Since Marvel acquired the Star Wars license from Dark Horse back in 2015, there have been two distinct era of their comics. The first era was set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and the second, current era, is set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The most consistently interesting title across both eras has been the Darth Vader book. The current iteration, “Star Wars: Darth Vader,” written by Greg Pak (“Planet Hulk,” “The Princess Who Saved Herself”) and illustrated by Raffaele Ienco (“Postal: Deliverance,” “Batman: Sins of the Father”) is one of the more humanizing and introspective stories ever told about Anakin Skywalker, and does so without removing any of the fear or menace from the Darth Vader visage.
Pak talked with us about his experience writing in a galaxy far, far away, his take on Vader, and what’s else he would like to do in this universe. You can follow him on Twitter @GregPak.
When you got the opportunity to write in the Star Wars universe, did that feel different for you than getting to write stories set in the Marvel Universe or DC?
Greg Pak: So I probably got my first Marvel comic when I was about six or seven. I think I still have it; it was a Marvel Treasury Edition “Spider-Man” book. And so you know, that was around the age that I started getting obsessed with comics, but then I was eight when Star Wars came out. So basically I grew up with both of these things as touchstones. Also, I’ve been a sci fi nerd ever since I was a little kid; Ray Bradbury was my first literary hero, and so all of the kind of sci fi fantasy stuff that’s part of Star Wars is just under my skin and in my bones. So being able to step in and write these books, it felt like home. And I hadn’t really lobbied for it. I mean, you know, like, Marvel had had the license for a while, but I had been, I don’t know, I’ve been very busy. I’ve been doing a lot of other things. But then I bumped into Mark Pannacia, who’s editing those books and he’s one of my oldest friends at Marvel. We did the “Planet Hulk” stuff together. And he was like, Hey, do you like Star Wars?” “Yes, I do.” And then a few weeks later, he called up and he offered me the first little Star Wars gig and, and it just really clicked. And I’ve been writing “Darth Vader” for almost two years now.
Vader in particular is an interesting character to have to write because so much of it is just beneath the surface, right? Marvel’s Darth Vader books, in general, have done a good job to make him neither this blank monolith nor to give him like 1000 emotions that are bubbling out of him. How do you balance that? How do you make it so that he’s not this emotional teenager under the mask, but also that there’s more to him than just the scary visage?
GP: You identified one of the big questions and challenges of diving into a Vader story. It is this kind of great irony where this is a character literally behind a mask and who does not express much. He’s not like Luke, who you can read every emotion on his face and he talks about everything all the time. When I was writing Amadeus Cho, he was going to be a character who is going to say almost everything he thinking; he doesn’t have boundaries. He talks too much. That was the charm of Amadeus.
But Vader, like the Hulk, and like a bunch of other characters I’ve written like Adama in the Battlestar Galactica comics I wrote, he does not say everything. In fact, he says very little. But at the same time, the great irony is that, Geroge Lucas has described those first six Star Wars movies as ‘the tragedy of Darth Vader.’ He is the through line and if you look at the big super arcs, he’s the main character. And his emotional story is spectacular in and, and he goes through so many stages. It’s tremendous.Continued below
But you don’t want to break the character by having him emote all over and in ways that don’t feel right. Particularly, in certain stages in his life where he’s communicating differently. At this stage, he’s behind that mask and is a terrifying presence. So, in terms of like, practically how we dealt with it, I thought about it a lot. And it was like, okay, there is a lot of power in silence. I learned that as I come from quiet people. The Korean and WASP sides of my family don’t talk a lot. My grandparents were not people who talked a lot, frankly, so you’re always reading them. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m a writer is because I spent a lot of time trying to decipher what people were thinking and feeling through action and subtleties. And so, that part of it is like showing nuance of emotion through the smallest body language and blocking. Huge credit goes to Raffaele Ienco, who is the main artist on this series, who is able to frame things and to stage things so that we feel those emotions even though we’re just looking at Vader’s blank mask. It is a tremendous, tremendous gift to have somebody like Raffaele to work with.
There was a point where I realized we need a little more, we need to hear his thoughts, and I felt you can’t do an old school like thought balloon with the inner thought. I felt that might diminish his gravitas in a way that just doesn’t work for him. So, I pitched this idea: I want to hear Vader’s voice, but I’m thinking of doing it not through captions, but to periodically, break up the page with just a black panel and have red captions on the black panel that show his inner thoughts. They’re going to be fragmented and poetic, fragments of emotion more than anything else. We’re not going to do exposition in those captions, it’s really going to be delivering that emotional context, or remembering things people have said. And that’s what we’ve done, and it has worked really well. We’ve also done a kind of visual poetry to match that where we do, we’ve done flashback sequences, or flashback panel. In our first issue, Vader goes back to Tatooine, and goes to the Lars house, where he had spent time as a young person and is also where Luke grew up.
He’s trying to find more information about who hid Luke and how, but as at the same time, he’s walking through this place where he had had these searing conversations with Padmé. We’re flashing back as he hits different places. All of the flashbacks have this red tint to them, like you’re seeing them through his eyepieces. Neeraj Menon was the original colorist on the book and kind of established that look. Having collaborators who get it and who are looking for those visual ways to convey this emotion has been so critical and such a gift.
Somebody once described to me super hero comics as being perpetually second act stories, that unless you’re launching a new character, the story takes place in the middle. That is especially true for Star Wars comics that take place between two films, you’re like in the second act of a second act in the middle of these stories. Do you feel that this is a limiting process by having such a small palette to work with, or do you see these obstructions as a way to unlock creativity in a new way?
GP: I have to think about a second way or there would be no point! Every time you start a project you’re fitting into certain points in the timeline, and you’re there to find a story that’s new and fresh and complete and whole, that stands on its own, but yet fits within this existing continuity. That is a challenge, but when it works, it works gorgeously, and there is always a way to find a story that’s compelling, fresh, and new, even in what seems like the most worked over land, you know what I mean? You can always grow something.Continued below
I did years of improv comedy from college onward, and one of the tenets is that there’s no such thing as a bad suggestion; whatever the audience throws at you, if you and your partners have your minds open, and they’re just building step by step, you can build something gorgeous out of that. That training has served me incredibly well in monthly comics. I’m not gonna lie, sometimes you think that you’re gonna do this thing, and then you discover other restrictions, and sometimes, the final thing fall short of what you would have liked to have done. The beautiful thing about these Vader comics is that everybody involved is working really hard to open the doors that we need to open in order to tell stories that matter.
I can’t even imagine how the folks at Lucasfilm do what they do, because they’re juggling so many different stories in so many different media, and striving to make everything fit within continuity, which seems like an impossibility. I feel like they are always looking at the emotional story that we’re trying to tell and trying to make that possible.
At the very beginning of this process, they were like we’re between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and you can totally explore the Vader side of this whole revelation that Luke is his son and then rejects him at the end of Empire. They gave me the big green light to explore Vader’s emotional reaction to all of that, which is incredible. They were like, here’s the greatest, unexplored kernel in Darth Vader, the biggest character in the Star Wars galaxy, and you get to tell that story. That’s the way it felt.
We’re just coming out of the ‘War of the Bounty Hunters’ crossover now, which saw Vader as sort of an integral part of all of the Star Wars books at once. And I know that crossovers are both a lot of fun, and also can be a pretty tough thing to figure out how to get everything fits together. As the guy who was responsible for Darth Vader month in and month out, how integral were your notes or your thoughts into this whole crossover?
GP: Charles Soule was writing the main miniseries, and so Charles was basically our captain going through this, but Charles and I have worked together for years on different things; we’ve worked on the Superman books together and we’ve known each other for years. He’s an incredible pleasure to work with; he’s worked on a bunch of these crossovers, so he knows what the deal is. We also had this, you know, amazing crew of other Star Wars writers, and we’d get on these phone calls, and we’d all talk about this and we’d hash out different details. Charles had this big outline that he was sharing and then someone would ask, “Oh, hey, can we tweak this little point so that this can happen to my book?” or “we kind of need this to be here, so can this small thing fit in your book?” It was a great group of people who are all working together to make the big story work.
So I want to play a little Star Wars fantasy comic booking here with you. If there was another period of time that you could write a Star Wars story in, what period of time would you like to explore?
GP: Well, I mean, I don’t want to say too much, because there are definitely things I’m going to pitch. I absolutely have a post Return of the Jedi Luke-centric story I want to tell. I mean, I’m sure everybody has one of those right?
If you could have a character show up in “Darth Vader” that you haven’t been able to play with yet, who would you like to have, you know for an arc or an issue to play around?
GP: I have an exact character in my mind that I cannot reveal because I am pitching it hard, and it was one of my favorite characters from the prequels. I can’t say anything more beyond that.