Tuesday, May 30, 2017

True Believers

 

Part Ten of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
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FACE FRONT

The best way to explain both the premise and appeal of Marvels might be to describe a specific scene. You don’t have to be familiar with comic books to understand.

The setting is familiar: the office of a major metropolitan newspaper. Irascible publisher J. Jonah Jameson is in heated discussion with a veteran photographer. “I call ‘em as I see ‘em, Phil,” Jonah says, “I always have! You know that!” Into the scene stumbles none other than Peter Parker, AKA the Amazing Spider-Man, with fresh pictures to sell of Spider-Man fighting the Looter. Parker boasts to his boss that “You’ll love ‘em – they make ol’ Spidey look terrible!” This is right up Jonah’s alley. He hates Spider-Man and is happy to publish anything that paints the wall-crawling vigilante in a poor light. The other photographer glares at Parker before storming out of the room.

“Now there’s unbiased journalism in action for you!” Phil mutters. “If I were Spider-Man, I’d beat the stuffing out of that little weasel!”

You know how it goes. Peter spars with Jonah for a few panels. He gets a voucher for the photos, musing to himself about the bitter irony of making money defaming himself as Spider-Man. Then he ducks down the hallway, climbs to the roof, changes into his costume and swings away to whatever new adventures awaits.

Except that’s not how the scene plays. We leave Parker in Jonah’s office and instead follow Phil. We know he can get away with talking like that to the boss. He’s one of the few people in the newsroom who still can, because Jonah and him came up together – why, Phil knows Jonah from before he even had a mustache. Phil hates Peter Parker because he thinks Peter is a sensationalistic parasite, tarnishing the name of a good man for a quick buck. The argument he and Jonah had been having when Peter barged into the publisher’s office? Phil was defending the superheroes who had just saved the world and who the publisher had just smeared. None other than the Fantastic Four had successfully repelled the mighty Galactus, preserving the lives of every man, woman, and child on the planet – an act which Jameson flatly labeled a hoax on the front page of the Daily Bugle. 

It’s an obvious but startling inversion. We as readers have expectations. We are conditioned to want to follow Peter because his story is the important one. We want to know what he’s thinking, and usually we do. Other characters, however, aren’t privy to the protagonist’s inner feelings. They can’t know the irony that Peter makes badly needed money by selling pics of Spider-Man taken under questionable pretenses. They can’t help but see Peter’s behavior as selfish and irresponsible. Suddenly we see Peter as selfish and irresponsible too. 


It may not seem like a big point but of all the memorable images from throughout the book the one that returns to me most often is just that image of Peter Parker stumbling briefly into someone else’s story. We’re used to seeing that happen in other superhero stories, of course, with a nod and a wink to indicate that some passerby on the street happens to be the hero of his own magazine. It’s one of Stan Lee’s signature moves, later codified into a trope of the company’s house style. The movies do it now. But since this isn’t any kind of superhero story, it’s Phil we follow. Who knows what becomes of Peter? Not us. You could probably figure it out if you remember your 60s Marvel timeline, but it really doesn’t matter. In the context of Marvels it feels like running into an old girlfriend downtown. She doesn’t even recognize you. You catch a glimpse of her walking away and then she’s gone.  

This isn’t a story about Spider-Man. Spider-Man appears in this story but he’s a minor player. Phil’s the star here. Old, boring Phil.

People underestimate Marvels. It's the book that elevated Kurt Busiek from the backbench to the major leagues. People also unfairly dismiss Marvels for the sins of Alex Ross’ later work. It’s an odd and precarious book because it takes nostalgia as its subject matter without necessarily being nostalgic – a fine point, but crucial. As pretty as it is, and as much as it seems to want to glorify its subject matter, it’s really more a poison pill. The past is a nice place to visit, sometimes, but you wouldn’t want to live there. It’s never how you remember it.

This is a subversive message for Marvel story, let alone one of the most famous Marvel stories ever. Comic books – and let’s be clear what we mean here, superhero comic books – are built on nostalgia. People start reading comics when they’re kids and want to hold on to that feeling for as long as they can. They want to pick up a comic book now and be transported back to wherever they were when they first felt something akin to love, that feeling of desperate affection for something bigger and more impressive than themselves. The past is a safe place, after all. It’s a place to escape whatever ails you in the present.

The people who became most attached to these stories were often the people who most needed to escape. Comics are always there. They’re portable: a small stack fits in a paper bag that slides right into your backpack. They’re static: you can stare all day and the images never move. Time stands still. You can always return to your favorites and read them in any particular order. Just imagine if your favorite song never had to end. They’re something you can spend the rest of your life collecting, a hole without a bottom. They’re a place to go when the world around you isn’t quite living up to expectations.

Marvels is a book about falling in love and falling out of love. The former occurs in an instant, the latter can take the rest of your life. Sometimes the latter is your life.  

Phil’s a boring guy, and that’s the point. He’s a dutiful father and loving husband. We saw him courting his wife back during the War, when he was just a kid who accidentally stumbled into the story of a lifetime at a mad scientist’s press conference. It was a bit of fluff for the back pages that just happened to be the first public appearance of Professor Phineas Horton’s ingenious artificial man, the android “Human Torch” – named so by virtue of his bursting into flame upon exposure to oxygen. At first the crowd laughs at the apparent hoax. Then the Torch moves. The faces of the assembled spectators and media go slack. Everyone realizes that instead of a laughingstock, Horton has created a menace.


Phil was in that first audience, at the dawn of a very eventful period in history. On the eve of World War II strange beings with strange abilities began to appear on the front pages of newspapers across the world: not just the macabre Torch, but the impetuous and savage Namor the Sub-Mariner, young monarch of Atlantis gifted with awesome strength. At first the creatures are deemed hoaxes, but eventually the “Marvels,” as Phil takes to calling them, are recognized as legitimate phenomenon. A little later the star-spangled Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America pops up, but no one is afraid of him (except for the Nazis, of course). Everything changes once superheroes appear on the scene. As the young Phil muses,

Marvels, I called them – and that’s what they were. Next to that – what were we? Before they came, we were so big, so grand. We were Americans – young, strong, vital! We were the ones who got things done. But we’d gotten smaller. I could see it in those same faces – faces that had once been so confident, so brash. We weren’t the players anymore. We were spectators.

Perhaps because he was there right at the very beginning, at Professor Horton’s ill-fated demonstration, Phil feels a connection. He understands that rather than being simple sideshow freaks or vigilantes, these new creatures represented an existential threat to humanity. What good was a man, any man, against a half-Atlantean hybrid who could lift a car above his head and laugh while bullets bounced off his steel-taut skin?

Over the course of Marvels Phil runs the gamut – from terror at the earliest days of the “Marvels,” immediately prior and during World War II, to joy at their sudden return in the early 1960s (just in time to enlist in the Cold War), to reverence at the realization of just how significant they had become to the ongoing health and safety of the planet. He ends disenchanted, however, and so must we.


‘NUFF SAID

One way to encapsulate the difference between Marvel and DC – certainly reductive but not inaccurate – is to glance back to the beginnings.

Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1 both portray the same moment, albeit with different emphases. In the former, dated June 1938, Superman lifts a car above his head and smashes it against a rock. The scene is observed by three men, two of whom are running away in terror, the third of whom has been knocked to the ground. The famous expression of the man in the foreground is one of sheer disbelief. He’s holding his head in his hands, eyes bulging, as if he literally cannot believe what he has seen. Is he a bank robber or bystander? It doesn’t really matter, the cover doesn’t tell us. But he has seen something so profoundly uncanny as to defy belief: a man in a circus leotard and a cape is throwing around cars like they were made of cardboard. He’s running scared, and it’s hard not to imagine why. Put yourself in that guy’s shoes: the characters on the cover of Action Comics #1 don’t know what a superhero is. Superheroes have literally never existed before this moment in time. He doesn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what he’s seeing. He remains a mute witness to Superman’s debut.



Contrast that with Marvel Comics #1, cover dated November 1939. In the year and a half since the release of the first Action, the superhero has become, if not intimately familiar, then at least recognizable from Superman and the first handful of Superman copycats. The genre is old enough now that the copycats have to dig deeper for novelty: you can’t just put another strongman in a union suit, you need to have something different for your covers. Something to catch the eyes of readers with plenty of choices but maybe only one dime in their pocket. Even in 1939 Marvel was already Marvel, so they accomplished this in the most lurid manner possible: instead of just a man lifting a car above his head, Marvel gives us a man on fire bursting through a steel bank vault door, grinning maniacally as he lunges towards someone shooting at him. That someone – presumably a bank robber? – is terrified, which certainly makes sense. He’s being attacked by a demon seemingly conjured from the pits of Hell. He’s shooting the monster but the bullets bounce right off. That guy is toast.

On both covers normal human beings are confronted with an extraordinary spectacle, an event so far outside the realm of human understanding as to defy description. But there’s an important difference: the people on the cover of Action #1 are reacting to something amazing that Superman is doing, whereas the crook on the cover of Marvel #1 is reacting simply to the Torch’s existence. It may seem a fine point, but it's a telling distinction. Superman is a man who performs miraculous feats, whereas the Human Torch is himself a miracle. One possesses strange powers, one is strange power.


People aren’t usually afraid of superheroes in DC Comics, at least not historically. Some of that changed over the years as the company adopted many Marvel devices for their own use, but still, people generally aren’t afraid of Superman even if criminals and villains may be wary of some of the things Superman can do. Lex Luthor is a villain precisely because he doesn’t trust Superman and acts accordingly. In a Marvel book Luthor would work for the US government because that kind of paranoia is standard issue. Just the fact that superheroes exist is a source of danger and tension to the denizens of the Marvel Universe. 

Stan Lee figured out quite early that this was fertile ground for stories. When he and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko laid the foundations for the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s this was cemented as one of the cornerstones of the company’s approach to storytelling: people aren’t naturally trustful of superheroes. They certainly aren’t always grateful for their existence. People in Metropolis genuinely like Superman, whereas the Fantastic Four had already been evicted from their headquarters before their series even hit double digits.

Certainly this was fodder for occasional stories at DC, but if the citizens of Gotham turned against Batman there was usually a damn good reason why they had been tricked into thinking that the Caped Crusader had turned evil. Just by walking down the street Spider-Man risked catching a tomato in the face thanks to a never-ending stream of bad publicity courtesy of the Daily Bugle. This was a completely novel vector for ongoing stories: what if, in addition to simply fighting the bad guys, the heroes could also be at odds with society at large? Suddenly there was room for a character like the Hulk who was openly regarded as a dangerous menace by the US Army (and to be fair, he did spend most of his time smashing up Army bases and expensive tanks, so it wasn’t entirely a specious antagonism).

The significance of this subtle but profound shift was not lost on Kurt Busiek, so much so that it not only formed the backbone of his exploration of the company’s themes in Marvels, but was a significant plot point in 2003’s JLA / Avengers crossover. Much of that story hinges on the characters learning to perceive differences in the ways their respective universes operate. The JLA figure out immediately that even a relatively clean-cut group like the Avengers is still subject to a great deal of resistance and resentment at home, whereas the Avengers are stunned by the degree to which heroes are revered and respected in the DC Universe.

In Marvels, Phil is a special character not because of any great power or ability, but simply by virtue of being able to see what so many people around him refuse to acknowledge: the existence of superheroes is not normal, and their existence warps society in insidious ways. In the early 40s when the “Marvels” first appear, Phil is demoralized by their very existence, perceiving that in a world where creatures like the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner can demolish half of New York in a schoolyard fight, there’s very little room for a normal person to matter.

When the heroes return in the early 1960s it’s a different story. At first they’re the Beatles, JFK, and the Mercury Seven rolled into one. Tourists to the Big Apple crowd the streets to catch a glimpse of Thor or Iron Man – brightly colored avatars of the military-industrial complex and stalwart foot soldiers in the war against Communism. Of course, even the handful of celebrity heroes – the Fantastic Four and the first line-up of the Avengers, essentially – were still victims of the occasional public backlash, despite the fact that they generally got off easier than Spider-Man or the X-Men. And even among the “presentable” heroes the monstrous Thing was still singled out as a freak. 



As the 1960s wear on the appeal of the returned superheroes begins to wear off – just as, creatively, Lee and his various collaborators also darkened the tone of the books ever so slightly, not necessary a conscious decision but one that followed naturally from Lee's commitment to deepening characterization over time. The reflexive anti-Communism of the first half of the 60s was replaced by gestures in the direction of a counter-culture that had turned on the Vietnam War, a shift echoed by Marvel’s evolving popularity on college campuses. Early championed by young Republican groups for the company’s partisan anti-Communism, those elements were gradually dropped and characters like Dr. Strange began appearing on black light posters.

After the first issue, more or less a prologue set on the eve of the War, Marvels traces the progress of public opinion through the 60s. At first, everything is bright and new. Crowds gather to gawk at the resurrected Captain America:

We were in awe of him. Of all of them. And even when we were scared – when lives were threatened – we knew they’d come through for us – that they’d make everything all right. Like I said, it was a different time. It was life or death – it was grand opera – it was the greatest show on earth – and we – every single one of us – we had the best seat in the house.

What changes? Well, America. There’s a particular narrative in thumbnail histories of the United States, where the 1960s begin with great promise before eventually descending into tragedy, chaos, and disappointment. This is the folk memory progression from the halcyon 1950s to the troubled 1970s, or (in contemporary terms) the span of Mad Men. Accordingly, the 60s in Marvels begin with everything quite pleasant, shiny, and new. People are smiling.

But that changes. Or rather, it is more correct to say the thumbnail never captured the whole picture. The early 1960s were great for a few, certainly, but racism and war didn’t spring into being the moment JFK died in November of 1963. The truth is that as the decade wore on “mainstream” (read, white middle-class) America became increasingly aware of unpleasant truths that had been happily repressed or simply ignored in the decades following the end of World War II. The “Good Old Days” exist only in memory and only because people choose to be ignorant. 



Phil’s view of the era begins to change when he falls into the company of an angry mob gathered around the original team of X-Men. Having just saved a construction worker from falling to his death, the crowd misinterprets the action as an attack and react accordingly. The X-Men are mutants, after all, and mutants aren’t good superheroes like Captain America or Iron Man or even that nasty Spider-Man – they’re born different. They’re monsters.

Before he knows what he’s doing, there’s a brick in his hand, and in the heat of the moment Phil beans Iceman with a chunk of masonry roughly the same size and shape as the one that robbed him of his sight at the end of the first book, where he was injured during a final climactic row between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. When fictional characters lose eyes it typically signifies gaining wisdom, but Phil’s injury simply means he has to work harder as a photographer. He only learns later that he was wrong, when his children find a little girl – a mutant – who has run away from home.

To the book’s credit Phil isn’t portrayed as any kind of hero for finally seeing through the reflexive bigotry of the anti-mutant hysteria sweeping the nation. It takes the most extreme event to shake him out of his ignorance and complacency: seeing a scared child huddled on the floor of his basement. There’s nothing brave or righteous in needing a personalized lesson to learn that bigotry is bad, rather, it speaks to a lack of moral imagination in his character. When confronted with bigotry he’s forced to confront his own cowardice. He’s not special and he doesn't know what to do when it's time for him to actually stand up. Put a brick in his hand and he’s a bigot, too.

The “man on the street” perspective that Phil represents is, literally, blinkered, unable to see the world in three dimensions. He can’t see – chooses not to see – the underbelly of the supposed “Silver Age” until it’s pointed out to him, until his nose is rubbed in the mess. Superheroes are great as long as they’re just beefed-up celebrities, but the reality that they represent for Phil is far more frightening. The violent back-and-forth of public opinion in the Marvel Universe is shown as the natural consequence of living in a world where normal human beings have become obsolete. Even something as simple as a quirk of genetics can turn a normal human being into a god or a monster. One day the Fantastic Four are great and their wedding photos are being sold in commemorative magazines, and the next the same publisher is lambasting them as frauds and crackpots. It’s only natural. The truth is just too much to bear.  

This was Lee's great insight: people are just no good. They turn on their heroes in a second, reward cowardice and celebrate racism, and generally prefer to be lied to. They don't like to acknowledge unpleasant truths until they absolutely have to, and even then it's often grudging. It's not a particularly uplifting message, and there's no real solution. Spider-Man is never going to get a fair shake from anyone who reads the Bugle. The X-Men are never going to be able to conclusively change the hearts and minds of bigots. Life goes on. If you doubt it, look out the window.

If the book occasionally indulges in bathos - as with the image of the little girl huddling in terror in his dirty basement - it’s for the service of showing the real contrast between Phil’s more or less mundane world and the melodramatic excesses of the uncanny milieu into which he occasionally stumbles. Phil is a John Cheever character living in a Stan Lee world, and the two don’t always mesh well. The contrast is intentional.


Excelsior

The first issue of Busiek and Ross’s Marvels hit shelves in November of 1993. The series was unheralded. I knew it was coming because I read Marvel Age like I was supposed to, but apparently no one else did because the series hit fandom with a thunderclap. One month nobody knew who Alex Ross was and then the first two issues of Marvels were the most wanted comics in the country according to Wizard (which I also read, because it was 1993).

1993 was at once the zenith and nadir of the last few decades of American comics. After years of explosive sales growth fueled partly by speculation, more people were buying more comics – lots more comics. But people eventually figured out that comics with print runs in the multiple millions were never going to be lucrative collectors’ items. A scarce collectible is valuable only if its price reflects legitimate demand: there are only so many copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 in existence, and there will never be any more. Even though print runs were massive in the 1960s, most people threw their comics away. Newsagents shipped unsold copies back to the distributor to be pulped. Many of those few copies that survive are in awful condition. So the first appearance of Spider-Man will always command a high price.



Speculator bubbles collapse when someone figures out that they have paid a higher price for a commodity than they can reasonably expect to receive on resale. After years of booming sales the industry entered the year at a fever pitch, with new publishers appearing ex nihilo in order to fulfill a demand that had already evaporated by the fall. The rub here is that whereas comics in 1962 (the year Amazing Fantasy #15 was printed) were sold by newsstands and other retail outlets (such as supermarkets and pharmacies), comics in 1993 were largely sold by direct market specialty stores that trafficked exclusively in comics – or comics and sports cards, or comics and role-playing games. A few stores stayed open during the dark times that followed the 1993 bust by selling palettes full of a new game called Magic: The Gathering – early printings of which were legitimately scarce and still command a great deal of money. (Incidentally, the sports card market had collapsed just prior to the comic book market, meaning many stores were already hurting by 1993.)

Newsstands and retail outlets sell magazines on consignment and on a returnable basis –as with the example of Amazing Fantasy #15, whatever the retailer doesn’t sell can be shipped back to the distributor to be pulped. Due to a historical quirk most comics sold to specialty stores are not returnable. When unsold cartons of Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1 started clogging up floorspace, there was no way for a retailer to recoup that investment. They were out the money for stock that wasn’t selling to an audience that disappeared once they figured out that more than enough copies of Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1 existed to ensure that every man, woman, and child who wanted a copy could purchase a copy for pennies on the dollar. You can still probably find a copy for a dollar today.

The problem was compounded by the fact that as more books were produced companies struggled to maintain consistency across their lines. Especially Marvel. Even over multiple decades and multiple owners Marvel’s corporate philosophy has remained remarkably, brutally simple: flood the market and push competitors off the racks. It doesn’t matter if a book is any good just so long as it exists in place of another book by another company. (This has remained the company’s philosophy even as it has expanded in recent years into movies and television.) 1993 was not just a year in which a great many comics were printed, it was a year in which a great many bad comics were printed, and even dedicated fans felt increasingly dissatisfied with endless waves of substandard product. With speculators leaving in droves and even the industry’s bread-and-butter fans drifting away, many stores closed or began selling something else besides comics – like Magic cards.



This context is important to remember because the reason Marvels represented such a revolution at its release was that it stood in direct opposition to these trends. It was an expensive book, an almost unheard of $5.95, printed on thick paper with eye-popping plastic overlay covers – but it was a rare gimmick that genuinely enhanced the finished product by allowing for the cover art to be appreciated without logo and trade dress. Marvels is still one of the best-designed books in the company’s history. It pops off the shelf.

Looking back for this essay I was surprised to see that the first issue of Marvels shipped in 1993. It seemed at the time to exist in a different universe from the rest of the industry. It was a lifeline for the disenchanted. It was produced by lifelong fans for an audience of lifelong fans, people who lived and breathed these old books, people who needed to believe in these old books. It represented (for many readers, at least) the first shot across the bow against a dominant comics culture that had become crass and jaded. It was the tip of the spear of a return to “traditionalism” that was (as reactionary movements are wont to be) fixated not on the actual material conditions of the past but by a murky vision of what the past was supposed to have been. Comics the way they used to be.

However, while it is possible to see Marvels as the harbinger of a movement towards nostalgia and conservatism that infected parts of the industry in the mid 90s, it would be a mistake to claim that the book was actually a part of this movement, and an insult to Busiek & Ross to infer any such motivation from their work. A countermovement to the era of early Image Comics and the “Extreme” stories that generation of creators produced was an inevitable reaction to a shrinking retail environment and the graying of the existing fanbase after many younger readers were burnt by the speculator bubble and fled the hobby in droves. As fewer and fewer drug stores and supermarkets stocked comic books, fewer and fewer kids read them. If you liked comics but lived in a town where the only place that sold comics was the 7-11 and the 7-11 stopped selling comics, you were up the creek. What remained, what always remained, were the lifers.

The entertainment industry celebrates success through imitation, and comics is no different. Because of the relatively small lead-time necessary for production comics is especially prone to faddishness: movies and books and television can take years to produce even at breakneck speed, but a comic book can sometimes be conceived, created, promoted, and ship to stores in just a few months. A wave of “prestige” projects that trafficked in nostalgia and catered to older fans followed in the wake of Marvels just as surely as night follows day. But whereas many of the (now mostly forgotten) projects that clogged the shelves in the wake of Marvels looked nice, most of them missed the reason why Marvels was so important in the first place. It wasn’t just the painted art, and it wasn’t just the backwards-looking focus. To repeat: although Marvels is a book about nostalgia, it’s not nostalgic. The past can be a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. 

There’s an old saying, credited to a man named Peter Graham, that the Golden Age of sci-fi is twelve. Knock a few years off and the same goes for comics: the comics you read as a kid will always be the best comics. Nothing will ever come close in your eyes to that first rush, from back before you knew enough about the making of the books to become cynical. Even if the comics you grew up with were awful (and they most likely were), they will always be the pure and uncut high for which you will hunger for the rest of your life.

More odd but incontrovertible is the aura of holiness invested by certain fans in eras of comics prior to their own birth. Certainly not every fan - it's a tendency that seems to be on the wane among readers today, for instance - but the next step after lionizing the era of comics you grew up with is the era of comics before you were born. Nothing holds quite as much magic as an artifact of a lost epoch from prior to your existence. Holding a comic book printed before you were even conceived provides tangible proof of the existence of an Antediluvian world filled with wonders undreamt.

I have no personal nostalgia attached to the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, as I would not be born for many years yet by the time Jack Kirby left Fantastic Four in 1970. My mom read Marvel not as a child but as a teenager and she passed some of the affection on to me, but her reminiscences were hardly systematic (she's also perhaps the least nostalgic person I know). It fell to me to absorb nostalgia for the Silver Age of comics second- and third-hand, from reading and reaffirming the prejudices of older fans whose discourse dominated the period.

When Marvels hit shelves, even though in terms of actual age I was far closer to that of the typical Image fanboy, the borrowed nostalgia of older generations felt far more solid to me. I didn’t buy many Image books at the time – Spawn, yes, but even people who hated Spawn bought Spawn. It was usually interesting to look at even if the stories were repetitive drivel, and they usually were. My favorite writer at the time was Mark Gruenwald, and I bought everything Tom DeFalco wrote as well. I was more invested in Peter David’s Incredible Hulk than I probably should have been.

In hindsight the reason I was attracted to these books is that I responded both to the level of craft involved in the construction of the stories and the attitude of traditionalism that at the time permeated some of the more long-running Marvel series. You could pick up an issue of DeFalco and Ron Frenz’s Thor and be assured a solid read, a story with a beginning, middle, and end with plenty of long-simmering subplots and a reliance on long-game character development to keep monthly readers returning even when the actual content of the stories was a retread. A filling meal. These creators respected the past and saw their job as part custodianship: compared to the average issue of Spawn or even X-Force – published by the same company as Thor but separated in both tone and execution by rigid Chinese walls – these were extraordinarily square comics, and proudly so. They wore their old-fashioned nature on their sleeve like badges of honor.

I wasn’t really happy with being a kid. I didn’t get much joy out of liking the things I was “supposed” to like, at least in terms of the comics that were considered cool at the time, and I was much happier digging into back issue bins for issues of Marvel Two-In-One with odd looking covers than waiting for whatever was selling best on any given month. Sure, I read New Mutants (for instance) and thought the book became more interesting once a dude named Rob Liefeld came on pencils – but I was less than thrilled by the results when he was given the opportunity to write his own stories. It it was a lot easier to justify buying genial crap back when comics were only 75¢ or $1.00, if it meant keeping up with the conversation. It was just a thing we did  – you sort of had to be there.

Eventually I stopped buying back issues as keeping up with current comics became less of a joy and more of a chore – a happy chore, and one that Marvel and DC were happy to encourage by still producing the odd good books amongst bales of chaff, but a chore nonetheless. Routine buying habits very easily became simple habit. Habit becomes expectation. Expectation become dependency. If you’ve never been there, the idea of buying comics every week being a kind of addiction probably seems absurd but – that’s how the industry functions. Get ‘em hooked young and they’ll be customers for life.

It would have been difficult to design a book better suited to appeal to the me of 1993 than Marvels . I was already a lifer. Marvels was a book that promised exquisite delights for readers who knew the score, who got all the jokes and noticed all the little details that two lifelong Marvel Zombies were able to squirrel away onto every page. You don’t have to know all the little in-jokes to get the book – in fact, I’ve given the book to people with very little exposure to superheroes and they’ve gotten the story just fine. But the fact that those details are there for those who can see gives the story an uncompromising depth. Busiek knows his shit, and anything he missed Ross could catch. This really is the same Marvel Universe you grew up with, alive in every precise detail, looking like you could just walk right onto the page . . .



If you only know Ross as a guy who paints covers, or (if you’re a few years older) the mastermind behind a series of progressively less interesting nostalgia projects, it may be difficult to understand just how big a deal he was. Ross was an instant superstar the moment that first issue of Marvels hit. And at the time his work was a proverbial breath of fresh air. After years of Rob Liefeld, here was someone who knew how to draw, how to do all the old-fashioned things you saw in those Burne Hogarth books that actually tried to teach you how to draw for real instead of taking shortcuts with everything and covering it up with a bunch of lines. (When I draw now I still can’t shake the habit of covering up every available surface with excess lines. I don’t draw much anymore.) The main character in Marvels is a middle-aged news photographer, the kind of serious 60s professional who wore a tie to the breakfast table. He needed to look real, and Ross made him real.

All of the tics for which Ross later became infamous – the stiffness of some of his posed figures, the slightly disconcerting feeling that you’re looking at paintings of his next-door neighbor posed as Giant Man – well, they didn’t seem quite so important at the time. Go back and look at Marvels in the context of everythingelse on the stands at the time and you should be able to appreciate why it stood out. What Ross does well, he does extraordinarily well: for all the flack he gets over the occasional stiffness of his posing, his page composition and use of perspective are often dazzling. Much of Marvels is montage, and Ross makes montage work on the comics page in a way that very few other artists have ever managed, bringing a genuine sweep and cinematic scope to the book. “Cinematic” is an overused and often abused term in reference to comic book storytelling, but at his best he can pluck the sweep and woosh of a cleverly edited montage sequence off a movie screen and place it on the page, intact for all intents and purposes. Not an easy thing to do.

The time was ripe for a book like Marvels – a serious book that took its subject matter very seriously, and set about to accomplish its goals with a quiet determination to be unlike any other comic that had ever existed up to that moment. It is unfortunate that the book became identified with a stylistic conservatism that was very much at odds with the themes of the book itself, which argued vociferously against being stuck in the past. 

Ross followed up Marvels with 1996’s Kingdom Come – an underrated book that nevertheless already shows signs of the calcification in Ross’ style and approach that later became codified practically into self-parody. But I still respect Ross for the fact that at the height of his power, following one blockbuster project apiece for Marvel and DC, he could have done literally anything he wanted, and he chose in 1997 to do an odd two-issue reimagining of Uncle Sam for Vertigo. It’s an imperfect book but nonetheless very interesting for the way it utilizes Ross’ talent for aping Norman Rockwell as a means of exploring unpleasant aspects of American iconography. Inasmuch as anything Ross has ever done can be considered a “deep cut,” it’s underread and worthy of rediscovery by a generation of readers who might not even have been alive when the book was originally published.  



As for Busiek, he used the high profile of Marvels to build a long and distinguished career as one of the great American comic book writers, full stop. With Ross and Brent Anderson he launched the still-ongoing Astro City – originally published by Image Comics. I had a poster of the cover of the first issue of Astro City above my bed for many years, with a group of awestruck city dwellers pointing their fingers skyward at the angelic Samaritan.

There was a period in the mid-90s where it seemed the only good comics Marvel published were written by Kurt Busiek – an exaggeration, but only just. At a time when so many top-shelf creators had fled the company, or were being poorly utilized by writing X-Men spin-offs, Busiek stuck around on books like Untold Tales of Spider-Man and Thunderbolts. Alongside George Perez he relaunched Avengers in 1998, following the conclusion of Heroes Reborn, a year-long event in which none other than Rob Liefeld (along with fellow Image founder Jim Lee) was given control of the franchise. His run on the series coincided with Grant Morrison’s run on JLA, and is perhaps the only time in both company’s shared history when it can be said that the two books were arguably the best books being published by each company. A couple years later he also wrote JLA/AVENGERS, inarguably the best such intercompany crossover ever produced.

There are few writers whose work I respect as much, and none whose work has meant more to me.


Make Mine Marvel

There was never a time without them. Imagine that. Think back as far as you can, is there anything you carry forward to the present day? Your family, perhaps. I remember comics all the way back, certainly before most of my family.

Do you know why we care? I go back and forth – I’m not sure why I feel the way I do. There’s no conclusion here. Don’t look for a revelation, unless it’s your own. Certainty is comforting. It’s familiar. I don’t want to speak unless I know exactly what I’m about to say, and I don’t want to express an opinion unless that opinion is completely solid. It’s a lot harder to say, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know why comics hooked me. All I know is that they did. All I can do is try to tell you what I feel and think. Maybe you can provide your own answers.

Leaving the theater after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 I was gripped by a terrible malaise. During the movie I was impatient. I realized that I didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be sitting in that theater watching that movie. The characters on the screen were CGI mannequins bouncing through a frictionless CGI world, pausing between bounces only to quip at one another before launching another round of shooting faceless CGI monsters that could have wandered in from any middle-tier AAA franchise video game. 

The final scene of the movie, after excessively long credits (accompanied by a Guardians-themed disco song sung by David Hasselhoff, proving Marvel Studios to be firmly thirteen years behind the cultural zeitgeist as symbolized by the first Spongebob Squarepants movie), features Stan Lee marooned on a distant planetoid and dressed in a spacesuit, being abandoned by a crowd of Watchers. Lee is a diminished figure at this late date. How could he not be, at age 94? He still looks as if he enjoys these endless cameos in endless movies, many of which prominently feature characters he had no hand in creating. But I am left wondering, and not for the first time, who these cameos serve – Lee? He carries an Executive Producer credit on each film, strictly an honorary title. Although the appearance of his imprimatur carries weight with casual fans who unerringly associate Lee with Marvel Comics, he has as much to do with the production of the films as I do. He’s part of the brand now, essentially another piece of IP.

In the end Marvel finally figured out the best way to screw over Lee. His family founded the company and he stuck around for decades, fought tooth and nail against Martin Goodman at every step, believed in the value of the characters years before anyone else, suffered great damage to his reputation along the way. Now he’s just another piece of the Marvel brand, a real man swallowed whole by the fictional version of himself as carnival barker he created in order to sell comic books in the 1960s. Now in his tenth decade he's just another circus performer.

Because of his steadfast support of the company line against artists and other creators who spoke up against Marvel, he is also an ethically toxic figure. While much of the world without any extensive knowledge of the issues at hand consider him to be synonymous with Marvel, and surely the prime mover behind the company’s greatest achievements, many in the comics community conversely underrate his contributions for those reasons. He will remain a vexing figure for cultural historians for so long as Marvel remains an object of fascination and study – that is, for many decades to come.

If he had done just a few things differently, just a few decisions and decisive actions across a career spanning over eighty years, this conversation would be different. And a part of me hates him for that, hates him for having imprinted himself on generations of readers who grew up loving Smilin’ Stan only to later learn the truth of the matter. He’s not a hero but he’s not quite a villain, either – his great sin was to have been consistently wrong about almost every major ethical challenge he faced as both a creator and a businessman. At every turn he thought he was making the right decision for the good of his company. He won every battle but lost the war.

For decades he almost certainly considered his lifelong struggle with Goodman (Marvel’s founder, his uncle, and constant foil) to be the defining conflict of his professional life. Now Goodman is a minor player in the story of Lee & Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, one of the great morasses of comics history, coming in third only to DC’s barbaric treatment of Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster following the creation of Superman, and that company’s erasure of Bill Finger from the creation of Batman. Unlike the faceless businessmen who stole Superman for a song – and certainly unlike Bob Kane, whose portrait runs in the dictionary alongside the definition of “shitheel” – it is impossible to hear Lee speak now and not hear some degree of honest regret in his treatment of Kirby and Ditko. But regret for what, exactly, he seems unsure. Where his own culpability begins is a question he cannot begin to answer.

It didn’t have to be this way. Because he did write those comics. He did co-create those characters. Both Kirby and Ditko are immensely talented creators whose solo work, while enduringly great, is also inescapably eccentric. Every creator to tackle Kirby’s solo characters in his wake has struggled to replicate his magic combination of bombast and guileless invention. Every attempt to revamp Ditko’s solo work has began with the wholesale jettisoning of the uncompromising and astringent integrity at the heart of his vision of the world. But Spider-Man endures, and does so in large part because he speaks in Stan Lee’s voice. The Fantastic Four endure not just because of the visual splendor at the heart of the concept but because Lee framed the stories as grounded domestic comedy. That’s him. His name deserves to be on that creator credit just as much as any of his collaborators, even if it also deserves an asterisk.

But Marvel is no more or less compromised than any other major media conglomerate. Disney bought Marvel in 2009. Kirby & Ditko get to share a bunkhouse with Ub Iwerks and Marcia Lucas. Good company.

Both of my grandfathers are dead. Both of them lived compromised lives. My father’s father was an alcoholic and an adulterer who squandered a brilliant surgical career. My mother’s father was a gambler who kept my mother’s family in penury until being kicked out of the house on my mother’s sixteenth birthday. Both men were also extraordinarily kind to me. Does their kindness to me erase their checkered lives? My dad’s dad saved countless lives on the operating table, does that negate treating his own family like shit?

It is important to remember that these questions don’t have answers. Life goes on.

People get into comics for a number of reasons. The important question usually isn’t why you started reading comics, but why you never stopped.

I needed something. I needed something to hold onto when so much about the world didn’t make sense. I didn’t exclusively gravitate towards particular characters, although I obviously have my favorites just like everyone else. The characters themselves, I have always maintained, are relatively unimportant: what matters is the whole. What matters is that it hangs together into something resembling a cohesive aggregate entity, one story being told over decades by hundreds of people. Sometimes it comes together and sometimes it doesn’t, but ideally every creator is working on an even playing field, with an equal opportunity to add something unique to what has come before.

That’s why I gravitated to Mark Gruenwald, both in his comics writing and his “Mark’s Remarks” columns for Marvel Age. He seemed like a genuinely decent human being. Some of his writing is a little dated – his understanding of the connection between drugs, poverty, and crime is embarrassing in hindsight, as seen in both his columns and his work on Captain America, particularly the strange “Streets of Poison” storyline. But his overall attitude towards comics, and towards the world in general as illustrated by his runs on books like Quasar and D.P.7 seemed remarkably simple and straightforward: it is our responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it. People can become better by learning from their mistakes and moving forward. It is possible to be a good person in a compromised world.

He believed in the Marvel Universe as a living organism unto itself. He cared about things like The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, a unique project that typified a certain kind of fan in a certain era of comic book collecting. It wasn’t about anal-retentive organization as a way of calcifying and compartmentalizing creative works – the kind of criticism I usually hear leveled against that and similar efforts by subsequent generations of readers who dismiss handbooks altogether. It was about keeping the firmament organized so that the people who came after, creators and fans alike, could enjoy the characters. Everyone deserves the same opportunity to make these stories their own, and that requires a great deal of work to keep all the moving pieces behind the scenes humming smoothly. Even the exhibits no one sees still have to be cleaned regularly.

After some early missteps (i.e. The Scourge), he felt bad about killing characters. Even “bad” characters were someone’s favorite, or had the chance to one day be someone’s favorite – and the current success of characters like Squirrel Girl and Devil Dinosaur vindicates that perspective. No one had any use for Squirrel Girl for decades, until suddenly someone did. Every creator should be as distinctive and interesting as their talent allows, so long as they do their best not to step on the toes of another creator or act in a mean spirited fashion.

Watching the 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen, I was taken aback by just how banal these wonderful characters had become. Gamora and Drax the Destroyer were both created by Jim Starlin, the latter with Mike Friedrich; Mantis by Steve Englehart and Don Heck; Groot and Ego by Lee & Kirby; Rocket Raccoon by Bill Mantlo & Keith Giffen. Every character onscreen was the product of distinctive creators with distinctive ideas, who each worked under different constraints, exploring different themes and telling very different kinds of stories. The Guardians who appear onscreen are based not on the original Guardians of the Galaxy, created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, but on a version of the team created in the mid-2000s by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and built off the Annihilation crossover written by Giffen. The Star-Lord who appears onscreen as played by Chris Pratt bears little resemblance to the Star-Lord created by Englehart and Steve Gan in 1976. I go down this laundry list of creators and reinventions in order to point out just how many individual voices went into the creation and continued relevancy of every character.

None of these voices can be heard onscreen. Only the endless empty howl of IP management, the essences of characters ground down into thin pulp to be processed into the standard action movie template. Complete with quips.

The effect is that of seeing children soiling the legacy of their betters – even Lee’s contributions ultimately being little more than grist for the mill of endless bowdlerization. (It doesn’t help that these video game creatures move around onscreen to the sound of classic rock songs produced by greater talents. Seeing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” soundtrack a weightless sequence of CGI “splendor” almost inspired me to walk out of the theater on its own.) Marvel is both the unified sum of thousands of different characters and the product of the sweat of hundreds of creators working to express themselves through a limited but also paradoxically unrestricted genre. Anything goes as long as you can fit your ideas through certain narrow apertures. It’s surprisingly easy to use comic books to tell very personal stories, whatever your definition of personal may be. If the stories are any good they stick around and become definitive, and new creators take these stories and use them as the foundation for new stories. If they aren't, whatever is left survives in a Handbook entry, awaiting another creator to come along and see something of value in a space raccoon with a jetpack.

Everyone was always getting screwed but no one was making much money. The irony is that a creator’s given IP could only become valuable once every shred of personality was drained, leaving multicolored action figures to be digitally manipulated onscreen while screenwriters hammer every character into the same Marvel Studios formula template. Now Drax the Destroyer is worth quite a lot of money, even as everything that ever made the character interesting has fallen by the wayside.

Somewhere along the line Marvel lost me. They lost themselves. I pick up a comic now, even a good comic, and it takes me maybe five minutes to read. If I try to stretch it out. There’s no feeling that these characters have any connection to the ones I grew up with. It’s not that they’re different: different is good. Characters change all the time. There was a point in the late 80s when Thor had ugly blue-and-gold armor and a beard, the Hulk was grey, Captain America wore a black suit, and Iron Man faked his own death because he had gone rogue. The problem now is that the characters I’ve been reading without pause since the Reagan administration feel as blank and featureless as their universe has become. Constant art changes leave the majority of books without visual identity. Most writers have become so used to the expectation of cancelation that they don’t even bother with things like subplots, romantic entanglements, or long-term characterization. If a book is going away after six or eight issues, why bother spending the time to build a supporting cast who will probably never be seen again? Characters float aimlessly from reboot to reboot with no direction. The wheat falls alongside the chaff.

Although this may seem a reductive answer to may, one of the major factors in the weakness of the current line is that the books just don’t have that many words in them. Decompression and the turn away from thought bubbles are two culprits – there’s no one source of the problem. A comic that costs $4 and takes 5 minutes to read is just . . . not a good bargain. For all the systemic and economic problems that have hamstrung the contemporary comics market – which are not the subject of this essay, and have been written about by many more able parties than myself – the bulk of the books themselves just aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Good art doesn’t make up for a loss of captions and thought balloons: as much as a great artist can convey through visuals, comics are a hybrid medium. I want to sit down and read a comic, not just scan the art. Good art doesn’t tell a complete story, not in comics.  

This is to say nothing of the fact that the company’s flagships – Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Uncanny X-Men – have little in them to interest a kid who wanders into a comic book store. Amazing Spider-Man should always be accessible to any kid in America. Now Marvel has to publish younger-readers versions of their core titles, because the regular Amazing Spider-Man is no longer a book you can give to children, or would want to. 

Kids aren't stupid. Give them something that doesn't insult their intelligence and they'll stick around. That's something that Marvel always did well: creating something designed to be read by kids that didn't condescend and could also hold the interest of an older audience. That's Stan's blueprint. Kids don’t want a watered-down version of the real thing, and with the notable exception of Spidey Super Stories (specifically aimed at very small children, another market the company has abandoned), Marvel has never seen fit to do so until recently. Marvel’s core competency is selling comic books to children. If the company has lost the ability and the desire to do that, what exactly can they do?

Give me a complete story told in 22 pages. Give me all the changes you want, all the diversity I can stomach, give me weird politics, give me wonky art. Just give me a story. Any story. Don’t give me bullshit about storytelling conventions having changed: the system isn’t working anymore. Every comic – every single comic on the stands – has to work its ass off to give me my money’s worth. Right now, Marvel barely has a pulse.

It’s been bad before. The mid-to-late 90s was rough, but there were always highlights. There are still highlights now. But everything – the good, the bad, and the indifferent – is drowning in a sea of bad business decisions reaching back decades. I won’t even begin to touch on the level of indefensible rancor between the company and its fans, or the way that dubious creative decisions made by the movie division have a habit of trickling down into the books themselves (which, you may recall, is the same kind of synergistic “logic” that locked Spider-Man into a dubious marriage for over two decades). Being a Marvel fan has always been a difficult and nigh indefensible proposition. Now it’s impossible.

If you've gotten this far you're more than welcome to dismiss me as a crank. Someone who read too many comics and lost the plot along the way. I don't have answers, is the thing - I said that a while ago. I may even be wrong about a great deal. Anyone who cares to disagree is encouraged, with my blessing, to dismiss my words as the petty grievances of a tired critic. They certainly are. Am I just hankering for my own lost Golden Age, when comics were an escape and not just another depressing reminder of how crappy the world is? Maybe. You tell me.

People get into comics for a number of reasons. The important question isn’t why you started reading comics, but why you never stopped.

Marvels is a complicated book because as much as it appears to be a celebration of superheroes and comic books, it ends on a down note like a bucket of cold water thrown in the reader’s face. After the near-armageddon of the third issue – which ends with Phil lambasting a crowd of New Yorkers for their ingratitude at the Fantastic Four – the fourth and final issue focuses on the death of Gwen Stacy.

By general consent there are two possible end-points for the Silver Age: Kirby’s last issue of Fantastic Four (#102) in 1970, and 1973’s Amazing Spider-Man #121, featuring the death of Peter Parker’s one true love Gwen Stacy. I prefer the first for the sake of order: if you begin with Showcase #4 in 1956 that gives you a solid 14 years. It’s hard to argue that the Bronze Age hadn’t begun in earnest by the time Gwen took her infamous swan dive, but her death is often cited by fans as the era’s sentimental end.

That’s the tack Busiek & Ross take. Phil gets to know Gwen in the aftermath of the death of Gwen’s father George Stacy at the hands of Doctor Octopus (an event which occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #90), a death for which Spider-Man was subsequently framed. After having published a successful volume of superhero photography Phil is being pressured by his publisher for a sequel, possibly involving super-villains. He bristles at the idea for the very sound reason that people don’t need more reasons to be scared. Finally it occurs to him that what the world needs isn’t a new book of photos, but a book about the ingratitude and indifference superheroes receive.

Phil puts the evidence together and discovers the truth. He strikes up a friendship with Gwen. He learns that the elder Stacy believed Spider-Man to be a hero, and that his own daughter believed the wall-crawler to be innocent. Rather than publish a book about super-villains, he resolves to write a book exonerating Spider-Man for Captain Stacy’s death. He muses:

This wasn’t an article or column or anything that small. It was my book. My new book. . . . A major work on the marvels and what they should mean to us. . . . Everything would work. I knew it. It was the book I’d been learning to write my whole life without knowing it – and the centerpiece would be a vindication of Spider-Man. Absolved by the daughter of the man he was accused of killing – and praised as a hero by the man himself.

But then Gwen dies. Thrown off the George Washington Bridge by the Green Goblin, she dies of a broken neck after Spider-Man’s webbing stops her sudden fall.

Phil deflates. He doesn’t want anything to do with superheroes anymore. He had relied on them to help people, to save innocents – but when the chips were down, they were human just like the rest of us. They made mistakes, only when they made mistakes people died. “I swear I could still hear that flat crack, echoing across the water, echoing in my ears,” he thinks as he looks out across the waters to the scene of the fight. “I read later that it was the shock of the fall that killed her, but it sure looked like . . .”

The thought trails off. Phil doesn’t have the heart to finish it.


And I don’t feel like I have the heart to finish it, either. I don’t know what there is left to say. Comics started off a shady business built to entice children into spending their money. They are still a shady business built to entice children into spending their money, but inflation and retail conditions meant their audience grew older without ever growing up. Just like me.

It’s all about the movies now. Most of them, even the enjoyable ones, aren’t really very good. Mostly they manage the neat trick of selling children’s stories to grown adults by dumbing-down the source material. There’s a lesson there, if you know to look for it.

The books are caught in a bad feedback loop. The trade-off for working in comics (at least Marvel & DC) used to be that you’d get paid like shit but maybe get the chance to create interesting work if you cared about what you were doing. Now everyone gets paid like shit and the market is so attenuated that nothing sells, not editorially driven event books and not eccentric personal projects. People who could be doing interesting work figure out that they can make more money doing just about anything but working in superhero comics, while the people who work consistently and manage to make a living in superhero comics treat gigs like jealously guarded sinecures.

It’s not that comics themselves are bad. Comics are great. I make money writing about comics of all kinds. But the place in my heart where I used to hold Marvel Comics is a dead and blackened cinder, burnt by decades of being taken for granted by successive generations of creators and editors who appear by all accounts to hold their audience in seething contempt.

I go to the shelf five feet from my desk and pull down a favorite volume – Jim Starlin’s Warlock. Of all the thousands and thousands of Marvel comics I have bought and read and the tens of thousands of all kinds of comics I know, no stories mean more to me. None. I flip through the book: there’s Warlock, and Thanos, and Pip the Troll and Gamora and hey, Spider-Man sneaks in there, too, in a couple places. Old friends.  

Such wonderfully evocative images – Jim Starlin on fire working through early iterations of the same themes he visited dozens of times since. There’s religious oppression, the line between madness & sanity, the moral argument for and against suicide, questions of destiny and predestination, and even some sex. There’s vivacity here, life and passion that screams off the shelf and demands I read through, even as I scan over pages I’ve read dozens of times before.

Next to Warlock there’s a copy of The Death of Jean DeWolff, a hardcover of a story I’d never read before which I picked up for a song a while back and only recently got around to reading. An odd story – written by Peter David and drawn by Rich Buckler, it’s an attempt to create an 80s revenge thriller with Spider-Man and Daredevil instead of Charles Bronson. It shouldn’t really work. Something about the grisly milieu, seeing Spider-Man bouncing around trying to find a serial killer whose gimmick is emptying a shotgun into peoples’ chests, it seems off while at the same time remaining thoroughly entertaining. There’s an energy here that animates what should be a lousy premise. It’s an honestly conflicted story that can’t decide where it stands, but seeing Spider-Man tackle a Son of Sam analogue on the streets of New York just a few months after the real-life Bernhard Goetz shooting is compelling. Never boring, at least.
 
These stories live in my memory. But they’re not dead. Nothing ever ends.



Phil realizes, too. “It just went on,” Phil thinks to himself. “And it was never going to stop. Not even if I held my breath until I turned blue.” He hasn’t been the same since Gwen died. He’s sitting in his office at home, still in shock. Can’t really concentrate on what he’s doing. There’s a TV on his desk, an old General Electric model with a handle – people used to call them portable but they still weighed a ton. It’s playing footage of a fight between the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Zzzax. It doesn’t mean anything. Lives saved, property damage. Just another fight.

He throws his camera at the screen. It explodes with a WHKASSH. Phil is done.

“You’ve got to have the eye for it, and mine is gone,” he explains to his assistant. “I lost it somewhere. I’ve seen too much, and I’m inside now. Where I can’t see anything straight.”

There aren’t any answers. There’s no grand epiphany or cosmic conclusion. No meaning, ultimately. If you’re waiting for everything to add up, you wait in vain. I could tell you I was done with comics, that I was never going to bother again with Marvel, that I was never going to let them break my heart again – but we both know that’d be a lie. It’s home, for better or for worse. I hate it and I love it but I’m stuck here with you for the rest of my life. And you’re stuck with me, too.

Fuck you, I love you, forever and ever, amen.


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 Part Ten of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay
10. True Believers


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Monday, May 01, 2017

The Last Star Wars Essay


Part Nine of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
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I

So let me explain why Star Wars is cool . . .

I’m going to assume you know nothing about Star Wars. I’m going to assume, furthermore, that you may very well have negative associations with Star Wars. There is nothing whatsoever cool about Star Wars, after all. With neither the redeeming social messages of Star Trek nor the cult exoticism of Dr. Who, it instead reaffirms conventional family values and appeals to the lowest common denominator with whiz-bang special effects. The whole package, finally is gilded with populist New Age philosophical tripe.

Yet it lingers. It stuck. It stuck with aficionados and the general public. Even people who hate the movies know them. Most movies are disposable. Even a great director will only be remembered for a handful of truly great films, and most directors struggle their entire careers to find just one. Lucas will be remembered as a filmmaker long after most of his influences have been forgotten. Star Wars is ubiquity. The films will linger after much of the twentieth century is dust. They are the hegemon.

It’s different now. Star Wars was always going to be more than George Lucas intended. It’s never going to be the same, much as Spider-Man was never quite the same after Steve Ditko left. But Spider-Man lingered far past his expiration date due to being a popular idea owned by people who want to make a great deal of money.

I used to think it was important to specify that Star Wars wasn’t science fiction, and that it had little to do with science fiction other than the setting. It’s fantasy, so goes this argument. There’s no attempt to use the technology and environments in the films as anything other than tools and backdrops, to the degree that the same plots could be applied to any setting and remain legible. That’s intentional. Outer space works because it defamiliarizes the audience. We are told in the very first few frames, with those same ten words everyone knows by heart, that we are a long way from home, and that the events in this world have no possible resonance with our own. The existence of magic, then, takes the events one step further even from the already unfamiliar. We are in myth.  

Go one step further, though: we are told to suspend our critical faculties. We’re safe. No ideology here.

But follow me a moment: what if I was wrong? Accept the premise that the setting of Star Wars does matter. The setting is centrally important. It’s not incidental. Everything you need to know about galactic culture can be extrapolated from the attitude that galactic citizens have towards technology and history. In turn, everything you need to know about Star Wars can be extrapolated from understanding this galactic culture – including why the story has lingered in our culture when so much else falls away.

So, how do the characters within Star Wars feel about science and technology in their universe?

No one cares. No one stops to gawk at technological marvels. There is little scientific exposition. No one stops to explain how something works to another character – no attempts are made to provide the same kind of authentication devices that other sci-fi reflexively peppers into dialogue. What little there is describes immediate cause-and-effect – press a button and something happens. Power converters convert power, it can be assumed from context. Assumedly that’s a useful function.

Han Solo fixes the Millennium Falcon the same way car guys work on old cars: spitballs and bailing wire, whatever gets it on the road. If you asked him to explain the ins-and-outs of how his faster-than-light drive works he’d probably be able to tell you about as much as the average gearhead about the chemistry of the internal combustion engine. Maybe some, but it’s hardly a priority.

No one who sees the Death Star marvels at the incredible scientific acumen required to construct a mobile battle station so big. Everyone in the galaxy is accustomed to a high degree of scientific accomplishment as a fact of daily life. It doesn’t need to be interesting, it just needs to be scary. No one cares about the how, which leaves the story free to focus on the question of why.

The beauty of Star Wars is that so much care has been spent making the universe onscreen appear normal for the people who inhabit it. No one is awkwardly walking around a sci-fi movie set because it’s the future and in the far future people are stiff and self-conscious. People are sitting down to family dinner, hunched around an awkward meeting table and getting yelled at by the boss, playing video games with dirtbag friends in their basement apartment. Everyone has technology but most can’t afford the good stuff – or at least the new stuff – so things break. Such very specific details paint a picture of a lived-in world, a world where people have hobbies, listen to music, go to sporting events, and take drugs. People in Star Wars get drunk, talk shit, and are generally quite racist – even the good guys.

The conceit of Star Wars is that literally every character onscreen has a story. You don’t know that story. It entirely incidental to the plot. You probably don’t even know the character’s name. He looks like he’s been around, seen a few things. He adds nothing to the plot of the movie, but his presence sells the setting. When you watch a movie set in present day New York you take it for granted that an extra walking through the scene has a life and a story outside of the movie – obviously they do, they’re a person just like me and you. Likewise, extras in Star Wars get to be effectively interesting even covered in makeup and spray painted car parts. The camera lingers on “boring” verisimilitude that most other sci-fi doesn’t touch.

The galactic civilization in Star Wars is old enough that most people don’t need to know why technology works the way it does. Engineers are still quite popular, and necessary to design the latest ships and battle stations. But scientific breakthroughs have no immediate bearing on the story of Star Wars.

The characters are the inheritors of a very old universe. The technological infrastructure necessary to maintain a galaxy-wide civilization was constructed so far in the past that no one in these stories knows or cares. Who mapped the hyperspace lanes that allow near-instantaneous interstellar travel at speeds far exceeding “conventional” faster-than-light? No one gives them a second thought, and the lanes are regarded as a public utility. Who carved the crumbling fragments of Cyclopean masonry that dot the series? Every planet in the galaxy is ancient, with tens of thousands of years of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. But the populace is so inured to ancient mysteries that they carry little interest to anyone but the locals.

There must have been a time even longer ago, before the time of the films, when the Galaxy was not yet so tightly connected. Before hyperspace it had to have been as hard to get between planets as it is for us, now. Then the galaxy became interconnected and suddenly trade was possible, massive resettlements and immigration were possible, cultural exchange was possible. War was possible. The galaxy has been what it is for a very long time.

Star Wars doesn’t do a lot of things that other sci-fi does:

It doesn’t assume that planets have only one government and culture. Planets have civil wars and competing states.

It doesn’t assume that technological advancement naturally leads to civilized enlightenment. There are peaceful isolationist races and noisy belligerent civilizations operating at roughly the same level of technology.

It doesn’t assume that inequality won’t exist. Some planets do better than others. Some races are better suited to travel and commerce than others. Some planets have really fucked up political situations, some seem to operate without much in the way of organized politics. A giant chunk of the galaxy is owned outright by a cartel of near-immortal xenophobic slugs that don’t even regard bipeds as fully sentient. (Probably not great for anyone else in that part of the galaxy.)

Star Wars does, however, assume that even advanced technological civilizations could never fully escape corruption and inefficiency. It assumes that history is cyclical, with devastating conflicts recurring throughout history with alarming regularly. It assumes that children are wise to be skeptical of their parents. Intelligence is no guarantor of virtue in these stories, but ignorance is punished severely.

Most races in the galaxy seem content to simply be. It’s humans who create the most problems, humans who build Imperial war machines to set the galaxy on fire to satisfy their egos. Humans don’t even have a homeworld, they’re just there, everywhere across the galaxy from Coruscant to the depths of Hutt Space, prolific breeders without much in the way of natural gifts save for their adaptability. This is a tactical advantage over many other races, and their ubiquity makes them the single most powerful species in the galaxy through sheer weight. Other races, one imagines, say unflattering things about humans when humans aren’t around.

So why is all of this important?

Immersion is the key sensation of Star Wars. Everything feels real, carries authority that makes every frame seem like a portal into another world, perfectly plausible on its own terms. A galaxy of adventure left for the viewer to explore independently. For the first two decades of Star Wars’ existence, this sense of projection was vital to the survival of the franchise.   

It’s easy to forget, now, but Star Wars went away. After Return of the Jedi faded from theaters in 1983, attempts were made to expand the franchise with cheap spin-offs – the Droids and Ewoks cartoons, a pair of made-for-TV Ewok films. These didn’t take and without new movies on the horizon toy sales dried up. By the late 80s Star Wars was as dead as Star Trek had been in the early 70s. But just as generations of nerds learned Star Trek from seeing the original series on TV over and over again for decades, the Star Wars films never went away either. People loved them and watched them whenever they showed up on TV, which was a special event – but they were spoken of in the past tense. Star Wars was a thing that had happened.

Things used to go away and people took it for granted that they didn’t come back. Star Wars was very popular for a while, and then it wasn’t quite as popular anymore because it was gone. Even if everyone knew that Lucas had always spoke vaguely about the possibility of new films, no one ever seriously imagined it would happen. It was fun to talk about. Maybe someday.

In hindsight Star Wars really didn’t stay away for long. The property regained traction in the early 90s, expanding into a popular series of novels and returning to comics. There were a few years in the late 80s where the only new Star Wars material being produced were role-playing sourcebooks from West End Games. These books helped fan the waning embers of Star Wars fandom, ensuring there was still a core audience of die-hards left when Lucas ramped up production of new material set in the now defunct Expanded Universe.

I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. I didn’t care that there were new Star Wars novels on the shelves. I didn’t read Star Trek novels, and at the time I liked Star Trek better. There was a lot of Trek in the 90s. It fit the times. The 90s were optimistic. Everything was rotting under the floorboards but people were nevertheless pretty happy. In hindsight I wish I’d spent more time reading Star Wars paperbacks than watching Star Trek reruns.

The line I heard I few times when I was younger – not so much these days, I think, but definitely in the days when the first three films were the only canon that counted – was that Star Wars was about good and evil, and that good and evil is pretty basic. No nuance. Joseph Campbell and the Hero of a Thousand Faces – myth and superstition for an irreligious age. I heard it so much that I even tricked myself into believing it.

My opinion changed. I grew older. Rather than sharpening the nuance of my moral calculus years of hard luck simplified it, instilled the lesson that good and evil do exist. I see the proliferation of evil, evil beyond measure – but I also see a profusion of goodness, of hope despite the times. Cruelty is real. Kindness, too. We live with these facts as daily realities. They don’t lack nuance.

I think one of the reason the Prequels resonated so strongly with me was that the movies fixed the parts of Star Wars that had never sat well. It added a bunch of new stuff to the simplicity of the first three films. Some of it worked and a few things didn’t but overall every new addition to canon complicated, rather than simplified, the core ideas around which Star Wars coalesced. What the Prequels did that moviegoers could never forgive was make the main characters murky and complicated and even unpleasant, rarely defeated in open battle but undone by their own arrogance, ignorance, and corruption.

The newer movies had the temerity to point out that the classic good and evil set-up of the original was . . . not the whole story. Good and evil is what they tell pumped-up farmboys from Tatooine when they send them off to kill their fathers. What Yoda and Obi-Wan don’t talk about so much is how they worked closely alongside the Emperor for decades, helped him consolidate power, even saved his life dozens of times. They helped build the Imperial war machine. They have a lot of blood on their hands. Good and evil are real and solid things, and the people who have to navigate between them are small and fragile. 

It’s complicated. People don’t like complicated. I think it adds a great deal to see that the most powerful and righteous heroes in the galaxy were unable to detect evil in their midst. What are the Jedi, after all, but a galaxy-spanning law enforcement agency dedicated to enforcing parliamentary neoliberalism and economic norms? So committed were they to maintaining order as a singular virtue in and of itself that they neglected the menace in plain sight.

The Prequels hit a chord with me when they did because they mirrored the progress of my life, and national politics, through the timeline of their release. It’s not a good arc. It’s an arc from hope to despair, with very little on the other side but the idea that maybe, one day, things might be better. No promises. Everything is complicated and nothing ever really works out the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes that has to be good enough.

The key to understanding Star Wars, and its strange, grudging, but undeniable place of honor within the sci-fi canon, is that it’s neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It’s a place, like any other place, with lots of people just trying to get by and who are perfectly happy to look the other way so long as the bad things don’t happen here. The most “radical” notion proposed by Star Wars and its enduring popularity is that all the ancient splendor and inconceivable technology of a distant galaxy ultimately doesn’t change the proposition that humans can be and often are exceedingly cruel to one another for no reason whatsoever.

II

Here’s the thing about movies (and books, and music, and): they’re just there. They don’t talk back. They don’t think. If they speak it’s an idiot wind, and we hear the echoes of past lives speaking to us through the television. Star Wars doesn’t need defending. The movies exist, are quite famous, many people like them and many other people don’t. Trying to influence other peoples’ response to art diminishes it. You can’t tell someone how to react. Dictating the terms of their interaction is a good way to ensure the interaction is a negative one.  

I have no desire to dictate how to feel about Star Wars. Honestly? I don’t care if you love or hate Star Wars the movie or Star Wars the franchise. I tell you how I feel so that you can understand me. How I frame my narrative reveals everything about me and nothing about the film itself.

Star Wars is a big idea. Lingering insecurity is unnecessary. Lots of people watch Star Wars to help them deal with pain – it’s the kind of world into which anyone can project their own lives, their fears and hopes. It’s generic not in terms of facelessness but expansiveness. Fantasy or science-fiction? It’s both and neither. Star Wars is just Star Wars. After forty years of cultural dominance it’s sui generis, less a story now than a genre unto itself.

Four decades makes a big footprint. Many people are invested in making certain Star Wars is loved and appreciated for the foreseeable future. Star Wars will be around even after the economic order that made possible the creation of these resource-intensive mass entertainments has been swept into the dustbin of history. It will be remembered – and certainly someone in the far future will look back and say, “the twentieth century was pretty shit, but they had rock & roll and Star Wars, and that’s not nothing.”

III

Star Trek and Star Wars are such radically different ideas that their eternal “struggle” – if that is indeed the right word – for the hearts and minds of fandom has always confused me. There’s room for both. I grew up with both. There’s no conflict.

Star Trek was on every night, seven O’clock sharp, right before the movie. There were Trek movies too, and they were pretty good, but they were obviously not the core of the franchise – especially since the movies being made in the 1980s and 90s were texturally different from the late 60s reruns that my family watched every day. Then at a certain point not only were there repeats from the 60s and the occasional new movie, but new Trek on TV, weekly beginning in 1987 and running in some form for almost two decades, until the end of Enterprise in 2005. There hasn’t been a new Trek TV show in twelve years, although that is set to change soon.

Star Wars, on the contrary, was never on. The movies ran on TV at the holidays, or you could rent the VHS tapes. There were spin-offs, but they weren’t the real deal – Star Wars was Star Wars, spin-offs were never quite as solid. None of the spin-offs amounted to much, and all were quietly discontinued. People loved Star Wars, they never stopped loving it. But (at least back in the day) Star Wars wasn’t something you could obsess over for hundreds of hours – it was a finite experience, and the existence of off-brand Star Wars signified only dilution.

For those who loved Trek, the 80s and 90s were a bonanza. The same people who loved Trek usually liked Star Wars as well – and vice-versa, although the core of Star Wars fandom reaches a bit further beyond the constraints of the traditional sci-fi audience. (There are of course exceptions – nerds who grew up on Trek and see Wars as a junk bastardization. I mean, they used to exist. Certainly they still must? I used to hear about them all the time. Maybe, like cannibals, they’re always the tribe on the other side of the mountain.) Trek was ascendant throughout the period when Wars was in exile, and there were no grounds for direct conflict.

Star Trek is a big idea too, and has proven remarkably resilient. It’s a story about the future of the species with a happy ending, or at least a peaceful denouement. Human evolution is rough and leads inevitably to warfare and barbarism – but at some point the species gets its shit together and makes it to the stars. The parts of us that we send out into the empty universe are the best parts of us – our curiosity, our justice, our commitment to cooperation and useful pragmatism.

There is optimism at the core of Star Trek that places it slightly out-of-step with culture – people are attracted to Starfleet because it’s nice to believe that one day we might live in an egalitarian post-scarcity society where a functioning technocracy steers the greater destiny of humanity in the service of common goals and ideals. Put aside the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s own ideals were the product of his time, and that a series conceptualized as “Wagon Train to the stars” could never escape the inference of manifest destiny – or at least the 1960s humanistic version, complete with progressive anti-racist politics. People like Star Trek partly because it’s nice to believe that one day we’ll be able to leave all our shit behind and just go, somewhere else, and maybe be better at being ourselves than we are now.

The original Trek was an adventure story. Subsequent television iterations, however, were procedurals: every week the Enterprise NCC-1701-D under the command of the intrepid Captain Jean-Luc Picard encountered a new challenge – diplomatic, scientific, personal, or occasionally (very occasionally) even military. And in every instance there were rules to follow. The reason why Picard was such a reassuring figure is that he symbolized the ascension of the rational technocrat as a voice of moral authority at just the time when we needed someone like that in our culture. In a calm, comforting, and authoritative tone he assured us that no problem was insurmountable to a rational and compassionate civilization, or so difficult as to demand we abandon our ideals. He’d get along well with Yoda, and that’s not entirely a compliment. (Tellingly, the last in-canon appearances by both Picard and Yoda show them as forgotten and diminished figures, wise idealists betrayed by the inevitable pragmatism of time.)

The difference between Star Trek and Star Wars, then, is a difference between who we want to be and who we are. Sometimes it’s nice to believe we can be better, but it’s also exhausting to realize that we aren’t yet. Seeing the most vexing problems – from warp coil malfunctions to interstellar war – fixed by trained and amiable specialists in the space of an hour can be disheartening. Deep Space Nine circumvented the problem by giving the show a stationary setting. Without the option of flying into the wild blue yonder at the end of every episode problems have a tendency to stick around, become sharper and more intractable. It was a darker and less reassuring show because it was premised on a most un-Trek idea: we can’t always get in our ships and leave after putting a Band-Aid on insoluble dilemmas.

One of Trek’s hallmarks is its deep bench of alien races. The franchise works partially by plucking out different facets of the human condition and extrapolating them onto different alien species as a means of commenting on and critiquing the present. In the original series, broadcast during the height of the Cold War, Klingons were belligerent and obsessed with violence, Vulcans cold and rational. In the Next Generation - a product of the age of Perestroika. The Ferengi symbolized avarice, the Borg automation, bugbears of late-stage capitalism without a serious external threat.

By contrast, aliens in Star Wars are just alien, with alien cultures, values, and virtues that exist outside of any clear allegorical relationship to human culture. What do the Rodians symbolize? Wookiees? Whereas Trek is concerned above all else with finding common ground and peaceful rapprochement with alien species, there’s little exploration in Wars. There’s diplomacy, but it’s not based around cultural understanding, it’s based around the same old banal concerns we’ve had for thousands of years of our own history – trade and warfare, maybe not in that order. There’s nothing novel about meeting a new species, because people meet new species all the time. Why, just the other day I ran into an asshole down at the spaceport with three arms, bastard stole my wallet.

(There’s not a lot to say about about alien races in Dr. Who. They mostly come in two flavors: genocidal monsters who have to be contained or destroyed, and, er, humans. The two categories are not mutually exclusive. That franchise, which it should be noted predates both Trek and Wars, is far more pessimistic than either of its American cousins.)

I still love Star Trek, but for too long now Trek has been a thing that has happened. For someone who grew up with the Enterprise and retains affection for all its incarnations, it’s difficult to see a franchise that was once practically a part of my family fallen into such disrepair. Paramount doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. Trying to turn it into a series of action movies was a terrible idea. Returning to TV is a good start. Trek needs the space of a talky medium to be able to discuss ideas and define characters and do the kind of deep-dive world building that the franchise requires. It’s not a universe you dip into and back out of for two hours at a time, it’s a frame of mind.

Oddly enough, considering which one is supposedly a fantasy story, Star Wars feels more real. It’s not a story about how good we could be, or even how awful we have been, but just how we are in the here and now. Flawed people having flawed adventures and fucking up quite a bit on the way to victories that often prove short lived. There’s a buy-in with Trek you just don’t have with Wars even if the latter might seem more distant from our own lives. The idea that the world might one day get better is far more radical and disorienting than the idea that it might not.

IV

I first saw Rogue One a day after it’s release in December of 2016. It was my last trip to the theater dressed as a man. The second time I saw Rogue One was the first week of January, and it was my first trip to the theater dressed as a woman. Also the first time leaving the house by myself dressed as a woman.

Far more than The Force Awakens – overhyped and occasionally pro forma – Rogue One makes good on the promise of a Lucas-less Star Wars. If there must be Star Wars without its creator (and it is apparent that there will be for a good long time to come) then let it be like this. The people who made this movie understand how Star Wars works, what the rules of this universe are, what does and doesn’t make sense in the context of a franchise built on the intersection of sci-fi and magic. The movie hangs together as a legitimate part of a canon where The Force Awakens struggles, and ultimately is only able to do so thanks to the charisma of an excellent cast and the sentimental punch of seeing all our old favorites back on the screen. (Rogue One, of course, has Darth Vader, which is pretty cool too.)

After walking out of the theater in December, my first comment was that this is the Star Wars movie I’d waited my entire life to see. Nothing specific about the movie itself. Certainly I never imagined the story of the Death Star, other than what was already on film, from the revelation that it began as a rough blueprint developed by Geonosian separatists at the outset of the Clone Wars through to its maiden voyage in A New Hope. But that there was more to the story I never doubted. Because there’s always more to the story in Star Wars.

Star Wars was a surprise success. If you don’t know anything about the history of the franchise, it might come as a shock to hear that no one expected the movie even to make back its budget. There weren’t even toys when the movie hit screens. It proved to be such a massive success that even though the film – released in May of 1977 – still didn’t have toys on the shelves in December of that year, the toy company made a killing selling IOUs for parents to put under the tree. Folks who got those IOUs are in their forties and fifties now, but regardless of how they feel about the current state of the franchise they all remember the undisguised glee of finally receiving the toys in the mail, as much as a year after the film premiered.

And that’s the point. The toys weren’t secondary to Star Wars, the toys weren’t a spin-off – the toys may even be Star Wars at its most primal. The movies? They last a couple hours. But the toys carry a promise of something more. Sure, everyone wants Han Solo or Darth Vader, but to really understand what I’m saying you need to find someone like Hammerhead. Hold him in your hand for a moment. Here’s a character who appears onscreen in the original Star Wars for literally a second, says nothing, does nothing, just sits there and looks interesting for less time than it takes for the viewer to register what they’re seeing. And yet he rates a 3 3/4” toy, a tiny plastic icon representing a character without even a name.

Now, of course, you can easily learn that Hammerhead’s real name is Momaw Nadon, and he is a native of the planet Ithor. But that doesn’t matter. Kids in 1978 didn’t know that, they just knew that he was one of the coolest looking aliens in the film. Because he didn’t do anything onscreen, that meant his story was yet to be told. But you could tell that story, you could tell any story you wanted, because that was Star Wars. You always want the camera to linger on details for a little longer than it does, but it’s always gone, moving on to the next bit of the plot – everything else on the margins is left for you to figure out on your own.

After the Expanded Universe officially began in the early 90s, every secondary, tertiary, and quaternary character in the series got a backstory. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, most of it was superfluous but much of it was enjoyable. Momaw Nadon now has an extended backstory, a culture, a home. Maybe it’s still canon, maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that thousands of kids in 1978 bought that toy and built entire mythologies just around that one guy, and they were all a thousand times more engaging and interesting than anything a professional writer could ever come up with, because that’s how being a kid works.

Rogue One gets that. Star Wars is a place where not only can any passing character in a movie have an interesting backstory, but you know they do. Maybe it hasn’t been written yet. Maybe he’ll get his own spin-off novel. Doesn’t matter. Characters in Star Wars are always introduced as if they have only just concluded the greatest adventure of their lives, and are chilling in the downtime waiting for their next adventure to start. You don’t know what Han Solo was doing in Mos Eisley before being approached by Obi-Wan, but you’re sure it was interesting. The only character you know for certain has led a boring life is Luke, because he tells us over and over again – but even then, a “boring” life of zooming around a distant planet in a hovercar, dodging Tusken Raiders, and haggling with Jawas for droid parts is still pretty interesting. And Tatooine has the best sunsets.

A good Star Wars story, then, is one that expands on everything you’ve seen before while always implying the existence of even more awesome stuff just around the corner. Of course the spies and guerillas who stole the Death Star plans have their own backstory. The first time you see Baze and Chirrut onscreen, you want to know everything about those guys. Gay warrior monks in space? Sign me up. Of course, you learn nothing about them in the movie itself. Everything you need to know about them is right there on the screen. One day someone will write stories about Baze and Chirrut – hell, someone is probably doing so right now. And if they’re any good – that is, if they’re Proper Star Wars – it will only leave you wanting more.

Star Wars exists in its most potent form in the space between what little the movies actually tell you and all the cracks you fill with your own imagination. It’s a sense of anticipation, being greedy for more details, more stories set in this endlessly immersive distant world. It’s to Lucas’ credit that after four decades his universe is sturdy, expansive, and interesting enough to accommodate not just the hundreds of stories told by Lucasfilm (and now Disney), but the hundreds of millions of stories told by fans in their living rooms and backyards and imaginations. It’s full to the brim, but there’s always room for more. 

V

I caught up with The Clone Wars TV show in the year leading up to the release of The Force Awakens. At the time of its release it hardly seemed necessary. After the Prequels finished, Star Wars seemed to be entering another period of hibernation – with more ancillary product than existed in the late 80s, certainly, but again no new movies on the horizon. Even if everyone knew that Lucas had always spoke vaguely about the possibility of new films, no one ever seriously imagined it would happen. It was fun to talk about. Maybe someday.  

In the back of our minds, most fans knew that Episode III couldn’t be the last new Star Wars film. Even if Lucas himself felt no desire to make them, eventually someone would. It was difficult to imagine a scenario where Lucas held the franchise fallow for the rest of his life out of a stubborn desire to maintain the succinctness of his finished six film arc. But Revenge of the Sith, even though technically speaking ending on a “To Be Continued,” felt strongly as if it were the end of whatever story Lucas himself wanted to tell. He had come full circle, from telling a story about a kid yearning to get away from his boring desert home, all the way back to that same kid coming home again for the first time. Perhaps there were more Star Wars stories to tell – but those six films were Lucas’ story, and he had told it.

Now there are two stories: Lucas’ Star Wars, Original and Prequel, one story from middle to end to beginning and back to the middle; and now Disney’s Star Wars. The former is over. The latter is just beginning – will continue forward for so long as the franchise makes money. Who knows what it will look like in ten or twenty or thirty years. Eventually the company will move away from strip-mining the original material and create something new. Rogue One is a step in the right direction: filling in a hole from the original films, yes, but doing so by introducing a number of new elements to the series, as well as providing a general blueprint for how future elaborations on the formula might work. Throw a stone in any direction in Star Wars – ten thousand years in the past or the future, you will find whole species and wars and dynasties and heroes and villains spanning an undiscovered galaxy. 

The Clone Wars was a singularly important artifact in the evolution of the franchise. The last major contribution to canon created with Lucas’ direct input, it points in the direction of how the main series might exist as an entity separate from the dynastic saga of the Skywalkers. It’s a fantastic show. Although there are certainly highs and lows throughout the run, when it hits – as with the Pong Krell arc in Season Four, or the Dathomir interludes scattered throughout – it is the best written and most effective Star Wars has ever been. The show’s final arc, featuring Yoda on a journey into the heart of the Force itself, sells the single most vexing character of the franchise as a frail and imperfect vessel, surprisingly unprepared for the responsibilities placed on his tiny shoulders – that is, presiding over the destruction of the Order to which he had dedicated much of his 900 years. For its last trick, The Clone Wars made Yoda human and real, a three-dimensional and flawed person with a rich interior life filled with, yes, doubt and fear that he works hard to overcome.

The series is eventually overtaken by paranoia and frustration. The war grinds on and the characters find themselves warped by the demands of constant battle. The Jedi Order finds itself changed, unrecognizable and dangerous, running ragged and cutting corners across the galaxy. Characters we come to know and love eventually fall apart. The invincible heroes for whom we waited our entire lives to see are . . . fallible. Their power limits them. Their rules leave them vulnerable. Sentiment and affection are necessary human functions, and cutting themselves off from love and friendship only weakens them – and has the direct consequence of empowering their worst enemies.

See, I get that.

Being a Jedi sucks, and it sucks because under normal circumstances you’re taken from your family as an infant and raised by strangers to regard attachment of any kind as anathema. We even see, at a few points, Jedi taking Force-sensitive children from their families, taking them out of their mothers’ arms before they can even speak. It’s hard to regard them as heroes after that.

What is it like to grow up believing emotions are dangerous, that repression is healthy, that falling in love and forming deep bonds of friendship are harmful? That’s why the council rejects Anakin: he’s already too old. He has already learned to love, and that makes him extraordinarily dangerous to an Order founded on the eradication of love as a necessary precaution against allowing passion to override reason and restraint.

Poor Anakin, he never had a chance.

What did people want? Did they want Anakin to be a grand and noble warrior brought low by – what? Pride? Trickery? Some sort of noble impulse betrayed? Anakin’s a kid. He’s a kid with the power of an atom bomb in his heart, desperate for some kind of education in how to be a man, how to be a husband – hell, just how to be a responsible human being. He gets by because he knows how to fake it just enough to get by, but no more. He’s smart as a whip and can pick up the surface tricks of peoples’ behaviors just enough to seem like he knows why he’s supposed to say jokes at certain times, or express affection in certain ways. He learns how to kill, but he doesn’t understand why.

Anakin fails because he’s a vulnerable kid who happens to fall under the sway of the most dangerous man in the galaxy, bent on grooming the child into a weapon. It’s not glamorous. It’s quite sordid and disturbing – but what do you expect from the embodiment of evil? That’s not some kind of fake space war conflict, that’s real life shit: insecure kids from broken homes are easy prey. Anakin needed a dad, he found a monster. Abused children often become abusers in their turn. 

Evil is real, but it isn’t simple.

Darth Vader is a mass-murderer and a thug. He’s irredeemable by any measure – and, very important, I’ve never believed that turning against the Emperor at the last minute was any kind of real redemption. He turned the rage and loathing he had directed at himself for two decades as a result of the Emperor’s abuse outward, to the one person in the universe who deserved it. He goes out on a high note, but it’s not enough to erase anything.

The paradox of the Prequels is that, after decades of actively encouraging fans to tell their own stories, to put their own imaginations into his vehicle, his own answers could never compare to whatever fans had imagined themselves. His version was unbearably sad. It was a story about failure and fear, about good men brought low by hubris and weak men broken by circumstances. Seeing Anakin snap and begin killing children seemingly at the drop of a hat – it’s hard to watch. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere, or at least it shouldn’t for anyone paying attention. The Force isn’t a beneficent extension of the Godhead, it’s a dangerous power that warps and breaks the people who are unfortunate enough to have been “blessed” with a high Midichlorian count. When Anakin finally cracks in the final act of Episode III, it seems to come as a relief. The power broke him, and he gives in to his absolute worse impulses with the enthusiasm of a recovering alcoholic throwing away ten years of chips to get shitfaced. He fought as long as he could. He wasn’t strong enough because the tools his elders gave him were insufficient to the task.

What the Prequels tell us is that good and evil do exist, but they don’t exist separate from ourselves. The Force is just power, power that can theoretically be used for either good or evil, but which in practice is best not used at all. This is the core of Jedi teaching, after all: restraint as the means of avoiding the temptation that naturally arises from the exercise of great power. The wisest use of power, the series says, is not to use power. Whatever the ontology of the Force itself may be, it can only ever be a reflection of the imperfect men and women who use it.

Watching The Clone Wars in the year leading up to the release of The Force Awakens rekindled my passion for the franchise – a passion that had never dwindled, but which certainly waxed and waned. It was something vital to which I could grab hold in the worst period of my life, the long months and years of paralyzing depression leading up to the revelation of 30 April 2016 that I am a transgender woman. Star Wars was there for me when I needed it the most. Nothing else made sense.

It may not have pointed the way out of the darkest period of my life, but I could hold onto it, a real and solid object that I could obsess over and with which I could distract myself while literally everything else around me began to crumble. George Lucas saved my life in a way that isn’t even slightly hyperbolic, gave me something I could carry from my earliest – literally, my very earliest childhood memories through to the present. I could look forward to new Star Wars even if I knew it would never be the same Star Wars. It was something to look forward to at a time when I had precious little else.

Of course, it’s all owned by Disney now, the same Disney that owns Spider-Man and Captain America, Buzz and Woody, Donald and Mickey – all those icons who never leave. If you think about it too much it’s quite disgusting that one company owns so much of our shared mental real estate. Our childhoods. Walk around Target today and you’ll see Star Wars plastered on everything from corn chips to underwear. These characters are icons, symbols of commerce and Hollywood, pax Americana writ large. But look under the hood and they’re also personal reflections of the cares and concerns of the man who made them, who directed their creation and oversaw their existence for three and a half decades. Scrub away the crap and you’re left with six profoundly weird movies, movies with unsettling themes and messages, powered by the profound and irresolvable dichotomy between childlike wonder at the endless possibilities of fantasy storytelling and a fatalistic belief in the frailty and corruptibility of human nature.

The Star Wars created and overseen by Lucas was a reflection, for better and for worse, of his own biases and neuroses. It was weird and idiosyncratic in a way that most people overlook because of the series’ popularity. I doubt Star Wars will ever be that weird or interesting again. But just because Spider-Man was never as weird after Ditko left doesn’t mean that it was never good. Just different.

Life goes on. Oh well.

VI

One more thing:

Star Wars isn’t meant to be seen on TV. It’s not designed to live on a plastic disc on your shelf.

The way to understand Star Wars is to go opening night. Used to be preview showings were at midnight, but in recent years they’ve expanded to Thursday evening. Whichever. It has to be first showing.

It has to be first showing because it has to be packed. Every seat filled. I’m agoraphobic. I don’t like crowds. But you have to be in a crowd to see Star Wars. You have to be shoulder to shoulder with strangers from all walks of life, herded into tiny plastic chairs and waiting together in darkness.

It’s electric. There’s nothing else like it. No other movies command the same respect from an audience. You are assembled to witness for the first time something completely new that you will carry for the rest of your life. Instantly indelible.

The lights go down. Silence. You squirm through the previews. You roll your eyes en masse at the candy advertisements. Finally.

For a moment, everything is black. Then the words come up, those same ten words everyone knows by heart. There’s another moment, the most exquisite moment of anticipation, a single heartbeat that holds the collective weight of hundreds of moviegoers for an eternity of breathless excitement . . .


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 Part Nine of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay


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