When George Lucas launched the Prequel Trilogy back in 1999, his marketing department immediately saw the potential of Darth Maul. A ruthlessly evil Sith Lord, there’s something very much Satanic about his horned face. But sadly, Darth Maul didn’t exactly last long; he was killed ignominiously at the end of The Phantom Menace. It didn’t take long for him to make a return, though, with Star Wars: The Clone Wars resurrecting the character. He’s also played a major role in Star Wars: Rebels.
Unfortunately, Darth Maul’s portrayal in the two animated series has been a little awkward. In The Clone Wars and Rebels he’s been portrayed as a ruthlessly intelligent tactician, in contrast to the brooding powerhouse of The Phantom Menace. We’ve long needed something to bridge the gap – and so Marvel has chosen to launch their latest Star Wars miniseries, with fan-favorite writer Cullen Bunn determined to give us a glimpse inside a Sith Lord’s mind.
Darth Maul #1 is set before The Phantom Menace, with the Sith Lords moving in the shadows. Bunn uses this to point to the odd contrast that runs at the heart of the Sith; for generations they have taught themselves to hate, taught themselves to give in to their anger, and yet they have played the long game for millennia. For Darth Maul, bred to be a warrior, this is deeply frustrating. So we see him chafing under Darth Sidious’s command, heading out to hunt the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy for sport.
The problem is that there’s only one thing he wants to hunt: Jedi. It seems he often wanders through Coruscant, watching Jedi from a distance, actually allowing them to sense the depth of his anger and hate before he hides it. He’s strategic about it, only doing this with Jedi who lack the wisdom and Force-awareness to sense what they’re dealing with; don’t expect to catch a glimpse of Qui-Gon Jinn or Yoda! Still, to Sidious this poses a real risk; should one Jedi just realize that what they sense is the Dark Side, personified to an extent that it could only be a Sith Lord, then the Sith’s aeons-old strategy would be ruined.
So it is that Palpatine sends Darth Maul away from Coruscant, tasking him with helping his Trade Federation allies. This gives Cullen Bunn a chance to throw in a starfighter scene, ensuring we understand that Darth Maul is as potent in space combat as he is in a face-to-face battle. But it also sets us up for the main arc, as Darth Maul learns of a Jedi Padawan who has been captured by slavers. He knows that the Jedi will send a Master to rescue the Padawan, and that this will be a perfect opportunity to hunt a Jedi without risk of consequences. If Maul has his way, both Master and Padawan will die in the shadows.
The idea is an intriguing one, and seems to tie back to the Prequel novelizations. These suggested that Sidious had originally planned for Darth Maul to launch just such a campaign; to begin striking in the shadows after the Trade Federation blockade, with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi his first targets. What we’re actually seeing, then, is Darth Maul secretly deciding to initiate his master’s strategy at a time of his own choosing, as much as an expression of frustration as anything else. It’s perfectly in-character, but it risks everything for momentary satisfaction.
Luke Ross’s art is strong – he’s clearly enjoying working in the Star Wars universe, and some of his combat scenes are excellent. Working closely with colorist Nolan Woodard, he really tries to build a sense of ominous foreboding in the comic, but I have to say that he only enjoys mixed success in this. I’m more impressed with Ross’s world-building; from the city-planet of Coruscant to the hunting grounds of Twon Ketee, Ross gives each world a distinct identity. Woodard carefully differentiates between each world in tone and style, and you can tell that he and Ross are working together seamlessly.
All in all, Darth Maul #1 promises to be a strong comic book series. Cullen Bunn is a master of characterization, and he’s set himself a real challenge here; the first issue suggests that he’s up to it though. He’s backed by a fairly strong artistic team and it won’t be long till we get to see some loving renditions of Jedi-v-Sith Force-battles.
Star Wars: Darth Maul # 1 is a strong issue, albeit mostly focused on scene-setting. The quality of world-building is excellent, and you can tell that Cullen Bunn is really going to enjoy exploring the contradictory portrayals of Darth Maul.