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Jedi, Sith, and Force Tunnel Vision

Jedi vs. Sith is a fantastic comic, but its title should not be applicable to the entire EU

No, Force Tunnel Vision isn’t a Force power you’ve never heard of. It’s the tendency that has emerged ever since the release of the prequels to focus stories on the Jedi and emphasize the Jedi-vs.-Sith conflict as the core of storytelling. This has compounded the issue of supporting cast underuse in the post-Return of the Jedi era, as the focus has become too narrow to take in much of the wider universe. In all eras it has resulted in repetitive storytelling as the Sith are trotted out again and again to fight Jedi protagonists. In this post, I will cover how the prequels transitioned Star Wars from stories that included Jedi and Sith to stories that were about Jedi and Sith, just how monotonous this has made the Star Wars universe, and how this has damaged the Star Wars universe by excluding non-Force-sensitives from the story.

The way it was

Jedi and Sith were both present in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was central to the films’ story that Luke Skywalker learned to become a Jedi Knight from Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda so that he could defeat the evil Force-user Emperor Palpatine and redeem his father Anakin Skywalker from life as Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. How, then, can I say that the prequel trilogy changed Star Wars’ focus? The difference is between stories that include Jedi and Sith as a component and stories that are centrally about Jedi, Sith, and the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. The issue is the context in which the Force elements of the storyline are placed.

In the original trilogy, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, and later the Emperor, was vital. The introduction of the Jedi Knights and the light and dark sides of the Force were key components of Star Wars’ unique universe. The story, however, was not simply about the Jedi. Luke’s conflict with the dark side’s servants was one component of a much larger storyline concerning the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the light and dark sides were merely elements of the struggle between freedom and tyranny, good and evil in the broadest sense. Luke did not fight alone, but as part of the Rebellion, alongside the gunslinger Han, political leader Leia, scoundrel-turned-administrator-turned-Rebel Lando, and ordinary warriors like Wedge Antilles, Admiral Ackbar, and General Rieekan. He and his allies fought not only Darth Vader and the dark side, but also Forceless manifestations of tyranny like Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Stars, and stormtroopers; and Forceless agents of criminal corruption like Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett. Jedi and Sith were one component of the bigger story, which included ordinary soldiers, political figures, and the criminal underworld.
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The Rise and Fall of the Supporting Cast Post-Return of the Jedi

The New Jedi Order featured tons of supporting characters

One of the most distinctive features about the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe is the wealth of characters who have become part of a large, unified cast supporting the small group of movie leads. This sort of cast is a fairly unique asset for a franchise, and even for an era within this particular franchise, yet in recent years it has been dismally handled. Not only have fewer members of the secondary cast been used and been used more poorly, but the focus has crept from a large cross-section of the galaxy squarely onto members of the Jedi Order. In this post, I want to address how this situation came to be and make the case for better use of the unified cast, to be followed up by a post specifically focusing on the implications of limiting stories to an emphasis on Force-sensitives.

The road to the unified cast

The initial EU did not set out to create a large-cast universe in the way of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the original films had not featured a big recurring cast. They did, however, set the stage for the eventual expansion of the cast.

Aside from the villains and the core cast of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and eventually Lando, the films featured almost no recurring characters. Wedge Antilles was the only supporting good guy to make it through multiple movies, much less the entire trilogy. The focus was clearly on a small band of heroes. But what the movies did have was a large-galaxy aesthetic resulting from the use of a lot of supporting characters who just didn’t recur. We didn’t get a consistent Rebel leader throughout the films, but in getting General Dodonna, General Rieekan, General Madine, Admiral Ackbar, and Mon Mothma, we got a large body of distinctive, interesting leaders who could be used and expanded on in further stories, along with the sense that the Rebellion was big and full of important people. There was a lot there for the EU to work with, and a sense that the Star Wars galaxy should have a deep bench of characters.
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Star Wars and Genre: The Crime Story

Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars’ original gangster

The criminal underworld is a rich part of Star Wars’ tapestry. Han Solo was one of the three main characters of the original trilogy, and supporting characters like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Jabba the Hutt abounded. Our introduction to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” was one of the most memorable moments of A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi spent its opening act in Jabba’s palace. Smugglers, crime lords, bounty hunters, pirates, and grifters all play major roles in many Expanded Universe stories. This is fairly natural, as crime stories are a major part of modern fiction in general. The number of popular movies, TV shows, and books about crooks is massive, reflecting the tremendous storytelling potential of criminality, which comes prepackaged with loads of the element most key to storytelling: conflict.

The greatest gangster epic of all time

Not every story featuring criminals or crime is what I would count as a crime story. Crime fiction focuses on the stories of the criminals — unlike, say, mysteries, which tell the stories of the people investigating the crimes. It can come in many forms. The great “gangster movies” of cinema — The Godfather and its sequels, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino — have associated the genre with stories of the rise and fall of organized crime figures (and primed audiences to expect Robert De Niro to play a major role). A very different type of crime fiction is the heist story, following crooks who execute a complex plan to make a major theft. Many films noir documented an individual — crook, innocent, or investigator — caught up in a web of crime that threatens to consume him. Think Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, and The Killers. The varieties of crime story are even more numerous than the varieties of crime.

As might be expected of a franchise with such a large share of criminals among its cast, Star Wars features a reasonable number of crime stories. The recent Scoundrels is a high-profile example of a heist story, and I could stand to see several more such capers from Han, Lando, or the other scoundrels of the setting. The Ahakista Gambit is an overlooked entry in the same subgenre, and similar caper elements can be found in almost any story involving the execution of an elaborate plan, the Knights of the Old Republic comic series being a good example thereof. In its depiction of an underworld broker caught in a nightmarish scenario as a result of a bad deal, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has a great deal in common with the film noir style cited above. The Han Solo Trilogy does not engage in particularly heavy use of crime story tropes, but it is certainly the story of Han Solo’s criminal career.

The cantina scene was such an iconic introduction of the fringe that it got its own short story anthology

Far more stories make heavy use of “the fringe,” the Star Wars underworld, in a way that brings criminals and crime-story elements into play without revolving the entire story around crime. The pirate Nym plays a lead role in the Starfighter games. Talon Karrde’s smuggling and information brokering storylines play a significant role in the Thrawn trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn Duology. Scourge explores the Hutt crime syndicates, Darksaber uses a Hutt kingpin as a major villain opposing the New Republic, the comic Darth Maul sets the Sith Lord against the gangsters of Black Sun, and Shadows of the Empire plunges the heroes deep into the criminal underworld to face the galaxy’s biggest crime lord, Prince Xizor. The fringe was central to West End Games’ roleplaying game, which envisioned players acting out their own underworld stories, and it is reassuring to see the fringe again taking a leading role in Fantasy Flight Games’ RPG. Of the many genres I intend to tackle, the crime story is certainly one of the best-represented in the EU, with numerous stories revolving around criminal endeavors.

Booster Terrik is a badass. Write me more stories about Booster Terrik.

Yet for all the presence of the underworld in the Expanded Universe, it could still stand to show off a greater diversity of crime stories and to focus more on stories about crime, rather than about petty criminals who get caught up in bigger Empire-and-Rebellion plots. We get some smuggler stories featuring Han or others, but efforts to make a major storyline, something on the level of a novel or comic arc, out of Han’s criminal exploits have been relatively lacking. A story about one of Lando’s grand con games wouldn’t be amiss, but Lando stories are depressingly rare to begin with, and those that do feature him have tended to look elsewhere for their material. Efforts to get a fringe-set game off the ground at LucasArts have come to nothing, most recently with the cancellation of 1313. The rise and fall of crime kingpin Jorj Car’das, together with the rise of Talon Karrde as his successor, cries out for “gangster movie” treatment in a novel or two. Star Wars has many bounty hunters who could hold down a gritty novel about tracking down dangerous criminals. A war between crime syndicates could provide a fertile setting for storytelling. Everyone likes pirates, and a pirate crew could make interesting protagonists. The proliferation of fringe supporting characters in his circle — Karrde, Booster Terrik, Droma — and the breadth of enemies in his past offer many avenues for a story about an older Han (and Lando) being dragged back into the fringe for a bar-brawling, cargo-smuggling, con-playing, card-sharking adventure in the classic “one last job” tradition.

Scoundrels was great, and it featured Lando, two related qualities. Feature Lando more, EU.

The underworld has gotten a lot of mileage as a key Star Wars element, and is among the genres most exploited in the Expanded Universe. EU storytellers could still stand to do more, however, as many potential angles for crime fiction remain underused. Hopefully, with Scoundrels and Scourge leading the way in the recent embrace of standalone stories and genre exploration, that will change.

Star Wars and Genre: Military Fiction and the War Story

The Dam Busters inspired the fighter and bomber action seen in A New Hope

In a series named Star Wars, it’s inevitable that war stories will influence the universe. From the beginning, Star Wars has been a universe of war and battles. The films, however, did not go into “war story” mode that frequently. A New Hope focused on the individual adventures of its heroes, only widening its scope to focus on the war being fought between the Rebellion and Empire in the final raid on the Death Star, which drew heavily from the World War II aviation film The Dam Busters for inspiration. The Empire Strikes Back opened with the frenetic ground action on Hoth, but from there became a story of Luke’s Jedi training and Han and Leia’s flight from the Empire. The prequels gave us the opening and closing battles of the Clone Wars, but declined to become simple “war films.”

The films borrowed techniques and tropes from war films when it was time to depict the big battles (the pre-battle briefings, the comms chatter during battle heavy with military-sounding lingo, the visual storytelling used to depict a battle beyond the experience of simply a few lead characters), but they did not exist simply to tell the stories of their wars. They borrowed from, but were not themselves military fiction, a term I like as it suggests slightly more specifically the defining characteristics in which I am interested: fiction that is about the military itself and concerned with military actions.

The X-wing series is the most prominent Star Wars military fiction

The Expanded Universe has followed that lead. There is usually a war, or at least a battle, and the battles often borrow from military fiction for their telling. Various historical military influences, especially as filtered through fiction, have had their own impact on the nature of the universe — the mixture of Age of Sail and World War-era naval warfare that informs the franchise’s space combat, its World War II dogfighting, large-scale ground combat that owes more to the Civil War and World War II than a realistic consideration of combat tactics in an advanced-technology setting, the medieval clashes between Jedi and Sith in sources like Jedi vs. Sith and Tales of the Jedi. Since that observation is not particularly revelatory, however, that’s not the aspect I want to focus on here.

The unique opportunity offered by the greater variety of the Expanded Universe is the chance to do “pure” military fiction, stories that are entirely or significantly about the military, interested in military details, and follow military characters and actions. The X-wing and Republic Commando series are perhaps the most readily notable military science fiction, following protagonists in military units. In the case of the Republic Commando series, the protagonists are clone commandos operating within the military sci-fi “space marine” tradition of grunts in ground combat. Michael Stackpole’s X-wing novels and comics follow the flyboys of Rogue Squadron, while Aaron Allston’s Wraith Squadron X-wing novels blend commando and aviation action.

Zulu inspired the To the Last Man storyline in the comic series Empire

These are not the only military fiction on display, however. The video game Republic Commando, as well as the X-wing and TIE Fighter video games drew from the same well for interactive Expanded Universe action. The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy prominently followed a fleet, and the politicians and commanders at home, through an entire war. It delved heavily into command structure, military intelligence gathering, and other issues of naval organization that most Star Wars novels skip, and showed a Tom Clancy-like interest in modern military affairs. To the Last Man, an arc of Empire, was directly inspired by the British colonial action of the film Zulu, which dramatized the real-life defense of Rorke’s Drift. The first Clone Wars novel, Shatterpoint, focused on telling a “horrors of war” story influenced by Apocalypse Now.

Yet, when all is considered, the amount of military fiction in the Expanded Universe actually isn’t that heavy, relative to the EU’s size. I think there could be room for a great deal more. We haven’t had a military comic series since X-wing: Rogue Squadron ended in in 1990s, but I think a comic following a military unit could provide an excellent set of ongoing adventures while playing to the popularly known, high-selling elements of Star Wars like X-wing-vs.-TIE action or stormtroopers and Star Destroyers. Fans have clamored for years for more X-wing novels, or a TIE Fighter series following the popular Baron Fel. Military-focused fiction on a larger scale, like The Black Fleet Crisis attempted, could provide an ideal path to telling a more unified story of the Clone Wars — stories about which have tended to focus on single, random battles on single, random planets rather than coherent large-scale campaigns — on a strategic level, and potentially bringing fan-favorite or established but underused characters like Pellaeon and Dodonna into use. The many untold or merely hinted-at campaigns of the New Republic would also be fruitful ground for a military fiction treatment.

Lord Hornblower, one of the Horatio Hornblower novels

There are also entire subtypes of military fiction that have yet to be fully explored. The style of heroic historical military fiction displayed in the Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe, and Aubrey-Maturin novels, which follows a heroic soldier or seaman as he fights in a war or wars and rises through the ranks in a series of adventures, has yet to be fully explored in a Star Wars context. I think it is especially promising as a way of introducing new characters or exploring existing ones. Imagine a comic series following an intrepid young lieutenant in the Old Republic’s Judicial Fleet as he tames the wild Rim and rises through the ranks in a series of naval adventures, or a set of Gar Stazi novels charting the Legacy-era Supreme Commander in his younger days as he climbed the ladder in earlier clashes.

Star Wars cannot devote its storytelling entirely to war stories and the military — massive aspects of the saga would go missing — but considering the importance of war to the saga’s storytelling, it could do much more to tell war stories and develop an aspect of the setting — the soldiers, pilots, admirals, and generals who belong among the cast — that has too often gone neglected in recent years.

Against the Dark Horse Miniseries Model

John Ostrander’s run on Republic begins with Twilight, the first arc starring Quinlan Vos

Among the many Star Wars licensees, Dark Horse has been the nearest to untouchable over the last decade or so. Among loud discontent with the direction of the novels, the merits of the TV show, and the decline of the video games, there has been little complaint about the quality of the comics. But hidden in that strong output has been one serious long-term mistake that has significantly undermined the quality, potential, and lifespan of Dark Horse’s recent product. That mistake is the abandonment of ongoing monthly series in favor of series of miniseries.

Since roughly 2000, when Quinlan Vos stepped into the pages of Republic (then still known simply as Star Wars), the comics side of Star Wars has been noted for consistently high-quality output. Republic, Empire, Tales, Legacy, Knights of the Old Republic — all were excellent, beloved series with good sales. All those series, with the exception of Tales, which came out every third month with extra-long issues, were structured as monthly ongoing series.

2006 featured the first deviation from that pattern. Legacy and Knights of the Old Republic were launched as ongoings, and Republic and Empire changed names to Dark Times and Rebellion, respectively, but more significantly changed release schedules to run in alternating five-issue arcs. Instead of having an issue of each series on the stands each month, one series would release issues until it completed an arc, then the next series would run. That planned release schedule was quickly run off the rails by the long delays for Dark Times, associated with Doug Wheatley’s art (which is, at least, worth waiting for). Rebellion lost synch with Dark Times, but continued to run only in five-issue arcs with longer stretches in which it disappeared from stands entirely. This was the first intrusion of the miniseries model into Dark Horse’s offerings.

Along with Legacy, Knights of the Old Republic was a pillar of Dark Horse’s golden age of monthly offerings

It was not until several years later that Dark Horse moved entirely over to the new model, in which it ran no monthly ongoings. Instead, everything was done in miniseries. Series like Invasion, Dark Times, Blood Ties, Agent of the Empire, Knight Errant, and Dawn of the Jedi ran five-issue arcs released as miniseries, disappeared, and then came back months later with another arc. Combined with the release of multiple one-off miniseries — Jedi, Knights of the Old Republic: War, Legacy: War, Lost Tribe of the Sith, Crimson Empire III, the multiple Darth Vader miniseries — the Star Wars comics landscape became a confusing welter of titles that appeared and disappeared from stands with little fanfare, consistency, or predictability for those not closely following announced release schedules.

To be honest, I don’t know why Dark Horse moved over to the miniseries model, in which even notionally ongoing series like Knight Errant and Invasion became a series of miniseries. It does offer the advantage of allowing for one artist to remain on the title for all the issues, as artists simply can’t put out twelve issues a year. It also allows Dark Horse to offer more titles “at once” in a larger sense. But those are only limited upsides, whereas the downside should be obvious: titles become unpredictable and hard to follow, follow-up is delayed, and in an industry that relies on keeping readers constantly engaged and buying the next installment, it undermines exactly the sort of connection with the reader that a series needs. Sure, everything had a new number one issue, but the power of that number to attract some new readers pales next to the importance of keeping readers invested.

RIP, Agent of the Empire

When Legacy or Knights of the Old Republic was coming out every month, the ongoing story was eagerly followed by online posters at the Jedi Council Forums. Dawn of the Jedi and Knight Errant, from the same beloved creators, simply haven’t gotten the same response, and not for lack of ongoing story. Sales reflect the same story: in February 2012, the first issue of Dawn of the Jedi (and first issues typically sell the most) sold nearly nineteen thousand issues and subsequent issues have averaged around sixteen thousand, whereas any given issue of Legacy tended to sell nearly thirty thousand issues. Knight Errant likewise sits at least ten thousand issues lower than Knights of the Old Republic averaged. The difference is not a function of the recession lowering comic sales in general; 2012 comic sales are actually slightly stronger than they were in 2008, and the Star Wars titles have slipped not just in overall sales, but in their sales rank relative to other titles. Dawn of the Jedi debuted as the one hundred sixth highest-selling title; a random February 2008 Legacy issue, for example, stood at sixty-first. The fact that Star Wars sales have nearly halved appears to be a completely independent issue.

It is hard not to draw the connection between slumping sales and a sales model that made it hard to follow titles, did not put them out consistently for the buyer to keep purchasing, and limited the urgency to follow along with the story when it disappeared from stands, and thus minds, for long stretches. I think it is indisputable that the miniseries model did terrible damage to readers’ ability to invest in the miniseries titles. Whatever motives Dark Horse had when it tried out the new model, I think it is time that we conclusively dismissed it as a badly failed experiment.

Will Brian Woods’s Star Wars lead a return to monthly series?

It is good to see Dark Horse finally moving back to monthlies with Brian Wood’s Star Wars and Legacy Volume Two. But the experiment with miniseries is not entirely over yet, and the misguided format has still cost us excellent series like Agent of the Empire (canceled due to low sales that cannot have been helped by the release format) and undermined series like Rebellion, Knight Errant, and Invasion that have stopped running mid-story for one reason or another while failing to get out as many issues as they could had they been monthlies.

I liked having so many different titles, so many different directions, available when the miniseries model was in full swing, but in the long run, it seems better if Dark Horse concentrates on a few monthlies that can run strong and long rather than attempt a scattershot schedule of a great many titles that prevents any of the titles from gaining purchase and leads to the failure and abandonment of series mid-run.

(For those of you interested in the source for the sales figures I cited, I was using comics guru John Jackson Miller’s excellent Comichron database. Feel free to explore it for yourself; I’d love to see any further insights you glean from the data.)