Monday, March 30, 2015


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 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. 


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. 

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