The Force Awakens opens this week, so it seems fitting to review the latest Star Wars comic: Darth Vader Annual #1. Annuals as stand-alone stories can be hit or miss; they run the risk of being too far off from the main story to engage readers. In the case of this issue, the story has absolutely nothing to do with the main Darth Vader series, but luckily it’s just as interesting.
The tale is simple: the Emperor sends Vader to a Mid Rim planet to “reinforce their cooperation” with the Empire. But simple as the story may be, it also overflows with Star Wars nostalgia. Vader is as ruthless and intimidating as fans of the Original Trilogy know him to be. Scribe Kieron Gillen also writes the main Darth Vader book, and he knows how to write these characters well. Meanwhile, the pencils by Leinil Yu, inks by Gerry Alanguilan, and colors by Jason Keith combine to create sharp, shadowed images that give the book a distinct edge.
But while the familiar dark nature makes this an enjoyable read, the strange addition of dark humor is what truly makes this an annual worth picking up. First and foremost, Gillen brings in the droids he introduced in Dark Vader as evil counterparts to C-3PO and R2-D2. 0-0-0 (Triple Zero) and BT-1 (Bee Tee) are sadistic and masochistic droids whose love for torture sometimes gets in the way of completing their missions properly. That is hands down the funniest thing in any of these new Marvel Star Wars books and makes this series worth checking out on its own.
Even more intriguing is Vader’s ability to generate laughs himself. At one point, he walks through a ballroom during a waltz, a cultural expression he does not understand (“All this…dancing…is unnecessary.”). A man stops him and instructs him that all attendees must dance. It plays out as one would suspect it would, but with a bitingly witty twist. It’s unusual to see the Dark Lord of the Sith throw quips, but again it works in the strangest way.
But Gillen reminds readers just how twisted Vader’s sense of humor can be by the end of the story. The final scene is not-so-subtly reminiscent of A New Hope, and recalls the interactions between Vader and Princess Leia. It ends on a beat of devastation and provides just another example of why Vader is one of the greatest villains of all time.
The juxtaposition of a dark tone with humor may not be something one would expect in a story about Darth Vader, but that may be why this annual works so well. Even more important, it stays true to its roots. Many fans worry that these Expanded Universe stories will stray from Star Wars‘ core values, but those fears can be cast aside as long as Kieron Gillen is writing Darth Vader. He understands this world and how to tell stories in it. This book is absolutely worth its $4.99, so pick it up and read it while waiting in line to see The Force Awakens.