The third run of Darth Vader at Marvel Comics has done a grand job building on its predecessor’s examinations of the titular Dark Lord. It’s looked at him both as the fascinating figure of power we’ve admired across Star Wars’ long history, but also as the equally intriguing bridge between Star Wars’ original and prequel trilogies. This week, for a moment, that latter introspection has found a climax.
Darth Vader #6 — written by Greg Pak, featuring art and lettering from Raffaele Ienco, Neeraj Menon, and Joe Caramagna — opens with the tantalising moment set up in prior issues, with Vader standing ready to crack open the final resting place of Padmé Amidala. However, we do not get to see a shocking moment there — not to avoid the gruesome sight of Vader’s skeletal mask watching over the corpse of his former wife but because Vader, for all his bluster, cannot escape Padmé’s memory.
Instead, pulling away from the tomb allows his companion droid Z67 to find a medical scan that reveals the true last moments of Padmé’s life — sending Vader and the chasing Amidalans to the secretive medical facilities of Polis Massa. After luring his foes to the asteroid field and promptly dispatching them, Vader seemingly only finds ruins. But a nearby maternity droid’s databanks — still partially serviceable, unlike the wiped computers of the facility itself — provide answers, and after disposing of Z67 (the last loose thread to this complex quest he’s been on), Vader reveals them to himself.
What he sees is Padmé’s death. He doesn’t get to see her hand off her children — the revelation that beyond his son there is indeed another — all he sees is a tired, broken woman, imploring Obi-Wan that there is still good in her husband as she fades away. It’s hauntingly compelling.
As the holorecording likewise fades, Darth Vader returns to its favourite visual trick of this arc, Ienco and Menon’s art inviting us to see through the red-tinged lens of Vader himself. When he looks down, he doesn’t see the ruins of Polis Massa, but the Cloud City shaft his son plummeted down after rejecting him. Instead of seeing his own failure, the family that he’s lost, Vader sees Anakin as he is now, as a padawan, as a child. Tumbling deep down within him.
Darth Vader is arguably the Star Wars character Marvel Comics has most powerfully resonated with since the publisher acquired the licence in 2015. The reason for that goes beyond the fact that “Wow, Darth Vader sure is cool.” He’s an icon of popular culture and that has been mined for all its worth with the gleeful explorations of his power, his fear, and yes, that subtle extra-ness that makes the character both fearful and yet beloved by fans of all ages. But Vader’s potential — not just Darth Vader the title and image, but as Vader, the mask of Anakin Skywalker — has allowed two-and-a bit runs of comics to really dive deep into enmeshing those identities, and the movies they existed in, deeper than the saga itself ever could. True, it gives us those moments of Sith Lord cool, but Star Wars #6, and the issues that have come before it, remind us of just how much of the character’s true identity is wrapped up in the grief of his past.
Now Darth Vader knows the final moments of Padmé, and that he did not in fact, as the Emperor led him to believe — and for a moment, believed himself — kill her. He knows the words that, on a landing pad on a Forest Moon three years on from this, his own son will echo in turn.
It is knowledge worth being punished for, as Palpatine reminds him at the issue’s climax — punishment for the fact that Vader has allowed himself the luxury of being consumed in grief, rather than the hate that makes a Sith. But even as he watches his former self fall deeper into his psyche, Darth Vader knows that somewhere within him, Anakin Skywalker lives.