Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Three Pillars of ADVENTURE!

So, I've been thinking about story structure a lot today (a 10 hour shift will do that), specifically ADVENTURE! stories.

A lot of this comes from the above image from Darwyn Cooke's revival of Will Eisner's The Spirit (which is a good, pulpy read, by the way)

Action. Mystery. Adventure.

Those are great criteria, but I'd like to tweak it a little bit for heroic ADVENTURE! stories since “adventure's” already in there.

Action. Mystery. Romance. Those are my three pillars of ADVENTURE!

This is the meat of the matter. Fisticuffs, shootouts, missile dropkicks, swordfights, car chases, dogfights, dudes jumping away from exploding buildings. Stuff happens. Exciting stuff. Stuff that the hero consciously chooses to partake in. Heroes and villains take actions. Even traveling to an exotic location counts here as a conscious choice because that often triggers a bunch of other actions. Indiana Jones choosing to go to Egypt is an action that leads to all kinds of crazy events. The exact opposite is inaction, which is how you end up with low budget 50's Sci-Fi movies where you get 20 minutes of screen time (or more) spent sitting around in a room talking.

Mystery is what the hero has to solve or deal with. How do we blow up the Death Star? Where's One-Eyed Willy's treasure buried and how do we get there? What's magic and how do you becomes a wizard? This is where Wonder comes into play, because mystery doesn't have to be the plot itself, but also plot devices. Magic items, alien technology, arcane lore, forbidden rituals, secret societies. Not all mysteries are solvable, but the hero needs to be curious enough to investigate it.

At the surface level, this involves smoochin', but its so much more than romantic love (or the kind you clean up with a mop and bucket). I mean Romance closer to the chivalric sense. These are the ideals that the hero and others hold dear. Yes, love for a man or woman, but it can also be the love for their memory and a search for justice against their killer. It could be love for a dream or country that drives someone to self-sacrifice in atonement for betraying someone. If you don't care about (or at least understand) the hero's motivation, you're not going like the hero. If you don't like the hero, you're going to hate the story.

These are deliberately broad terms that aren't set in stone for me yet. After all, its entirely possible for a story to have all three pillars and still leave me flat, like James Cameron's Avatar (it comes down to the execution of the material, but that's an analysis for another time), and I think its entirely possible for a movie to be deficient in one or all of the categories and still be great. (The Producers is one of my favorite movies of all time and there's very little ADVENTURE! to be had at all).

Still, I think this is part of why there's a sudden interest in the old pulp masters like Robert E. Howard and Leigh Brackett. Because those stories are filled to bursting with it. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Heroes, Failures, and The Force Awakens

I wasn't planning on going on another tear against Star Wars NuCanon, but I think I figured out what bothered me the most about The Force Awakens.

Its not the uninspired soft reboot of A New Hope.

Its not the emotionless impact of major, even world-destroying, events or the abysmally small sense of scale of the film.

Its not even Rey's lack of character development and Mary Sue red flags.

Its the fact that it reduces the heroes of the original trilogy to failures in order to prop itself up.

Lando Calrissian goes from shady gambler to respectable business man to baron-administrator to treacherous coward to redemption seeking friend to noble general willing to risk his life for a greater cause. In old Canon he somewhat retires from his military rank to pursue grand financial adventures, but retains close ties to the New Republic. (Yes, I'll be using examples from Legends continuity, deal with it). He's nowhere to be seen in TFA, presumably off doing low-level gambling stuff and business ventures again.

Leia Organa goes from a driven diplomat, senator, warrior and leader, royalty times two: first to Alderaan and to Naboo (as goofy as its executive branch may be). She's a crack shot and a sharp wit who never gives up and would become instrumental in the formation of the New Republic. In Legends she became a mother of three powerful Jedi (hey, Jacen was an adult when he fell to the Dark Side) and was able to successfully juggle between spending time with them and with her duties as Chief of State of the New Republic, and having galaxy-spanning adventures AND training in the use of the Force and got her own lightsaber.

Here? She's in charge of a rag-tag military front called “The Resistance” using cast-off military hardware to not look like a New Republic operation. She's reduced to a crackpot former Senator trying to warn people Ron Paul style about how the Empire wasn't really finished yet, and yet her Resistance is unable to prevent a massive terrorist attack that destroys the solar system that the New Republic government is in. “But she's a General now! That's so much more badass than a Princess!” A) That's debatable, especially since by rights she should be a Queen and B) She failed to steer the New Republic in a better direction and she failed to protect it from an outside threat. Her life's work, the Alliance to Restore the Republic? Failure.

Luke Skywalker goes from a wide-eyed farm boy and bush pilot to military officer to brash Jedi trainee to moody mystic to becoming the big damn hero of the galaxy through his ability to forgive the sins of his father. From there he continues in a military capacity for a while before rediscovering Jedi documents and re-opening the Academy and training a new generation of Jedi Knights. He eventually finds love and starts his own family. Sure there were some bumps along the way, but the New Jedi Order endured as a shining beacon of light in a violent galaxy.

NuCanon? Less than thirty years after the destruction of the second Death Star, one of his own students turned on the academy and wiped out the next generation of Jedi. In response, Luke goes off into seclusion, abandoning his friends, family, even droids after a single disaster. This is the man who stared down the Emperor and refused to kill him. This is the man who clung to the bottom of a floating city after having his worldview shattered by the revelation that his nemesis was his father. This is a hero of supreme willpower and perseverance who goes into hiding because wannabe Darth Vader and his Ginyu Force killed his students. His life's work, bringing balance to the Force and restoring the Jedi Knights? Nothing but ashes.

Han Solo probably gets the worst of it (if only because Luke has a grand total of seven seconds on-screen in TFA). He starts as a smuggler, gambler and rogue for hire. Courting danger and the next payday he looks out for himself and Chewbacca because that he has. Then he runs into a crazy old mystic and his apprentice, then a space princess, and then discovers something greater than just getting paid. He discovers friendship, loyalty, love. Good people worth fighting for. A woman worth sacrificing himself to risky carbon freezing for. An evil government worth overthrowing. Out of all the original trilogy characters, Han's easily the most likable thanks to Harrison Ford's raw charisma, but also because he has the strongest character growth out of anyone. There's never any doubt that Luke or Leia will succeed, but Han's always got that cloud of potential failure over him. In Legends, he stays a general longer than Luke. He's still running off on crazy adventures, only this time he's doing it for the New Republic and for his wife, the Chief of State. He's a loving father of three kids. All while still managing to step on the toes of authority whenever he can and rubbing elbows with his old smuggling buddies. He's reached a fulfillment to his life that he never thought possible.

NuCanon has Han regressing back to being a lowlife smuggler bumming around the galaxy as a deadbeat dad. Then he picks up some dumb young kids and gets caught up in their adventure, awakening his long-dormant heroism. He tries to pass some knowledge on, and then gets killed by the son he very obviously never connected with. An Everyman hero without Space Magic getting by on his wits and courage losing every good thing he ever attained (including the Falcon) before one last gasp at heroism and a pathetic death at the hands of his own failure of a son. His failure is the most depressing of all because its the most complete.

I'm sure there's something to be said about cultural mores and so on in regards to the difference between what the Expanded Universe did with the characters in the 90s-00s compared to now. There's also something to be said about how everybody wants to write about a plucky group of rebels overthrowing an evil government to replace it with a good government, but nobody ever seems to write about a plucky group of heroes fighting against incredible odds to protect the good government that the previous rebels installed.

This piece is already long enough, so I'll leave you with this: look at the last shot of Return of the Jedi. Now think about everything that these characters have achieved amounting to nothing.

Leaves a bad taste, doesn't it?


On the bright side, at least they didn't drop a moon on Chewie this time around.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo at Stars' End

Han Solo at Stars' End is the second ever Star Wars novel. Published in 1979 by Del Rey, one year after Splinter of the Mind's Eye and two years after the original movie, this was a book of firsts. The first Han Solo-centric novel (the smuggler doesn't even appear in Splinter for reasons I covered in that review), it takes place before A New Hope and follows Han and Chewie's criminal escapades in a new location, the Corporate Sector.

Brian Daley (1947-1996), was a new author in 1979, having published his first novel, The Doomfarers of Coramonde (a story about US soldiers in Vietnam being transported to a fantasy world, which frankly, sounds like a blast) and its sequel, The Starfollowers of Coramonde in 1979. Daley was young, new, and pulpy, and it shows in Stars' End.

The book starts with Han & Chewie running guns for a group of oppressed laborers. Then they almost get impounded for not having the right kind of registration for the Millennium Falcon to operate in the Corporate Sector, and then they get swept up in a search for a missing outlaw tech named Doc who can help with the registration problem that turns into a murder mystery covering up a totalitarian prison on the edge of the galaxy known as Stars' End.

It may not be pulp in the traditional sense, but its a short book and whips from scene to scene with barely any fat. Han Solo as he is here is a committed rogue, scoundrel, and selfish jerk. When he pays back a loan shark named Ploovo Two-For-One, he adds in a vicious little exotic pet that jumps out of the box and attacks Ploovo. He doesn't accept the missing persons' job for free, doing it because he needs to get the Falcon's registration fixed.

Yet there's flashes of the hero he will become. He gives free advice to the aliens he smuggles guns to in the beginning. It takes some prodding from some of the characters, but he sticks it out with the search for Doc.

The new characters are well handled. Jessa, Doc's outlaw tech daughter is a talented tech and fighter pilot in her own right who can match verbal barbs with Han. Atuarre, the Trianii (cat people) ranger looking for her missing husband is a solid warrior woman kind of character who has very personal stakes in the mission. Rekkon, the academic who's much more capable of adventuring than a mere professor would seem is the only true idealist here, and he's a fantastic mentor for Han as somebody who knows to prod him in the right direction. Also, Rekkon's arguably the first important black character in Star Wars, and he's intelligent, cunning, and heroic.

The real standouts are the droids Bollux and Blue Max. Blue Max is an eager little super computer who's amazing at technical feats but has the personality of a child and can't move around by himself. Enter Bollux: a positively ancient labor droid with a laconic personality and Southern drawl who's chest cavity is transformed into a housing unit for smuggling Max. They're fantastic.

The set pieces work out great too, including a fantastic dogfight that introduced early swing-wing versions of Z-95 Headhunters to Star Wars. The escape from the agriworld of Orron III by stealing and reprogramming a harvester droid is great. The climactic prison break at Stars' End ends up with Han blasting the entire station into low orbit and then having to find a way to escape before it comes crashing back down. Its awesome. What's more impressive is that it manages to capture a strong Star Wars feel without the Force and the Empire (well, there's a reference to the Imperial Entertainers' Guild, but that's it). If there's any real complaint I can think up is that aside from the Corporate Sector Authority's heavy-handed bureaucracy, there's no real meaty villain until they reach Stars' End.

In 1980, comics veteran Archie Goodwin (who helmed much of Marvel's Star Wars ongoing comic) and Filipino artist Alfredo Alcala adapted the story to a newspaper strip, which was later collected and printed by Dark Horse in 1997. The technology doesn't always match up with descriptions (Z-95s are described as having swing-wings and the comic doesn't portray them as such, so continuity wonks will grit their teeth) and the strip excised a LOT of the story, but its still a fun read.

Han Solo at Stars' End is perfectly good space opera adventures. As a Star Wars story, its wickedly fun, fast, and action-packed and perfect for anybody looking for Scum and Villainy adventures. If I was making a chart, this is essential Expanded Universe reading material, smaller-scale than the Thrawn Trilogy, but just as satisfying.

Plus, Han launches a villain out of a space lock.

In hyperspace.

I'd like to see Greedo try and do that first. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Stealing from the Best: Dr. Fate and The Ship of Ishtar

I just finished reading A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar, and while there's going to be a review for it soon, I stumbled onto something fascinating about it.

The Ship of Ishtar was first serialized in Argosy starting in 1924. Among the most important facets of the story is Babylonian mythology. Indeed, the main character, John Kenton, is described as being able to read cuneiform as well as English. This is impressive, because cuneiform had only really been reliably deciphered by modern scholars in the 1800s. Roughly less than a hundred years before Ishtar was published. Mesopotamian history and culture was new and fresh in the Western world because scholars were now able to actually study more than architecture, pottery, and what their neighbors said about them.

Kenton's most significant mystical ally is the Mesopotamian god of wisdom and truth, Nabu. In the book, Nabu's color is blue, and Kenton makes good use of a sword blessed by the god once the archaeologist returns to the ship to rescue the red haired priestess of Ishtar, Sharane, from an evil priest of Nergal.

In 1940, DC comics published More Fun Comics #55, in which a blue-clad archaeologist named Kent Nelson, who is a champion of Nabu (revealed in issue 67) equipped with his magical items, rescues an initially red haired woman named Inza (who would eventually become his wife) from an ancient sorcerer. 

That can't be coincidence.

Kent Nelson became Dr. Fate, a prominent 40s super hero, one of the first tights-clad “Super Wizards” (as opposed to mystics like Zatara from 1938 who fought crime in their stage regalia). Fate's crimefighting career expanded greatly from his origins, encountering numerous ancient magical threats, being a founding member of the Justice Society and passing down the Helmet of Nabu first to his wife and then a succession of less memorable pupils. There were even a few times when Nabu himself acted as little more than a cape, gloves, and helmet. The Babylonian heritage of Nabu is eventually lost, instead tying him to ancient Egypt to better synergize with the likes of Hawkman and Black Adam.

Unlike Kenton, who is a two-fisted man of action, all incarnations of Dr. Fate are dedicated magicians who sit among the highest spellcasters of the DC universe. Though Kent Nelson was just as happy to throw some punches around in the 40s as he was to cast spells.

Still, the similarities between the two characters can't be ignored. I don't even think that they're a coincidence, since Dr. Fate's creator, the insanely prolific Gardner Fox (1911-1986) said that he particularly liked Merritt in an early 70s interview. There's your smoking gun. A fan of Merritt couldn't have been ignorant of The Ship of Ishtar. Not with it being Merritt's most popular work.

Fox himself would go on to write for pulp magazines in the 40s and 50s and then novels, though his largest body of work was in comics. Like Merritt, Fox himself would serve as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons, appearing in the Appendix N list of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979.

Does this cheapen Dr. Fate? I don't think so. For starters, Fate's initial design by Howard Sherman is outstanding, and in the visual medium of comics, that matters a great deal. The two characters also diverge considerably, with Fate getting into some truly weird (not necessarily good) adventures in the 80s and 90s. Its derivative in a good way, taking a nugget of an idea (Nabu, god of wisdom selecting a mortal champion) and running with it in a vastly different direction intended for ongoing adventures.

I actually appreciate Dr. Fate a little more now than just as magical powerhouse who makes cool guest appearances, knowing what kind of a literary heritage he has.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Harry Potter and the READ ANOTHER BOOK

This is going to be brief, since most of my free time right now is absorbed by a fiction writing project, so the following will be a bit disjointed.

One of the most striking things I'm seeing in discussions with the Pulp Revolution/Superversive crowd of Sci-Fi/Fantasy is the the sheer variety of influences that people reference.

Let's create a strawman and call him an “Average Sci-Fi Fan” who checks out a lot of the stuff that gets talked about by the enthusiast press. So he's familiar with Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, the Marvel and DC movies, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Harry Potter. Certainly the Lord of the Rings movies and maybe the books. Occasionally word of mouth will get him into something off the beaten path, like the Dresden Files or John Wick, but by and large, the genre fiction that he consumes is centered around big franchises with a lot of media marketing pull and reputations as “Must-See” because they're happening NOW and this is what's important NOW.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but its very narrow. Television, Film, and Books with ties to the former dominate that fan's attention. Video Games are in there too, nowadays, frequently represented by new editions of long-running franchises. This strawman is by no means indicative of all Average Sci-Fi fans, if such a thing even exists, yet it seems to be all anybody paying attention to enthusiast media (websites, blogs, reviews, etc) seems to talk about. Our strawman might be content with the popular content he has access to, but there's a darker implication: With enough advertising and ideology backing up specific Big Franchises, why would an enthusiast press that profits from stories about these franchises encourage anything else when they can gatekeep people into advertiser-friendly articles?

By contrast, I'm seeing the PulpRev/Superversive crowd being fully aware and involved in all of the above series, but then going off on widely tangent topics. I can guarantee that right now at least two people are arguing about Anime on Twitter. A month or two ago, people were having a serious discussion over whether or not Dune was a good book or not. Old pulp novels, old comics, new comics, mythology, even radio dramas are all mixed into a slurry of ideas sloshing around in people's heads. Yesterday I was talking with people about the Lone Wolf gamebooks from the 80s. I've seen heartfelt theological discussions. There are at least three people I know of who will fight to the death for the honor of Car Wars. There's even a subfaction of Furries who're getting along well with most everybody. Furries. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one, but they're all right.

There's a reason why Harry Potter similes and metaphors are met with “READ ANOTHER BOOK.” There's a near-infinite well of speculative fiction to draw from out there, if you know where to look. There's no need to settle for keeping up with what the popular kids are telling you to read.

The cross-pollination of ideas in the Pulp Revolution and Superversive movement is going to lead to an avalanche of creativity within the next six months. You can bet on that.