The gripping conclusion of Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin: Vader comes out on top - but there's more to this hit job than meets the eye!
The fifth and final issue of Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Ninth Assassin finally delivers what we've been waiting for: Vader versus the assassin (DarkHorse.com profile), released August 21. After the odd detour in the previous issue with Vader and the cultists who offered him power if he chose to fulfill their prophecy and become and agent of galactic chaos, it's now time for the assassination contract to be carried out. Spoilers ahead!
Summmary: After taking the crystal that focuses the beam that emits from the temple, leaving the cultists to their doom, Vader escaped from the collapsing structure, which has now also started the self-destruction of the entire moon. Striding back into the quaking jungle, Vader passes through a herd of beasts unharmed, while the assassin stays on his trail. As another predator attacks the Dark Lord of the Sith, Vader, hurls a tree at the beast -- and into his pursuer. Taunting his opponent, Vader leaves the killer at the mercy of the creature, but the assassin makes short work of the charging monster. Realizing that he's been spotted, the assassin decides to abort his mission, and races to his ship, but Vader has already found it, and is waiting for some sport.
The assassin impresses Vader with his skill with his blades, and the Sith Lord, having no grudge against the killer, repeatedly offers him a chance to work for the Empire. But in the end, the assassin chooses to stay solo, working for his clients seeking vengeance, and Vader snuffs him out, claiming that he IS justice. As the moon's crust destabilizes into magma, Vader manages to take off in the assassin's ship, and uses the autopilot to return to the assassin's base, where he puts down the assassin's business broker.
As Darth Vader personally reports in to the Emperor, Palpatine is impressed with Vader's work, and tasks his apprentice with turning over the crystal to Tarkin's special project. The Dark Lord then reaches the snowy base of the man who hired the assassin, and lets the mine owner (now deaf, blind, and mute as part of the price for seeing the assassin and living) know that the killer has failed, before also eliminating the businessman. Meanwhile, the Emperor muses on the fact that the cultists' assassination attempt and leading Vader to the moon was all his own plot to test Vader's loyalty, and that he had a contingency for dealing with Vader had he chosen a different path.
Review: Basically, Vader confronts the assassin, and then ties up the loose ends. And it was all Palpatine's scheme all along, to see where Vader's ambitions lay: in service to the Emperor or to his own power. Or was it really all Palpatine's plot? Palpatine talks about the cultists and their assassination attempt and leading Vader to their moon, but he doesn't talk about the assassin.. unless the assassin was his contingency plan if Vader joined the chaos-seeking Headless Snake sect. In which case, Vader took care of that and may not have mentioned it to the Emperor. (Though I'm sure the Emperor would find out that the assassin's front man was no longer taking calls, and that the vengeful mine owner was also no longer alive). While I like the Palpatine angle for this story, I'm not quite sure it is enough here, but it does reinforce that Vader at this point is Palpatine's. There's a few other spots where the story skips a little bit too much - it's not clear that taking the crystal would cause the whole moon to destroy itself in volcanic fury or whether the assassin is actively tracking Vader on the moon as lava cracks open everywhere, or he just happens to be going in the same direction until Vader smacks him with a tree. or
I did like some of the dialogue that Vader has with the assassin, as some of it is more Anakin in the prequel era than Vader in the original trilogy era. Tim Siedell captures Anakin's style of talking and humor as he toys with the assassin, trying to evaluate his skill and use for the Empire.
The art, with pencils by Iván Fernández, inks by Denis Freitas, colors by Michael Atiyeh, and lettering by Michael Heisler, (same as the team on Issue #3, but not for issues 1, 2 and 4) is solid - I think my favorite drawn panels are the scenes with the snarling predator staring down Vader... and then the assassin. I do feel that they perhaps crammed a bit more into these pages than perhaps there should have been - the battle between the assassin and Vader could have used some nice big actiony shots as well, while the ending of Vader walking in the snow away from the mine owner's domain seemed a bit of a waste. There is an awesome two-page spread as the moon rips apart, with the assassin's ship, with Vader at the controls, flying away from it. I do also like the assassin's ship appearing similar to both the assassin's mask in color and tone, and his blades, in shape.
The cover painting by Ariel Olivetti captures the whole sense of the comic well.
Overall, while the ending is good, it felt like it could have been polished a little more. Some rough cuts and odd pacing making the story a little harder to piece together. And the question of whether the assassin was part of Palpatine's test still remains.