A long time has passed since the origin story of the Sequel Trilogy’s standout character was announced at San Diego Comic Con. Now, eight months later, has Charles Soule delivered a satisfying ending (or beginning?) to this chapter of Ben Solo’s life?
In short, almost. Last December, hot off the heels of Ben Solo’s tragic death in the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga on film, fans were desperate for more content starring the conflicted son of Han Solo. With the fandom in mourning, the first issue penned by Charles Soule and masterfully illustrated by Will Sliney scratched an itch that could be felt even in a galaxy far, far away. Fast-forward three months to March, however, and this series is no longer an itch-scratcher. It has become required reading.
The sad truth of it all is that this series has made it crystal clear that Ben Solo was never going to have a happy ending. Even from a young age Palpatine was whispering in his ear, sowing the seeds of the Dark Side of the Force in his impressionable mind in order for him to blossom into the not-quite-Sith Kylo Ren who captivated the imaginations of fans the world over in The Force Awakens. Right at the beginning of this series it is revealed that the Knights of Ren refer to the Dark Side as ‘the Shadow,’ a nickname which is then used like a dagger through the heart of Ben Solo fans when it is said by another of Luke’s former Padawans that he casts “a pretty long shadow” in the Force. All the more tragic is the revelation that Ben did not set fire to Luke’s temple. Does the lightning strike suggest a powerful Dark Side user like Snoke, or even Palpatine himself? A likely bet, but maybe a patented Maz Kanata “good story, for another time.”
Still, it isn’t all tragedy and pity. Some of it is pure nostalgia and adrenaline. Seeing ‘Prime Luke,’ some years after the events of Return of the Jedi but before he became the Old Man Luke seen at the end of The Force Awakens, is something that has been sorely missing from the wider canon since the erasure of the old EU. Seeing Luke being a mentor to young Solo and in his fighting prime, easily dispatching the Knights of Ren, was a joy to watch unfold as Will Sliney makes every sabre slash look just as iconic as they do when projected in a theatre. Unfortunately the Knights themselves are still as big of a mystery as the eponymous Ren who dies at Ben’s hands, solidifying him as their new leader. A throwaway line in the final issue indicates that they are essentially bounty hunters, but beyond that we learn nothing more about them apart from the occasional name-drop which can be found in the movie’s visual dictionary. Seeing the Knights be single-handedly defeated by Luke and then struggle to fend off a single Padawan in the final issue does little to boost their credibility before we next see them in The Rise of Skywalker.
Still, if there is one thing which this series does well in terms of fleshing out the background of the Sequel Trilogy it is Luke’s academy. Used sparingly, the academy itself is only shown a handful of times. The real intrigue comes from Ben’s fellow Padawan learners Voe, Hennix, and Tai. Destined to die before this series even began due to the nature of villainous origin stories, getting to know each of these three students and their different personalities was something that is dying to be replicated in an animated series set post-Return of the Jedi and featuring Mark Hamill. Until that fan dream comes true, we must satisfy ourselves with this teaser of those lost years. Who knows, maybe we will meet the three Padawans who died at the hands of Ben again someday, making their deaths even more cruel in the second half of this series.
Last but not least, the final conflict. Sadly a little rushed, the series needed more than one final issue to wrap things up after the cliffhanger in Issue #3. Although Ben’s transformation into Kylo Ren as he embraced the Dark Side (even catching a glimpse of a certain brown-haired girl from Jakku) was satisfying to see in all of Will Sliney’s glory, as was his bleeding of the cyber crystal which would go on to power his cross guard lightsaber, for the most part the final quarter was forced to spend too much time ticking boxes to wrap things up and not enough time laying bare the conflict within Ben.
While we did get a healthy dose of psychology during his battle with Tai in which he outlined the battle between Light and Dark inside of him, it comes from a place of conflict and not a place of self-awareness. Joining the Dark Side becomes more of a frustrated reluctance rather than a profound epiphany, which both undermines the string-pulling of Palpatine and cripples the sympathy felt by the reader. If Ben fell to the Dark Side because Snoke showed him love and affection and didn’t care that he was the son of Han Solo, shouldn’t the same be said of Luke not caring that he was the grandson of Vader? Not even a callback to the iconic over-the-shoulder lightsaber draw on Exogol in The Rise of Skywalker can negate this particular grievance.
In any case, the build up to Kylo’s ‘rise’ over the previous three issues did a great job showing a more innocent side to Ben Solo and of expanding the lore of this galaxy far, far away. With any luck we will see the Jedi outpost from Issue #2 in one of Soules’ works set during the High Republic era over the course of the next few years. However, the grand finale, visually stunning as it may be, needed a fifth or even a sixth issue to breathe and give the reader a better sense as to why Ben Solo became Kylo Ren.