Portrait of an Oldbie

ventress-sideshowIn my interview series Better Know a Fan, I find people I know outside of the Eleven-ThirtyEight staff who I nevertheless find interesting—either for their unique point of view, their tone, or their overall personality. My subject this time, Tracy Gentile, has already made her stamp on ETE in the form of last year’s guest piece The Case Against Mara Jade Skywalker.

While that piece was without a doubt one of the most controversial things I’ve ever run here, Tracy justified my faith in her both in the article itself and her patient engagement with the intense feedback. To those of us who know her at the Jedi Council Forums as anakinfansince1983, she’s a lively debater whose opinions are nothing if not intense themselves, but like my last two interviewees, I’ve never seen her take an honest disagreement personally or blow it out of proportion. As a member of the original Star Wars generation, after all, Tracy’s got nothing if not an abundance of perspective.

As per usual, let’s start at the beginning—not only are you my first interview subject from the first Star Wars generation, your TFN username proudly brands you as an “Anakin fan since 1983”. What was your Star Wars awakening like? Did you actually see them all in theaters?

I was five when Star Wars came out (yes, in my mind that’s what it is still called) and I don’t remember whether I saw it in theaters or not, but I do remember playing with action figures on the floor of a friend’s condo. For some reason R2 and 3PO figures stand out the most in my mind. It was also around that time when I decided I really wanted to be Princess Leia when I grew up—OK, scratch that, I wanted to be Princess Leia immediately. I had long thick hair and my mother knew how to fix it into all of the Leia styles. I wore both the side buns and the crown at different points. We played Star Wars on the playground, that’s definitely a phenomenon that has transcended generations, and when girls played in the 70s and early 80s, we fought over who got to be Leia.

I have a vivid memory of seeing Empire Strikes Back in the theater with my father and the collective gasp at the “I am your father” moment. Recent commentary seems to indicate that most fans believed Vader right away, or maybe that line has become such a cultural icon that it seems unreal that anyone ever questioned it, but it took me until 1983 to believe Vader was telling the truth.

When Return of the Jedi premiered, I had a massive crush on Han Solo and a strong desire to see Luke kick Vader’s ass for “lying.” I did not see it opening night but the talk at school was fantastic. “You’ve got to see this movie. There’s a cool new character named Jabba the Hutt. And Darth Vader takes his mask off!” Nobody told me why. I don’t know if they were just being nice or if the redemption aspect was lost on 11-year-olds but either way, I was able to be fully surprised for that final scene.

That was the scene that gave me my user name; at that point I went from being a casual fan to one who wanted to know more about the Star Wars universe in general and Anakin Skywalker’s back story in particular.

Ugh, I’m so jealous of that—I always say that if I could make one wish it would be to have a totally fresh theater experience of Empire the way people did in 1980.

Something else I’ve been wondering lately about that era—do you remember any kind of purist/EU divide in the pre-Zahn days, regarding WEG, the Marvel comics, etc? Or were people so starved for new material that it was all seen as equally valid? And what of the early Expanded Universe did you most get into personally?

I’m a latecomer to the EU; I was fortunate in a way in that during the famous “dead period” for Star Wars in the late 80s, I was too busy being a teenager to care. My friends and I threw quotes around in casual conversation but that’s pretty much it; seems that a few of them read the old Marvel comics but canonicity never came into play. I don’t remember any purist/EU divide until the late 90s. Prior to getting my first internet-compatible computer in 1996, I had never heard of the idea that the EU was “unofficial,” that Han and Leia might not have had children, that in some people’s minds, Mara and Thrawn did not exist. I know you asked about pre-Zahn work but even when I read the afsquote1Heir to the Empire trilogy in the late 90s, I took it as Lucas’ official continuation.

I’m not saying the canon debates were nonexistent prior to household internet, I know that the fan fiction universe existed then via paid fanzines and canon arguments were in force there, but from my perception the level of them was not the same, mostly due to lack of new material and partly because of fewer mediums to hash out the arguments.

So what motivated you to get back into SW in the 90s, or at least to pick up a book? And what was the first one?

I got the OOT on VHS in 1995 (the box set) and it had Bill Moyers interviewing Lucas at the end. This was the first I remember of a prequel trilogy being in production; I had been waiting awhile to find out what made Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader so I was interested. There was also a LOT of hype around the special editions, focused on “seeing Star Wars again on the big screen”; I saw all three of them a month apart in the theater in January-March 1997. I think it was around that time that I first picked up a Star Wars book, and it was Heir to the Empire. I read through that trilogy and enjoyed it for the most part, especially Han and Leia, and Mara’s initial presentation. I picked up a few Young Jedi Knights books afterwards, was not as crazy about those or the Hand of Thrawn duology, and ended up bailing on the EU until the mid-2000s when PT-era books brought me back in.

That looks like a pretty good segway into your current ETE claim to fame, your guest editorial The Case Against Mara Jade Skywalker. That piece garnered a lot of, ah, attention—but rather than wade back into that particular debate, I wanted to follow up on a couple things that came out of it.

Firstly, as someone who wasn’t really part of fandom in the pre-Hand of Thrawn days, it’s often seemed to me that the debate wasn’t just about Luke/Mara, it was about Luke/Mara as opposed to Luke/Callista—who at the time was still a realistic competitor for Luke’s affections. Where did you stand on Callista in those early days? Speaking more generally, how do you feel about Luke being married at all? I have a feeling this is going to become a huge topic again if The Force Awakens comes out and he’s a confirmed bachelor—but will you care either way?

I tried to read Children of the Jedi, found it boring, and I think I have a copy of Darksaber around here somewhere but I’m not sure I bothered with it. I didn’t form a strong opinion of Callista—definitely no love there but no hate either—but I can see how Mara, with the snarky personality and the redemption story, became more popular.

In TFA my preference would be for Luke to be a confirmed bachelor devoted to the Jedi life, including training younger Jedi; sort of the Obi-Wan of the new trilogy. But if he is married, I’m not going to be upset about it if the relationship is handled well. I hope the movie avoids traditional romance tropes, including terrible lines and exaggerated passions. I also hope it avoids any commentary about Luke allowing marriage because the old Order Jedi were just “wrong,” only that it makes sense that the Order would be structured differently because it is a different time and there are fewer Jedi.

That’s interesting—you’re saying the old Order’s attachment rule wasn’t wrong, but it’s still okay for Luke to ignore (or at least be ignorant of) it?

Yes. The old Order had 10,000 Jedi (or more?) and trained in a centralized location. That will most likely not be true with the new Order. If there are very few Jedi to act as “guardians of peace and justice” for the New Republic, I can see Luke allowing marriage, if for no other reason, than for reproduction, similar to the reason Ki-Adi Mundi was allowed to marry.

But I do think he should maintain the rule that the greater good of the galaxy is to be the Jedi’s first priority. In ESB, he was told that he might need to be prepared to sacrifice Han and Leia if he honored what they fought for; I do not think that instruction needs to be turned on its head or depicted as “bad.”

I would be fine with a less dogmatic rule, in other words, a lack of assumption that no Jedi could possibly be married and still do their jobs. Some personalities and relationships could probably handle it.

I would really only object to the rule being lifted under the insinuation that “romance and family are the greatest in the world, everyone needs them, the PT Jedi were cold and mean for not allowing it and they deserved to fall/brought about their fall because they were cold and mean.”

So on that note, my other follow-up to your piece—you drew a pointed contrast between Mara and Asajj Ventress, and her playfully antagonistic relationship with Obi-Wan in both the EU and The Clone Wars. “What if,” you asked, “she and Obi-Wan had fallen in love—and she had continued to talk to him in such a manner?” As it happens, something very much like that has now taken place, but with Asajj and Quinlan Vos instead. Do you think she and Quinlan made a better or worse couple than Luke and Mara?

That’s a tough call. With Asajj and Quinlan, she became so sappily romantic that she was virtually unrecognizable as her former self, whereas Quinlan kept trying on the Dark Side like a new tunic and deciding it did not fit, except when it did. Asajj allowed herself to be the victim of Quinlan’s Dark Side whims. In the case of Luke and Mara—Luke was never a snarky or playfully antagonistic person to begin with, and it was not a stretch for him to go sappily romantic on us. Mara remaining playfully antagonistic was not a stretch for her either, but their portrayal as a couple would have made more sense if they both had that personality trait and it just toned down a bit, became afsquote2more playful and less antagonistic, as they got together. If Asajj and Obi-Wan had ever worked out, that’s how I envision it. But…alternate universes are the realm of fan fiction.

I’m going with Asajj and Quinlan as a worse pairing than Luke and Mara because the personality jump for Asajj was so much more drastic.

I didn’t know you back in the days before TCW but you say that PT books drew you back into the EU; were you a fan of Asajj right away, or did that come more from her portrayal on TV?

I got interested in learning more about her when I found out she gave Anakin the scar on his eyebrow. True story, as odd and superficial as it is. I started reading whatever material I could get with her in it, and the more I read, the more I liked. I started watching the show at about the same time, came into it during the second season and had to backtrack to the first. I didn’t watch the show for her specifically, more for Anakin and Obi-Wan, but she added so much to it as a character and Nika Futterman did a fantastic job. I prefer her ending in the Obsession comics for obvious reasons but TCW Ventress, hair follicles and Dathomir origins and all, is probably my favorite Ventress overall.

“Hair follicles”—did you object to her growing hair?

In Dark Disciple? Yes. But I did not object to her having the ability to do it. I remember a lot of complaints from TCW about her having hair as a kid. I never found that to be a problem. I just thought she looked better/more badass shaving her head as an adult.

Well considering that TCW was your favorite version of Ventress, I was wondering if you think you might have been more in favor of her Dark Disciple plot if it had unfolded via eight episodes as originally intended. For my part, nothing in the book was objectionable, exactly, I just felt like it flew through way more plot than a 300-page novel had time to earn—do you think there’s something to that? Were your problems with the story fundamental, or was it just too much change too suddenly?

I didn’t really see the story as rushed, but I did have fundamental problems with it towards the end, best summed up by the fact that she was so in love with Vos that she was willing to cower to Boba Fett—an arrogant kid whom she had recently tied up and put in a box in order to save a girl who was to be sold as a child bride. And she cowered to him for the sole purpose of “saving Vos.”

I think if the story had unfolded as eight episodes, I would have enjoyed the first three or four quite a bit and hated the rest of them.

I also felt that Ventress in season five was “off,” she was far less skeptical/cynical than I expected and far too eager to accept an immunity deal from Ahsoka—one which Ahsoka was really in no position to promise. Ventress did seem back to her old self early in the book but in the latter part of the book, she was unrecognizable in some scenes.

So—for lack of a better way to put it—do you blame Christie Golden’s writing, or Katie Lucas’s story?

I’m not sure. I lean towards blaming Golden only because Katie Lucas wrote “Bounty” and the Nightsisters arc, along with a few other favorite TCW episodes, so I know she can write the Ventress that I love. My only other experience with Golden’s work was one Ben/Vestara passage which made me cringe. But, without knowing whose idea it was to pair Ventress with Vos romantically, or make the romance as sugary-sweet as it became, I can’t peg either of them for being responsible for aspects I didn’t like.

So being a fan of TCW generally, and a fan of assertive female characters specifically, how do you feel about Ahsoka, and her evolution throughout the series—and now on to Rebels?

I really enjoyed Ahsoka early in the series. My first thoughts on her were, damn, Anakin met his match, and in the best, most hilarious way possible. She was feisty, sarcastic, and tough.

My issues with her later in the series were similar to my issues with Mara after the Heir to the Empire trilogy. She was heavily promoted, shoehorned into storylines where she did not mesh well, and used as a tool to emotionally manipulate the audience. That statement probably says more about how I feel about obvious author favorites in general than Ahsoka herself (or Mara for that matter).

Also, in part of her “evolution,” as a character, she lost her sense of humor and became more a person who delivered platitudes that the other characters were supposed to follow, and I thought that was to her detriment.

Her return in Rebels has been handled well so far. She has blended in with the Ghost crew and added to the already existing story, not promoted, not written as a pet character. I also like the idea of her as a covert operative, I think that fits the best aspects of her personality.

You have two kids, if I’m remembering correctly; what’s it been like opening them up to the world of SW fandom? How old are they exactly, and do you think they’re as into it as you are?

They’re 8 and 10, both boys. They had the Star Wars ABCs board book when they were toddlers, and I passed down my action figures, the ones that are out of the package anyway. I had had all these plans about how I was going to introduce them to the movies, a few carefully scripted scenarios that I can’t even remember now but they were carefully scripted scenarios. But parenting pretty much never follows carefully scripted scenarios, aside from those rare people out there who are raising droids. So my children got introduced to Star Wars via my running a fever, throwing the DVD for A New Hope in the player and saying “Here, watch this movie while I lie on the couch and watch anakin-abcthis movie with you.” They were 3 and 5 at the time.

The debate about which order to use when introducing Star Wars movies isn’t ever going to be settled, which is fine; I went with 4-6 and 1-3 because I wanted them to experience it in the order that I did and because I wanted to stall on introducing Revenge of the Sith due to its rating. My only regret about that is that they weren’t quite old enough to understand the concept of a prequel, and could not understand why Luke had not been born yet in Attack of the Clones when they had just seen him in Return of the Jedi.

I did stall for about a year in introducing Revenge of the Sith, and much to my chagrin, it became my oldest’s favorite Star Wars movie for awhile. I never really had a good answer to the question, “Mom, why do you leave the room when Anakin turns into a bad guy?” “Because I can’t stand to watch it” didn’t satisfy his curiosity much.

There was a great moment soon after they got introduced to the movies when I heard my oldest explaining to his brother that “Anakin was a good guy who turns into a bad guy then turns into a good guy again.” That and watching an entire group of kids, mine included, playing Star Wars on the playground, with characters across the saga (one kid playing Vader and the other playing Dooku) are my favorites.

They’re definitely not as into it as I am, in fact my youngest isn’t into it at all; he’s a massive Doctor Who fan but not much for the GFFA. My oldest really enjoyed The Clone Wars and will sometimes ask me to rewatch episodes with him, and he’s watched some Rebels and played the Lego Star Wars games. But it remains to be seen whether the new films will jump-start his fandom. And I’m holding off on putting the New Jedi Order on his Kindle for a couple more years.

Ha, good call—but if he’s familiar with Rebels, maybe Servants of the Empire would be a good gateway in the meantime (not that it can’t be just as heartrending as the NJO).

Is your oldest engaging with the pre-TFA hype at all? What does he think of the teasers, preview images, etc? I wonder to what extent kids that age are starting to anticipate it, given that they have no prior experience of a new Star Wars movie coming out.

His comment on the teaser trailers was “That looks really cool;” he’s not saying much else at this point but I suspect he will when the soda cans and cereal boxes start coming out, especially since clothing stores are already starting to put out TFA T-shirts and socks. And the action figures; so far all we’re seeing is for Rebels and the old films. I don’t know if families who like spoilers are more into the hype right now.



That wraps it up—thanks to Tracy for participating!