“Vader Down” notwithstanding, I’ve generally enjoyed Jason Aaron’s work on “Star Wars” so far. The second volume even indicated that we could expect stronger work from him when he’s not bent on bringing in big-gun guest stars like Darth Vader and Boba Fett. With “Rebel Jail” he has an even bigger opportunity to add something to the “Star Wars” mythos by telling us a story set in an all-new location: the Alliance’s top-secret prison. Unfortunately he mostly whiffs this opportunity by delivering a standard action story that rehashes familiar and tired moral arguments along the way. If that wasn’t bad enough, this volume also shows that Kieron Gillen is the better “Star Wars” writer whether he’s writing from the perspective of the Empire or the Rebellion.
Gillen’s contribution is placed upfront in this volume for reasons which will be clear later on. It introduces us to Eneb Ray, a Rebellion spy based on Coruscant. He’s very good at what he does, so when Princess Leia contacts him with a job to rescue some anti-Imperial senators who are about to be executed you can be sure that he’ll get the job done. The catch here is that upon their rescue, the senators tell Ray that the Emperor is on his way to personally oversee their execution. With the chance to take out the Empire’s leader within his grasp, it’s up to Ray to use all of his skills as well as the resources at his disposal to make it happen.
If you’ve seen the original trilogy, then I don’t think I need to tell you whether or not his plan is successful. Given that, I’d call the whole thing “satisfyingly downbeat” as Gillen serves up plenty of witty dialogue, slick action, and an ending that shows us why the Emperor is the biggest bastard there is. The art from Angel Unzueta is also very professional in its clean look and efficiency with storytelling. Ray’s story is ultimately a compelling one about a person who has to learn a hard lesson about the difference between a spy and a hero and the high point of this volume.
Following this, we get into “Rebel Jail” proper as Sana Staros and Leia have teamed up to bring the captured Doctor Aphra to Sunspot Prison. This is the Alliance’s top-secret prison where all of the Imperial criminals they’ve captured are being held in the orbit of a sun. The idea is that after the war is over, all of the individuals in the prison will be given a proper trial for their crimes. At least, that’s what I gathered. There is one person who has an issue with this, and he has decided to make his thoughts known by infiltrating and taking over the prison with his cadre of war droids. Now, faced with an unknown, powerful enemy, and a prison full of people who want them dead, it’s up to Leia and Sana to restore order. With the help of Aphra, of course. Assuming that the Doctor’s troubled past with Sana and general dislike of the Rebellion won’t convince her to try and spin the whole situation to her advantage.
Seeing these three female furies team up to take on a prison full of bad, bad individuals should’ve been a recipe for awesomeness here. I will say that there is some fun to be had in seeing the flinty interaction between Leia, Sana, and Aphra as they go about business with blasters blazing. A couple things drag this setup down considerably. While Sana debuted with a lot of potential as Han Solo’s ex-wife, Aaron didn’t do her any favors in the previous volume by revealing that she was just acting out a kind of lovesick delusion. Though the writer gets some decent mileage out of the character’s take-no-crap demeanor here, he undercuts Sana’s character again through her interactions with Aphra. I like the idea that the two characters have some kind of (Shady? Antagonistic? Romantic? All of the above?) history, but having Sana constantly recommend that Aphra be taken out for the majority of the story before having a last-minute change of heart just rings false.
More of an issue is the mystery antagonist behind the prison takeover. I say “antagonist” because he doesn’t believe he’s a bad guy. No, he’s just here to help Leia and the rest of the Rebellion realize the hard choices they need to make in order for them to win. Such as killing all of the prisoners! Why is he doing this? Because this is what the Rebellion made him!
Nearly all of this guy’s dialogue is either melodramatic as hell or preaching from the good book of “Ends Justify the Means.” So his character manages to be an unappealing mix of boring and annoying, to the point where the revelation that he’s a kind of disturbed killer as well feels like one more cliche added to the pile. Not helping matters is the fact that Leia is saddled with responding to his charges with the same kind of familiar “We have to prove that we’re better than them?” rhetoric that turns the whole argument into an unappealing echo chamber of tropey accusations.
If you’re wondering who the main bad guy here really is, you’ll find out by the end of the story. Maybe sooner if you’re familiar with the Law of Economy of Characters. The problem with using this guy as the villain is that it feels like we’re missing a few stories explaining how he wound up here. I can understand that he’d be bitter after the failure of his last mission, but to go from that to taking over the Rebellion’s prison with his droid army suggests a kind of megalomania that wasn’t present when we first saw him. Using him in this role feels like Aaron is trying to force a characterization that just doesn’t work.
There is some fun stuff going on around the edges of the story. As this is going on, Luke and Han are on a supply run for the Rebellion that goes somewhat awry thanks to the latter’s rusty Sabacc skills. This leads them to a low-end smuggling involving a whole lot of nerfs. It’s all played for light comedy and it’s fun seeing Luke and Han bounce off of each other in a low-stress scenario.
Doing the best with what he’s given is Lenil Yu, who showed that he could knock “Star Wars” stuff out of the park with his contribution to the most recent volume of “Darth Vader.” The four issues he contributes here aren’t quite as strong, but he still provides plenty of memorable visuals. Whether it’s high-end stuff like the double-page approach to Sunspot Prison or the initial breakthrough of the bad guys into the prison, smaller stuff like a panel of prisoners being let out to go hunt Leia and company, or just seeing the Millennium Falcon in action, Yu consistently delivers solid work that’s arguably better than this story deserves.
Rounding out the volume is another entry “From the Journals of Old Ben Kenobi.” I wasn’t that impressed with the entry in the previous volume, but this one is an improvement. We get to see more of how Kenobi carved a life for himself out in the desert has he helped the Jawas defend themselves from Tusken Raiders, watched over Luke and helped him from a distance, and quarreled with Owen Lars as a result of it. This is a lot more interesting than the “desert vigilante” setup we got from the previous journal entry and it features some fantastic art from Mike Mayhew. The artist traffics in a very photorealistic style which leads to some awkward expressions at times, but there’s still a vibrancy to his storytelling that draws you in. It also shows that he can do quality “Star Wars” work when he’s not rushed to do it as he was with “The Star Wars.” The story ends on a promising note as we find out that Jabba has hired a character who has appeared in both this title and “Darth Vader” to go after this mysterious individual who attacked his water tax collectors.
All told, the title arc in this volume is probably the least enjoyable “Star Wars” story I’ve read from Marvel yet. It may have its moments and good art, but the ill-used protagonist and forgettable moral argument at its core just drag it down. This arc also represents a huge missed opportunity by failing to show us how a prison is really necessary for the Rebellion. Instead, it’s just the set for a cut-rate action movie. Aaron has done better before and elsewhere, so I can only hope that he delivers better results with vol. 4 and its introduction of the Scartroopers.