Thursday, February 04, 2016

War Reporting

The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
by Jason Fry with illustrations by Phil Noto

Heists are easy - heists, rescues, races, any type of story that has a ticking clock bolted onto the plot. Smuggler's Run profited from its status as a rescue story. The race against time, with Han and Chewie running to keep one step ahead of the Empire, gave the book a shape and trajectory of a classic thriller. Greg Rucka can write the hell out of those. The Weapon of a Jedi can't help but seem baggy in comparison.

Part of the blame must rest on the protagonist. It's accepted wisdom by now that Luke Skywalker is the least interesting thing about Star Wars. For all of the hot air expelled over the last almost forty years about the "heroic journey" and the cod-structuralism Lucas (almost certainly) picked up after the fact to explain the generic virtues of his heroic fiction, there's no evading the fact that the hero at the center of the original Star Wars trilogy was purposefully constructed to be as bland as possible. That's important in the story itself. When he appears at the beginning of A New Hope he's essentially an empty vessel, defined by longing and ambition and curiosity about and for the future, but still almost entirely a blank slate.

(As sexist as it seems in hindsight, the in-story decision to allow Luke to train as a Jedi while still maintaining Leia's cover makes sense in light of what we later learn about how the Jedi operate. She was raised as a politician, a diplomat, and a rebel, and was every bit as talented and confident as her twin brother was awkward and uncertain. She would have made a poor candidate for Jedi training given the fact that Obi-Wan and Yoda reasoned they probably were only going to get one more shot at the Emperor. Better to go with the blank slate farm boy who could be more easily indoctrinated to their dead religion than the willful, educated princess who would be just as likely to become the next Count Dooku as anything else. [To say nothing of the real-world fact that no one in 1977 had any idea that Leia was anything but a princess. The history of Star Wars is a history of turning ex post facto rationalizations of plot holes into narrative opportunities. Although Roy Thomas left the comic after a year, the evolution of the franchise evolution bears his influence, with the later Expanded Universe and even Lucas' own Prequels assuming a position in relation to the original trilogy similar to that of Infinity, Inc. and The Last Days of the Justice Society to the initial 57-issue run of All-Star Comics. In this light, it's hard to shake the association of The Force Awakens as, essentially, Geoff Johns' Star Wars, with all that implies.])


The Weapon of a Jedi isn't a thriller. The plot is simple: Luke, flying an unfamiliar Y-Wing on an undercover scouting mission, runs afoul of an Imperial patrol and is forced to put down for repairs on Devaron (you remember, where these guys come from). This just happens to be the site of an ancient Jedi temple that has been placed off-limits by the Imperial governor. With a three-day wait for his ship's repairs, Luke sets out with the aid of an unscrupulous guide to explore the ruins. (The plot is, literally, Luke killing time while waiting for car repairs.) The Empire arrives on the scene, a young Davaronian girl he befriends is jeopardized, and wouldn't you know that same unscrupulous guide who has basically been hanging around waiting to kill Luke and steal his lightsaber since his first appearance tries to kill Luke and steal his lightsaber. Luke wins, the Imperials get killed (and their bodies thrown down a giant hole, which is a nice gruesome touch), and Luke defeats the guide. The end.

If it sounds like I'm piling onto The Weapon of a Jedi, I don't necessarily mean to sound so negative. There's nothing wrong with it, but it struggled to keep my interest. Even though it's exactly as long as Smuggler's Run (which I polished off in two hours), it took the better part of a week to get through. I can't blame Jason Fry. The premise holds some of the responsibility. Set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, the book has the unenviable task of needing to fill-in a three-year gap in the timeline of a character whose backstory leaves little room for deviation. To wit: even though there's three years between the end of A New Hope and the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, Luke learns precious little about being a Jedi in that time. He shows up on Dagobah knowing almost nothing, so any attempt to fill in the blanks about what he gets up to in those three years has to avoid him actually, you know, learning anything. Here Luke finds three old lightsaber training drones in the ruins of the temple of Eedit and spends time practicing the rudimentary forms Obi Wan managed to teach him before he died. He learns how to meditate a little better. Even that feels like skating up to the edge of violating continuity, however, considering just how little he understands when he meets Yoda about the significance of patience to the Force. Even the one aspect of Luke's training that can plausibly be developed in the period - his lightsaber skills - starts to seem problematic, as the book shows him beginning to understand the Zen-like concentration necessary to wield such a difficult weapon correctly. He then forgets all these lessons about patience and concentration before he leaves for Dagobah, perhaps thanks to a Hal Jordan-esque head injury that occurs off-panel.

It's not Fry's fault that Luke is a bland protagonist. One of the smartest things they did in The Force Awakens was realize that the best way they could build anticipation for the guy was to have him gone. Here, left to his own devices and without any of the other main cast to play against (although R2-D2 and C-3PO are on hand), the book can't help but seem like marking time.

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Hey, you like C-3PO's red arm? Well guess what, he's still going on about that in the framing sequence. At this point, I am beginning to think that the red arm schtick was designed specifically to troll fans, given our relentless "fill-in-the-blanks" attitude towards gaps in continuity. Books like these wouldn't even exist if there wasn't a market for it, though, so I guess there's really no one to blame but ourselves. In buying a Star Wars tie-in novel in the first place, we advertise our status as marks.

Just as in Smuggler's Run, the framing sequence is notable far more for what it leaves out than what it says. The main story is a flashback being narrated in the present by C-3PO to Resistance pilot Jessika Pava. She wants to hear a story about the legendary Luke Skywalker. Anyone having read this before the movie might not have read much into that, but it's obvious in hindsight that Luke is a "legend" at least partially because he's been missing for a while.

The other connection comes in the form of the aforementioned unscrupulous guide, a vaguely insectoid fellow named Sarco Plank. Yes, the same Sarco Plank who appears literally for less than a second onscreen in The Force Awakens, as one of dozens of dudes hanging around the trading post on Jakku in the movie's first half-hour. He does have his own toy, though, so you can now relive the adventure of that time he tried to kill Luke in a YA tie-in novel, or that time he was sitting around while Rey did something else in the foreground. Viva la Star Wars!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #62

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #62 by Timoneil5000 on Mixcloud

A little late considering it's ostensibly a 2015 "year in review," but in my defense I finished it before Christmas break and just sort of, um, forgot to upload it. Also, those who don't pay attention to such things might want to note that my Bowie tribute mix is still available via the top pinned post on my Twitter homepage. I'll probably take it down at some point.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

War Reporting

Smuggler's Run: A Han Solo Adventure
by Greg Rucka with illustrations by Phil Noto

The phrase "meat and potatoes" came to mind more than once while reading Smuggler's Run. (The full title according to Amazon is Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Smuggler's Run: A Han Solo Adventure, in case you were wondering.) That's really not a bad thing. I'm an American, meat and potatoes make up a predictably large part of my diet. And in terms of Star Wars ancillary media, really, there are many worse things.

While this is technically being pitched as a YA book, and it's even got (very nice two-color) section illustrations by Phil Noto, it's obviously targeted for a wider audience simply by virtue of the Star Wars logo on the cover. And I can say, happily, that despite being quite a few years past anything that could charitably be described as "young adult," I didn't feel bored. There's nothing that felt toned-down or simplified here, such that even if I breezed through the book in only a couple hours I hardly felt like I was slumming. Proper Star Wars, really.

As part of the newly streamlined Star Wars canon - we're not using the phrase Expanded Universe anymore, because all this new stuff counts (or at least it does for the next few years until it gets too wild and needs to be put down) - Smuggler's Run makes a virtue out of its predictability. If you've read a lot of Star Wars stuff, you're already familiar with the contortions successive generations of writers have gone through to justify some of the more puzzling aspects of the three year gap between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. This book picks up on one of the hoariest of these old chestnuts, the question of just what Han Solo did to occupy the three years between movies that didn't involve a detour to Tatooine to pay off Jabba - even after we saw him loading the money onto the Falcon in A New Hope. Most answers to the question (that don't involve this guy) usually boil down to Han being pressured by Leia to stick around and help out, and Han letting himself be talked into it despite knowing he had other business, because, well, that's the character arc we see implied between the two films. That's pretty much what we see here, too, with the story picking up literally moments after the medal ceremony at the end of the first film, and Leia desperately organizing the evacuation of the rebel base on Yavin IV in advance of a certain Imperial counterstrike. The only problem is that the agents who have the information regarding possible new base locations have been located by the Empire. The Rebellion needs someone to rescue the surviving operative, and fast, or the Rebellion's victory celebrations will be short lived indeed.

(What isn't often addressed is the fact that since Leia was responsible for keeping Han occupied between films, she's actually responsible for him being tracked and taken by Boba Fett in Empire - she should have felt at least a twinge of guilt over having pressuring him to stay, especially since the bounty on his head proved to be a major liability while on the run from the Empire.)

Like I say, familiar territory for anyone with a passing knowledge of Star Wars. Han reluctantly allows himself to get drawn into the mission - or rather, Chewbacca's growing sympathy for the Rebels pushes Han in the direction of doing the right thing. It's a race between Han and Chewie and new Imperial counter-intelligence agent Commander Alecia Beck to locate the lost Rebel agent on Cyrkon, an industrial planet whose cities are hidden from a toxic atmosphere by giant domes. A group of bounty hunters get involved too, as you might expect, and if you were thinking that Han would find some way to play the bounty hunters against the Imperials, well, you weren't born yesterday.

That's it, more or less. Nothing fancy - no metaphysical treatises on the nature of the Force or the ancient history of the Galaxy. But familiarity isn't necessarily a problem since this is Star Wars we're talking about - they just made $2 billion with a film that could uncharitably been described as a faded mimeograph of the original, so familiarity isn't an issue for the franchise. Since all the old EU stuff from the earliest Marvel comics up through 2013 was jettisoned, the well-trod paths are new again. Most importantly, Greg Rucka does an excellent job with the remit here. I read the book through in one sitting. I wasn't trying to, either: I sat down to read a few chapters before bed and found myself quite swept along, such that before long I realized I had read 2/3 of the book in one gulp, and might as well finish it. Rucka gets all the little things right. The characters sound like themselves, the conflicts are properly set-up, and the action reads well (even if some of the details of the space dogfight at the end of the book come out a bit muddied - but those are really difficult to describe in prose effectively, so I can't really hold that against him). It feels like Star Wars. It isn't a generic sci-fi novel with Star Wars names bolted on. The universe feels properly lived in, complete with an interesting new planet whose ruined environment accentuates the intentionally down-rent milieu in which Han and Chewie circulate when left to their own devices. Certainly, Cyrkon is a more interesting environment than any of the new planets in The Force Awakens, such as Not-Tatooine, Not-Hoth-Bigger-Death-Star, and other memorable landmarks.

The best part of the book, however, is the new antagonist, Alecia Beck. She's a shrewd and capable officer, and the book doesn't gloss over the problems faced by a woman in a chauvinistic military hierarchy like the Empire. It's really easy to write villains like the Empire as completely one-dimensional, but Rucka does a good job - better than some of the movies, frankly - of painting the Empire as a real organization filled both with career officers and dangerous ideologues. Without spoiling anything, Han eventually outwits Beck by putting her in a situation where she has to balance her zealous instincts against the cost-benefit analysis of a precipitously expensive victor. This is a pretty clever turn that makes the Empire feel like a real organization with real institutional priorities that don't just involve Darth Vader's family tree. She's such a good character, in fact, that the book more or less ends with a promise of more Beck stories to come - she certainly has enough reason to want to see Han dead from here on out.

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
If you read Smuggler's Run before seeing The Force Awakens you might not have walked away with much insight, but I'm sure that was completely intentional. There's a framing sequence set in the period immediately before the film, with older Han and Chewbacca telling the story that occupies the bulk of Smuggler's Run. After seeing the film, it's obvious that these scenes get their mileage out of what isn't said - it's not just that Han and Chewie are hanging out in a random space cantina on the run from bounty hunters, but that (as we learn) they're basically playing hooky from life, running from the awful circumstances that destroyed Han & Leia's marriage in the years before the film. Something the scenes do manage to communicate, even without the later context of the film, is just how badly the years have treated Han - even after marrying the princess and living "happily ever after," he's back on the run as a crooked smuggler with a bounty on his head for having double-crossed too many people, retelling the same sad stories just like the guy in the song. Familiar, and sad.

There's also, incidentally, connecting tissue between this book and the recent Chewbacca mini-series by Gerry Duggan and Noto. It's a small thing, but there's a thread in the first (non-prologue) chapter that leads directly to the last scene of the Chewbacca book. If you're following such things.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dancing with the Goblin King

Don't front. You weren't there at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. Chances are good that if you grew up in the United States in proximity to the 1980s your early exposure to David Bowie came from one of two sources: 1983's Let's Dance LP or the 1986 film Labyrinth. The first was ubiquitous, the second something of a flop that nevertheless managed to make a significant cultural impact. Labyrinth's initial failure was reportedly one of the darkest moments in Jim Henson's career, but he lived to see the movie redeemed as it found its audience on home video.

Even though musically the period was a nadir, Bowie's performance in Labyrinth was excellent. Many stars in his position wouldn't have had the patience or the generosity for a kids' movie like that - this was before the success of Elton John's score for The Lion King, after all. (The stage adaptation of The Lion King recently became the most profitable anything in entertainment history, though, so you better believe people followed Elton's footsteps.) Soon enough it would be de rigeur for pop stars of all stripes to write songs for children's movies, but that day was still to come in 1986. I'd wager, though,without even bothering to look it up that David Bowie did Labyrinth for the same reason he did anything else - he wanted to work with someone, in that case Henson.

For all the talk of him as a singular visionary perhaps Bowie's greatest skill was his humility as a collaborator, an instinct for sniffing out the best talent paired with a willingness to let them do what they did best, with the understanding that if they looked good, he would look good too. As dramatic a moment as it is on film and record, I've always thought that breaking up the Spiders onstage without informing the rest of the band in advance was one of the all-time towering dick moves in rock history. But he spent much of the rest of his career being gracious to his collaborators and bandmates, and reaped the benefits. Rock stars aren't usually very good at collaboration - just think about how often superstar team-ups yield shockingly poor dividends. And then think about the fact that David Bowie recorded a song with Queen that had every right to be a colossal train wreck and yet somehow managed to be one of the best songs in either of their catalogs. How the fuck did he do that.

(Of course, he also did this, so . . . pobody's nerfect!)

I never had the same kind of visceral emotional connection to David Bowie that so many other, very eloquent people seem to have had. I came to Bowie relatively late. I inherited a lot of great music from my parents but, other than a cassette tape copy of Let's Dance that got a lot of play in the car when I was a kid, he was a blind spot. In terms of formative influences, he wasn't there for me. I came to him when I was a little bit older, after I'd already made some Opinions of my own. As with many people, my first proper Bowie album was a "Best Of." I listened to that quite a bit, but it had the perverse effect of not making me seek out more for a surprisingly long time - his singles are deep enough that just a one-disc LP of his best songs can seem like a universe unto itself. But I got there, eventually.

I spent my early twenties getting into Bowie an album at a time. I wasn't in any hurry. I remember getting my copy of Ziggy Stardust and just sitting on it for a while, listening to it occasionally and slowly letting it seep in. I had time, and I didn't feel a lot of pressure. But I got there, eventually.

One of the aspects of Bowie that made me want to keep him at arms' length even as I became more knowledgable and enthusiastic about his catalog was, frankly, Bowie fandom. One of Bowie's great accomplishments as an artist was understanding the significance of mythmaking in the perception of celebrity. Even in the mid-70s when he was blitzed on coke and doing and saying some of the worst things conceivable - or maybe, especially during those years - he understood how important it was to be bigger than life. Nerds eat this kind of shit up, and Bowie attracted nerds like the Legion of Super Heroes. He made sci-fi concept albums that were cool in a way that, say, Tarkus wasn't (although I'd argue, with the wisdom of maturity, that Tarkus is pretty cool, too). He had alter-egos and vacillated between good and evil. He saved the world and went mad and came back from the dead just in time. He was, essentially, Grant Morrison's Batman made flesh.

Rock critics still use Bowie's vocabulary - we talk about artists having "Berlin periods." Bowie's career trajectory throughout the 1970s is even more iconic, in its way, than the Beatles'. This was because Bowie was part of the first generation of rock musicians who had grown up as rock fans, just as the idea of fandom as we know it today was being defined by the Baby Boomers. He spent his teenage years listening to the Beatles, wanting to be the next Beatles. He understood how big a deal that was and wanted his name in lights. Contrast this to the Beatles themselves, who spent the early part of their career thinking they were still going to have to find real jobs once this rock fad (or rather, it's second wind) ran its course. The Beatles were a tragedy because none of them had a clue what they were signing up for, and probably wouldn't have wanted it if they did. Bowie wanted to manufacture a tragedy out of whole cloth because he knew how awesome it looked from the cheap seats - a will to cataclysm that found outlet in a discography defined partly by frequent reference to disaster and dystopia. You could make an analogy between Jack Kirby and Roy Thomas - the transition between the classical Silver Age of rock to its decadent Bronze - except Roy Thomas never recorded "Rebel, Rebel."

Bowie was always "cool," and I've always been skeptical of that. Every persona had a look and every look was perfect. Of course, that was the point. I've always been drawn towards artists who made hay out of the embarrassment of being bodied. Part of me still loves to see rock stars show up to play dressed like they just walked off the street to punch a time clock, and even towards the end of his life when he had settled firmly into Cool Dad mode that was still the absolute antithesis of everything David Bowie was about. I hate the fact that my spirit is inflicted with the indignity of being attached to this lumpy sack of rotting meat beset by troublesome urges both quotidian and cosmic. That's my damage, I know. But that's where the urge for transcendence comes in, the desire to surpass the limits of embodiment. That's something Bowie did understand. Sometimes, as with the best house music, Bowie could almost make it seem like being a spark of consciousness in a rapidly deteriorating flesh heap wasn't the worst thing in the world. His queerness was one of the most important aspects of his music and his image, and a huge part of his legacy - helping people become more comfortable with themselves by communicating the idea that it's OK to be weird, and furthermore, what the fuck is "weird," anyway? I'm not on that wavelength. But sometimes when I listen to David Bowie I can be, for a little bit.

I spent the last 48 hours of David Bowie's life listening to ★ and just not getting it. I'm not as well-versed in late-period Bowie as some - what I've heard hasn't impressed me much yet, even if do look forward to one day making a more rigorous examination of the evidence. It sounded weird and squawky - he's doing some reedy warble with his voice that sounds a bit goofy. I'm not a fan of the otiose Scott Walker vibe he seemed to be channeling - seems to be a kind of default mode for older musicians who lose their ear for melody and listen to a lot of Steve Reich. And worse yet, the lyrics appeared to be some sort of self-parodic sci-fi junk. I just wasn't feeling it. And then of course he has to go and die on us, and suddenly all those opaquely affected lyrics are laid bare as being literally about his own death and act of dying, and the futuristic ★ is as real as a cancer lesion. He was about to die and he was trying to tell us it was going to be OK, even if he couldn't stand the fuss of actually saying goodbye. He was up and about, smiling for the camera just days before he died. Of course I feel like the biggest asshole in the world, but he probably doesn't care. He'd probably think it was funny. Dying was easy, just like starting a new career in a new town. He didn't need that body anyway, it was just holding him back.

Labyrinth is a great film because Bowie refuses to water down his performance even though he's surrounded by dancing Muppets. He's every bit menacing, melancholy, and dignified, a perfect super-villain. He's also a perfect creep. It's a movie about growing up, specifically about young women growing up and facing a world filled with predatory male images of sexuality - occasionally flattering, even seductive images, but all the more dangerous. If he had never made it as a musician he could have been huge as an actor - the camera loves him. He's a credible figure of immense evil, but infinitely charismatic. He made it all look so easy, at least when the camera was rolling.

According to Last.FM the Top Ten artists in my playlist are:

The site only records what I listen to on my computer, so it's not representative of a lot of what I hear, but in broad strokes that's a pretty accurate representation of the artists who form the bedrock of my musical taste - at least, the stuff I come back to over and over again. That's a pretty predictable, you might even say boring selection - gah, another middle-aged white guy who listens to Bob Dylan, I know. But I guess that, my protestations to the contrary, Bowie is a pretty big part of my musical diet. He may not have been formative for me in the same way that, say, R.E.M. or Elton John or Blonde on Blonde were, but he's been there pretty much consistently since I started listening to him.

The one advantage I have over some of the bigger Bowie fans is that I've still got a while to go. I've heard a lot of people say over the last couple days that there'll never be new Bowie music again. Well, maybe for you. I'm still here, taking my time. There's a ton of stuff, whole albums I've never heard. I'm a big believer in patience. I went through a period in my early twenties where I read everything Dostoevsky wrote, but I stopped short before I got to The Brothers Karamazov. Why? Because I was a little bit burnt out by then, but also because I knew you only get one opportunity to read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. I've still never read it. Some day I will. It's nice to have something to look forward to. One of these days I'll pick up a copy of Heathen or Tin Machine II, when the mood strikes me. It'll be brand new, and I'll get to love it or hate it or be confused by it for the first time. He'll be living with me for a while yet, and I am confident he's still got some surprises up his sleeve.

(PS - Check out the top pinned tweet on my Twitter homepage.)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Blue Milk

Back in 2005, I knew. It was obvious. Even if they said it was over, and there would never be any more, it was clearly a lie. Some day, there'd be more. No time soon. But eventually.

And sure enough, I was right. You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out. Eventually, something had to give, and that "something" was George Lucas. Either he would give in to the temptation himself, or allow others to move on without him. The first, while improbable in hindsight, was always a possibility, even given the venomous fallout of the Prequels. Lucas heeds no counsel but his own. It was said in the wake of the Disney sale that one of the main factors that prompted the sale was that he didn't want to direct the sequel trilogy which he knew would eventually be made. So he chose the second option.

He did it in the most irrevocable way possible. He could never be content to hire another set of hands and merely supervise. He was too old to want to collaborate. It was best to walk away, and the best way to walk away would be to give it away. So he took the payday and gave his blessing. His notebooks and ideas were part of the deal, but they didn't want those. Just as well. Clean slate.

Star Wars started out as an idea George Lucas had that he developed with a tight-knit group of friends and partners. When Star Wars got big and stayed big, the friends and partners fell off, until Lucas was the last man standing. His name was on the company, after all. So what if something was lost? It had to change anyway.

How to criticize the Star Wars movies? They simply are. If you're with me, you're with me, and if you're not, you're shaking your head. They're just movies, after all. But even after everything else falls by the wayside, it's never quite so easy . . .

They're still special because they're so few. Cut away the ancillary products, and you've got six movies: three essential and three inessential. The latter three are beloved by many but also loathed in equal measure. Now that there's a new series of movies, designed specifically to turn back the clock and pretend the "bad" Star Wars never happened, those other movies can finally breath, be their own weird thing with their own fans and controversies in their own corner of the landscape, without the pressure of being the only other Star Wars, with all the high emotions such a status implies. Now there's new Star Wars to argue about.

But it won't be the same. As much grief as he got for it, Lucas never consented to give the fans what they said they wanted. He had his ideas and they weren't all great ideas but at the end of the day it was his vision - if you want to use such a degraded word. All the other people with a claim to have shepherded Star Wars at any point in its development were gone. Those later films, warts and all, were inarguably his, and that's what makes them so interesting and (for those of us who do love them, warts and all) compelling. It's OK not to like them. But even if you wind up preferring the new Star Wars movies to the last series (something that seems very likely as of this writing), it will be impossible to argue that they're somehow more legitimate just because they're more ingratiating. Regardless of whomever else was involved, the common denominator for all previous Star Wars was George Lucas. This new model might be good, but it'll never be the same.

Maybe that's it: I'd rather have something imperfect and weird from George Lucas than a streamlined and perfectly satisfying sequel product constructed by the Disney corporation to hit all the right nostalgia buttons. It's not my fault I just happened to be born at the right moment to have those films imprint on me like a baby bird. The relative scarcity of Star Wars material made the movies rare and special in a time before cultural ubiquity. This is why the brand is so valuable. There's still, after almost forty years, only those six movies. Everything else is ancillary. There are literally hundreds of hours of "official" Star Trek in canon, same with Dr. Who (although let's not mention "canon" and "Who" in the same sentence, I'm just talking about the broadcast TV show), but . . . still only the six Star Wars movies, the same six movies to watch and parse and argue over and build elaborate Expanded Universes and Wookieepedias around. But not after tonight, and never again. (The fact that The Clone Wars and Rebels are also considered inviolable canon problematizes this slightly, but a large majority of Star Wars fans get by just fine without ever having seen either.)

Disney is good at what they do, the well isn't going to run dry anytime soon. But it'll never go away again, and it'll never be special quite the same way. Marvel will never again be the slightly disreputable upstart with vague counter-culture cachet, either.

Back in the summer of 2005, I knew as I watched Revenge of the Sith that this was the last new Star Wars film I'd ever get to see - while at the same time somewhere else in the back of my brain I knew that was impossible. Somewhere in the future, like a beast in the jungle, there was more Star Wars waiting for me - but it was so far off as to be academic. Honestly, ten years is sooner than I anticipated. How odd to think it's actually happening.

That last scene with Obi-Wan handing off baby Luke to Owen and Beru, before walking off into the desert - I would have been content for that to be the last shot in Star Wars, ever. It's a beautiful shot, almost cheap because of the way it plays on the visual rhyme with the first film, but fair game in the context of a film series constructed on rhyming shots and sequences. That's why it works, and that's part and parcel of the franchise's appeal.

By the summer of 2005 my marriage was on its last legs, even if I didn't know it yet. My ex was a good sport about going to see Star Wars with me, even if she didn't really care. But she was miffed after that, I remember clearly. "You cry at the end of Star Wars but not for our marriage." I guess I knew Star Wars would last longer.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Meanwhile . . .

So just what have I been up to lately, since it obviously hasn't been writing about Secret Wars?

A lot of real-world work stuff, to be honest, and which includes grading papers and dissertation chapters. But in between all that SUPER-FUN STUFF I did manage to put up a couple things for the AV Club - a piece on the precarious current straits of the X-Men franchise, and a retrospective look at Marvel's original run of Star Wars comics.

Even if you're not usually a comments reader - and if you're not, you should know that the comments over at the AV Club are well-curated and often very interesting - you might want to check out a back-and-forth in the comments for the latter article between me and Charles Lippincott, of all people, which is pretty amazing if you know who that is. It was about Roy Thomas, which only makes it nerdier.

And of course, I can be found weekly over at the AV Club's comics panel, and there's even a handy link on the sidebar taking you to a list of all the writing I do for that site. I only get 500 words a week, but I do my best when it comes to dismantling crap like Stan Lee's "autobiography" or Uncanny Inhumans. (It's not just negative reviews, but that does seem to be what people respond to . . . HMMMM I WONDER WHY)

(And don't forget, the Jams never stop.)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Let's Talk About Secret Wars Crossovers!

Everything That Now Exists

Cover by Jack Kirby and George Roussos

3. The Molecule Man

The Molecule Man, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, first appeared in Fantastic Four #20 in 1963. Despite his status as a prime-era Lee & Kirby creation, he spent much of the first twenty years of his existence out of the spotlight. He wouldn't fully come into his own until 1985, when Jim Shooter plucked the character out of semi-obscurity to play a surprisingly large role in the first Secret Wars - a role which would later be expanded to co-star in the sequel.

Even though by 1963 Marvel was already experiencing its first real successes, it would be an exaggeration to say that the company yet had a firm grip on its formula. A villain like the Molecule Man was the product of Lee & Kirby's trial & error period - less a full-formed world-beater like Dr. Doom or the Sub-Mariner, and more a gimmick menace along the lines of the Miracle Man or Kurrgo. Even the name, "Molecule Man" - much like "Miracle Man" - has a faintly generic ring to it. Whereas the likes of the Mad Thinker, the Mole Man, and the Red Ghost - other second-stringers introduced in the strip's first two years - continued to appear and develop throughout the 60s, the Molecule Man was one-and-done. He would not appear again for another ten years, until Steve Gerber brought him back for Marvel Two-In-One in 1974.

But at the moment of his creation, the Molecule Man was a big deal, such a big deal that Uatu the Watcher himself - in only his second appearance - drafted the Fantastic Four to defeat him.

Art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers

Now, it bears stressing that Lee & Kirby were (literally) making everything up as they went along. The "rules" that we take for granted simply hadn't been written yet: the Watcher was some bald guy who lived on the moon, and even though he said he couldn't interfere, that was all he really seemed to do. Things were a lot more hyperbolic back then. The FF could take on a guy capable of destroying the galaxy and call it a Tuesday without really breaking a sweat. It was a weightless statement, which added to the impression of the Molecule Man as a weightless villain. Accordingly, the Fantastic Four were able to defeat him without much fuss, simply exploiting (what he believed at the time to be) his only weakness, an inability to manipulate organic matter. (They covered themselves in clay in order to pretend to be statues, in case you were wondering.) Uatu banished him to another dimension, and that was the end of that.

There were lots of stories like this in the early days of Marvel. We remember the highlights, of course. The characters and concepts that touched a nerve would return and eventually become fixtures - those that didn't, wouldn't. But eventually, almost everything from the Lee & Kirby run returned, in one form or another - even Kurrgo and the Miracle Man. When Steve Gerber brought the Molecule Man back for the first issue of Marvel Two-In-One, no one had seen him for a decade. Given the opportunity to reintroduce the character with a relatively clean slate, Gerber instead opts to needlessly complicate matters. He kills off the Molecule Man on his first page back, but not before the character passes on the family business of trying to destroy the Fantastic Four to his son. (Where'd the son come from? Where was this world that had genetically compatible humans with whom to breed? If Uatu had the power to drain [or make him believe that he had drained] the Molecule Man's powers, why not simply send him to a universe without any oxygen and let nature take its course? Steve Gerber isn't concerned with asking these questions, so I guess we shouldn't be either.)

Art by Gil Kane and Joe Sinnott

As should come as no surprise, Molecule Man, Jr. is no match for the titanic team of The Thing and the, er, Man-Thing. But by the conclusion, Molecule Man, Jr. is dead, leaving only his wand as a memento of his passing. The wand, believed to be the source of - or at least a necessary focusing device for - his powers, banged around for a while. Rather than being simply an inanimate rod, however, the wand now actually did contain the powers and essence of the Molecule Man, and possessed everyone who came into contact with it - a succession of parties that included a little girl, a snake, an unemployed boxer, Reed Richards, and a hobo.

Enter Jim Shooter.

For whatever reason, Shooter decided that the Molecule Man wasn't living up to his potential, in more ways than one. So at the tail end of 1981, he resurrected the character - literally - for a two-part appearance in The Avengers, guest starring the Silver Surfer. The first thing Shooter did was to actually bring him back, separate from merely a disembodied mind inhabiting a magic wand.

Art by Alan Weiss and Dan Green

Living in a magic wand for a decade hasn't done much for the Molecule Man's disposition. After the Surfer tells him about where he's from and why he's on Earth, Molecule Man decides he wants to be Galactus now, and sets about eating the Earth - beginning with Western New Jersey.

The Surfer is easily overpowered by the Molecule Man, but not before he can send his board (which I refuse as a matter of principle to call "Toomie") to seek help with the Fantastic Four. They're not in town, but Iron Man just happens to see the signal, at which point he convenes the Avengers to investigate the problem. The team is no match for him, even with the Surfer on hand to help. All seems lost after the Molecule Man destroys the Avengers' weapons (Cap's shield, Iron Man's Armor, Thor's hammer, and the Surfer's board), and then destroys them, crushing them in a giant, er, crushing machine. The only Avenger left standing is . . . Tigra!

Up until this moment, Tigra had been experiencing a crisis of confidence as an Avenger. Next to the likes of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, she felt insecure, and had actually been suffering from bouts of anxiety over her perceived uselessness. In fairness, however, when left alone against the Molecule Man she reacts more or less the way you or I would.

With no one around to tell him what to do, the Molecule Man is the biggest creep you can imagine. (Shooter, being Shooter, even gives us a tiny bit of gay-bating just to make sure we're supposed to know how much of a loser the guy is.) But all is not lost, and the heroes have not been killed - rather, saved by the Surfer, who phased the Avengers through the bottom of the crushing machine at the last moment. (Incidentally: this story marks the first time Cap, Iron Man, and Thor's identities are revealed to each other - as, without his hammer, Thor reverted to Don Blake, and without his armor Tony was just a greasy man in a banana hammock. Weird to think that didn't happen until 1982!)

Tigra doesn't really come off very well in this story. Left alone to handle the Molecule Man herself, she loses her nerve when presented with the opportunity to kill him. But after the battle is joined, she's had enough of his shit.

Eventually, they got the drop on him for good. But before the Avengers can decide whether or not to kill him, Tigra actually does save the day.

Now, if you can put aside all of the other terribly problematic issues raised by this story, the ending is actually quite good. Tigra talks Owen (who didn't even have a name until this story, either) down from wanting to destroy the world, convincing him that maybe, just maybe, his dissatisfaction with the world stemmed from his feelings of inadequacy, and that these feelings were based on insecurities that could be helped through therapy. What a concept! Now, one would think based on this turn of events that the Avengers would hoist Tigra up on their shoulders and parade her through town, congratulating her for saving the world . . . and (more or less) nonviolently, to boot. Well, that's not exactly what happens. She decides she's not cut out to be an Avenger, and Cap, Thor, and Iron Man - in a stunning echo of their monumentally bone-headed response to Carol Danvers in Avengers #200 - let her walk away without so much as a feigned attempt to get her to stay.

The Molecule Man - now Owen Reece, with a newfound commitment to sanity, not being a misogynistic creep, and, er, not destroying the planet, disappears from the Marvel Universe for another three years. But then . . .

Art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

The premise of the first Secret Wars, for those of you who may need a refresher (and if you do, don't worry, another will be along soon, Jim promises), was beautiful in its simplicity: the world's greatest heroes and villains were transported to the far end of the universe, to a specially constructed planet called Battleworld, in order to participate in a gladiatorial contest for the edification of a mysterious being known only as . . . THE BEYONDER!

While most of the Beyonder's (or, technically, Galactus', since Galactus was doing the Beyonder's bidding) choices were sound, there were still a couple of questions.

First among them being, in any assortment of the world's deadliest villains, why include an obscure villain who had, in his most recent appearance, been reformed? As we see, at the beginning of the series he really has no interest in being a bad guy anymore, even going so far as being unwilling to fight Ultron when Ultron loses his shit and tries to kill everyone (which, being Ultron, he does on page 9).

But even though he's trying to be better, he's still stuck with the villains. He doesn't need to be, obviously. But the Molecule Man is easily suggestible, easily scared, and as a result even more easily manipulated. So while Doom may initially dismiss him -

- he soon comes to realize that of all the assembled villains, Owen is the single most important.

As the war rages on, Doom recruits new soldiers from Denver (oh yeah, there was a suburb of Denver on Battleworld too, did I mention that?), using the machines located within the villains' fortress to transform two normal human women into Volcana and Titania. Volcana, AKA Marsha Rosenberg, doesn't have much in the way of self-esteem either, and is easy prey for Doom's manipulations. It's no wonder that she immediately makes common cause with the similarly star-struck Molecule Man.

Eventually Dr. Doom "wins" the war. (Spoiler alert for a thirty year old comic, I guess.) Having successfully stolen the Beyonder's power, he . . . well, he changes. He proclaims that he has no more desire to conquer or rule. With the Beyonder's power he becomes the most powerful being in the universe, and wants nothing more than to save his mother's soul from Hell and then leave the mortal plane entirely. His villainous cohort, however, does not react well to his attempts to make peace with the heroes of Battleworld - especially the Molecule Man, who strikes out with the fury of a true believer scorned.

Finally we've come full circle. When first he appeared the Watcher believed the Molecule Man to be a significant enough threat that not merely did he break his vow of non-interference in order to aid the Fantastic Four, but he personally intervened to banish the Molecule Man - who, importantly, believed he that had lost his powers - to another dimension. When he (sort-of) returned to Earth it took him years to get his act together, and when he did he realized that he had no real desire to fight anyone anymore. But on Battleworld, thanks to the "gift" of Doom's insight, we see that the Molecule Man was far more powerful than even he had been led to believe - in fact, he was every bit as powerful as the Watcher had initially said, back in 1963.

But ultimately, he didn't want to do anything with his power. He carried the villains - along with that chunk of Colorado - back to Earth, leaving the heroes to settle accounts with Dr. Doom and bring the first Secret War to its climax. He then settled down to a quiet, normal like with Marsha, in Denver. Far from being the angry nerd who emotionally tortured Tigra out of feelings of sexual inadequacy, he appeared positively sensitive. (Other than the whole trying to kill the heroes on Battleworld thing, which I think we can agree to chalk up to Doom's charismatic influence).

And that is where we find him at the beginning of Secret Wars II. But that is a story for another day.

Next: The Cosmic Cube