Saturday, 31 May 2014

Ip Man (2008) review

Directed by Wilson Yip
Written by Edmond Wong
Starring Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Gordon Lam
Martial Arts Choreography by Sammo Hung

Kung Fu movies are great but they're all very similar. Actually, that can be said of nearly every genre. Clichés and familiar patterns will always emerge and eventually they become part of what we expect to see when watching a movie of a particular genre. Kung Fu movies are often set in the 19th Century (if not earlier) and involve a power hungry lord as a villain. Alternatively, they’re set in the present day and involve some sort of crime lord as the villain. The hero defends the people against the villain and what makes the movie good or standout from the rest of Kung Fu films is the performance by the actors or anything additional to the Kung Fu formula. Additions often include humour, drama or romance but mostly, what fans of martial arts film really want to see is the action choreography.

While Jackie Chan has made his career by combining death defying stunts, impressive fight scenes and humour. They’ve become staples of the kind of movies Chan stars in. When he did some of his more serious movies, such as Crime Story or Gorgeous, they instantly stand out because they don’t use his regular bag of tricks. This particular movie, Ip Man, starring Donnie Yen, uses historical, specifically wartime, drama along with biographical elements to add that something extra to the story.  

The movie takes place in and around the town of Foshan and focuses on the life of legendary Wing Chun master, Yip Man (the movie’s title uses another known spelling, Ip Man). Foshan is a town known and celebrate for its martial arts schools and in this town, no master is better known or more respected that Ip Man. Despite being the grandmaster of Foshan, Ip Man’s wealth allows him not to have to take on any students. Instead, he recommends that people seek tutelage at one of the many other schools.  The movie, along with Yen’s understated performance, informs the viewer that he does this out of respect for the other masters. He doesn’t want to take away from there livelihoods. Still, Ip Man is very busy and seldom has the time to relax with his family.

Yip Man.
Once the movie has setup the day to day reality of Foshan, including early action sequences in which a ruffian comes to town determined to take on the master of martial arts to show off his own skills in the hopes of opening a school, the wartime drama kicks in. The Japanese invade China, it’s the Sino-Japanese War and the once prosperous town of Foshan is under enemy rule. Ip Man and his family now live in poverty and he’s force to take on employment at a coal mine.  Not making enough money at the mine, Ip Man agrees to fight Japanese martial artists to win rice. A Japanese general is a martial arts enthusiast and knowing the reputation of Fosha, he offers a bag of rice to any local who can beat one of his Japanese students in a fight. It’s a very difficult time for the Chinese but through perseverance, national pride and a duty to protect his family, Ip Man is able to maintain focus and survive the war. The story can get pretty bleak, especially when Ip Man’s fame as a martial arts master threatens to put his family in harm’s way.

It’s interesting to see Ip Man’s progression from pre-war to wartime. Before the war he’s calm, composed and there is hint of youthful glee in his eye when discussing Wing Chun. Later, when fighting the Japanese martial artists he’s angered by the cruelty they display towards his fellow countrymen. He reciprocates  by challenging all of the general’s fighters and the result is a brutal and somewhat frightening show of force from Ip who so far has been characterized by his strong spirit, respectful nature and calm demeanour. The fight is an excessive show of brutally after which many of the Japanese men are undoubtedly crippled for life. From calm and relaxed to violent and cruel, it’s jarring to see how the war has affected the grandmaster of Foshan. But his transformation isn’t out of character. It was pretty clearly established earlier in the film that one of the reasons he’s respected in town is because he protects those that need his protection. He protected the integrity of the other Kung Fu master when the ruffians came to town and now he’s protecting his countrymen and his family against the Japanese general and his men.

Ip Man has more story than most Kung Fu movies. Fans of more typical martial arts movies might actually find the story to be a bit slow despite early action sequences, the focus is on Ip Man and how he had to change as a person in order to survive the war. I think it’s interesting that for a movie based on a real man (legendary Wing Chun master who helped to popularize the fighting style and trained now-famous students such as movie start Bruce Lee) that the movie only focuses on a small part of Ip Man’s life. The story begins shortly before the war and ends with Ip Man escaping Foshan with his wife and child. Really, it’s a drama film with some Kung Fu but the movie works well because it treats the dramatic elements and the action elements with equal importance. It makes for a solid film all around. There are also a couple side stories that help to round out the story of Foshan and its residents. The real highlight of the movie though is Donnie Yen, as an actor and as a martial artist. His understated performance early on and his surprising brutality later on perfectly demonstrate the internal and external struggles of the man. You’d be hard pressed to find a Kung Fu movie that so effectively juggles as much as Ip Man does. It’s a modern classic of the genre.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Star Wars Omnibus: The Complete Saga, part 1 review

I wonder if there was a huge debate at Dark Horse as to which order they should present the stories of the Star Wars films. I’ve convinced myself that some people wanted to print the sagas in their original order of release, starting with the original trilogy and ending with the prequels.  Maybe there was even someone who was of the opinion that the adaptation of Episode I not be included at all. Obviously the final verdict was to release them in chronological order but I won’t the Man tell me in which order to read my comics. Fuck that! No sir. I’m reading them in the order in which the movies were originally released but even more importantly, I’m reading them in the order in which the comics where originally released. You see, the comic book adaptations of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were all release before the adaptations of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (way back during Marvel first tenure as official publisher of Star Wars comics). In all begins in the skies above Tatooine . . .

Episode IV: A New Hope
Script: Bruce Jones
Pencils: Eduardo Barreto
Inks: Al Williamson, Eduardo Barreto, Carlos Garzón
Colours: James Sinclair, Cary Porter
Lettering: Steve Dutro

The comic book adaptation of A New Hope is the most cinematic adaptation of the original trilogy. I say this because it’s the one with the least narration. There are very few caption boxes and those that are present are mostly used to set a scene and place a reader in the location such as “The Death Star conference room…” or “The fourth moon of Yavin…”. That isn’t to say there aren’t other types of caption boxes. Some of them give us insight into the characters’ feelings and others, particularly during the Battle of Yavin, give the reader additional details on the action present on the page. The comic feels more cinematic that the adaptations for Episode V and VI because the story is mostly told with the use of dialogue and art. You might be thinking “Aren’t all comics storytelling through the use of dialogue and art?” Well, yes (and no) but reading these three adaptations back to back it really struck me just how different A New Hope is from the others, both in how it tells it’s story and how it more closely resembles the film. I think that the storytelling is closely linked to how the comic accurately portrays the movie.

Despite these cinematic similarities, A New Hope doesn’t work nearly as well in comic form as it does on the screen. There are too many important components of what defines great Star Wars for me that are missing from the comic. The first is the absence of John William’s music. It’s such an important part of what maintains the tone of the movie that without out, the comic struggles to establish and maintain the tone. Fans of Star Wars have likely seen the movie a dozen times and when you’re reading a particular scene, say the Millennium Falcon defending itself from TIE fighters after escaping the Death Star I can’t help but hear the music in my head and knowing that it’s missing is a shame. It’s a pretty poor criticism, I know, comics aren’t auditory but it’s hard to accept that in this case. The other important element that is missing is the sense of movement. In my review of X-wing: Rogue Squadron I mentioned that the novel did a poor job of giving me that same sense of movement and energy given to me by the movie’s battle scenes. The same problem happens here but it’s somehow worse. In my mind’s eye I could take Michael A. Stackpole’s descriptions and make a mini movie in my head but with the comic, everything is incredibly static. That’s not to say you can’t draw something that gives the illusion of movement. Many artists have done so before but sadly you won’t find it in this comic.

I do not know if it was the intent of the creative team to give this comic adaptation a cinematic feel. It seems likely considering they’re adapting a movie but what seems like a good idea at first might actually be the comic’s biggest flaw. By resembling the movie more than the comics for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the comic adaptation of A New Hope attracts more comparison with its movie counterpart than the other two adaptations. The comparison favours the original because there are too many elements that are characteristic of the Star Wars films that are difficult to do the medium of comics. It was an uphill battle from the start but I don’t think anybody was expecting the adaptation to be equal to or better than the movie. They rarely are.

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Script: Archie Goodwin
Pencils and inks: Al Williamson, Carlos Garzón
Colours: James Sinclair, Frank Lopez
Lettering: Rich Veitch

Part of the problem with the comic adaptation for A New Hope was that it accentuated how plain the plot is. The Empire Strikes Back has a much more complex and engaging plot than A New Hope but Archie Goodwin’s excessive use of narration gets in the way of it and the whole things feels bogged down. The pacing is slower because of it and it affects the quality of the story. One of the greatest strengths of the movie is just how organically the story moves from Hoth to Dagobah to the asteroid field to Cloud City. The movie explores multiples characters in multiple different settings and it maintains a high level of action and adventure. What’s interesting about the adaptation is that there are several scenes that are added to the story. One example is the attack on the Rebel’s based on Hoth by the same yeti-like creatures that attacked Luke in the movie. Oddly enough we never actually get to see a full figure drawing of the monster. Instead, all we see are hairy arms and legs. Another example is additional training scenes Yoda has with Luke on Dagobah.

Reading The Empire Strikes Back was a strange experience. It’s very different from the movie and a lot of that has to do with Goodwin’s writing. His use of narration serves to slow down some scenes from the movie while also quickly skipping over other scenes. If you consider the additional scenes, it’s no surprise that the comic seems to present an alternate version of what The Empire Strikes Back could have been. The art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzón is much moodier than the art for the other adaptations. Part of it is because of the inks and another part of it has to do with the colours by James Sinclair and Frank Lopez. It works well with the more introspective tone and feels of the series. Overall I connected more emotionally with the art in The Empire Strikes Back than I did with the art in A New Hope but what it gained with its moodier art it lost in clarity. The art in A New Hope was easier to read but it also had less detail and the storytelling wasn’t as strong. The story in A New Hope’s adaptation felt like there were regularly panels missing from the page; the storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back is much stronger. It’s clearly the work of veterans of the comic book industry and it shows on the page. I had to get used to it a bit but once I was in the story my biggest problems were with the unnecessary narration regularly stepping on the artists’ toes.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Script: Archie Goodwin
Art: Al Williamson, Carlos Garzón
Colours: Cary Porter, Perry McNamee
Lettering: Ed King

Return of the Jedi was adapted by the same writer and artists as the comic of The Empire Strikes Back but there are some significant differences between the two comics. For starters, Return of the Jedi is the shortest of all the adaptations in this omnibus collection. It’s just a tad under 70 pages long and that’s pretty surprising for an adaptation of a full length movie. It contrasts the length of the previous comic which was one of the longer stories in the collection. The reason being is that Goodwin reduced the frequency of his caption boxes. The narration is much more limited and evenly spread out as it was in The Empire Strikes Back. He changed his storytelling approach and used far more dialogue per panel and per page than he did in his previous adaptation. The reader actually experiences characters talking without being intercut by needless narration. Dialogue heavy scenes take less space than before and the same can be said for action heavy scenes. The fight against the Empire on Endor is one of the moments where caption boxes are most heavily uses but Goodwin does it in a different way. Instead of using narration as a device to provide additional details, he uses it as a way to reduce the number of panels necessary to tell the story. It could also be that Goodwin doesn’t feel like spending time in the head of Ewoks. I can't say I blame him.

The art also contributes to shortening the length of the comic. There are more panels made up of just faces or upper torsos as opposed to full body or three-quarter body images. A lot of room is given to speech bubbles and the art suffers for it. While reading The Empire Strikes Back I couldn’t help but wonder what the art would look like at a larger page size. The page size of the omnibus collections is smaller than your standard comic book and the result is that art is smaller than its intended size. I certainly felt the same way about the art of Return of the Jedi but there is a considerable amount of pages where I honestly don’t think the page size matters because it would just look like a bunch of speech bubbles with faces next to them. It’s also interesting to point out that while the same artists worked on both stories, the art is Return of the Jedi is cleaner and less heavily inked. I think it might have to do with just how much is done by Wiliamson and how much is done by Garzón but either way, they’re a decent team. It is a bit of a shame that the technology looks better drawn than the characters but it helps that everything remains consistent throughout each story.

I will conclude my review of Star Wars Omnibus: The Complete Saga next week with Episodes I, II and III.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Miscellaneous Reviews 07: Batman: Ego and Other Tails and Lucky Luke: La Diligence

Batman: Ego and Other Tails:
Batman: Ego and Other Tails is nearly all written and illustrated by Canadian comics creator Darwyn Cooke. It’s a collection of shorter works by Cooke, all of which feature Batman except for story that focuses on Catwoman. Paul Grist wrote one of the stories and Bill Wray and Tim Sale drew one story apiece. My enjoyment of the collection was lukewarm as far as the Batman stories are concerned. Nothing really engaging or truly original happens. I enjoyed the art by Cooke, Bill Wray and Tim Sale but the writing that accompanied those stories was flat. I remember very little from the stories and I read them less than a day ago. It’s pleasant to read but it left no impression on me.

The Catwoman story, titled “Selina’s Big Score” was a different thing all together. In essence, it’s about Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman, pulling a heist. At the beginning of the story she does a job that ends without pay and she quickly finds another job to pull, one with a big payout if everything goes right. The rest is played out like a novel written by Richard Stark. People who are familiar with Cooke’s body of work will know that he’s no stranger to Richard Stark, particularly his Parker series. “Selina’s Big Score” follows the formula of the Parker novels and the effect makes for a stellar comic. It’s also a little strange as it also works as a crossover story between Catwoman and Parker. Parker is named Stark and visually he is based on Lee Marvin except he’s uglier which suits the character just fine. The structure is just like that of a Parker novel. It’s in four part and the third part is presented from a different point of view, namely that of Slam Bradley a private detective who resides in Gotham City. The idea to make a crime story starring Selina Kyle is a stroke of genius. Her thieving background makes it a natural fit. It’s not surprising that this 80-odd-pages graphic novel led to an ongoing Catwoman series by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke. It’s solid work in an otherwise unimpressive collection.

Alfred Hitchcock cameo in La Diligence.

Lucky Luke: La Diligence (The Stagecoach):
I’ve mentioned before that my childhood was filled with hours spent reading. I devoured my dad’s collection of bandes dessinées for years. The only reason I stopped is because I eventually moved out of my parents’ house when I finished high school. Since then I’ve occasionally read a BD but nothing has quite captured me like the titles I read in my youth. Last weekend took a few Lucky Luke albums from my dad’s collection and La Diligence is the first of those that I’ve reread. Lucky Luke is still one of my favourite all ages BD.

Originally created by Maurice De Bevere, better known by his pen name Morris, Lucky Luke has been in publication since 1946. It’s a giant in the BD industry and new stories continue to be released even after Morris’s death in 2001. La Diligence is written by René Goscinny, Morris’s most famous collaborator on Lucky Luke. The story is pretty straight forward. Lucky Luke is hired to protect a Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoach as it travels a vast distance to transport gold and passengers from Denver to San Fransisco. The whole thing is a publicity stunt to show the world that Wells Fargo stagecoaches are a safe means of travel. The gold cargo is heavily advertised and as such the stagecoach becomes a target for desperados and thieves throughout the entire journey.

Morris and Goscinny use this simple story to provide the reader with numerous funny scenes in which Lucky Luke gets to show off his skill as a cowboy and the passengers each get their little moment in the spotlight. It’s a fun story that never forgets what it’s all about; that is to say a fun western adventure story with some jokes, some less subtle than others. What makes this is many other Lucky Luke stories is how it takes a few aspects of American history from the 19th Century and spins it into an entertaining BD. This album obviously dealt with the realities of traveling by stagecoach and it’s notably for its inclusion of Black Bart, a notorious thief who specialized in robbing stagecoaches. The historical aspects are often caricaturized but there is still considerable attention given to historical accuracy. At the very least, Lucky Luke: La Diligence tells the kind of story that will not only entertain readers of all ages, it will likely inspire you to do a bit of research on the more historically interesting elements of the story. 

My review is based on the French edition of La Diligence published by Dargaud published in 1984.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Prophet volume 3: Empire review‏

With the third volume of Prophet published, it’s much easier to see the structure of the series. It’s uncanny just how sneaky the narrative has been since issue #21, the first issue of the reboot. Labelled as part of the Image Revival, Prophet was rebooted by Brandon Graham at the helm and aided by a host of collaborators. Throughout the series they’ve all rotated on art duties and Brandon Graham, Simon Roy and Giannis Milonogiannis are credited with the story. Graham takes care of most of the scripting and he’s also taken on the duty of layout artist (something the other artists also contributed to during the earlier issues but timing and deadlines made them assign a specific person). It adds some nice consistency to the art, pacing and storytelling. I’ve come to really enjoy the creative team on this book. Roy and Milonogiannis do the bulk of the artwork but they’re aided by a host of other artists, likely inkers as Roy and Milonogiannis are also credited as colourists. The different art styles mesh together well, all complimenting each other but also adding further variety to the strange worlds and aliens being created as issues drawn by Simon Roy look different from those by Giannis Milonogiannis. I’m convinced that if the whole things was the product of a single artist many of the creatures would look similar and thus make the whole comic look less creative and original.

It’s important not to understate the work of the artists on this series because it’s clearly one of the reasons the series is so great. In volumes 1 and 2 most of the story was told through narration boxes and images. There isn’t a lot of dialogue and it gives the story a certain distance, strengthening the idea that the events are taking place far in the future. It’s so strange that the reader is forced to participate in the story as the actions require interpretation by the reader; it requires we puzzle together the short, almost sound bites style narration and the dazzling depictions of future worlds in order to see the story fully realized. This is the best kind of comic. It uses the medium to do something it’s good at, which is engaging the reader in a participatory relationship with the comic. In a world where most comics are about superheroes that inhabit worlds very similar to our own, it's very refreshing to read a comic where everything is varying digress of odd. The worlds and aliens imagined by Graham and his collaborators (nearly everybody contributes to the story) are so unusual I can helped but be thrilled, curious, weirded out and pensive all at the same time.

The choice of having little dialogue and telling the story mostly through images and short narration boxes makes the story feel more emotional. The thinking part of my brain is being used, but my thoughts aren't being stimulated by dialogue. Instead the story connects with me in a more loosely defined way, though my emotions. Those emotions mixed with the images of what’s happening on the page make me think about what I’m reading. It’s emotional stimulus brought on by visual aids. The third volume of the rebooted Prophet has more dialogue than the previous collections. I think that part of it is due to the fact that the setup, all of the establishing issues, are done. The pieces are all set and the story is advancing at a quicker pace than it has before. It’s both refreshing and exciting! That’s not to say Prophet has become a dialogue heavy comic because it hasn’t. Characters still talk in small, punchy speech bubbles and there are nearly silent pages in every issue but Prophet: Empire is definitively the indication that the series has entered a new phase.

The first volume established the setting, the tone and a handful of characters. The second volume focused on Old Man Prophet and his mission to reform his team and search for new allies. As the title suggests, the third volume brings the focus back to the Empire and its growing army of Prophets.

In more than one way, this volume is about both stories coming together. The first Prophet we met in issue #21 is now known as New Father John, one of the Prophets’ leaders. They are not the only leaders though; the Brain Mothers and the Brain Father control the Empire with their telekinetic powers. All young Prophets are trained and brainwashed to obey their Brain Mothers, regardless of their instructions. Old Man Prophet wears protective gear to prevent his former masters to gain control of his mind. He has his own telekinetic ally, a being known only as Troll. There are some very exciting developments between Old Man Prophet, Troll and New Father John. Other things take place in volume 3 that are also very exciting, such as the addition of yet another threat to this new war.

This volume is about both storylines coming together and the creative team delivers that story in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  Prophet: Empire gives the reader a little bit of everything. It establishes even more new elements to the series, provides further information regarding the Empire along with Old Man Prophet and his allies.  The most exciting of all is that it pits New Father John and Old Man Prophet are on a collision course. It's going to be pretty sweet when they meet up.

I’ve read a few reviews of Prophet online and it appears to be a very divisive series. People who enjoyed it really enjoyed it but those who didn’t seem to loathe the “weird art” or think that the comic “doesn’t make any kind of sense”. One reviewer even dismisses the book after admitting he didn’t even read half of this collection. Did he read the first two volumes? I have no idea but it’s clear to me that he didn’t enjoy having to put any effort in his reading. He went so far as to dismiss the series as “nonsense”.  What I like about Prophet is that it challenges me. Readers who didn’t enjoy it critique it for the same reason I love it. Prophet doesn’t spoon feed the reader. What it does is provide the reader with a rich and complex story that can withstand, I would even say encourages, multiple readings. What you get out of Prophet is proportional to what you invest in it and I see nothing wrong with that. That’s especially true when the series continues to be a refreshing combination of originality, engaging storytelling and captivating artwork. 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Star Wars Omnibus: The Other Sons of Tatooine review

Dark Horse has been releasing omnibus collections of their Star Wars comics for a few years. I’ve read a couple before and unfortunately, they just weren’t anything worthwhile. The quality of the book was rather nice. The binding is pretty good for comics so thick and they collect about three to four regular sized trade paperbacks worth of comics. You can’t really go wrong unless you buy the Boba Fett or Early Victories trades which I didn’t really enjoy. At the end of the collection, there is a note regarding the omnibus books:

Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars omnibus collections were created as a way to showcase actual novel-length stories or series, and to provide home for “orphaned” series, single-issue stories, and short stories that would otherwise never be collected.

The idea works well and the previous collections I read really showcased the idea of collection smaller stories that are still linked in some way, either by focusing on a character or a timeline. This particular collection groups together stories from three other characters native to Tatooine, other thank Luke Skywalker. Most of the stories were originally serialized in Star Wars: Empire and Star Wars: Rebellion.

X-Wing: Rogue Squadron ½
Credits: Michael A. Stackpole (story), Mike W. Barr (script), Gary Erskine (art), Dave Nestelle (colourist), and Annie Parkhouse.

This is a single issue story that takes place just before the Battle of Yavin. Members of Rogue Squadron are on a mission on Commenor to pick up several R2 and R5 units from a smuggler. The droids are for the Alliance’s X-wing starfighters which currently aren’t capable of travelling through hyperspace due to the lack of astromech droids. It’s interesting just how important droids are to the use of a starfighter. A pilot is several limited without one. Not only do they play a crucial role as a navigation computer, they also assist with repairs. Pilots can do pretty well without a droid when travelling short distances but for long distance they absolutely need an astromech.

It was interesting to see that there was a female pilot, Cesi "Doc" Eirriss, a Twi’lek. I’m not sure if this is a commentary by the writers on the complete lack of female pilots in A New Hope? You have to hand it to Stackpole as he’s done a good job incorporating a wider variety of aliens in addition to balancing out the genders of important characters in the Expanded Universe. Overall this story was short and sweet and it didn’t overstay its welcome but it feels in dire need of context. I preferred the story when it was retold in “The Saga of Biggs Darklighter”.

The Saga of Biggs Darklighter
Credits: Paul Chadwick (writer), Douglas Wheatley (penciler), Christian Dalla Vecchia (inker), and Chris Chuckry (colourist), Digital Chameleon (letterer). Originally published in Star Wars: Empire #8-9, 12, and 15.

The second story focuses one of the characters that appeared briefly in A New Hope, Biggs Darklighter. In the movie he only appears near the end, during the briefing before the attack on the Death Star but Biggs gets an earlier introduction in the novelization of A New Hope. While Luke is still on Tatooine he spends some time talking with some of his friends and Biggs was among them. “The Saga of Biggs Darklighter” takes the character and essentially shows his point of view story happening parallel to the events of the first Star Wars movie. There is a part of the story that takes place several months (maybe even a couple of years) before the fateful day two droids came crashing down on Tatooine’s surface.

Biggs’ story is interesting on its own but the creative team kicks it up a notch by telling the story as a serious space drama. Everything feels so important and there is a sense of gloom to the whole thing because anyone who’s watched the movies knows how Biggs’ story ends. It’s surprising just how much happens in just four issues. Paul Chadwick uses his narration boxes to great effect. It blends well with artist Douglas Wheatley’s work and it contributes to filling the comics to the brim with action, mutiny, and space battles. It’s just so well done. I can hardly believe that something so good could have been made based on a character that doesn’t spend more than a few minutes in the movie. His comic story meshes so well with this movie story that it feels like a series of deleted scenes that should have been part of A New Hope. Biggs as a good a main character as Luke was during Episode IV. Sure, Luke was later developed and grew more interesting but his wide-eyed innocence and know-it-all attitude didn’t give him much during his first adventure. I’m a bit upset that there won’t be more Biggs Darklighter stories. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that because there is a shit ton of Star Wars comics in the long boxes and on the shelves but for me, this is the definitive version of Biggs’ story.

There was only one thing that bugged me about the story. There is an editorial note that appears about three or four times which explains that although the creative team was aware that TIE fighter pilots wear a helmet and suit that is under pressure. The note is there because in the story, Biggs along with all of the other pilots wear a helmet with no visor or faceplate. The reason being is that they wanted to be able to show facial expression. I can’t decide whether or not the decision is lazy or simply uncreative. I think that a more interesting solution could have been found. Anyone who’s ever read an Iron Man comic could have offered a least a couple different options. It soils what is one of the best Star Wars comics I’ve ever read.  

The Bravery of Being Out of Range
Credits: Jeremy Barlow (writer), Brandon Badeaux (artist), Michael Atiyeh (colourist), and Michael Davis Thomas (letterer). Originally published in Star Wars: Empire #23.

“The Bravery of Being Out of Range” is a throwaway story. It’s about another character who hails from Tatooine, BoShek, and the entire issue is just a chase comic. It ends by showing the reader that regardless of whether you’re a supporter of the Empire or the Alliance, the galactic civil war will find a way to suck you in. You can’t avoid the conflict because it can be found everywhere in the galaxy, even on backwater planets.

The Last Man
Credits: Welles Hartley (writer), Davidé Fabbri (penciller and colourist), Christian Dalla Vecchia (inker), Sno Cone Studios (letterer). Originally published in Star Wars: Empire #16-18.

The Wrong Side of the War
Credits: Welles Hartley (writer), Davidé Fabbri (penciller and colourist), Christian Dalla Vecchia (inker), and Michael David Thomas (letterer). Originally published in Star Wars: Empire #36-40.

My Brother, My Enemy
Credits: Rob Williams (writer), Brandon Badeaux (penciller), Wil Glass (colourist), and Michael Heisley (letterer). Originally published in Star Wars: Rebellion #0-5.

The last three stories in the collection focus on yet another Tatooine native: imperial Lt. Janek “Tank” Sunber. They’re presented here in chronological order and it’s quite nice because it gives you a pretty fair assessment of what it’s like to be an imperial during the galactic civil war. “The Last Man” takes place on the world of Maridun where they are attacked by the Amanin. Outnumbered, Sunber finds himself clashing with his superior officers and trying to survive the battles with the natives. It’s Janek’s first time questioning the efficacy and the values of the Empire. “The Wrong Side of the War”, reinforces the internal struggle Sunder is having by having him meet up with Luke. It becomes quickly apparent that both young men have chosen different paths and while Luke is confident in his allegiance with the Alliance. Sunder on the other hand has his faith shaken. Everything comes together in “My Brother, my Enemy” in which Sunder strongly considers joining the Alliance and everything ends in bloodshed.

While I enjoyed Sunber’s story, the real highlight of The Other Sons of Tatooine is The Saga of Biggs Darklighter. But Sunber’s portion of the collection is still a very good read. You seldom get a story which focuses on an imperial but the writers take it one step further. Sunber is questioning his loyalty to the Empire and he’s also questioning the validity of the Alliance’s war. Part of it has to do with his childhood friendship with Luke and the news of Biggs’ story and the sacrifice he made during the Battle of Yavin struck a chord with him. What makes his story work though is how it ends. He easily could have become a member of the rebellion but instead he chose to stick with the Empire because of what he believes is right. It’s not an easy ending and that’s what makes it work. The Empire isn’t entirely made up of bad individuals. Certainly there are bad men in power, but some of these other guys are just trying to earn a living in a confusing and war torn galaxy. Naturally, not everybody born on Tatooine is a hero but The Other Sons of Tatooine clearly demonstrates that many other inhabitants of the Star Wars Universe have a story worthy of being told . . . and read by any self-respecting fan of the franchise. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Blog Fantastic 019: Warbreaker review

Warbreaker is my first Brandon Sanderson book. I’ve known about him and his work ever since he was announced as the writer who will finish writing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. It’s taken me a long time to get to read one of his books because all of his novels I see in stores are either second or third volumes in a series or the Wheel of Time books (readers will know I’m only three the prequel and the first two of that series). Sanderson has been at the top of my list of fantasy authors to discover for a few years and when I included him in my list of authors and series to read in my introduction to The Blog Fantastic project, I specified A Way of Kings. I’m a little ashamed to admit it’s been sitting on my shelf since then. Still, maybe reading Warbreaker will motivate me to pick up and read the giant ass first volume of The Stormlight Archive.

I found Warbreaker at my local used bookstore. It was the only Brandon Sanderson they had. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s still relatively new to the genre (his first book was published in 2005) or if people consider his books very good and do not wish to trade them or sell them. Either way, I’m glad there was at least one book of his that I could actually read. All in all, my first Sanderson reason experience was a very good one. The man lives up to his reputation, particularly in the magic department.

The story isn’t anything earthshattering. Over three hundred years ago, at the end of the Manywar,
the kingdom has been divided in two. The port city of Hallandren, once the kingdom’s capital, has remained in power but is now under the rule of the God King and the Returned. They are all rich in Breaths and the people revered them for their BioChroma. The royal family has retreated to the northern province of Idris where their faith in the unseen god Austre has led them to despise the heretic practices of the people of Hallandren. Twenty years before the beginning of the novel, a treaty was made between the rivals in which the King of Idris agreed to marry his daughter to the God King, hoping to bring peace between the two nations. Two of his daughter eventually make it to Hallandren and there they do all they can to prevent the war with Idris. Most of the novel is about the characters attempts to prevent or encourage the war.  

Breaths and BioChroma in Warbreaker:
Magic is the star of the show. I would not be surprised to find out if the novel’s origins followed the creation of the magic system. As such, the story can sometimes feel like a frame which allows Sanderson to be organized in his presentation of BioChroma. The story is structure in such a way as to allow Sanderson to regularly insert additional information regarding the magic. His approach to magic is very original and it’s so detailed as to make the magic feel somewhat scientific but it works. The problem with complex magic systems isn’t the system itself, it’s the author’s explanation of the system and how it’s handled. Complicated explanation or ham-fisted exposition will render any interesting magic system into something incomprehensible and boring. Sanderson avoids that in part because his writing style is clear and simple without being unrefined. I certain that it’s more difficult to do than it sounds. As I’m about to show, BioChroma is complicated and to explain it so effectively as Sanderson did without patronizing the reader is impressive.

Right at the prologue, Sanderson assaults the reader with his world building and the magic system of the story. You actually don’t fully understand the evens of the prologue until you’ve read more of the book, but the building blocks are all present in the first few pages. BioChroma is a magic that takes its power from humans souls which the inhabitants of this world refer to as Breaths. Every person is born with one Breath but they can accumulate any number of them. This of course is difficult to do since Breaths cannot be stolen from others, they can only be given. To further complicate things, when someone gives Breath away, they cannot control the number of Breaths they give. It’s an all or nothing deal. Breaths power BioChroma which can give the owner powers even if no magic is performed. To have one or multiple Breaths will affect how the individual views the world around them because having a certain number of Breaths will give you special abilities. There are ten levels of different abilities, the more Breath you have the higher the level, or Heightening, you are at. Owners of 50 Breaths attain the First Heightening which grants them Aura Recognition: the ability to sense and see other’s auras.

Owning Breaths is also the first step to being able to use magic, or to Awaken objects. To Awaken an object is to give them life by giving them Breaths. Not all objects can be Awakened, metals and other objects made of non-organic materials. Plants or objects made of plants are the easiest to Awaken because plant-based objects were once alive. This makes it easier to suffuse life into those objects. It’s also easier if you shape the object you wish to Awaken into a human shape. These Awakened objects can then perform tasks based on specific Commands you give them. In order to effectively Awaken, you need another component: colour. Colour is the fuel that powers the spell. Thus, in order to Awaken, you require an object to Awaken, a Command for the object, Breaths to give them object and colour to power it all. Awakeners often carry around colourful handkerchiefs to prevent their clothes from discolouring to grey when using magic. I forgot to mention that you need to have physical contact with the object you wish to Awaken as well as the source of colour you’re using. But that can vary based on your level of Heightening.

See what I mean about the magic system? It’s very complex! I’m only scratching the surface, too. There are far many more things that can be done with BioChroma and parts of what make up the city of Hallandren are intrinsically related to magic. The use of Lifeless armies is but one additional example. Like the story, Sanderson built the world in which the story takes place entirely around the existence and the use of BioChroma.

Everything is influenced by magic, from the characters’ world view as well as their actions. Their actions then inform the reader about how magic relates to their day to day lives. Everything comes full circle and it makes for a very satisfying reading experience. The better you understand the magic, the better you understand the characters and their motivation.  Magic is so ingrained in their cultures that it forms governments, destroys kingdoms and affects everyone in some way or another. From the social-economic, the political and the religious. BioChroma plays a role in everyone’s life, even if they aren’t magic users themselves. Because Breaths can be interchanged like a form of currency, those who have many likely bought them from the poor who are left with very little in return. Having many Breaths make it easier to acquire more which can cause some pretty serious divides in social strata.

Character Study and Further Development of Magic:
Sanderson isn’t just adept at developing magic, he’s also pretty good at developing characters. He uses them to provide expository explanation of BioChroma, of course, but more importantly it’s through his characters that he develops the theme of identity. Sanderson has two main types of characters in Warbreaker: some that appear to be something are really the opposite of what they appear to be and others who embody contradictions by having two opposing identifiers to who they are. The sisters, both princesses of Idris, are the first kind of characters. Who they were at the beginning of the novel is radically different than who they are by the end of it. Seeing their development as characters is one of the highlights of the book. Particularly Vivenna, the eldest, who annoyed me at first but grew so much as a character that I came to like her in the end. Really though, I liked all four point of view characters. Siri, the youngest sister, who has to learn to navigate the complicated politics in the Court of Gods in an all or nothing effort to prevent war between Hallandren and Idris. There is also Lightsong a god who doesn’t believe in his own godhood and the mysterious Vasher and his equally mysterious sword, Nightblood, who are roaming the streets of Hallandren doing who knows what (thankfully we find out by the end of the book).

My favourite character was Lightsong, Lord of Bravery. He’s one of Hallandren’s gods, a Returned. He died a bold and heroic death which resulted in him being returned to Hallandren. As a Returned he has a very powerful Breath, strong enough to grant them the powers of the Fifth Heightening. Theologists say that Returned have come back from the other side of the Incandescent Wave in order to accomplish something. Their priests and servants keep them alive by finding candidates to give them Breaths. They're also busy trying to help their gods remember why they came back and what they wanted to accomplish. Their memories are shattered by the forces required to send then back to life. Once they're accomplished their goal they're encouraged to use their Breaths to heal or help one of the common people. Daily petitions allow for commoners to plead their cause. 

Lightsong is a god who doesn’t believe in his own godhood. He’s clearly Returned but he’s still very critical of the religion that is tied to those who have Returned. He’s a godly equivalent of a person who is smart but incredibly lazy and incredibly unmotivated. HE feels bad about having so many priests and servants devoted to him and it pains him that so many people suffer simply to maintain his lavish lifestyle and to prevent him from dying again. He’s like a manga and anime character in many respects. He’s a slacker with amazing abilities. He’s very capable but lacks the motivation
to really do anything of worth. He reminds me of Spike Spiegel (from Cowboy Bebop), Vash the Stamped (from Trigun) and Shikamaru Nara (from Naruto). He's an unusual character for fantasy novel and that's why it works. He's constantly asking his high priest what the point of it all is but he doesn't do it in an existential way. He's just lazy and bored. It takes something out of the ordinary to stimulate him and once he's properly stimulated he because a force to be reckoned with. It's actually very exciting to see him become interested in something because you know hems capable, even if he hasn't shown it.

The sisters from Idris are interesting but I don’t like them at the beginning of the novel. I like them much more about midway in the book where their characters are less like templates. They have depth to them and that’s what makes them interesting. I enjoyed seeing their growth. Susebron and Vasher are also interesting mostly because of the mystery to them. I really liked Vasher but the book didn’t have enough of him in it. Sanderson has talked about doing a sequel some day and if he does, I really hope that Vasher and Nightblood play a larger role in the story. I would also enjoy having the sisters continue to play a big role because they’ve been well developed and it would be unfortunate for them to be left behind.

Sanderson skilfully balances big and complex ideas with a simple and clear writing style. The story moves at a leisurely pace which clashes a bit with the ever-present threat of war. It’s necessary though because Sanderson needs to juggle the explanation and development of the magic system with the advancement of the plot. I think it’s great how explanation for BioChroma are spread out from beginning to end but it also results in slower plotting. It’s worth it thought because all of the pieces fall into place and it leads into a pretty grand finally that is sure to surprise most readers.

The magic system is truly fantastic. It’s the part of the book that separates it from other modern fantasy novels. Like some of the best fantasy writers, Sanderson develops a world where you need to learn the words and the expressions in order to fully appreciate and understand the story. You have to immerse yourself completely and he aids the reader by building a world that is rich and full of detail. His ability to mesh that with a clear and sometimes wise authorial voice is what made Warbreaker and excellent read.  

Note: Sanderson shared Warbreaker in it’s entirely on his website before it even got published. He wrote it and published t one chapter at a time and later reworked and revised it as he went along. I liked his perspective on it and I think you should check out his website where he discussed his decision to share Warbreaker (here).

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Glory volume 1 and 2 review

Glory as written by Joe Keatinge with art by (mostly) Ross Campbell is the re-introduction of a character called Glory who is essentially a Wonder Woman rip-off originally created by Rob Liefeld during the 90s. I’ve read both volumes collecting the entire 12 issue run by Keatinge and Campbell several weeks ago and I’ve been struggling to write something about it. In the end, I think the best way I can summarize my feelings for Glory is that like the character, these issues has so much potential and it wanted to tackled some big ideas and develop and interesting story but somewhere along the way the creators appear to have lost some steam and what could have been a long and successful series stumbled past the first checkpoint and called it quits. My only expectations going in to this comic was based on the promotional art and character sketches by Campbell. Other than that, I was going into the series cold. I mention this as I think it’s important to clarify that my disappointment with the series isn’t based on expectations I have prior to reading the series. I’m disappointed because I read a very good beginning to a larger story and somewhere after the first volume’s worth of issues the story was fast forwarded to the ending of a story that didn’t fit with the beginning story I had just read. The middle is missing which means the ending felt rush and a tad too false for my taste.

The story takes place in the present day where a young woman named Riley is troubled by frequent and recurring dreams of Glory. The dreams are about Glory’s past history. Riley repeatedly revisits Glory in her dreams and she becomes obsessed with the alien war goddess. She decides to write a research paper on her and while researching and investigating Glory’s current whereabouts, she gets caught up in Glory’s war and develops a friendship with the legend herself. Keatinge doesn’t hold back. He chooses to use Glory as a place to play around with some of the most popular themes in fiction, namely love, friendship and war. As such Riley and Glory’s lives are more closely related than either one of them thought and the development of their friendship is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. It’s lame how their friendship wraps up at the end of this twelve issue run but that’s more of a result of the writer’s rush to the finish line than any lack of vision or skill on Keatinge’s part.

In this iteration, Glory is the daughter of two alien races and her birth resulted in the unification of both races and the end of their seemingly endless war. She was raised to be a weapon but after 500 years of training, she decided to do some good. She visits Earth and makes it her second home, fighting in dozens of wars throughout the years. Other heroes of Earth, particularly Supreme, attempt to get her wrapped into superhero politics with all it’s nonsense of teams and arch villains. She refuses, mostly due to her age and years spent avoiding such trivialities. She’s eventually called back to her home planet to fulfill her destiny and be a weapon of war and destruction. After the war she returns to Earth but in a different capacity, she shared a body with Gloria and eventually meets up with Riley.

The best part of the series is, without a doubt, the art by Ross Campbell. I love the look of Glory even though it’s over the top. Campbell’s style works really well with Glory. The ultra-muscular design is ideal for her character and I’m very surprised that he still retains a strong sense of femininity to her. I would have thought it’d be impossible to do with her large stature but he makes it work. I think part of it is that she’s not just the same body shape as the other women with the addition of being bigger. She’s taller yes, and her frame is much wider, but her proportions are oversized. By describing it like I’m doing you would likely picture something grotesque but Glory is beautiful. It’s a different kind of beautiful, a different aesthetic or idea of beauty, than say Riley, Gloria or Emilie. There’s something about how Campbell draws the female form that makes it instantly recognizable as something womanly. Perhaps it’s the look of softness they all have. Glory, despite her incredibly large muscles, can look very soft and inviting. It’s quite nice to see how well Campbell draws her body language when she’s feeling vulnerable or when she’s spending time with Emily. It’s a different side to the character. His line work instils such a sense of humanity in his characters. It’s a joy to look it.  

Glory as drawn by Rob Liefeld.
Campbell is also very good with all the gore and violence in the comic. Glory is about war and we get plenty of action and bodily injuries to satisfying even the most desensitized reader. Just like Glory’s character design, the gore is over the top but it balances well enough with the more serious story that Keatinge is trying to tell. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to it but I get a sense that it’s not meant to be the focus of the book. Keatinge and Campbell make for a very interesting creative team since their separate contribution to the comic clash in a way that both compliments the other’s work while also supporting it by meshing well together. Many pages seem like an exercise in contradictions and the result is a strange but rather enjoyable read. The violence is gratuitous but not just for the reader. I get a sense that it’s as much for Campbell’s sake as ours.

The heavy violence also classes with the self-censorship of the comic, and this time in a negative way. It’s very weird; nudity is permitted but not swearing. Nanaja’s shits and fucks are all blacked out but we see naked breasts a handful of times throughout the second volume. It seems a bit inconsistent and it always annoys me when profanity is blacked out in comics. You’re not fooling anytime and it just screams of someone trying to have their cake and eat it to. Put it in the book or don’t. When it’s blocked out on the same page on which I can see a female characters nude chest it ruins the effect of using blacked profanity in the first place and it makes it look as though they’re trying to insert the nudity to give the book an edge it likely doesn’t have. Casual nudity in a comic isn’t a sign of maturity and neither is swearing.

The whole second volume is disappointing to me because of how rush and a bit forced everything feels. The addition of Glory’s lover, Emily, felt very forced; almost like an afterthought. Likewise the conflict with the Knight of Thule also felt rushed. There isn’t any transition from one issue to the next and things just seem to happen because the creators wanted to cram in as much plot into the issue they had left but it makes for an inconsistent narrative. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if some of the ideas thrown into the last few issues were meant to be story arcs of their own. If the first collected volume was made up of a three-part battle between Glory’s crew and Thule aliens, surely the creators could have been planning for an arc to focus on Glory and Emily or the Knights of Thule. Other things like the arrival of a very large number of Image Comics characters feels like a big deal for just a handful of pages, just long enough for the reader to realise none of these characters other than Supreme, will actually have any meaningful interactions with the rest of the characters in the series. Likewise, the pre-battle scenes in which characters reminisce over the events that have taken place earlier in Glory, as if they happened a long time ago, also feels forced because it hasn’t been earned. The reader only spent twelve issues with these characters. It feels particularly odd when reading the story in collected form like I did because all twelve issues can easily be read in a single afternoon. We don’t really know enough about these characters and what they’ve done to truly appreciate the importance of that kind of scene the creators try to pull off.

In the end, Glory is more of an interesting comic than a good one. The art by Ross Campbell is great and the series just doesn’t work when other artists stepped in for about half an issue’s worth of pages in the second volume. The writing is also good but the odd shift in pacing and story beginning with the second volume also affected the quality of the comic. The story is noticeably rushed and so is the art (other artists had to contribute pages to the comic). Still, there is also to enjoy in Glory but the story never goes as far as I felt it was intended to go. It’s very unfortunate because there were some really good comics to be found in these issues. I can’t comment on whether or not Keatinge and Campbell did a good job retooling the original series but these twelve issues are certainly interesting.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Blog Fantastic 018: The Legend of Huma review

Cover by Duane O'Myers
I've mentioned before that I read a lot of Dragonlance novels in my early teen years. I’ve continued to read some from time to time since then but it's been a few years since I revisited some of the novels I actually liked and think I might still like today. The Legend of Huma written by Richard A. Knaak (his first published novel) is one of those novels. It’s pretty clear to me why I liked this book so much when I was younger. It’s full of action and crazy battles. The book just throws them at you one after another. It lets up from time to time to attempt some form of characterization but for the most part, it focuses on the war between the forces of Dark and Light and how that related to Huma’s development as a legendary hero of Ansalon.   

The story takes place centuries before the event of the original Chronicles as written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Huma is a young Knight of Solmania fighting the dark forces of Takhisis, god of Evil, during the Third Dragon Wars. The Knights are slowly losing the war but they continue to fight on in order to protect their land and stop the spread of evil across the lands of Solmania and Ergoth. After a confrontation with the enemy, Huma is separated and it’s then that he encounters Kaz the Minotaur and saves his life. This leads to an unbreakable friendship between the two. While lost from his regiment, Huma encounters some of Palandin’s (the god of Light) dragons and this puts him on the path that eventually leads him to find the dragonlances which allowed the Knights to defeat Takhisis and end the war. That’s the extent of the story Knaak throws in plenty of action to keep things interesting for the reader and it works because The Legend of Huma is very entertaining.

Look at those sexy mustaches!
That's the real reason he's a legend.
The story develops quite a bit on the Knights of Solamnia. For those who are familiar with the Knights (and if you picked up this book it’s very likely that you are), they value honour above all else and live their lives according orders within the knighthood and the most prestigious is the Order of the Rose which is made up almost exclusively with men of royal bloodline. In the Dragonlance series Huma is often described as the ideal knight and it’s a nice little bit of character development of Knaak’s part because Huma because he’s really the atypical Solmanic Knight. To his fellow knights he’s a legend in the making or a disappointment, depending on who you ask. The reason being is that Huma doesn’t buy into the politics of the Knighthood. He takes the lessons of the Oath and the Measure to heart and that’s what directs his actions, not a desire to the Oath and the Measure, a set of rules for the knighthood written by their founder, Vinas Solamnus. What’s interesting is that Knaak writes the knighthood as a political body. There are there to rise in the ranks or the please a superior officer. His relationship with Kaz developed because he did what he thought was right and thus he earned Kaz’s respect. HE didn’t bow down to or bought into the racist hatred of Minotaurs. His fellow knights would have attacked Kaz, treating him like a monster instead of as an individual. I love that the ideal knight of legend wasn’t revered as such during his own time. He was an oddity, and so was his friendship with Kaz, and that’s what made them both such strong individuals.

Huma isn’t perfect and I liked that. He’s lied to a direct superior in order to protect a childhood friend. He does what he feels is right which means occasionally going against the teachings of the Oath and the Measure. He does so because the Oath and the Measure don’t provide answers or direction for all eventualities in life, even though the Measure is composed of thirty-seven 300-page volumes. Other than Kaz and Huma, there are few other interesting characters. Gwyneth is one but barely. She’s one of Paladin’s dragon and she develops a romantic relationship with Huma just before he dies for his cause. She’s not well written or a standout female character but she’s part of the story and out of the three female characters in the book, she’s the best.  After all, she’s a fucking dragon and gets to kick some scaly ass all through the novel and that’s pretty great. Huma’s childhood friend, Magius, is also interesting. He’s a renegade, mages who have rejected the Three Orders of the Conclave of Mages (Life, Neutral, Dark). He’s shifty, but ultimately good and his search for power echoes that of one of the most famous Dragonlance characters.

There are other things that make this a good book. Part of it is the sense of simplicity and familiarity I have for Dragonlance novels. It might be unique to me and others who grew up reading the series but it might not be. There is no fluff to this story. It’s straightforward and earnest in its approach. It’s supposed to be that way and some Dragonlance writers didn’t get that. Knaak understands it and that’s one of the reasons why it’s an entertaining book. I also like that there is interior art. I wish more fantasy novels had interior art, even if it was just every chapter like it is for this book. As far as I can tell all of it was done by Valerie Valusek who’s done interior art for many novels in the series. It’s a bit unfortunate that many of the pictures are repeated from other books in the series, particularly the Chronicles trilogy. Still, she’s done some original art for this book, specifically images of Huma, Kaz, and a couple more specific to the Knighthood and the harnesses created for the use of dragonlances.

 The Legend of Huma is simple and comfortable. Huma's characterization is nothing new to the fantasy genre but it's still rather enjoyable to see him grow after each subsequent challenge he's faced with. Overall he's pretty reactionary; things just happen to him but he's heroic in how he takes on those challenges. He never asked or even yearned to be a hero but when he's put in a situation that requires him to do incredible things in order to survive, he doesn't back down. He’s supported through many of this by his developing love for Gwyneth, his honour-bound relationship with Kaz and the troublesome rediscovery of his childhood friend, Magius. Instead of writing a grand epic that is common in fantasy novels, Knaak focused on characters and repeated smaller battles. That’s not to say this isn’t a grand story, Huma fights on dragonback and defeats the goddess of Evil. It’s a pretty great story if you’re able to embrace the simplicity of it all. If you can’t, then maybe it’s best you avoid all Dragonlance novels because this is one of the better ones not penned by Weis or Hickman. 

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The People vs. George Lucas: The Problem with Fandom

I completely missed writing something last year for May the Fourth and so I’ve made sure to prepare something for this year. It was a bit challenging to find what I should talk about but I settled on watching The People vs. George Lucas documentary and it sparked enough thoughts and commentary to make up a whole post.

The movie was directed by Alexandre Philippe, a lifetime Star Wars fan (aren’t we all?). It presents a discussion between the conflicting aspects of the franchise, particularly the love/hate relationship many fans have with Star Wars to a degree, but particularly with George Lucas. The movie is structure in such a way as to present a brief history of Lucas’s career up to the release of the first Star Wars movie. It then used interviews with a wide variety of people including writers, several people in the film industry, comedians, journalists and fan-submitted videos from the movie’s website. These various interviews were edited into what I thought was a poorly structured look at Star Wars, its fans, and the difficult relationship with Lucas. There are some very interesting ideas that are brought up in the movie but ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere. In the end, the movie’s message to its viewers is that Star Wars is great, Lucas has deeply hurt us all and we feel pretty betrayed, but we hope there will be more Star Wars goodness in the future. What follows is my attempt to restructure some of the ideas from the movie, add in my comments, and try not to upset too many of the more sensitive (emotionally sensitive, not Force-sensitive) fans.

George Lucas – Duality of the businessman
One of the elements that start off the discussion from the movie is the duality inherent in George Lucas. As one person explains, they believe Lucas’s psyche is structure similarly to a Russian doll. On the onside there is a Lucasfilm, the corporation. Inside of that is Corporate Lucas. Inside of that is Lucas the Capable Filmmaker. And inside of that is a young, enthusiastic Lucas Filmmaker. That’s not quite how I see it. I think it’s simpler than that, but it does shed some light on how Lucas’s fans see him. He’s a complex and contradictory figure.

The way I see it, Lucas is internally conflicted by two aspects of his life. The first is his creative persona, the one that initially allowed for the creation of Star Wars. The second half is his business savvy persona, which also allowed for the creative success of Star Wars. During the early part of his career, Creative Lucas (that’s what I’m calling him now) has to defend his creativity and artistic vision against company executives and producers. These early battles were very difficult for him and I believe they’ve affected his development as a filmmaker. The success of the original trilogy, which I believe was made possible by the combination of Creative Lucas and Business Lucas, freed him from ever having to battle it out with a producer ever again and that’s what led to the fractured Lucas we all know now. Before, when he had to fight with his producers, both parts that make up Lucas were working together against an outside force. After Star Wars, the outside force was more or less absent and without a common enemy both sides started to fight against themselves.
"Advance and destroy all laser disc copies of the theatrical release!"

Fame and success have changed how Lucas feels about creating. He’s had serious issues with the lack of control he had in his early career. He had to fight for it and when you have to fight for control, you need to pick you battles. Having to struggle with producers and production company executives meant that Lucas had to fight to implement the creative ideas he thought had more potential. Since he’s escaped that type of creative environment, he’s been on his own. He no longer has the outside filter he had before. Wanting to have all the control has left him with too much control and many, many internal conflicts over various creative decisions on the franchise.

Fandom – Imitating the Duality of the Creator
Is this was betrayal looks like?
Some of the biggest fans of Star Wars are also some of the meanest towards the creator of the franchise, George Lucas. They can be huge assholes with him for rather small and petty reasons. Fans of Star Wars have been engaging in participatory culture for several years, if not decades since the release of A New Hope. They don’t simply consume Star Wars, they contribute to the development of the franchise while also acting as disciples who spread the word and share it with new fans and create new generations of fans. This participatory culture has created group of fans who enjoy pocking fun at the thing they love or re-enacting it for their enjoyment. There are countless projects that can be found online where fans are simply having a good time. Some fans are also using these projects to develop their own filmmaking or special effects skills in the hopes of becoming filmmakers someday. I like this portion of fandom. It has fun, creative, and positive aspects to it. Playing in the Star Wars sandbox has acted as their training wheels in a way. Lucas has influenced an entire generation of creators. Watch any documentary on Star Wars and you’ll have interviews with film industry professionals who started their career in filmmaking because of Star Wars.

However, there are other fans whose time engaging in participatory culture has led them to develop a penchant for remixing the beloved franchise. In essence, they’re remixing Star Wars to suit their preferences. It’s unclear why this practice originated but it’s as much a part of Star Wars fandom as dressing up as favourite characters when attending conventions. It’s pretty clear that some of this remix attitude is the result of Lucas’s crusade to shove his Special Edition version of Star Wars down the throats of unwilling fans. On its own that would be an unfortunate desire on the part of Lucas but it’s even worse if you’re familiar with a bit of film preservation history.

Early in his career, Lucas was a main proponent against the colourization of black and white films. He would argue that colouring black and white movies went against the creative visions of the people who originally worked on the movie. It was disrespectful. He also presents arguments that preserving films in their original appearance was a way to preserve cultural history. He went further in stating that the reasons why he thought it was important to preserve our culture history. You can easily find plenty of information on this part of Lucas’s life online. It actually makes for a rather interesting read.

Older George Lucas always looks sad. Even sadder
than young George Lucas. You can see the regret
in his eyes. Tugs at my heart strings, it does.
These earlier arguments made by Lucas seem to contradict the release of Star Wars: Special Edition in which Lucasfilm did several revisions, changes, additions and tweaks to the theatrical release version of the original trilogy. That in itself isn’t a necessarily a bad thing. After all, it’s the creator tweaking his own work with the intent of having the finished product more closely resemble his artistic vision. I’m ok with that as long as the original work is still available. For the most part, it’s not, and that’s what’s problematic for me. Lucas has been attempting, and as far as I know continues to attempt, revisionist history. By refusing to continue to produce and sell the theatrical version of Star Wars, he’s not only disrespecting everybody else who worked on the films, he’s being disrespectful of our shared cultural history. The Star Wars of 1997 isn’t the same Star Wars people saw back in 1977. Lucas isn’t only being hypocritical, he’s being disrespectful to fans and the people who helped make the Star Wars films.

The problem though is that certain fans continue to allow Lucas to do as he wishes because they continue to support him throughout all of the various releases, his new films, and basically anything else that has the Star Wars brand name on the product. Fans will buy it. There is a moment in The People vs. George Lucas were a fan lists all of the different VHS and DVD versions of Star Wars he’s bought over the years. In essence, it was all of them. When discussing the release of The Phantom Menace, there is a scene in which a journalist asks two fans “What are you going to do if the movie really sucks?” To which one of them answered “I’ll go see it again.” That’s part of the problem! Why go see a movie you don’t like? Why financially support the man who is responsible for producing the movie you thought sucked? It’s a vicious cycle in which fans complain about the changes being made but continue to pay to watch it or own it. Nobody is forcing you to be a ridiculous, all-consuming fan. I have some distance between my love of Star Wars and how much money I spend on it and that allows me to continue to love the franchise and not lose my mind or get insanely angry at Lucas.

The remix culture allows for fans to continue enjoying Star War by taking out or changing the parts they don’t like. Perhaps without realizing it they continue to support a franchise that no longer reflects what they like. They’re taking the good and taking out the bad in order to be able to enjoy the good. I think it’s an unhealthy approach to entertainment consumerism because it’s symptomatic of radical fanaticism. Do you really love Star Wars if you’re changing it to better suit what you think it should be? When you’re watching the fan-edit of The Phantom Menace, are you still watching The Phantom Menace?  I’m interested in seeing how fans will react to the new trilogy being worked on by J. J. Abrams. I know that part of me will enjoy some of it even though I’m also pretty convinced I won’t enjoy parts of it. There are a few reasons for that but I won’t get into them hear aside from mentioning that I’m worried about what Abrams will do with the franchise simply because his first Star Trek film is about the only film or TV series by him that I’ve enjoyed. The other thing is that there appears to be as much importance played on looking back as there is looking forward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it can lead to self-indulgence and lack of narrative progression. We’ll wait and see but really, other fans’ reactions is something I’m looking forward to. The discussion of the franchise’s future as well as the pervasive remix culture leads me to another point of contention among fans, what exactly is the “true” Star Wars?

Is this awesomely ridiculous book
"true" Star Wars? Hells yes it is.
The “true” Star Wars?
I’m curious as to why George Lucas is so adamant in having his vision be the only “true” Star Wars. By deciding not to release the theatrical release on blu-ray, he’s clearly supporting one version of Star Wars above another. Maybe he wants to make his revised, Special Edition version the only “true” version because he’s had to suffer through seeing his films be interpreted in hundreds if not thousands of different ways. Sometimes this was done reverently, other times in ways combining amateurish invention and unfiltered adoration and other times filled with hatred and condescension. With so many different versions of Star Wars available to the masses, maybe he’s worried his version, the only one he thinks really matters, is being lost in the mix.

I have to admit I find it kind of sickening to watch people argue, rather than have open and honest discussions, but argue and fight over silly things like Han shooting first. Who gives a shit? Multiple versions of that same event exist on official releases. That in itself is problematic but at the end of the day, regardless of your opinion, all those versions exist. If you choose to accept one version over another, that’s fine. I’d actually encourage it because I would then ask you why you preferred one over the other and that could be the start of a fun conversation about Star Wars and who doesn’t like that? But once the discussion evolves into which version of Han shooting Greedo is the “right” one, you enter dangerous territory. That leads to remixing Star Wars and it becomes of battles of which version is right and which version is wrong.

You can also throw in the whole idea of canon into that discussion. Star Wars is a multi-media franchise. Comics, novels, video games, TV series, etc. Many stories from different genres directly contradict things in the movies and in other stories. The development of an Expanded Universe of tie-in media before the release of the prequels trilogy inevitably led to contradictions galore once the prequels were finally released. The same thing is bound to happen with the release of Episode VII and Disney has already published a press release on the matter. Which stories are “true” Star Wars and which ones aren’t? Which stories count? I know that this is opening the floodgates but really, there is an easy solution to all of these questions. It all counts. It’s all one glorious mess of super-continuity.

No two fans can agree on what Star Wars really is. So why not embrace it all? Lucas and the fans need to embrace it all. Why is it so difficult to be able to admit that you like certain things and dislike others? Where does this need to erase the things you don’t like come from? Is it in reaction to Lucas’s own hypocrisy? Do fans who re-edit the films feel as though they’re sticking it to Businessman Lucas? All of that doesn’t matter to me because I love it all. I even love to hate the parts I don’t like (“Yippee”, anyone?).

Love 'em or hate 'em, Ewoks are part of Star Wars. I choose to love 'em. 

The idea of super-continuity isn’t mine. I’m borrowing it from Grant Morrison’s take on Batman. While writing his multi-year Batman story, Morrison decided that all of the published Batman stories have actually happened to the character. There is a way to better understand and appreciate all Star Wars stories in how Morrison treated Batman. He attempted to reconcile large section of the character’s past into one huge, ever-expanding history for Batman. In this idea of super-continuity, if something was published with Batman in it, it “counted”. It happened. The same idea can be applied to Star Wars and essentially all other entertainment franchises. You can choose not to read or watch any stories in which Jar-Jar appears, that’s your call, but you cannot dismiss him by pretending he never existed in the first place. He did and it’s up to you to reconcile that.

I like to embrace it all, the good with the bad. By not allowing myself to watch Episode I, I’ll never have to deal with some of Jar-Jar’s worst moments. That’s true. But I’m also missing out on tons of other cool ideas that are present in the movie. I also miss out on Obi-Wan’s early days and that’s a shame because he’s one of my favourite characters. I’m not trying to tell you Episode I is a misunderstood masterpiece because it’s not. It’s a visual masterpiece; the entire prequels trilogy is a visual feast. Yes, Episode I (or maybe Episode II) is the worst Star Wars movie but it’s still has its moments. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not the worst thing to ever have happened to Star Wars, it’s also not the first thing that “ruined” the franchise. I’d like to offer up Star Wars: Jedi vs. Sith as one of the worst stories in the franchise. It’s certainly one of the worst comics. As for things that happened before Episode I that contributed to ruin Star Wars for a certain category of fans, you can kind of take your pick. It can be a pretty selective list. Some people will posit that Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was the first step in a dumber Star Wars. Others will mention Star Wars Holiday Special.  I for one love Return of the Jedi. Ewoks? Love the little bastards. You can hate them and you can disagree with me but Ewoks are still Star Wars. You can’t change that and neither can I. What Lucas has forgotten is that he can’t change that either and he has to stop trying.

Have fun with continuity. Embrace it. Hell, the first obvious thing that comes to mind is a drinking game. Take a drink every time something happens in Episode I that you don’t like. I guarantee you’ll like the movie by the time the end credits roll because you’ll be so inebriated.

Overall The People vs. George Lucas was very frustrating to watch. It’s well put together and some of the people in the movie actually had some very interesting things to say but really, it’s just inconsistent in what it’s trying to be. It wants to discuss what Star Wars is to fans and the difficulties that come with being a fan, many of them having their source with Lucas. It’s also trying to be a comedy and it kind of undermines some of the more serious and interesting discussion. Some of the comedy works, but a lot of it doesn’t. It also feels very one-sided and I feel as though the movie was trying to make me hate Lucas. It’s all a bit difficult to understand though; it’s not an easy subject for a documentary. Star Wars fandom is filled with confusion and contradictory emotions and opinions. I think it’s important that we remember that Star Wars is a multigenerational franchise. The first generation of fans had so little Star Wars for so long that they invested themselves in the franchise. The newest generations of fans have been bombarded with Star Wars media their entire lives. For them, it’s been non-stop.

The movie ended on a hopeful note. People are willing to give Lucas and the franchise the chance to amaze us again. When a fan’s reaction to not liking the first of the prequels is to go and watch it twelve other times, it’s a strong sign that he has faith in the creator and the series. Fans felt betrayed by the prequels because they had very specific expectations and when they were giving something different, they wanted to continue watching until they “got it”. Fans acted as though they didn’t understand the movies, as though they were the problem. When it finally clued in that they weren’t the problem the finger was pointed at Lucas and the remix culture caught on. I don’t agree that Lucas has a responsibility to the fans. I think that’s a perceived responsibility. However, I think he does have a responsibility in preserving cultural history and it’s up to us to ensure he acknowledges that. As for fandom, it grows and changes hand in hand with the franchise. It’s bigger than all of us combined and the contradictions is what fuels the growth of its fans by always having another element to enjoy, criticize, and debate.