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Archive for the tag “Star Wars”

May the 4th be with you!

Sartorially Smart Heroines

chiss It occurred to me belatedly today that I screwed up my timing. Today being May the 4th, I totally should have had a Star Wars post ready for Star Wars Day. Drat.

I should have had something from SWTOR or from one of the films or KOTOR or even one of my old drawings, if I still have one around. I should have taken the chance to talk about how much the series meant to me growing up and what the nostalgia behind it still means to me today.

Oh well. Here’s my Chiss Bounty Hunter from Star Wars: The Old Republic. Take care and May the Force (and the 4th) be with you.

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Growing Up a Star Wars Nerd

I met him in the swamps, down in Dagobah

An old drawing of Yoda from my high school sketch pad. Don’t remember for sure where I found the picture it’s based on.

I was born the year that Return of the Jedi hit theaters, so I wasn’t one of the fortunate fans to see the original trilogy on the big screen. In fact, I think my first experience with the films was seeing R2-D2 and C-3PO on Sesame Street. The first time I remember actually seeing the films, I was about four or five years old and we were down in San Francisco visiting some of Mom’s cousins, and they were watching The Empire Strikes Back. I got sent to bed not long after the snow battle, but I remember that I thought the speeders were pretty cool. And I honestly remember thinking that the AT-AT walkers were giant animals. I also have vague memories about seeing part of A New Hope at about the same time. It was during the Sand People attack, and I remember recognizing R2 and 3PO from having seen them on Sesame Street. I also had cousins who owned some of the action figures and t-shirts and posters and such, so I had a vague familiarity with the series from even that early age.

I think I was in about the third or fourth grade when I finally saw one of the films in its entirety. The Empire Strikes Back was on TV, and I was interested enough to insist the folks let me and my brothers stay up late to watch it. (It must have been a Saturday night if they let us stay up past 9:00.) We’ve been fans ever since. It wasn’t long after that the folks rented the trilogy for us—and we wanted to rent it pretty much every time we went to the video rental place after that. They finally had to just buy us the series so that we could rent something else when we went. I’m pretty sure we wore out those three VHS tapes. We also built starships out of Legos and even had an Imperial Walker made from Wonder Blocks*. It helped that I found friends at school who were also into science fiction. We were moderate outcasts, though I don’t remember thinking about it that way at the time. And I think the level of outcast depended on which clique you asked.

When Timothy Zahn released Heir to the Empire in 1991, it was kind of a big deal for me. I’d read the novelized versions of the movie trilogy, which were suitably epic, and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (which had nothing going for it beyond that hit had Luke, Leia, and Vader in it), but Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy upped the stakes for every Star Wars story that came after. It essentially redefined my perception of the universe that Lucas created. All of the original heroes were involved, as well as new heroes (Mara Jade!) and even a few of the previously unsung heroes from the films (Wedge Antilles). And just as key, it introduced a new set of villains worthy of the Galactic Empire—most notably Grand Admiral Thrawn** who is still my favorite Star Wars villain. It was huge in scale and didn’t limit itself to the scope and settings from the movies. On top of being true to the characters and setting, it included every element that made the movies great: exotic locations, gunfights, lightsaber duels, and battles between fleets of massive spaceships. To date, I’ve yet to find a Star Wars story that’s as amazingly well-done as the Thrawn trilogy—including Zahn’s later novels.

No disentigrations

Another from the old sketch pad. I think the picture I used was from a fan magazine.

The release of the Star Wars Special Edition films in 1997 was a big deal for my brothers and me. Finally we had the chance to see it on the big screen, in full cinematic glory. And we loved it. The folks wouldn’t take us to see it opening week, since they don’t like crowds at all, but we still enjoyed finally getting to see our favorite movies on the big screen. And for the most part, we even enjoyed the changes Lucas made. Showing the space battles with updated special effects only made them cooler for us kids, and I liked how they opened up cloud city to show the sky outside (it felt less sterile and claustrophobic in my view). Adding the scene with Jabba the Hutt to A New Hope added more to Han’s character, and I didn’t really mind the musical scene they added to Jabba’s palace. Though, even then I’ll admit that I thought having Greedo shoot first felt a little weird.***

But the main thing that the Star Wars Special Edition films did was revitalize the marketing side of the Star Wars universe. For the first time my brothers and I were able to buy action figures, as we’d been slightly too young when they came out the first time. The folks got us pretty much the whole initial set—including two Stormtroopers, since you can never have too many of those. And we collected numerous others in the years to follow. We also got our first t-shirts with Yoda or Darth Vader or Chewbacca on them. I even got a baseball cap with R2-D2’s picture on it. I still have the thing; it’s faded and falling apart, but I still have it. We also got games like Star Wars Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit (which was way too easy, in our house the one who lost was the first to get some asinine question, like to name the actor who played General Dodonna’s aide). We also spent several hundred dollars collecting cards from Decipher’s Star Wars CCG, and I think we still have them someplace. And we bought and played to death a number of the Star Wars computer games from Lucas Arts. I doubt any of this would have come about had Lucas not released the special edition movies when he did.

I was in high school when Phantom Menace came out. I’ll come out and say it: I don’t hate the prequel trilogy. I don’t think they’re as well-written or as entertaining as the original films, but I don’t feel they lack redeeming qualities. I know this will come across as blasphemy to most purists. Sure, Jar-Jar got tiresome quickly and  Medichlorians are kind of a stupid concept. But the Trade Federation Droid army was pretty cool. As were the clone troopers. And we got to see the Jedi at their finest. There was adventure and suspense, as well as the first racing scene in the series (which was structured fairly closely to the chariot race in Ben Hur, watch it on Youtube some time). And like the original trilogy, the prequels included epic battles on the ground and in space. Plus Natalie Portman provided crush-fodder for those of us male fans who were young enough to be Carrie Fisher’s kids.

No, I don’t hate the prequels. But I don’t think they hold up against the original trilogy. The original films were cinematic masterpieces that made movie history when they came out. They combined themes and motifs from westerns, fantasies, Arthurian legends, World War II films, Civil and Revolutionary War movies, and countless other classical and contemporary stories into a science fiction universe. The prequels did none of this.

If you asked me what I loved best about the Star Wars universe, I’d say, hands down, the hardware. The Force was kind of a neat concept before the Medi-whatzits came along, the characters were relatable and likeable, and the galactic politics  and struggle for freedom were all among the qualities that made the films great, I’ll agree. But it was the hardware that interested me most. The lightsaber is still an interesting concept to me, and an R2 unit would be the ultimate Christmas present. It was the weapons and battles that captivated me as a kid. The opening scene of A New Hope really sets the tone for what I love best about the series, the running battle between the Rebel blockade runner and the Imperial Star Destroyer couldn’t have been a more effective teaser for what’s to come. Blasters, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, AT-AT walkers, Star Destroyers: there was something about the war machinery that I never tired of in the series. (And it’s one of the redeeming qualities about the prequels.)

It's Wedge!

I’m fairly certain I based this one off a picture from one of the character guides to the Star Wars universe. Wedge is kind of a BAMF.

I haven’t watched the films in several years nor collected any of the novels in slightly longer. I went as a Jedi for Halloween a few years ago, and even wore my costume to work in the BSU Writing Center and to class that evening. (My favorite adviser asked if I was an Old Testament prophet.) Occasionally when I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll play Star Wars Battlefront or Knights of the Old Republic or even fire up Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds. I keep meaning to sit down and see if I can get X-Wing to run on Windows 7 (or that Lucas Arts will release it on Steam).

I don’t follow Star Wars as closely as I used to. I think the mediocrity of the prequels and the many poorly written novels and comics did a lot to temper my interest. I think it was killing off Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime that really wrecked my interest in the novels. And I hear that they’ve killed off various other of my favorite characters since then. One of the troubles with the massive popularity of the Star Wars universe is that a lot of people want to add their own stories to it and/or capitalize on the popularity. With this, a lot of really bad stuff gets muddied in with the good. As a conscientious fan, it got to be genuinely tiring keeping up with all of it as well as sort the good from the bad. It was a combination of this and finding new interests during and after college that gradually caused my interest to taper. I still love the films and follow the universe at a distance, but it’s been a long time since it held that youthful fascination that it did when I was growing up. Hopefully I can someday create a similar fascination in kids of my own. (Episode IV always comes first, though—it’s just good parenting.)

"That's it. The Rebels are there."

This might be the most recent Star Wars drawing I’ve done. I like the contrast here with the mechanical interloper in front of a pristine mountain lake. I believe the background came from a Stan Lynde landscape in one of his Rick O’Shay comics.

As sort of a tribute while I was writing this blog entry, I started a Pandora station dedicated to John Williams. So far I’ve heard a number of his film scores, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek IForrest Gump, and an orchestral version of The Legend of Zelda. It seems I’ve created a station of soundtracks. Not that this is unexpected or undesired. (Some of these songs are over 10 minutes long!) I find it mildly hilarious that I’ve heard the theme from Star Wars at least six times.

*Wonder Blocks were hollow plastic blocks with two nubs on top that fit together like Legos, but were bigger and lacked sharp edges. I think they were a Discovery Toys product.

**I’m not into cosplay—I don’t really even dress up for Halloween all that often. But if I picked a character to go to a con as, I’d totally try to find a way to be Grand Admiral Thrawn.

***I’m of two minds on Lucas’s constant alterations of his films. On the one hand, it is his creation, he can do what he wants with it. In an interview for the Star Wars Special Edition, Lucas once stated that “films are never finished, they’re simply abandoned” and that he really wanted to “go back and finish them.” I get that, and I respect it. I can think of any number of drawings I’ve done or any number of papers I’ve written where I desperately wanted to go back in and redo various details. As an artist it’s hard not to be my own worst critic. But on the other hand, there’s an adage in the artist world that you’re not supposed to change your work once you’ve signed your name to it. I feel like he’s wrecking a lot of his artistic integrity with his constant decision to go back in and change things. It’s not as necessary as he thinks it is, and what’s worse, I feel it’s off-putting to many of his fans.

Writers as Murderers

Several months ago, I got into an interesting, if brief, conversation on the message boards for one of my favorite webcomics. There was a bit of speculation going on over whether the comic’s writer was going to kill off one of her characters’ adorable little brother and sister. My initial comment was that she was foreshadowing in order to do one of the following: “(a) kill Vinny’s family or (b) merely make us paranoid that she’s going to kill Vinny’s family or (c) make us think she’s trying to make us paranoid so we’ll let our guard down while she kills Vinny’s family.” To which another user replied “The line between ‘writer’ and ‘murderer’ just… got a whole lot less definitive?” To which I replied, “As a student of both literature and composition, I can assure you that ‘writer’ and ‘murderer’ are hardly mutually exclusive occupations.”*

The conversation got me thinking about occasions where I felt profoundly affected by deaths of characters I liked in books, movies, etc. I can think of several times off the top of my head when I felt out of sorts after reading or watching the death of a particular character. I had to put down and walk away from Frank Herbert’s Dune for a while after Duncan Idaho was killed buying time for Paul and Lady Jessica to escape. He wasn’t a super-important character to begin with, but I kept expecting him to claim a bigger role in the narrative, particularly after he rescued them in the first place. And suddenly he’s dead, admittedly taking down a number of bad guys with him. Similarly, I stalled in seeing Joss Whedon’s Serenity for a long time because I’d heard that he kills two of the crew members. And since I really liked all of the crew, I didn’t want to find out who they were. When I finally saw it, I kinda figured Shepard Book would be one of the casualties, but like most fans I was caught completely off guard by Washburn’s sudden death. I remember feeling kind of rattled when it happened, then feeling kind of hollow for the rest of the movie.

I haven’t read any Shakespeare in several years, but he was notorious for killing off his more likeable characters. I recall reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time back in high school. The story quite nearly wrecked my view of Shakespeare forever, and for certain set it back by several years. (Why do high schools use R&J to introduce students to Shakey, anyhow? Or Hamlet? Or Macbeth? Why not start with something fun and uplifting like Twelfth Night or with a lot of action like Henry V? Do the curriculum designers really think teenagers are going to connect with all that death and drama? May rant on this in a future post.) Mercutio was about the only character I liked from the story–and of course he’s the first character to die. Leaving aside the fact that I had no way of knowing that this is standard operating procedure for Shakey, I recall being slightly rattled and rather annoyed by the loss of the one character I liked and felt any connection with.

Perhaps a better example is Boromir from the Lord of the Rings. I don’t recall having much opinion of him when I read the books. He was just kind of present the whole time. He traveled with the Fellowship for the entirety of Fellowship of the Ring, but he didn’t seem to play  a very large part in their travels. Considering his largest contribution to the story was trying to take the ring from Frodo, then getting killed by orcs, I wasn’t overly affected by his death. In the film however, not only did they give him a larger and more impactful part, but they cast Sean Bean in the role. I’m a longtime fan of Sean Bean and think he’s the most underrated tough-guy actor in the movie industry. His Boromir went from being a cardboard cutout whose only part in the story was a negative one, to a tragic hero worthy of Homer or Sophocles. Boromir essentially gets portrayed as the epic hero who has saved his people from their foes on many occasions–kicked ass and took names against the best that the Enemy has to offer. His only weakness being his desire to protect his people–a weakness which the ring exploits. In the novel, his name comes up in some of the fights scenes, but in the film he’s in the middle of the action, dishing out the damage like the a true son of Gondor should. And where the novel never actually shows us his ultimate fight scene, moviegoers get to see him lay to waste Uruk after Uruk even while mortally wounded and bleeding. I can almost visualize Hector of Troy giving him a fist-bump in the afterlife. It was a death scene that touched me. I don’t recall that I cried watching Aragorn kiss the top of his head as he lay him back against the tree, but I remember getting goosebumps over how well the scene was done.

But I think the time I was most affected by the deaths of likeable characters was reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on the 1959 murders of the Clutter family near Holcomb, Kansas. Admittedly, the fact that it’s a true story of violent and senseless murders might have colored my opinion a bit, but I felt sick reading the chapters where he introduces the victims. I loved the characters and his descriptions of the lives they led, but felt sick because I knew from the cover that this lovely family of wonderful characters was going to die. Mr and Mrs Clutter reminded me of any number of couples my parents are friends with. The antics of Kenyon, the younger brother, reminded me a great deal of stories about some of my uncles when they were teenagers. And the daughter, Nancy, was described as exactly the kind of girl I was attracted to in high school. Capote’s descriptions made me hate the killers before they were even introduced in the story.**

I don’t recall if I’ve said anything in the blog, but I am writing a novel that’s been bouncing around in my head for several years. It’s a fantasy/adventure story based on an off-handed comment that a former classmate made in one of our graduate courses, and last fall I finally started putting it to paper. I don’t know how long it will be or if anything big will come of it, but it’s been a fun project so far. As I’m typing this, I’ve got the prologue and chapters 1-5, am working on chs 6-7, and have various other scenes typed up for later in the book. I’ve wondered on occasion how readers might react if I killed particular characters from the story. A friend made me promise that I wouldn’t kill off Ryla, the young heroine, halfway through the story–which was an easy promise to make, as I hadn’t intended to anyway. But occasionally I’ve asked myself how my heroine and readers would respond if I killed one of her mentor figures, such as the old scout who teaches her to hunt, track, and shoot or the ex-mercenary who teaches her to use big swords. The sheer number of choices I could make when writing this novel is almost paralyzing, as such I’ve constantly rethought and re-rethought where I’m going with the story. As a fiction writer here’s a certain feeling of egotistical godliness that comes from knowing that I not only control the lives, situations, and emotions of my characters, but the emotions of my readers as well. I’m starting to learn that this is a very difficult privilege not to want to abuse.

I won’t lie, I’ve been rough on Ryla in these first few chapters, and don’t look to let up on her anytime soon. She loses the person she cares about most in the first couple chapters, and will likely lose others she cares about along the way. Similarly, she narrowly escapes a rape attempt in chapter 3 after getting slapped around and molested by the would-be rapists–and again, this likely won’t be the most dangerous situation she finds herself over the course of the story. My brother made the comment, “you must not like this girl. You’re awful mean to her.” But that isn’t the case at all. I honestly really like my young protagonist, and genuinely care about her and what happens to her. But at the same time I enjoy seeing how she deals with the emotional trauma and mortal danger. I like seeing how strong she is emotionally and constitutionally, and I love watching her overcome and grow from these horrible experiences. In the same way I want my readers to hurt for her, to sympathize with her plight, and to root for her as she overcomes the emotional obstacles and various dangers I place in her path. And I think the most potent of emotional obstacles is for her to watch those she cares about succumb to these same dangers she’s facing.

As I type out this thought process, I have to wonder, is this at all similar to the thoughts other writers have when they decide if, when, and how to kill their characters?

A sketch I did of Ryla, the young heroine from my story. Not happy with every element of the drawing, but I’m super pleased at how the pleated skirt came out.

*Opening conversation from the discussion comments at Amya Chronicles, comic #189.

**I can’t recommend In Cold Blood. It’s very descriptive and very well written, but I felt like Capote focused on the wrong characters. There were so many interesting characters and situations he could have focused on in the town’s reaction to the tragedy and from the search for the killers. Instead he focused most heavily on the killers themselves, who I had no sympathy for nor interest in. A pair of bed wetters who’re mad at the world because they were abused as children don’t get my sympathy when they use it as an excuse to kill innocent people.

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