Sunday, January 17, 2016

Retro Marvel: Star Wars #21

The Vader Down event that Marvel Comics has just finished publishing reminds me of a time when Darth Vader was not overexposed like he is today.  It was inevitable that after his origin was shown in the prequels, the character would lose the mystery that helped make him such a great villain.  It is hard to imagine today, but there was a time when Vader's appearance brought dread and his presence in books and comics was used sparingly to help propagate that sense of fear that something bad was going to happen when he showed up.  This was used expertly in The Empire Strikes Back whenever Vader appeared on the screen; every scene with Vader was used to show just how powerful and evil he was.  He intimidates and callously kills his subordinates, he cohorts with Bounty Hunters, and he has no problem cutting off the hand of his own son, the main hero of these movies, to show he means business.  In fact, when the movie viewer learns that he has a master in the Emperor, Vader's evil is immediately transferred to that character.  After all, if Darth Vader is this powerful and evil, the being he bows down to and calls master must be even worse!

No one can blame Marvel for publishing an ongoing Darth Vader comic; Dark Horse Comics had done it first with several one-shots and a series of mini-series that focused on the character.  One of the recipes for a successful Star Wars comic that Dark Horse learned was to feature the main heroes from the movies in the comic.  Dark Horse spent many years publishing comics and expanding the Star Wars universe, but it was those comics that featured the familiar heroes and villains of the movies that sold the best.  Marvel did not acquire the Star Wars license to squander the launch on lesser known characters and neither did Dark Horse when they published their first Star Wars comic, the mini-series Star Wars: Dark Empire in 1991.  Admittedly, now that we know how the Star Wars story unfolds and are privy to details of Darth Vader's demise, the impact this villain has when interacting with our main heroes is lessened.  But that was not the case when Marvel published Star Wars #21 in a story titled Shadow of a Dark Lord.

Star Wars #21a - Marvel Comics, U.S. (March 1979)
Star Wars #21 was the fourth of six issues that took place in what is known as The Wheel saga.  The first 4 pages of this comic are spent on a sequence with Princess Leia escaping the quarters of Senator Greyshade, administrator of The Wheel, as she pontificates to bring the readers up to speed on the overall story.  The Wheel is a space station and as Han Solo puts it, "the ultimate gambling palace".  Han, Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 have boarded the space station to escape Imperials and get medical help for Luke.  In Star Wars #18, Luke is performing a Jedi meditation on the Millennium Falcon when he suddenly screams and goes into a coma.  On pages 5 - 9 of Star Wars #21, we learn why Luke goes into the coma.  Pages 6 - 8 show a sequence of Luke confronting Darth Vader at Obi-Wan Kenobi's insistence.  As Luke and Vader battle with lightsabers in his mind, he unknowingly physically defeats a squad of Wheel Security personnel.  Leia wakes Luke up from his coma and Luke tells her "I-I... touched someone else's mind!  Only for an instant... Just in passing.  It was twisted... evil... and strong, Princess!  So strong it made me want to hide... to crawl inside myself and never come out.  Worst of all, that contact makes certain what we could only suspect up to now... Darth Vader is alive--!  Alive... and searching for us!" This sequence is the first appearance of Darth Vader in the title since Star Wars #6 that is not a flashback to the events of the movie.  But Vader's presence does not end there...

Pages 10 - 12 show Darth Vader leading a squad of Stormtroopers on the planet Ultaar.  They are searching through the charred remains of a Rebel outpost and discover one Rebel who is barely alive.  Vader interrogates the Rebel and learns that a cyborg named Valance has destroyed the base while searching for a boy and two droids.  The rebel pleads for help to ease his pain and Darth Vader ignites his lightsaber and stabs the wounded Rebel, killing him instantly.  Vader then contacts Captain Wermis on the Star Destroyer in orbit over Ultaar to find out what is at the coordinates where his mind touched another's.  Wermis tells him it is empty space and Vader surmises the mind he touched was from a passing spaceship.  The probable destination for the ship would be The Wheel and the destination for the Star Destroyer carrying Vader!

This was a terrific re-introduction of Darth Vader to the Star Wars title and shows how effective this character is when used in moderation.  It sets up an eventual showdown between Darth Vader and Valance The Bounty Hunter.  Additionally, it increases the tension we already feel for our heroes on The Wheel.  Darth Vader is a force of nature that cannot be stopped.  He is so powerful and evil, his mind touching Luke's is enough to put Luke into a coma!

The final pages of the comic increase the immediate stakes for our heroes and the story ends with Han Solo and Chewbacca in an zero-gravity arena filled with other contestants.  The contest is a battle to the death and there can only be one winner.  Between that and the coming of Darth Vader, how could you not want to read the next issue in this title!

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