Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison
Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison was initially released as a five part limited series from May to September of 2012. It is due to be collected in hardcover on March 27, 2013.
In this follow up to 2011's disastrous Darth Vader and the Lost Command, author Haden Blackman once again takes a stab at writing a story around the Dark Lord of the Sith. HIs previous effort basically put the young Anakin from Episode II inside Darth Vader's armor, as he yearned ceaselessly for Padme and his life lost. This terrible characterization basically ensured that a book with mediocre artwork, a tired main conflict, and no supporting cast to speak of would fail miserably. Does Blackman learn from his mistakes and, like Vader himself, find redemption? Or, will I be subjected to more goofy alternate reality scenes where a lumpy-headed Anakin didn't turn to the dark side and instead had a boring life with Padme?
Ghost Prison sees Vader and Palpatine once again on the ropes as they struggle to fend off yet another confederation of usurpers, this time with none other than the leader of the Imperial military academies at the helm. The group has little trouble taking over the Coruscant, and the fate of the Empire lies in the hands of three men. Palpatine suffers a crippling injury early on and is all but incapacitated, and Vader is forced to enlist the help of Trachta, a Moff working directly under Palpatine, and Tohm, a disabled Imperial officer. Together, the three come up with a plan to re-take Coruscant in spectacular fashion. Their plan revolves around the Ghost Prison: a Republic-era sanctuary where some of the worst Confederate war criminals are being held.
Though the outcome is never in serious doubt, the journey to get there makes it worth it. There are plenty of battles to offset the more character-driven moments between Tohm and Trachta, and a few looks at what is going on back on Coruscant with the uprising that helps us sympathize with the antagonist a bit. This is a well plotted and paced book that mixes the action with the intrigue quite well, while tying Vader's current life back to his time as Anakin Skywalker in a subtle way that isn't chock full of melodrama.
One of the more interesting conflicts in this book has nothing to do with killing, but in the subtle politicking going on between Vader and Trachta. They may be forced to work together on this occasion, but they seem to realize it is only a matter of time before they are at each other's throats again. Vader and Trachta are fighting for the loyalty of Tohm, who continues to show great promise as a warrior and strategist despite his impairments, and that leads the two to cross paths quite often. This power dynamic is easily one of the most fascinating parts of the book, and perhaps more incredible is that Vader manages to hold his own without saying much of anything. This is definitely the strong and silent characterization of Vader that falls more in line with the original trilogy. He is no-nonsense, mostly detached from his life as Anakin, and utterly committed to bringing down the Empire's foes as quickly as possible. More importantly, he doesn't wax poetic about Padme even once. The ending also showcases just how ruthless Vader can be when he feels threatened, and for doing a complete 180 in his portrayal of Vader, Mr. Blackman can consider himself redeemed.
Vader is no doubt given a great portrayal here, but he's also not exactly the focal point of much of the story. Instead, we see just about everything through Tohm's eyes. Tohm is a really solid original character; he lacks force sensitivity, is a true blooded Imperial, doesn't have all that much charm, and is physically disabled in a way that few protagonists ever are. The way Tohm is rendered in the art and established as a character is nothing short of incredible given the way fiction tends to make deformities and disabilities an unglamorous thing meant only for supporting characters and villains. Tohm also acts as a good insight into the mind of your average Imperial citizen at this time: he hates the Jedi after Order 66, believing the many myths that have been concocted about that incident, and he's loyal to the Empire (and Vader) despite its notable flaws. We don't get this kind of perspective often, especially one that isn't tinted by a desire to rebel, and because of this Tohm may be one of the most unique protagonists in Star Wars. Meanwhile, Trachta shows a bit of his rebellious side in a few of his conversations with Tohm, while also showcasing his ability to inspire others to follow his command. This is a very useful book for learning a little more about the character we saw in Empire, and we finally get to see how he got his injuries. This leads to an absolutely brutal moment where we discover that Trachta may just be Vader's equal in the brutality department.
The art is a perfect complement to this story and the characterization involved. The muted coloring gives the book an air of tragedy from the very beginning, while extremely intricate linework on the scars worn by so many characters helps to bring the horrors of war to life. The frequent action scenes feature a lot of group fighting and are therefore are chock full of our heroes striking one badass pose after another as they slaughter their foes. Thom's one handed fighting takes the cake for me, but of course Vader is a whirling dervish of destruction as usual, though he is probably a bit more agile than you would expect, and Trachta is fairly imposing with his dual pistols as well. Artist Agustin Alessio does a great job capturing the essence of these characters both on the battlefield and while they are staking out their next move. Vader in particular benefits from such a skilled hand, as he is drawn with not only great technical proficiency, but also with a good sense of his movements. Since he doesn't have too much to say most of the time, we are relying on visual cues to be able to decipher him and crucially, these renderings don't disappoint. We get a good sense of just how intimidating he can be, but there are also a few softer character moments where his last shreds of humanity are depicted quite nicely. The hologram effects used throughout the book, most notably during a sequence featuring a recording of the Jedi Council, look fabulous as well. These have been a consistently strong element of most Star Wars comics, but getting them right is a huge deal when it comes to authenticity and it was good to see this book handle it so well.
Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison is everything a comic about the ultimate Dark Lord of the Sith should be. With a great cast of characters, plenty of action, and top notch artwork, this portrayal of Darth Vader as a mostly silent man nevertheless utterly in control of most situations is one that almost any fan of his can appreciate. Dark Horse has put out plenty of great Star Wars books lately, and with its simple but unerringly effective storytelling and a Vader that acts like the one we know, this could easily be the best of them.