Darth Vader and Son by Jeffrey Brown

What if Darth actually raised Luke? A Chicago cartoonist imagines the possibilities.

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Art: Jeffrey Brown/Chronicle Books
Darth Vader and Son, a picture book by Chicagoan Jeffrey Brown, includes amusing cameos by R2D2, Jar-Jar Binks and more.
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Art: Jeffrey Brown/Chronicle Books
Darth Vader and Son, a picture book by Chicagoan Jeffrey Brown, includes amusing cameos by R2D2, Jar-Jar Binks and more.
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Photo: Jennifer Bell
Chicago artist-author Jeffrey Brown works on a drawing while his son, Oscar, watches.
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Photo: Jennifer Bell
Chicago artist-author Jeffrey Brown and his son, Oscar, enjoy the Star Wars Imperial Walker display at Legoland in California.

Once upon a time, there was this hyperventilating, all-powerful Lord of the Sith who was obsessed with hunting Jedi, obliterating the Rebel Alliance and force-choking any questioning sycophants. But he was also just a dad, raising a precocious four-year-old boy named Luke.

That’s the premise of Darth Vader and Son, 36-year-old Chicago graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown’s humorous new picture book. Each page depicts some slice of Darth Vader’s typical fatherhood, from heartwarming bike rides and shared ice cream cones to young Luke’s awkward questions (“Dad, why is it called a Death Star?”).

The project started in 2010 as a Father’s Day Google Doodle. Two Google employees conceived of an awkward family dinner with Darth Vader and Luke, but they needed an artist. One of them—a fan of Clumsy, Brown’s autobiographical self-published 2002 debut—enlisted the artist to do some sketches.

“Right away it clicked,” says Brown, who lives in Lincoln Square with his wife and son, then four years old, who inspired his sketches. Although Google ultimately went with a different Doodle for its Father’s Day logo, a captivated Brown pitched the premise to Chronicle Books, which has an existing relationship with Lucasfilm. In Vader-speak, the synergy was complete.

The result: 64 pages of full-color illustrations that cover the joys and frustrations of fatherhood, all within the delightfully absurd context of Darth Vader and little Luke’s relationship. Brown’s signature organic, somewhat unpolished approach emphasizes the human elements; his charming art and clever jokes never mask a genuine affection for the movies.

“There were different directions I could have taken these ideas and really made things extreme,” Brown says. “But everything just seemed so obvious once it came together, like having Luke in the child seat in a TIE fighter. That’s simple. It doesn’t really need much more than that.”

At 6.5 inches square, the compact book is perfect for little hands. Meanwhile, its sly humor appeals to any parent who loves Star Wars—including George Lucas. “Apparently he liked it,” Brown notes, beaming, “because he asked for more copies.”

Star Wars was Brown’s first cinematic experience, and his fandom runs deep, from childhood drawings to unsent letters to Harrison Ford. Oscar, his five-year-old, knows the films only through toys, books and shirts.

“Mostly he watches BBC documentaries like Planet Earth. When do we let our kids watch Star Wars? When do I introduce him to the Dark Side?” Brown wonders aloud.

This fall, Brown, who recently cowrote the 2012 Sundance-selected film Save the Date, will release a new autobiographical volume, A Matter of Life. Unlike the all-ages Darth Vader and Son, this one’s for the grown-ups.

“It’s stories about my son and I, and then my dad and I,” Brown says. “Here’s Oscar and the time when he was first starting to understand the idea of death, which is tough.”

And perhaps some future volume will address the milestone of his son finally watching Star Wars. “A couple years and he’ll be ready,” Brown says—then adds with a grin, “We can start [watching Vader] choking people.”

That could be around the time of a Vader-parenting sequel, which Brown, in true Star Wars fashion, has already envisioned. “I did already come up with the idea before I’d even done final artwork for the [first] book,” he admits. The topic? “Basically, Vader and Princess Leia.”

Darth Vader and Son arrived in bookstores May 4, “Star Wars Day.” May the fourth be with you, indeed.

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