Thursday, June 07, 2018

Even Dead, The Expanded Universe Is Better Than Disney Star Wars. And That's A Good Thing

Its been four years now since the Powers That Be at Disney/Lucasfilm have eradicated the old Star Wars Expanded Universe to make room for their own new movies, books, comics, shows and games. 

From a business standpoint, this make sense because Disney paid a fortune for Star Wars and intends to milk the franchise until all that's left is the moo, but from another angle, it doesn't. They own the rights for all of the previous material, all the characters, planets, technology, vehicles, aliens and so on. All of these works are lying fallow in a vault until someone at Lucasfilm decides to go back there for some background detail that they can insert into the new material. Old Expanded Universe material is consistently re-printed under the “Legends” banner, but nothing new is being produced.

Being a Star Wars fan in 2018 is rough. The movies are terrible. There are only two video games out, and both are the same kind of multiplayer team-based shooter without variation (not counting cheap mobile games), the action figures are either poorer quality than they used to be or overpriced for deluxe figures, the tie-in novels are average at best atrocious at worst, and the fanbase has been alienated by a cult-like vocal minority that is in charge of story decisions and doesn't hesitate to insult fans who voice displeasure at being given an inferior product not worth the name “Star Wars.” Oh, and not to mention third-party trolls that circle any big internet slapfight looking to stir up trouble on either side for the laughs.

No wonder that Solo: A Star Wars Story would bomb hard in this atmosphere.

Its almost enough to make you want to go back to a time when none of this needless drama and conflict existed. That's what the Expanded Universe is for

Here are several reasons why the supplemental material released for Star Wars before 2014 are worth your time.

1) Its a closed loop. The Expanded Universe seems vast, spanning nearly forty years, but there isn't any more being produced for it. If you feel up to plowing through, you can catch up on it.

2) Beloved heroes acting like themselves. If Luke turning into a bitter hermit waiting to die or Han becoming a deadbeat dad who dies three years before he gets an origin movie or Lando Calrissian flying around the galaxy with the most unlikable sexbot in the galaxy aren't your thing, don't worry. Characters get into weird situations, but they're never written that badly out of character. Sure, Han fistfights a giant otter once, but it makes sense in context.

3) A wide variety of settings. Aside from the fall of the Old Republic and Galactic Civil War of the movies, the Expanded Universe dips into the distant past with Tales of the Jedi and Knights of the Old Republic, to the very, very distant past with Dawn of the Jedi, and a hundred years in the future with Legacy. Star Wars can be about more than just the Skywalker family, and the comics go to great lengths to show you how. 

4) Good Video Games. Real-time strategy, first person shooters, flight sims, arcade actioners, 2-D platformers, and RPGs dot the landscape of good Star Wars video games. Most of them even have solid stories of their own.

5) Actual diversity. If you're sick of petite brunettes with English accents in every story, the Expanded Universe has you covered. Every shade of skin and hair on the human spectrum is found here, without elevating one at the expense of others. The men aren't incompetent boobs and the women are just as formidable to match them. There's also a ton of important alien characters with their own stories to tell.

6) Villain variety. It might come as a culture shock, but there actually are shades of gray within the Empire. From the blackest hearted Sith lords to cruel tyrants to selfish status climbers to genuinely good men and women wrestling with their consciences within a corrupt and evil government. The Empire in the Expanded Universe is still fated to lose, but they are never boring or one-note. This isn't even touching on the various criminals, upstarts, and Dark Side megalomaniacs dotting the franchise.

7) A genre for everyone. Military SF, mystic explorations, young adult books, Sword & Planet swashbucklers, spy thrillers, criminal misadventures, comedy, grim war drama, even a few horror titles. There's an Expanded Universe story to suit just about any mood.

8) Leia becomes President of Space. How does a mere general compare to that?

9) Everything interesting in Disney Canon was already done in the Expanded Universe, and generally better.

10) Satisfying payoffs. The heroes struggle against terrible odds, but good ultimately triumphs. Its Space Fantasy comfort food, and that's something sorely needed in this world.

11) Variety among the creators. Lefties, Righties, Athiests and Theists of all stripes worked on the Expanded Universe, and were able to coexist, because the emphasis was on the stories. Not only was there diversity among the characters, there was diversity of though among the creators.

12) More vehicle designs than revamps of Original Trilogy ships. Things get wild and crazy out there.

13) There's a lot of craziness to be found. Rancor-riding Force Witches. Lando teaching giant space whales how to play Sabacc. Force-Immune aliens from another galaxy. Leia talking to a giant clam to find out where Admiral Ackbar was in seclusion. The unbridled insanity of the Jedi Prince books. The Expanded Universe had a tendency to get crazy, and its rarely ever dull.

14) You know what you're getting. Continuity tended to be fast and loose in the Expanded Universe, and as time went on, the quality of the stories did dip considerably in places (with some genuine stinkers), but no matter what, when you read a Star Wars story, you got a Star Wars story.

So there you have it. Its easy to be disillusioned with the current state of Star Wars, but if you still crave the genuine article, give the Expanded Universe a try.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Appendix N Review: The Warlord of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs returned to Barsoom in 1913 to write The Warlord of Mars. Continuing from the cliffhanger ending of Gods of Mars, the story was serialized in the pages of the All-Story Magazine incarnation of Argosy, and later published as a novel in 1919.

Dejah Thoris and Thuvia of Ptarth are still imprisoned in a strange prison within the bowels of the Temple of the Sun with the treacherous Princess of the Holy Therns, Phaidor.

Not one to simply sit and wait out the year before the door opens again, John tries in vain to find a way in, and comes across a conspiracy between Thurid, a Black Martian of the First Born who bears a deep grudge against Carter since an embarrassing defeat in Gods of Mars and Maitai Sheng, leader of the White Martians and high priest of the cannibalistic Holy Therns.

The conspirators open the prison and spirit the women away, with John Carter and his trusty calot Woola giving chase, first to the equatorial jungle on the other side of the planet where the Red Martian city of Kaol holds sway, and then to the frozen north, where an entire race of Yellow Martians has been locked away from the rest of Barsoom by natural fortifications, and the cruel Salensus Oll rules as Jeddak of Jeddaks.

This feels like a shorter story than the previous two, but that could be the rocket-fast pace of the chase that takes up the bulk of the book, culminating in a titanic battle for the city at the North Pole of Mars, where every ally that John Carter has ever made comes to his aid. Mighty Tars Tarkas of the Greens, Thuvia the Princess of Ptarth who can sooth wild animals with her voice, Thuvan Dihn, Lord of Ptarth who has been searching for his daughter, Xodar the new chief of the Black Martians, Carthoris the son of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, Kantos Kan of Helium, Tardos Mors and Mors Kajak, the lost lords of Helium (and Dejah's father and grandfather), and Talu of the Yellow Martians. There are even some Therns who have allied with the forces of Helium who show up.

Much of the second half of the book is wrapping up story threads and giving satisfying conclusions, but the most satisfying development comes in how Phaidor grows as a character by the end in a touching scene.

Then the final chapter is a victory lap as John Carter makes his way back to Helium with Dejah Thoris where he is then put on trial for his heresy in the Valley Dor. Its a fake out, of course, and the statute of limitations on spoilers is long gone on a story from a century ago, so I'll tell you that John Carter is crowned Jeddak of Jeddaks by a unanimous vote of all the people he's forged together into his alliance over the past three books and it ends with John taking Dejah into his arms and kissing her.

Its about as FLAWLESS VICTORY as you can get in fiction, and it is completely and truly earned. John Carter has gone through hell and back across an entire planet, fighting anything and anyone who would stand in his way. He's been captured, tortured, thrown off of multiple buildings, thrown off of Mars entirely, and always kept coming back. Not for conquest, though he does that and ends centuries of racial hatred along the way, but for love.

Its a deeply satisfying conclusion to the initial trilogy and it hints at future adventures among the next generation of heroes, with Carthoris and Thuvia drawing close to each other. Indeed, there would be 8 more books in the Barsoom series.

Absolutely recommended. If you want to raise good boys, give them Harry Potter. If you want to raise good men, give them John Carter.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Appendix N Review: Black Colossus

Margaret Brundage knew how to sell the hell out of a cover

Returning now to Hyborea, Robert E. Howard's Black Colossus was published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales.

It begins, not with Conan, but with Shevatas, master-thief of Zamora (the land where Tower of the Elephant took place) who is exploring a sand-buried ruin of a city called Kuthchemes in the deep deserts south of Koth. By accident he awakens the undead sorcerer-king Thugra Khotan. The Liche-like Thugra, who oversaw horrific blood sacrifices in the name of Set, goes right back to trying to conquer the world. Now assuming the disguise of Natohk, the Veiled One. First on his list of conquests is the small kingdom of Khoraja, and its nubile princess Yasmela.

Tormenting and taunting Yasmela at night through his sorcery, the princess seeks solace in Mitra, the god of her Hyborean ancestors. Guided by a disembodied voice, she is directed to go out into the streets of her city alone at night and put her trust in the first man she meets.

The instructions are bizarre, but desperate for help, Yasmela does so, and so finally Conan of Cimmeria enters the story, who is currently employed as a mercenary.

After a negotiation that was equal parts paranoia and sexual tension, Conan is made commander of Khoraja's army, which then marches forth to meet the hordes of Natohk on the edge of the desert.

What follows is a titanic battle sequence that remarkably fits perfectly within a short story. Its incredible. There is humor, humanizing details for random grunts, and actual tactics that Conan employs to take advantage of the terrain. And rivers of blood, of course, because this is Conan after all.

Through heroic effort, Conan is able to win the field, but Yasmela is taken by Natohk back to Kuthchemes where he intends to take her for himself. Conan gives chase and confronts the sorcerer in his lair, and the way the story ends deserves to be discussed, so here's the recommendation before the SPOILERS start: Its a straightforward story that is deceptive in its simplicity. Its also a rip-roaring good time. Absolutely recommended.


The fight with Thugra Khotan at the end is hilariously one-sided. The undead sorcerer postures and threatens with a giant black scorpion, but Conan kills him with a single blow by throwing his sword into his chest.

From there, he rescues Yasmela and wants to take her away from this horrid place, but she's the one who initiates the romantic encounter. Thugra had obviously intended to ravish her, but now Yasmela, who has been the actual protagonist of the story who got things moving (Conan has been merely reacting to situations thrown at him), decides that Conan has earned her embrace.

No!” she gasped, clinging with convulsive strength as barbaric for the instant as he in her fear and passion. “I will not let you go! I am yours, by fire and steel and blood! You are mine! Back there, I belong to others – here I am mine – and yours! You shall not go!”

Here, in this ancient ruin, Yasmela is above any societal obligations befitting her rank and sex. Here, away from civilization, she is able to choose her sexual partners according to her own will, and she chooses Conan. A lot is conveyed about her character in these last few paragraphs when she is freed of the specter of Thugra's unholy lust.

The story caps off with Conan and Yasmela implied to have consensual sex in the chamber of the evil sorcerer-king that Conan just killed to prevent from raping her. That is the most Alpha Chad ending I think I've ever read. Its a wild ride. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ranking the MCU

Since Infinity War hits very, very soon, the thing to do seems to be to make a survey of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.

So yeah, time to rank the movies according to my own arcane standards. Do note that even if I drop a movie somewhere down at the bottom, that doesn't mean its not entertaining or competently made. I'd rather watch The Incredible Hulk again instead of Electra or X-Men Origins: Wolverine ever again.

Worst to Best

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This one's a weird black sheep from the dawn of the MCU. It has some great moments but still features a lot of that 00s superhero checklist stuff (as opposed to the checklist being used this decade). Its also down here since just about everything this movie tries to set up hasn't had a payoff in over a decade, aside from the Hulk himself and General Ross.

Iron Man 2 (2010)
Growing pains. That's what this movie is. Robert Downey Jr could make the phone book entertaining, so he's immensely watchable here, but this is a highly disjointed movie that suffers from trying to shove in as much worldbuilding and obvious setup for the Avengers that its own plot suffers. Also, its retcons a plot point from Iron Man. Rolling Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo together into the same character was a mistake. We still got War Machine out of it, though.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
This is where I got off the Joss Whedon train. There's a lot of great dialogue and character bits, including a spot on Vision and it gives Hawkeye a bunch of stuff to do. But it screwed up Ultron so, so, so, so, so badly. Spader does a good job of delivering it, but the material he's given is terrible. The actual Ultron only shows up for a small, brilliant scene at the end where he and Vision have a moment. Also, making Quicksilver actually likable for the first time in 50 years only to kill him off pointlessly for a cheap emotional pop made it clear that that's all Whedon has in his bag of quips, er, tricks.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)
I just keep forgetting that this movie exists. The Dark Elves and Malekith are wasted potential. It dabbles in the Cosmic side of things but still hews to the “they're just really advanced aliens, brah, not gods” that the first movie set up. The Thor/Loki relationship grows exponentially here, which is good.

Iron Man 3 (2013)
I actually need to re-watch this, so that might lower the score a bit, but I remember enjoying it the first time around. I like Shane Black movies. This is a Shane Black movie to its core, and it does a lot to take Tony Stark out of his comfort zone by giving him a bunch of MacGuyver stuff to do outside the suit. The Mandarin stuff was a disappointment, but good luck convincing Hollywood to make a Yellow Peril villain in the modern era.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
A schizophrenic movie, for every thing it nails, it fails spectacularly at something else. Spider-Man's great, there's a lot of solid comedy, good use of cameos, and it made the Vulture into a legitimately great villain for the first time ever. I wouldn't mind seeing Donald Glover as the Prowler somewhere down the line. Needed more core Spidey tenets (Uncle Ben angst, the Power/Responsibility dynamic, Peter's immense guilt complex, etc), Herman Schultz got screwed (he's supposed to be the supervillain equivalent of Spidey's sad sack moments, not a guy too dumb to live) and it replaced Mary Jane Watson with the alpha build of Rose Tico, which is unforgivable.

Thor (2011)
When it goes William Shakespeare with Jack Kirby set dressing, its pretty great, but it pussies out of giving the Asgardians actual magic because they're Norse gods. “Sufficiently advanced technology” my ass. Still, it hits the core elements of the characters right, which is worthwhile.

Black Panther (2018)
Its quite entertaining and the cast is almost universally solid throughout, with Killmonger being both highly charismatic and completely psychopathic without being just the Joker. When it goes Shakespearian its solid, but it kind of devolves into generic Marvel Movie action sequences in the second half. Goes on a little too long. Good, but overhyped.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
I enjoyed it quite a lot, but like Homecoming, it nails a lot and screws up a lot in equal measure. Huge character developments for Thor & Loki, no Natalie Portman dragging things down, Stupid Hulk, Jeff Goldblum, and wild cosmic adventures are all good things. On the other hand, it specifically destroys everything about Asgard that worked in the last two movies, and they did the Warriors Three dirty. Tonally, this is what the Thor movies should've started with while the Branagh film should've been where Ragnarok happens.

Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
The initial payoff, and proof that Kevin Feige knew exactly what kind of ship he was steering. Great popcorn fun with everybody except Hawkeye having a lot to do (Using the Ultimate version of Hawkeye is a mistake, I'm telling you). The plot is pretty bare bones though. Just good entertainment, and a marvel that they were able to pull it off in the first place.

Doctor Strange (2016)
The reason why the Thor movies can go bugnuts with power now, since magic is no longer off-limits and we actually do get several Steve Ditko acid trip sequences. One of the better origin story movies since Strange's origin is so simple at its core. Where it falters is where it deviates from the source material. Splitting Baron Mordo up between movie Mordo and Kaecillius is a huge mistake in an otherwise great movie (especially since Ejiofor is such a good actor).

Ant-Man (2015)
Considering the development hell this went through, Ant-Man is a miracle. Crazy genius Hank Pym, Scott Lang as a constant screw up trying to do right by his daughter, the quirky scene-stealing sidekick crew. It has a surprising number of tokusatsu elements in it, which help. Its got comedy, its got heart, and its got a forgettable villain.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
A better Avengers 2 than Age of Ultron in every possible way. Stakes, sacrifice, loss, and the fight at the airport is a thing of well-choreographed beauty. Infinitely better than the 2006 comic event of the same name.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Crazy space opera adventures grounded by an incredibly charismatic cast. When it goes dark, the emotional beats are exceptionally handled in an otherwise brilliant space spanning comedy. Rocket Raccoon being a dumbass in the beginning for no reason hurt it a little.

Iron Man (2008)
The one that started it all managed to do so by being a damn good movie first, and then teasing the broader plan at the end. RDJ is perfect casting. Stane is one of the best villains in the series. It ramps up at a perfect pace. Its great, and promises the great things that were to come.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The movie that brings Cap fully into the greater MCU, and it does so by throwing a morally anchored man into a world of murky gray. That's a recipe for great character conflict right there, and the emotional beats of a good man who's the only one in the whole world trying to save his best friend are damn good. Also, it made the Falcon into the coolest he's ever been in 40 years. Also also: Batroc the Leaper.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The best Star Wars movie made since 1983. I was a fan of the GoTG from the Annihilation event, and this delivered. Perfect casting, perfect comedy, perfect use of music, it gambled big on a bunch of c-listers (at best) and paid off big time.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
I don't think there's been a more perfect 1:1 realization of a superhero's origin story since Superman the Movie. This movie nails everything. Costume, feel, drama, romance, villains, action, soundtrack and pure unfiltered heroism. It gets the top spot because its the only movie in the entire MCU that made me tear up a little, and that was where Cap is saying goodbye to Peggy as he flies to his doom. The only reason why Winter Soldier is as good as it is comes from everything that this movie did.

This movie is perfect. FITE ME IRL

Friday, April 20, 2018

Legends Never Die: Marvel Star Wars Issue 02

Picking up with the Tusken Raider attack, there is a definite change in the quality of the art. Roy Thomas is still the writer and editor, Howard Chaykin remains the illustrator, but the addition of Steve Leialoha as the embellisher (inker) and colorist changes the entire texture of the issue. Leialoha would go on to have a long career, working at Marvel and DC on various titles.

Gone are Chaykin's sketchy in strokes, and the whole issue has a more photo accurate art style in general. I would assume that they received reference photos from Lucas as the movie came closer to release, but that's assumption. There are also more blues in the color palette, adding a cooling balance to the reds and oranges.

The plot follows along closely with the movie. Ben saves Luke and starts telling him about “The Force.” (Their quotes, not mine). Darth Vader interrogates Leia. Luke & Ben find the wrecked sandcrawler and then Luke's farm is burnt down. They go to Mos Eisley and hire Han Solo and Chewbacca. There is a firefight in the docking bay and they make the jump to lightspeed in the Millennium Falcon.

One point of difference is the deleted scene where Han meets Jabba that was restored in the Special Editions. This was well before Jabba's design was finalized as a giant slug, so here we have a random alien who would later be retconned as Mosep Binneed, Jabba's accountant and occasional face-man.

There's not much to say about the issue. Its a faithful adaptation of that section of the movie and the slight shift in art style is for the better.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Legends Never Die: Marvel Star Wars Issue 1

I've spent more time than I really needed to thinking about how to approach the old Marvel Star Wars ongoing from the 70s and 80s. It was one of the original tie-in materials and would end up being a constant thread throughout the Original Trilogy's theatrical run and even outlived it, ending in 1986 with issue 107. That's almost a decade of comics and taken as a whole, its an impressive body of work. Individually, though, it goes in fits and starts, so that's how I figured I wanted to go through the series: Individually, and in fits and starts.

Launching in 1977 right before Star Wars was released (remember, A New Hope was added later), the first issue features scripting and editing by Silver & Bronze Age comics luminary Roy Thomas with art (pencils and inks) by Howard Chaykin early in his career.

The issue covers the beginning of the movie up to the point where Luke is attacked by Sand People in the Jundland Wastes while looking for Artoo.

Like the novelization, the comic script follows an earlier draft of the script than what the final movie would have. There's a lot more Luke on Tatooine stuff, where he witnesses the space battle from the ground and has a farewell meeting with Biggs. Its not something really missing from the movie, but in a medium like comics, the scene adds some good characterization beats for Luke's desire to get off Tatooine.

The art is very 1970s. Vehicles are oddly proportioned and frequently off-model, Chaykin's inks are frequently thick over somewhat sketchy pencils and the colors by Marie Severin are heavy on the reds, oranges and pinks in places. The hyper-stylized color scheme holds together thanks to Chaykin's dynamic poses, but I wouldn't call the art especially great, even for its time. 

Recently, Marvel re-released the six original issues in a “remastered” form with modern coloring techniques and a film-accurate palette, and it just looks like badly proportioned art (It kind of is, but the original coloring helped it stand as a stylistic choice).

The Biggs stuff is nice, the art can be polarizing, but it does feature the best version of Vader choking Admiral Motti, where he casually uses the Force to bring him a cup of coffee while he tortures him.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Pulp Review: The Bronze Door

Oil-executive-turned-mystery-writer Raymond Chandler was a master of characterization and prose, and his cynical gumshoe Philip Marlowe stands in the rarefied air of outstanding fictional detective characters alongside Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. He is easily one of my favorite authors.

Coming onto the Detective pulp scene in 1933 with a string of stories for Black Mask and similar publications, he would switch gears to novels in 1939 with his breakout The Big Sleep, but right before that he published a short story in the ninth issue of John W. Campbell's nascent fantasy magazine Unknown. Published in November of the very same year as The Big Sleep, The Bronze Door is a marked departure from Chandler's murky California streets in that its a piece of fantasy (close in tone to a Weird Tales story) set in foggy ol' London.

I became aware of this story about a year ago thanks to Nathan over at The Pulp Archivist who digs up all kinds of interesting pulp-era information and analysis.

We open with the unhappy marriage of James and Louella Sutton-Cornish. James is something of a run-down aristocrat who likes to drink while his wife is an unpleasant battleaxe with a spiteful Pomeranian named Teddy, who torments Mr. Sutton-Cornish whenever he can.

After an argument that causes Mrs. Sutton-Cornish to storm out of the house, James goes out into the night and takes an outdated style of horse-drawn cab to Soho, where he finds an auction house and a mysterious bronze door that he supposes belonged to a harem thanks to the Arabic writing on it.

By chance he discovers that things that pass through the doorway simply disappear without any fuss or muss. Discussing the door with the auctioneer, the little man hops through and vanishes like everything else.

Now the proud owner of a magical bronze door that can apparently disintegrate anything that passes through it, he has it delivered to his home, and then the wife returns, demanding a divorce...

From there the crime story elements rise to the surface since several people have simply disappeared and the police are beginning to take notice. The prose is of Chandler's usual top quality, with the mood and setting well-established. The little dog Teddy is wonderfully realized as a hateful little bastard, but then he becomes sympathetic when Mr. Sutton-Cornish chases him around the room trying to goad him into the door. That's a hard switch to pull, and Chandler does it excellently.

The Sutton-Cornishes are both terrible people, and a there's really nobody in the story to root for aside from Detective-sergeant Thomas Lloyd, who's really only in two scenes and isn't given a whole lot of spotlight, so that's a flaw.

The horse-drawn cab that is seemingly from another time/place? That's never developed. Its just a weird moment for its own sake. Its a shame too, since its a neat little scene.

The centerpiece of the story is the door itself, which manages to be sinister and corrupting while still being an inanimate object. The manner in which it disappears things is great, too. No fancy special effects, no messy piles of ash, no noisy sounds. Just...nothing, which is even more unsettling.

The Bronze Door is a curio of a story. Something to read once for the novelty of Raymond Chandler stretching his wings into unfamiliar territory. You read it, go “huh, that was interesting,” and then largely forget about it, except you steal the idea of the bronze door itself for your D&D campaign because you want to troll the hell out of your players.

It would be interesting to see more Chandler fantasy stories, but with the success of his Marlowe books, I can't blame him for following the money.