Kanan Across the Canon

Depa Bilaba and Caleb Dume / Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

Last November, I was tentatively taking my first steps back into the world of comic collecting after a seventeen year hiatus. As Marvel began to add new chapters to the Star Wars Saga, I had to return to the hallowed halls of my local comic shop. Shattered Empire, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Lando…these were stories I needed to read! And I excitedly devoured them (with a return to full non-Star Wars comic reading/collecting to follow shortly). But it wasn’t until Christmas, when Jeff — the Imperial Talker himself — gifted me the trade paperback of the first six issues of Kanan: The Last Padawan that I would find what became (and has remained!) one of my absolute favorite parts of the Disney Canon.

How beautiful is this scene? For some reason, to me, this scene really captures the beauty I find in this comic series. / Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

For me, personally, when I look at any new addition to the Star Wars Saga (be it in the old Expanded Universe or the new Disney Canon) I evaluate it on two primary criteria. First, I want the story to feel necessary and not like something created simply to sell Star Wars stuff. I don’t want a bunch of stories of Han flying the Millennium Falcon just to see him flying the Millennium Falcon. I want a reason for the story that adds to the Star Wars Saga, expanding it in an important way — big or small. Second, I want stories that understand, respect, and honor what has come before. The story must fit in the galaxy we know and love. Most important of all, it can’t ignore, refute, or alter anything George Lucas has given us in his six films. Lucas’ work is sacrosanct! Obviously I want my Star Wars stories to be fun, entertaining, gripping, symbolic, layered and all of that too. But, when I look at what Star Wars stories I’m going to spend my time with and my money on, I want necessity and I want it to honor what’s come before. When I read Greg Weisman and Pepe Larraz’s Kanan: The Last Padawan, I found a comic that was a perfect example of all I hope for in my Star Wars stories!!

Photo Credit — Del Rey Books

We first met Kanan Jarrus in John Jackson Miller’s inaugural novel of the Disney Canon, A New Dawn. While I was late to reading it, it’s become my favorite of the new canon novels. In Kanan we find a loner and drifter, always looking over his shoulder and never forming any permanent bonds. We see a man who’s left his Padawan life completely behind. You can count the number of times he uses the Force in the novel on one hand (with fingers left over!) and he never activates his long unused lightsaber. Most of all, he doesn’t trust anyone nor does he allow the world to think he cares for anyone but himself. Then he meets Hera Syndulla and things start to change. We jump ahead to Star Wars: Rebels and find Kanan and Hera leading a rebel cell on Lothal. He is becoming more and more the man he was, perhaps, always destined to become.

Hera and Kanan / Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

What makes Kanan the man he is? Why does he hide from the Force and pretend to care only for himself? Well, when you drop Weisman and Larraz’s Kanan: The Last Padawan into that mix, we find our answers! I also find an excellent example of a Star Wars story doing what I hope they do. It is a comic that understands and honors what comes before it, tying to it all in brilliant and not simply superficial ways. It is also a comic that gives us a necessary story, adding important dimensions to the character of Kanan Jarrus by giving us a glimpse into the rich and complex emotional journey he’s taken since Order 66. We see the evolution from former Jedi Padawan Caleb Dume to wary drifter Kanan Jarrus and the toll — physical, emotional, and spiritual — that transition has taken on him.

Even among the Ghost crew, he remains haunted. / Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

The series opens with Hera telling the Ghost crew they’re heading to pick up supplies on the planet Kaller. This announcement causes Kanan to flashback to his time fighting on Kaller during the Clone Wars as the Padawan of Jedi Master Depa Billaba. The story begins by tying where we are (the Rebels series) with where it’s going (the comic’s flashback storyline). This comic is filling in large (and I’d argue important) narrative gaps in Kanan’s story. The first six issues deal with Caleb’s survival in the wake of Order 66. Before Order 66 is executed, Depa and Caleb are on Kaller with their clone troopers. They are successful in forcing Separatist General Kleeve to surrender the planet to the Republic. That evening, around the campfire, Depa, Caleb, and two clone soldiers — Commander Grey and Captain Styles — laugh and talk. The comic made me feel the closeness, the camaraderie, between the Jedi and the clones so deeply that a very real pain washed over me as the Emperor ordered the clones to turn on the Jedi.

Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

As this happens, they battle the clones and Depa orders Caleb to run. As he flees, Grey orders Styles to gun Caleb down. Depa reacts, trying to make him stop, when she’s shot in the back and killed. Caleb sees her die saving his life. In the wake of the surprise and the terror, Caleb does the only thing he can do — he runs and he hides. The panels are very dark, rainy, and emotionally heavy.

These are some of the most emotionally charged panels I’ve found in the Disney Canon. The weight they carry, a young Padawan as scared as he is hungry and exhausted, looking into a life he no longer has any idea of how to handle is dark. More than any other story I’ve read so far, this work made me feel the effect of Order 66. Following Caleb, a frightened child left alone in a world now inexplicably hunting him, illustrated and scripted with such devastating power really hit me. As I read, I fully felt Caleb’s journey. I was torn between lingering on the page to allow myself the chance to fully absorb the emotional effect as the art and narrative washed over me and turning the page quickly so I could try and leave behind the sadness that came with it as soon as possible.

Caleb meets Janus Kasmir for the first time. / Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

When survival seems all but hopeless, Caleb meets the smuggler Janus Kasmir who gives him food and allows him to sleep on his ship in safety. Caleb asks Kasmir what he should do now and Kasmir replies, “What do you do? What you have to do to live in the actual galaxy with the rest of us miscreants. You lie. You cheat. You steal. You survive.” The cautious drifter we meet in A New Dawn makes so much more sense in the light of these comics. We can feel much more pain and loneliness reading that novel when we think back to the images in this comic too. We also get a better handle on how the clever and cocksure rogue we find in Rebels came to be as well. Caleb had to survive by any means he could. In so doing, he learns what he needs to become the Kanan Jarrus we know and find in A New Dawn and Rebels.

Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

But Kanan: The Last Padawan doesn’t end there. The final six issues — in true Star Wars, out-of-order storytelling fashion — flashback even further. At the start of issue #7, back in the present, we find Kanan recuperating in the Bacta Tank after an injury and dreaming of passing his initiate trials and his first meeting with Master Billaba. She takes Caleb on as her Padawan and his excitement is palpable, practically bouncing off the page. I love how they write Caleb in these scenes! He really feels like a kid. He is so naive, so enamored with the romantic notions of war and warriors that he has as they head off to battle in the Clone Wars…so different from the man we know from A New Dawn and Rebels.

As he enthusiastically dives into battle against the droid army that ambushes their squad Caleb thinks, “I should be scared. But instead…I’m exhilarated.” He has no idea what war really is. He’s, as he should be, a child. And that is perfectly clear; it makes the juxtaposition with who he is forced to become in the first six issues to survive and who he grows into after he becomes Kanan Jarrus all the more interesting/important/emotional. Caleb’s reckless abandon and excitement (because he has yet to understand the reality of war) contrasts beautifully with Depa’s pain and cautiousness (as someone who intimately knows (and has lost people to) the very real reality of war).

A tender moment between Master and Padawan. / Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

Caleb continues to talk about how this is where he’s meant to be. He is still identifying himself in and through war. However in the final pages of issue #10, his best friend among the clone soldiers, Stance, gives his life to protect Caleb. He thinks, “And just like that, the Third Battle of Mygeeto is over. I have lost my first friend and taken my first life…both leave wounds I know will never fully heal. The war no longer seems romantic and exciting…yet never have I felt so sure of my place, so filled with purpose.” As they did in the first six issues, they do an excellent job of showing just how close the clone troopers are to Depa and Caleb. In fact, they make their strong connection even clearer here thus making what happens with Order 66 all the more heartbreaking. It also adds a new dimension to the first six issues. We can now see this part of their relationship when we re-read issues #1–6.

So, by the end of its run, Kanan: The Last Padawan has added great emotional depth to the man we first met in the novel A New Dawn as well as extra layers we can read into Star Wars: Rebels. It even goes as far as to add extra layers of depth to its own first six issues. And, in the final pages of the final issue, the Grand Inquisitor (the show!) arrives to tell Vice Admiral Rae Sloane (the novel!) that he wants to know all she knows of Kanan in a frightening panel that can easily lead into the very first episode of the series.

Aaahhh!!! How freaky is this guy, really?? / Photo (and anxiety) Credit — Marvel Comics

In addition to being an incredible comic in its own right (and a perfect example of how a Star Wars story can respect/honor what comes before it while building on/expanding that material in necessary and important ways), Kanan: The Last Padawan also proves to be an exemplary model of how interconnected storytelling across multiple mediums can work at the highest level. It fits perfectly with A New Dawn as well as the first two seasons of Rebels. I’ve read the entire series three or four times and each time I do I end up liking it more and more. At first, I was so, so sad when I heard that Kanan would come to an end after only twelve issues. But, looking back, maybe this was a blessing. There were fourteen years between Order 66 and the start of Rebels and that means many, many potential stories to tell. But to pursue them all is to invite filler and floundering with needless stories. Instead, Greg Weisman and Pepe Larraz gave us twelve perfect, necessary, and important issues and, for that, I am eternally grateful.

Photo Credit — Marvel Comics

Hey, so did you enjoy reading this?? Well, if you did, you can see my thoughts on more Star Wars stuff as well as all manner of comic related things by checking out my regular blog: My Comic Relief!