Monday, March 30, 2015

-262

Star Wars #2 #3
Darth Vader #1 #2
Princes Leia #1 #2 #3


These comics represent the first phase of a Derridean deconstruction of the Star Wars saga. They also have a lot of very cool fight scenes.


  • Han Solo tries to stomp Darth Vader with a Walker.
  • Darth Vader encounters Jabba the Hutt.
  • Artoo and some Jawas try to fix the Millennium Falcon.
  • Luke Skywalker intercepts Princess Leia's shuttle in an X-Wing.
  • Leia is inexplicably moved by a painting of Amidala on Naboo.
  • Luke confronts Vader with his lightsaber (and gets creamed).
So, yeah: all the kinds of things that a Star Wars fan would want to happen in a Star Wars comic keep on happening. Everything rattles along at a space operatic pace. The art in "Star Wars" and "Darth Vader" looks beautifully like stills from movies that never were.

The movies were always convincing us that there was stuff going on, just outside the frame, that we couldn't quite see. These comics almost — almost — convince us that that is the stuff we are seeing. Princess Leia, moments after she hung the medals round Han and Luke's necks. Darth Vader, seconds after apparently killing Ben Kenobi on the Death Star.

But on a bigger scale, the comics have to convince us that we are seeing the stuff that happened, not merely out of shot, but in the three year silence between A New Hope (as I suppose we have to call it) and The Empire Strikes Back. And that is quite a — courageous — thing to attempt. Listening to Leia's speech at the Triumph of the Will medal ceremony doesn't in itself change our perception of what happened. But as more and more stories are piled into the blank spaces they are inevitably going to construct a theory...build up a structure...say something about Episode IV and subtly change the meaning of Episode V.

So far, they are weaving interesting structures around each other and inside that space. In "Star Wars" # 2, Darth Vader looks at Luke's lightsaber and says "This lightsaber belonged to..." — just as Han's AT-AT crashes through the ceiling. So, for the time being, Luke can happily carry on thinking that Vader was going to say "...Obi-Wan's friend, who I killed all those years ago" even though we know he was going to say "me". (That's dramatic irony, that is.) In "Darth Vader" #1 the Dark Lord has a jolly good flashback — to the Death Star Trench, to the duel with Ben — before having an Epiphany that the boy he had the fight with in the other comic and the Force-is-strong-in-this-one X-Wing pilot are the same fella.

Which doesn't change anything. Not really. No yet. We have already been told that Darth Vader spent the years between Yavin and Hoth "obsessed with finding young Skywalker". We are just being shown how it happens. Aren't all writers told to show not tell?  

There is always a danger that this kind of spinoffery will feel as if the Luke Skywalker Action Figure is being placed alongside the Darth Vader Action Figure, just because it's a cool thing to do. (And it is cool. Star Wars: Rebels pleased me precisely because it was basically Ezra and his big bucket o' stormtrooper action figures.) These comics are making a serious attempt to treat the Luke and Vader as characters and spin a story around them, while allowing them to retain some of the aura that made us love the our action figures in the first place. We've already seen Darth Vader with an AT-AT, Darth Vader with Jabba the Hutt, Darth Vader with Bobba Fett and Darth Vader knocking over loads and loads and loads of Sandpeople action figures, and we've barely started yet.

But the more we read, the more Movie Luke will turn into Comic Book Luke, and the more we will be left with something like the Star Wars Extended Universe or Ultimate Spider-Man: quite good in places, but far, far removed from the beloved franchise it was meant to be breathing new life into. 


What would you expect from a Han Solo comic book? (There isn't a Han Solo comic book so far, but I assume there is going to be?) This is quite an easy question. We know who Han Solo is and what Han Solo does. Han Solo is a pirate with an alien berserker companion. He has gunfights in saloons and dogfights in space and makes sarcastic remarks while trying to conceal his heart of gold. "Pirate with a heart of gold" (and an alien berserker companion) would be a perfectly good brief for a comic book even if no such movie as Star Wars had ever been filmed.

And for that reason, it would hardly be worth doing: Han Solo is amazingly cool in Star Wars because he arguably wandered in from the wrong story. Showing us the story he wandered in from is a lot less cool.

So, then: what would you expect from a Darth Vader comic book? This is a much harder question. Vader's a villain: a lot of the time her's a pantomime, comic-opera villain who the audience want to boo and hiss. Stories about villains aren't impossible, but they are hard to pull off. The Joker had his own comic, but it didn't last very long. The prevailing morality said he had to go back to jail at the end of every episode. There was a very good Dalek comic strip, but that was presented as "the history of an alien race called the Daleks", not "a story where the psychotic alien fascists are the good guys." There is interwebs fan fiction about Moriarty and Draco Malfoy and Guy of Gisbon,, but the idea is generally that they turn out to be much nicer guys once you've looked at things from their point of view. Not evil, just misunderstood. And, obviously, sexy. 2000AD would sometimes show villains like Torquemada humorously out of context -- on their days off. But Darth Vader misunderstood isn't Darth Vader. Darth Vader turning out to be quite a nice guy once you get to know him isn't Darth Vader. Darth Vader at home, kicking off his shoes and feeding the cat isn't Darth Vader. Darth Vader has to be evil personified all the bloody time.

Darth Vader is evil and we boo him; but Darth Vader is also amazingly cool. So what we need from a Darth Vader comic is Darth Vader being DARTH VADER. Sweeping down corridors; throttling enemies; delivering cold merciless one liners. Putting off the day when he takes his mask off and goes back to being a rather pathetic Anakin Skywalker.

And the comic delivers on this pretty well.

The pictures do a first class job of looking like Movie-Darth (the cover of issue 2 is particularly fine) and the speech bubbles do as good a job as possible of sounding like him. He faces down Jabba the Hutt with no difficulty. He is smart enough to avoid stepping on the trap door in front of the throne, fun though it would have been to see the Darth Vader action figure having a fight with the Rancor action figure. But even showing Vader and Jabba in one scene together seems problematic, a clash of register. It makes Darth Vader seem smaller.

"I do not haggle" says Vader. "Perhaps you should learn" says the Emperor.

And there's a story. The Empire is in a bad way, having just lost its Ultimate Weapon. The Emperor is very cross with Darth: he is, after all, the one who deliberately let the rebels escape with the Death Star Plans and therefore is arguably responsible for breaking the Emperor's new toy on the morning it was finished. And some people are openly wondering if the Death Star wasn't a pretty silly idea to begin with. ("I look at the state of the empire and wonder how many super Star Destroyers we could have made with the resources we threw into Tarkin's folly" asks Tagge.) So Vader is going to have to spend at least the next few issues wheedling his way back into the Emperor's good books while secretly trying to track down mysterious-rebel-pilot-with-lighsaber.

At one level, this feels right: if we are going to have a comic which takes us into the Villains camp, well, villains are supposed to quarrel and dislike each other and back stab. At another level...well it risks reducing Vader to an idiot. A comic henchmen, even. Do we need to see the Freudian Dark Father getting chewed out by his boss? Tolkien never let us see Morgoth giving Sauron a formal written warning.


And what would we expect from a Princess Leia comic? This is the hardest question of all to answer. In one sense, the Princess Leia of A New Hope is hardly a character at all. In another sense, she is the best thing in the movie. If the point of Han Solo is that he's in the wrong story; the point of Princess Leia is that she's in the right story but totally refuses to the play the right role in it.

Leia's job is to be the damsel in distress: the maiden imprisoned in the castle so the hero can rescue her. I tend to the opinion that there is nothing wrong with heroes rescuing maidens from castles. The whole reason that Luke has to rescue a princess and not, for example, some old guy named Starkiller is precisely to signal to us that we're in the kind of story where princesses get imprisoned in castles and heroes rescue them. Let's call them "fairy tales" for the sake of argument. Saying that it is okay to sometimes tell fairy tales is not the same as saying that you should never tell anything else. Girls can be things apart from princesses, and princesses can do things other than get captured. But not, perhaps, in a tale of this kind. There is a certain kind of right-on picture-book for the children of Guardian-reading parents in which a PRINCE is imprisoned in a castle and a HEROINE rescues him. That's very dull and subverts a tradition before the kids have the chance to properly encounter it.

Lucas gave us a much more interesting piece of role-reversal. He let's Luke take on the classic rescuer-hero role and Leia take the classic princess-victim role. He allows his fairy tale to be a fairy tale. But then he swaps the personalities. The Hero is weak and inexperienced and makes the audience shout "oh, shut up you wet blanket" on more than one occasion. The Princess is clever and funny and brave and has a far better idea of what she is doing than either the Hero or the Hero's Helper. Almost the most enjoyable thing about the middle third of Star Wars is the watching Han and Leia entirely failing to get on.

Han's "do you think a princess and a guy like me...?" is a bit of a cop out. Empire Strikes Back turns them into a much less interesting odd-couple romance.

In short: what we want from a Princess Leia comic is Carrie Fisher, specifically, a nineteen year old Carrie Fisher. But she is sadly unavailable.

So Mark Waid in this comic does something actually in my opinion genuinely interesting. He does not attempt to channel Princess Leia of Episode IV. He doesn't do anything at all interesting with the Princess Leia action figure. He pretends that Princess Leia is a real person, and asks what is interesting or unusual about that person. And back comes the answer: Princess Leia is a person who has had her planet blown up. Furthermore, she is a person who has had her planet blown up and doesn't seem overly bothered by it. 

So.

It is after the medal ceremony. People are using words like "ice princess" to describe Leia and asking "what sort of ammonia runs through that woman's veins?" Darth Vader only blew up your planet this morning; why aren't you traumatized, or at least blubbing a bit? She has a big scene with a made up pilot in an orange jump suit who originally came from Alderaan. Mr Waid reasons, sensibly enough, that in a universe where travel between stars is as normal as hopping on a bus, there must be quite a lot of people from Alderaan scattered around the universe. So Leia and the made-up pilot take a space ship and go and look for them. The Rebels don't approve and Luke tries to stop her, but she gets away.

This is all very well and good and fairly interesting, but by the time Leia is involved in an intrigue on the planet Naboo, any connection with any character in any movie you might have seen is getting pretty stretched. Anyone expecting the Princess Leia action figure to be put alongside the Jar-Jar Binks action figure will be sorely relieved.

If you take the destruction of Alderaan remotely seriously, Leia ought to be a psychological wreck: she's been through something ten times worse than any holocaust survivor. The idea that you could say "we have no time for our sorrows" when everyone you have ever known has just been wiped out is obviously ridiculous.

Which is presumably why George Lucas chose not to take the destruction of Alderaan seriously. When Tarkin says that he's going to blow up Alderaan just to show he can Leia almost stifles a laugh.  Luke is much more noticeably upset by the death of his uncle and aunt, though he gets over it in the next scene. The whole point of space opera is that you turn the volume all the way up to 11. This isn't a story about a country or a continent, but about "a boy, a girl and a galaxy". The galaxy has a president and a senate to which all the planets in the galaxy send representatives. So maybe having your planet blown up is more like hearing that your village has been burned down by the Nazis -- while you are fighting thousands of miles away on the Western Front. A definite bummer, of course, but you maintain a stiff upper lip and carry on. It's the sort of shit which happens in war. But even that is taking it much too seriously. Star Wars is about actual war, it's about playing at war. As Alec Guinness said all those years ago: there is no violence in Star Wars. People say "bang" and other people fall over.

There are Guardian-readers who think that you should only be allowed to play with toy soldiers if you also play with toy widows and toy orphans and have toy funerals and toy PTSD survivors meetings. They are probably not Star Wars fans. 

Luke Skywalker has just been in a battle in which nine out of twelve members of his squadron got blown up. How can he possibly be laughing with Han and worrying about his robot when his bestest friend has just bought the big one? (Biggs may have been cut out of the movie, but since the Special Edition, he's definitely Canon.) Come to that, it's only a matter of hours since Luke's beloved mentor, was cut down; and at most only a few days since the only parents he ever knew were killed. Why is no-one calling him an unfeeling monster?

Please tell me the answer isn't "because he's a boy". 


Of course Leia doesn't react to the destruction of Alderaan as real person would to a real planet: it's not that kind of story.

Of course someone as clever as Darth Vader wouldn't have done anything so stupid as to deliberately let the rebels escape. It's a silly bit of plot cement to get us from the Death Star escape to the Attack on Yavin with the least possible waffle. (Is it even possible to watch Luke and Leia swinging across the chasm or Han Solo shouting "we're not out of this yet" if you honestly believe that the Empire is not trying?)

Of course the Death Star is a silly idea if you are thinking actual tactics. It's a plot device Lucas dreamed up to enable Luke Skywalker to save the universe single handedly.

And the only possible answer to the question "Why doesn't Vader know that Luke is his son?" is "Because at that point neither did George Lucas."

We are staring at gaps which George Lucas deliberately left in the Star Wars saga for dramatic effect and filling them in. And in order to fill in those gaps, we are zeroing in on precisely those parts of the saga which don't make sense, and pretending that they are what the story is all about.

And so begins a process which will leave us with a Darth Vader and a Luke Skywalker who are no longer recognizable as the action figures we were hoping to play with. 



Sunday, March 29, 2015

a short collection of essays


Rilstone's first book for nearly a year

Planned since 2014, recent events have given these essays an unlooked for topicality


The Physical Impossibility of Debate in the Mind of Someone On Twitter
privilege, segregation, Russell Crowe
text previously published on this blog
commentary, deleted scenes, and soundbyte summary previously available as a subscriber-only PDF, now available only in this format.

Keep Calm and Talk Bollocks 
language, t-shirts, rape, the N-word
previously available as a subscriber-only PDF, now only available in this format

"Yo"
The madness of Tony Blair
previously published on this blog

Cross Purposes
secularism, race, Pickles
previously published on this blog

Hobbits and Daleks
Dawkins, language, God, logic, rape, pedophilia
now only available in this format

All-Licensed Fools
Carr, Boyle, Marx, jokes, rape, Israel 
new essay published here for the first time 

Why Wasn't C.S Lewis a Pacifist
war. peace, logic, morality, argument, God
new essay published here for the first time





Special Offers for Blog Readers Only


Signed and numbered edition -- £10




Signed and numbered edition, with custom photographic bookplate insulting the deity of your choice --£20




Now available as an Ebook



FORMAT


"It has lots of big words, escorted by a regiment of footnotes."
Richard Worth

"It kicks arse."
Nicholas James Mazonowicz

"Possibly his most Rilstonian book. I know many people who like Rilstone’s writing — they should buy it immediately. But I also know a few people who get angered by Rilstone’s writing, and they would probably find this *far* more angering than, say, his book on Doctor Who."
Andrew Hickey

"Boring."
Andrew's Mum.




Special Offers for Blog Readers Only


Signed and numbered edition -- £10




Signed and numbered edition, with custom photographic bookplate insulting the deity of your choice --£20




Now available as an Ebook



FORMAT







Tuesday, March 24, 2015

(-268)


I sometimes wonder if cultural historians have paid enough attention to breakfast cereal. [1]

We have already talked about Kellogs Pep which sponsored the Superman Radio Show about 30 years before I was born. There was nothing especially super about them: so far as I can tell, they were just fortified bran flakes. And that's why they needed a strange visitor from the planet Krypton and a wrist-mounted sun-dial to make them seem exciting. All breakfast cereal is exactly the same so it's a blank slate on which advertising men can inscribe anything they feel like inscribing. This box of toasted rice will make ladies thin, but that identical box of toasted rice will make young men leap over fences. And because it’s all the same, Mum (it is, after all, she who buys the groceries) can afford to delegate the decision about whether to have toasted rice or frosted toasted rice or chocolate frosted toasted rice to her offspring. So the advertising people shamelessly direct their patter at children, or rather KIDS. We were all brought up to believe that HEY KIDS rice and corn going soggy in milk is FUN and GOOD FOR YOU and also the HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR DAY. And being a WEETABIX PERSON as opposed to a FROSTIES PERSON defined you tribally. Possibly. 

It also comes in big flat boxes. There is a space to draw a Tiger or three little Elves on a packet of cornflakes. There really isn't on a tube of toothpaste. 

There were Magic Roundabout figurines in Ricicles (which were, it will be remembered, twicicles as nicicles). I remember getting a box with NO GIFT IN IT and writing to Kellogs and receiving a letter of apology and THREE figures to make it up to me. But not the Dougal figure I needed to finish the set. I was three years old. It taught me an important lesson about life.

There were cut out "code wheels" and badges on the backs of Shreddies packets that initiated you as a member of a Tom and Jerry fan club. Do they still make Shreddies? It is the only one I would want to eat. Mini ("spoon sized") Shredded Wheat came in the same livery, and they were disgusting. 

There were indescribable little plastic animals with scissor action middles called "Stretch O Pets" in Rice Krispies, which were the same as Ricicles only without the sugar or the elves. 

Wetabix did picture cards. Everyone remembers the two sets of Doctor Who cards, but there were also Robin Hood cards and Superman cards and Star Trek cards. 

And the Honey Monster, obviously. 

Grandad must had more conservative tastes in breakfast than us; because he sometimes collected the gifts that came in plain old common or garden Kellogs Cornflakes and presented them to me. There was a set of circus animals and a set of self assembly fair ground rides that never worked and I assume a set of vintage cars. There was always a set of vintage cars. 

One Saturday afternoon he presented me with two cardboard masks, cut from the back of the  box itself. One represented An Android. (Androids look like bald Boris Karloffs, apparently.) The other represented a comically sinister figure with huge ears. His name was Mr Spock From Star Trek. I would have been six.


There was a moment in my life when I first discovered who Spider-Man was. (Feb 1973: "The Menace of Mysterio.") There was a moment when I first heard the name "Luke Skywalker". (On page 3 or 4 of the Marvel Comics Treasury Edition.) We can divide the pre-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew from the post-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew with a fair degree of historical confidence. But there never was a point in my life when I didn’t know who Mr Spock was. I can hazard a guess as to when I first watched Star Trek: the BBC showed a series of daily repeats over the Christmas holidays in 1974; which was also the year the decanonized cartoon series occurred. But I also had one of those Viewmaster stereoscopic slide viewers (which I thought was the most fantastic toy ever – a rare example of a 3D effect that actually works) and that came with a Star Trek disc: "The Omega Glory" retold in 21 frames. I remember them going over to the other ship and finding the crew reduced to dust in their uniforms. It frightened me and unnerved me in a way that Doctor Who monsters didn't. And I remember sitting on the coach to school camp reading one of the James Blish adaptations. And when I was very small indeed I had a set of light blue PJs with a design featuring pictures of the Enterprise. I think that was also ordered off the back of a Cornflakes packet. You could also order a torch in the shape of a phaser but I never had one of those because guns are not toys.   

When did you first know about Mr Spock? You might as well ask "When did you first know about Father Christmas?" or "When did you first know about Jesus."

If you never watched Star Trek, then Spock represent the idea of aliens—the thing you fall back on if you want to show that sci-fi is silly but don't want to use little green men with antennae sticking out of their heads. When people wanted to take the piss out of ludicrous Tory wannabe John Redwood, they called him Spock. (His campaign manager said that he understood that Dr Spock said "Live a long time and be prosperous" which was a pretty could summation of Conservative Party values, but he couldn't do the salute.) Rowan Atkinson's alien is not sending up Spock but he is, I think, riffing on an idea of aliens that wouldn't have existed without him. So, obviously, was Mork From Ork. The BBC made a big deal out of Trek, putting it in prime time shot right after the Moon landings, but everyone else clearly thought that space men with funny ears were the kind of things that belonged on the backs of cereal packets. Grown ups don't wear Star Trek masks on. (At least, I assume they don't. Maybe it was different in the 70s. The Beatles had just broken up and the Internet hadn’t been invented.) 

Notice how big and exaggerated Spock’s ears are in the drawing. They were never like that on TV. Nimoy always claimed that Special Effects wanted them to be huge and exaggerated and reptilian and the unobtrusive prosthetic ones were a last minute alternative cooked up between him and Make Up. There was an advertisement which imagined the ears drooping, in order to demonstrate that a particular brand of lager refreshed the parts that other brands of lager failed to refresh. They didn’t get Nimoy’s permission; he was reportedly not amused when he came to England claiming that he was Not Spock and discovering that his face was plastered on every billboard in the country. I think the advertising standards people stomped on the adverts in the end; forced them to become cleverer and sillier but to remove any suggestion that consuming alcohol could make floppy parts of your body stand up straight. 

I once said that there are Star Trek people and there are Doctor Who people, in the way that there are cat people and dog people. It has since been pointed out to me that by no means all dog owners spend their time luring cats into cages and turning them into fur coats and sausages; and that Aunty Jemima doted equally on her poodle and her Siamese. I think that my view still sounds: Doctor Who is silly and Star Trek is sensible; Star Trek is slick (for it’s time) and Doctor Who is, er, charmingly amateurish (ever for it’s time). Star Trek is American and Doctor Who is British. (One of the characteristic things about being British is not going on and on about it, of course. You couldn’t imagine Doctor Who waxing lyrical about Magna Carter in the way that Kirk does about the Constitution.) Star Trek episodes are called How Sharper Than A Serpents Tooth and For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky; Doctor Who episodes are called Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

I am a Doctor Who person, not a Star Trek person. But I watched Star Trek. Everyone watched Star Trek. My Mum watched Star Trek. (She correctly spotted that it was basically just a cowboy story. "Trek" is a vary cowboys and Indians kind of word. As everyone knows, it was going to be called Wagon Train To The Stars.)

There has always been Star Trek. This is why the abomination offended us so much. Abrams stole Star Trek from us and pasted on a thing which had nothing to do with Star Trek, and this means that for ten years at least, there won't be Star Trek any more. (But he is totally going to get Star Wars right, okay?) People become vehement about this stuff, as they do about all religions, but it seems to me that while more than one point of view might exist about whether or not Voyager and Enterprise were good Star Trek or bad Star Trek, they were unquestionably Star Trek.

Proper serious science fiction fans don't quite approve of Star Trek. One reason is that it was (like most cowboy stories) almost always a morality play and the solution to the moral dilemma almost always involved paying attention to both Dr McCoy and Mr Spock -- finding some kind of balance between Heart and Head. If it were proper science fiction then Spock (representing brains and intellect and science and, well, logic) would always be right and McCoy (representing emotion and feeling and intuition) would be chucked out of the nearest airlock. I'm not even sure that proper serious SF ought to admit the idea of morality in the first place. If you can't solve the problem with logic and express the answer to three significant figures then it was a silly question.

On the other hand, Asimov rather approved of it.

The main reason serious science fiction fans didn't like Star Trek was that Star Trek came to be what people who weren't really science fiction fans thought science fiction was like. It was never true that Space: 1999 and Blakes 7 were copying Trek or trying to do Trek all over again: it's just that they were "science fiction" and that’s what science fiction had become. On TV, at any rate. Three or four characters on a "bridge", with a big TV screen, travelling to a new planet each week and trying to figure out what's going on down there. And to be honest, and once all the sectarian strife calms down, that’s closer to science fiction than your Flash Gordons and your Buck Rogerses and even your Doctor Whos. It was at least to some extent most of the time quite often about ideas.

And it did have a scientist in it. 

If Star Trek was science fiction, Spock was science. Spock was logic. Spock was intelligence. Spock was sometimes incredibly irritating, but Spock was smart and superior and confident very much in the way a clever person ought to be. Particularly when surrounded by people far below our own intellectual level, as most of us feel we are. I wasn't the only kid to drive his parents crazy by using big words where a small one would have done perfectly well and trying to be all calm and condescending and being told that, no, as a matter of fact, having tea half an hour early tonight couldn’t be described as "illogical".

Spock the supporting character; Spock the science officer; Spock with his eye in a microscope: he was more fun than Spock the Alien, Spock the Mystic, Spock the Agonized Sex Symbol, Spock Messiah, of all the souls I have met in my travels his was the most (sob) human. 

If you took Hardy out of Laurel and Hardy you wouldn’t even have Laurel any more. Shatner and Nimoy were a double act. Nimoy is in the pilot episode / flashback where Shatner is still being played by an unrecognisable bit-part actor called Pike, but he’s not Spock, only Nimoy in a jumper. It was only when you put the two of them together, Shatner over acting, Nimoy rather under-doing it, that the sparks started to fly.

-- It has to do with...biology.

-- Biology as in reproduction? Dammit, Spock, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to the birds and the bees...

-- The birds and the bees, Captain, are not Vulcans. If any creature were as proudly logical as us and then had their logic ripped from them....

Spock has always been there, is what I’m trying to say. And now he isn’t any more. 


(1) Yes, they have.