Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars & Star Wars Publishing

A couple of days back I grabbed Jeffrey Brown’s trio of Star Wars books for a bargain price and, after getting them delivered, went through them pretty quick. His latest is Jedi Academy, but it’s the preceding books, Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess that really got him attention and deservedly so.

For me, it was the Jedi Academy book that showed the limits of Brown’s skills – namely, he’s great at observational cartoons that capture a single moment but this book doesn’t really work in that way, instead telling the story of a new student at the Jedi Academy, which from what I can tell, pretty much mostly resembles a US school in its structure and social interactions. This is unfortunate as it immediately limits the story in a parochial way and greatly reduces my interest in one swift stroke. Nor do I ever end up caring about the character I’m supposed to.

In contrast the Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess books are far superior showcases for his skills. They mix observations about parenting and children with comedy riffs on all those famous one-liners from the films that we all know so well. It’s a very clever and inspired combination that’s nowhere near as easy as it looks to come up with. A lot of the best ideas are very simple but only once someone else has come up with them! All of these pieces are, on their own, excellent but it’s the overall sense of enthusiastic affection that runs through the books that raise them to another level of brilliance.
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In Praise of Star Destroyers

If you want to really win over an audience to a space opera, strong design on the starships is essential. So what was Star Wars’ answer? It was this:

This single short sequence is, by itself, of what cinematographic classics are made of! It defined the film by showing something no one had ever seen in incredibly grandiose fashion. If you but think of it, for a moment, a mile-long starship isn’t all that special – the biggest aircraft carriers are around this size! What raises it up into the heavens? Iconic design and inspired cinematography. The term icon tends to get through around a lot but, in the case of Star Destroyers, it is deserved. In terms of shot, there are all manner of ways to shoot that sequence but the way Lucas opted to do it ramps up the size and imbalance of the contest – there’s the small fleeing ship dwarfed by this behemoth we’ve just seen in its full majesty.

It also tells you all you need to know, at this point, about the bad guys – remember, Vader has yet to make his entrance as Villain Numero Uno – they have really big but cool ships. Lucas is aware of this so the rebels get the Falcon and X-Wings, but come on, given the choice, which would you go around the galaxy in? If you’re a hotshot driver, you go for the X-Wing; if you like fixing cars, it’s the Falcon, the safe option? Mile-long mobile fortress, with squadrons of TIEs and AT-ATs and able to slag any planet you don’t like.

Yet, at the same time, you know it wouldn’t feel right. For all you can say it’s just a pile of tech, there’s something malign in the aesthetics of a Star Destroyer. A bit too big, a bit too hulking, a bit too brute force, oh it’s seductive, but why does it need to be? Because at heart it’s a really ugly bastard! In this respect, the design is a clear invoking of the technology of Nazi Germany, who made some of the most lethal tanks of World War Two. Just as a TIE fighter can be seen as a future Stuka, complete with scream, so is a Star Destroyer a tank in space.

Arguably one of the reasons for why 2001’s Gamecube sold as well as it did was Star Wars. That system had one of the all-time great Star Wars games – Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. What players found was, in addition to letting you blow up the Death Star in truly spectacular fashion, you also got to take on a Star Destroyer – and it proved to be a most lethal beastie indeed. After taking it on, most players had more respect for Rebel pilots:

Of course, jump forward a few years and The Empire Strikes Back! The key question for any sequel is how to surpass its predecessor? The answer was to show that the Empire was far from dead! One solution to this is to show a fleet of Star Destroyers! And then go one step further….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3WSG6SDE1w

What the fuck is that? Come on, it’s easy, it’s a Super Star Destroyer! Size matters, you know? But, all jesting apart – and there have been many, many hours spent on the size of the thing – what the sequence establishes is that it is a behemoth in every sense. The audience saw how big Star Destroyers were in A New Hope, now they’re seeing those massive ships be utterly dwarfed! As a way of conveying the message, with crystal clarity, that the Empire means business, this sequence is perfect.

And before anyone asks, yes, 2003’s Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike on the GameCube did have a couple of Super Star Destroyer levels!

One of my key tests for an artist on a Star Wars comic that has Star Destroyers featuring is how well they do. Some do it passably well, others truly excel – those are the likes of Al Williamson, Cam Kennedy, Steve Crespo, but perhaps the crowning glory of recent years from the comics has to be Brandon Badeaux’s work below:

He then went and followed that up with one of the all-time great fleet battle depictions in the next issue of the series. But, then again, perhaps I should not have been surprised as this was what he did in the first one:

Very recently, it looks like Carlos D’Anda will be joining this elite group for his work on new Star Wars comic with Brian Wood.

Why does all this even matter? Because brilliant design stays in the minds of those who see it. After seeing a Star Wars movie, the audience should be hooked on the characters and what happens to them, but also be spellbound by the world they’ve just been immersed in for two hours. Strong ship aesthetics is a key part of that and, in a way, can be demonstrated by the lack of it in the prequel films – does anyone remember the starships of those films? No? Me neither. Star Destroyers do, therefore, deserve all manner of praise.

Vive La Difference? Non!

Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has this killer statistic:

“contains approximately 100–400 billion stars”

At least according to its wiki page and, all things considered, there’s no reason to think that estimate is inaccurate.  Or, to put it another way, in far more succinct and famous fashion, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy has this:

“Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

And it is more than likely the galaxy that is home to Star Wars is similar; even if it was a quarter of the size of the Milky Way that’s still 25 billion stars, all with planetary systems of one kind or another.

Now add in time – the Milky Way is thought to be 13.2 billion years old, the Star Wars galaxy is similar and we have stories set across 35-37 millennia! 35-37,000 years!  In but a couple of millennia civilizations of all kinds have risen and fallen, Star Wars is no different – yet you wouldn’t know it from the way its stories have been told for the last few years.

We have this wide, expansive, incredibly old yet, in galactic terms, probably still young galaxy, but Star Wars has taken a reduction route.  It’s boiled its galaxy down to a number of set patterns, with little in the way of difference being tolerated.  When something does step out of line, corrective action is taken to get it back into line and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Jedi.  You would think, logically, there would be many different Jedi orders across the centuries, with unique structures.  You would be wrong.

Despite setting up Luke Skywalker to restore the Jedi, in a way distinct from its destroyed predecessor, the Expanded Universe just can’t seem to help itself with having Luke apply terms like Padawan to the revived order in the New Jedi Order to later reviving the Jedi Council.  Why do this when those ideas were found wanting?  Because it’s got to be the same!

There are numerous accounts of why Anakin Solo had to die in the New Jedi Order, all agree on one point: the idea was that the audience would be confused by the name similarity to Anakin Skywalker! Really? Seriously? Apparently so. This does not bode well because if it is thought that the audience will be confused by similar names then what of different iterations of the Jedi, Sith and Empire?

Yet, it isn’t just in the New Jedi Order arc that this happens. Nope, for all its brilliance, the Knights of the Old Republic game went and added a Jedi Council to the Tales of the Jedi era. The comics produced 1993-1998 had the Jedi as operating more informally, with gatherings of Jedi being a rare event. Yet, a handful of decades later, there’s a Jedi Council structure in place. In all likelihood, this was done to reflect the Prequels’ structure, as it was The Phantom Menace in 1999 that showed us the Jedi Council and the KOTOR game came out 2003. Even the recent story, Dawn of the Jedi, set millennia earlier still has a Council present, it’s as if an idea present in one era must be present in all eras!

Nor is the Empire immune – as the recent The Old Republic shows – here, despite being set millennia before the films, there’s some remarkably similar aesthetics being displayed! TIE fighters? Star Destroyers? What the hell are they doing there? At least in the Legacy comics there is a clear historical continuity, with the Empire there being the one from the films roughly a century on. So, you have a reason for the designs being next generation TIEs and Star Destroyers. Featuring them much earlier just doesn’t work at all.

And the Sith…. Ah, the Sith must be feeling like a nice Single Malt whiskey that’s had a measure of ice to shot that’s about 500%! If you did this, you would end up with something little more than water, all that made it whiskey would have been diluted out! So it has become with the Sith – you want an army of red lightsaber swinging bad dudes? Easy, there’s loads of them hanging around the place – just entirely forgotten about.To be fair Legacy‘s Sith, in the comics, have a fair amount of variance, but The Old Republic? It’s an army headed by an Emperor type, KOTOR has but two Sith Lords, clearly echoing the prequels’ notion. Vader? Well, as an enforcement heavy, Darth Malak does look the part.

Yet why is this strange monomania in place at all? If it truly is due to the expectation that the audience will be confused by a lack of consistency, then Star Wars is in a dire mess. This is a world where Marvel have spun a story line across five movies, brought it to a resounding conclusion in Avengers and are now on Act 2. They didn’t do that by having low expectations of the audience. Instead they assumed a level of intelligence and that was rewarded. It’s a world where the big successful TV series are spinning labyrinthine plots, with large casts of very well-realized characters, across multiple series.

It might be said that this is an attempt to create a consistency that is familiar to the audience who have only seen the films. True, some consistency is expected, but when the story is set far earlier than the films surely the consistency expected will be more thematic than literal transplanting? Go too far from the films and the story loses that which makes it a Star Wars property, but don’t depart at all and you get a carbon copy that can surprise and intrigue no one.

Will Disney’s takeover see a change? It’s very hard to say.  My own suspicion is that, given fan response across the internet to some stories, Disney’s response will be to be more careful and conservative so there will be less room for experimentation and innovation.  Still, perhaps I’ll be mistaken and Disney does decide to really run with the property they’ve got – a story that can be told on a galactic scale across millennia!

“Humans ARE Superior!” Really?

As far as Farscape, humans really were not superior! Not even close. For Star Wars?  It is considerably hazier but aliens do seem to fall into a number of frequent use categories or roles. Of course, if we go by Imperial propaganda, humans are superior but that was the Empire for you.

Single trait: this tends to crop up frequently, Hutts tend to gangsters, Twi’leks are frequently dodgy, Wookiees are heavy hitters that no one messes with. There are exceptions to this – Aayla Secura for instance for Twi’leks, the recent Dawn of the Jedi: Into The Void also gave us Tre Sana.

Less enlightened: step forward Borsk Fey’Lya and his successor, Pwoe. These two make the case for why aliens can’t run the galaxy – look what happened when they did! The galaxy conquered, Coruscant ravaged, trillions dead. More so than others, they also traded their alien status to gain power, Borsk never missed an opportunity to bring up what the Empire – and by extension – humans had done to the Bothans. Pwoe was inclined to similar gutter politics.

More enlightened: I’m hard pressed to think of many such characters, for all Yoda knows we see him take a serious loss in Revenge of the Sith.  There is the Caamasi character of Elegos Akla, who we see advising Corran Horn both in I, Jedi and the New Jedi Order.  However, the latter story kills him off, so Horn can no longer rely on his advice.

What of equals? There are a few, sure there’s Chewbacca, but he was so little used and deemed so uninteresting that a moon was dropped on him!  What of Gavrisom, who ran the Republic during the Hand of Thrawn books?  He gets frequently compared to Leia, so of course he’s going to lose, but he did just about keep the Republic together and was then never seen again.  Legacy gives us Gar Stazi, even Cade Skywalker could not disrespect this formidable Duros.  He tried certainly, but failed.

What I’m getting at here, for all that aliens feature, it tends to be humans that the galaxy revolves around.  To be fair, however, Star Wars is far from the only offender in this respect.  Star Trek commits the sin numerous times – Klingons, Ferengi, Cardassian, Andorian, Vulcan – they can’t get anywhere without humans.  Babylon 5? The Shadows and Vorlons had a nice once-a-millennium traditional punch-up going on and then those pesky humans poked their nose in and it all had to stop!

It could be asked, for the politics, why is there not an anti-Fey’lya type present? An alien politician who has succeeded not by taking the low road but the high? Would such a character be seen as a threat to Luke, Han and Leia’s moral authority? Even if there was, the accusation could still be made that for all their appearances, alien characters are simply partial reflections of human traits in external form. It’s difficult to refute this because, by its very nature, it is inevitable. The only response is to bring in aliens who are, in every sense, alien in their outlook but these tend to be exceedingly difficult to create. Even when they are set up, the resolution options tend to be separation or co-existence, with the latter being made possible through the identification of some common ground. So, not all that alien after all then.

Perhaps better to ask what characters there are that are deemed as equal to the lead human characters? In this respect, it seems the best examples in recent years can be found in comics. Knights of the Old Republic alone gives us two very well-realized characters in the form of Jarael and Gryph, the latter of which has his own fanbase!  Dark Times has Bomo and the crew of the Uhumele, all well-done characters.  In both cases we don’t see either Zayne Carrick or Jass Dennir attempting to steamroller them into submission, although it isn’t in their character to do so. Stazi, already mentioned, tends to take center stage in any story he’s in and then there’s Jedi Master K’Krukh…

Who has the status of controversy incarnate for some fans. Why? Because he legged it when Order 66 came down, hid out for a few decades, then returned to the revived Jedi Order and was feted as a wise senior Jedi! Nor is this restricted to K’Krukh, as a Neti character, T’ra Saa, also tends to get blasted for similar reasons. And they’re running the Jedi Order in Legacy, opting for a similar strategy to that used by Yoda and Obi-Wan, of waiting the Sith out until the right time. To be fair, the charge tends to be that they didn’t earn the leadership positions they occupy, but a counterpoint to this is that we do not know how they attained those positions.

And there is perhaps the crux of the matter: Should alien characters hold positions of power? About the only popular such character I can think of there is Admiral Ackbar – very popular creation in every respect. Others? There is, of course, Thrawn, until he became all heroic. (Or did he?) There is Saba Setayne, who is often seen as Denning’s pet character much in the way Thrawn is seen as Zahn’s. Surely there should be more? Perhaps this is something Episode VII will attempt to fix. Until then we’re stuck with the current flawed and very limited selection.

NJO Aftermath: The End of the Vong – Why?

I am the least likely person to write an article like this.  Why? The Yuzzhan Vong were the villains of the New Jedi Order series and, to put it mildly, I’m not a fan.  Oh, it has its moments, it has its high points and those it does very well, but it’s still nowhere near enough to move me to the “fan” column.  So why on earth write it?  Because of what happened after New Jedi Order….

New Jedi Order concluded with The Unifying Force in November 2003, one of the major things that did was draw a distinction in the Vong.  On the one hand there were the psychopathic, sadomasochistic evangelical Warrior Vong and then there were the Shamed Ones.  These Vong were the ones the biotechnological implants and enhancements used by warrior and scientist Vong did not work on, thus they were despised and deemed only fit for slavery.  The Unifying Force also posited that it was being cut off from the Force that so warped the Vong on a collective level, so that connection is restored.  To some, this is then the redemption of the Vong, but for me, it’s rather instead merely opening the door to it for them.

Jump forward to 2006 and Dark Horse Comics announces, to much controversy, it’s Star Wars: Legacy title, which will be set just over a century after The Unifying Force.  In the history created for the story, the Vong, having come to understand how their predecessors caused so much devastation and death, offer to heal the worlds afflicted.  It is an offering of atonement that the Sith take advantage of to ignite a galactic conflict.  They are able to do this because both the Jedi and the Galactic Alliance vouch for the Vong’s offering and are blamed along with them when things go wrong.

This is, quite simply, a masterstroke.  We go from the Vong having the door opened to redemption and atonement, to them understanding why they should seek it and then offering something they think will get them closer to it!  It would have taken a great deal of time to deconstruct the Vong’s old outlook and perspective.  It would have taken time for them to adjust to the notion of freedom and understand the moral responsibilities that come with it.  And, once that is adjusted to and understood, the legacy of their predecessors can be faced….Star Wars: Legacy posits that it all took a few decades to do, which is very plausible indeed.

So we have the Vong becoming far more than they ever were previously.  We have the Jedi backing their offering, which aligns well with the Jedi belief in atonement and redemption for previous failings.  We have a government that supports the Jedi in this – given the direction taken in recent years in the late post-Episode VI Expanded Universe, this now looks utterly revolutionary!  And they all pay a heavy price indeed, as a vengeful galaxy, manipulated by the Sith, give into their inner demons rather than their angels.

Jump forward to 2009 and Star Wars: Invasion is announced.  Though this series met with a mixed reception, one thing that was generally agreed on was that having visuals for the Vong was very good.  One of the weaknesses in the series was a difficulty in envisaging Vong tech, so having some visual versions of that gave the core series a boost.

Jump forward to 2012 and Star Wars: X-Wing: Mercy Kill was published.  This did two unexpected things with the Vong – it had one as a member of the Wraiths unit, used on covert ops, which in turn permitted use of Vong biotechnology.  Second, it had flashback chapters to an operation one of the characters ran during the invasion.  And those sections were utterly superb.

I have yet to understand why, having stubbornly stuck to their guns over New Jedi Order, having stuck with it across 5 years and nearly 20 books, Del Rey then went: Hey, you know what? No one wants the Vong so let’s get rid of them!  This seems blind to where they ended up.  Did people want more of the psychopathic, sadomasochistic evangelical Vong? No, I’m quite certain that was not wanted but was that all they were by the end of the story? Also no!  And all those fascinating potential possibilities were simply shut down!  It took a comic series to do what Del Rey shrank from doing – reviving the Vong but in new and very different form, yet built on what came before.

By 2009, there was some interest in a return to the mad, bad Vong – which is why there was so much interest in Invasion when it was announced.  X-Wing: Mercy Kill followed in its footsteps.  But didn’t people hate the Vong?  While the New Jedi Order was in flow and the final outcome unknown, that was certainly the case, but now?  Now the story is done and the overall shape known for over a decade, it will obviously be seen differently.  Certainly, for me, the flashbacks made the case for, at the very least, a Tales of the NJO anthology.  Unfortunately, these are no longer done either – though the Lost Tribe of the Sith Omnibus is a rare exception.

For all that Star Wars sells itself as a story of redemption, with Anakin Skywalker finally coming good and killing the Emperor – though, for me, he took his time as Luke was being done extra crispy – it is rarely interested in how redemption or atonement may be done.  It’s as if there is a preference to simply move a being or indeed an entire species from the “Bad” to the “Good” column and think no more on it.  For me this is a profound mistake and an utterly wrong direction.  Having opened the door to the Vong’s rehabilitation, I want to see more of that process and follow it through to the end.  What end might that be? Ultimately it would be the Vong, as members of the Galactic Alliance, accepted by the galaxy that once reviled them, in part due to their healing numerous worlds successfully and sought no reward for doing so.  It is, all in all, probably unlikely, but maybe the recent Legacy Volume II will be radical enough to attempt it, if it but has the time afforded it to do so…..