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Friday, December 16, 2016

Cover Story - Top 10 Darth Vader Covers

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This Friday marks a rather auspicious occasion- the premiere of Rogue One, A Star Wars Story.  Despite the mouthful of a name this promises to be a pretty big deal all around.  Rogue One is the first of an entire prospective franchise of Star Wars spin-offs and side-quels Disney would like to start releasing in between (and presumably after) the main series films.  What’s more, Rogue One is a unique entity as it’ll be the first time this decade we’ll see Darth Vader on screen.  

Much like A Force Awakens, Vader’s return is punctuated with some significant uncertainty after a decade’s worth of “NOOO!” jokes and cameos in Night at the Museum.  That makes his return here a major stepping stone for Disney, a point to prove that not only is Star Wars back but it's redeemed its more troubled elements.  Of course, for comic fans Darth Vader has been “back” since last year when he got a hot new comic series from Marvel.  Given his return to the big screen, I’ve elected to honor man and series here today. 

We’re starting off a bit weaker here, but I really wanted to show off this particular character, Tulon.  She’s one of several cybernetic super weapons created for the Emperor as part of the Darth Vader series and is absolutely awesome.  The idea of her group is that the Emperor wanted to create equals to Vader without necessarily training new Sith apprentices and sharing the power of the dark side.  So, he commissioned a series of living weapons equipped with unique Cyborg technology like Vader’s robot parts.  

In the case of Tulon, her consciousness is threaded through those various hover droids, allowing her to control an entire swarm of them with but a thought.  Incidentally, if you’re wondering why she would sign up for such a crazy procedure, her origin is literally “I had friends on that Deathstar.”  Not much else to say about this cover, sometimes it’s enough to just show off a really cool character.

I’m honestly still not sure if this cover is amazing or stupid, but it’s certainly memorable.  The main crux of that dilemma emerges from the very weird idea of making Darth Vader’s head into the Deathstar 2, which, again, is certainly memorable whatever else you might say about it.  I actually think the big issue with it is that the Deathstar’s imitation crater is still visible to the audience, giving Vader the look of someone with a hole in his head.  Questionable iconography aside, I do really love the artistic style here, especially the almost painting like color blending.  

The shading on Vader’s helmet is particularly well drawn given that it’s basically just different shades of black, yet still manages to pop.  What’s more, the detail on the X-Wings is striking without being cluttering which is a tough balance to strike.  I’m not exactly sure what the orange flares are meant to be or why Vader is holding his lightsaber like he’s going to cut his own head off, but questionable logic is the name of the game with this cover. 

Speaking of great shading, the lighting in this cover is just superb.  Lighting is one of the hardest things to realize in comics, mainly as it comes together through the efforts of the inker, colorist, and artist combined and even then it can often go unnoticed.  It’s one of those components of artwork that you don’t actually appreciate till you see it done poorly unless you’re actively looking for it.  

Here, the artwork is a unique blend of up lighting from whatever’s at the bottom of this pit and the stark red glow of Vader’s light saber.  It’s all pretty imperceptible, but it enhances the tension and mood of the scene tremendously, with Dr. Aphra trapped between embracing Vader and the dark side or taking a leap of faith towards the light.  It all adds up to so much more than just referencing the end of Empire Strikes Back.

This cover’s another great exploration of color and its impact on the scene.  Marvel actually released several variants of this cover with different defining colors, but the red is absolutely the best iteration of the idea, it’s the only one that captures the rage and hatred of the dark side that fuel Vader.  Moving on to the content, this is actually a somewhat unique visual for the Star Wars mythos.  Most EU material has done its best to shirk the prequel era at all costs so seeing Vader go up against the very goofily designed droids from the prequel trilogy is a serious rarity.  

What’s more, this cover actually manages to make the droids look intimidating rather than just dopey.  Part of that is the eyes being more squinty, to imply menace, and the horde of them certainly helps.  But, what sells the droids as truly menacing, would have to be the red mist that punctuates the entire cover- it’s just fantastic shorthand. 

I’m not going to lie, I absolutely love cover gags like this, especially for stuff like Star Wars or Secret Wars.  With things that become valuable parts of our identity as nerds, it’s often easy to lose sight of the reality that informs our passions.  I’ve seen people argue that Batman is the most mature story ever and “how dare you suggest a millionaire dressed as Dracula fighting an evil clown is for kids.”  

It’s a very tiring affair, and I think we need covers like this to remind us, on a fundamental level, a lot of the things we choose to define our identity are commercials, they exist primarily to sell products.  That doesn’t mean we can’t love them or find their stories meaningful and compelling, just that we need to keep perspective.  That’s the whole reason we make self-aware jokes like this cover, it’s a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. 

This is a beautiful companion cover to #9 as it employs the same style without nearly as much silliness.  Both covers are primarily aping the style of a movie poster, something that’s actually relatively rare when it comes to comic covers.  The thing about movie posters is that, aside from using their own lexicon of iconography, they aren’t really trying to influence people into an immediate decision.  

Most movie posters exist to inform and persuade rather than entice the viewer to go see the film right then and there, but this being a Darth Vader comic and part of a crossover event there’s less need to do that here.  Speaking of crossovers, this was part of last year’s excellent ‘Vader Down’ series, which you should really check out if you get the chance.  It’s basically the story of Darth Vader going mono e Sith Lord with an enormous amount of rebel forces, making this cover very indicative of what to expect. 

I know we’re supposed to regard the prequel era as a dark time devoid of hope or merit but…I’m sorry, even accepting that Phantom Menace was garbage this cover is great.  It actually touches neatly on the way the prequels failed in what they should’ve been doing.  The idea of Vader as a quiet, unassuming child is some serious “kill baby Hitler” stuff regarding ideas, but the movies did everything they could to drain the Vader out of the situation.  Here, there’s no escaping the thought that this hulking creature of black leather and hatred is what happened to this poor little child.  

It’s a tragedy but not really one that should elicit pathos, more shock, and horror at how the most seemingly innocent among us can become monsters.  Going back to the Hitler analogy, no one could’ve looked at some random art student and known he was history’s greatest monster, so affording the audience that vantage point should be, and here is, thoroughly chilling.  To anyone else Anakin is unassuming, innocent, average, only we the audience know the evil he will wreck upon the galaxy. 

Moments like the one portrayed on this cover are the greatest justification I can think of for the entire existence of the Star Wars extended universe.  Despite his protests, it’s pretty clear Lucas really didn’t have all the twists of the original trilogy planned out ahead of time so scenes like this, that hinge on Vader’s true identity and history, never could’ve made it into the films.  What I think really sells this particular moment is the ambiguity that has always accompanied Vader’s plastic maw.  

He’s one of the least expressive characters you could ever have, and the way his mood can change on a whim makes him less than predictable.  Seeing him stand over the smoking remains of his only remaining family could elicit so many emotions from the most powerful man in the empire- hatred, joy, sorrow, regret, acceptance, who knows.  What’s more, this is also a very sly reference to the prequel era, specifically a Phantom Menace poster that featured Anakin casting Vader’s shadow in a similar manner.

Despite showcasing a lot of covers with emotion and depth, the final 2 of this particular run didn’t make the top for any of those reasons.  No, this cover and its successor at number 1 took the top of the list because they’re awesome.  This cover, in particular, is an excellent example of the scale and grandeur that the Star Wars mythos offers and is, in so many ways, inherent to the appeal of the franchise.  The pitch of the original Star Wars was essential to present the audience with a massive, sweeping cosmic war story then only tell 1 small chapter of it, and that’s what we’re getting here in visual terms.  

Vader dueling on some kind of space platform with a giant ship sweeping through the background, framing his conflict in all of its small and intimate detail, is a beautiful visualization of that core concept.  It’s a great way to blend together the small scale lightsaber duels and large scale action that make Star Wars such a vibrant visual palette to paint with.


In doing these lists, there’s always been one guiding principal that informs the top cover spot.  It’s not about  which one I like the best or is the most awesome or features the most artistic skill, but rather the cover that most embodies the subject at hand.  When it comes to Darth Vader, I can think of on better image to fully encapsulate all that he is than this.  Darth Vader, and by extension the Galactic Empire, has become one of the most iconic and well designed villains of all time.  The use of color and shape in the look of the Imperial Guard, the storm troopers, and even Vader himself all project power, strength, and menace in such a perfect way it pretty much had to be drawn from real life.  

What I really love about this cover though, is the way that in the midst of all their overt finery and raw power is the Emperor, hunched and shrouded hiding behind the figure of Darth Vader.  It really drives home the role Vader actually plays the imperial hierarchy and why the Emperor has tolerated him as long as he has: Darth Vader is a front.  He’s a face and a name to stand for the empire, a suit that anyone can fill to cover up the wizened sickness at the heart of imperial organism.  All that power, just to make one old man feel and look strong. 

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