do much to instill hope. He has previously referred to his art style as “Dynamic Pseudo-Realism,” but I don’t see it. He got the “pseudo” part down, in that his utter lack of detail causes people and objects to just barely resemble themselves. But this is not my definition of “dynamic,” and it especially isn’t my definition of “realism.”
I’m not saying that all of the art is bad. Yu has a rough style, but it works in certain panels. But I can’t help but notice that the panels on which it falls flat are given a lack of detail all around. When Yu’s lines come across as scribbles, inker Gerry Alanguilan does nothing to smooth them out. When the composition feels bland, colorist Jason Keith appears to simply throw some color on the page and call it a day. It’s as if they were working together to make this comic feel as underwhelming as possible. The panels that work are exquisite, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m not just saying that because I’m relieved to see art that doesn’t bore me in a comic that largely does that and nothing more.
I haven’t been particularly blown away by the bulk of their previous work, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. That said, they’re clearly going for a specific style here. It seems to land somewhere in between the standard artistic style often seen in the late 1990s and the style seen in the Metal Gear Solid comics, in which everything looked as if it had been done in watercolor. The problem is that these styles don’t really mix, and the comic feels imbalanced as a result. It doesn’t look experimental, but rather as if they weren’t going to make it to press in time and had to rush certain panels. For all I know, that’s exactly what happened. It would certainly explain why Gillen’s writing isn’t up to his usual standard.
Ultimately, Star Wars: Darth Vader Annual #1 is simply a decent idea that lands flat. The droids get better action than Vader, but we never actually see them do anything. Their action is merely implied. Vader’s biggest action beats are also underwhelming. At one point, he spends a whole page deflecting a single laser beam. Not impressed. We don’t see much of his character, and we don’t learn quite as much about the new planet as we should have.
As much as I enjoyed this comic with some mild enthusiasm, I’ll probably forget about it by tomorrow morning. An annual comic featuring one of my favorite all-time villains and two of my favorite Star Wars comic book henchmen should be memorable. This one is not.
And see?! I told you the variant cover was stupid. You should’ve believed me.