The Old Republic was the Republic of legend, greater than distance or time. No need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that… it was the Republic.
The prologue to the novelization of A New Hope, drafted by George Lucas himself and ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, opens with this powerful statement of the Galactic Republic. For over 25,000 years, the Republic, under the wise rule of the Galactic Senate and the protection of the Jedi Order, expanded galactic civilization and pushed outwards. In the Original Trilogy, the Republic has been dead for nearly two decades, replaced by the Galactic Empire and ruled by a Sith Lord. As Grand Moff Tarkin pointed out, with the dissolution of the Senate, the “last vestiges of the Old Republic” were swept away. Yet, despite the seemingly invincible forces of the Empire and the grip Emperor Palpatine had on the galaxy, there were those that fought to restore freedom to the galaxy. They joined together, beings from countless worlds and species, to form an alliance.
The Alliance to Restore the Republic.
Casual fans know this group as the Rebel Alliance or Rebellion, but that name is itself their charter, to defeat the Empire and resurrect the Republic. In the three movies that compose the Original Trilogy, we see our Rebel heroes destroy the first Death Star, barely escape from the Battle of Hoth, and then go all or nothing at the climactic Battle of Endor. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the second Death Star is destroyed, the Emperor killed, the pride of the Imperial Starfleet is defeated, and Anakin Skywalker redeemed. The movie ends, amid the Rebel victory and countless celebrations across the galaxy, on the precipice of a new era. The Rebels, however, cannot rest on their laurels. Their hard work is just starting. To truly achieve their charter, they must restore the best of the old and forge something altogether new.
My fellow contributor Lucas made this comment, in part, on the Fleeing the End piece:
We’ve got over forty years now to tell stories about them going forward, and that time hasn’t been used up yet.
I may have misread his comment but do we have 40 years to tell stories of Luke, Han and Leia? I’m not so sure.
Over the last few years a viewpoint has arisen that argues that the only stories that matter in a franchise universe like Star Wars are those that occupy the furthest chronological point. The reasoning for this is that if there are no stories set after it then no character can be deemed safe. It’s the “character X is in the next episode so why worry” viewpoint, but it goes a step further and posits that this is a problem in need of solution. Is it?
This diagnosis rests upon the need for the characters to be in constant peril of death. The “character shield” of being in the next story is not in place so all bets are off. One problem I have with this notion is that, if a major character is going to die, it is unlikely to be a surprise. That development will be marketed to the max! The last big surprise death was probably Anakin Solo in Star By Star, but after that the fans got wise to the trick and by the time the Sacrifice book came out, bets were for Mara Jade to die. Those bets would have paid out. If Lucasfilm ever decide to kill off Luke, Leia or Han – you’ll know about it months before the book or film or comic – could it be? Who knows? – comes out.
It cuts both ways too. When the comic Legacy series started in 2006, it ended up kicking off a huge amount of controversy over its time jump of around a century. The creative team greatly indulged the “character shield” concept by leaving what happened in the interim unknown. The back-story goes to around 10 years before at most, leaving what should have been a more than adequate gap. Not so! Legacy got blasted for not going far enough ahead and for not using popular successor characters. Yet had they done that they would have also been hit because we would then know character X lived long enough to spawn and procreate!
As the latest Star Wars book, Crucible, looks to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia, I wonder if that can truly take? Because if it does, then that means the further adventures of these characters will have to be set at an earlier chronological point. There have been but a handful of these books – Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor in 2009/10 and Tatooine Ghost in 2003/4. The focus has been on blasting through the years – twenty, thirty, forty years after the films!
At present Dark Horse Comics are indeed attempting new stories set in the film era with Darth Vader and the Empire running the galaxy. Yet one criticism made at an early point is there is no suspense because the characters are known to survive. One answer to this is new characters should be developed, the trick being to make those new characters of interest sufficient for the audience to invest in and follow. But here that fatal jeopardy requirement rears its head, as if a character is developed only to be killed off, the audience can decide to be more cautious with its investments! The effect of subjecting characters to fatal jeopardy at all times can reduce them to pieces on a game-board, while always moving the timeline forward with abandon.
Solutions? Well, one is that authors are more creative in how they draw their audience into a story, with the aim being to so transfix their attention they never consider the temporal setting! In this respect, both books cited above can be said to have done this. Yet, the viewpoint, if held, is one that’s resistant to being so drawn in. In a way it could be termed post-modern as the reader is deliberately placing their self outside of the story while criticising it. The problem I have with this is that it is highly destructive. Without abandoning character shields and chronology blinkers to a degree, we cannot have an end point for characters while enjoying new, earlier adventures.
Key questions to ask, in searching for alternative avenues to pursue are:
Is the future of the expanded universe more important than the worlds and characters that make it what it is?
Is plot and jeopardy more important than characters?
Can you have fates worse than death in a story?
For all that chronology and continuity can enhance and raise a series up, they can also be lead weights if taken too far and the character shields outlook, applied as far as it has been, for me, represents that step too far. What is the future for Star Wars stories if character shields and continuity are indulged at the expense of all else? Bleaker than the deserts of Tatooine!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.)