Friday, February 25, 2022

If stories are only valuable if they are Pretend-Real; and if one particular Author(ity) has the power to say which stories are Pretend-Real and which are not -- then it is quite reasonable for fans to feel sad or aggrieved when the Author(ity) suddenly changes his mind.

If stories are only valuable if they are Pretend-Real; and if one particular Author(ity) has the power to say which stories are Pretend-Real and which are not -- then it is quite reasonable for fans to feel sad or aggrieved when that Author(ity) suddenly changes his mind. (His mind. I think canon-keepers are probably male. I think the canon is probably a patriarchal construct.) The reader has spent a decade reading stories in one particular way: she is suddenly presented with a Disney Encyclical telling her that she has to start reading those same stories in a different way -- a way, which for her, deprives the stories of their purpose and point.

"You are no longer allowed to treat these texts as news and information from a secondary world. From next Tuesday, you have to treat them as being stories. And what is worse, on the following Wednesday we are going to start issuing new and completely different texts, and you are to rebuild the secondary world in their image."

So, it is not very surprising that some Star Wars fans were quite genuinely sad when Disney announced that all the novels and comics and computer games set after Return of the Jedi would be, for the purposes of Star Wars VII, VIII and IX, non-canonical. The much reviled prequel trilogy was still canon; but the widely enjoyed Heir to the Empire novels were not. You could still read them if you wanted to, but you could not read them to learn about the Star Wars universe. They had been re-designated as “legends”. I think a legend is probably the same thing as an imaginary story. If you want to call them fan-fiction, I certainly cannot stop you.

No high-budget mass-market reboot of the Star Wars franchise was ever going to be an adaptation of a twenty-five year-old spin-off novel. But some fans honestly couldn't conceive of it being anything else. They weren't saying "Heir to the Empire is a really good novel. We would have liked to have seen it realised on the Big Screen with Big Screen Special Effects. We are disappointed that Admiral Thrawn has been replaced by General Hux." That would have been a perfectly reasonable thing to say. I myself think that Galactus is a really good supervillain. I would have liked to have seen him realised on the big screen with big screen special effects. I was disappointed that the second Fantastic Four movie decided to replace him with a big cloud of purple smog.

But I think that the Star Wars Expanded Universe fans were saying something different. I think that they were committed to Star Wars as a saga with a fixed an immutable history. I think that they thought of the Star Wars universe as a collection of facts, not a collection of stories. A film in which Luke Skywalker doesn't marry a bounty hunter and become a dark side disciple of the Emperor's clone (*) is no longer a Star Wars film; in the same way that a book about Neville Chamberlain leading an Anglo-Japanese alliance against the communist Americans is no longer a book about the Second World War. Ye canna change the facts of history any more than ye can change the laws of physics.

Plus it had girls and black people in it. That made some Star Wars fans very cross as well. (**)

“All the time I spent reading those books was wasted, because some exec in America has announced that they didn’t really happen.” I literally heard a man say that in Forbidden Planet.

I was tempted to mutter "...but then, aren't they all..." . Or perhaps point him to Douglas Adams riff about Lalaffa the poet. The books are exactly the same as they always were, so what’s the difference?

I wonder if he was the same man who told me, all those years ago, that the Phantom Menace had raped his childhood all those years ago?


There is a solution. It’s a very good solution, and it seems fun for a few minutes, but if you are not very careful, it ends up ruining everything.

We have agreed that, in Doctor Who and Star Trek and Marvel and DC Comics there are allowed to be parallel worlds in which the Brigadier has an eyepatch; Captain Kirk is a fascist and Uncle Ben never died. These parallel worlds are part of the secondary reality: the Watcher can observe them; and the Flash can open a wormhole between them. The Justice League and the Justice Society can have get-togethers on a regular basis; and Marvel/DC crossovers are not out of the question. So why can we not say that the Star Wars "legends" are part of a branching timeline; one more strand of the infinite multiverse?

Wouldn't that be fun?

Instead of complaining about the despoiling of the canon, why not look forward to the moment when Ben Solo (son of Leia and Han) slips through a wormhole and meets up with Ben Skywalker (son of Luke and Mara).

Several Hon Members: "Mara? Who the hell is Mara?"


Great Stories can be told and retold in lots of different ways. I came up with five different fictional Mary Shellys without trying. I ran out of fingers before I ran out of Robins Hood (***). No sooner had the idea of Superman been thought of than there was a Superman comic book (1938) a Superman newspaper strip (1939) a Superman radio show (1940) and a Superman cartoon (1941). They didn't form one big story. Hell, the comic book wasn't even that consistent with itself. No-one felt the need to explain why Superman leaped tall buildings in the Action Comic, but flew above them in the Cartoon; or why Superman’s existence is a secret on the Radio but public knowledge in the Comic. They were different stories; or the same story told in different ways.

When I was very small indeed I could already see that the TV Wombles were different from the Book Wombles and different again from the Wombles that appeared each week in Playland comic (which was way too babyish for me in any case.)

So: why not take the final, fatal step.

Box Three stories are the only true stories.

Box Four stories are essentially without value.

But if a Box Three reality can contain multiple versions of itself then it doth follow as the night the day that no box Four Story need ever exist. Put everything in Box Three and call it a parallel world.

Nothing is only a story.

Everything really happened.

The Superman who appears on the Radio is part of the same reality as the Superman who appeared in the comic, but exists in a different strand of the multiverse.

Evaluative criticism can be dispensed with; all that is left is endless Watsonian scholarship.

“My comic book is about the really really real Batman; the dark, tragic vigilante who fights terrifying, psychotic enemies. Your dumb TV show is just some pretend parody of ther Batman with zaps and kapows and lame villains that some jerk made up out of his head."

“No, on the contrary, my TV Batman is as epistemologically real as yours, he merely happens to exist in a different one of the myriad realities that make up the DC universe....”

“So how come you can literally see the sound effects, huh?”

“Interesting. We must investigate how sound and vision function on the plane known as Earth TV.”

It seems to me that even if it is happening on a parallel world, the TV Batman is still pretty dumb; but if you found it fun and clever then you can carry on finding it fun and clever even if it's just a story some fella made up.

But, you know.


Fair enough.

If it helps, it helps.

Whatever gets you through the dark knight.

Superman on the Radio comes from an actually existing parallel world called Earth-R.

Superman on the TV comes from an actually existing parallel world called Earth-TV.

Superman on the packet of cornflakes comes from an actually existing parallel world called Earth-Kellogg.

And there is no reason on Earth-Prime why one day they shouldn't all meet up and have a reunion. Radio Superman punching people on the chin and attending church; Silver Age Superman retreating to his clubhouse with his super friends and super pets; post-Crisis-John-Byrne-Yuppie-Superman locking phantom zoners in death chambers with black Kryptonite...

Alan Moore said that all stories were true. I think he really meant that no story was true. Tash is no more than Aslan. More than once he imagined dream-time cities populated by every possible version of Superman and every possible version of Captain Britain. It was Alan Moore who first decided that the primary Marvel Universe, the one which isn't a parallel or a What If... should be called Earth-616.

And this is essentially what Spider-Man: No Way Home has done. It has taken a weird copyright muddle and turned it into a cosmological principle.

(*) He gets better

(**) And some of them just didn't think it was very good.

(***) Walter Scott
T.H White
Erol Flynn
Richard Green
the chap in tights I saw in Babes in the Wood at the Intimate when I was ten,
the Clannad One
the Kevin Costner one,
that Other One Which Came Out At The Same Time as the Kevin Costner One
the Sean Connery One Where He’s Old
the Serious 1970s BBC One That I’d Like To See Again If It’s Ever On Britbox
the Russel Crowe One I Didn’t See
the More Recent BBC One Which Wasn’t Very Good
the One in the Spires and Boden Song
the one Huw Lupton does as performance piece
the Silent Douglas Fairbanks One
the Spoof With One With the Guy From Princess Bride
the Disney One Where He is a Fox
that Time They Did It On The Muppets
the New BBC One I keep seeing trailers for
the very old lost TV one with Patrick Troughton
the Tony Robinson Maid Marion One

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

More than one person has told me that they like Star Wars but that they don't like "the fan fiction"....

More than one person has told me that they like Star Wars but that they don't like "the fan fiction".

They mean that they like the Trilogy but not the Prequels; or that they like Episodes I - VI but not Episodes VII, VIII and IX; or that they like the movies but not the cartoons, or that they think the Mandalorian contains too many inside references for its own damn good.

One old friend in the Twittersphere says that there is only one Star Wars film ("it is called Star Wars") and that everything else is fan fiction.

Well, from a critical point of view, this is not a million miles away from my own position. The 1977 movie "Star Wars" -- the one now known as Episode IV, A New Hope -- had a unique flavour, and nothing since has come anywhere near recapturing that flavour. As Star Wars critic and theorist Andrew Rilstone once said, the Empire Strikes Back doesn't extend the Star Wars Universe; but it is just about possible to retrofit Star Wars into the universe created in Empire Strikes Back.

But "everything else is fan fiction" is a really, really odd way of expressing that thought.

"The Book of Boba Fett is fan-fic" is a snarky way of saying "The Book of Boba Fett is not canon". Which, in the first place, isn't true. And in the second place, is unnecessarily demeaning to the folk who actually read and enjoy fan fiction.  And in the third place -- well, why does it matter if it is canon or not?

Sometimes, when I watch Star Wars -- a New Hope -- I choose to watch it as if it was a stand alone fairy tale set in space. As if Obi-Wan told the truth, and Darth Vader really murdered Luke's father. As if there was nothing incestuous about Luke and Leia's kiss.
You might say that I am pretending that no such movie as The Empire Strikes Back was ever made. You might say that it does exist as an artefact, but that it didn't really happen. That it doesn't have secondary reality. That it is only a story. That is belongs in Box Four. 

Or, if you absolutely insist, that it is fan fiction.

Sometimes when I watch Star Wars Episode IV I choose to watch it as if it were one component of a vast space saga stretching from The High Republic to the Rise of Skywalker and beyond. I like that kind of thing: Dune and the New Gods and the Thanos saga. Star Wars is bigger and more fun than any of them. In which case you might say that I am treating The Empire Strikes Back (and the Force Awakens, and all hundred and something episodes of the Clone Wars, and all fifty something issues of Doctor Aphra) as if it were canonical. As if it "really happened"; as secondary reality; and belongs in Box Three.

I suppose most of the time we hold both readings in our head. Obi-Wan is both lying and telling the truth; Leia is both Luke's lover and Luke's sister. See Threepio is both a droid and a man in an uncomfortable metal suit. The desert is both on Tatooine and in Tunisia. Wherever you go in the universe, there is a loud orchestra playing, but Luke and Han and Leia don't seem to be able to hear it.

I don't see how any of this is clarified by saying "fan fiction".

You could take the line that the only Star Wars Universe is the one George Lucas created. J.J Abrams ideas about how Han and Leia's marriage turned out and what they named their son has the same status as a piece of Han/Leia erotica on a Star Wars word-press blog. (Tash is no more than Aslan.) 

That would be an intelligible approach. I believe that fans of the Other Franchise used to say that only episodes Gene Roddenbury had a direct hand in were canonical. 

I myself am sometimes inclined to think that the first decade of Marvel Comics -- say from 1962 to 1973 -- are the only "real" Marvel comics. The primary text is the text that Stan Lee directly created; everything else is other writers riffing on his material. Some of them were very good writers; some of them produced very good riffs. But none of them was Stan Lee. But on this definition it would be deeply odd to say that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith -- three films over which Lucas had complete artistic control -- are "only fan-fic". Fan-fic is pretty much the opposite of what they are. The Clone Wars TV series is probably as close as we can get to George Lucas's original, unadulterated vision of how he wanted Star Wars to be. The true identity of Luke's father wasn't in George's original notebook: but the Midichlorians decidedly were. 

Is Attack of the Clones a good movie? No, it is not. 

Is Attack of the Clones a good Star Wars movie? No, it is not. 

Do I think that Anakin's massacre of the Sand People is going to be a major plot point in the forthcoming Tatooine-set Obi-Wan TV show? Yes, I do.

Okay then. You could simply say that you really liked the prologue to Return of the Jedi, in which Boba Fett met an ignominious end in the Pit of Sarlacc, and really dislike the way the Mandalorian changed the story and said that he survived. 

There is nothing wrong with that. Where there are two versions of one story, it is quite natural to prefer one to the other. In Pygmalion, Eliza leaves Higgins and opens a florist shop with Freddie. In My Fair Lady, she goes back to the Professor. The original ending is better, in my opinion: the musical comedy version feels like a cop-out. Both exist; both were approved by the Author, who recognised that movies and stage-plays had different rules.

"Did you really just reference Jabba the Hutt and Eliza Doolittle in the same paragraph, Andrew?" 

Yes. I am rather afraid that I did.

But in preferring "Boba died" to "Boba survived" we are not comparing two versions of one story. We are not talking about Return of the Jedi. Return of the Jedi is a film. It's the same film in 2022 that it was in 1986  (give or take a Haden Christensen and a couple of gub-gubs.) We are not talking about The Book of Boba Fett. The Book of Boba Fett is a TV series about space gangsters, which some of us liked and some of us didn't like. We are talking about some third thing, which doesn't exist in any particular text, but which is out there, in idea-space, in our collective imagination, in fan discourse. We have tacitly agreed that what we talk about when we talk about Star Wars is The Star Wars Universe. We approve or disapprove of Boba Fett and the Last Jedi and the Bad Batch because of what they do, or what they do not do, to that conceptual non-thing.

If everything was an imaginary story then you wouldn't be complaining about the pit of Sarlacc. You care about the change because you think that all the different bits of Star Wars fit together into one enormous story. It's that one enormous story you think the Book of Boba Fett has spoiled. You are only saying that it is fan fiction because you don't believe that it is fan fiction. 

I agree that Star Wars has taken some missteps. I think that Star Wars is irreducibly a comic-strip world of people in black hats and people in white hats. I think that once you start giving the scary savage natives their own culture and their own way of life, then the very thing which was fun about Star Wars goes away. But that's an artistic judgement. A political judgement, too, if you think that "cowboys and Indians" is a racist trope. Some of the novels and comics have gone so far as to say that The Jedi and The Sith are not forces of good and forces of evil locked in perpetual manichean opposition; but two different but perfectly valid ways of looking at the world. The Dark Side is Dark, not because it is evil, but because it is hidden. I think that this is a really bad idea. I think that Star Wars is about goodies and baddies or else it is about nothing. But I wouldn't frame this in terms of canon and fan fic. 

I will never love anything in the way that I first loved Star Wars. But I like the composite fix-up universe of which Star Wars: A New Hope is one component very much; enough to be rewatching all 150 episodes of The Clone Wars and trying to keep up with Marvel's infinitely extended War of the Bounty Hunters "event". I like baroque, complicated, fictional worlds. I particularly like the way in which sleazy space saloons; mystical space-monk retreats; honourable space-knights in space-armour; and thrilling space opera all fit together into one story. I think this is one of the things that The Clone Wars cartoon does very well. It's slightly bloated, ensemble format showcases the scope of the Star Wars Universe. 

There are some really interesting out-takes on Disney Plus. There's a clip of Harrison Ford meeting a fat human called Jabba the Hutt; and a clip of Mark Hamill talking to a man with moustache about the nationalisation of the shipping lanes. They offer a really strange lens to look at Star Wars through. A universe almost, but not completely unlike the one we are familiar with. 

Fan fic? Canon? Stories? Things which George Lucas wrote on the back of an envelope and crossed out. 

Shall I tell you a secret? I even slightly don't hate the Holiday Special, because it takes me back to my pre-Hoth world where Star Wars was just a movie.
The TV franchise -- from The Clone Wars to Obi-Wan and beyond -- treats Star Wars as a place and a history. It assumes that we want to know who took over on Tatooine after Jabba died and are interested in who the first students in Luke's Jedi school were. How much we care it depends on our degree of engagement with the franchise. If you have even the vaguest idea of what a Star War is, then you understand questions like "What was Obi-Wan doing on Tattooine in the years of his exile?" and "Had Luke met Old Ben before that day in the Dune Sea?" If you regard Star Wars: Rebels as being in the same category as Droids and Ewoks then "Where is Ezra Bridger?" is pretty much devoid of meaning.

I think David Filoni is doing a pretty good job of bringing balance to the franchise. Mr Canon Freak gets to say "That was a Lothcat, wasn't it? I'm pretty sure it was a Lothcat", while Mr I've Never Seen Star Wars can still get the gist of what is basically a  spaghetti western with ray guns. If you haven't seen Rebels, you can still grok that Ashoka is a former Jedi and a person of some importance; but if you have seen it, you smile knowingly when she mentions she’s an old friend of Luke’s family.

Some people like this stuff on general principles. Some people object to it on equally general principles. I am lawful neutral. I like fantasy worlds. I like the illusion of the Star Wars universe being "out there" and that it would carry on being "out there" even if no-one was telling any stories about it. I am not intrinsically thrilled when a baddie from one of the cartoons appears in one of the live action series; but I don’t run away whimpering “fan service, fan service, get a life, get a life, fan fiction, fan fiction” either.

Mr Ultra Hard Core Canon Freak likes internal continuity and hates it at the same time. He spends three months saying “Squee! Squee! That gangster who kid Boba used to hang out with a series two of ther Clone Wars is going to be in the live action series, squee! squee!”. But once they see the episode in question, they are like “You did it wrong! He didn’t look right! You changed it! You have raped my childhood!"

Star Wars can't be an imaginary world and at the same time not be an imaginary world. You can't add to the setting and leave the setting unchanged. You can't pretend Tatooine is a real place and avoid mentioning dewbacks and krayt dragons in case someone thinks you are a sad case who needs to get out more. If I point out that a female of Yoda’s race (named ‘Yaddle’) was a member of the Jedi Council in Phantom Menace, and wonder out loud if perhaps she is Grogu’s mother, then Filoni might very well say “Nice thought, but no, they aren’t related...” But he would be unlikely to say “Phantom Menace is only a film; Female Yoda was both on the council and not on the council because the council was made up out of George’s head and anyway Episode I was shit, get a life, this is an imaginary story, aren't they all”. On the other hand, if I were to ask what happened to Jaxxon the giant bunny he would naturally say “That was stuff that Roy Thomas made up for a 1970s comic book, before Empire Strikes Back even came out."

Unless, of course, David Filoni decided that a giant green leporine bounty hunter was exactly what the Galaxy needed. In which case he might very well write a new story which happened to have Jaxxon in it. Star Wars "legends" material continue to exert a gravitational pull on the new, post-Disney canon. Comics, books and novels and cartoons and computer games are being treated as a vast melting pot of tropes from which characters and storylines can be scooped. Ashoka mentions that she is hunting down an ex-imperial officer named Thrawn. Thrawn was the main villain in Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels: he was the eponymous Heir to the Empire who tried to keep things going after Vader and the Emperor were killed. That’s all been retrospectively de-canonised: but Thrawn -- a blue skinned alien, like an evil Sherlock Holmes crossed with an evil Mr Spock -- turned up as a villain in Rebels. Because he’s fun. Perhaps someone will decide that Jaxxon the Rabbit is fun as well.  

Disney has not retrospectively re-canonized an entirely different post-Endor history. But neither had it flipped Baby Yoda into a different part of the Multiverse where Ben Solo was never born, the First Order never arose, and the Starkiller project never occurred. The Star Wars universe remains resolutely singular. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

We comic books fans are very resistant to placing comics in Box Four...

We comic book fans are very resistant to placing comics in Box Four ("it's just a story") and very inclined to treating all our beloved characters as inhabiting Box Three ("it's an actual universe which just happens not to exist".)

There is no shame in this. It can be great fun. Some Sherlock Holmes fans like to pretend that the stories really are Doctor Watson's write-ups of real cases which a real detective really solved. It's a fine scholarly game and it's been going on for more than a hundred years. I myself had a great time pretending that the early issues of Spider-Man were historical texts: looking at maps of New York and Greyhound bus-timetables, checking up what things cost in the 1960s and working out, to within a few days either way, the precise date on which Spider-Man was trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's underwater base. 

Sometimes this illuminated the story in interesting ways; usually it didn’t. I did a similar thing with the text of Mark's Gospel and a Google map of the Holy Land, with similarly patchy results. But I knew perfectly well I was playing a game, and quite a silly one. So do all Sherlockians and most comic-book readers. New Testament scholars I would not vouch for. 

"How could Spider-Man possibly have web-swung from Forest Hills to Madison Avenue in three minutes" is a perfectly good question. "Maybe he can swing at 200 miles per hour" is one perfectly good answer. (That's presumably why he arrives at the scene of the crime just in time like a streak of light.)  "Perhaps he bumped into the Human Torch and hitched a lift" is another perfectly good answer. "I think I will write a piece of fan fiction about what happened while Spidey was in the back seat of Johnny's segment of the Fantasticar" is no more pointless than anything else which human beings spend their time on. 

"Stan Lee isn't remotely interested in travel times" is a third perfectly good way of answering the  question. It has the virtue of almost certainly being true: Lee sometimes forgets that the Bugle is meant to be in Manhattan and that Peter is meant to lives in Queens. Indeed, he sometimes writes as if New York is a very small village where everyone knows everyone else. But "Stan Lee doesn't care" is a different kind of answer from the other two. Shelockians would say that it was Doylist rather than Watsonian. When you are reading a story, you kind of have to be Watsonian. When you are writing smart essays about it on the Internet, you can afford to be a Doylist. It is probably unwise to be both at the same time. 

Most of the time, most readers are quite happy to say "Spider-Man travelled from some place, to some other place, in the amount of time it was narratively appropriate for him to take and not a minute more.” But just occasionally -- as when the Angel seems to be able to fly across the Atlantic in ten minutes, or Shang Chi sees thatched cottages and taverns at the edge of Trafalgar Square -- our ability to suspend disbelief evaporates. 

Why can't I say "Spider-Man didn't cross New York in three minutes; that never happened; we can cross that bit out; it's just a story"? Because if I do, then I have admitted the possibility that the Burglar didn't kill Uncle Ben. And the fight with the Sinister Six never happened. And that we can cross out the bit where Doctor Octopus unmasked him. And the underwater base is just a story. If one thing isn't true, then maybe nothing is true. And if we admit that we can no longer play the great game. 

This applies to more serious matters as well. If maybe-possibly-perhaps Saint Matthew made up the story of baby Jesus and the star and the wizards to make a theological point then maybe-possibly-perhaps he made up everything else as well. If we admit that Jonah and the Whale is maybe-possibly-perhaps an Imaginary Tale, we might have to entertain the possibility that maybe-possibly-perhaps God is also an Imaginary Tale; in which case there would be no point in reading any of the stories ever again. Unless you think that stories have points in themselves. 

This is why there are YouTube videos of angry Americans who believe that dragons exist, dinosaurs do not, and that the rotundity of the earth is an elaborate hoax.


There is probably a very good piece of fan-fiction to be written about how Tolkien discovered the Red Book. I imagine that Ronald would be a kind of literary Indiana Jones, running all around Europe with his faithful companion Jack and his clever kid-sidekick Chris; chased by orc-worshipping occultists and Blue Wizard initiates, collecting precious MSS and bringing them back to the Bodelian where they can  be properly translated. The Space Traveller in Out of the Silent Planet is a philologist, fairly obviously meant to be Tolkien, and the book ends with a classic Box Three framing sequence in which C.S Lewis says that he is presenting real events as if they were fictional in order to get humans used to the idea that there are alien angels on Mars. The preface to Lord of the Rings strongly implies that a small number of very well hidden Hobbits and diminished Elves still survive in our own Seventh Age. Tolkien knew Lewis and Lewis met Yeats and Yeats new Crowley and Williams was an initiate of the Order of the Golden Dawn. If I had the slightest talent for fiction, I might try to write it myself. 

But Tolkien himself doesn't really go in for that sort of thing. The Red Book is something he takes for granted in order to give himself a viewpoint. The unfinished Book of Lost Tales -- what eventually became the Silmarillion --  did have a frame narrative about an Anglo Saxon sailor who travelled to what was still called Fairyland and learned the history of what were still called the Gnomes. And what became the Second Age of Middle-earth was introduced in an unfinished Time Travel story about a modern-day father and son who had inherited a kind of psychic race memory linking them with ancient Numenor. There may even have been a fortnight when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis intended their various stories to cohere into an Inklingverse. The Merlin of That Hideous Strength claims to know the magical traditions of a place called Numinor [sic]. These framing devices are largely missing from the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings and the published Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien infers, correctly I think, that the viewpoint of the Silmarillion is "the tales that Bilbo heard in Rivendell". 

But Tolkien always takes it for granted that his stories are to be read as Box Three artefacts. They are not Just Stories: we are to pretend that they are historical fictions based on primary texts. Books about the real world, set in an imaginary time, was one way he explained it. He maintains a -- so to speak -- Watsonian perspective even when he is writing informally or making notes for his own benefit. He never looks at an inconsistency and says "I wrote that wrong, I'll have to change it". He is more inclined to say "There are two distinct traditions" or to write a fresh text explaining how the apparent contradiction arose. Asked by a fan why Gollum thought that the Ring was a birthday present given that Hobbits don’t receive presents on their birthdays he improvised a long riff about the different gift-giving customs among the different tribes.

This maybe why some people find Christopher Tolkien so hard to take. Any illusion that Middle-earth is really, really real is thoroughly dispersed by the Twelve Volume History. What we thought of as fixed chronology turns into something contingent and unstable; a set of ideas that Tolkien was constantly changing and erasing and literally overwriting. Your respect for Tolkien the artist increases. Your secondary belief in Middle-earth takes quite a battering.

The trailers for the forthcoming Second Age TV series appear to indicate that there will be elves of colour and possibly Asian hobbits. The racists are out in force, saying that this is not true to Tolkien's vision. To which the only possible answer is "Which vision?"


There is a certain species of fan who feels that a story only matters in so far as it can be located in Box Three. Watsonian readings are the only ones which matter. A story is part of a sub-created world or else it is nothing. Marvel Comics are there to provide us with information about what happened in the Marvel Universe as opposed to entertaining us with unlikely yarns about people who wear their underwear on the outside. 

The Story of Superman Red and Superman Blue is, by common consent, delightful. What If The Avengers Had Fought The Kree/Skrull War Without Rick Jones is fairly obscure. But "being delightful" is not what puts a story in Box Three. Nor is self-consistency, good-story-telling or having something to say about the real world. A story goes into Box Three if the writer or the editor or the show runner or J.K Rowling says that it can go into Box Three.

In fandom, as in religion, that is pretty much what Canon means: a text which some person in authority has approved of.

Why is that book part of the Canon? 

Because the Canon-Keeper says so.

Who is the Canon-Keeper? 

The person who decides which books are part of the Canon. 

Only the showrunner, or the editor, or the Holcron Keeper can move a text from Box Four to Box Three. And once they have done so, they cannot be gainsaid. A story really happened if Stan or Roy or Mark or George or Kathleen says it really happened. No other considerations apply. The silly in-joke about the eleven faces of Doctor Who in Brain of Morbius is irrevocable canon because Chris Chibnall says so. 

To believe in Canon is to believe in the absolute primacy of Authorial Intention. Your job as reader is to read the text in the way that the author tells you to read it. 

In Chaucer's English, the word Author and Authority were the same word. 

I could read the 1993 Death of Superman story as if it were an imaginary tale, if I wanted to. And I could read the 1965 imaginary story with the same title as if it was canonical. There are as many head canons as there are heads. Frank Miller once half-seriously remarked that so far as he was concerned, after Daredevil 191 Matt Murdoch went home and quit crime fighting: all the subsequent episodes were "imaginary". I myself have said that I think that Steve Ditko intended The Final Chapter to be the end of the story of Spider-Man: that having purged himself of his guilt, Peter Parker quit being a superhero and concentrated on taking care of Aunt May and studying science. But a label which says "This is an imaginary story..." is a pretty clear instruction from the writer that we readers are not allowed to treat the story as canonical. A caption which says "Not a dream! Not a hoax!" is a pretty clear instruction to read it as if it teally happened. 

I can ignore the rubrics. But once you have denied the authority of the Canon Keeper you have, I think, denied the existence of Canon. And that might be a perfectly sensible thing to say. "I don't care if a particular sub-set of Spider-Man stories make up the true story of Spider-Man. I just see a lot of comics, cartoons, and movies. Some of them I enjoy. Other's not so much."

You are perfectly free to say "I don't agree with the Pope on this one. In my Head Canon, Thomas is part of the New Testament and there are Four Persons in the Trinity." But not, I think, to say that and still think of yourself as a Roman Catholic. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

All the stories in the world can be placed in one of two boxes....

All the stories in the world can be placed in one of two boxes.

Into the first box goes stories which didn’t really happen, but invite us to imagine that they did. 

Into the second box goes stories which don’t pretend to be anything other than artistic creations, made up by a story teller for our entertainment.

What if... stories and tales of Parallel earths go into the first box, along with epistolatory novels and first person narratives and pretend diaries and True Confessions.
Imaginary tales go into the second box along with most jokes and ballads and fairy tales and parables. 

You might expect the first box to contain all the sensible stories about housewives and businessmen and school cricket teams and regency country houses; and the second box to contain all the ridiculous stories about space men and monsters and vampires. But if anything, the opposite is true. It is in the first box where you would find The Lord of the Rings and Tarzan of the Apes and Call of Cthulhu, along with Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe. It isn't just that Tolkien pretends that he translated Bilbo's memoirs from an ancient Red Book; and that Edgar Rice Borroughs was told the tale of the ape-man from one who had no business to tell it to him. It's that these kinds of stories are only fun if you kind of pretend that there really was a Detective as clever as Holmes and a cast-way as resourceful but obtuse as Crusoe. We aren't actually fooled -- but we have to play along with the game if we are going to enjoy what are (as a matter of fact) rather silly stories. But if you want eminently believable stories about witty ladies trying to find suitable husbands and thwarted young women trying to do good in the world, it's in the second box we have to look for them. Lovers misunderstand each other and old Aunts act snobbishly in many country houses on many days of the week. But Jane Austen would not think of trying to convince us, even playfully, that her novels are true. She isn't creating fake news or fake gossip: she is creating a work of art: making things up. From time to time she points out she has determined or altered the course of events based on her personal sense of morality and decorum. Any work of fiction with an "omniscient" viewpoint wears its fictional status on its sleeve. Watson can't tell you what Holmes is thinking, because he doesn't know. George Eliot can suddenly jump into the head of Rev Casaubon because he's her character and doesn't exist outside the story.

(Boys stories and girls stories? Let's not go there.)

In fact, I am far from sure that two boxes are enough. If we are going to divide all the stories in the world into piles, I think we may need as many as five. You can imagine them placed inside each other like a Russian Onion, if you want. They are very probably made of ticky-tacky.

Box Zero contains the real world: things which happened yesterday; and things which happened eight hundred years ago. The conversation with the nutter you had on the bus goes into Box Zero; so does the Battle of Agincourt. Unfortunately, Box Zero is empty, because no-one can get inside your head and no-one can travel back to St Crispen's day 1415. The only way of talking about real things which happened in the real world is to turn them into stories. 

Box One contains news, and first person testimony, and autobiography -- stories, certainly, but stories which are doing their level best to tell you what really happened and not deceive you or make good art or even necessarily be particularly interesting. That funny story I told you about the nutter who sat next to me on the bus last week goes into Box One; so does the first hand testimony of one of Henry V's herald.

Box Two contains stories. But it only contains true stories: stories that take stuff we found in Box One and dust it down, polish it up, make it interesting and palatable and enjoyable. If I take my funny anecdote about the bus-ride and turn it into a short play for Radio 4, I would have to put it into Box Two -- alongside Shakespeare's Henry V. True stories contain lots of stuff which is made up. We don't know or remember what we said yesterday, or what anyone said eight hundred years ago. But if someone asked "Is Goodbye Christopher Robin a true story? Is Shadowlands? Is Nowhere Boy?" we would reply: yes: A.A Milne and C.S Lewis and John Lennon did roughly those things under roughly those circumstances?

Box One and Two contain True Stories: but Boxes Three and Four contain Stories. Everything in them is fictitious and any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental. Ghost stories and love stories and cowboy stories and superhero stories all go into these boxes. 

But some Fictional Stories pretend very hard to be True, They tell you about battles and bus-rides as if the person telling the story was on the bus or at the battle; even though the battle or the bus-ride never happened. They might even have happened in made-up towns and made-up countries. Those kinds of stories go into Box Three. You might call these stories Lies -- and certainly some Lies would fit nicely into Box Three. But in general, no-one is trying to fool anyone else. We are just pretending. 

This leaves us with Box Four. Box Four  contains all the stories beginning Once Upon a Time and A Funny Thing Happened to Me On The Way To The Theatre and "so this man walks into a bar, right" and "come all you young girls and I'll tell you a tale." But it also contains all the very serious novels in which the novelist doesn't pretend to be anything other than a novelist.

So, in ascending order of fictionallness:

0: What happened

1: Me telling you what really happened

2: Me creating a work of art about what really happened

3: Me making up something which never happened but pretending like it did

4: Me telling you a thing I made up

I don't know why so-many far-fetched, pulpy, genre fictions are to be found in Box Three. Maybe the idea of an invisible crime fighter who learned magic in Tibet is so hard to believe that you can't read it at all without pretending that the stories came from The Shadow's Own Private Files. Maybe the sorts of people who become pulp writers are not quite so clever as the sort of people who become literary writers. Maybe Jane Austen can make us believe in Fanny Price because she describes her so beautifully; maybe Maxwell Grant can only make us believe in the Shadow by swearing blind (in quotation marks) that such a person really exists and appears on the wireless every Thursday evening. 

The most famous and important stories in human history are utterly and irreducibly in Box Four. The only conceivable answer to the question “Why didn’t the Levite help the man who had been set upon by Brigands” is “Because Jesus wanted to make a point about sectarianism and the Temple.” Anyone who tried to infer things about the man’s psychological make up or what he had for breakfast that day would have utterly missed the point of the parable.

Some Christians do utterly miss the point. Some Christians insist that every single word in the Bible comes straightforwardly from Box One. The story of Adam and Eve isn't a metaphor or an allegory: it is there to give you information about who the first Man and Woman were. If someone doubts that they were real, they can be instantly silenced with the killer question "Were you there?" If there is a parable about a certain man who had two sons, then the certain man with two sons must be an historical fact -- you aren't calling Jesus a liar, are you? Some of us think that reading parables as history annihilates them as parables. There are, of course, almost as many Christians who think that every single word in the Bible is a parable -- even the bits which are pretty obviously historical.

I think that my boxes will go quite a long way towards solving literary criticism. When they become well known I expect them to replace Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell as the standard models of narrative 


Mary Shelly and Lord Byron really did tell each other ghost stories during a wet summer in Italy (Box 0.) 

The preface to Frankenstien describes the competition as Mary Shelly remembered it. (Box 1). 

The event has been turned into a story in such works as Gothic, Bloody Poetry, The Bride of Frankenstien and The Haunting of Villa Diodati, (Box 2).

(It might be that Mary Shelly's preface has been fictionalised. It night be happier in Box 2 than in Box 1.) 

But the story of Frankenstien is not presented as a spooky story that young Mary is making up. It works very hard to create the illusion that Frankenstien lived in the real world: it is presented as a series of letters and diary entries written by the sailor who finds Frankenstien wandering in the ice; which contain Frankenstien's own first hand account of what happened. Nevertheless, the existence of the ghost story frame reminds us that it is in fact only a story created by Mary Shelly in order to scare us (Box 4.) 

Indientally, Frankenstien is the name of the scientist who created the monster, not the monster itself.

Or, again - to take the most delightful example of all:
William Goldman is a real screen writer and director, who really wrote a novel called the Princess Bride and really struggled for decades to get it turned into a film (Box 0). 

The novel "The Princess Bride" consists of an entirely naturalistic and believable frame in which William Goldman tracks down a copy of his favourite childhood novel and is disappointed by it (Box 3). 

This frame is presented so convincingly that many people believe it to be straightforward (Box 2) reportage, although in fact it is entirely made up: Goldman is not married to a child psychologist and didn’t have a ten year old son at the time. 

Goldman really did write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (Box 0) but he definitely did not base the cliff-jump sequence on a similar event in The Princess Bride. His convincing account of his childhood infatuation with the book is completely made up (Box 3). 

The bulk of the story is presented as something which an eccentric novelist named Morgenstern created (Box 4); with some embellishments by Goldman himself. He adds material to Morgenstern's story, but makes no suggestion that he is trying to get back to an original historical Box 1 version of Westley and Buttercup: he is just making stuff up to make it a better (Box 4) yarn. The double or triple framing sequence gives us permission to accept and enjoy far fetched events the resurrection pill and the left-handed sword fight -- because it is being presented, not as implausible history, but as an admittedly preposterous story. 

Characters can, of course, sometimes escape from their narrative boxes. There is nothing in the world to stop me from saying: “What if it turned out that Mary Shelly was not making up the story which so terrified Lord Byron: what if in fact Victor Frankenstien was known to her, and she had seen the Monster with her own eyes”. But all I have done in that case is created a new story with Mary Shelly in it. I have certainly not made the monster real! You could say that I have moved the Mary Shelly of the prologue from Box 2 (True Story) to Box 3 (Fiction Pretending To Be Real.) Or perhaps I have moved the monster from Box 4 (Fiction presented as fiction) to Box 3 (Fiction Pretending to Be Real). What I have certainly not done is made Frankenstien's monster real in the primary world! 

I cannot satisfactorily imagine a story in which Fred Savage (the sick boy in the movie version of the Princess Bride) steps through a portal and meets Westley and Buttercup (the fictional hero or heroine) or in which Westley and Buttercup drop by with some grapes to play Commodore 64 sports games with him and his grandpa. I can't even imagine the Boy going to modern day Floren and visiting Westley's grave. The characters in Morgenstern's Princess Bride -- in the story within the story -- don’t exist in another world; they don’t even exist in our world, a long time ago. They are only stories. They don’t exist at all.

I am prepared to defend, to some extent, Walt Disney’s desecration of Winnie-the-Pooh: the American accents, the gopher, the voice of the narrator, the dreadful songs, the misunderstanding of the metaphysical status of heffalumps. What I cannot quite forgive is the way the stuffed-toy-Pooh in Christopher Robin’s bedroom winks at the audience in the final frame. Pooh is a toy; Christopher Robin is a little boy; the Pooh-stories are made-up-stories, in a book, in which the narrator imagines the toy Pooh to be a real bear. The final scenes asks us to think that either Christopher Robin’s live action bedroom is actually part of the cartoon world in the book; or else that something from the cartoon book world has escaped into 1920s England. 

Similarly, in the final frames of Disney's Song of the South the cartoon characters from Uncle Remus’s tales appear in the flesh and start interacting with the live action children, while the old man rubs his eyes in astonishment. Is the message that Bre’er Rabbit was as real as the post Civil War South -- or the the post Civil War South is as fictional as a cartoon about talking bunnies? 

Song of the South has one or two other problems which we don’t need to go into right now.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Lets talk about the multiverse...

"Please, Aslan!" [said Lucy]  "Am I not to know?"
"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan. "No. Nobody is ever told that."

Prince Caspian

Let’s talk about the multiverse.

In 1977, Stan Lee’s arch disciple Roy Thomas created a comic book called What If...? Thomas was a smart guy. He'd spotted that Conan and Star Wars were the kinds of things Marvel should be doing when Stan Lee thought they should only be doing superheroes. Star Wars was a big hit and probably saved the company from bankruptcy. Conan was a slow burner, a critical success, sold steadily for decades, and was the main cause of Dave Sim.

When Stan Lee was pitching story-ideas at his stable of artists and co-writers, he used to say things like “What if Doctor Doom stole the Silver Surfer’s power?" "What if Doctor Octopus kidnapped Aunt May?" "What if the Thing quit the Fantastic Four?” Lee thought that being able to think up What If... questions was the very definition of  creativity. He and he alone had the power to say “What If Jonah Jameson hired a robot to catch Spider-Man?” Any old hack could then turn these solid gold ideas into workmanlike comic books. (By a strange coincidence, when he stopped working with Ditko and Kirby, the power to come up with surefire What If...? questions mysteriously deserted him.) 

At any rate, Roy Thomas would have had no difficulty convincing Stan that “What If...?” was a good title for a comic book.

The What If...? comic asked questions about the past, rather than about the future. Instead of taking a blank page and saying “What would happen if...?” it took an existing story and asked “What would have happened if...?” The first What If... took a narrative dead end from the first issue of Spider-Man and asked “What would have happened if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?” A bit of a tragedy, as it turned out: the Invisible Girl would have left Reed and married Namor, and the remaining members of the Fantastic Five would have been left wondering what would have happened if Spidey had never joined the gang. 

Some of them were based on questions that almost anyone could understand (What would have happened if Peter Parker had stopped that Burglar and Uncle Ben had not been murdered?) Others asked questions you would have had have been quite hard core to understand or care about. (What would have happened if the Avengers had become pawns of Korvac?)

Some of the stories were just plain fun. "What If The Original Marvel Bullpen Had Been The Fantastic Four?" is pretty much just a romp through comic book history, and the last time Kirby’s brush came into contact with those characters. But very often they felt more like commentaries: ways of illuminating what was good and essential about the original story; the reason why things could not have turned out differently. "What If Phoenix Had Lived?" was Chris Claremont’s explanation of why the character had to be written out of the X-Men when she was; Frank Miller’s "What If Elektra Had Lived?" plausibly showed that if his one true love had not been killed off, Daredevil would have quit being a crime fighter and lived happily ever after and there would have been no more stories. 'What If The Fantastic Four Had Never Got Their Powers?" is essentially John Byrne demonstrating how much the original F.F owed to Challengers of the Unknown. 

What If... has no morphed into an animated TV series, asking questions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (We live in a strange post-fannish world where there is a thing called the Marvel Cinematic Universe you can ask What If... questions about.) But it is much more interested in creating fun, one-off versions of the movies than with asking clever questions about them. "What If Peggy Carter Had Been The First Avenger?" is an excuse to give us a lady Captain America with a Union Jack on her shield (and to put Steve in a very primitive Iron Man suit); "What If The Black Panther Had Become Star Lord?" is essentially a new Guardians of the Galaxy heist, with a not-evil Thanos sitting in bars talking about his plan to solve the population crisis.

Our friend C.S Lewis, who had probably not read many Marvel Comics, said that asking what would have happened was only ever a vivid rhetorical device for talking about what, in fact, did happen. 

DC also had a nice line in counterfactuals, which they called Imaginary Tales. Imaginary Tales tended to be utterly preposterous events which, if not marked “Imaginary” would destroy a character or change them beyond recognition. An Avengers comic in which a female Captain England was defrosted by Nick Fury in the twenty first century would only be a little different from the Avengers comic we know and love. A Superman comic in which Kal-El stays at home in an apron and changes the diapers of a pair of super-babies would no longer be a Superman comic in any recognisable sense. The formula was not “What would happen...?” or “What would have happened....?” it was “What might happen...” Imaginary tales were about possibilities, albeit very remote ones.

DC had a propensity to produce parallel earths by the sack-load: but they were part of the main storyline. There really was another universe where the Flash wore a funny tin-hat and the Green Lantern had a strange raised collar and cape. You could get from Earth-1 to Earth-2 if you ran fast enough. But Imaginary Tales were a different thing. There was no Earth-17 where Superman became President; or married Lois; or watched Lois marry Batman; or where he married Lois and Lana and Lori consecutively; got old; turned evil; turned into a gorilla; split into two distinct individuals... They were imaginary stories. The Batman versions were occasionally said to be works of fiction that Alfred was creating in his spare time!

Spider-Man 121 has a front page caption: "Not a trick! Not an imaginary tale! But the most startling unexpected turning point in the webslinger's entire life! How can Spider-Man go on after this almost unbelievable death!" Marvel wanted us to believe that imaginary stories were cheating: that, at any rate, a non-imaginary story was more dramatic and important than an imaginary one? 

But why? If they are all stories anyway, shouldn't the tale be judged on its own merits? 

One is tempted to misquote Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as an imaginary or a non-imaginary comic book. Comic books are well written, or badly written, and that is all."

The answer is that a canonical story affects all subsequent stories. In Superman 149 Superman dies. There is no let-out clause, no unexpected happy ending: Superman is really dead. But because The Death of Superman is only an imaginary story, there is no expectation that he will remain dead in issue 150, 151, or 152. But once [SPOILER ALERT] Gwen Stacy is dead in Spider-Man 121, we take it for granted that she will remain dead in issue 122, and 123, and 124: and that we will see Peter Parker dealing with his grief, finding a new lover, agonising about his guilt. Gwen may be cloned; she may turn out to have a twin sister; she may even be raised from the dead. In comic books, no-one dies for ever, except Bucky. But the tragic murder on the bridge can never un-happen. 

The canonical story allows a writer to exert power over all subsequent writers. If Alan Moore says that the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, then all subsequent writers have to depict her as a wheel-chair user (or give her bionic legs, or introduce a brilliant surgeon who can cure her.) 

The canonical story is one component of a bigger story. An imaginary story or a What If... in which Aunt May died would not be particularly interesting: she is very old and very poorly and was bound to pass away sooner or later. But it would be a very interesting development in the on-going Spider-Man soap opera -- because we would want to know what happens next month, and the month after, and in five years time. How will Peter Parker cope in the absence of his only relative and mother-figure? Does he now have any particularly good reason to keep his identity a secret? Will Marvel's most realistic hero sign a pact with Satan to bring her back from the dead? 

The distinction between canon and non-canon is therefore a litmus test of our fannishness. If you read Spider-Man as a soap opera, than stories which fall outside that narrative stream are a waste of time, albeit a diverting one. If you think that individual stories are merely bricks which make up a vast edifice called The Marvel Universe then an imaginary story is at best a piece of childish trivia and at worst a dishonest scam. But if you just read comic books, then the story is the thing. Comics are fun or boring, and that is all. A hard-core fan approaches the forthcoming Batman movie by asking "How will it interact with the Snyderverse?". The more casual fan and the normal movie goer is more likely to ask "Will it be any good?" 

"It's called ther Batman", said Christopher Robin. "Don't you know what ther means?"

Alan Moore’s 1986 story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is an elegiac tribute to Silver Age Superman comics; a celebration of everything Moore loved about them, and a vicious deconstruction of everything he found silly in them. It was the last time that the old 1950s world of super-pets and rainbow kryptonite would appear in a mainline Superman comic. Moore famously introduced it with the simultaneously wistful and cynical comment : “This is an imaginary story...but then aren’t they all?”
The previous 30 years of Superman stories were about to be "decanonized" in the Crisis reboot, so it was in one sense true that every single comic he remembered from his childhood was about to become, by editorial fiat, an Imaginary Tale. But at a deeper level, this story, like every other Superman story, and indeed every other story, was Imaginary -- a product of the human imagination. 

It was a good line. But we shouldn’t press it too hard. If a fan asks “Is Batman: ther Dark Knight Returns an imaginary tale?” it is unkind and unhelpful to smile smugly and say "Yes, but aren't they all?" Marvel and DC comics have spent decades building up the illusion that their stories take place in their own, self-consistent universes -- imaginary, of course, in the sense of not-really-existing, but with a continuity and a history in which events have narrative consequences. Some things "really happened" in that great story-made-of-stories; some things emphatically did not. It is not childish or contemptible to want to know on what side of the line a particular graphic novel falls. 

The future of a character is as much a part of that character as his past: as Alan Moore said, it is an important part of the Norse Thor that he will fall at Ragnorak; it is an important component of the yarns of David Crockett that he was killed defending the Alamo. I can read Dark Knight Returns thinking "this is how the story will end". I can reading it thinking "Frank is just taking the toys out of the boxes, fooling around with them, and putting them away again". Most of us take a little from column A and a little from column B. But it is simply wrong to say that it makes no difference. It makes a difference, not only to your reading of Frank Miller, but to your reading of every subsequent Batman story. 

The Disney What If... cartoon series begins with a speech by the Watcher:

"Time. Space. Reality. It's more than a linear path. It's a prism. Of Endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternative worlds from the ones you know... I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these infinite realities. Follow me. And ponder the question. What if..."

If you ask "Where is an imaginary story happening?" the answer is (by definition) in the imagination of the reader, the writer, or in some cases, the Butler. But a What If... story takes place in the Marvel Universe itself -- a different time line, but one as "real" as the one our own Peter Parker or Tony Stark inhabits. That's why we need The Watcher: there has to be a viewpoint. A What If... story has to command what our friend Mr Tolkien would have called Secondary Belief. 

This may have been one of the reasons Stan Lee was initially so reluctant to take on licensed properties. If everything Marvel published had to have Secondary Reality then everything which Marvel published had to link up into one vast Secondary World. If all Marvel Comics made up one big story, then the very act of publishing a comic about a real world stuntman called The Human Fly made The Human Fly a character in the same story as Peter Parker and Howard the Duck. So the first question to ask about a Star War or a Doctor Who comic was "“How will it fit into the Marvel Universe? Will Darth Vader meet Doctor Doom?” And you couldn't say "No, of course not: Star Wars is just a story" in case the reader thought "But then, aren't they all?" So Godzilla has to fight SHIELD agents, and Peter Parker has to meet Count Dracula. There was even a rather desperate attempt to send Spider-Man through time to meet Conan the Barbarian. (I seem to think that Mary Jane briefly becomes Red Sonja, although wild wildebeests wouldn’t make me re-read Marvel Team Up at this point.) 

Tolkien said that when children ask if a story is true, all they are really asking is whether or not it was contemporary. They understand that the story in the newspaper about the Orrible Murder is True -- that’s why they mustn’t wander off and talk to strangers. They understand that the equally terrifying story in the fairy tale books is Not True -- there is no danger of them actually encountering a child-eating witch with a candy cottage. But hearing a story about Hitler or Sherlock Holmes or Francis Drake for the first time, they don’t immediately know which box to put it in. The correct answer to “Is it true?” he said, was “Well, there are certainly no dragons in England today.”

We never thought that Spider-Man stories are true in that sense -- although when we were very small we pretended we did. But we wanted and needed to think that Spider-Man was true somewhere -- in some secondary world. The stories didn't really happen: but they really happened to Peter Parker. And this is a very specific way of reading. No-one asked why Charlie Brown didn't advance in age from 8 to 58 during the half century of Peanuts existence: but the fact that Peter Parker spent three decades stuck at the age of 17 is a genuine impediment to our faith.

It’s ironic that it was Marvel Comics where this approach took root. Stan Lee literally presents his seminal texts as imaginary stories -- as tales that he and his collaborators are making up; observing; commenting on; and presenting to the audience for their delectation. He is the puppeteer and he wants us to see the strings. Lee’s acolytes never saw the joke. As soon as the torch was passed, the Roy Thomas’s and Mark Gruenwald’s started talking about Marvel Time and Omniverses and writing pedantic stories which connected the Golden Age Captain America to the Modern One. “What If The Avengers Stayed Together After World War II” pointedly omitted the word “had” from the title. It remained canon for decades...

Monday, January 31, 2022

Nineteen Sixty One A.D

Moonbase One is the last Hugh Walters book that I propose writing about. For the time being, at any rate. It kind of winds up an opening quartet. The first four books have all been about The Moon, and specifically about the mysterious alien artefacts on The Moon. The fifth one, Expedition Venus will be a soft reboot, repositioning the series as being about planetary exploration. All plot threads from the Moon sequence will be left dangling;  the Space Beings and their Domes are never properly explained.  Walter’s doesn’t so much conclude the Pico story as lose interest in it.

If Operation Columbus was about liberal theology, then Moonbase One is about English education and the phasing out of the Eleven Plus. 

Up until the 1940s, barring scholarships or rich parents, most children left school at 14 and got a job or an apprenticeship. Between about 1944 and 1965, children were put into a magic sorting hat which divided them into Academics (who went to Grammar School); Skilled Workers (who went to Technical School) and Workers (who went to Secondary Modern). Unfortunately, there weren’t actually any Technical Schools for them to go to, so the system turned into a straight competition in which the winners earned places at Grammar Schools and the losers were condemned to Secondary Moderns. The two kinds of school were supposed to have “parity of esteem” but in practice people who "failed" the Eleven Plus were widely regarded as having failed at life. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson swept the whole elitist system away, and replaced it with a more egalitarian model in which everyone was educated equally badly in vast mixed ability jungles. In the 1980s, this Comprehensive system was itself abolished and replaced with -- whatever the hell it is we have now. Hugh Walters would have been educated in the 1920s: he presumably either won a scholarship or had parents who could afford to pay for his secondary education. Chris Godfrey was born in 1940 and attends Wolverton Grammar presumably on the basis of having passed the Eleven Plus in 1951. (His Auntie runs a little shop and could never have afforded to educate him privately.) Schooldays over, he sails into Cambridge University: we never find out which college or indeed precisely what he studied. 

The initial set up, all those years ago, was an unashamed wish fulfilment fantasy, with Chris as the barely concealed Mary-Sue. A famous scientist just happened to be passing his school and just happened to realise that he just happened to be the ideal person to be Britain’s first astronaut. If it could happen to him, it could happen to you. Like Stan Lee, Hugh Walters has the sense to make the hero pay for his big dreams with an awful lot of grief. If you become a superhero, everyone will hate you and those you love will die. If you become an astronaut, you’ll have to do a lot of extra P.E with some particularly unpleasant P.E masters. And you will very probably die. 

But time has moved on, and Chris has become an idealised figure -- famous, brave, self-sacrificing, pious. He’s twenty-two now with a degree in -- something or other -- and feels that going to the moon is the apex of his life’s work. He is a shoo-in to be the leader of the latest mission. (Walters keeps referring to him as the Young Leader, making the US/Commonwealth moon programme sound a bit like the Boy Scouts.) Jolly stirring stuff, of course, but with a hero to whom it is increasingly hard to relate.

So, in this fourth volume,  Walters revisits the Schoolboy In Space motif.  And I have to say that he comes up with a distinctly clever plot device to justify it.

One definitely feels that as this fourth volume opens, a formula is being established. The main characters have all been thoroughly Flanderized. Or, to put it more kindly:  Walters has generated a plot machine that works, and sees no particular reason to modify it. Sir George is wise, avuncular, loves Chris just a little bit too much, but is largely absent. Sir Leo is ruthless and inhuman but gets the job done. Whiskers is nice and funny and calls people "fella-me-lad" and "young whipper-snapper". Chris is brave and noble and pious and modest and shy. Morrey is American and open-hearted; Serge is Russian and reserved. But Serge and Morrey are, truthfully, little more than names in this volume. The human interaction, such as it is, is almost all about Chris and Tony. Since Tony is in the same position that Chris was in the first book, this is rather nice, although it is a shame that Walters never makes the point directly.

There is going to be another trip to the moon; this time, three bold astronauts are going to construct a simple, pressurised dome on the surface and remain there for days or weeks, finding out all they can about the Space Beings and their increasingly repetitive Domes. There is never any question about Chris being one of the crew and (since it is an international mission) Yank Morrey and Russkie Serge, from the last volume, get to go along for the ride. Chris, Morrey, and Serge will become the protagonists of the remaining sixteen books in the series; and anyone with a background in comics may feel that Moonbase One is wrapping up an Origin Story. Nice Whiskers, the comedy RAF Wing Commander, compares them with the Three Musketeers, and at moments of peril, Chris makes the team shout “all for one and one for all” which must puzzle Serge. I suppose it could have been “to the toppermost of the poppermost.”

The Fourth Musketeer is Tony.  Tony is an alien. Well, almost as bad as being an alien. He’s from the North. And he’s distinctly common: Chris has to translate his broad Brummie accent into English for the benefit of the rest of the cast. And he didn’t pay attention at school, and he hardly ever goes to church. He’s moody. And he takes more than his fair share of chocolate. And he’s distinctly young even by the standard of agencies who routinely send sixth formers into space: he's only fifteen.

In Domes of Pico; a very bad thing happened: the nasty round monoliths bombarded the earth with nasty radiation, making all the nuclear power stations break down. In the ensuing years, a large number of younger people have come down with some sort of mysterious but always fatal blood cancer. But -- and this is actually quite clever, as blatant plot devices go -- the very small number of people who already had the cancer have equally mysteriously got better. The radiation kills healthy people but it cures sick people. (The slightly cleverer explanation is that perfectly ordinary cosmic radiation is what causes and cures the illness, and the nasty Dome rays made a temporary change to the earth’s atmosphere which let the radiation through.) Either way, the boffins want to send a sick child into space, let him absorb cosmic rays and, see if he gets better. If he does, then they can set to work making a synthetic cosmic ray generating device and save thousands of lives. 

Tony is tragically almost certain to die, and pathetically put on the space ship in a poignant attempt to save his life. Given all the tragedy, pathos and poignancy, it will come as no surprise to the reader to find out that he is ginger, freckled, happy-go-lucky, snub-nosed and endearingly naughty. He even teaches the Russian and the American to play marbles. One wanders why Walters didn’t simply name him Jimmy Olsen.

So the plot of Moonbase One partially retreads that of Domes of Pico. Chris knows that Tony is terminally ill, but isn’t allowed to tell anyone else, Tony least of all. (“Gosh! It would be awful to live with a chap you knew was dying!”) Death is regarded as mildly indecent and unmentionable. Tony’s Mum doesn’t want her dying son to come home from the hospital “Oh I don’t think I could bear it!” she says “I don’t think I could face him knowing he’s going to die.”

Sir Leo is distinctly dis-chuffed with Tony being added to his delicately prepared mission, and tells Chris to gas him, or failing that, knock him out if he causes any problem. (This line was removed from the American edition. English Grammar schools were notoriously fond of corporal punishment, but clubbing boys over the head was already considered a faux pas even in the 1950s.) Chris, however, is determined to treat Tony as a member of the crew. There is a moment of actual characterisation in which his and Sir Leo’s attitudes are contrasted:

“Very well, then. And what about the subject of the other experiment—I forget the boy’s name?” demanded the scientist.

“You’ve forgotten his name? It’s unusual for you to forget anything, isn’t it, sir?” Chris couldn’t resist the thrust at Sir Leo, and was rewarded with an angry glint in the scientist’s eyes.

“His name is unimportant. I regard him merely as an instrument. Have you any comments on his behaviour pattern to date?”

“Tony Hale—that’s his name, Sir Leo—has turned out to be a very likeable boy. “

In Blast Off At Woomera, we were told that the authorities went to some effort to provide a cover story for Chris -- no-one found out that the government was sending a teenager into space until the last possible moment. In Moonbase One, everyone kind of accepts that sticking a fifteen year old kid in a capsule with three fairly experienced astronauts is a perfectly sensible thing to do. If I had been writing the story, I might have decided that everyone in the whole world knew about Tony’s illness apart from Tony himself. He would have to be sequestered, like a jury, and there could be all sorts of tension when some damn fool brings a newspaper or a transistor radio set into the air-base. Or I might have suggested that the space agency ran a competition in which one lucky English schoolboy would win the chance to go into space, and faked the result so Tony wins the golden ticket.

So: we repeat the action of the first few books quite satisfactorily. The presence of Tony makes all the centrifuges and space-suit fittings almost as exciting as they were first time around, because they are new to Tony, and Tony is excited by them. (He is very excited indeed. He “dances round the spacesuits” in excitement when he first sees then; he “literally dances” when he first goes on an aircraft and he “babbles excitedly” when he sees the airfield.)  Although he gyrates his way through the endurance training, he sits out the serious mission briefings and science stuff. In a wry twist, he hangs around with the techies, watching them build stuff, and finds it all rather interesting. It occurs to him that if only he’d paid more attention at school, he could have been a technician as well.

Perhaps after he got back to Birmingham he’d get himself a job in a car factory. Not as an apprentice, of course, for you have to have exam certificates before you get taken on, he thought bitterly.

And so they go to the moon. Or, as Hughes, with his gift for understatement puts it: “Audacious man, in the persons of three young men and a boy, establish a foothold on earth’s satellite!” They start to do their research, having forays out onto the moon's surface and trying to learn more facts about the Domes. The Domes are still really functioning as Plot Devices, I am afraid, with no particular information about who they are and what they want. They send out a terrifying black smoke which gets everyone lost, and there is a moderately scary sequence in which our heroes have to get back from the bomb site to the moon-base despite not being able to see each other through the alien fog.

It is, as has been stated before, funny how the mind works. If I was nine or ten when I read this book, Tony was unimaginably older than me: a little bit younger than the heroes, sure, but still essentially a grown up who had been right through Big School. In my head-cannon, he is a slightly whiney and troublesome adult. Reading the actual text, he is in all respects a naughty and irritating child; and treated as such by the other characters. The scene in which he steals some chocolate rations sticks in my mind from my first reading. Chris is incredibly patronising about it, but I think I was largely on board with Tony when he said that he’d simply eaten some of his own share in advance. (Chris’s objection, that the others would be far too nice to eat chocolate while Tony goes without, didn’t really make sense to me then, and even now reads a little like moral blackmail.) By the end of the adventure, he is sulking and refusing to work with the other heroes; Chris doesn’t actually thump him across the head as Sir Leo proposed, but he does ground him in the Moonbase while the others work on the space capsule and on the surface of the moon.

But then, of course disaster strikes. A supply rocket, bringing food and fuel and even some treats, crashes. It damages the main cable connecting the three Beacons together. Without three functioning Beacons there is no way of taking off and returning safely to earth.

The whole take-off operation was dependent upon the radio beams from the beacons, for the initial guidance of Pegasus. Just as the great rocket had been carefully nursed on to its outward course by signals from Control, so its homeward journey would depend on all three radio beacons. If either of them failed to function correctly the odds were that the projectile would speed off its course and be lost in the depths of space.

So: there is no way of getting home, and everyone is, once again, quite definitely going to die. They are all very noble and brave and talk about whether a million to one chance is better than no chance at all and if it would be better to blow themselves up trying a manual launch or just suffocate slowly when the oxygen runs out.  And just when all seems to be completely hopeless....Tony agrees to come down from his room and play nicely. And he reveals a surprising twist: while he was mooching around with the techies, he learned some basic skills. He knows how to solder cables together! And although they don’t actually have a soldering iron, Tony has apparently read Lord of the Flies. Out here on the moon with no atmosphere in the way, they can use glass from a space helmet to focus the suns rays and generate enough heat to melt wire. If Tony the common working class lad hadn’t been there, the mission would have ended in disaster and everyone really would have died.

(In 1970, when the real life Apollo 13 was in similarly dire straits, the technicians at mission control gave the astronauts very detailed instructions about how to fix their stricken vessel. I can’t help thinking that if mending the cable was that easy, someone on Earth could have talked Chris or Serge or Morrey through the procedure, rather than leaving it to a stroppy chocolate pinching teen to save the day. But I am quite prepared to let this one go, because it’s a nice dramatic neat plot tie-off.)

When they get back to earth, Chris explains the moral for all to hear. Last time, we learned that evil freedom hating commie scum and normal English people would do better if they learned to work happily together. This time, we learned that workers by hand and workers by brain have an equal role to play. Again, Walters is completely explicit about this:

“Neither Serge, nor Morrey, nor I, though we are hoping to become scientists, had the knowledge or skill to make the repair. Only Tony here...had the ability to do the job. Without him, we should not be standing here now....So you space travel a good mechanic is as valuable as a good scientist. Just as we can’t all work with our heads, so we can’t all work with our hands. I think that, whatever we work with, if we do a job well we should all respect each other’s skills....”

And there you have it. In the future, Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns really will have Parity of Esteem. 

Tony is cured of his fatal illness, of course, but we've all forgotten that subplot by this point. 

And there we leave it (for now). Chris, Morrey, Serge and Tony are a team, all set up to accompany me through the closing years of Junior School and the first few years of Big School, right up until the frabjous day when Luke and Han will burst into my life. The books are badly written; the emotionalism sometimes makes me a little queasy; the characterisation struggles to make one dimension; and the piety makes one’s jaw drop a little. But they were space books, and they were in the school library, and they did what they said on the space tin. 

I wish I could return to Stan Lee's original Marvel Universe and A.A Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, and to some extent I sometimes do. But I can’t re-enter the world of centrifuges and space-suits and chaps laying down their lives for each other without a second thought. But I did enjoy pressing my nose against the glass and looking into that world; I can see why I was happy living there for a while.  

A long time ago, in the space age.