Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

Darth Vader - Dark Heart of the Sith

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

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During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

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Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

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However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

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This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

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I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

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Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – Black Spire by Delilah S. Dawson

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Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 3 September 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 378 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Man, it has been a good year for Star Wars tie-in fiction. So far in 2019 there have been a huge number of awesome books that cover some diverse periods of Star Wars history, from an intriguing look at a younger Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray to the electrifying third book in Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn series, Treason. As the year draws to a close, the focus of the Star Wars extended universe starts to turn to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. As a result, the rest of the books coming out this year will set the scene of the Star Wars universe before the events of this upcoming film. This includes the focus of this review, Black Spire by Delilah S. Dawson.

Black Spire is an interesting addition to this later year complement of Star Wars novels, and it is one that I have been looking forward to for a while. Dawson previously contributed to the Star Wars extended universe with 2017’s Phasma, and Black Spire is also part of the Galaxy’s Edge mini-series, which is connected with the Disneyland theme park area of the same name. As such, there are some intriguing elements to the book that make it worth checking out.

Following the events of The Last Jedi, the Resistance has been decimated, and only a few survivors remain. However, those survivors are still as determined as ever to fight the tyranny of the First Order, and need to find new recruits, allies and resources to continue this war. To that end, General Leia Organa has tasked her best spy, Vi Moradi, to find an isolated planet and set up a base to serve as a much-needed bolt hole for other surviving members of the Resistance. Still recovering from the trauma of her last adventure, Vi decides that the best location for this base is on the isolated planet of Batuu, which serves as the final stop between the known galaxy and the mysterious and unexplored expanses of Wild Space.

Heading out for Batuu with a ship full of supplies, materials for a base and a rather snarky droid, Vi is joined by Archex, a former captain in the First Order turned ally who is now seeking redemption. However, their mission begins poorly when they are forced to crash land on the planet and scavengers steal all their supplies. With no help coming from the rest of the Resistance, Vi is forced to make other arrangements to secure her objectives. Finding work in the Black Spire Outpost, Vi will have to make deals with local gangsters and barter with various businesses if she is wants to build up her base of operations and attract new recruits.

However, most of Batuu’s populace want nothing to do with the Resistance and are content to live their lives on the outskirts of the current conflict. But when a force of First Order stormtroopers arrive on Batuu led by a fanatical officer determined to hunt down Vi, they begin to understand the true power and terror of the group beginning to dominate the galaxy. As Vi’s small group of Resistance recruits band together to fight back against the superior force arrayed against them, will they be able to save Batuu, or will another planet fall to the destructive tyranny of the First Order?

The first thing that needs to be addressed is that Black Spire is tied into the newest themed area at Disneyland in California, Galaxy’s Edge. I have to admit, when I first heard that this book was going to be strongly associated with a theme park attraction, the rather blatant commercialism was a little off-putting, so I can totally understand why some people may be reluctant to check it out. However, those readers who give it a chance will be in a for a treat, as Black Spire is an exciting and at times emotional book that proved to be quite enjoyable.

I really liked the storylines contained within this book, as the whole concept of two opposing factions trying to win over a town for their own ends was one that I found to be pretty cool. Watching Vi and her allies attempt to gain resources and followers in the Black Spire Outpost was very entertaining, especially as the author comes up with several compelling Resistance recruits to help Vi in their fight against the First Order. The backstories of each of these followers, who include a young farm boy from an isolated anti-tech society, a flamboyant smuggler and a small alien mechanic, are explored in some detail, and each of them gets their own captivating character arcs. The author also spends some time showing the perspective of Black Spire’s sadistic villain, which makes for a great alternate viewpoint and intriguing change of pace at times. In addition to the fun characters, there is also a ton of action and adventure, as the two opposing sides face off against each other, the locals of Batuu and dangers of the surrounding wilderness. Overall, this was a really fun read, and it is worth checking out.

As I mentioned above, Black Spire is set in the immediate aftermath of The Last Jedi and helps showcase the universe and the Resistance’s struggle between this movie and The Rise of Skywalker. This book is also a sequel to Dawson’s previous book, Phasma, as Vi was the Resistance spy who was narrating Phasma’s life story, while Archex is a reborn version of one of Phasma’s antagonists, Captain Cardinal. While readers do not need to have read Phasma to enjoy this book, those who have will appreciate the continuation of several of the stories and character arcs that were started in the first book. Archex’s character arc, for example, is particularly fascinating, as he is a former First Order commander who has been deprogrammed from the organisation’s brainwashing and propaganda. His perspectives on First Order tactics and methods are really cool and help showcase the First Order as a truly evil and ruthless group. The guilt and regret that Archex experiences, combined with Vi’s mental trauma and PTSD from the events of Phasma, make for a compelling emotional heart to the whole book, especially as the author explores the extent of their new working relationship.

I think it is also important to mention that this book has some cool connections to the Galaxy’s Edge theme park area. In a mostly unplanned coincidence, I was actually halfway through Black Spire while visiting Disneyland and the Galaxy’s Edge area just over a week ago. As a result, while I was walking around through Galaxy’s Edge and enjoying the cool atmosphere, I noticed that a number of the characters and locations featured in Black Spire were inspired by the shops within the park area. In addition, some of the performances from the Disneyland cast revolved around the First Order hunting a Resistance spy hiding in the Black Spire Outpost, which is a cool reference to the events of the book. Indeed, one of the performances I saw actually kind of spoiled an event that occurred at the end of this book, although it is a rather minor reveal. I personally found that reading this book around the same time as I visited the theme park not only helped enhance my experience of Galaxy’s Edge, but it also made me appreciate a number of the elements of Black Spire at the same time. As a result, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is visiting Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, and it is truly interesting to see how the setting of the book is brought to life.

Black Spire by Delilah S. Dawson is another excellent addition to the Star Wars expanded universe with some neat storylines and compelling characters. While its strong connections to the newest themed area of Disneyland may not be for everyone, I felt that there were a lot of cool features in this book that make it really worth checking out. I am excited to see what Star Wars stories Dawson tells in the future, as Black Spire turned out to be an incredibly enjoyable read.