Review: Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows hardcover (Dark Horse Comics)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

I've discussed before what Star Wars comics aren't in my wheelhouse (those set in the Star Wars's universe's far past or far future, especially when I keep arriving in the middle) and those that are (namely Brian Woods's recent "New Hope"-era Star Wars comic). Tim Siedell's Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows would seem to be among the latter of those, starring as it does Star Wars's most famous villain.

But while Siedell employs some creative storytelling tricks in this book -- it is ultimately a well-told story -- Darth Vader really factors less into this book than the title lead me to believe. This is really a one-off "clone" tale (arguably a bit more Clone Wars than "Darth Vader"), enjoyable mainly if you like that sort of thing.

[Review contains spoilers]

Siedell's Cry of Shadows is the story of a clone trooper called "Hock," who joins up with Darth Vader after having been left for dead by the Jedi he used to serve, but in the end Vader's evil is enough to drive Hock off the battlefield entirely. That's a cogent story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, but it reads more like a short story than a five-issue miniseries, and it's a story that could rather easily be lifted and applied to many other fictional universes besides Star Wars.

The story does play well with the idea of "man's search for meaning," both as applies to an otherwise-generic Star Wars clone trooper and, by dint of metaphor, to the average 9-to-5 cubicle worker. Hock initially sees himself as just an anonymous cog in the machine, easily replaced should something happen to him, and he seeks to define himself by his loyalty to higher causes, first to the Jedi and then to Vader.

But later Hock meets a group of Separatist rebels on the planet Ostor who are fully willing to give up their own lives for their cause; they explain to Hock that they're unafraid to die because, should a leader or tactician be killed, others are ready to step into the same roles. In the rebels, Hock gains a new perspective on his own life as a clone; his part in the machine, even if replaceable, is not meaningless but meaningful, and his loyalty ought be to his brethren and not to demigods. When Vader would subsequently slaughter the rebels, Hock stands up to him and leaves to create his own life for himself.

Siedell tells the story, especially in the first few issues, through a wildly looping narrative, which adds a lot of cachet to what otherwise might be a more standard origin story. Cry of Shadows begins with Hock before he's wounded in battle and abandoned by the Jedi, then goes to the present (Hock looking to join Vader), then to Hock just after being wounded, then to the moment he was wounded, then back to the present, then to the time after his betrayal, and so on, all alongside a variety of dream sequences. Siedell gives Hock a strong narrative voice, ever-present throughout the book, and there's a wonderfully dreamlike quality to how Hock speaks the story forward even as artist Gabriel Guzman rolls the story back. The mark of a good comic, to me, is one where the writer and artist have enough confidence that the words and pictures can do different things, rather than having to reinforce each other's points, and Cry of Shadows succeeds in that regard.

Indeed the big twist of Cry of Shadows turns on this, that the contrast between the words and the pictures in part suggests to the audience what Hock doesn't understand or where he's been short-sighted. Guzman employs a border effect to show what Hock imagines versus what's reality, but it's used subtly enough that the reader really has to watch for it. I missed it at times on the first read, and I was surprised in the big reveal to see where Hock had lead me astray.

The great difficulty is that for all the character work Siedell does for Hock here, there's much less done for Darth Vader. The character does not even speak until about sixty pages into the book, and at no point is the reader inside Vader's head; Vader is at no point the book's protagonist even with his name in the title. The reader can extrapolate much based on the time period that this story takes place, just after Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith: Vader is young and untrained, presumably, and so makes a rather large error in the fight against the Separatists; also Vader's slaughter of the rebels contains many visual nods to Anakin Skywalker carrying out the Order 66 massacre of the Jedi, and one imagines that the fact that Hock can stop him this time suggests mixed feelings on Vader's part. All of that is conjecture, however, and to that end I didn't walk away really feeling like I'd read a "Darth Vader" story.

I respect quite a bit the length of time Dark Horse has held the soon-to-be-concluding Star Wars license, and certainly those who follow the Expanded Universe line more closely than I may want to check Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Cry of Shadows out. Certainly the book is well written. But forewarned is forearmed -- this is the story of a newly-created Star Wars character and not a story about one of the big guns, and that might not be for everyone.
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