The importance of good character design should not be lost on anyone familiar with the Star Wars franchise, much less the creators working in it. Boba Fett is an object lesson in such, a fan favorite for simply standing around or strutting about and appearing imposing, despite being the recipient of one of the most ignoble and inglorious death scenes in cinema. The exact same sentiment can be expressed for Darth Maul in the Prequel Trilogy. Both were so popular, in fact, that Lucasfilm later decreed both to have crawled out of the pits in which they’d fatally fallen, the Sith apprentice surviving so much as bisection. Not wanting to be left out, the Sequels continue this motif with Captain Phasma, an awesomely armored but equally ineffectual antagonist who likewise survives the shaft in which she’s disposed. (Had Abrams and company anticipated fan reaction, they’d have given TR-8R the chrome finish instead.)
The mirror to such is that bad character design can just as easily disengage audience appeal. The Viet Cong teddy bears known as Ewoks are beloved by no one born after May 25th, 1973. Jar Jar Binks is beloved by no one, born whenever.
Given such, it’s hard to imagine what Gillen and Larroca were thinking when designing the character of Commande Karbin. I like to picture them breaking apart action figures, a la Sid from Toy Story, gluing the bug-eyed catfish head of Admiral “It’s a trap!” Akbar onto the body of General Grievous, laughing at such a ridiculous atrocity and daring each other to put the character in a comic book, accidently taking their joke too far by actually doing so. The character was easy enough to overlook in issues five and six, surrounded by a company of rogues, but as the main antagonist of the Vader Down crossover too much limelight shines upon the farcical foil to ignore.
Darth Vader has always been about two complimentary themes. It’s first and foremost an exploration of Vader’s revelation regarding his parentage and his preliminary implementations of plans to capture and confront Luke with this truth, never to see fruition till Empire Strikes Back, of course. It is secondly about the once and current slave stepping out of the thralldom to his master, not attempting to return to the Emperor’s good graces after the Death Star’s destruction but breaking the whips of his serfdom, manifest as overseers (Oon-ai, Thanoth), rivals (Tulon Voidgazer, the Astarte Twins), and Palpatine himself.
It will be interesting to see if Vader’s confrontation with Karbin will prove the first in a pattern for the series, with the other replacements established at the series’ start to follow. Such would make narrative sense given the reader knowledge regarding the future of the Rebellion as a whole and Skywalker, Solo, and the princess in particular. Even as exciting and enjoyable as Vader Down proved, knowing the final fates of such characters did rob it of some dramatic tension. Such is partially why the characters original to the comics, such as Aphra and Black Krrsantan, utterly steal the scenes they’re in. Except for Karbin. Fuck Karbin. Fuck him with all four lightsabers.
I understand Leia’s arc in Vader Down, but in seeing it all the way through still regard it as poorly implemented. The character as she appeared in A New Hope simply never seemed so vindictive or vengeful. In the scene in which the heroes are escaping the Death Star, it is Luke that stands his ground shooting vainly at Vader, while Leia, Alderaan’s destruction still fresh from hours before, flees aboard the Falcon, the friends she’d fast formed valuing more than any vendetta. It seems she was only given the cold pragmatism displayed at the beginning of Vader Down in order to demonstrate a denouncement of such here at the climax. And even so, with her finger on the trigger and Vader’s back turned towards her, distracted by combat with Karbin, it was not clearly established that firing off her blaster and ridding the galaxy of space Hitler would have proven necessarily suicidal, which is the only scenario in which a dilemma exists between such and saving her friends.
All of the factors contributing to the popularity of Boba Fett, Captain Phasma, and Darth Maul, Vader has in equal measure. He’s got the masked man of mystery vibe of the former two, mixed with the ebon-clad warrior motif of the latter. Even were he as inactive and ineffectual as they, he’d still hail among the most icon villains of popular culture. But Vader is ruthless and relentless, the intimidation he exudes punctuated by definitive displays of death and destruction, more so than ever here in Vader Down. Every bit as much as the movies themselves, Vader Down stands as a testament to the character’s well justified popularity with fans and film-goers alike.