(Programming note: this piece is the first of three about Star Wars Propaganda. On Friday and next Monday, I’ll be posting a two-part interview with the author, Pablo Hidalgo.)
Like a lot of people, I’ve been looking forward to the Star Wars Propaganda book ever since it was announced. WWII-esque propaganda posters for the Empire and Rebellion have been a part of Star Wars merchandise (and fan creation) for a long time, because they just fit into the old-timey milieu of Star Wars. There’s a certain sense of familiarity to the Star Wars setting – that despite the space opera dressing, the galaxy far far away actually feels rather like ours. Star Wars echoes our history, myth, and fairy tales. And while fairy tales and myth may seem different from familiar history, it’s the myth-making of propaganda that makes the World Wars (or the nostalgic ad campaigns of the 1950s) seem like cultural touchstones as familiar to us as the stories we grew up with.
Star Wars Propaganda is written by Pablo Hidalgo, and is illustrated through the efforts of artists gathered by Becker & Mayer, and is published by Harper Design. But after the publishing pages, everything about the book treats it as if it’s an art history treatise written inside the Star Wars galaxy. See, the central conceit of the book is that it’s written in-universe and all the propaganda posters seen within it are actual pieces composed by actual in-universe artists (even the captions for the pictures refer only to these fictitious propagandists and/or sponsors). The book’s notional author, Janyor of Bith, is a propagandist whose career saw him through an era of patriotic Republic and Imperial paintings to protest paintings on behalf of the Rebel Alliance and the Resistance (it’s worth pointing out that Janyor was mentioned as an artistic inspiration for Star Wars Rebels’ artist-provocateur Sabine Wren in the episode “Idiot’s Array”). The in-universe storytelling is my favorite conceit of this book, because it allows Star Wars Propaganda to weave together the body text and art into a work of storytelling in its own right: telling the story of propaganda, galactic politics, and even of Janyor’s own personal journey in a way that’s more fun and compelling than out of universe narration might have been.
The book begins with an introduction by Janyor, where he states that propaganda is a true form of art, and that art and war are tied together in the same way that politics are tied with war. He’s discussing a fictitious universe, but the observations he makes ring true to life. The book’s about Star Wars propaganda, and the history is the history of that galaxy – but it echoes our own history and myth. The artwork illustrates that story in a literal sense, but it tells its own story through the evolving art styles and subject matter. Someone could get the whole story of the book focusing on the art alone or the text alone, should any such reader be inclined. The art and text help make the setting feel more genuine and lived in; it’s a verisimilitude that the films and television shows have which helps the world the characters inhabit feel more real.
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The chatter around Ahsoka has been very interesting, and expectations are high for a novel about a popular character who exited two TV series with fans clamoring for more. We’ve seen folks wonder if the novel will bridge the whole 15 years between The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, or whether the novel will address issues like Ahsoka’s romantic inclinations or position on the Force’s duality (or lack thereof). Folks have wondered whether the novel would revive yet-to-be-made episode arcs from the cancelled TCW. We’ve even seen people wondering if Ahsoka will have something for readers uninterested in Ahsoka as a character. These are interesting questions and interesting expectations, but they’re to be expected when the star of the novel is no less a figure than the apprentice of Anakin Skywalker and a survivor of a galaxy-shattering conflict. Folks might come to expect a story on as large a canvas as The Clone Wars, with stakes just as high. That’s what the character Ahsoka deserves, right?
Ahsoka certainly deserves a story worthy of her, but it’s not just for her character’s stature in the universe. It’s what she means and represents to people. That’s what turned us around on a character we initially thought was annoying in TCW: we saw how much people responded to her, how she brought fans into the fandom, and how she grew as a character while taking her fans on the journey with her. A character whose return to Star Wars animation spawned a joyous hashtag and a Star Wars Celebration event deserves a story worthy of her, and that’s what she got. It’s not a story where she’s just a small piece of a larger conflict, but at the same time: it is. The scope of the story is close, intimate – the events might seem small scale, but they’re not. See, Ahsoka deserved and got a story all about her journey: her journey after the Clone Wars, but before the Galactic Civil War. It’s a small slice out of her life, and the events covered are a small slice of the galaxy. But they’re events deeply significant to her, and it turns out that she’s deeply significant to what happens in the galaxy. As is right and proper.
Ahsoka doesn’t attempt to tell the full sweep of time between ROTS and Rebels. EK Johnston keeps the focus tight on Ahsoka and the players in her immediate story. But Ahsoka’s been through a lot, has seen a lot, and the galaxy is still going through a lot. We see how the end of the Jedi and the rise of the Republic affects her, but we also see the perspective of a Jedi veteran of the Clone Wars – a veteran at too young an age – and how the changes the war wrought on the galaxy differ from what once was. Ahsoka goes through some changes too, and while it seems the stakes are small-scale – what she does is anything but small. By the time we see her in Star Wars Rebels, she’s the Fulcrum of a rebel movement and her small acts of kindness in these early days ripple into large waves by the time of the original trilogy.
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As the primary antagonist of the inaugural nineties Expanded Universe trilogy, Grand Admiral Thrawn presented a different sort of Imperial villain – one who was intellectual, collected, and yet not darkly sinister. Thrawn stands out and his Empire seems to take on a different tone from the Empire of Palpatine. He presents a better way – order without cruelty, governance without megalomania. Inspired by Napoleon, Rommel, Alexander the Great, and others, Grand Admiral Thrawn is nigh-invincible – defeated but for circumstances – and with him dies the dream of a better Empire. But is all of that true? We’re a pretty big fan of Thrawn – in fact, he’s one of the early Imperial characters we first latched onto as a villain worthy of respect and admiration (having read Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Stackpole prior to Zahn). He was unlike any Star Wars villain to come before or since, and Thrawn very rightly generated a lot of buzz and excitement when his return to the Star Wars canon was announced at Celebration Europe this July. We wanted to say that first as a bit of a disclaimer – that we’re a big fan of Thrawn – before getting to the gist of this article: which is that Grand Admiral Thrawn is tremendously overrated. Now wait – this isn’t one of those “you should feel bad for liking this, and here’s all the reasons why you’re wrong” pieces. The thing about Thrawn is that he’s not perfect – he is flawed, and has made some pretty colossal blunders just in the Thrawn trilogy set of books.
Both in and out of universe, people tend to assume Thrawn is perfect and unbeatable. Out of universe, that can occasionally manifest into excessive fannishness or dislike for a character that is “better” than the film villains. In universe, that manifests in characters assuming that Thrawn is completely beyond the abilities of any of the protagonists to defeat. But Thrawn isn’t invincible – far from it. He makes assumptions, he makes convoluted plans that fail when the slightest thread is unraveled, and he ultimately creates a system that cannot outlast his own demise. He’s also every bit the villain Darth Vader and the Emperor were – he supports the Empire’s mission, and even though later EU books try to put his decision to serve the Emperor into a noble light, the truth is that he literally made a deal with the devil and agreed to serve him.
Here’s the trick though: that’s what makes Thrawn work, and that’s what makes him so good. He operates at a higher tempo than most of his opponents, and gambles with hunches and convoluted plans where the pay-off is so spectacular that it looks like magic. Thrawn not only plays to his opponents’ psychology through his characteristic artistically-informed military tactics, but by causing them to doubt themselves and their own abilities by believing that Thrawn would be aware of their every move. Thrawn uses his own reputation and his opponent’s self-doubts as a weapon, and that’s rather more impressive than if he were simply an all-seeing mastermind. Thrawn’s a genius, but he’s also part charlatan – something that Timothy Zahn himself played off of in his sequel Hand of Thrawn duology that ended the Bantam run of the EU. It’s something we hope to see again in Star Wars Rebels – the mastermind and the trickster, whose evil is of a different shade but nonetheless recognizable as such.
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We’re so excited to write about Life Debt that we’re doing so on our phone, since we’re currently away from our computer for a couple weeks. Oh and fair warning, there will be spoilers after the cut – we won’t spoil the end or plot beats, but we will discuss characters.
RAE SLOANE was always going to be the subject of this piece — she’s far and away my favorite character of the new canon. I’m not the only one – she’s very popular with fans: Megan Crouse and Catrina Dennis have both written great pieces about her recently. Her popularity extends to the authors, as Chuck Wendig, Greg Weisman, and Jason Fry have all used a character originally scribed by John Jackson Miller in their stories. It’s been an organic thing – we don’t think there was any pre-planned intention to make her the central recurring character of the new canon, a character some compare to the old EU’s Pellaeon (we tend to think she’s far more interesting, but we disliked Pellaeon even back in the EU days). She’s had a full character arc as a result of her multiple appearances, and here she is at the apogee of her career: a Grand Admiral of the Galactic Empire. While she started as an interesting Imperial character, she essentially represents the Empire now.
Before reading Life Debt, our idea for this piece was to compare SLOANE’s position in the Empire (and the arc that led her there) with Pellaeon’s. The comparisons the Aftermath epilogue caused folks to make between those characters and the mysterious admirals who commanded them made it seem like a good idea, and they do share some general plot beats. While we’ll still talk about that a bit, the novel made us realize it’s more interesting to compare SLOANE with Leia – both as characters as well as visionaries towards a new galactic order.
Both Leia and SLOANE came to their own conclusions after Endor. Aftermath opened with Leia’s speech to the galaxy – a speech announcing a new era and ushering in the New Republic. SLOANE realized during the battle itself that the Empire must adapt, change if it was to recover from that debacle – “Levers of Power” and Aftermath neatly show the development of that thinking. Both Leia and SLOANE have interesting relationships with mentor figures – Mon Mothma and the mysterious fleet admiral respectively – and those relationships are reflected in the plans they have for the galaxy.
If Aftermath was a space opera romp in a backwater region of the Outer Rim, Life Debt is a story with significantly higher stakes. Grand Admiral RAE SLOANE and Princess (and General) Leia Organa represent two different visions of a new galaxy. We see them struggle to convince others of the rightness of their ideas, just as they struggle with the opposing side in the war. They’re both very compelling – as characters and as representatives of an ideal. It’s little wonder these characters are my favorite film and new canon characters respectively. For the rest of this discussion, let’s start getting into the plot… Spoilers from here out.
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There’s been a sense from some fans that The Force Awakens and its background material indicates that the New Republic has been a failure, that all the heroes fought for has been for naught. Not everyone thinks that – Nick previously wrote to take stock of the New Republic as seen in the context of TFA and the Journey to TFA books and his verdict was a positive one. But since then, Bloodline has been released and given us a great deal of context about the dysfunction that paralyzed the New Republic in the years leading up to the film. Sarah discussed the role extremism and partisanship played in impeding the New Republic’s governance, and Sarah, Rocky, and yours truly discussed how these irreconcilable differences stemmed from fear and mistrust. After all that, one might be forgiven for assuming that the rosy view of the New Republic was definitely wrong and that TFA showed the demise of a government that was at best a failure and at worst, doomed. But is that the right lesson to take from Bloodline? We don’t think it is – Bloodline simply showed democracy as it is, warts and all.
As promised with our first “Gray Matters” piece on Lost Stars and its realistic and human portrayal of those who serve the Galactic Empire, here’s our follow-up on how to realistically portray the good guys. And just like the first piece, the article didn’t really come together until Claudia Gray wrote a novel perfectly demonstrating what we wanted to talk about: how democracy is portrayed in Star Wars and why it’s important that it be treated with nuance. As with the first Gray Matters piece, the goal is to make it clear that there isn’t and shouldn’t be a black-and-white sense of the New Republic – complexity and nuance is more interesting than unmitigated success and failure. » Read more..