Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess
Star Wars created by George Lucas
“I am your father” has become a ubiquitous meme since Darth Vader had his little talk with Luke Skywalker back in 1980 in what is now one of the most parodied scenes in pop culture. One recent example that comes to mind is when Evil Emperor Zurg pulls off the reveal on Buzz Lightyear in the movie Toy Story 2, resulting in the same pained reaction. But later on, the two are seen playing a game of catch in which Buzz excitedly proclaims “Oh, you're a great dad!” Jeffrey Brown milks that joke for all its worth in a pair of books Darth Vader and Son and its sequel Vader’s Little Princess. Had young Anakin been a more attentive father, would he have turned out a better person than in the movies? Probably not, but he might have learned to play a decent game of catch.
Brown has made his fair share of pop culture parodies, but this pair hews closer to the more heartfelt expressiveness of his autobiographical comics. This apparently stems from Brown becoming a father in real life. His awkward, often befuddled Vader is an avatar for Brown himself, except he’s raising a pair of superpowered kids within the house that George Lucas built. That might place these two books as among his cutest and geekiest efforts to date.
Darth Vader and Son concentrates on Vader’s relationship with Luke while Vader’s Little Princess turns its attention on Leia. Both are initially portrayed as very young, though they later age into teenagers. Each book contains a collection of mostly single-panel gag strips with no overarching narrative connecting them. Brown’s rough hand-drawn style is at its most detailed here when recreating its fictional backdrops. The results are kind of adorable. Brown’s simple colors, thick hatching, and the pared-down characters make him rather suitable as a children’s book illustrator. With their button eyes and broad grins, Luke and Leia make for especially sweet-looking tykes. Vader is lovingly drawn by Brown wearing his usual menacing visage, but this only enhances the character’s awkwardness when dealing with domestic situations.
The gags fall into two broad, sometimes overlapping, categories. The first presents the characters engaged in various parent-child activities like family meals, learning to ride personal modes of transport, teaching proper hygiene, playing sports, family outings, holidays, school functions, etc. The second are recontextualized scenes lifted from the Star Wars trilogy. This often results in Vader being embarrassed by his kids, such as when he’s about to force choke an incompetent admiral, only to be interrupted by an ecstatic Leia greeting him with a big hug. Vader might be able to terrorize the rest of the galaxy, but even his most ominous threats will barely evince a reaction from the serenely upbeat Luke and Leia.
Brown is at his best when he’s enjoying the Skywalker family dynamic rather than when trying to poke fun at the entire franchise. Vader’s face is an unchanging mask, but the range of emotions he goes through are palpable from what he says and does. In one cartoon, Vader is clumsily cradling a garish red necktie Luke has given to him as a gift. While his son hopefully looks on, Vader tries to look grateful while thinking to himself “I CAN’T WEAR THIS.”
I’d say that Darth Vader and Son is the more successful of the two. Brown is better writing about toddlers than teenagers. Toddlers have the advantage of being precious and vulnerable. Teenagers, not as much. And it probably doesn’t help that Brown has no actual experience raising an adolescent girl of his own. But whatever the reason, this causes him to lean more on the source material for inspiration. While I appreciate Brown's trying not to repeat himself, the humor becomes a bit more formulaic in Vader’s Little Princess. Vader himself is often reduced to the role of overprotective father who doesn’t get Leia’s loose fashion sense, her foot-dragging over completing her house chores, or her taste in boyfriends. Sometimes, the jokes are just recycled from old TV sitcoms or cartoon strips, such as when Luke complains that “Leia’s been in the bathroom for, like, an hour!” Maybe Brown should have treated the character a little less like a princess.