Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Humanizing Darth Vader

Darth Vader and son. Isn't this ever so precious?One of our most popular posts ever has been this one about Batman books for small children — The Batmobile has two wheels and the Joker stole a schoolbus: tyke Dark Knight books are Two-Faced transmedia storytelling. But (of course) the idea of inappropriate materials directed at children continues, and this post is about Star Wars and Darth Vader. And how humanizing a homicidal maniac within a children’s book is detrimental.

I luved Star Wars as a kid — and was even Princess Leia for Halloween with my hair in pastry braids. And before the internetz my friends and I gabbed and debated for hours on theories about the original trilogy (One conclusion — that ewoks and wookies were from the same original species and had been separated and developed differently subsequently). And other vaguely embarassing fandom activities. So my viewpoint isn’t based on disliking of the Star Wars universe.

I didn’t like the newer trilogy, but not because it told the back story about Anakin/Darth Vader; origin stories can help to develop an understanding of characters already known by the audience. My issues: the usual suspects of stilted acting and writing and jarring plot holes with what we (the audience) already know. One of the most disturbing scenes in Star Wars: Episode III is when Anakin leads an attack on the Jedi Temple, killing his former friends and children training to become Jedi. The Star Wars Wiki calls this an eradication, but the destruction of an entire people is usually described as a genocide.

This would have been a good place to leave things, but the Star Wars universe is ever expanding. When I first heard about the Clone Wars series, my jaded thought was “Now we can watch Anakin get to know at least one of the kids that he later ruthlessly kills.” (Based on what has happened in the series and related products, his padawan apprentice, Ahsoka Tano, seems to have survived the massacre.) But taking a step back, this means that the audience is supposed to think it is acceptable to watch someone act as a mentor and a father figure to someone just like those that he kills.

Moral ambiguity is an important issue for children to understand. And comics/scifi/geek culture is capable of creating and developing characters that can be complex — good and bad; moral, immoral, and amoral depending on the circumstances. One example is my all-time favorite comic book supervillain, Magneto, who interestingly like Darth Vader, wears a cape and has long-lost twin children who also have special powers.

But do we want to show children additional “he’s trying to be a patient mentor and all-round basically nice guy” within The Clone Wars before he kills (within the movies) an entire planet of people we don’t know (Alderaan); all the people who raised him from childhood; a village of Tusken Raiders, including children; Jedi children who trusted him; and his wife while pregnant?  This is the point where I stopped being an active part of the Star Wars fandom.

But while I would not watch or recommend The Clone Wars to kids, it was for me a personal choice — after all, The Clone Wars started in 2003 and I could have written a blog post on this a long time ago. However, now I am ready to cut all ties with Star Wars. So what sent me over the edge? A licensed book (as in not fanfic!) set in an alternative universe where Darth Vader raises Luke — including playing baseball and going out for ice cream. Seriously? A cutesy book featuring a “dad” raising a kid after killing his mother? Sounds like a great Father’s day gift for the genocidal maniac in your life!

I seem to be alone in this sentiment — others exclaim that the book “is so disarmingly charming that you really stop caring that this is an evil Sith lord“; a “hilarious and heart-warming picture book”; “It’s fun to see Darth Vader as sort of a sensitive guy.“; “wonderfully funny comic about fatherhood“; and “This is the perfect book for any young Star Wars fan or parent of young kids.” And this is really directed towards kids — there is a site for the book including a pro-literacy poster and finger puppets.

Do I think that those that like this book are bad? Of course not! They found something that fits within the venn diagram between their fandom and fatherhood. And with the additional element of “wouldn’t it be funny if …” And I’m not angry with Jeffrey Brown either — but why not just have this as fanart (like I heart Darth or lots o’ stuff on deviantArt)? There is a distinct change by making this an officially approved Lucasfilm product — this is now a small part of the official Star Wars universe.

By transposing characters from the Star Wars universe into our own one, it is difficult to not then normalize them — after all, Brown says that he based the book on his own interactions with his son. And by doing so, he humanized a fictional mass murderer to encourage fathers see themselves in him — humorously, of course.

So from here on out, I will be recommending Avatar: The Last Airbender (and hopefully its sequel) rather than Star Wars as the mainstream U.S. property that is based around Asian culture, easily accessible to multiple age ranges, with characters with depth and moral ambiguity (including at least one “I used to be evil, but not anymore”), and female characters that are as well-written, complex — and even as much “bad guys” as the dudes.

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