Author Universes, Sales and Mini-Eras: The End of the Line!

It’s generally quite tricky to get truly accurate sales figures for Star Wars books but Publisher’s Weekly has some that make for an interesting read:

Year Title Author Sales
1999 Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Terry Brooks 1,419,852
  Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, Vector Prime R.A.Salvatore 200,000+
2002 Star Wars: Attack of the Clones R.A. Salvatore 784,750
  Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Destiny’s Way Walter Jon Williams 100,000+
2003 Star Wars: The New Jedi Order—The Unifying Force James Luceno 107,775
2005 StarWars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Matthew Woodring Stover 431,426
  Star Wars: Dark Lord, the Rise of Darth Vader James Luceno 137,661
2009 Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Sean Williams 103,232
  Star Wars: The Clone Wars Karen Traviss 101,146
  Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible Troy Denning 101,034
2012 Star Wars: Darth Plagueis James Luceno 31,543
Star Wars: Apocalypse Troy Denning 26,140

Source: Publishers Weekly

First, it would appear if you want big sales ensure you have a Star Wars movie to adapt – failing that, a cartoon will do.  But even in the case of the latter, the bump is notably reduced when you compare Clone Wars to the Prequel novelizations.

What is of more interest are the books by Luceno – both can be said to form part of what has come to be the Lucenoverse.  This is not a new development but rather the latest in a long tradition.  It has something of a companion in what has been dubbed the Reavesverse.  There should be nothing surprising in that authors like to build a sense of mini-continuity between their works.  It also can make for a more satisfying reader experience as they spot the links between works.

An early EU collaboration was between Veitch and Anderson in creating the Tales of the Jedi series, with Anderson using the villain Exar Kun in a trilogy set millennia later.  Veitch had set up the TOTJ project via the Dark Empire story that alluded to his fate.  In comparison to another creative partnership, this fizzled out quite quickly while the Zahn-Stackpole one was considerably more successful.  This saw the plots of Bantam’s run drawn together into a more cohesive form, with the authors sharing characters between them and working together on a couple of short stories.

Nor is it limited to books.  The work of John Ostrander, with his frequent artistic collaborator, Jan Duursema, demonstrates how it can work in comics.  Having done a very successful run on the Republic comic, they followed that up with the controversial Legacy comics and are now working on Dawn of the Jedi.  They linked their first two works via the device of long-lived alien characters amongst others.  Will they find a way for their latest work to tie in despite 25 millennia?  I would not bet against it happening!

But why do these mini-verses matter at all?  In every franchise there is a top-tier of works that receive the most attention.  For DC Comics it is Batman and Superman; for Marvel, Avengers and X-Men.  For Star Wars, it is the further adventures of Luke, Han and Leia.  However, just as comic fans find the more innovative and more creatively experimental works in the second-tier titles, so is it true for Star Wars.  Stackpole had his greatest success with a little corner of the EU called X-Wing.

That set of books worked by appealing to readers who were far more interested in the world of the EU than just that which the films presented.  It is for these people that the author universes really take off – Ostrander built an entire epic around the character of Quinlan Vos.  Michael Reaves, with a couple of collaborators, takes a handful of characters across the years and series.  It starts off in Shadow Hunter, continues into the Clone Wars series of MedSTAR and then into Coruscant Nights, with the latest book being The Last Jedi.  Do they sell big? Not at all, but that Reaves keeps being able to write books says they sell well-enough! Why?  Reaves’ work is quite traditional at heart – he gives you a set of characters to back, support and follow and then has various adventures happen to them.  He is also credited with doing Darth Vader justice which is an accomplishment in itself.

Luceno’s work is more subtle, but the major reason for why his work is praised is because it takes the quite rancid political plots of the Prequels and does something quite extraordinary with them.  He starts off by making Cloak of Deception raise Episode 1 up considerably, he then follows that up with Labyrinth of Evil, a Clone Wars story and very effective prequel to Episode 3, that in turn is followed by Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader.  Yet these 3 books are but the prologue to his finale, Darth Plagueis.  This was once deemed a step too far by Lucasfilm, the project got put on ice then got defrosted.  Why? Because it focuses on Sidious’ master!  This represents heights undreamt of for a miniverse book!

What is even more surprising is that Luceno’s 2 books – this and the prior Dark Lord one – both out-sold their Big 3 counterparts according to the Publishers Weekly figures.  Dark Lord beat the finale to the Legacy of the Force series, Invincible and Darth Plagueis went and stomped on Apocalypse, the Fate of the Jedi finale.  One reason might be that while the series finales have Luke, Han and Leia, albeit around 40 years later, the Luceno books have Darth Vader, the man who would be Emperor and the mysterious figure who instructed him!  In certain select instances then the film boost can be tapped in more subtle ways than just being a novelization or using the big 3.

Nonetheless, a large part of the thrill and enjoyment of author miniverses resides in the sense that they are a secret.  That not as many people know about them, so you, the reader, are privy to cool information that other people are not.  In this respect, like second-tier superhero books, they will continue to exercise appeal, regardless of whether this is reflected in sales.

Will there be such opportunities available to future authors?  Very hard to say given the Episode 7 announcement.  It does require too a certain confidence on the publisher as well.  One incentive for publishers is such sets of material, once they have gained a positive reputation, can sell very well and keep doing so.

 

The End of Illusions: Part 2: Big Three? We Don’t Need No Big Three!

Some riffs just can’t be avoided and the title’s one of them. My experience with the Big 3 can be considered to be a 3-phase one. Phase 1 was Bantam’s run that, along with Dark Horse Comics, got me interested in the EU in the early 1990s, around 1992. Phase 2 was the NJO / Prequel era of 1999-2006 and phase 3 is very minor due to a sense of despair at the late era direction favoured by Del Rey.

(That as fine an editor as Lester Del Rey’s name should become a kind of curse-word for SW fans is a sad outcome whichever way you slice it.)

I returned to SW in 1992, watched the films again, this time in Widescreen – yes, once upon a time that was something special – and was hooked. But where now? Zahn’s Thrawn books, only 2 of them, beckoned, as did Dark Empire and the rest was history. Bantam’s run was, by its nature, experimental – they had an unexpected universe they didn’t know what to do with so they experimented. Some of it worked, some of it did not, the former was raised up and the latter quietly forgotten.

Leia’s arc of rebuilding the Republic, dealing with numerous political hurdles, succeeding Mon Mothma and then making peace with a reformed Empire that she once despised was a triumph. Han’s arc was patchier, but his turn as General Solo in Allston’s X-Wing books was a high point, Zahn and Stackpole generally used the character effectively too. Where there is a void is once the kids are born! If Leia is too busy rebuilding the Republic then Han should have stepped in, I don’t see any reason for him not to except that children and their upbringing was perceived – and perhaps still is – as a woman’s job and men should not butt into that!

Why is this a big deal? One of the more rubbish plots in the later NJO had Jaina Solo, in a fit of teenager attitude, lay into Leia for not being around when she was younger. This never worked for me. The reason was simple. As a kid, my Dad was out at evening meetings a lot, the job demanded it – my Mum ensured my sisters and I knew why it was so. My parents had their own arrangement, my Dad looked after the bills, my Mum looked after us and it worked for them. Due to that, I had no reason to really resent him for being absent in that respect. I was old and smart enough to understand. Therefore, the notion that Jaina would not have been looked after, either by babysitters or Han, did not work. Plus, if she’s supposed to be smart, she’s smart enough to know why too. It would have been very satisfying for Leia to snap back she didn’t have to be, Han was! The only way Han and Leia’s marriage could work with two strong individuals is to divide up who’s doing what – Leia goes out for the career, Han is more free-wheeling but more in charge on the domestic front. Alas, the EU, at this early stage, lacked the courage to take this radical step. In many ways it’s understandable, but still a missed opportunity.

Luke’s arc of rebuilding the Jedi was not all that well-planned out, but, nonetheless, worked out well as the new Jedi play a key role in extinguishing the flames of the Caamas crisis depicted in the Hand of Thrawn books. It also, with reference to my fellow conspirator Lucas’s article on Jedi, Sith and Tunnel Vision, had Luke pull a blinder of a move. With the bulk of the information on the Jedi destroyed, Luke revives an ancient Jedi tradition he learns of from a rare Jedi holocron. In this tradition, one Master trained several students and often on a world where the Master had defeated and contained the dark side, with those places serving as testing grounds for apprentices.

1999 saw the start of the New Jedi Order project and it’s an undertaking that, even in hindsight, I can’t help but see as a missed opportunity. For all its successes, it still has a vast amount of untapped potential that it failed to tap due to squandering time on needless other plot strands. In some respects, the moves made for NJO were subsequently used again but with far less success for the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series. For me where it went wrong was in seeking to emulate Babylon 5’s 5-year TV arc in book form. It was also, despite setting them up as a truly terrifying adversary that was far beyond the ability of the Jedi alone to defeat, far too protective of its villains, the Yuuzhan Vong. Cue the Republic that Leia had restored to working order demonstrating suicidal incompetence to the point of being utterly destroyed, then the same plot that required the heroes to be ineffective for 2 years, permitted them to be effective for 2 years and win. In the end the only thing that really made NJO work for me was the utterly unexpected success that was its finale, The Unifying Force. It did what all strong conclusions do – finished well but in doing so raised up its predecessor volumes as well. I’m never going to be a big fan of it, but the success of the finale and how well it used Luke, Han and Leia along with other, newer characters cannot be denied.

Onto phase 3 then and here all those flaws that blighted NJO, yet were held back enough to prevent them taking over, are permitted to bloom in all their poisonous glory. After reading the Dark Nest trilogy, one of the most blatant set-up series I’ve ever read, my interest in the big 3 was severely reduced. The first Legacy of the Force book went and destroyed it completely within the specific era. I simply could not credit or buy into the events and characterisations being depicted.

So the end of the line? Not quite. There have been a handful of earlier set books over the last 6 years. There were 2 books by Zahn, but while sold as being Luke, Han and Leia I don’t consider them to be so, they’re more supporting cast. No, the big release for the trio in recent years has to be 2009’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover. It’s a masterclass in how to do a complete story, without giving any character in a large cast short shrift and convince the reader that, all appearances to the contrary, their heroes are in real jeopardy! Sadly, there has been no further Stover Star Wars books.

So what does it boil down to? The characters need to develop without leaving their essential aspects behind. Luke as a Jedi who won’t surrender to the dark works fine, as does Leia as the one politician you can actually believe in, with Han as the ultimate wild card agent. There have been attempts in recent years to move them away from this, to making Leia a Jedi (she was already as of 1992 but that got forgot!) and Luke more of a manager but neither has really worked for me. That and the amount of time that has passed – around 40 years!

The End of Illusions: Part 1: Not Really Liking the Big Three All That Much!

Credit for sparking this one goes to fellow conspirator here Lisa Schap, but she’s unaware of what she started! Do I like Star Wars because of the characters of Luke, Han and Leia or is it more than that? Do I even need the big 3 as they’re called at all?

In a way the OT succeeds where the PT mostly does not in running at a pace that sweeps the audience along. The result of this is that their attention is kept at all times and they do not notice the weaknesses. Those weaknesses being the characters! I’m fascinated to see what happens after ROTJ because, at that point, the characters work for me, but why do they not before? Because Solo’s the cocky bastard type I tend to dislike on general principle despite the considerable charm Ford’s portrayal gives him. Organa is, in a lot of ways, your standard aristocratic type and a ‘for the cause!’ evangelist. Don’t really like evangelists either. And Skywalker? He’s the fish out of water and in over his head who eventually wises up, but he is a bit of whinger in the OT.

But to be fair, these are their starting points! The whole idea of a character development arc is precisely that – so where do they go and what changes? It should also be mentioned at this point the OT, to a degree, delights in throwing gender stereotypes into a blender and generously splattering them!

Leia is the one who thinks she knows all she needs to, her foil is Han who also thinks the same way – in hindsight, of course they were on collision course! Luke is the one who’s far more aware than both of what he doesn’t know and needs to, give the kid some credit – he’s a fast learner. Until writing this I had not considered Han and Leia as being opposite mirror images, but it’s an interesting picture – Han teaches Leia that she can have some things for herself, that it’s OK to not share them with the world, while Leia brings Han into accepting the fight for the galaxy. And Luke? His arc is one of ascension, to gaining the knowledge and confidence he needs to be doing what is expected of him.

Back to those gender stereotypes in the blender! By rights, Han should be insufferably cocky, Luke too incompetent and Leia too cold and arrogant an aristocrat. There’s times when that happens, but the OT ensures it’s isolated incidents, mostly within ANH. Instead it tends to invert a few things – Leia’s the one who tends to keep her emotions under control, where Luke doesn’t and nor is she content to sit back and be rescued – instead in ANH the terms of rescuer and rescued flip around frequently between the characters. Now it doesn’t seem all that big a deal but it was cutting edge for 1977. Later ROTJ fanned the flames of controversy with Leia’s treatment by Jabba, which remains a hotly contested debate topic: Was Leia badly treated in character terms or not? For me, there is the little matter that she strangles the fat bastard that says not.

By the end of the OT, they’re all in different places and I want to see where they go from here in contrast to the films where I do want to see changes because, all in all, don’t like them all that much! Then again, if the screenplays are known to have weaknesses, then it’s also known to be in the characters – oh and let’s not forget the dialogue! Sometimes you need a better pair of hands to go to work. In the shape of Good win and Williamson on their Classic Star Wars run and Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, there are two excellent works that I’m inclined to say handle the characters better than the films. They can examine them more closely and bring their out better aspects more effectively.

Of the trio, Luke is likely the one I like most because he’s less out-right cocky, but inclined to do some really stupid stuff if he but thought about what he was doing – case in point, the Battle of Yavin! Fly around a moon-sized battlestation that’s going to annihilate a planet, then go into a narrow trench and hit this one small spot? But that’s also what makes SW what it is, people doing insane things and getting away with it! Outwardly confident characters who think they know it all? Nah, just not drawn to, I need to see some flaws and them then being aware of them, if only so they can turn them to their advantage.

The Emperor and his second Death Star are toast, Vader’s dead too, what happens now? Can you really consider the story over? Why would you not want to see Leia as the politician she’s said to be? Why shouldn’t we see her build a new government to take over from the Empire? That was the point of the rebellion. Equally, the Jedi knights, how is Luke to revive that idea? And Han? Han gets to stay the smartarse he always was, but not an insufferable loner who thinks he needs no one.

Part 2 will look at where they get taken, what has worked and has not and if these characters are needed for an Expanded Universe at all!

Antagonism: The Next Generation

Should the Empire still be the primary antagonists of the Sequel Trilogy, or can the film saga move on and still remain relevant? What can we learn from the Expanded Universe about this?

Mike: While I’ve always been quick to point out how crazy it is to believe that the entire Galactic Empire just folded their cards and went home after Endor, I’m on the fence about whether they should remain the villains of a bona fide Episode VII. On the one hand, I think the New Jedi Order series is hands-down the closest the EU has come thus far to giving us a Sequel Trilogy in terms of tone, and something as wholly different as the Yuuzhan Vong would be awesome on the big screen and would go a long way toward rejuvenating what’s bound to appear to some as a tired, extraneous post-Return of the Jedi status quo, but on the other hand, George Lucas really did tie his story up in a nice little bow there.

The question, really, isn’t do the films need the Empire, it’s do the films need Palpatine? Even Lucas has admitted that if he were to have done sequels himself, Dark Empire—wherein the Emperor returns in a cloned body—came the closest to what he’d have come up with. In fact, given that Michael Arndt is ostensibly working from Lucas’ own outline, it’s entirely possible that a reborn Palpatine will indeed be what we end up with.

I don’t know if we need to go that far, but I can see the argument that the threat has to come from Palpatine in some direct way—maybe a cult of rabid non-Sith followers sowing dissent, maybe even a crazed and manipulated Jedi like Joruus C’Baoth. If the Prequels were about the Republic crumbling from within, and the Classics were about the ideals of the Republic rising anew, then the Sequels need to be about demonstrating that new Republic’s fortitude, and most importantly, showing that it—and our heroes—have learned the lessons of the Prequels and created something better, in terms of both the government and the Jedi Order. Anything that doesn’t deliberately and aggressively make that case—whether it’s more Sith, Imperial remnants, or an alien invasion—won’t truly feel like the same story. Jay, am I right?

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Character Shields & Chronology: To The End!

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!