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.)