Spoiler warning: This story contains details and plot points from Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith Issue #25.
Since 2005, when Charles Soule first sat in a darkened movie theater and watched the newly born Darth Vader lurch off the surgical slab with an agonized cry of mourning, he’s been waiting to discover what happened after the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith.
More than a decade later, his comic book series Marvel’s Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith picked up at this pinnacle moment and invited fans on a visceral exploration of Anakin Skywalker’s transition beneath the mask. We’ve watched as he grew accustomed to his mechanized suit, sometimes being forced to rebuild himself from droid parts in the heat of battle. The story brought us closer to understanding Vader’s motivations and the Emperor’s power over his apprentice. His turn to the dark side has been punctuated by moments of light, an ambiguous action that can at once be read as Vader protecting his own interests or protecting the future, and levity.
Today, with the final issue in the series on store shelves, we finish this journey at Darth Vader’s side in the most intimate exploration of his inner self yet. Or as Soule described it in his initial pitch for the final issue: “Very trippy, very dark, and intense and strange.”
With a storyline that feels like an in inverse of the Mortis arc from The Clone Wars, where Anakin Skywalker was faced with a vision of his dark future, the final issue in the series invites us into Vader’s meditative mindscape on Mustafar as he travels among the ghosts of his past, a deeply moving journey woven with familiar images and dialogue clipped right from the Star Wars films and other stories. Vader confronts the looming shadow of his present form as it casts a pall over his childhood. Ultimately, he finds a twisted and evil version of Padmé and makes one last attempt to save her before accepting his fate, a pale vision of a single Jedi warrior seen just on the horizon. “He goes from no to yes in the series,” Soule says, literally bookending the first panel of the first issue and the last panel of the final issue with these simple words that denote a complete shift in the character’s thinking. “What he realizes in 25, and it was a very pointed choice to not show possibilities, everything he’s seen is stuff that’s already happened… What’s the point of doing anything other than this? This is all there is for me.
“The big thing that he realizes, the thing that he says ‘yes’ to is that he’s trapped. That he knows that there’s no other path for him, he sees where his path is leading: that vision on the last couple pages…this figure with a blue lightsaber waiting down the road for him.”
All things are possible through the Force. And through Soule’s storytelling and the exquisite illustrations by pencil artist Giuseppe Camuncoli, inks and finishes by Cam Smith and Dainele Orlandini, and colors from David Curiel, Dono Sánchez-Almara and Erick Arciniega, the series has managed to shed new light on the more intimate emotional side of an iconic villain and broken man. “I hope that what the series conveyed is that complexity,” Soule says. “You see a person of many, many layers even though he’s just a guy in a suit at this point.”
Duty and destiny
Soule alone has had a hand in expanding the backstories of several important legacy characters through Marvel comics series: Lando Calrissian, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Poe Dameron, just to name a few. But when he first got the call to pen the five-issue Star Wars: Lando series, Soule couldn’t believe his luck. “You know, I was an A New Hope kid,” Soule says, with fond memories of rewatching the original trilogy on LaserDisc and inventing new stories for his action figure collection alongside his siblings. “So as an adult, as a writer who I guess had finally worked my way up to the point where Marvel asked me to write a Star Wars book and Lucasfilm agreed to let me do it, was just shocking.”
With Lando, Soule introduced the tragic friendship of Lando and Lobot. “I just wanted to try to say something about Lando that felt correct to me, that would maybe adjust the way people think about him a little bit, deepen him a little bit, and even take a side character like Lobot who was really pretty disposable in The Empire Strikes Back but also very striking.”
In Star Wars: Obi-Wan & Anakin, Soule dabbled in his first story on the man who would become Darth Vader, focusing on the troubled teenage years of Obi-Wan’s young apprentice. The story, set between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, gave Soule the foundation for beginning to understand the character’s struggles with authority, duty, commitment, and destiny. “It was an opportunity to think about what a 13- or 14-year-old Anakin would be like, when he’s a teenager, when he’s questioning authority. Realizing that a decision that he made when he was nine is going to steer the course of his life… I mean, a space wizard came in with a laser sword and said, ‘Hey, let’s go!’ Any nine-year-old kid would go,” Soule says. “And I don’t think he understood what it meant to become a Jedi at that time. He certainly did later.”
But none of his previous projects were quite like facing Darth Vader. From the start, Soule and his creative team plotted out the 25-issue run, with the same core group working on each successive arc. “It’s a team that has been consistent, which is extremely unusual for a more-than-monthly comic book,” Soule says.
That cohesive collaboration gave the crew a kind of shorthand behind the scenes and lends discernible continuity to the storytelling. For instance, the visual language used to accompany scenes where Vader meditates, his phantom limbs a striking and empty white space while his organic form is crimson and raw, remains the same throughout the series because the same artists were responsible for illustration. “When I see it being drawn consistently and looking the same way throughout the series, then I know that if I use that piece of visual language, that piece of visual storytelling in another issue, it’s going to be consistent,” Soule says. “The readers will understand.”
For Soule, the series needed to be more about the metaphysical than the physical. Lightsaber-slashing stunts and fight choreography play a part, but the series is deeply character focused. “Everything we tried to do here was very much character-based, not just with Darth Vader, but also in the larger story of the galaxy, characters we know, the Empire growing, all of the things that would be happening as we transition from the prequel era into the original trilogy era,” Soule says. The series introduces the Inquisitors, connecting to Star Wars Rebels, as well as forging connections to The Clone Wars, and even the sequel trilogy. “There are so many ways that Vader as a comic serves as this central lynchpin between so many different parts of the current Star Wars universe and I think that is part of why people have responded to it the way they have,” Soule says.
A Vader like no other
Soule admits he was apprehensive about delving into this dark and unexplored era in the Sith Lord’s lore. “When I first got the call…I was a little nervous about it,” Soule says. “It’s a massive project, arguably the most popular and well-known villain in all of pop culture and arguably the most popular and well-known character in all of Star Wars. Which means one of the most well-known characters in all of fiction, right?” And here was Soule, being asked to illuminate this “hugely important chapter in his life.”
By picking up at the end of Revenge of the Sith, Soule practiced a bit of his own fan wish fulfillment. “I wanted that movie to go on for another four hours. And when Marvel called me and said, ‘You can do this book and we want to set it after Episode III,’ I was like, ‘I want to set it right after Episode III. Immediately after Episode III, and just go!’”
To walk beside Darth Vader on his final steps toward embracing the dark side, Soule and readers of the series would be confronting some of the character’s darkest moments. “It’s taking on a book about a person who was conceived by and sort of bathes in darkness as part of his daily MO,” Soule says, so he was determined “to find a way into the story that didn’t make me feel miserable all the time…I wanted to find a way to tell that story that wouldn’t be massively depressing either for me or for the readers.
“I think there are certainly moments in Vader that are very dark and very brutal from both a psychological and a physical perspective. But I think it’s still done in such a way that it still feels almost…cathartic,” Soule says hopefully. “You’re working through some of your own emotions — I certainly did when I was writing it — about the world through the Vader story. The frustration and anger and fear that he feels is something that I think is kind of relatable.”
And he wanted to deliver a never-before-seen side of the Sith Lord. “I wanted to create a Vader that didn’t feel like a Vader that we’ve seen in all the other Vader appearances,” Soule says. Aside from the final moments of Return of the Jedi, the Darth Vader fans know is hyper-competent and brutally calculating, an “extremely confident and menacing figure who seems to know exactly what he’s doing at all times, and can’t be stopped, can’t be defeated, can’t even screw up really in some ways,” Soule says. “But in this series he’s not that yet. He is somebody who’s just put on the suit. The first couple arcs are concerned quite a bit with him learning to use it, learning to physically exist as a person in this robotic suit of armor and understanding that the way he uses the Force has to change. He can’t be this agile, flippy-jumpy lightsaber guy,” Soule says. Vader is more like a walking tank. “And the choices he makes… He realizes what he is by the end of 25. And everything he’s lost, everything he’s set aside, what his relationship is going to be for the next several decades. For all he knows, the rest of his life.”
Darkness and light
As Soule sorted through Vader’s feelings, his journey to more machine than man cast his eventual redemption into new light. Even in the driver’s seat, Soule isn’t quite sure he’s ever rooting for Vader in any sense of the word. “He tends to kill people whenever he wants,” Soule says. As a child, Luke Skywalker’s journey resonated more with Soule. “I thought Vader was awesome, but I was afraid of him. The revelation that Vader was Luke’s father at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, I remember debating it a lot with my friends and my brothers and sister and my dad about whether that could possibly be true. Because it meant that Obi-Wan had lied. For those three years between Empire and Jedi you just didn’t know….It seemed so impossible that somebody that evil could be the father of somebody who was obviously so good and trying hard and so awesome. And so I resented Vader.”
Having written this chapter in the Sith Lord’s life, Soule emerges still conflicted. “I understand him. I like to think I understand him very well now. But I spent a lot of time thinking about him and what his story actually is, not just the way that the emotional beats are that we see in the films and other media, but the actual story between the story. What this guy felt like at different times in his life. Stuff he thought when he was 13 and he realized the impact of the choice he’d made. And so if you look at it from baby to nine-year-old to teenager to falling in love and getting married to betraying everybody and killing everyone he loves, all of the things that happen to him, it’s an awful story. This poor guy! It’s a story of missed opportunity and missed potential and manipulation and fear and all of the things that make him so compelling.”
As a reader, at times Vader seems to consider turning back to the light and toward his own redemption, through actions that contrast with his role as the Emperor’s brutal right hand. In issue 10, Vader captures a data file that contains the names of every Force-sensitive child the Jedi had identified before Order 66 nearly wiped them out. Jocasta Nu has died, desperately trying to get off Coruscant with the information salvaged from the Jedi Archive she once oversaw, “because she did not want that to fall into the Emperor’s hands,” Soule says.
But instead of turning it over to his master, Vader crushes the data file and lies toEmperor Palpatine about the success of his mission. “I think that’s a very debatable moment and I left it,” Soule says. “I could have made it more clear as to why he did that but I left it ambiguous because you don’t know if he wanted to avoid giving the Emperor more power, or was it that he wanted to avoid other children going through what he went through — being manipulated and turned the way the Emperor had done to him? Or was it some other Vader-y motivation? You don’t know. That is what I tried to do every opportunity I had, to make his motivations a little bit opaque. Is it Anakin doing this or is it Vader doing this? Because Anakin’s still kind of fresh with him, he’s only been in the suit for a little while at this point so you could see him maybe making redemptive choices here, but you don’t know. It could just be this is a very strategic, smart choice for Vader to make to avoid the Emperor getting more Force-sensitive people that could possibly attack him at some point.” Maybe Vader just doesn’t want the Emperor to have a chance to replace him, as he has so often with other apprentices in the past.
The speculation continued with the erection of Vader’s castle and the antagonist Momin, a death-defying creature in a mask who also provides some levity throughout the series as his corporeal form changes — with each misstep, Vader kills the host and places the mask on a new victim to show his frustration with the process of building a castle. “It felt right to me to make it a little bit lighter because I knew where the story was going to go after that,” Soule says.
The arc was constructed to answer a nagging question on Soule’s mind. “Why would Vader have a castle or a fortress at all?” he asks. “It just seems like a really odd thing for him to do. It’s badass, there’s no doubt about it. So my first question is why does he have this thing? Why would he want it and why would he put it on Mustafar of all places?”
In the shadow of the Sith
The climactic final issue is a masterful fusion of storytelling and art. As Vader steps through the portal, he leaves behind his shattered body and enters the mindscape of his earlier meditations.
“This was a very difficult issue because it’s largely silent in some ways,” Soule says. “The main character doesn’t speak very much.” So much must be conveyed through the illustrations and coloration.
“Most of the dialogue in the issue is lines from the films, and it’s lines that we’re familiar with,” Soule says. “It’s lines from comics, all these beats that we’ve seen that are iconic language from Darth Vader’s life and lines that he’s never heard, there’s stuff from the sequel trilogy that drops in there. So Vader stepping into this kind of world of his own legend and his own past and his own future, he’s stepping inside himself, but he’s also seeing outside himself to see what might happen. So when he meditates, when you see that happen first in issue 5 or 6 you see this kind of purple lightning field horrorscape… that’s what it feels like to him inside. And I wanted the readers to viscerally experience what Vader feels like inside. And that is what issue 25 is. It’s as close as I could come in a comic book to making it feel like what Darth Vader feels like emotionally.”
Inside Vader’s mind, a storm is raging. “The parts of himself that he’s lost, those parts cannot touch the Force,” Soule says. And what remains of the boy who was Anakin Skywalker is raw and wounded. Or as Momin says tauntingly, all that Vader is now is “a stub of charred meat in a cape.”
“In issue 25, you see a progression of Vader from young, little Anakin going all the way up through our current version of Vader. And as he ages in the mindscape, different pieces of him disappear and become whited out that way. So, for me, it was about how do I want it to feel for the reader? And communicating that as clearly as I can to Giuseppe [Camuncoli, Cam Smith, and David Curiel.]…I just write the words down, they make it look amazing.”
The art team brilliantly translated Soule’s description into quiet depictions of frustration and seething anger, despite working with a main character who almost devoid of facial expression. “He just has eyes and the eyes don’t move very much,” Soule says.
To complete his transition to the dark side, Vader must traverse his memories, traveling through the life he knew. Anakin’s boyhood gave Soule the chance to incorporate visions of Vader as young Anakin’s nightmare, and the story revisits an image that previously appeared as a teaser poster for The Phantom Menace, with young Anakin walking the sands of Tatooine with the looming shadow of Darth Vader cast behind him. “I always loved that image. If you’re a Star Wars fan, that’s a very iconic image,” Soule says. “It was so ubiquitous back then, back in the ’90s.” He liked it so much, he bought a copy when it first came out. “Little did I know I would be canonizing that picture. Sometimes you do stuff to amuse yourself.”
In his mindscape, Vader faces the Jedi Council, cutting down members recently dead and some still living. “They’re the ones he felt kind of betrayed him. They wouldn’t make him a member of the council.” Ultimately, he finds Padmé, or a version of her seemingly alive but already decked out in her funeral garb, yet he still cannot save her.
But in Soule’s mind, although he expects fans to speculate on whether or not Vader’s fortress holds a path similar to the “World Between Worlds” introduced in Star Wars Rebels, a realm where altering time and space is actually possible, the entire sequence is just an illusion. “The scene with Padmé is supposed to illustrate that. I don’t think that’s Padmé, right? I mean, who knows if it’s Padmé. Even though I wrote it, sometimes I don’t even know,” Soule says. “And we’ll see what the fans think. That’s the crazy thing about Star Wars, it almost doesn’t matter what I was doing, it matters how it’s received down the road. But in my mind, that’s not Padmé, that’s the dark side trying to convince Vader, ‘Look man, you’ve got to get on with the real work. That’s part of your past and your path goes to new places.’”
That’s somehow more devastating than a path to the real woman he loved, a second chance to save her from her fate. “I think this version is much more tragic,” Soule says. “It’s creepier that the dark side would use this thing that means so much to him and do this in this particular way. It just underscores the tragedy and makes it clearer that his path is his path and there’s no going back and there’s no changing it. You can only move forward. You have to let go, in other words. You have to let go of the past,” Soule says, echoing a similar quote from The Last Jedi that’s also part of the sequence, a distant feeling from Vader’s future grandson. “It’s a very Jedi lesson that he never learned that well and the dark side is trying to [teach] him. And I guess the dark succeeds where the light side failed.”
The ending only works because Soule has built up trust with the readers who have been along for the full ride, he says. “The reviews on this series have been extremely kind. People have been willing to follow it wherever it went and it’s gone to some really strange places,” he says. “Issue 25 is bizarre…it only works because it’s the end.”
But it can’t turn Darth Vader into a hero. “When he showed up in Rogue One, I was like ‘Yeah! This is fantastic.’ But am I ever really rooting for him? I wouldn’t say I’m ever rooting for Darth Vader. I will always watch him and probably always enjoy watching him do what he does and being Vader, but I, you know, I hate him. That’s the thing that makes him such an incredibly powerful villain. Even with all this humanization and all of this depth of storytelling that goes into him from the original trilogy the prequels, Rebels, my comic, Kieron Gillen’s incredible comic from a few years back, all of the other ways his story’s been told in a cohesive way, he is still the villain. He is still the bad guy. And he is still very easy to hate even if you understand every choice he’s making.”
Soule hopes readers will be satisfied that the comic fulfills its destiny as the story he and others envisioned after Revenge of the Sith. “This was the story I was desperate to see,” Soule says and it seems to have resonated with fans. “They wanted to see Jedi being hunted. They wanted to see the [red] lightsaber. They wanted to see the castle. And I hope that this version of it was the best they could possibly hope for outside of maybe a film version So if I did that and made Vader as awesome and terrifying and wonderful as we all kind of think he is, then I did my job.”
Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them!