Every Star Wars fan, from the casual to the obsessive, owes a small debt to Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis was the rights holder to a feature film version of Flash Gordon, a project George Lucas always wanted to make. Fortunately for Star Wars fans, De Laurentiis was holding out for Federico Fellini to make his Flash Gordon film when Lucas inquired about the rights. Lucas was rejected, and with his second film project, Apocalypse Now, stagnant, in May of 1973 Lucas decided to start work on his own space opera.

Ten years later, his most successful endeavor would end with something of a whimper, and its creator burned out light so many old lightbulbs. Thirty years after that, Lucas would sell the franchise for more than most country’s GNP. It’s hard to tell, however, who is more conflicted about Star Wars: the fans, or the creator.

I was originally reading about Lucas and the Star Wars series to determine why someone would release a film which would become a global success, and eventually a phenomenon, and then some twenty-five years later go revisit it. And change it, much to the ire of the fan base that made it the phenomenon it grew to be. Star Wars had grown into such a cultural marker that people who have never seen the film sometimes feel the need to apologize.

Why would someone revisit a film and make, what are admittedly just a few changes to the narrative and visual landscape, changes that would radically alter the development of a major character?

The Star Wars Special Editions always bugged me. The cleaned up prints and audio tracks were welcome alterations, but so many of the changes made no sense: doubling the number of rebel snub fighters in their attack on the Death Star, re-inserting a scene in the space port even though later designs of a major participant made such editing awkward, and the biggie, Han Solo and his trigger finger.

The Rebels were a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters, scraping by on what tools and fighters they could get their hands on, and suddenly, thanks to Lucas’ new love of CGI, the Y-Wings and X-Wings of Red and Gold flights were not only cleaner and sleeker…there were twice as many.

Inserting a scene of Jabba visiting Docking Bay 94 to pressure Han about the money Solo owed Jabba comes across more as an exercise in showing off the computer’s abilities than adding anything to the narrative. Jabba works best as an off camera menace to be revealed as he is in Return of the Jedi. The scene in the Special Edition of Star Wars relegates Jabba to more comic relief (especially when Han “steps” on him), and is bookended by a blatant fan service shot of Boba Fett.

And then there is the kicker: Greedo trying to hit Han before Solo shoots him under the table. Lucas has defended this change ever since, with the most recent defense being

“Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ‘should he be a cold-blooded killer?’ “ – Washington Post, 12/6/2015

Yes.

Luke is following the beats of Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey so perfectly that sight of Han Solo’s development is lost. Solo is not the main character, but he could be. Very little work needs be done to make the smuggler the (pardon the pun) star. Han starts out as a self-centered smuggler who has to do or say whatever he can – including kill – to survive. With that in mind, his shooting Greedo just before Greedo could shoot him is totally within character. Han then gets caught up in something bigger than he ever dealt with, and is swept up into a rebellion ultimately because he has a code of honor…and because he found love. That code and that love led to a different Han Solo, one who has grown beyond the killer he once was. Erasing that from Solo’s history changes Solo completely and negates any impact made by his growth over three films.

Changes made to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were also puzzling. Adding extra footage of the Wampa doesn’t exactly follow the idea with monsters in film of “less is more,” and in general, the replacement musical number in Jabba’s palace is just downright awful. The most laugh-inducing change was transforming the Sarlacc Pit from an “angry sand vagina” to Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors.

I also noted that Empire endured the fewest alterations, and I wondered why. I also watched the prequel trilogy, which have never been able to enjoy once the euphoria of “new Star Wars in the theater” wore off. The prequels are the epitome of style-over-substance filmmaking, and created far more questions about Lucas than they answered.

In studying the film series I found themes which I had either simply not noticed, or chose to ignore, that also presented more questions. For example:

Princess Leia is generally regarded as a “badass,” but if you watch her progression carefully, you notice that she starts off strong, but begins to shrink when Han and Luke start to assert themselves. She becomes so domesticated that by the final film, even the actress portraying her wonders if she has become nothing more than a Barbie doll. In Star Wars, Leia is an assertive leader, a smart-under-fire combatant, and a woman of little patience for idiocy. In Empire, she is almost wishy-washy, being assertive only with Han, and only in conversations where he calls her on her feelings for him. She is an easily frightened, demure woman who only regains her assertiveness when Han is gone.

And then there is Jedi, with one of the most infamous costumes in film history: the brass bikini. The outfit that is the fantasy fodder for so many young men, and an exercise in patience for women. Carrie Fisher noted rightly that when she first appears in the outfit, she no longer has any dialogue (save one quick line to a blind Han). She is made silent by her costume, and none of her friends speak directly to her until after she has dispatched of the giant space slug imprisoning her. She spends the rest of the film being Han’s companion or the property of the Ewoks.

Hardly a proper arc of development for a character who is not only an icon to female science fiction fans, but the only female character of note in the entire trilogy. (Note a recent YouTube edit of all of the dialogue spoken by women in the trilogy not by Leia, which clocks in at just over 60 seconds.)

Padme Amidala’s fate is no better, sadly. She also starts off as a strong and smart fighter, and ends the prequel trilogy literally dying of a broken heart moments after giving birth to her children. At least in the prequels there are two or three times as many ancillary female characters (including the inexplicably midriff-baring female Jedi in a halter-top killed by clone troops once they’ve had a few seconds to check her out).

Also in the prequels, People of Color get better representation, but even that is diminished by the many aliens that come across as parody of racial stereotypes abandoned by filmmakers in the 1950s.

The strangest thing I noticed was the arc of Anakin Skywalker. Destined to become Darth Vader, there was little chance for any kind of redemption for him, and short of the Emperor, Anakin was going to be the nastiest character in the trilogy. Watching Phantom Menace, and then Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I couldn’t help wonder just what I was supposed to think of young Ani.

In Menace, he is constantly hearing, directly or not, that he was the chosen one, that he was special, and that he would be the savior of the Jedi. All of the dialogue about him was eerily similar to what we hear of Millennials on a daily basis, in that they are always told they are ‘special little snowflakes.’ An older Anakin suffers from the resultant sense of entitlement, becoming angry, jealous, and belligerent when things don’t go his way. Moreover, as the final two films progress, Anakin has dialogue that is reminiscent of the “Men’s Rights Activists” that harass women both online and in person, speaking of how his peers are not worthy of his time. Was this commentary by Lucas on the state of young people today?

The most obvious theme throughout the series is religion. In the original trilogy, The Force is a thinly-veiled allegory for faith. The Jedi are clerics or monks who serve the force, and when they pass their energies join with the force in such a way that they maintain individuality and act as guides for their charges. Allegories to Christianty, Buddhism, and even Islam are present, merged with the sensibilities and code of the samurai, mostly observed by Lucas in the films of Akira Kurosawa, many of which lend their plots to the Star Wars stories. The theme becomes ridiculous in Menace when Lucas tried to demystify The Force and made it a function of science with the introduction of midichlorians.

By the time Menace was filmed, “Jedi” had become a popular response on government forms for identifying one’s religion, so much so that in some English-speaking countries it is a state-recognized faith. Lucas may have been trying to put the kibosh on such claims with the introduction of one of the more head-scratching inducing elements of the prequels.

Another element of the process that separates the two trilogies so dramatically is their actual production. The prequels are almost entirely CGI, resulting in an antiseptic, glossy aesthetic. In short, it’s so shiny, the visuals are a distraction. In the original trilogy, the only real CGI were a few screen displays and readouts, and the Death Star graphic on Admiral Ackbar’s ship. There is heft and weight to the effects in the original trilogy lending gravitas to the environment. It feels real because you could actually reach out and touch objects, environs, characters. They exist. In the prequel trilogy, not only do few of the objects exist outside binary code, the acting suffers because the real-life actors have very little to react to in their performances. The CGI characters only stand out when they behave in a way that is absurd, or worse, annoying or offensive.

Lucas often said he couldn’t really tell the story he wanted to because of the limitations of technology at the time he made the original trilogy. CGI allowed him to correct so-called past mistakes, and tell the new trilogy to his liking. This however is a disservice to the stories. One of the aspects of good storytelling is giving the reader or viewer just enough information to allow the imagination to properly fill in the gaps. Again, less is more.

By altering the existing visual narrative for the original trilogy, Lucas is not only in danger of altering the perceptions of our memories of the films, but of suggesting with his enhancements that our memories and imagination are invalid. Thus, our investments in his stories could be rendered moot.

Throughout the production of the original trilogy, constant alterations to the narrative were being made by Lucas. The very first one was while the initial treatment for The Star Wars was being written. Lucas started toying with the idea of one story becoming twelve.

With a series emerging, certain things that were being established had to change. For example, early on Lucas made a note that Luke might be a twin, and a long lost sibling (eventually suggested as a sister) might exist. The idea was brought back from limbo following a car crash that Lucas feared Hamill may not recover from in time to continue as Luke. This would come to fruition in Empire when Lucas changed dialogue between Obi Wan and Yoda from:

OBI WAN

He is our only hope.

YODA

No…we must find another.

To:

OBI WAN

That boy is our last hope.

YODA

No. There is another.

By the time of the earliest notes for the treatment that would become Jedi, a note had been scribbled above Leia’s name, “sister?” that would change the future of the franchise, and also gross out anyone who remembered that kiss Leia planted on Luke early in Empire. There are also notes in the treatments about when and how Luke will kiss Leia.

Other, less “EW!” inducing changes made by Lucas over the course of the trilogy included

  • Having Han simply go away after Empire, not as an ice cube, but simply to “move on” and deal with Jabba (Ford was only contracted for two films initially).
  • Much to the unease of Alec Guinness, Lucas decided midway through filming Star Wars that Kenobi should die. A Jedi’s ability to transcend corporeal form and join with the Force to be an ethereal guide was about placating Guinness who was upset he wouldn’t get a meaningful death scene.
  • Lando was to be introduced as a nameless clone gambler, and he may or may not have offered relief for Chewbacca’s jealousy over the growing relationship between Leia and Han.
  • Leia’s assertion in Jedi that she remembered her mother is based on earlier noted where Kenobi took Luke to Tatooine and Leia went to Alderaan with their mother, who died shortly thereafter.
  • Lando was going to be killed off at some point in Jedi.
  • Luke was supposed to kill Vader, then throw the Emperor down the reactor shaft.
  • Yoda’s name was originally “Buffy.”

There are many references in his notes, and in interviews, which reveal Lucas’ philosophy on film making. What makes these ideas all the more interesting is how, just over twenty years later, Lucas would ignore them completely.

Lucas once complained about writing scenes of people just talking, as they were boring and did nothing to move the story along. In Menace, there are several scenes of deliberations in the Imperial Senate where all that happens are talking scenes.

In story meetings for Jedi, Lucas said

“Why can’t you cut around the whole universe and see every planet celebrating? That’s what we should do, but that’s going to be boring; you just can’t do that.”

He would do precisely that in the Special Edition edits of Jedi, and a similar montage for the end of Sith.

Lucas said of casting, “star value is only an insurance policy for those who don’t trust themselves making films.” While the original trilogy is cast with largely unknowns or “lesser known” names, the prequel trilogy is a “Who’s Who” of late 1990s popular actors mixed with British film icons.

Many have theorized of Lucas’ intentions for the ways in which he structured the trilogies. Was he writing some elaborate poem, with beats and scenes intertwining when juxtaposed against their companion films from the previous trilogy? Or was it simply laziness, banking on the fact that history would repeat itself with regard to all named Skywalker?

However, one quote from Lucas suggests otherwise, and presents a possible answer to all of these questions:

“I’ve never really liked directing. I became a director because I didn’t like directors telling me how to edit, and I became a writer because I had to write something in order to be able to direct something. So, I did everything out of necessity, but what I really like is editing.”

George Lucas grew up in the 1950s California, with a passion for cars and racing…and not much else. He liked tinkering with his car and street racing. His first studio film unrelated to his film school projects was a reflection of that time in his youth, American Graffiti.

Lucas, simply put, was a hot rodder. He took a car, and tinkered with it until it was what he thought the car should be. And then tinkered some more.

He didn’t build a car from scratch, take pride in that creation, and then maintain it with the least amount of work for the most possible value. He took an existing product, and messed with it, and continued to tinker, until he was satisfied at that moment.

That philosophy carried over to Lucas’ filmmaking.

Lucas is not a storyteller, or a writer, or even a director.

He’s a tinkerer.

When you accept that, suddenly Greedo shooting first makes sense. Lucas changed the original trilogy to fit his changing world view, not at the time he initially made the trilogy, but twenty years later. A storyteller would look at his old work, and whether or not he or she liked certain elements, those elements would remain unchanged, and addressed in a different work.

Previous work is left for all to consider as a reflection of the creator at that moment in the creator’s life, not the audience’s.

Not for a tinkerer.

Lucas couldn’t leave Sebastian Shaw to portray Anakin’s ghost in Jedi since he only spent a few moments on screen as Anakin. As Hayden Christensen spent far more time on screen as Anakin, the ghost image was changed to Christensen’s.

Despite not being dangerous enough now to shoot first, Han is incapable of running from a mere six Stormtroopers. When Solo deadends into the troopers during their Death Star escape, CGI added more to bring the number closer to one hundred troops.

Max Rebo’s musical number must have seemed dated, so it was changed to a catchier, more modern,  rock song the kids would love. Oh, and he threw in a few more par-dressed dancers, too.

Not enough blatant callbacks to his past? Let’s add Vader’s weak and ineffective “no” yell from the end of Sith to the end of Jedi.

Much like changing who shot first in the cantina, none of these changes make any sense to the story being told. They’re just tinkers to placate the sensibilities of their creator.

For someone who said he performs “in the shadows,” Lucas can’t seem to stay in those shadows. (It should be noted that there are few changes to Empire, which was directed by a mentor of Lucas’, Irvin Kershner. Empire is the one film in the series where Lucas had the least interference with actual production.)

Reinforcing the notion that he isn’t much of a storyteller are his own comments on story: “I’m not really interested in plots…I find plots boring because they’re so mechanical.”

During the same story conference in which Lucas mentioned not liking writing scenes where people just talk, he also talks about not wanting to kill any characters because it isn’t nice. Harrison Ford backed this up after suggesting several times that Han should die to give the saga some weight, except “George is predisposed to happy endings.” However, later in that same conference, he talked about killing Lando despite not having a good reason for doing so.

Lawrence Kasdan on more than one occasion suggested cutting the Ewoks out of Jedi entirely, an idea firmly rejected by Lucas. When asked why, Lucas admitted that they were cute, and eliminating them meant he would have to write more.

One interesting observation came from Mark Hamill. During the scene where Luke and 3PO find R2, just before we meet Ben, Hamill was having trouble with a reading. Discussing the scene with Lucas, it dawned on Hamill how to act the scene. He acted the scene as Lucas…and it was the take Lucas used. It was then he realized that Star Wars was Lucas’ story, and as it is in the name after all, Luke is Lucas. From then on, Hamill simply mimicked Lucas.

This is further evidence into the idea that Lucas is not really a storyteller, just someone tinkering with his own story, or more accurately, his own fairy tale. After all, the fight between Luke and his Rebel friends against the evil Empire does in many ways parallel Lucas’ battle (with the help of friends like Coppola and Spielberg) against the large Hollywood conglomerates.

Taking all of this into account can’t take away from the magical feelings I experienced as a young child in the theaters over several years as I was transported to a galaxy far, far away. Lucas’ feelings about and treatment of the films since their initial release, and his haphazard creation of supplemental films since then, cannot change the enormous amount of entertainment and fun I have enjoyed watching and revisiting Tatooine, Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City and Endor.

Lucas may not be a real storyteller, a writer, or a director. He does appear to be someone who cares less about our relationship to his creations, and our feelings about the films, than he does our feelings about him.

And maybe…

Just maybe…

That makes him an artist after all.

Unfortunately, we may never know the answer, as now The Force is with someone else. And it’s time to find out if, after all these years, J. J. Abrams was the other hope Yoda suggested.

 

A note about quotes

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from J. W. Rinzler’s books, The Making of Star Wars, The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, which cull interviews from a variety of sources, but do not offer direct attribution.

Most people make the mistake that comics are a genre. They are a medium, a way to convey a story or message, just like any newspaper, book, or film. For the most part, people seem to think that the only stories comics tell are tales of super-powered beings in tights and a cape. Most people don’t realize that the best-selling works of artists like Kate Beaton or Raina Telgemeier are just as fine an example of comics as any Batman adventure.

Every so often, a work comes along that breaks the barriers of the industry proper and captures the attention of “the outside world” beyond the four-color pages. A work that reminds us that the potential of comics is greater than just a simple escape from the real world. A work that reminds us that comics can be therapy and catharsis. A work that reminds us that when one person shares a personal tragedy, we all become stronger.

SOMETHING TERRIBLE is just such a work. Dean Trippe (Project: Rooftop, Butterfly) has presented a pair of moments in his life that for years defined his life. Events that were kept in check for fear of reawakening the demons in such a way as to cause Dean to become that which he had survived.

Trippe’s story of survival – first from the abandonment of his father, and then from childhood abuse – is one of courage. He shares these moments of cruelty and abuse, and the subsequent fear he fought for years, opening himself up for all to see. His use of the medium makes the story all the more powerful with a revelation he finds in Trippe’s favorite comic book character, Batman.

Much like any other comic book hero, Batman’s behavior changes with each creative team that tackles the character, but at his core, Batman is a symbol of strength and rebirth for any child who has endured a great trauma. This watershed moment in Trippe’s life took on a greater significance when, years ago, he took pencil to paper to tell his story. One of the final images in the story is not just a moment of enlightenment for a young Dean, but a message to anyone, young or old, who has been a victim of violence or exploitation.

Trippe is a very talented artist, with an economy of line and a style that lends his work to a broad audience of all ages. However, if you will forgive the aphorism, this comic isn’t for kids, which is oddly unfortunate.

I spent a great deal of my life working in the criminal justice system, and a work like this would have been invaluable, for people on both sides of the scales. One of the key ways in which we cope with tragedy is learning that we are not alone…that we will be safe. SOMETHING TERRIBLE is the kind of work that should be shared with everyone. Even younger readers, once it is felt that they can fully comprehend the subject matter. The more people exposed to this story, the more people can be helped by it.

This is not an easy story to read, but that pales in the difficulty and courage overcome to share it. Even if you have not experienced such violence in your life, it is important to read this book to be able to help those who have.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Trippe for some time, and I consider myself lucky to call him friend. He is a bright, affable fellow whose love of comics is endearing and infectious. Reading SOMETHING TERRIBLE was an eye-opening glimpse into a dark moment in his life that he was in no way obligated to share with anyone.

But the fact that he did share it, in such a wonderful and accessible way, is remarkable, courageous, and encouraging.

More people than we know or want have experienced something terrible, and Trippe reminds us all that no matter what has happened there is a place of safety and hope out there for all of us. Even unexpectedly, in the seemingly innocuous pages of a comic book.

Thank you, Dean.

A sample of SOMETHING TERRIBLE can be read here (http://www.tencentticker.com/somethingterrible/).

Please consider purchasing a digital copy, or pre-order the physical version here (http://deantrippe.bigcartel.com/product/pre-order-something-terrible-hardcover).

(All artwork © 2015 Thom Zahler)

Full disclosure: I have known Thom Zahler for a few years now, one of the perks of being a regular at a handful of comic conventions. Only recently have I been lucky enough to also call him a friend. Thom emailed me last night with a link to the PDF proof of his latest comic, the first issue of LONG DISTANCE, a series about two young professionals who strike up a long distance relationship after a chance encounter in an airport terminal, which is now available at finer comic shops nationwide.

buyme_iphoneThom, by virtue of the marketing machine, is currently best known for his work on the My Little Pony comics from IDW. However, I first cottoned on to Thom’s work with LOVE AND CAPES, a romantic comedy about a superhero falling in love. L&C focuses more on the relationship and less on the superheroics, which is a refreshing thing for comics, or any medium really.

Thom is a graduate of the Kubert School, and the lessons learned there are evident in the pacing and framing of his work. Thom’s strength is in dialogue, and every line feels natural. Often in comics the dialogue just feels weird, no matter if the line is in keeping with the character or not. With Thom’s characters there is none of that sense that the dialogue was conceived before the character. The characters feel…they *are* real, and the dialogue flows from them with the same naturalness as any conversation you may have with a friend or loved one.

Thom’s art fits a style that many describe as “cartoony,” except the term is often used in the pejorative. No matter an artist’s personal style, the most important quality a cartoonist can have is the ability to infuse a two-dimensional drawing with life and a vibrancy that more often than not can’t even be captured with a photograph.

Artists who reject a photo-realistic style to embrace their Saturday-morning influences more often than not bring that quality to their work. I consider the late Mike Parobeck to be a fine example, and the late Mike Wieringo to have been so great that he was a master of bringing life and joy to ink and pigment. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to think the same of Thom and his work.

The difference, though, is that Thom also writes his own characters, breathing even more life into them. One occasional discussion amongst comics fans is which character would they like to have as a real life friend. You don’t have to wish for Thom’s characters to become real…they already are.

Having posted years of LOVE AND CAPES comics to the internet, and released several paperback collections, Thom has turned his attention to a more common origin story: that first moment when you realized you met someone who would change your life.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since I saw the early announcements of the comic’s release. My wife and I met thanks to the machinations of a close friend, but living nearly 3 hours away from each other, it took a while to finally meet, and when we did…well…let’s just say that it’s been an amazing 17+ years. And, it all started quietly enough in the lobby of a Suncoast video store, a moment I still remember vividly. When my wife looks at me just so, or someone asks how we met, I remember the way I felt when I first saw her, that first exchange of greetings, the gut punch I felt when I had to say goodbye, the rush of excitement and adrenaline as I drove back to see her for that second date.

Thom has captured all of that emotion brilliantly. Reading the dialogue between Carter Blue and Lee Smith brought back a lot of those feelings, which for me brought even more life to the story and its players.

One of Thom’s strengths in character building is that nothing is wasted, nothing added just to pad a page count. There are small elements of Carter and Lee’s life that are little details that add to their background and character depth. Thom has given Lee a grandmother with whom she lives, and Carter a best friend with a family of his own. These characters seem to act as a sort of oracle or chorus, much as they did in classical Greek theater, but also give the reader a role in the story.

That role allows us to even more so feel a part of the story. Several times I was reminded of what it was like to feel as Carter did, at the beginning of my own relationship, but Carter’s friend Tim was talking to Carter as I might were I given the opportunity to talk to myself those many years ago.

ld032_flatLike much of Thom’s non-MLP work, these stories are dialogue-heavy. However, also like his other work, none of the dialogue is laborious, and it all reads like a breeze. Several times I laughed out loud, and others there was the rush of familiarity for my own past. In particular was the long phone conversation between Carter and Lee that precedes their second date.

The main difference between Carter and Lee’s early days and the beginnings of my own relationship is the ubiquitous social media that is such a huge part of modern life. Unlike modern teenagers, though, Thom uses the device (so to speak) sparingly. Texts between Carter and Lee pepper the story to enhance the pace, and emotion, of a given scene, and don’t feel like the only narrative. Carter and Lee exist in the modern age of communication, yes, but are not so tied to it that digital communication becomes their only outlet. I have to wonder, though, that because this is at its core a dramatic story, if that technology will end up being a storytelling device that provides a measure of conflict for the story.

Print(I’m probably getting ahead of myself…and Thom…here.)

The one compliment I can give to a comic, a book, or any serialized medium is that I get ticked when I come to the end of an installment and realize I have a wait ahead of me to find out what happens next. Much like that first date with my wife that I never wanted to end, I wanted to keep reading Carter and Lee’s story. I want to know what happens next, and I look forward to see where Thom takes Carter and Lee. No matter how the story ends, I trust that Thom will have crafted a journey that I will not regret taking…not one bit. To paraphrase Cake, I’m willing to go the distance with Carter and Lee, no matter how long a distance Thom decides to take them. I urge you to do the same.