In advance of next week's series finale issue, StarWars.com talks to writer Kieron Gillen about Marvel's saga-changing comic.
Darth Vader is such an icon, not just for film, but for culture in general. With that kind of legacy comes an incredible amount of expectation, and Marvel's Darth Vader ongoing series continually delivered. The first issue was published in February of 2015, and the title has since left an indelible mark on the Star Wars saga. With the final installment, issue #25, hitting next Wednesday, October 12, StarWars.com spoke with Darth Vader writer Kieron Gillen about the legacy of Vader, making him a starring character, and how he got us to root for a Sith Lord.
StarWars.com: Describe your relationship with the character of Darth Vader before you learned you were going to write an ongoing series.
Kieron Gillen: I mean, I always say this when I talk about Darth Vader -- the very first movie I ever saw in the cinema was [The] Empire [Strikes Back]. You know, that was the first movie I remember being taken to the cinema to see. Darth Vader was literally the entry point of me into fantasy and science fiction. It’s my entry into public life and geek culture. It’s my kind of formative view into what evil looks like.
So, for me and Jason [Aaron], and I’m sure a lot of Star Wars writers, are on an age where Star Wars was absolutely formulate. So that’s where I shoot with Darth Vader there. He’s like one of the iconic pop cultural villains of the 20th century.
StarWars.com: Oh, absolutely. And I think if you grew up in a certain generation (I was born in the early '70s), he’s just kind of imprinted in your mind.
Kieron Gillen: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s like I said, you know, I was born in ’75, so he’s just there, looming, magnificent. I’ve always said, it’s like it’s very weird of me doing Vader, 'cause of course, it’s between New Hope and Empire, so as I’m basically writing the prequels to my own entry into pop culture. So it’s like a weirdly cyclical thing, and it’s very primal.
StarWars.com: Throughout your career as a writer, you have created original stories for many iconic characters. How did those moments prepare you for the Darth Vader series, and how do you compare writing about superheroes versus telling stories set in the Star Wars universe?
Kieron Gillen: Oh, it’s so much about tone. So, a superhero universe like the Marvel universe, it’s a polyglot universe. It’s got many, many genres in it, and some of them are tonally different. You have stuff like Squirrel Girl in the same world as the Punisher. You know what I mean?
StarWars.com: [Laughs] Right.
Kieron Gillen: While Star Wars, of course, isn’t. You know, Star Wars has the tone. We know what feels like Star Wars, so it’s so much the job. Me and Salva [Larroca] were actually trying to make it like Star Wars on paper. That was always the idea, to do like a conversion of Star Wars. The idea was, "How can we best translate the tropes of the Star Wars movies and make them work and still [feel like Star Wars]." You know, that was always the plan.
And the other big difference between most of my work for Marvel, and this is in a set period. It’s a bit like, I know where it starts and I know where it ends. And I’m actually trying to almost [write] a historical novel. I know of the larger structure. The question becomes what’s interesting in that period.
StarWars.com: It’s almost like historical fiction, in a way.
Kieron Gillen: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s like, that’s the kind of thing. I researched the canon. I researched the history of the Star Wars universe of that period especially, and kind of went, "Okay, what’s the implicit story here?" I felt a lot like an archaeologist or an historian, as opposed to the Marvel universe where we’re normally writing stories, which are history being written. Just like current affairs.
You know, it’s the idea that you’re looking at what’s going on in the moment and sort of what can dovetail with it, without really knowing where it’s kind of going. Actually, you kind of know where it’s going because that’s kind of the job. You know, like the big crossovers and all that, but there’s so much detail that I don’t know. The stuff I don’t know about [that's] happening that period, [Lucasfilm] will fill me in on. So yes.
StarWars.com: And that actually ties in perfectly to the next question. Since Vader has been around for almost 40 years, and his arc is well known, that’s a challenge, because with that knowledge comes the arduous task of telling a story that develops Vader as a character when the audience knows full well what is going to happen at the end of Return of the Jedi. So how do you insert character development into this character, and tell a story that advances Vader without approaching the growth he reaches in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?
Kieron Gillen: I mean. historical novels are something I come back to a lot. Oh yeah, you know where it ends up, but like, in World War II, you know the allies win.
Kieron Gillen: Okay. And that doesn’t stop us watching World War II movies. In the case of this, it’s like, "Okay, what haven’t we seen? What happens?" So, you know, my core reading of the series was two main sort of pillars. One was Vader in A New Hope as kind of a sole survivor of the biggest military disaster of all time.
And if you watch the prequels, you know, the Emperor’s basic plan was get some official power, build a Death Star. Takes him 20 years, and then follow in to actually finish dissolving the Old Republic, and rule through fear. That’s actually the plan. So 20 years actually falls apart due to a lucky shot by Luke Skywalker, and, you know, Vader’s the only man who’s around to take the blame. So clearly, Vader’s going to be hammered. [Laughs] You know? The Emperor’s not gong to be pleased. At the same time, when we see Empire, [Vader]’s much more powerful than he ever was in A New Hope. He is not the person looming over someone’s shoulder. He’s acting entirely, he’s commanding fleets, he’s actually killing people with a lot more freedom than before. You know what I mean?
Kieron Gillen: In A New Hope...the famous Force choke scene, he doesn’t kill him [Admiral Motti]. In the second movie, I’m pretty sure he would.
Kieron Gillen: So, in other words, he must have fell, and he must have risen. So that’s kind of the story arc. It’s like, how did Vader become the creature we see in Empire?
And the second main, sort of character thing is, we know at the start of Empire that he knows that Luke is his son. You know, the opening scroll states clearly that he’s pursuing Luke Skywalker across the galaxy. He’s not just pursuing the Rebels. He’s pursuing Luke Skywalker. So it’s at some point between the two movies Vader has realized [he has a son]. So that’s the other key beat. So Vader’s journey isn’t a small thing. That’s also him realizing the last 20 years of my life have been a lie.
StarWars.com: Oh, wow.
Kieron Gillen: You know? So that’s kind of like, the emotional beat. And they’re such big things, it was very easy to sort of insert them into the story. And of course we’re largely interested in Vader as a character. People go along with that.
StarWars.com: So before we look at specific characters and moments in the series, let’s talk about art. Clearly, visuals are an important part of comics. What has the art of Salvador Larroca done for you as a storyteller, and how did Salvador’s art influence your creative process?
Kieron Gillen: I worked with Salva before on a couple of mini short stories, but I knew him mainly from the work he did with my friend, Matt Fraction, on his very long Iron Man run. And, it’s like, he’s so good at tech. He’s so good at character likeness and he’s also a Star Wars fan. You know, he makes his own models of characters, and stuff like that. So I sort of knew that the likenesses would be there and I knew it would feel like Star Wars. You know, I said earlier that doing Star Wars on page is a bit like that. Also, the fact is he’s an amazing technician, and it’s that I could design new spaceships and hopefully keep them in Star Wars with that aesthetic.
A good example would be the Archangel, Aphra’s ship, which feels, for me, very Star Wars but without looking like anything in it. And it’s without being like a Star Wars ship that changed. It feels like a Star Wars ship, but new. That’s such a key thing.
He’s a strong moment-to-moment storyteller. And, you know, he’s blisteringly fast. And that’s doing 25 issues in a year and a half. It’s more than a year and a half. He’s drawn all the issues. He has drawn all the main Darth Vader issues. The only exceptions are things like the Star Wars tie-ins stuff, and the annual. But that just means we have an incredible visual stability. Quite often, you have to change artists every arc, 'cause timings and schedules and stuff. Having one artists kind of allows you to buy into the world. When you pick up Darth Vader you know what it’s going to look like. You are able to make 25, back to back, that allows you to sort of more easily immerse yourself.
StarWars.com: And his inking has worked, too. He’s putting forth this incredible detail because the Darth Vader costume is not necessarily easy to draw, and he makes it come to life.
Kieron Gillen: Oh, he’s a monster. He’s incredibly fast. He does amazing things. As you say, Vader’s hard. You know... He can’t emote. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: [Laughs] Right.
Kieron Gillen: And if you make him speak too much, it breaks the character, as well. So he’s not really a character made for like, comics. So you have to spend a lot of time trying to work out how to do it. I mean, the silent Vader headshot is kind of like the series’ go to icon, if you know what I mean? [Laughs]
StarWars.com: [Laughs] Sure! Well, yeah, I think you may have answered the next question, but what were some of the biggest challenges when you started the series, and how did that evolve as the series progressed?
Kieron Gillen: I mean, like I said, some of the same. It’s just the fact that Vader is not the most expressive character. But more importantly, Vader is a character who... It’s a solo book staring Darth Vader, but we cannot get too close to him. Because, I’m kind of of the opinion that if you get too close to Vader, or you know him too well, the ambience and the epic nature of him shatters a little. You have to kind of be in the same room. The trick was, you gets what he’s thinking, but never really know what he’s thinking. You know what I mean?
So we come up with techniques like, we do single-panel flashbacks to things he’s remembering, but we never actually say what he’s thinking. [Starts to chuckle] You know? We know what the words remind him of; what does he really feel about that? So it allows us to get inside him, but still distanced. We did things like, we surrounded Vader with a cast, you know, because a book has to have a variety of tones, because, if it’s just Vader, and standard Imperials, it’d be quite dull. You know, fascists are kind of dull. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: [Laughs] There’s a hashtag.
Kieron Gillen: Yes! [Laughs] So basically, we have to find people to A) do all the talking and B) to add lightness and comedy to the book. And, you know, there is some comedy involving Vader, but it’s kind of very dark. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: [Laughs] Absolutely.
Kieron Gillen: So, then with stuff like Aphra, and the droids, and Thanoth, and Queen Trios, and people like that.
StarWars.com: You also have the additional challenge of, and it hasn’t been done too often in comics, your main character is a villain, and there’s not a lot you can do with redemption there because that has to wait until Return of the Jedi, so that’s kind of an interesting challenge as well.
Kieron Gillen: Oh yeah. It’s very British; it worries me how I gravitate towards villains. If you count all my Marvel work, I’ve done some pretty heavy lifting with villains. Even like, probably my best-received series was Journey Into Mystery, where I’m basically writing a kid Loki trying to redeem himself. But he’s still kind of a bit problematic. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: [Laughs] Yes!
Kieron Gillen: But it seemed very natural to kind of do a straight villain book, and it’s tricky, as you say. It’s like, "Why [are] you going to root for him?" At least part of it is, there’s a line in Robert McKee’s Story where he talks about what makes The Godfather work. And The Godfather works, according to McKee, [because] "Well yeah, yeah, yes, he’s a Godfather, and he’s a monster and all that. He’s better than everyone else around him." So you kind of have the moment when you ask, you know, "If I was a Godfather, that’s the kind of Godfather I’d want to be."
It’s kind of what I did in Vader. I did people with opposing philosophies to him, and people with different moral structures to him. So I did all of that. But they are less interesting and charismatic, and less relatable than Vader is. So you know, when Vader kills most of his rivals, you feel good about it. When he confronts Cylo, you want to see him bring him down. You know, because Cylo is...at least Vader believes in stuff. You know, at least Vader has more humanity than Cylo has leached out of him. And General Tagge, who’s his main Imperial rival, finds a guy who runs off graphs, and there’s no romance to him. You know what I mean?
Kieron Gillen: So there’s a lot about that. So it’s like, you know, if the entire book was just him killing Rebels, that would have got boring. We would have lost sympathy quite quickly.
StarWars.com: Absolutely. Basically, you’re taking on what they did with The Sopranos or Dexter, but on an intergalactic level.
Kieron Gillen: Absolutely. You know, Sopranos is a really good match for it, as far as a really good reference. Isn’t it? In fact, my other reference I always use was House of Cards.
StarWars.com: Oh yeah.
Kieron Gillen: Yeah. I mean, the whole House of Cards arc is basically, a very powerful man has been slighted, and now turns to more nefarious means to recover his power, and exceed it. You know, that’s basically my character arc for Vader. I like the American remake; I’m also a very big fan of the British one. So historically speaking, I quite like watching these monsters go.
Come back tomorrow for part two of StarWars.com's Darth Vader wrap-up interview with Kieron Gillen!
Dan Zehr is a high school English teacher with an MS in Teaching and Learning, and runs Coffee With Kenobi (with co-host Cory Clubb), a Star Wars podcast that analyzes the saga through critical thinking, analysis, interviews, and discussion. He is also the Rebel teacher in the Target Rogue One commercial, and is an avid comic book consumer and longtime reader of the medium.