With last week’s release of LANDO #1, this weekend’s announcement of CHEWBACCA, and the impending release of SHATTERED EMPIRE, the "Star Wars" comic machine shows no sign of slowing down. That brings us to a total of seven "Star Wars"-related titles and, with all the "Star Wars" excitement at San Diego Comic Con, it’s a perfect time to take a moment to see how one of the most iconic franchises of all time is faring in its new generation of funny pages.
At present, we've been able to sample five books: PRINCESS LEIA, DARTH VADER, STAR WARS, KANAN: THE LAST PADAWAN, and LANDO. Although every comic on the shelves is worth a look for any "Star Wars" fan, only two are musts: the now-concluded PRINCESS LEIA and the ongoing DARTH VADER. STAR WARS, KANAN: THE LAST PADAWAN, and LANDO are all fine reads, but the strong DARTH VADER outshines them, and PRINCESS LEIA is not only a great "Star Wars" comic - it's a great comic book overall.
Aside from the obvious win of PRINCESS LEIA being a quality marquee title headlined by mostly female characters, the story is rich with stakes and personal conflict that go a long way towards adding to Leia’s character. In only five issues, writer Mark Waid helped us know and feel so much more for Leia, making her role in the Star Wars universe that much heavier.
After the destruction of the Death Star (and immediately after the credits of A NEW HOPE), Princess Leia, still mourning the loss of her planet and basically everyone she knows, disobeys orders, steals a ship from the Rebellion, and heads off in search of any remaining survivors of her home planet—before the Empire can get to them. In only a few pages she establishes herself as being as clever as Han, as headstrong as Luke, and as fierce as Chewbacca. Over the course of the series, Leia engages in firefights, dogfights, and fistfights; plans escapes; negotiates deals; rescues refugees; and firmly establishes herself as not just a leader in title, but someone truly worth following. Thanks in large part to Carrie Fisher’s performance in the films, it was never really difficult to believe that Leia could earn such a place in the Rebellion’s leadership, but after stories like these, her place is ironclad.
Darth Vader, on the other hand, begins his series clinging to power. The Emperor is not at all pleased with him and his failure to protect the Death Star, so Vader goes on a quest for redemption. Rankled with his master’s abuse, Vader, in true Sith fashion, seeks not to just regain his master’s favor, but to gain enough power to, when the moment comes, overthrow his master.
What I love most about the Vader stories is that they are doing an excellent job of erasing Anakin Skywalker. They aren’t ignoring him entirely, but rather showing us how Vader is actively trying to purge the last vestiges of his former self. The gap in Anakin/Vader’s history between REVENGE OF THE SITH and A NEW HOPE is a large one, and this comic is doing an excellent job of filling in those blanks. The Darth Vader of the original film trilogy is an unstoppable force—concentrated strength and evil and the fist of the Empire. The Darth Vader of the comics certainly has that power, but as we see more behind the mask, we learn that he’s riddled with character flaws typical of someone so steeped in the Dark Side of the Force. He’s arrogant, petulant, jealous, quick to anger (surprise), and greedy—greedy for power, greedy for attention, greedy for answers. Being sidelined by the Emperor only means Vader is that much further away from finding out who blew up the Death Star (the moment he does find out is one of the more exciting pages in comics I’ve recently read—see DARTH VADER #6 and STAR WARS #6—they do a nice crossover moment), and, worse still, that his master perceives him to be weak. Not content to lose his standing and power, he goes so far as to go to Geonosis and summon a reassembled droid army—as he says at the end of #2, “You can always trust a droid.”
The Vader of DARTH VADER is clearly on a path to become the legend in the films, one whose name strikes fear into the hearts of anyone who hears it. Now imagine, however, that you wrote a story about Darth Vader based on only the legend, on rumors, on what you’ve heard. Sadly, it feels like that is the characterization approach in the flagship title, STAR WARS. The main story (Luke goes in search of any means necessary to help him become a Jedi) is interesting, and Han and Leia searching for a new Rebel base certainly helps fill in a blank as to how the Rebel Alliance gets to Hoth, but ultimately, the writing seems content to copy the dynamics (and even, at times, the dialogue) from the movies. Luke is friendly with Artoo, Han and Leia bicker to hide feelings, and Chewie and Threepio just hang out in the background, punctuating moments with their trademark sounds and quips, respectively.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a reason these characters and their relationships are iconic, but when you’re telling new stories in an old world, you can’t rest on the familiarity of the old to invigorate the new. It seems writer Jason Aaron has very specific notes with each character he has to hit and is afraid to venture too far. I understand that pressure, but every other line of dialogue between Han and Leia is about how she’s a princess, and he’s a scoundrel; how he can fly well, and she doesn’t trust him—and Luke just repeats how he doesn’t know anything about being a Jedi and misses Ben. The difference between STAR WARS and the other titles is that LEIA and VADER introduce a story through their respective characters—the new needs of familiar characters create and dictate what happens. With STAR WARS, we meet the characters through the story—their characterization is secondary to what happens. There is characterization, but it’s less organic and personally motivated, more rote and repetitive and reactionary—so it feels stale. Where PRINCESS LEIA excels in developing a character and DARTH VADER succeeds in filling in a character's blanks, STAR WARS struggles to give us more than just the characters we know as we know them.
With one notable exception.
I re-watched the original trilogy recently for educational purposes (my younger sister hadn't seen them yet) and I realized something: Boba Fett is hardly in the movies at all. How is he so beloved? I’m sure the no-longer-canon books and comics had a great deal to do with that, but STAR WARS is certainly doing his fandom justice. The Boba Fett of the comics is ruthless, highly skilled, and, to use a technical term, badass.
LANDO is only one issue in, and has established itself as a better comic for Lando fans than as a great comic over all (you can read my review of it here); KANAN: THE LAST PADAWAN exists so strongly in its own world that its almost in a different category altogether. It's the only Clone Wars-era comic, and Kanan is such a new character, that the writers and artists work double-time to ground the story in stakes and given circumstances. It still asks you know something about "Star Wars"--or at least buy into the universe in general--but it acquits itself well as its own story. If you're a fan of STAR WARS: REBELS and, like me, think the time between STAR WARS: CLONE WARS and STAR WARS: REBELS is fertile storytelling ground, you'll definitely want to check it out.
The art styles on each comic vary, and that's another article in and of itself, but LANDO probably features the most compelling stuff. It and LEIA make strong plays for defining their own looks, while VADER and STAR WARS are locked in this odd battle to see who can most successfully re-create likenesses from the franchise. KANAN probably features the most dynamic work, stuff befitting its action/thriller style with a tone that nicely complements the "bad guys are cool" vibe seen in LANDO.
I’m obsessively collecting all things "Star Wars"-related in the new canon, so I own all the issues so far, but I can understand if you’re concerned about spending the money. With that said, if you care about "Star Wars" at all, you need to pick up PRINCESS LEIA; the character’s given her due, we learn more about her than we have before, and she just feels like someone you would want to follow. The current arc on DARTH VADER is a little strange, so you may be able to pass on current issues or just skim them, but the earlier issues do great work in establishing who he is as a person, who he is in the universe, and who he’s trying to be. STAR WARS made news recently for introducing Han Solo’s wife, so if you’re interested in that you can check it out, but owning the flagship title is less urgent than the others (Boba Fett is great, but maybe isn’t enough to justify a purchase). With that said, the next issue will be a standalone Obi-Wan Kenobi tale, so that may be worth the cover price alone.
All-in-all, the comics are great additions to the "Star Wars" canon and fun reads for fans of the franchise, but it’s hard to not be disappointed in STAR WARS, when PRINCESS LEIA is, well, parsecs ahead.