Everyone’s got pieces of media—probably several, really—that they have to drag out every once in a while and binge on, despite already knowing them backwards and forwards. Firefly, West Wing, Harry Potter, that kind of thing. Despite having read well over a hundred books and playing maybe twenty games in the Star Wars franchise, the one thing I have to relive every so often is X-Wing Alliance.
The culmination (some might say apotheosis) of the X-Wing flight simulation game series of the 90s, XWA is now almost fifteen years old, and barely even functional on a modern computer, but it remains an essential part of my fandom and a periodic touchstone to my seventeen-year-old self, who had only discovered Star Wars a couple years earlier and was still learning the difference between a Skipray Blastboat and a CloakShape fighter. Indeed, the more I look back, the more I’ve come to appreciate why this particular game sits at the core of my decade-and-a-half obsession with Star Wars. In this piece, I’d like to explore some of those reasons in the hopes that they’ll be no less true of the dawning Disney era. Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.)
That’s why. That’s why most of us end up being drawn to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. When the words “ The End” come up, we do not wish to be the end. That cannot be it? Surely there must be more to it? Surely there must be further adventures? The EU allows us to sidestep that double-edged, bittersweet sense that the best endings have. That the story is over, that it has come to a resounding conclusion and there will be no more. You want more? Find yourself a new story then.
Instead the EU allows us to have our cake and eat it, that brilliant series of films – I’m referring to the Original Trilogy here by the by – is only the start! There’s far more to come. Yet in doing this, a continuing tension is set up within the material because in defying the end, it denies itself an ending. The EU will continue forever, that’s the idea. Stop the train because you want to get off? Sorry, you’ll have to jump, there’s the door, good luck!
Does the EU need an end? Ah, yes. Yes it does, at least in part. The problem is in how to do it in such a way as to carry the fanbase with it. It just so happens that, right now, a book is indeed, by all the accounts I can find, about to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia. It is going to be fascinating as to whether that actually takes or not. My suspicion is that it won’t, despite it being needed for the characters. As the EU has galloped heedlessly through time like a rampant TARDIS, so have the character aged – the books have covered about 4 decades, but there’s nowhere near the character changes you’d expect in a person across such a span of time.
Why? Because of the nature of the EU – it exists to re-kindle that spirit you felt when watching the movies and that necessitates a certain set of characters, outlooks, events and style for a story. For those who dislike a story, it’s dismissed as rehash, for those who like it, it’s an inspired re-invention. Despite the genre flexibility – which the Cry Havac columns are exploring under the banner of Star Wars and Genre – there are still these essential limits to the stories that can be told. Repetition is wanted but it blocks development and change and any sense of planning for an ending.
My own EU interest is certainly on the wane. It’s been that way for a good few years – but it’s only recently that I’ve realised the importance of endings for a story. Reading Magician’s End by Raymond Feist snapped the last pieces into focus. There, the ending is sharp but also fitting. It’s been well prepared for, but remains surprising in how it unfurls. After reading it, you don’t want more stories because they would spoil what has just been done. In a way that happened with the EU more than once. The saying is: Leave the audience wanting more. It says nothing about giving them more and there’s a lot of good reasons for that.
I don’t have much in the way of plans for this column, but for right now? Considering the EU from a more terminal perspective will be the focus of the next few, unless I see something I really have to write about….
If I’m going to be talking about Star Wars’ integration with genre stories, it would be best if I first distinguished between two aspects of genre. One aspect is the core concepts of the genre — the features that make the genre what it is as a genre and control the types of stories told in that genre. For the Western, this might mean the idea of the frontier as an unpeopled or underpeopled area being settled by hardy pioneers, the idea of man vs. his environment, civilization vs. the state of nature, revenge and justice, and the centrality of the individual — in conflict with another individual, in conflict with society, or standing up alone for justice when no one else will. These are core concepts around which the genre revolves. The John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is directly concerned with the clash between civilization and the lawless frontier. High Noon showcases Gary Cooper as the only man in town willing to stand up to a villain at the risk of his own life. The same theme is the subject of both the original and remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid focuses on individuals who find themselves unable to fit into society and take refuge in an increasingly retreating frontier. These core concepts are what make Westerns Westerns, the things that all Westerns are ultimately about in one form or another, the stories Westerns are telling.
The second aspect is the trappings of the genre — the features that do not necessarily make a story part of the genre themselves, but are commonly found throughout the genre, often signal the genre to the general public, and can be used outside the genre to evoke it without necessarily changing the sort of story being told. For Westerns, this means elements like cowboy hats, horses, ranches and herds of cattle, mining towns, crooked land barons, saloons, barfights, the cavalry, drinking and gambling, a desert setting, nomads who wander from town to town, sheriffs versus bandits and outlaws, Indians, and quick-draw showdowns in the street.
My point is not necessarily that there is a hard and fast distinction between two types of genre elements, but that I wish to draw a distinction between telling a genre story and using trappings from the genre to tell a different kind of story. As I already explained in my original post, A New Hope uses trappings from the Western genre — the frontier homestead, the dangerous natives, the cantina as meeting place, the barfight scene — to tell what is not, ultimately, a Western story. The film is not about the frontier; it just wants to establish that Luke hails from a familiar frontier setting, and use some of the Western tropes that lead to adventurous action, like the cantina fight or the Sand People attack, in the service of a space opera story. The Star Wars Tales comic Nomad, on the other hand, is a Western story set in the Star Wars universe. It is the story of an ex-soldier, Darca Nyl, who retired to a farmstead with his wife, only for her to die giving birth to their son. When a wandering Dark Jedi kills his son, Darca pursues him across the galaxy. Darca passes through a frontier mining town controlled by a corrupt boss, a forest in which he rescues a woman from a posse before realizing that the villagers are right to pursue her killer brother, and a desert ranch beset by bandits before finally engaging in a mano-a-mano showdown with the Dark Jedi in the middle of the desert. Nomad is up to its ears in Western tropes, but it is more significantly a Western story at its core — that of a loner on a quest for revenge, trying to do the right thing, struggling with his environment and with the society he comes across on the frontier of civilization.
Nomad is not the only Star Wars Western; the Tales comic Incident at Horn Station also comes to mind, as do some of the recent Dark Times arcs. John Jackson Miller’s upcoming Kenobi looks as it if may be the first Star Wars Western novel. But overall, the Expanded Universe has been much quicker to use the trappings of Westerns than to tell Western stories. This is very understandable. Most “big-picture” Star Wars novels are locked into the larger space opera storytelling format, and cannot devote themselves purely to Westen storytelling. In other stories, Western trappings are highly useful in establishing the frontier status of the Rim, but don’t play directly into the story that’s being told. The trappings — mining towns, barfights over sabacc, bandits — are plenty of fun when they’re deployed, and could arguably be made even further use of. The next time the writers need to put Han in danger on the Outer Rim, how about instead of the thousandth blaster battle, they have him caught in a stampede?
More importantly, though, I would like to suggest that EU writers take a second look at the Western as a potential storytelling format for the EU. The space opera format is getting old after the main characters have been put through a thousand iterations of it. Why not shake Star Wars stories up by branching out more aggressively to other genres? They’ve already started with Death Troopers and Red Harvest. Instead of the Jedi constantly going after Sith, how about one of them faces off against bandits on a remote world? The next time they need a story about Han in his smuggler days, consider a bounty hunter chasing him and Chewbacca across the wilderness. A lone space ranger or Jedi wandering across the Outer Rim righting wrongs could provide a compelling basis for a comic series.
The Western genre is distinctive enough that it can’t be relied upon too heavily, but it could be used much more than it has been to spice up the EU’s current slate of offerings and offer a change of pace. It is already one of the more prominent sources of flavoring to the universe in general; it may be time that writers step up from appropriating its trappings to finding ways to use its core concepts to structure stories.
Star Wars is a space opera; that’s the most accurate single label for the genre in which the films, the majority of the stories, and the Star Wars universe in general fall. Yet space opera is itself a syncretic genre, drawing from a wide variety of pulpy story elements and templates to tell adventure stories in space. The term that “space opera” has largely displaced, “science fantasy,” is even more telling of the genre’s natural hybrid status. The trappings of science fiction are used, but not to examine the relationship between man and technology, or to illustrate truths about humankind in the way traditional science fiction attempts. Instead, they are used in the service of fantastic adventures in synthetic settings that can incorporate influences from a wide mixture of genres.
A New Hope serves as a solid example of the complex mix of genre elements present in the Star Wars setting. Luke Skywalker is a farm boy called upon to take up a mystic destiny among an order of knights who wield both swords and magic powers. This is unmistakably the stuff of fantasy. Yet he is also a farm boy living in the middle of a desert with his hardscrabble aunt and uncle, surrounded by hostile natives. His journey to his fantasy destiny involves going into town after the farm is burned down, striding into a cantina, getting in a bar fight with a couple belligerent outlaws, and taking up with a quick-drawing, bounty-hunter-dodging maverick with a heart of gold who is only a ten-gallon hat away from looking like a Wild West cowboy. It could be the start to a classic Western. Luke’s social life — going into town to bum around with his friends, tinker with hot rods, and race them — is taken straight out of the 1950s/60s teen flick genre, films like Lucas’s own nostalgia piece American Graffiti. The climax of the film is directly based on World War II war movies. The overarching storyline and setting are classic space opera, but by nature the genre enfolds other settings, both as influences to the core components of setting and story and as a sort of spice flavoring the story around the edges or influencing the way certain elements are depicted.
The films demonstrated that the space opera genre was broad enough to encompass other styles of storytelling. The Expanded Universe has run with that breadth, drawing from all kinds of genres. It has even openly dabbled in genre crossovers that more directly and completely place genre stories into the Star Wars setting, such as Joe Schreiber’s zombie horror novels, the “Star Wars Goosebumps” series Galaxy of Fear, and the tragically-canceled “James Bond meets Star Wars” Agent of the Empire series. Since the very beginning of the Expanded Universe, when Han Solo and Chewbacca reenacted the plot of The Magnificent Seven on Aduba-3, only for the climax to involve fighting a giant monster alongside a Don Quixote stand-in, the EU has incorporated a stunning range of other genres into the Star Wars universe.
My goal is to use this post as a launchpad for a series of posts examining Star Wars’ relationship with various genres, both in the ways genre has been used in the past and the potential I see for future stories. My primary interest is in ways the Expanded Universe can tell more kinds of stories, but with the news that “spinoff” Star Wars films are in the works, there is also potential for the films to approach different storytelling genres as well. I hope that you’ll join me on this ongoing look at Star Wars’ genre complexity.