The Dark Lord Rising In Marvel’s Star Wars: Darth Vader #12
The growing pains of the Empire continue this week in Marvel’s Darth Vader #12. Something we haven’t heard a lot about the early days of the Empire was how Vader established his place as the Emperor’s right hand in the Imperial hierarchy. If you ever wondered about a specific event that let the officers of the Empire know what Vader was capable of and why he commanded the fear he did….well, you are going to get a look at it in this issue. It goes without saying, Darth Vader is a survivor, and the events of this issue set the standard for Imperial officer shuddering after what unfolds. SPOILERS AHEAD….
After a failed assassination attempt in the previous issue, Vader was able to trace whoever put the contract out on his life back to top ranks of the Empire, in the heart of Coruscant. As his ship arrives at Coruscant, Vader learns the Emperor and only five other ranking Imperial officers could have put the contract out on him from the computer it was traced back to. Vader is a Sith Lord on a mission, ready to find out who put a target on his helmet. He’s learning quick that as the Empire takes its formation, there are going to be a lot of people trying to get their share of power. I have to imagine Vader secretly hopes it’s the Emperor, as if would give him an excuse to take out old Sheev and take control of the Empire.
It’s a trap! Looks like whoever hired Vader’s assassination put a contingency plan into place. Coruscant’s automated planetary defenses have been reprogrammed and have targeted Vader’s ship as a Separatist one. Not only that, but someone is jamming their transmissions so any override codes Vader has are useless. It’s nice to see that whoever came up with this plan to take out Vader realized how resilient he is in the face of death. This person recognizes that however much they don’t know about Vader, there’s no reason to underestimate someone whom the Emperor holds in such high esteem.
Borrowing some old moves from Revenge of the Sith, Vader is able to evade those missile defenses for a few turns. He enjoys demonstrating his piloting skills for the Ninth Sister, as he’s enjoyed showing his superiority to her at any chance he gets. However, fancy flying only gets one so far against planetary defense systems. A missile eventually catches the ship, forcing Vader to crash land on the Coruscant surface. The Dark Lord announces that he’s done playing whatever game he’s caught up in– which leads me to believe in that moment he’s convinced Palpatine is behind all of this.
When Vader arrives at the Imperial Palace, Palpatine is combing through the ruins of Jocasta Nu’s secret Force-artifact cache. If you’ve been reading these newer Marvel books, you’ll know this particular helmet ends up in Sheev’s personal space yacht years later in Marvel’s Lando (which is a great book in its own right, and I highly recommend it). Vader not so subtly mentions that the contract taken out on his life points to Palpatine or someone very close to him being behind it. The Emperor, in his own lack of subtly, asks to examine Vader’s refitted lightsaber. I forgot to mention earlier that Vader was also in the process of repairing and refining his broken lightsaber after it’s mishap in the previous issue while on his way to Coruscant. It’s the classic hilt we remember from the Original Trilogy.
In an act very similar to Vader’s ignition of Luke’s new blade in Return of the Jedi, Palpatine takes the new, crimson blade for a test drive. It’s made very clear by old Sheev that he’s not interested in testing Vader, he’s only interested in teaching him. The Emperor pulls the strings, but he isn’t interested in hypotheticals. He claims that he only teaches, but his methods of manipulation walk a very fine line between testing and playing games with his pawns. Palpatine plays chess on a galactic scale and is self-assured that he knows the end result of every move. That’s what he’s trying to tell Vader here, that he leaves very little up to chance, and though the game might be a long one, he’s certain he can not only defeat his opponent, but he will make them his pawns. At this point in the galaxy’s history, that is very much true, and if the Prequel Trilogy showcased the end of the Jedi’s golden age, Darth Vader is showing us the first part in Palpatine’s golden age of deception and manipulation.
Sorry, I kind of went off on a tangent there. Back to the issue of whether Palpatine tried to have Vader killed. The answer is no and Vader takes his master at his word. Palpatine reminds his apprentice he’s quite busy trying to build his empire, and if anyone is trying to take Vader out, Vader should be the one to deal with it. The Dark Lord departs their meeting and goes into deep meditation; stretching out with the dark side of the Force, he senses a conversation taking place somewhere else on Coruscant.
These two– and you’ll see why their identities are not important– are the troublemakers that put the contract out on Vader. When it comes down to it, Vader finds there is no target on his back because he’s a Sith. This has nothing to do with the Force or anything related to his hunt for the surviving Jedi. This action was political, by those in the Empire who would like to rise to the top. None of these high-ranking officers had a “meet-and-greet” with Vader, and they are afraid of him not because he could Force-choke the life out of them, but because they don’t know why he’s so special. He’s a direct subordinate to the Emperor and commands considerable Imperial forces in his Jedi purge, so the Imperial brass is understandably concerned. What these two hoped was that Vader would suspect the Emperor, try to kill him, and be killed or imprisoned in the process. The anonymous Imperial officers are quite discouraged in their meeting here that Vader didn’t take the bait.
Once Vader is aware that all this charade added up to was political cage rattling, he goes to Palpatine and shares his discovery. In a strange request, Vader requests Palpatine provide some sort of public validation in regards to Vader’s position. If the Emperor wants order and not a potential coup every week, then he really doesn’t have a choice. Earlier, he mentioned to Vader that there is a certain joy in knowing one has so much power they create enemies who want them dead. Palpatine is in quite a different position, as he’s behind a fortified wall of stormtroopers on the most secure planet in the galaxy. Vader’s out in the galaxy, getting his hands dirty, trying to finish a death march his master started. He doesn’t have time to relish in the act of battle. As Mad Max would say, his existence has been distilled to once single instinct: survive.
The Emperor gathers his top officers to make a more formal introduction on behalf of Darth Vader. There is to be a demonstration of sorts, and the only boundary Palpatine sets for Vader is that Tarkin goes unharmed (Just in case you’re reading, Charles Soule, I think Tarkin would make a fine addition to this series). Palpatine states unequivocally that Vader speaks for him at all times. If Vader gives an order, the Emperor is giving an order. Then Vader steps up, front and center, to introduce himself.
I almost feel guilty writing about this next part. It’s so over-the-top and brilliant I’d even say you should stop reading here and go get the issue yourself. You’ve been warned.
Vader calls the names of five Imperial officers and requests they step to the front of the assembly. He informs the assembly that an assassination attempt has been made on his life and that he’s not certain who was behind it, but he has his suspects. All the Imperial officers need to know, according to Vader, is that he always survives. Then, without warning….
Vader executes them in what I imagine to be the personification of agony. Can you imagine being an Imperial officer, standing at attention in the midst of this? Meet your new boss, and by the way, he’s going to murder five of your fellow officers just to demonstrate he’s not one to be messed with. Sure, for all us fans, this is pretty typical Vader, but if you put it in the context of this is his “Imperial coming out”, it’s quite horrific. Much respect to artist Giuseppe Camuncoli, inker Daniele Orlandini, and colorist David Curiel for capturing the raw brutality of this moment. I was blown away by this, and maybe I’m overreacting, but it was such a strangely terrifying scene that will help define Vader’s legacy. This just adds another great layer to the most iconic villain in Star Wars.
Since I’m already singing praises to the artists, I’d like to keep going. These frames of Vader meditating and the representation of his soul on the dark side, astral plane are just breathtaking. If this week’s excellent Rebels episode is any indication, as well The Last Jedi, we are going to get some deep explanations of the various ways others experience the Force and how those who use it experience it. We can see the light at this point, creeping into the darkness of Vader’s tortured soul. He’s still too far gone, but the last thing we see in this issue is a cracked window Vader stares out of. Anakin Skywalker has been defeated, and what’s left of his tortured soul is fractured and trying to break through the darkness. No doubt we will see the light grow in these representations, but for now, I can’t imagine a better way to interpret the conflict and pain that drives the rage and anger that is Darth Vader.
This issue reminded me how lucky we Star Wars fans are to be getting stories like this. Charles Soule continues to drive the Vader narrative at hyperspace speeds, while not skipping over any detail. These issues have all been action-packed and fast paced, but nothing is sacrificed in the storytelling and character development. In fact, these issues have been some of the most illuminating and nuanced stories about Vader that have ever been told, in my opinion. If any of you have been reading my reviews, you know I’ve bemoaned the over-usage of Vader as he seemed to pop-up in almost every Star Wars medium when the canon was reset a few years back. For me, it’s a huge credit to Charles Soule and the artists that they’ve not only delivered an excellent series, but they continue to challenge my perceptions of Anakin Skywalker’s story.