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Star Wars and Genre: The Western

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Not just a great Western, but also the inspiration for the first name, Beilert, of Star Wars’ Valance the Hunter.

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.

Nomad: The mysterious stranger strides into a dusty mining town.

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?

This man is already a space cowboy. Consider telling space cowboy stories about him.

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 and Genre

A New Hope: Fantasy . . .

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.

. . . meets Western. In space.

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.

Ignorance is Bias: The Diversity Manifesto

(Editor’s note: what follows is a “reprint” of a piece that was originally posted on TheForce.net’s Literature forum in 2012. As such, it may occasionally come across as a conversation-starter more than a standalone work. Comments are welcome both here and in the original discussion thread, where the conversation continues—116 pages and counting as of this writing. – Mike Cooper, 7/8/13)

div_exhibit_a

This won’t be new information for many of you, but now that the new forums are up, I thought the launching of Diversity 2.0, so to speak, would be a good opportunity to sum up the conversation thus far, in particular all of the great statistical work done on the temp boards.

The foundation of this essay, and the ensuing discussion, is the belief that the Star Wars Expanded Universe has a responsibility to present a diverse galaxy of characters, and that with some notable exceptions, this responsibility has been largely neglected.

Following from that are a few more precise assertions:

  • There are too many white human men. While passionate and fair arguments can be made for any number of specific “minority” groups being given a larger role–aliens, people of color, women, LGBTQ, the disabled, and so on–the one thing everyone should be able to agree on is that more white human men (hereafter referred to as WHMs), of standard body type and orientation in particular, are helpful to no one, and only by making their long-held “default” status painfully obvious can anyone else hope for a fair shake.
  • Ignorance is bias. Which is to say, when presented with a divisive issue, choosing to disregard it still constitutes taking a stand. To ignore race and orientation is itself a biased act, not a neutral one. The images above are of the Jedi Council from Episode I and the leadership of the New Jedi Order as of the early Legacy Era. It is my position that no clearer evidence of a problem exists than in these two images, wherein the WHM ratio is essentially inverted.
  • Lastly, it should be understood that this situation stems from the accumulation of numerous decisions, policies, and cultural trends–over a period of decades–and cannnot be laid at the feet of any specific author, editor, or even publisher.

The primary goal of this manifesto is for you, the reader, to look at those two images and see a problem. The goal of this as a discussion thread, then, is to break down the can of worms that follows from that.

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The nexus of fandom and logic

“Nexus” – get it?? –>

Heh. Anyway…

Introduction

I should start, of course, with the famous caveat that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. In the nebulous world of polling, people’s feelings are one of the hardest things to quantify, and even if that were not the case, the fact remains that I am by no means a statistician. There are always mitigating factors – one or two of which became apparent to me as this experiment went forth – that could, and do, prohibit me from making any absolute declarations as the result of my survey. My goal, then, was simply to probe an area of fandom I felt could stand some probing, in the hopes of starting up a conversation I felt was worth having. I’ve been wrong in the past (once or twice), and I could be wrong now.

To recap, requests were posted on both TheForce.Net’s Books and Comics pages and the Jedi Council forums for Expanded Universe fans to complete a survey that involved rating certain books and comics, as well as certain plot elements, on a 1 to 10 scale. The order of these ratings was random, but the selection was very careful and very specific – aside from a handful of red herrings, the vast majority of the plot items were “paired” with their respective book/comic, and vice-versa. The idea for this was as follows: I’ve always sensed, from extensive conversations with other fans, as well as fan news articles and reviews, a degree of variation between how much we like the events depicted in a Star Wars book and how much we like the book itself. While I’ve been keeping an eye on other related factors, like how long ago a book came out, and the amount of people who’ve actually read the item versus the amount familiar with the plot, the central question has always been “do we like the books more than we like the plots, and if so, what does that mean?”
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Mike’s 20 Most Memorable EU Moments

Back in August, Star Wars Insider published the definitive Top 20 memorable moments in all of the Expanded Universe.

At least, how they saw it.

The article was accompanied by more than one request for readers to send in their own top moments, so I started up this blog in order to do just that. It may have taken me another two months or so to actually do it, but what can I say – this baby clocks in at almost 4,700 words! I have a sneaking suspicion that even the official article isn’t this long. In any event, here goes…

20. “The Empire will always strike back.” – Force Heretic I: Remnant

Sometimes it takes nothing more than a good talking-to to make a moment great. Readers have loved Gilad Pellaeon longer than almost any other EU character, but what is perhaps his greatest moment was not given to us until a couple years ago, near the end of the New Jedi Order series. Vong commander B’shith Vorrik scores a resounding victory at Bastion against Pellaeon, now Supreme Commander of the Imperial Remnant’s forces, then moves on to Borosk, snapping at Pellaeon’s heels. Thanks to added support from the Galactic Alliance, Pellaeon calls Vorrik’s bluff, and – while directing the battle from a bacta tank, it should be noted – picks up a transmission from the Vong command ship for the sole purpose of gloating. Taunting the disgraced commander as he flees the system, Pellaeon utters a line twenty-three years in the making: “You may win the occasional battle against us, Vorrik, but the Empire will always strike back.”
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