Tuesday, June 05, 2018

I am sure all this is fascinating, but what did you think of Solo?

"From the moment I picked your book up, to the moment I put it down, I couldn't stop laughing. Someday I intend to read it." 
Groucho Marx, attrib.

"Warren J. B" wrote the following about my review of Solo: 

And the blogs, op-eds and so forth, that think the intrusion of current political themes into Star Wars is the best thing since sliced bread? What do they need? What about reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, who think that specific inclusion is so ridiculous that they wonder it might actually be a parody? What about the creators and participants in the films who go on record not only to confirm these inserted themes, but to highlight them as reasons to see the film?

I could enjoy your rebuttals, Andrew, if there was much to them besides the reduction to ad hominem and dismissive refusal to unpack, just a little. (For another example: Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years. All those books and comics weren't written and drawn with Alden Erenreich in their mind's eye.) I could read about you picking apart the topic of 'leet' with points on why it's silly to worry about. But "seek help hurr" is a fourteen-year-old's comeback. It's sweeping the thing under the rug. It would be mere trolling if it was directed outside this blog. It's a childish kneejerk reaction - an "I'm right so there" - on a level with the people you're attempting to ridicule.

(I can't decide if tweeting it is much better or worse. Oh Mike. Mike Mike Mike...)

I've seen those complaints about L337. (among other things) I see what point they're trying to make, partly because they go into actual detail; but I can't go with them because they're too obstinate and obtuse. Imagine the frustration when 'the other side' - ostensibly the rational side - turns out to be practically the same.

I take this to be a criticism of the style rather than the content of my piece. Warren is one of the very good people who financially supports me via Patreon, so I think we can safely assume that he is familiar with my normal idiom. I think that he is making the point that I am a better literary critic than I am a journalist -- which is why I have recently, semi-seriously adopted "exegete" as a job description. The Solo review represented my first reaction to the movie: it was written more or less immediately I left the cinema. I think it is probably true that I don't do this kind of thing particularly well. Most of my exegesis is the result of a fairly long period of thinking and over-thinking -- six months in the case The Last Jedi; thirty-five years in the case of Spider-Man. Warren is perhaps correct to think that short, off-the-cuff reviews are a mistake. 

Warren is also, I think, correctly pointing out that my verbal fireworks can shade into flippancy and obscure the points which I am trying to make. I think that he thinks that, in the case of Solo at least, I should have written a more journalistic, academic piece. 

It is certainly true that I use tags and code works and assume that my readers will know what I am talking about. For example, I say "You can type this shit, George, but you can't..." when clarity would require me to say "Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness are known to have been openly critical of George Lucas's dialogue." 

Warren directly responds to some of my flourishes; so where I typed "it was ridiculous for anyone but Sean Connery to play James Bond until it wasn't", he types "Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years". I could of course riposte in kind: "No; but Connery was the central characters in six movies, where Ford was a secondary character in four; and indeed "How many actors have played the role of Indiana Jones?" But this would not, in fact be relevant: the correct response to Warren is "But I was not talking about Bond: the remark was a colourful way of saying 'It is sometimes possible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor.' " To which Warren might very well respond "In which case, why didn't you say that?" The substantive point about Solo is not "Can Han Solo, in principal, be played by someone other than Harrison Ford?" but "How successful, in fact, is Aiden Ehrenreich at playing the young Han Solo?" -- to which my answer, given in the original essay but possibly obscured by the one-liners is "only partially." 

The article contains one major flaw which Warren does not specifically highlight: namely, I ought not to make remarks about mental health for the sake of stylistic effect. I regret remarking that people who objected to the movie on ideological grounds "should seek professional help." (I don't regret making fun of them, but I shouldn't have made fun of them in those terms.)

So: as a public service and a penance — and actually as quite an interesting exercise — I am re-presenting my essay, this time translated into English. 

People writing comments beginning "I haven't seen the film, but..." are referred to the reply given by Private Eye magazine in the case of Arkell vs Pressdram. 

Solo: A Review 

by Andrew Rilstone

Solo is a highly successful adventure story, told with the trappings and hardware of science fiction. As such it is in the tradition of Doc Smith, Flash Gordon and the older Star Wars films. It contains a number of audacious and exciting action sequences; the one in which a group of heroes have to evade enemy space ships in an area of space which contains a gravity well and a giant alien is particularly memorable. People who enjoy those kinds of stories — which are often dubbed "space opera" — are likely to enjoy Solo. People who who do not enjoy "space opera" in general are not likely to find much to enjoy in this example of the form.

The present writer, who grew up reading this material, is still surprised that films of this kind have become so mainstream. He is also, incidentally, surprised that technology which once only existed in such films is now common place. He enjoyed himself very much indeed. 

The film is quite faithful to the visual style of the original Star Wars trilogy. Many of the scenes are based quite closely on scenes from those three films. For example, there is a desert planet that is quite similar to Luke Skywalker's home world in A New Hope; several bars and saloons which are reminiscent of the bar which Ben Kenobi and Luke visit in the same movie; and a villainous gangster who is a little like Jabba the Hutt, the evil slug in Return of the Jedi. However, in the opinion of the present writer, there was also enough variation that the film never felt derivative or like a pastiche. 

It could perhaps been argued that a wider variety of settings could be introduced into the Star Wars series, and indeed, that there could be a greater variation in the way alien life-forms are portrayed. However, in the opinion of the present writer, the film does well to stick to a generic look and feel which as been established in nine previous movies. 

It is by no means impossible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor. But there are specific problems with recasting Han Solo, who has (with the single exception of a radio series) only ever been played by Harrison Ford. Ford brought a very specific charm to the character which wasn't necessarily present in the original scripts. (Ford, like Alec Guinness and Carey Fisher, was openly critical of the quality of Lucas's dialogue.) On the other hand, the Han Solo character has been successfully portrayed in comic books and novels with no input from Harrison Ford. In the opinion of the present writer Aiden Ehrenreich is an engaging protagonist, and creates a character who is stylistically very similar to the one in Star Wars and its sequels. But he is never completely convincing in the impossible task of being a younger Harrison Ford. 

Han Solo is sometimes erroneously described as a mercenary. In fact, in the original films, he is seeking a financial reward for rescuing the Princess only because he needs to pay off a debt to a gangster. The new film is quite consistent with this idea: circumstances force Solo to become involved criminal activity but it is made clear that under a different set of circumstances he might have chosen a different path. 

The present writer particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Han Solo first meets his future partner, Chewbacca. 

The Han Solo who appears in the first Star Wars film is presumably in his thirties, where Luke Skywalker is a teenager. He often alludes to previous adventures, while Luke has, up to this point, led an uninteresting life. In this respect he is like Ben Kenobi, who is also a veteran with a mysterious history. It could very well be argued that any attempt to actually show those histories on screen tends to diminish those characters. However, this is an argument against the whole project of creating stories which are placed chronologically before the first movie. Granted the existence of these "prequels", the present writer found Solo a good deal more convincing than, for example, The Phantom Menace. He found it relatively easy to believe that the event shown in this film — dramatic robberies, meetings and betrayals, desert gunfights and assignations in taverns and bars — were the kinds of things that might have happened to a younger Han Solo. He found it harder to connect the politics of tax disputes and the investigation of illicit clone facilities with a younger Ben Kenobi. 

At several points during the story, Solo is shown playing a poker-type card game called "sabaac". Interestingly, although this games has been alluded to in several role-playing games and novels, it has never before been represented in a movie. 

The present writer felt that the casino sequence in the Last Jedi, and the scenes involving public transportation in Attack of the Clones (to name only two examples) clashed with the look and feel of the original trilogy. Solo, on the other hand, remained very consistent with that imagery. 

The Star Wars movies consist of diverse elements including war stories, Arthurian mythology and the Wild West. The “Arthurian” element — that is to say the story of the Jedi Knights — has become increasingly central to recent movies; although the other stand alone film, Rogue One was primarily about warfare and espionage. Solo, on the other hand, relies extensively on Western imagery. There are no battles, and with the exception of one very brief scene, no Jedi Knights. In the opinion of the present writer, this meant that Solo evoked the "look and feel" of the original trilogy much more authentically than Attack of the Clones on one hand and The Last Jedi on the other. This may suggest that Star Wars ought to be re-conceptualized as a "space western" (as opposed to "space fantasy" or even "science fiction"). 

However, this "consistency" and "authenticity" is achieved by taking a conservative, even a derivative, approach to the material. A substantial core of the film involves a group of mismatched individuals struggling to work together on an unfamiliar spacecraft, which rather resembles the cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels (for the first series, at least) and could even have been a scenario for the Star Wars role-playing game. Although the individual plot twists are quite surprising, the over all shape of the movie is quite predictable. Part of the plot is left unresolved at the end, reinforcing the sense that we are watching the first episode of a TV show. 

This is an unresolvable and unsolvable dilemma for any film maker working with the Star Wars franchise. A film like Solo which sticks closely to established imagery and conventions may be accused of being unimaginative; but an experimental film like The Last Jedi which attempts to say something new about the saga may with equal validity be accused of not fitting into the saga. 

Finally: a few commentators have complained about the robot L337, who believes that droids should be free and have equal rights with humans. The same writers have also had a problem with a subplot about Han’s companion Chewbacca wanting to free his own people from slavery. They felt that this subplot politicizes the movie unnecessarily. 

While it is true that Star Wars deals with a simplistic and heroic conflict of Good versus Evil, it is also true that good and evil are represented primarily in political terms. If it can be taken for granted that freedom-fighters, rebels and revolutionaries are "good" and empires, imperialism, and military rule are "evil", then it is surely no great jump to say that "slavery" is evil and "equal rights" are good? In the opinion of the present writer, at any rate, the complaint that L337 uniquely politicize Star Wars cannot be taken remotely seriously. 

Corey Carrier
Sean Patrick Flannery
River Phoenix
Harrison Ford
George Hall

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

If you don't tell me what you thought about Solo in a minute, I'm going to get very, very cross.

Solo is a very good sci-fi skiffy fantasy wild west space opera movie.

No-one who grew up playing with toy space ships can fail to enjoy the big middle section in which a space ship bounces around a gravity well while almost being eaten by a giant space octopus while trying to rewire the dead robot's brain into the computer while trying to feed Plot Devisium into the Warp Drive while being chased by TIE fighters and Star Destroyers.

My mind is still slightly blown by the fact that I have lived to see this sort of old school Lensemen pulpery projected onto big huge screens in shopping centres and other people apart from me evidently want to watch it. (Outside the cinema in Bristol there is a giant video screen advertising a movie about a dog show and lady's shaving razors like in Blade Runner. I could have ordered noodles if I'd wanted to. Just saying.)

Solo gets the visuals and tone and texture of Star Wars exactly right. It does this by a process of themes-and-variations: Han starts out working for a gangster who is quite obviously Jabba the Hutt without actually being Jabba the Hutt; and ends up on a desert planet full of picture postcard views that look almost exactly like Tatooine without actually being Tatooine. And there are three separate photocopies of The Cantina. I think maybe "sleazy Mexican bar full of aliens" is simply a Space Opera Trope of which the The Cantina is merely a particularly memorable example.

It's a big universe and probably there should be planets that look like Milton Keynes on a wet Friday afternoon and planets populated by sentient rocks and super-intelligent shades of the colour blue. But there is a kind of consensus about what Star Wars should look like and Solo looked like that. 

Of course it is ridiculous for anyone other than Harrison Ford to be Han Solo. It was ridiculous for anyone other than Sean Connery to be James Bond, until it wasn't; and ridiculous for anyone other than William Hartnell to be Doctor Who, until it wasn't. I don't know if I quite believed that the young lad who knocks about the universe getting in and out of scrapes is the same person as veteran smuggler who Luke bumps into in the second act of A New Hope. But he was an enraging enough hero for this kind of space opera. There is no doubt that much of Han Solo's charm came from Harrison Ford, not from the script. ("You can type this shit, George...") Perry King speaks many of the same lines in the Radio adaptation, and he comes across as a rather more mono-dimensional unsympathetic mercenary. But Han Solo isn't reducible to Ford. For every minute of screen time, there are ummpety-ump pages of printed text and umpety-ump comic book panels, all telling the Further Adventures of a figure who is identifiably Han Solo, none of which have any input from Harrison Ford.

It is Leia who called Han a mercenary and she wasn't being quite fair. Han wanted the reward money to pay off Jabba the Hutt, because if he doesn't, Jabba the Hutt will murder him. We never see any sign of him enjoying the trappings of wealth or wanting an indulgent life-style. That's followed through mostly in Solo. Han keeps having to do heists because he owes money to various galactic undesirables, but this isn't quite the life he would have chosen.

The "how Han first met Chewie" seen is funny, clever and retrospectively a bit obvious.

The Han Solo who we meet on Tatooine is older than Luke, a veteran, maybe 35 to Luke's 19 if we go by actor's ages. He obviously has a history, and the kinds of stuff he does in Solo is definitely the kind of stuff we would have imagined him doing. He gets involved in impossible heists, strikes arrogant poses in seedy space bars, falls out with nasty gangsters, is betrayed and counter-betrayed multiple times but usually turns out to have been one step ahead of them. I didn't believe in the Prequels because I didn't believe that the kind of adventures Ewan McGregor was having were the kinds of adventures that Alec Guinness would have had when he was young. Alden Ehrenreich has exactly the kinds of adventures that a young Harrison Ford ought to have had.

One of the cool things about a charming, veteran space pirate is that there is a history and a back story which he knows and you don't; and one of the specifically cool things about Han is that he keeps giving us tantalizing glimpses of his past. Arguably, we don't want to see Han playing cards with Lando, any more than we want to see Ben Kenobi and Luke's Mysterious Father fighting in the Clone Wars. But that is an argument against prequels in general, not a criticism of this film in particular.

It is interesting, is it not, how things that we all assumed were canon but have never actually been mentioned before slide into these movies and no-one bats an eyelid. I absolutely knew that the game on which Lando wagered the Millennium Falcon was called "sabac" but I am pretty sure I learned that from the RPG, not any movie.

Star Wars is a collision between three things. Star Wars is actually a collision between a lot more than three things, but three will do. It's first and foremost great big clashes of dreadnoughts and doughty little dog-fighters; a space ships and aliens space opera yarn. Star, in a very real sense, wars. But in the middle of the big star war there's a King Arthur fairy tale about the last quest of a magic Knight with a glowy sword. And somehow about two thirds of it takes place in a world of frontier towns, cactuses, and dodgy bars; space pirates and space gangsters. Space opera plus space fantasy plus space cowboys.

The main movies have increasingly focussed on the Jedi Knights to the exclusion of everything else; Rogue One was basically the Space Wars bit with everything else taken out. Solo is a space cowboy story with no Jedi at all. (Spoiler alert: Well, hardly any.) And what it proves is that the cowboys in space element was always what Star Wars was mostly about: if you had to define the saga in two words, "Space Western" does the job much better than "Science Fantasy." There are no casinos, coffee lounges, libraries, or idyllic romantic interludes in Solo: no moment at which I thought "I am sorry, but this is just not Star Wars."

But neither is there anything surprising or imaginative in the movie. There are good plot twists, but they are the kinds of good plot twists that you would expect in a movie of this kind; the kind of plot twists that anyone who had seen Empire Strikes Back would see coming at a distance of less than twelve parsecs. This is the kind of Han Solo movie you would have made if you had been asked to make a Han Solo movie. This is the kind of Star Wars adventure you would have made up when you were running the Star Wars RPG, and indeed did. Two thirds of the movie consists of a motley crew of mismatched individuals who get on okay, but quarrel a bit, in a spaceship that they kind of call home; which makes it feel not entirely unlike an episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Indeed, the ending, not quite a cliff hanger but with distinct loose ends left untied, felt very like the end of a TV pilot episode. I suppose that since everyone decided in advance that the film was not a success, we won't now get to see the follow up.

To an extent, any Star Wars film maker is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Do something experimental and different, use a Star Wars episode to say something about the Star Wars mythos, give us surprising takes on much-loved characters and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of violating the Sacred Saga. Fly close to the genre; do the kinds of things we expected and hoped you would do; show us the stuff we always wanted to see and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of making a redundant film that no-one asked for.

There is a very minor sub-plot about a robot. Some people have seen ten Star Wars movies and two TV shows but are still surprised that Star Wars movies often involve cute comic relief. The robot thinks of itself as female, and is very cross that robots are being used as slave labour on that planet that C3PO is concerned about being sent to the spice mines of. (Chewbacca is not wild about what they are doing to the wookies there, either.)

Some people think that this is an unwarranted intrusion of politics into what is basically just a series of adventure movies about plucky revolutionaries overthrowing a fascist regime. If you are one of these people, you need to seek professional help immediately.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #31

If This Be My Destiny....!

The Master Planner

Supporting Cast
Aunt May, Dr Bromwell, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborne, Gwen Stacey, Prof Warren, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds

First Appearance of

Harry Osborne, Gwen Stacey, Prof Warren

Peter Parker's Financial Situation

Peter was paid ?$250 by J.J.J only a few hours ago, but now claims that his money is "almost gone".
His college scholarship pays all tuition fees, but not his living expenses.


The story opens with Spider-Man fighting the Master Planners' goons.

p6 "The next morning" he heads off to college registration.
p7: "Finally, as Peter prepares for a good night's sleep" May falls ill. "Half an hour later" the doctor arrives; "then after a swift ambulance ride" they arrive in hospital.
p8 "And finally as dawn slowly breaks" he gets up and goes to his first day at college
p11 "When the science class finally ends" he goes to the hospital
p13: He spends the night looking for crime and then goes to the second day of college.
p16: After college, he has another run-in with the Master Planners men, but doesn't get any photos.

Based on our guess that Empire State University enrolls in the last week of August, that gives us:

Tue, 24 August (night) - Fight with Minions
Wed, 25 August - College Registration, night spent with Aunt May in hospital
Thu 26 August - First day at College, night spent looking for crime
Fri 27 August - Second day at college, night spent fighting Minions


"If This Be My Destiny...!"
The title seems to have already been a cliche by the beginning of the 20th Century. One William L Nugent used the phrase in a letter to his wife in 1860: "It seems, I am doomed to disappointment, if this be my destiny I will have to endure it..." Blast Furnace and Steel Plant Magazine used the phrase in a poem in 1928: "Then I mourn my awful power / If this be my destiny / Loathe the magic of a science / That had ever set me free "

A 1939 prison movie was entitled If Dust Be My Destiny, and an obscure 1946 movie starring Robert Cummings was actually called If This Be My Destiny

p2: "Whatever those characters were up to it can't be anything good"
Spider-Man doesn't seem to remember that he encountered the Master Planner's men last issue. Maybe he and/or Stan are still under the impression they were working for the Cat?

p5 "If the world's most tempestuous teenager is nonplussed now..."
Possibly Peter Parker is characterized by conflicting emotions; but I suspect Lee has typed the word "tempestuous" for the sake of the alliteration. He is also "the world's most amazing teenager" on page 8.

p6 "He's just like his father..."

Almost the first reference to Peter's biological parents. Has May just noticed that Peter is like his father but relatively unlike Ben?

Page 7 Doc Bromwell
First time Aunt May's physician has been given a name. The name sticks, but the doctor is only ever a stock character.

First day at college: 

Stan Lee gives the students at E.S.U a lot of slang dialogue, possibly to indicate they are "hip" compared with the gang at high school.
  • "any other frosh" (p9) - i.e any other freshman, any other new student.
  • "how square a guy can be (p9)" - i.e how old fashioned 
  • "if there's one thing Harry Osborne doesn't dig" (p10) - i.e doesn't like or approve of
  • "I've got an idea for a gag to take him down a peg" (p10) i.e a practical joke that will humiliate him
  • "Aww, don't be a pill Gwen" (p10) - "a tough pill to swallow" i.e a party-pooper or spoilsport. 
  • "This'll take that swell-head down a peg (p11) / "Mr swelled head 1965" - i.e that conceited person
  • "Chicks always seem to go for these egg-headed skinny types" (p13) Chicks = Pretty girls (presumably "chicas") ; Egg head = clever person. 
  • "Peter Parker is the only boy I've ever met who hasn't given me a tumble" (p15) i.e Who won't pay attention to me (no indecent implication!)
All of these expressions would have been in common currency by the 1940s, when Lee was college age. The one exception is "egghead" which seems to have been popularized by Nixon during the 1952 election. Any slang from the post Beatles era has yet to reach E.S.U!

p11 "We'll invite him for a coke after class, how about that" / "The gang's going across the street for some soda". 

It would have been quite legal for college students to go to a bar -- the drinking age in New York wasn't raised to 21 until 1985. It will be some issues before the trendy Coffee Bean Bar becomes their preferred haunt.

p11 Prof Warren 

Peter Parker's high school science teacher was called Mr Warren. Subsequent continuity has declared that this college tutor, Miles Warren, was the brother of the school teacher, Raymond Warren.

p12 "But she mustn't be allowed to worry..."
From issue #39 onwards, this will become the primary reason for Peter keeping his Spider-Man identity a secret

"News! I want news!" explodes J. Jonah Jameson. "Something must be happening somewhere! I can't sell a newspaper without news! Why doesn't something happen!"

Cigar chomping J.J.J. sometimes serves as a dark reflection of Stan Lee; and it is hard not to hear Lee's own frustration in Jameson's rant. We've just gone eight pages without anything happening, and it's going to be another two or three before the action starts up again. You can just imagine Lee saying "I can't sell a comic without fight scenes! When is something going to happen?"

If This Be My Destiny....! is an odd comic; as odd in its own way as the villain-free End of Spider-Man! over a year ago. There are three distinct plot threads, and no particular hint as to when -- or indeed if -- they are going to come together. 

Peter Parker has finally started college on a science scholarship. We follow him quite closely through his first three days at school; we see more of him in the lab, in the library, and studying at home than we did in the whole of his high school career. 

Meanwhile, Aunt May, who came over all faint in issue #29 and had to go for a lie down in issue #30 actually keels over and has to be rushed to hospital -- her third major illness since the series started, if anyone is keeping score. 

Spider-Man has two unrelated encounters with the same Purple Minions who stole uranium derivatives from Tony Stark's van last issue. He fails to stop them stealing "radioactive atomic devices" from some kind of high-tech installation; but foils their attempt to nick "a cargo of nuclear devices" off a boat. Ditko seems to be deliberately turning Stan Lee's preferred formula on its head. Instead of a narrative preamble leading inexorably to a big fight, Ditko tops and tails the episode with two short action sequences, neither of which have any immediate consequences for our hero. We know -- but Spider-Man does not -- that the Minions work for someone called the Master Planner, but we don't really know what he is planning in such a masterly way. We only know that his plans are definitely the kinds of plans which, once complete, no-one will be able to stop.

In between the two heists, nothing happens, repeatedly. Aunt May is sick; the doctor isn't quite sure what is wrong. Peter Parker waits anxiously, and then phones the hospital: there is nothing more they can tell him. He goes back to the hospital: the doctor isn't certain what is wrong with her. Peter realizes that he needs money to pay the medical bills, so he goes out as Spider-Man looking for crimes to photograph, but he's never seen the city more quiet. He sits up all night worrying; he tries to study in the library; he falls asleep over his books. The action briefly shifts to the Daily Bugle, where we find that there have been no developments in the relationship between Betty Brant and Ned Leeds. ("I simply haven't been able to make up my mind".) Jameson fulminates about the lack of news.

With the benefit of hindsight, the big event for this issue is Peter Parker's meeting with two other college freshmen -- bow-tie wearing posh-boy Harry Osborn, and bitchy blonde Gwen Stacey. Both of them will become incredibly major figures in the post-Ditko years, but in this episode, they are little more than part of the Flash Thompson entourage. Peter Parker is too preoccupied with Aunt May to want to socialize with his new classmates, so they join Flash in playing infantile pranks on him in their first ever chemistry practical. (Why a football jock is on the same course as a science prodigy; and why Peter doesn't have a gang of a-social science nerds to hang out with, we never learn.) 

Peter Parker is acting more than usually self-destructively, sabotaging his chance of a fresh start at a new school by ignoring his peers. Would it really have killed him to say "I am sorry: my foster-mother is dangerously ill so I cannot drink coca cola with you tonight; I sure hope I can get to know you all later in the term." 

Marvel Comics have always been full of heroic outcasts. When I was nine, I felt that I was exactly like the Silver Surfer -- misunderstood and hated by the rest of the human race, just because I was better than everyone else. (Did I mention that I was a big fan of the original version of the Tomorrow People?) I now see that the Surfer was much less like Jesus Christ and much more like Eeyore, sitting alone in his gloomy place, wallowing in his own misery, complaining that no-one wants to be his friend but not actually willing to get up and talk to anyone. If I re-read If This Be My Destiny...! now, I think "Peter Parker: you are making an uncompromising dick of yourself". But when I read the comic in 1973, I thought "Flash Thompson; you are a complete bastard for being so horrid to Peter." It confirmed what I already knew to be true: that all the people who didn't want to be friends with me were small minded and horrible and I wouldn't want to be friends with them either. Which is a deeply comforting message, and goes a long way to explain why so many Marvel Comics fans remained so socially inept and priggish for so long.

I am fairly serious about this; I think these kinds of stories did real harm.

It is certainly true that Flash Thompson is an astonishingly immature figure. Back at high school, he used to call Peter Parker "wall flower" and "bookworm"; now they are in college, he calls him "square" and "egg head". But in high school, Peter whinged and whined and actually cried because his classmates would rather go to a party than a science lecture. In college, he literally doesn't notice them. In that first chapter, Peter Parker said that he would make them all sorry that they laughed at him. In this final chapter, they are still laughing. The difference is that Peter Parker doesn't give a shit.

This Peter Parker is declaring himself independent; rejecting false friends; and acting only out of rational self interest. He acts, not as a superhero, but as the professional adventurer he became in issue #2. He finds himself fighting the Master Planner's minions, not because he cares about the general good, nor because he feels the need to atone for Uncle Ben's death and not even because of a faith position that with great power comes great responsibility. He goes into action as Spider-Man only in order to take photos for J.J.J.

Some people have seen an objectivist message here, and I have no doubt that Ditko's philosophy of individualism caused him to present Spider-Man as an individualistic hero. But I don't think we need to see this story primarily as a Randian parable. A Christian can tell a story about a hero who is full of Christian virtues without directly intending to proselytize his faith. 

So, the issue seems to be heading for an inconclusive conclusion. Spider-Man has gone out with the intention of snapping photos to pay for Aunt May's medical bills; he has partially foiled a nuclear heist, but still hasn't got any newsworthy snaps. But Ditko pays off the long wait on the final page; indeed, in the final frame. 

The final six frames really are a masterpiece. We cut away from Spider-Man to the still unidentified Master Planner, who pumps up the jeopardy a couple of points. He is very cross that Spider-Man keeps interfering with his plans; and promises that he will be very severe with him if he does it again. He drops another non-specific hint as to what it is that he is planning so masterfully. He isn't merely a gangster: he is a proper super-villain who intends to "rule the world". Exactly what his world-ruling plan is, he doesn't disclose, but it has to do with "a ray" and "the hidden secrets of atomic radiation". (As opposed to the public secrets, presumably.) But then he drops the bombshell: the Master Planner is not merely a masterly guy with a plan, he is also a former enemy of Spider-Man. "Though he and I have met before if he crosses my path again our next encounter shall be our last". 

Straight after this unexpected revelation, we return to the hospital for the pay-off we have been dreading. Aunt May's test results have come through: she is going to die. "All the evidence points to the same, inescapable conclusion: the poor woman can't last much longer." And at that exact moment, Spider-Man swings past the hospital. Because of course he does.

Steve Ditko has made us wait and wait for this revelation; distracting us with relative trivia about Parker's college life, before hitting us with the double punch in the final page. The Master Planner is an old foe. Aunt May is going to die. He has upped the ante about as high as it can go. Next month the pressure will continue to build; the two plot threads will come crashing together; and Spider-Man will be literally brought to his breaking point.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

In the tax year 2017-2018, I sold 9 books, at a total profit of USD $35.58. If only there was something you could do to cheer me up.

Author Spotlight

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy

The Amazing Spider-Man #31, #32 and #33.

The first 30 issues of Spider-Man have enacted the conflict between Peter Parker and Spider-Man., which is also the conflict between Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, and more widely the conflict between pictures and words on the comic book page. 

The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy represents the end-point of that conflict. Stan relinquishes the comic to Steve, and Steve shows us his vision of Spider-Man. The pictures eclipse the words: the dialogue is often simply a gloss on the artwork. And Peter Parker overshadows Spider-Man. The snarky repartee is almost completely absent; the two halves of Parker's consciousness come together. This isn't a story about a superhero with a secret identity: it's a story about a young man with superpowers who sometimes wears a garish costume. It is Peter Parker who finally stands up to J.J.J and demands a fair day's pay for an honest days work. It is Peter Parker who hits Ned Leeds and distances himself from his immature classmates. But it is also Peter Parker who lifts two hundred tons of wreckage. The Parker/Spider-Man Gemini face is absent. There is no need for it. Parker is Spider-Man and Spider-Man is Parker. 

I don't know if comic book readers in 1966 understood what had just happened. Fans on the letters page are generally positive about the trilogy, but they are hardly ecstatic. Ditko phoned in a few more issues and then unceremoniously departed. But in the end, his vision of Spider-Man was vindicated. When people talk about Amazing Spider-Man, it is issues #31, #32, and #33 they talk about. Especially #33. Especially page 5 of issue #33. Two movies (the second Toby McGuire film, and the recent Homecoming) directly quote the iconic Spider-Man Lifts Something Really Heavy sequence. None of them quote that bit from issue #1 where Peter Parker argues with a bank clerk.

There has already been a story called The End of Spider-Man which did, indeed, represent the end of Spider-Man, the logical end point of the narrative. Peter Parker came to his senses and realized that he didn't want or need to be Spider-Man any more. But Fate overruled him, and he realized that he had to carry on being Spider-Man whether he wanted to or not.

"I know now that a man can't change his destiny" said Peter Parker "And I was born to be...Spider-Man." 

Doctor Octopus talks about fate and luck and blind chance -- forces which always somehow bring him and Spider-Man together. But Peter Parker believes in destiny -- a force that knows where the story is going and what everyone's role has to be.

I suppose that is what the title means: "If This Be My Destiny...!". This means "being Spider-Man": so it comes out as "If being Spider-Man is my destiny..." or in plain English "If it is my destiny always to be Spider-Man dot dot dot." It isn't hard to finish the sentence: "If it is my destiny to be Spider-Man, then I should carry on being Spider-Man, and stop complaining about being Spider-Man."

But the sentence is unfinished. The ellipsis turns it into a question.

Is this my destiny? Do I really have to carry on being Spider-Man for ever and ever?

And the answer, obviously, is no. The final page makes that crystal clear. Peter Parker is Peter Parker, and Peter Parker is the hero. He walks away from us, as he has done so many times before; and the young doctor closes the curtain. The Final Chapter is the final chapter. It may not be the End of Spider-Man, but it is the end of Spider-Man.

Or, you could equally well say, it is the beginning of Spider-Man. From this issue onward, Steve Ditko's disagreeable ubernerd is going to fade away, and be replaced by John Romita's good-looking, motorcycle-riding hipster. And in every way that matters, John Romita's Spider-Man is the real Spider-Man: the Spider-Man of the Ralph Bakshi cartoon, the Nicholas Hammond TV show and the Toby Maguire movie; the Spider-Man that Ultimate Spider-Man is riffling on. 

It is no part of my brief to talk about canon and claim that nothing after Ditko exists. I am not even going to say that there were no good stories after The Final Chapter. The death of Gwen, obviously. The drug issues, no question. That one about the sick kid, probably. The Kraven one, possibly. Others too numerous to mention which just happen to have slipped my mind. If Stan Lee turned Steve Ditko's idiosyncratic anti-hero into a '70s Superman who would conquer the world, then so much the better for Stan Lee. That was his job. 

But just for today, I ask you to consider the Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33 as a completed work of art: the first great graphic novel in American literature. A novel of which The Final Chapter is the final chapter.

If you read comics at all, you know the story. This is the one where Doctor Octopus steals Aunt May's life saving medicine; and Peter Parker pulls out all the stops to steal it back. It is the one where Parker is trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's base ("it must outweigh a locomotive") with the vial of serum a few feet away from him ("it might as well be on another planet"). In one of the most iconic scenes in comics -- dammit, in the most iconic scene -- Spider-Man lifts the massive weight by sheer force of will and goes on to save his Aunt's life. 

But it is a pity to reduce this 60 page story down to a single iconic panel at the end of a single iconic scene. We don't find out that Aunt May is terminally ill until the last page of #30; we don't find out that the Doctor Octopus is the villain until the opening scene of #31; and we don't find out that an inspired McGuffin is going to bring the Aunt May plot and Doctor Octopus plot crashing together until page 8 of the second installment. Where the End of Spider-Man (#16 - #18) was a closely linked trilogy; and The Man in the Crime Master's Mask (#26/#27) was a 40 page story chopped into two sections, The Master Planner Trilogy is very definitely a serial -- a single story in three distinct episodes, with each part leading up to a well-choreographed cliffhanger. Each episode has its own structure, theme and tone. If This Be My Destiny...! (#31) is characterized by stasis; Man on a Rampage! (#32) by headlong momentum; The Final Chapter! (#33) by real-time action. The first part shows Spider-Man in conflict with the Master Planner's minions. In the second part, he confronts the Master Planner face to face. The third episode is about his own internal triumph over guilt and self-doubt.

Issue #33 does indeed contain a single panel which perfectly encapsulates Spider-Man, and can still bring tears to a grown man's eyes forty years after the event. But it doesn't involve any heavy lifting.  

So let's try to blow some of the clouds of incense away, and try to re-read these fifty-year-old funny books for the very first time....

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

I'm For No More Love

The letters page of Amazing Spider-Man #30 contained three surprisingly critical letters.

Richard McCabe says he used to think that Amazing Spider-Man was the best comic book on the market... 

"But now my faith is faltering. You have cluttered this mag up with insignificant hoods!...His fighting the Hulk, the Avengers, Dr Doom and his joining with Daredevil were excellent. To compare the crumb called the Crime Master or one of those Masters of Menace to these epics is futile."  

(As a matter of fact Spider-Man had never fought the Avengers. His first encounter with that group would not come until the 1966 Annual.)

Richard concludes:

"I would like to thank you for your past issues. I enjoyed them all but lately you've been giving us soap operas".

So... If a comic has an impressive super-villain and a guest-star from some other part of the Marvel Universe, it is superlatively excellent. But if it doesn't it is just a soap opera. Very interesting.

Next up is Carey Burt. He thinks that Marvel is "beginning to turn Spider-Man into a love mag..." He cites dialogue from Captured by J. Jonah Jameson! such as "Hello Liz, meet Betty Brant," and "Hello Miss Allen, yes, we've met" and exclaims simply "Yeesh."

"In Spider-man 25 the action didn't start until page 11. That's pretty far to read before you find some excitement. So I'm for no more love; I'm for action"

So.... Amazing Spider-Man # 25 didn't really get under way until Spider-Man physically confronted the Jonah robot. The farcical sub-plot that led up to that moment is simply a nauseating girly romance. I am beginning to detect a theme. 

Finally one Edward Fabrega says:

"After revealing the story behind Frederic Foswell in issue #27, get rid of this mystery jazz. In #26 there was not enough action, I almost dozed off."

Now, I happen to agree with Edward that issues #26 and #27 were lopsided. Most of the narrative occurs in the first half; and the second is dominated by an extended chase scene. But Mr Fabrega's complaint is much the same as the previous two contributors. He approves the second half of the story because it involved "action". The first half, which contains the bulk of the narrative, he writes off as soporific "mystery jazz". 

Tommy Hickman takes a contrary position. He thinks that there had been a sharp drop in quality around issues #20 - #24; but that #25 and #26 represented a return to form. Why does he think that the Man in the Crime Master's Mask! was such an improvement over, say, Duel With Daredevil! or Where Flies the Beetle...!? 

"The main reason I was truly overjoyed was the fact that the story had a plot to it. Issue #16 - #24 had no real plots, except for #17-#19. All there were in those issues were fights with Spider-Man winning." [*]

So he agrees with the first three writers that recent issues have been more plot-heavy, where previous issues were more focused on the Great Big Fight Scene. But while Richard, Carey and Edward mainly read Spider-Man for the battles, Tommy is mainly interested in the story.

Over the next few months, the letters pages will return to this subject over and over again. The correspondents become more and more hostile; the complaints, more and more specific. In issue #34 a fan named Alan Romananok complains that "you are giving too much of (the mag) to Peter Parker's private life", and goes so far as to count the panels to prove his point.

"Do you realize that in Spider-Man #30, Peter appeared in 39 panels while Spider-Man himself was only in 45? This means that "Peter Parker and group" is getting almost half of the mag. Please do something about this." 

And in #36 Kent Thomas goes completely over the top:

"There was a time when your magazines were enjoyable. Well, not any more. The trouble is you seem to think that drama, emotion and love can replace action. Well, let me tell you, I do not buy a comic for drama. I get enough of that from other places. I buy comics for action and if I don't get it from Marvel I'll go some other company." 

"I don't buy a comic for drama." No. No, I don't suppose you do.

It seems that the duality which we have observed was also obvious to the very first Spider-Man fans, more than half a century ago. They can see that there are two kinds of Spider-Man story. In Column A, there is Soap Opera, Love, Mystery, Plot, Emotion and Drama; in Column B there is Action and Fights. And they are clear that Type A stories focus more heavily on Peter Parker, where Type B stories focus more heavily on Spider-Man. What one fan deprecates as "all that mystery jazz" another may praise as a "proper plot". While one fan moans that he has to wade through 11 boring pages of story before he finally gets to the "action", another complains when a comic is "just one long fight". But they are all agreed that some of these issues are not like the other ones.

None of these writers make the logical inference: that there are two kinds of Spider-Man story because Spider-Man has two creators who disagree fundamentally on what the Amazing Spider-Man ought to be about. Not many of them knew about the Marvel Method; most of them probably thought that Stan Lee was the writer in a conventional sense. (Tommy Hickman, says magnanimously that he knows that the lack of plots "isn't Stan's fault - he has to write so many scripts each month that he's doing very well managing to get the stories out.") But it is clear to us that Column A is what Ditko excels at, and that Column B is Stan Lee's idea of a great comic. The issues which Tommy Hickman singles out for special praise and which Carey Burt and Richard McCabe particularly dislike are the ones where Ditko gets an explicit "plotter" credit.

I think that we can assume that these are all genuine letters -- for what it's worth they seem to come from real addresses -- but it is impossible to know whether they fairly represented the feedback Marvel had been getting. Is it possible that Stan is consciously stirring the readers up; deliberately trying to create the impression that there is a "drama" vs "action" controversy and the readers must pick a side? If so, was he consciously was preparing the ground for the inevitable moment when Steve Ditko would leave Spider-Man in the sole custody of Stan Lee.

Stan winds up issue #30's lettercol by hyping the next issue: 

"Here's your chance to prove how loyal you are to ol' Spidey. Without us telling you anything about next ish, let's see if you'll be sure to buy it."

It couldn't be any clearer than that. Lee doesn't know what is going into issue #31 because Ditko hasn't told him. At the very moment when Stan hands full control of the comic over to Steve; the fans start demanding more Spider-Man and less Parker; more action and less romance; more fisticuffs and less narrative -- more Stan Lee, in effect, and less Steve Ditko. Seven issues down the line, they will get their wish. But before he walks away, Ditko has one last opportunity to show everyone how wrong they are.

In issue #37 everyone will magically stop addressing their letters "Dear Stan and Steve" and start writing to "Dear Stan" instead.

(*) The letter is slightly confused: he writes "there was a sharp drop in quality between #6 [sic] and #24. The Man in the Crime Master's Mask was as good as #9 and #10, my favourites...#16-#24 had no real plots, except for #18-#20....For real Marvel Magic, #26 can't be topped." 

It would make a good deal more sense if he was say that #17-#19 were the ones which had plots, which would give us: 

This comes out as:

#9, Man Called Electro
#10 The Enforcers
#17 The Return of the Green Goblin
#18 The End of Spider-Man
#19 Spidey Strikes Back
#25 Captured By J. Jonah Jameson
#26 The Man in the Crime Master' Mask


#16 Duel with Daredevil
# 20 Coming of the Scorpion 
#21 Where Flies The Beetle
#22 Clown and His Masters of Menace
#23 Goblin and the Gangsters
#24 Spider-Man Goes Mad

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are used for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kolston Kerfuffle Kontinues

Nobody in their right mind would regard the slave trade as anything other than hideous and barbaric but this suggestion smacks of political correctness out of control once more. -- Gavin Chandler

Would it be no surprise to find that when the revisionists have been successful in purging Colston from Bristol, we will see a new campaign to rename Cabot Circus. -- John Cudmore

Whilst in my mind and as a true Bristolian , I will always associate the currently named Colston Hall with this name simply because I have, and continue to have, memories that link the name to the building that I have supported for many years and continue to do so. -- Bob Farmer

...whatever name is chosen it will still be known as and called THE COLSTON HALL....It is not possible to judge the standards of 300 years ago by today's. -- C Derrick

Notwithstanding his connections with the slave trade, my recent letters on the subject have always supported keeping Colston's name (warts and all!) as an integral facet of what it means to be a dyed-in-the-Bristolian. [sic] - RL Smith

Although we now condemn him for his connection to the slave trade, times were very different then and he shouldn't be judged by us who are living comfortably today with the protection of the Welfare State when we are ill or can't support ourselves -- P Collins

[Meanwhile, someone is demolishing a pub]

I was devastated by the recent news that the Council have decided to demolish the old Cattle Market tavern just to make way for a bus-stop. What are these sacrifices being made for? A faceless fortress for foreign students that could be sited anywhere? If the plans are to create an enhanced medical faculty for the good of us all, then this bitter pill could  be better swallowed, but even then there is no need to erase our past. - Mark Steeds

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Shakespeare's Second Best Lampshade.

I said:

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Mike said:

I think this is a rare case where you are exactly wrong. Subsequent episodes have overwritten our perception of the original film, but looking at that film as a film -- a single, self-contained drama -- Leia's/Foster's analysis is not only spot on, it also precisely captures what's so magical about that film. There is nothing about Luke, Han, Chewie, R2D2 or C3PO that marks them out as suitable for a grand adventure. The only characters on our side with any kind of power are Ben and Leia; but he is decades past his prime, and she spends most of the film in captivity.


No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Northanger Abbey

So: the Duchess's drunken uncle and her melancholy jester decide to play a prank on the puritanical steward.

The plan is to convince him, the steward, that she, the duchess is head over heals in love with him; and then convince her, the duchess, that he, the steward, is demon-possessed. As you do.

The prank depends on the steward being unbelievably vain (which he is) and the duchess being unbelievably stupid (which she isn't). It also depends on it suddenly turning out that the duchess and her chambermaid happen to have indistinguishable handwriting.

This is a bit of a stretch even by Shakespeare's standards: so just as the steward is swallowing the forged love-letter hook, line and sinker, a bit part player chips in with the famous words "If this were played upon the stage, I could condemn it as improbable fiction."

The TV Tropes website calls this kind of thing "lamp-shading", and Shakespeare is very fond of it. It isn't exactly breaking the fourth wall: Fabian doesn't know he's in a play, and he can't see the audience. If a real person had just negotiated Malvolio into such a successful heffalump trap, there is no reason at all why they wouldn't say "I’d never believe it if I saw it in a play!” I don't think it is quite true to say that Shakespeare is apologizing to the audience for the stream of plot devices he has just subjected them to. I don't think Shakespeare's audiences expected plays to be realistic: they went to the theater to see the surprising and the preposterous. I think that what Shakespeare is really doing is reminding us that everything in the play except this plot device is perfectly realistic, or at least asking us to pretend that it is. "This isn't just a story" he is saying "And these aren't just fairy tale characters. They are people just like you and me. This kind of thing doesn't happen to them every day. They are as surprised by it as you would be."

So: when Princess Leia (in the novelization of Star Wars) says "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes" is she simply engaging in Shakespearean lamp-shading? Is she pretty much just saying "Luke Skywalker wasn't a hero; he was just a person who this stuff happened to. He felt as out of his depth on the Death Star as you would have done. I know it's all very far fetched and unlikely, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy yourself…."

It is, almost inevitably, more complicated than that.


If we are going to talk about Star Wars -- and indeed, if we are ever going to stop talking about Star Wars -- we have to keep three things very separate in our heads:

1: Star Wars, a stand-alone art-house movie from 1977 which made it very, very big.

2: The Star Wars Trilogy, a science fiction epic consisting of a slightly revised version of Star Wars plus The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983).

3: The Star Wars Saga, a six part epic consisting of substantially revised versions of the Star Wars Trilogy and three more films -- The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2003) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

It is easy to forget that these are not at all the same thing; to assume that things we only found out in 2005 were already true in 1977. I just re-read the Dark Empire comic books, and was forcibly reminded that in 1995 there were no such things as Sith or Padawans, and no such planet as Coruscant.

Alan Dean Foster's book is definitely a novelization of Star Wars, not of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Darth Vader (first name: Darth; second name Vader) is merely a treacherous Jedi, one of a number of Dark Lords, not necessarily a pivotal persona in the galaxy. Luke Skywalker's father is still anonymous; he was a friend of Ben Kenobi and notable mainly as a star pilot. The only thing Ben says about Luke's heritage is that he is  "quite a good pilot".

In this version of the story, Luke Skywalker is no-one of consequence. The arc of Star Wars is spoiled if he is. Ben teaches him the meaning of the Force while he is practicing lightsaber fighting on the Millennium Falcon. He saves the universe 45 minutes later because he remembers and puts into practice what Ben taught him. Luke destroys the Death Star because he trusts his feelings, trusts the Force and trusts Ben Kenobi – not because he inherited superpowers from his dad.

So: is he a hero?

Well, the word hero has a number of different meanings. To a tabloid subeditor, anyone who has served in the armed forces in any capacity is by definition a war hero. Anyone who has done anything brave, whether saving a cat from a tree or going up a tall mountain by the difficult route could be said to have been heroic. If I admire a sportsman or a singer, I might say that they are my hero. For Wagner, hero is pretty much a job description: Siegfried is “the young hero” before he has done anything particularly brave. Joseph Campbell overloaded the word with Jungian symbolism and Freudian baggage, but a lot of the time, "hero" doesn't mean anything more than "the main character in a story."

So: the nub of the gist is that there is nothing heroic about Luke Skywalker, and nothing marks him out as a hero at the beginning of the story.

That is to say:

Having been explicitly told that Star Wars is a fairy tale, we would naturally assume that an orphan of mysterious parentage, living with a wicked, or at any rate indifferent uncle in a remote location is going to be a secondary and unimportant person in the story. We are, on our first viewing of Star Wars, surprised when Luke ends up taking center stage. After all, it comes as a surprise to us in the actual fairy tales when the plain, adopted and ill-treated sister gets to go to the big party and marries the prince: we naturally assumed the story was going to be about one of her older, prettier and more legitimate stepsisters. We are absolutely astonished when the Wart pulls the sword out of the stone: we assumed that big brother Kay was going to be king of England and kid brother Arthur was in there for comic relief. Even in the Good Book we all take it for granted that the singing shepherd is only in their for local colour; we very naturally assume that Samuel is going to pick one of the more impressive older brothers as King of the Jews.

Because that's how stories work.

Very ordinary people are sometimes thrust center stage by dumb luck. Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. Shakespeare said that. It's part of the letter that causes Malvolio to make such a prat of himself. You never planned to be a disability rights campaigner, but you were sort of forced into the role when the steamroller ran over your legs. You'd planned to spend the next five years racing pigeons, but you were 19 and it was 1942 and you kind of just found yourself helping to save the world from Hitler. Those nice kids in America are in the public eye because they happened to be in school on the day when one of their classmates blew a fuse. If the terrible thing hadn't happened we'd never have heard of them. 

None of which is to denigrate the accidental hero. No-one chooses to live in dangerous times. All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time which is given us. (I think Shakespeare said that, too.)

So by all means scrub out the idea that Luke had special powers because of his lineage; by all means scrub out the idea that Daddy was anything more than one Jedi Knight among many; and definitely scrub out the idea that Ben Kenobi is on Tatooine specifically in order to watch over the Chosen One. That still doesn't give us Luke Skywalker the accidental hero; Luke Skywalker who just happened to be in the shopping center when the bomb went off. Rather the contrary. A huge series of massively unlikely coincidences conspire to put him in the pilot's seat above Yavin at the precise moment when the entire future of the galaxy is hanging on one single proton torpedo. The more ordinary Luke Skywalker is, the more it looks as if the Galaxy, the Force or the Plot are fudging things to put him in that driving seat.

  • Luke Skywalker who is no-one of any importance is living in an unimportant settlement on an unimportant planet. By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight in the universe just happens to be living a few hours drive from his front door.
  • By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight just happened to know both Luke's father and also his father's murderer.
  • A Top Rebel Agent comes to Luke's planet to recruit the Last Jedi Knight to the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, she just happens to be a pretty young woman of about Luke Skywalker's age.
  • The Imperials capture the Rebel Agent before she can get to the Last Jedi. By sheer coincidence, the Imperial Agent who captures her just happens to be the Last Jedi's former apprentice and the murderer of Luke's father.
  • The Rebel Agent hides a message to the Last Jedi in a robot. By sheer coincidence, the robot just happens to be picked up (in the middle of a desert) by used robot salesmen.
  • By sheer coincidence, the traders next stop-off point just happens to be Luke's entirely unimportant homestead in the middle of nowhere. (If the sandcrawler had gone somewhere else first, there would have been no story.)
  • By sheer coincidence, Luke's uncle just happens to be in the market for some new robots. (If he had had plenty of robots, or been skint, there would have been no story.)
  • Luke's Uncle wants to buy the Little Red Robot, but by sheer coincidence, it explodes a few seconds after he hands over the money, and Luke's Uncle takes the secret-message carrying Blue Robot instead. (This is such a stretch that at least two different bits of fan lore exist to explain it.)
Once Artoo Detoo is in Luke's Skywalker's possession, the plot develops reasonably naturally from the choices Luke makes: not too many more coincidences are needed to nudge him in the right direction. He takes out Artoo's restraining bolt because he wants to rescue the damsel in distress; he follows Artoo into the desert because of his recklessness and his bad relationship with his uncle; he volunteers to go with Ben to Alderaan because of his restlessness and wanderlust; he tries to rescue Leia from the Detention Block because he's in love with her hologram. It is however, important that, by sheer coincidence, Darth Vader just happens to choose exactly the right moment to blow up Leia's home planet. If he had delayed by even ten minutes the planet would have been intact when the Millennium Falcon arrived and the ending of Star Wars would have been much more like the ending of Rogue One. If he had lost patience with Leia ten minutes earlier, the Death Star would have been long gone by the time the Millennium Falcon arrived in the place where Alderaan used to be. The Princess would never have been rescued (boo), Obi-Wan would never have been killed (hooray) and the Millennium Falcon would not have accidentally revealed the location of the rebel base to Darth Vader.

None of this should be read as criticism of Star Wars. The film is a masterpiece of structure and form; really the only weak link is Leia's "they let us go.." moment at the end of the third act. Everyone manages to be the main character in their own story: to Luke, Leia is the damsel in distress who he travels half way across the galaxy to rescue; but to Leia, Luke is little more than an undersized country bumpkin who blunders in to her cell with no plan for getting out. Ben is an old warrior coming to the end of his tale; Luke simply the latest in a long line of young hotshots he has introduced to the Force. And Han Solo is a professional adventurer. Ten years down the line he'll be sitting in another bar on another planet boasting about that one time he rescued an actual princess from a battle-station the size of a small moon. But various plot magnets pull their stories together. Ben Kenobi pulls Leia and Artoo and Vader towards Tatooine; Leia pulls Luke and Ben and Han to the Death Star, and the Falcon leads everyone back to Yavin.

But the first half of the movie still takes a lot of swallowing. I suppose we could apply the Samwise Gamgee theory of narrative. As soon as he asks the question "Why do people in stories never turn back from their quests?" he can see that the answer is "Because the ones who did turn back never had stories written about them." So we might say "Luke Skywalker is the hero because he happens to be the person who Artoo Detoo fetched up with." Someone was bound to get the message eventually; the story might just as well have been "from the adventures of Wormie Starkiller" or "from the adventures of Camie Loneozner".

But I don't think that works for five minutes. Wormie's dad wasn't Ben Kenobi's best mate; and so far as we know he wasn't a hot pilot, certainly not hot enough to learn how to fly an X-Wing in no seconds flat. I think that The Plot is quite clearly at work; driving us to the moment when Luke Skywalker and The Guy Who Killed Luke Skywalker's Dad are chasing each other down the Death Star Trench. Luke has a personal stake in the battle between Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan's apprentice that no-one else in the galaxy could possibly have. 

So let's admit that Star Wars is massively driven by fate and coincidence and plot device. Alan Dean Foster could see this clearly; and he could also see that this was precisely what made the film so much fun. So he hung a lampshade on the very first page. 

"If this were written up as a movie novelization" says Princess Leia "You would condemn it as a bit of a stretch."


“Oh but Andrew,” I can hear you saying “This is far too straightforward. Why do you assume that it is Luke Skywalker who Princess Leia is talking about. She doesn’t mention him by name. And there are other heroes in the story.”

That is a very good point. Ben Kenobi is one of the heroes; but he wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time – he was summoned by Princess Leia. And Princess Leia herself is one of the heroes, but she wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time either: she’d been sent on a really important mission by the Rebel Alliance. And Han Solo and Chewie were heroes, albeit mercenary heroes, and even they weren't really in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were adventurers by profession, in a tavern waiting for a patron to hire them.

So who else could the Princess be talking about?

Once you have asked the question, the answer is embarrassingly obvious. There is indeed an innocent bystander who gets drawn into the story entirely by accident and becomes the most pivotal character in the whole adventure. Princess Leia could have entrusted her secret message and her secret plans to any one of a dozen astromech droids on the blockade runner. Artoo Detoo just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All stories are true. Of course Artoo Detoo is the hero of Star Wars. He's the one with the secret mission and the secret plans inside him. He's the one who brings Luke to Ben. He's with Luke on the X-Wing at the end. The very first line in the film is Threepio talking to him; the very last line is Threepio asking about his welfare. So why wouldn't Leia, looking back years after the events, remembering how she unwittingly involved two lowly robots in Galactic events, say "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time...naturally they became heroes."

This makes the ret-con which said that Artoo knew Leia’s mummy and Threepio was kit built by his daddy even less forgivable. But it does give the problematic ending of Star Wars a hitherto unnoticed irony. While the humans are awarding each other medals in an incredibly overdone awards ceremony with undisguised Nazi overtones, the actual heroes are looking on from the sidelines. Doing, I suppose, the robotic equivalent of smiling wryly. And Princess Leia is in on the joke.