Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Forgotten but Not Gone - Lost Reviews from Thor's Comic Book Review Column, Star Wars Edition

Originally written on November 20, 2015.  A November 23rd column didn't happen, and this was forgotten for the December 1st

Star Wars #12 (Marvel, $3.99)
Kanan #8 (Marvel, $3.99)
Star Wars: Vader Down #1 (Marvel, $4.99)
by Graig Kent

I was wondering when, in this ramp-up cycle to The Force Awakens, my threshold for all things Star Wars would start showing it’s shiny metal head. What burned me out of my long, seemingly undying love of Star Wars originally was not the mediocrity of the prequels, but rather the mass-market product push that followed The Phantom Menace, one that literally broke my bank and contributed to a half-decade-long personal recession. I saw the remaining movies in the theatre and was among the vocal few who weren’t so offended by them, but the love had certainly lapsed.

Strange magic is happening with The Force Awakens... to pull me back in; to get me to watch The Clone Wars and Rebels and the films avidly with my six-year-old; to get me interested in the comics for the first time since X-Wing: Rogue Squadron ended; to even get me buying toys again (but not for myself...mostly); and to get me to actively celebrate and anticipate and participate. But I could sense early on that in the year-long whirlwind fervor leading into Episode VII there would be too much Star Wars, and I was right.

I didn’t even try to keep up with everything. Stepping into a bookstore (what’s that?) recently and seeing their Star Wars table display filled with new-ish titles I was completely unfamiliar with totally exemplified this point. Proper novels, young-adult novels, teen novels, tween novellas, Wimpy Kid-style storybooks, younger reader books, Star Wars-as-Shakespeare, weird knitted Star Wars picture books, and on and on, a dizzying array of new-movie-capitalization that I was more repulsed by than attracted to. Beyond repeated viewings of the trailers, the hunt for the ever-elusive 3 ¼-inch Captain Phasma action figure, and the Marvel comics, I’ve been dutifully avoiding the mass-market product push that so brutally crushed me back in ‘99.

But even with such minimal investment, I’m feeling my born-again Star Wars fandom wane (though anticipation for Episode VII is still nauseatingly high) in the face of too much Star Wars. And yes, I’m just talking about the comics. [Star Wars #12 Cover] We’ve got three ongoing series of somewhat erratic schedules (Star Wars, Darth Vader, and Kanan), while there have been four mini-series of varying quality (Princess Leia, Lando, Shattered Empire, Chewbacca), and now a crossover mini-event, Vader Down, all in the span of 11 months. That’s over 50 comics at least $3.99 a pop. It’s a pretty harsh cut into anyone’s comics budget. And the fact is I’ve only enjoyed about fifty percent of the output so far.

For my $13 this week I got the latest issues of Star Wars, Kanan, and the aforementioned kickoff issue to the Vader Down crossover.

Twelve issues into Marvel’s flagship Star Wars series and I’m still largely underwhelmed by it. Jason Aaron has earned the right to be called a superstar writer in comics, and likewise his artistic companions -- first John Cassaday and now Stuart Immonen -- can lay claim to such a descriptor, and yet the end result for this most prominent series have felt less like Rebels or Clone Wars (two cartoon series which greatly expand the Star Wars universe through character and mythology) and more like Shadows of the Empire (a good intentioned late-’90’s multi-media effort to shoehorn in a not-so-epic adventure between Empire and Jedi). Rather than fitting comfortably between Episodes IV and V, Aaron’s scripts have the sensibility of a kid playing with his toys in a sandbox. There’s unfettered imagination at play, and a lot of fantasy role-playing, and while love and storytelling craft definitely play a part, there’s a questionable sense of authenticity. In a way, they feel not too distant from Marvel’s original Star Wars series, in that they don’t seem like a genuine bridge between films (as it’s so widely touted to be), but fun, out-of-continuity diversions.

This issue opens with bounty hunter Dengar sitting on top of a defeated Chewbacca, staring at Han Solo and Leia thinking he has the upper hand. The mere appearance of Dengar, in advance of Empire Strikes Back, can’t avoid seeming anachronistic. Meanwhile Luke is in Grakkus the Hutt’s gladiatorial arena facing down a giant cybernetic beastie, a plot point which play double duty in foreshadowing Luke’s encounter with Jabba and his equally flukey survival against the rancor. Again this seems anachronistic at best, redundant at worst.

Part of what makes Aaron’s scripts dissatisfying is the way he makes the Star Wars universe feel so small. We keep seeing things, places and people that are if not outright familiar then reminiscent of something else. Another part is that Aaron’s stories advance the characters in ways that seem out of step with the films (at this point Han should be saying to Luke, “That’s four you owe me kid”). It’s not that I’m unable to enjoy seeing Chewie fling a dude off a building, or to be impressed by any sign of fighting prowess from a Hutt, but when Artoo starts dispensing lightsabers to Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie like fruit pies in those old Hostess comic book ads, and said lightsabers are used somewhat adeptly by said characters against a troop of TIE Fighter pilots, I have to call bullshit. It seems like outside of that one time on Hoth, Han shouldn’t have held a lightsabre before, amiright?.
It’s got to be a tough job, expanding upon the experiences of the core crew from the original trilogy, since their on-screen presence and growth are so defined in the hardcore audience’s mind while their off screen growth largely seems inconsequential. Three story arcs in on this series, I’m not sold that Aaron is the right writer to lead these characters through their journeys, with story elements and action sequences feeling stunty (like the whole “Mrs. Solo” thing which was proven this issue to be a stunt). Stuart Immonen, meanwhile, has bettered Cassaday’s photo-reference-quality detailed panels, by adding a bit more pizzaz. Not only that, since coming on board with this arc, Immonen has bested every Star Wars comic artist before him, save maybe Al Williamson (but probably even then). He gets the characters, their physicality, yes even their likenesses seemingly innately (but I’m sure there’s a lot of reference craft happening). He builds alien environments and spaceships that are fresh but feel completely at home in the universe. A single panel crowd scene reveals a horde of recognizable alien life forms from across the universe in the best way, and man is he ever getting those lens flares in before The Force Awakens drops (I suppose we have colorist Justin Ponsor gorgeous coloring to thank).
It’s rough, because I’m not enjoying this Star Wars series for its story or characters, but the art is fantastic, and the spectacle is kind of great. I don’t feel like I can drop it outright, but I probably should.

Kanan is the only series in Marvel’s Star Wars offerings so far to work far outside of the original trilogy, here obviously piggybacking on the surprise success of Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels. While it centers around one of the main characters of that show, it stays out of the in-show continuity and opts for telling the backstory of Kanan Jarrus, nee Padawan Caleb Dume, in nonlinear fashion.

The first story arc for this series took us back to the end of Caleb Dume’s Jedi training, when the call for Order 66 came in and Caleb went on the run. This second arc steps back even further to when Caleb first became a padawan, also nicely diving into the background of his troubled master, Deepa Billaba. There’s some nice character building going on here, but I think the time hopping structure it’s presented in poses problems with getting the audience truly invested

The art from Pepe Larraz is quite nice. Having the luxury of less photo referencing to do than most of the other artists on Star Wars gives him a bit more freedom and expressiveness for his characters, both facially and phsyically. With the series’ roots being in animation, Larraz’s work bridges the “real-world” Star Wars comics and the animated universe nicely.

Greg Wiseman (Gargoyles, Young Justice), who served as executive producer and writer on Rebels before departing for season two, was certainly the right man for this writing job. With a background in comics, as well as having an insider’s view into how Kanan as a character was built, he has effortlessly bridged the character to his and the Jedi past in these stories, while also bridging some of the gaps between Revenge of the Sith and Rebels. This story arc does feel more an extension of The Clone Wars than Rebels in all honesty, which isn’t innately a bad thing, but at the same time it never quite feels like Caleb/Kanan is interesting enough of a character to center an entire ongoing series around. Rebels is such an ensemble piece that it instead should be an anthology series cycling through the crew of the Ghost, rather than singling one particular member out.

Where Aaron and Immonen’s Star Wars seems like pieces to a whole different puzzle from the Star Wars we already know, Kanan at times feels like leftover pieces from a completed puzzle: you’re still trying to figure out how they fit, even though they’re seemingly superfluous.

Continuing that analogy, there’s Marvel’s Darth Vader series which feels like pieces of a familiar puzzle falling into place. It’s some of the absolute best Star Wars comic bookery in the history of Star Wars comic bookery. That series, written by Kieron Gillen, with art from Salvador Larocca, has been note-perfect from issue one, capturing all the menace and stature of Vader from the original trilogy, while bettering the prequels for capturing Anakin Skywalker underneath all that. Particularly, Gillen has managed to elucidate Vader and Palpatine’s relationship in a manner even the original trilogy never quite grappled, and continues to do so with incredible subtlety. Add on top of that the evil counterparts to Artoo and 3PO in Beetee and Triple-Zero and their creator, the fantastic Dr. Aphra, plus Gillen’s ability to get to the quick of Vader’s obsession with Luke, it’s all not just tonally perfect but brilliant fun.

So imagine my surprise to find that it’s not Gillen writing part 1 to Vader Down but Jason Aaron. Double my surprise to find all my complaints about Aaron’s Star Wars scripting dissipating when he puts Vader front-and-center and manages to deliver a read that doesn’t miss a step with the ongoing Darth Vader comic. Just as Darth Vader’s story of his fall and redemption is the centerpiece to the cinematic Star Wars saga to date, it’s his story that is also the lifeblood of Marvel’s ongoing Star Wars comic books.

In Vader Down, old Darth has finally secured a lead on the young, force-enabled pilot who blew up the Death Star, whom he’s already well aware is his son. Rather than follow the Imperial company line, Vader is desperate to connect with Luke on his own, off the books (though his plans for Luke are made obvious at the end of Empire Strikes Back, here he seem to just have an urge to meet this boy, his last connection to Padme), to the point that he’s heading relatively solo (only Dr. Aphra and the droids as backup) to a Rebel training planet. The book opens with Vader running headlong into dozens of X-Wings on a training mission that just got serious.

If you watched the extra-length second season premiere of Star Wars Rebels this summer, you saw just exactly what kind of ridiculously amazing flying Darth Vader was capable of, and Mike Deodato here captures that exact same (if not even more) intensity and dazzling spectacle. It’s somehow not even a fair fight despite the odds. Deodato also jumps in and out of cockpits during this sequence which, for the first time I can recall, captures fully the spirit of the Death Star trench run in comic book form. Deodato also give us a lingering double-page spread of the starscape post-battle, and it’s horrific… really hits home the “war” of Star Wars.

Of course it’s Luke who is the one to take Vader down, and does so with a bit of Aaron’s bombast that could seem out of sorts for Star Wars if it didn’t play so well as a set up for the next leg of the story. This finds Vader on the ground, alone, against the bulk of the Rebellion breathing down his neck. Despite the battalions surround him, you still can’t help but feel sorry for the good guys in this situation, as they’re all facing a tempest in a shiny black teapot..

When the Marvel Star Wars line was announced, I was dreading a Darth Vader-centric comic the most, fearing that further exploration of the character would demystify him even more, damaging his cool, like a Hayden Christensen force ghost haunting the whole proceedings. I never expected a Darth Vader-centric comic to be good, never mind one of the best reads on a comic stand each month. To see that it’s not just Gillen able to make magic for the character, but to see other writers also nailing it means the character and story have heretofore unthought of legs.

I couldn’t bring myself to even pick up the recent Chewbacca mini-series (and Chewie is my all-time favourite Star Wars character), such is my disappointment with so much of Marvel’s Star Wars books so far (and fatigue thereof), but as long as they’re offering up Darth Vader comics of this caliber, it’s all quite worth it.

Graig Kent is quite literally counting down the days to December 18. He’s thinking movie theatres should offer a weekly pass for $60-$75 good for unlimited screenings of The Force Awakens, Friday to Thursday. He’s taking the week off anyway, just in case.

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