Not gonna lie, this piece is late. Truthfully, I don’t think a part of me wanted to write it because that would mean accepting the end of an era. So, for the last two weeks, I’ve apparently been wrestling with living in a world that is post-Kieron Gillen Star Wars comics.
To the casual fan, this might not seem like a lot. However, in the four and a half years that Marvel’s held reclaimed publication rights to the franchise, Gillen has scripted more pages cast in that galaxy far, far away than any other writer. Furthermore, it cannot be stressed enough that these stories are canon to the Star Wars saga- rightfully commanding the same gravitas as any of the movies or cartoon shows. In that regard, it’s really few and far between the number of creators who can say they’ve had such a singular, long-reaching impact on this beloved space fantasy set “a long time ago”.
Thus this retrospective. (Thus my reluctance *ahem*…)
So, let’s hit “Play” on the metaphorical hologram message out of the astromech droid already, putting on our best Ben Kenobi “Let’s see what you are and where you come from…”
When Marvel relaunches Star Wars books in early 2015, writer Jason Aaron helms the main series while Gillen chronicles the solo exploits of the Dark Lord of the Sith. It’s an assignment split not wholly without symbolism or pedigree, given their other roles as masterminds behind Thor and the Loki-centric Journey Into Mystery, respectively.
In this earliest volume, continuity is very tight between the two titles. It’s very much one of those time-honored scenarios where you don’t necessarily need to follow both if you just want to enjoy one but you do get an enriched picture as events actually nestle around each other.
Following the destruction of the Death Star, Vader has since up-close and personally encountered the Force-sensitive farmboy pilot responsible for blowing up his boss’s death machine. Curiously, this kid is carrying the old lightsaber he used to wield as Anakin Skywalker.
Looking for answers, already getting the stink eye from his boss with internal affairs bureaucrats hawking him, Vader takes matters into his own hands and begins his own secret operations network. His chief aide is Doctor Chelli Aphra, a rogue archaeologist. Imagine Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Indiana Jones and Captain Jack Sparrow all rolled into one person with a sweet techno-tattoo sleeve. She is fully aware of the only way in which her new role will end.
Vader and Aphra are also co-masters of a pair of murderbots: Triple-Zero and BT-1. Basically they’re the darkest timeline/ evil mirror universe of C-3PO and R2-D2. Imagining Anthony Daniels voice delivering the most twisted dialogue with every word balloon is pretty much “Nuff Said!” in my book.
The lengths of the Emperor’s dissatisfaction also come to light as Vader discovers Palpatine has been cultivating possible “Force-lite” cybernetically-enhanced replacement disciples since the Episode III Mustafar accident (almost 20 years before). The Emperor’s now given this gallery the green light to see who is truly worthiest to be his apprentice and machinations commence.
Oh yeah, and to cap it all off, Vader’s network yields some news about that annoying kid: the name Skywalker.
Yep, just another day at the office for Ol’ Ani…
Vader’s expanding extracurricular activities has him under the keen scrutiny of the venerable and deductively-Holmesian Inspector Thanoth as his potential successors begin launching schemes against him.
You also get things like an array of cool-looking toyetic bounty hunters pulling a fairly elaborate heist in mid-space featuring everyone’s favorite lizard man, Bossk. So there’s that.
Oh, and kudos beyond kudos to artist Salvador Larroca for his involvement in this ongoing affair!
It’s a crossover of the Star Wars franchise done in the Mighty Marvel Manner! Employing a formula from the mainstream superhero line, there’s a one-shot special before it bounces back and forth between the involved titles chapter for chapter. By the nature of the beast, it sometimes leads to uneven results but that is certainly not the case here!
That’s not to say anyone would ever mistake Larocca’s work for that of event co-artist Mike Deodato, Jr.’s but a certain jumpiness in visual cohesion is totally forgivable when Gillen and Aaron work so surprisingly smooth together. Gillen’s ability to lend his voice so effortlessly to SW’s ensemble cast is also something to be noted for “down the road” reference…
Best moment: The meeting of Han Solo and Dr. Aphra is pure Spy vs. Spy comedy gold!
After the debacle on Vrogas Vas (the aforementioned crossover), Vader tries to get back to the illusion of “business as usual”. In this case, it means serving as the Emperor’s Hand and quashing a would-be coup against a young queen he himself installed on mining planet necessary to the Empire’s war efforts.
Seems like a pretty straightforward mission. Except the Emperor’s sends along some of those also-ran candidates just to keep things spicy.
Oh, and Aphra got captured by the Rebels during Vader Down. Gotta send out more bounty hunters to clear up that loose end before she talks. Sometimes it does not pay to be a Dark Lord of the Sith.
The whole “wheels within wheels” machinations game concludes in splendid Space-spearean fashion! Best part is it plays out like a video game with Vader slashing through a leveling-up array of opposition before encountering the ”boss battle”. Surprisingly, it’s not Palpatine (who actually applauds Vader’s shadowy initiative) but a constantly-cloning evil scientist named Cylo.
In a plot twist, it seems Palpatine had been suspect of Cylo for a while and only used this “running of the gauntlet” against Vader to expose the larger treason. He’s that “tough love” kinda boss…
Anyway, after having his cards all turned over for him, Vader pushes snitchy Aphra out of an airlock and thereby ends one of the best original character creations to the new franchise canon.
Except, this is comics and it’s never the end.
Rescued last minute by the Murderbots and Wookie mercenary associate Black Krrsantan, Aphra turns up surprisingly once again not dead and resumes her career of shady black market dealings and fencing exotic artifacts.
This first spin-off volume by Gillen and new series artist Kev Walker also dials in to Aphra’s backstory a bit more. First, when the already-casually-alluded-to debatability of her doctorate becomes an actual plot point and second when we’re introduced to her father- Korin.
If the Indiana Jones analogue wasn’t already prevalent, the incorporation of a stuffy, scholarly and curmudgeonly parent into the mix cannot help but bring to mind notes of Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Senior in The Last Crusade. It’s not a bad thing.
In true Mighty Marvel Manner, once there’s a successful crossover, fans can probably expect them on the regular. Here’s the 2017 edition.
It’s funny but as much of a genre melting pot Star Wars is in and of itself, one of the styles it doesn’t really dip into all that much is horror- making this a very intriguing effort. Gillen takes the writing lead, scripting three-fifths to Aaron’s two issue contribution from the main title. However, the visual contrast from Marco Checchetto on the starting one-shot and transitioning from Larocca (now on regular SW monthly) and Andrea Broccardo on the Aphra book makes it a bit herky-jerky and it kinda loses some of the essential “ambience” along the way.
Still very suspenseful and shockingly entertaining but if anything, it is definitely more of an “Aphra adventure” than it is a tale of the Rebel gang. The highlights are: Aphra’s “tomb raider-ing” yields a crystal allegedly entombing the spirit of some ancient Force being and is trying to learn more about it. Meanwhile, Luke Skwalker’s looking for more answers on how to become a Jedi. Both roads lead them to the same place: the vampiric Queen of Ktath’atn!
Escaping with the secrets of the crystal unlocked, Aphra decides to sell Eternal Rur in a black market auction, opening bids to an open floor of crime syndicates.
Things go awry when Rur’s spirit gets free and begins possessing droids, turning the gathering into a slaughterhouse! They get worse when the Empire shows up and Darth Vader personally deals with this angry ancient spirit embodying a combat droid that is also equipped with lightsabers!
Aphra narrowly escapes detection by her old boss (who only has one of those “a presence I haven’t felt since…” inklings) but the biggest surprise twist here: Triple-Zero takes full advantage of the chaos and installs himself as the new boss of the Sun-Tuul Pride (a perennial fixture of the Gillen books).
Starting with Issue 38 in late 2017, Gillen rejoins Salvador Larocca and begins writing the main series. Resuming the ethos utilized on Darth Vader of articulating how characters got from Point A to Point B in the gap between the classic movies, Gillen also taps into and maximizes the then-current zeitgeist surrounding the stand-alone Rogue One film.
Bringing Luke to the runes of the Jedi temple, Gillen merges the old and the new when the Rebel gang meets the remnants of Saw Gererra’s Partisans. He also continues to cross-pollinate the world-build by bringing back one of his own creations: Queen Trios of the courtly ore-mining planet of Shu-Torun. She serves as a consultant to the imposingly walrus-y and cybernetically-limbed Imperial commander, General Kanchar, who is responsible for overseeing the Galactus-like liquidation of the dying planet’s resources.
Understandably, with duties on the main book prevailing over the spin-off endeavor, Gillen comes back for one last volume of Aphra with co-writer, Simon Spurrier.
By this point, Aphra is working for Triple-Zero’s Sun-Tuul Pride and is only managing to remain alive for as long as she stays useful. During a raid and the ensuing hijinks of the pursuit, Aphra also develops a star-crossed romantic crush on the Imperial officer charged with bringing her in- who also just happens to be the deceased Inspector Thanoth’s protege. So, way to bring that all around. But, awkward…
By the end, the Empire seems to shut down the Pride. Aphra’s free of Triple-Zero’s clutches but now he just wants to straight up kill her. It’s neither here nor there, though, as she’s now on her way to an Imperial prison!
(Probably not the last of her, as Spurrier continues Aphra’s monthly solo adventures…)
While it’s long-established in Star Wars lore that the aquatic world and home of trap-detecting Admiral Ackbar has long been a chief spaceship building port for the Empire, it’s never been revealed how the people of the planet threw off the yoke of oppression- until now!
Gillen continues to mix and match toys all the toys in the box, again picking up threads from Rogue One and interjecting his own pet faves. His latest creation featuring heavily in this volume is a skittery and kind of duplicitous shapeshifter named Tunga Arpagion. He is a positive scene stealer and possibly the closest thing 3PO will ever know to a friend who doesn’t perpetually boop and beep at him.
Queen Trios also meets Leia. Insert “Disney Princess” joke here. But is she friend or foe??
Nope! Definitely not a friend!
After the victorious addition of the Mon Cal space navy, the Rebel Fleet gather en masse. Just the time for the traitorous Queen Trios to disable their defenses and alert Darth Vader that the time is right to attack!
In celebration of fifty issues of the new series, Gillen takes us on a six-issue run that is pure dogfights in space action. Again, answering some often-voiced fan questions: “how did the Rebels go from such victories as blowing up the Establishment’s “Grand Achievement” to shivering in an ice bunker?”. This. Right here. If Episode V is entitled “The Empire Strikes Back”, this is truly where the Empire strikes the first time! (Sure, you could argue Jedha or Alderaan but no- the Rebels really get pantsed on this one…)
This is also noteworthy as the last arc to feature Salvador Larocca on a SW project.
On the run from the scattering of the fleet Luke and the gang are stranded on the arboreal moon of Hubin without any means of contacting the Rebellion. The locals are of a general “keep your head down and don’t get involved” inclination. As one might suspect, it doesn’t stop the trouble from finding them…
Whereas “Hope Dies” plays more like a mini-movie, “The Escape” has more of a decided “small screen” feel- not wholly out of place with an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or the Clone Wars TV show for that matter.
Biggest takeaway would be Gillen taking these “down moment” opportunities and starting to percolate the slow-burn “will they or won’t they” subplot of Han and Leia a bit more. While he also creates some cool new characters in the Thane and his daughter, there’s a surprise callback to Jason Aaron’s turn on the title: the return of the lightsaber-wielding Imperial Sgt. Kreel and his cadre of military specialists, Scar Squadron!
When not busy trying to resist Han’s roguish bad boy charms, Leia is making the most of her time on Hubin, turning it into working vacation on how to get revenge on Queen Trios.
Once back in contact with the Rebellion, Leia’s strikeforce is something of a greatest hits who’s who as Gillen pens his final SW volume. Indeed, it truly has the air of “reassemble the cast back on stage for a final bow”- almost quite literally…
Hanging the “meta lampshade” on the whole affair is shifty shapeshifting thespian Tunga Arpagion. Very much in the style of Thor: Ragnarok, Tunga is staging a production of the liberation of Mon Cala. Needless to say he takes some “creative liberties” with the events but the cosmetic choices pay off as a tremendous easter egg nod to anyone who is a fan of the mythos surrounding Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art and George Lucas’ earliest SW treatments (the early “Luke Starkiller” era).
Leia also turns to the Partisans of Jedha to see if they want in on any of this “get even” action. It’s a decision the gang regrets as, well, the Partisans don’t exactly play nice with others…
General Kanchar once again serves as the Imperial commander of this fateful operation and Darth Vader even makes a re-appearance.
Like the previous arc, Gillen is once again joined on art duties by a combination of Aphra collaborator Andrea Broccardo and Poe Dameron alum Angel Unzueta- each taking turns on respective issues.
As dark as the arc’s main focus seems, it does end on a fairly wistful and hopeful note. Best of all, Gillen has accomplished his “Point A to Point B” mission- leaving the gang optimistic that they will soon find a new home for the Rebellion, quite possibly on the planet Hoth…