This week’s Marvel Rundown is a Force to be reckoned with. First, the current era of Marvel Star Wars comics comes to a close with the Star Wars: Empire Ascendant one-shot. The line of comics set in a galaxy far, far away has been a runaway success for the House of Ideas, and with relaunched titles ahead in 2020, does this special issue comfortably bridge the gap?

Then, the saga of Ben Solo is finally revealed in Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1. What happened to the son of Han and Leia after the fall of Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple? How did he come to be in the thrall of Supreme Leader Snoke and the Knights of Ren? And based on this first issue, does it look like this title is going to answer those important questions?

And finally, Gwen Poole’s battle for narrative relevance reaches its zenith with the final issue of the Gwenpool Strikes Back miniseries. Can Gwen find a place for herself within the Marvel Universe before it’s too late?

We’ve got mini-review roundups for all three of those titles, plus more reviews in our Rapid Rundown of the week’s many, many new Marvel offerings, all ahead in the latest Marvel Rundown!

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Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1

Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1

Written by Charles Soule, Greg Pak, Ethan Sacks, and Simon Spurrier
Illustrated by Luke Ross, Roland Boschi, Paolo Villanelli, and Caspar Wijngaard
Colored by Guru-eFX, Rachelle Rosenberg, Arif Prianto, and Lee Loughridge
Lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles and VC’s Travis Lanham
Cover by Riccardo Federici

Joe Grunenwald: Marvel’s current run of Star Wars titles, a sprawling line that has included a handful of ongoing series and numerous miniseries since its launch in 2015, ends this week with the Star Wars: Empire Ascendant one-shot. Instead of acting as a culmination for all the storylines that have come before, though, this special issue spends more time looking to the future than reflecting on where it’s been.

A collection of standalone stories set in the days prior to the beginning of The Empire Strikes BackEmpire Ascendant‘s four tales are all solidly entertaining in their own ways. Charles Soule and Luke Ross‘s “An Echo of Victory” shows one of the more mundane sides of fighting in a rebellion, and features a pair of characters I didn’t recognize immediately (and with whom many readers might not be familiar if they’re coming into this cold), which made the ‘reveal’ of who they were quite satisfying. Greg Pak and Roland Boschi‘s “In Service to the Empire” is billed as a Darth Vader story, though it barely features the dark lord, instead focusing on a squadron of new Death Troopers on their first mission. The fate of those troopers nicely illuminates Vader’s own thinking about what it means to serve the cause of the Empire.

In “Two Sides to Every Sortie,” Ethan Sacks and Paolo Villanelli provide an entertaining glimpse of what the upcoming Bounty Hunters series is going to be like, introducing the character Beilert Valance for new readers and establishing his position in the galaxy. The Doctor Aphra tale that closes out the issue, “Epilogue,” features strong work from Simon Spurrier and Caspar Wijngaard, and is the only tale that feels like a true conclusion for what’s come before, while still laying groundwork for more stories. Spurrier’s characters are lively and entertaining, and the narrative captions that run throughout have an air of finality that provide a nice capstone for this era of Marvel Star Wars comics as a whole. If you’re looking for a fix of classic Star Wars and you can’t wait until Friday, you could do a lot worse than drop six bucks on BUYing this one-shot.

Samantha Puc: This anthology one-shot punched me with feelings in the first story, “An Echo of Victory,” by Charles Soule and Luke Ross; being introduced to new characters and then learning about their connection to the larger Star Wars universe was deeply satisfying, and I am really looking forward to seeing more from them in next year’s new Star Wars #1, which explores the period of time after The Empire Strikes Back. There are so many gaps in the movies, and getting to see those gaps explored and expanded in the Marvel comics is a true delight.

In fact, each one-shot in Empire Ascendant sets up something to come, rather than solely relying on territory that’s already well-trod. This universe is sprawling, and there are so many beloved characters whose histories and futures are tied up in each other. Joe Grunenwald already detailed how each story in this one-shot fits into the overall canon, so from my end, mostly what I have to say is: if you want to delve deeper into Star Wars and spend some time getting into the minds and hearts of characters we’ve known for years, this one-shot is an excellent read. It’s set up so that any reader can pick it up and enjoy, regardless of their familiarity with the comics so far, which is excellent and not nearly common enough, even with some #1s.

Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1 gets a hearty BUY from me!

Final Verdict: Joe and Samantha both say this is a BUY!

From Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1

Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1

Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1

Written by Charles Soule
Illustrated by Will Sliney
Colored by Guru-eFX
Lettered by VC’s Travis Lanham
Cover by Clayton Crain

AJ Frost: For five years now, Kylo Ren has remained one of Star Wars‘ most ambiguous characters. Yes, by now we know he’s Han and Leia’s son. Yes, we know he’s a maniacal man-child with the Dark Side as his muse. But what makes Kylo Ren neé Ben Solo the person he is? What makes him tick? And why should we care? With the ninth installment of the Skywalker Saga dropping in only days, taking a stab at one of the Sequel Trilogy’s most vital characters is a most-welcome proposition. Cue in Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1, a wild ride that fills in critical gaps in the lore. This first issue introduces readers to the Knights of Ren as well as a pre-Kylo’d Ben Solo.

As explored in The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker sensed something dark in Ben and tried to destroy him. Everyone of us was left to wonder what happened in the immediate aftermath. Without giving too much away, writer Charles Soule and artist Will Sliney tell the tale of Ben Solo’s exodus from the re-built Jedi Order and how he was seduced by the power that is the Sith Order. Sliney’s pencils here are extraordinary and he renders Kylo so wonderfully. Soule’s writing is top-notch (as usual) and though he plays in the company sandbox, what he builds from it is the beginning of a quality Star Wars tale for the ages. Verdict: BUY.

Joe Grunenwald: With the Skywalker saga wrapping up this weekend, the thing I’m probably most excited for about the future of Star Wars is to see the backstories and inner lives of the newest trilogy’s characters more fully explored in books and comics. There’s only so much that can be done with those characters so long as their stories are primarily being told on film, after all. That exploration begins with the villain of the new trilogy, Kylo Ren, and Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1 delves into the pre-Ren life of Ben Solo in a thrilling and intriguing way.

Picking up Ben’s story immediately following his confrontation with Luke Skywalker, writer Charles Soule and artist Will Sliney present a Ben Solo who’s more conflicted than ever. The team introduces a trio of Ben’s fellow students, and the interactions between them and Ben are heartbreaking as the latter takes responsibility for what’s happened and the former try to process what they’ve come home to. Soule’s dialogue is solid, and he perfectly captures the petulance that Adam Driver brings to the role. Sliney’s storytelling is strong throughout, though his likeness work for Driver as Ben Solo is uneven to start. Also, after hearing about the Knights of Ren for a while, Soule and Sliney finally reveal them to readers, and they’re every bit as terrifyingly brutal as you might expect.

Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1 feels like a vital installment in the overall tapestry of the newest Star Wars trilogy. I look forward to seeing how the rest of Ben Solo’s story unfolds, but on-screen and in this series. Verdict: BUY.

Final Verdict: AJ and Joe both give Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1 an enthusiastic BUY!

From Star Wars: The Rise of Kylo Ren #1

Gwenpool Strikes Back #5

Gwenpool Strikes Back #5

Written by Leah Williams
Illustrated by David Baldéon
Colored by Jesus Aburtov & Guru-eFX
Lettered by VC’s Joe Caramagna
Cover Photo by Elena Strikes & Judith Stephens
Reviewed by Nick Kazden

I didn’t have much experience with Gwenpool before reading the first issue of Leah Williamsand David Baldeón’s fantastic mini-series, but now I just can’t get enough of her.

The entire series has been a slapstick adventure that gives the self-conscious hero ample opportunity to express why she’s worthy of holding a permanent position in the Marvel Universe, but this issue really dials both the humor and emotional vulnerability up to 11. Even the way Williams peppers in asides, starting the issue with a hilarious one-page time loop forcing the Punisher to face a truly deadly foe, reinforces the tone and feel of the book instead of feeling like filler material. Williams’ writing is top-notch here; her voice compliments the character extremely well, but Baldeon’s expressive art and fluid, panel-breaking layouts give the book an extra layer of charm and momentum.

As the ultimate fangirl herself, Gwen makes sure that her book is full of quick, delightful cutaway moments, like forcing Steve Rogers and Tony Stark to share an oversized moomoo, that kept me smiling even as things veered towards empathetic melodrama. For a book put out by one of the big two publishers, it sure has a lot of meta, nit-picky comments about the way the industry generates successful characters.

Gwen’s desire to fight, to constantly get into a bigger skirmish for more attention and permanent eyeballs, has guided her whacky behavior so far, but Williams wonderfully retools (retcons?) her engine to give her more control over her narrative moving forward.  If you’d been holding out to read this book until the series was over, now is your chance, and I wholeheartedly recommend you go out and BUY this book.

Final Verdict: Nick gives Gwenpool #5 a BUY!

From Gwenpool Strikes Back #5

Rapid Rundown!

  • Excalibur #4
    • All eyes may be on Krakoa as mutants enter the international stage, but Excalibur wants you to remember that Captain Britain is sworn to protect Britain (and no, she can’t save it from Brexit, unfortunately). Writer Tini Howard continues the hot streak, shining a bit more of the spotlight on Gambit and Rictor this week as the newly assembled mutant squad continues their battle against the Otherworld’s mystical, dark threats. This was likely my least favorite issue of the series so far, but when every issue is entertaining and features some jaw-dropping art courtesy of Marcus To, being the least enjoyable in an amazing crop is still quite the accomplishment. With massive Kaiju monsters on the horizon, now is a great time to give this fantasy-infused X-book a chance. — NK
  • Fallen Angels #4
    • F**k. Really, Marvel? — NK
  • Ghost-Spider #5
    • The Jackal from Earth-65 takes the spotlight in Ghost-Spider #5, which not only allows Seanan McGuire to really dive deep into why this guy is so creepy, but also gives Takeshi Miyazawa, IG Guara, Rosi Kämpe, and Ian Herring some fun (and green) material with which to work. It’s amazing to see McGuire continuing the stellar character work that has defined her run on Ghost-Spider so far, and to see her taking rape culture and stalking to task through a classic villain is great. Gwen has faced off against Jackal now, but one battle does not a war make. Earth-65 is already changed forever by his decision to cross between worlds, and it seems he’s just getting started Don’t miss this continuously stellar series. — SP

  • Marauders #4
    • With the most recent issue of Marauders focusing on the Black King Sebastian Shaw’s self-serving desires, issue #4 joyously slingshots back to the Hellfire Corporation’s Red Queen Kate Pryde and her global mission to defend ostracized mutants. Part secret-agent and part swashbuckling pirate, Kate has a banter-filled, light-hearted voice throughout the issue that reinforces how comfortable she is in her new role. There are a lot of great characters in this series — props to Storm finally being colored correctly and given a badass moment — but the best interaction was likely between Kate and Bishop as she struggles to make the no-nonsense warrior her official confidante in the Hellfire hierarchy. Honestly, there’s no reason the book should be this damn enjoyable every issue, but the Marauders creative team keep knocking this series out of the park and I can’t wait to see what the future holds now that the gameboard is one step closer to being fully set. — NK
  • New Mutants #4
    • Continuing the Earth-bound focus on characters like Armor and Glob that writer Ed Brisson established in issue #3, the newest chapter in the New Mutants saga dives deeper into the ethical dilemmas created by the Krakoan pharmaceuticals and how mutants outside of the new nation become targets for greedy, conniving organizations. Marco Failla is a skilled illustrator, doing a great job making sure each character’s expressions match their varied personalities, but his artwork feels closer to Marvel’s house style than the inventive, scratchy work Rod Reis has turned in for the series’ space-based issues. With Boom-Boom making her explosive (yes, this is a pun) entrance in the Dawn of X, it seems Krakoa’s younger mutants are ready to make their mark on the ever-changing world. — NK
  • X-Force #4
    • With Charles Xavier resurrected, the Quiet Council can finally determine how to properly react to a terrorist event on domestic soil. The rough outline of X-Force, or as Mystique aptly labels it, a “mutant CIA,” is finally coming into view as Beast, Sage and Jean Grey participate in an entertaining fact-finding investigation that directly leads to Wolverine and his strike force being sent out into the field. Despite how dire and eager things seem on Krakoa, the book really succeeds in part due to its slow, methodical pace that ensures no scenes feel rushed or overdramatic. All of the Dawn of X series have been enjoyable so far (well, maybe not Fallen Angels), but Benjamin Percy outshines his fellow X-writers when it comes to closing issues on shocking cliffhangers that immediately have me clamoring for just a little bit more. — NK

Next week: Incoming!