One of the most striking visuals in Star Wars: A New Hope is that of a man like Grand Moff Tarkin—curt, elderly, and in officer’s gear—flanked by the fearsome, gigantic black armor of Darth Vader. It’s a strange duo made all the more fascinating by the former’s surprising dominance over the latter. It’s a relationship that’s rarely examined, but this week’s issue of Darth Vader puts a twisted lens on it.
Darth Vader #18—by Charles Soule, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Daniele Orlandini, David Curiel, and Joe Caramagna—is a one-off breather between the series’ arcs, still exploring the nascent years of the Empire’s rise. But it is one of the most exciting and intense issues of the series so far, thanks to its intriguing premise: Darth Vader is being hunted by Governor Tarkin himself. Much of the issue doesn’t get into the why of this scenario, partially to maintain a sense of mystery, but also because you don’t have time to wonder why an Imperial Officer and a gang of hired assassins and trackers are hunting down the Emperor’s Hand when Vader is on the prowl. He’s too busy turning the hunter into the hunted.
There’s something fantastically animalistic about Vader in this issue that makes him all the more petrifying a figure than he already has been in this rejuvenated era of Star Wars comics. He does not utter a single line in the issue (outside of a flashback that will become important later on), and the closest we get to any characterization of him beyond the raw danger he represents is the sinister hsssshhh huuuu of his breathing apparatus. He is an unstoppable force, picking off members of Tarkin’s team one by one—every time they think they have him cornered, he comes skulking from the shadows to rip and tear what little strategy the hunters had to pieces, either with the Force or simply with his bare hands. This isn’t Darth Vader, the tragic fallen Jedi—it’s Darth Vader the beast. There is a rawness to his presentation here that makes him spectacularly haunting.
But Vader #18 is as much about Tarkin himself as it is Vader. It is, after all, told from his perspective as he attempts to bring Vader down, which is why the alternate framing of the Dark Lord makes his brutal and bloody strikes against Tarkin’s team all the more chilling. But it also throws up a mirror to Tarkin’s analytical, strategic mind—and the cruel acumen that lies just beneath the veneer of an officer that draws some dark parallels between Tarkin and Vader themselves.
Over the course of the issue, which sees the very last of Tarkin’s squad (which started with 20 people, including himself) get whittled down by the bloody path carved by Vader, we get to see a flashback to the insight Tarkin has had studying his prey over the course of the hunt. He recognizes that Vader’s strength against blasters means that his team needs projectile-launching weapons—“Slugthrowers,” Star Wars’ chosen parlance for what we know as a usual firearm—that can’t be deflected by a lightsaber. When that barely makes a dent in Vader’s armor, he turns to flamethrowers. Then, it becomes about robbing Vader of his crimson weapon and playing the game of statistics. How close does Vader need to be to you to crush your body with the power of the Force? How many people’s lives does it take in each encounter to eke out a new strategy, a new weakness to exploit?
That’s where Tarkin’s callous coolness really comes to the fore. His clipped narration as he recalls each failed skirmish against Vader always notes the human cost behind each of his strategies, the lives lost figuring out just what an unstoppable monster Vader is when he’s cornered. But not to emphasis Vader’s power, or out of a sympathy—it’s just all part of the grand strategy, another factoid to help Tarkin formulate the next plan, and the plan after that. It’s clear that, just like Vader, Governor Tarkin is completely fine with the horror and carnage of this hunt, the wanton death of it all, as long as victory at the end of it all is achieved.
But the similarity between the cruelness of the two men is not meant to be the shocking reveal of Darth Vader #18. Instead, it’s that they both already recognize that about each other. As the issue comes to a close with Vader and Tarkin the only people left standing—just barely, as a last-gasp lure by the latter leads to Vader being disabled by a gigantic lightning blast, just seconds before he can gut Tarkin—we finally get to learn why all this chaos unfolded in the first place. It was all a game, a favor between Vader and Tarkin--a test demanded by the Dark Lord to prove that even in a galaxy where the fire of the Jedi is all but stamped out, he’s still capable of being humbled.
Even in apparent defeat, however, Vader has a message for Tarkin, using what strength he has left to fleetingly choke the Governor for just a moment. A reminder that while Tarkin has “won” today, and that they might be similarly cruel people, Vader has a power that Tarkin could never possibly measure up to. Thus, an unlikely respect between the two is forged—and all it took was the senseless death of 19 people to do it. To Tarkin, that’s an acceptable cost.