Love and marriage for Savage Dragon

Valentine’s Day is here, which makes this a good time for me to look at the three most recent issues of Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen from Image Comics, as Malcolm Dragon marries his high school sweetheart Maxine Jung Lai.

Savage Dragon 209 cover

As you can see from the cover to Savage Dragon #209, Maxine is very pregnant. Malcolm did use protection, but he soon discovered that his super-strength extended to his, um, reproductive processes.  Those condoms didn’t stand a chance!  And now I’m reminded of that old essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by science fiction novelist Larry Niven.  Fortunately Malcolm and Maxine had already been thinking about getting hitched, but the pregnancy did result in those plans getting pushed forward ever so slightly!

Of course Maxine still has to worry about a super-powered fetus kicking its way out of her womb, something that occurred nearly two decades earlier with Malcolm’s own mother Rapture. Indeed, as we see in these three issues, this turns out to be a very real, fatal concern for Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend Tierra.  I remember commenting several months ago that the sexual shenanigans between Malcolm, Maxine, Tierra and Angel were like something out of a cheesy porno flick.  However, as we see here, Larsen is continuing to follow up on the very serious consequences of this act of reckless teenage sexuality.

Larsen scripts Maxine as an irreverent smart-ass. She’s very well suited to be with Malcolm, whose life is just plain crazy.  The banter between the two of them is wonderful.  Larsen gives them good chemistry.  Malcolm and Maxine make a great couple, and I look forward to seeing how Larsen continues to develop their relationship.

Savage Dragon 210 cover

In the next issue Malcolm and Maxine head off for their honeymoon, only to find themselves in yet another bizarre misadventure. They run into a very old foe of Malcolm’s father, as Larsen dusts off a baddie from the very first year of his run on Savage Dragon.

I love the cover for issue #210. There are so few comic book covers like this anymore.  That style of cover artwork unfortunately became unfashionable in the late 1990s, replaced by pin-up or poster types of images.  Yeah, those can be pretty to look at, but they very seldom tell you anything about the stories inside.  They don’t grab you attention and make you want to pick up the comic book to find out what the story is behind it.  Fortunately in a number of respects Larsen remains an unapologetic traditionalist, and Savage Dragon has often featured cover artwork that jumps out at you.

Issue #210 also has a humorous six page back-up written by Larsen featuring Flash Mercury, Powerhouse and Fever doing their professional monster hunters thing. The talented Frank Fosco, who most recently illustrated the Vanguard serial, provides some excellent artwork.

As I’ve observed before, Larsen has a huge cast of characters, and the back-ups are a great way to give some of them the spotlight.  I hope there will be more in the future. I’ve heard that series editor Gavin Higginbotham is eager to write some new ones.  And, hey, speaking for myself, I’d love to pitch one!  How about something looking at Horridus as a single mom / crime-fighter trying to make ends meet after the death of her husband Rex Dexter?  Ever since seeing Horridus in mourning at Rex’s grave in issue #208 I’ve been wondering what happens to her and her daughter.

Savage Dragon 211 cover

In issue #211, now that Malcolm is out of high school and married, it’s time for him to get a full-time job. He follows in his father’s footsteps, joining the Chicago police department.  Much of the material from #211 originally appeared in the Savage Dragon: Legacy special that came out as part of last year’s Free Comic Book Day.  Larsen adds several new pages and re-scripts some dialogue to reflect various events and developments that he either changed his mind about in the succeeding months or wanted to keep secret between then and now.

Issue #211 has a “1st Issue In A Bold New Direction” blurb, just as issue #193 did two years previously. It’s nice that Larsen devises jumping-on points from time to time.  Since Savage Dragon has been running for 23 years, it’s good to have periodic issues that bring newer readers up to speed, and that refresh the memories of long-time fans such as myself.

Larsen’s scripting in Savage Dragon often has something of an exposition-heavy quality to it. While at times this means his dialogue does not sound quite natural, it nevertheless ensures that important events are recapped for readers on a regular basis.  That’s certainly an asset in #211, as Malcolm explains his somewhat convoluted origins.

Notice something else? Despite these two “Bold New Direction” issues, both times Larsen resisted the urge to re-start the numbering on Savage Dragon with a brand new issue #1.  Honestly, I am sooooo sick of Marvel and DC doing that.  Perhaps that might result in a temporary bump in sales.  But at the same time, a new first issue can actually present a jumping-off point for readers whose interest in a series is wavering.  That’s certainly been true for me on a few occasions.

Whatever any case, I’ve barely read anything the Big Two have published in the last several years. And as I’ve stated a few times on this blog, Savage Dragon is my favorite ongoing comic book series.

Right before Savage Dragon #211 came out I recently took the opportunity to re-read issues #193 to 210 in one sitting. Larsen did very good work during this two year period, writing and drawing some entertaining, weird, humorous stories.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he now proceeds onward from #211.

Comic book reviews: The Rook #2-4

The four issue miniseries The Rook by Steven Grant and Paul Gulacy published by Dark Horse recently concluded. I previously reviewed the first issue, so now I’m going to take a brief look at the remainder of the story.

The Rook 2 cover

Having been gifted the Time Castle by his older self, Restin Dane aka the Rook travels back from 2015 to the late 19th Century to seek out his great-great-grandfather Adam, the man who first discovered the secrets of time travel. Adam is, in fact, the unnamed narrator from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine.  In a paradoxical twist, Restin with his knowledge of 21th Century science plays a key role in his ancestor’s development of the first time machine.

Having related his experiences to his friend Wells (who of course goes on to describe them in his book), Adam returns to the far-distant future to lead the Eloi against the Morlocks. Resin follows after him in the Time Castle, only to discover that Adam’s mission has gone decidedly pear-shaped.  Adam also has, from his perspective at least, his first run-in with the sinister Quarb.

Grant sets up an interesting relationship between Restin and Quarb. The later is an incredibly long-lived being, having existed for countless thousands of years.  Restin, via time travel, has (or will have) encountered and fought against Quarb repeatedly throughout the millennia, but always in a non-linear manner.  It was Quarb who organized the “Rook Revenge Squad” (as I like to call them), the assemblage of Restin’s old enemies, in the first issue.  That was but one of the innumerable schemes that the immortal plotter has crafted over the eons.

I get the impression that Grant must have some flowcharts to keep track of the timelines of the various different characters, and the points at which they meet. I read issue #4 as soon as it came out last week.  Today I re-read the entire miniseries in one sitting.  A number of the connections and strands that Grant sets up in it suddenly became much clearer to me.

The Rook 3 pg 6

It’s interesting to see how events unfold. For now Grant leaves it up in the air if various occurrences are the result of time loops and predestination paradoxes, or if history actually is being rewritten by Restin’s actions.  As the Rook’s robot aide Man-Rs astutely observes in Dark Horse Presents #14, if you do alter the past then all of your memories of it, and all of the accounts in the history books, are instantly going to change, so you are never going to notice the difference.

Grant is definitely not doing the decompressed thing here. These four issues, plus the DHP prologue, are packed with plot and dialogue.  Considering that nowadays most 22 page “pamphlets” can be read in less than ten minutes, it’s a real pleasure to find a comic book that demands the reader’s attention to detail.

Once again the art by Paul Gulacy is amazing. As I’ve written on a few occasions, I am a huge fan of Gulacy’s work.  I really think he is such an underrated talent.  His storytelling and action sequences are among the very best in the field of sequential illustration.  Gulacy demonstrates his versatility, effectively depicting both Victorian London and the far distant era of the Eloi and Morlocks.  Jesus Aburtov’s coloring once again looks amazing over Gulacy’s art.

It’s worth mentioning that Grant imbues his stories with a certain amount of humor. Gulacy’s art very ably complements that quality.  His style is definitely hyper-detailed, but he also possesses the ability to render comedic scenes through exaggerated figures and facial expressions.  The encounter between Quarb and the Morlocks in issue #3 literally had me laughing out loud.

The Rook 3 pg 17

Grant and Gulacy are currently working on a second miniseries. I’m definitely looking forward to it.  The Rook was a great read, and I’m anticipating the further adventures of Restin Dane.

Dark Horse will be releasing a trade paperback of The Rook on May 25th. If you missed this miniseries then I highly recommend picking up the collected edition when it comes out.

Remembering David Bowie

I was both shocked and saddened by the news that musician David Bowie had died on January 10th at the age of 69 from cancer. While I would not say that I was a huge fan of his, I definitely enjoyed listening to his music.

David Bowie

“Visionary” is a word that gets thrown around with great frequency; “unique” is another. But in the case of David Bowie those two descriptions very much applied.  He wrote and performed numerous amazing songs over a career that spanned nearly half a century.  Bowie also devised so many incredible, bizarre, innovative looks for himself throughout the years.  He was undoubtedly one of a kind.

My girlfriend Michele is a longtime fan of Bowie. She created a very nice tribute to him on her own blog.

For me, on Monday my thoughts kept returning to Bowie’s awesome 1995 song “Hallo Spaceboy,” the lyrics and tune playing in my head. Co-written by fellow music pioneer Brian Eno, the song features a collaboration between Bowie and the duo of Neil Tenant & Chris Lowe, aka the Pet Shop Boys.  I cannot recall if I’ve mentioned it here before, but the Pet Shop Boys are one of my all time favorite music groups.  So it was a genuine thrill to hear them performing with Bowie, a bona fide rock god.

Of course, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention another collaboration of Bowie’s, namely “Under Pressure” which he recorded with Queen in 1981.  Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing together was magnificent.

A good example of the massive cultural impact that David Bowie had can be seen in the Doctor Who universe, of all places. Last year in the comic book series The Eleventh Doctor, writers Al Ewing & Rob Williams and artist Simon Fraser introduced a character who was very much an homage to Bowie.

The Doctor takes his companion Alice back in time to London 1962 to see the debut performance of John Jones, a legendary rock star. Much to Alice’s dismay, Jones turns out to have zero stage presence and even less charisma.  However the drab wannabe-musician ends up accidentally joining the Doctor and Alice in the TARDIS.  As the year-long story arc progresses, Jones in majorly influenced by all of the strange, otherworldly places he visits with the Doctor and Alice.  By the time he returns back to 1962, Jones is ready to embark on a revolutionary music career.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 3

Of course, in real life David Bowie was even cooler than that. He didn’t need to travel through all of time & space in order to come up with his amazing music and cutting-edge looks.

Despite his illness, Bowie was active right up until the very end. Blackstar, his twenty-fifth and final studio album, was released on January 8th, his birthday, a mere two days before his death.

Bowie’s passing has gotten me thinking. At 69 years he wasn’t exactly young, but neither was he very old.  It’s a sobering reminder that you never know how much time you will actually have.

For a few months I’ve already been considering devoting my energies towards writing fiction.  I dabbled in it when I was in my early 20s.  Over the last three years I’ve been working out an idea for a novel in my head.  Maybe now is the time to finally commit.  After all, I’m going to be 40 years old in June.  It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to keep procrastinating at this point.  I’ll still keep this blog going, perhaps switching between it and my fiction on alternate weekends.  I just don’t want to put off my dream until it’s too late.

In any case, my thanks go out to David Bowie for all of the wonderful music he created. He will definitely be missed.

Doctor Who reviews: Face The Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent

Here’s my write-up on the Doctor Who Series Nine three episode conclusion. “Face the Raven” was written by Sarah Dollard and directed by Justin Molotnikov.  “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent” were written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay.

Yeah, it took me a while to get around to this… although fortunately not nearly as long as it took the Doctor to escape from the Confession Dial!

Face The Raven

1) Familiar faces

It was really nice to see the return of Rigsy (Joivan Wade), who was introduced last year in “Flatline.”  Our intrepid artist has gotten married and is now a father.  Unfortunately his past association with the Doctor and Clara has put a target on his back.

I expect that by the end of “Face the Raven” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) had come to regret saving the life of Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Especially as Ashildr’s manipulations had once again gone awry, this time resulting in the death of Clara (Jenna Coleman).

2) Death becomes her

I admit that the whole concept of the death mark tattoo being transferable from one person to another was awfully convenient.  The raven and the tattoos controlled by Ashildr were much too supernatural-type elements for my liking, as well.

Nevertheless, Clara did get a good, well-written death scene in “Face the Raven.” Coleman certainly played it very well.  The only thing that kept me from total shock & mourning was the fact that there were two more episodes left to Series Nine, and I was really left questioning if we had truly seen the last of Clara.

Heaven Sent

3) Solo act

Aside from the Veil, the figure of death that incessantly stalks him throughout the “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor is the sole character in this episode. Peter Capaldi completely blew me away with his performance in this.  Casting him as the Doctor was such a masterstroke, and that is amply on display here.

I loved the insights into the Doctor’s character and his thought processes. It was interesting to see how his so-called miraculous escapes are really the result of him retreating into a mental space in his head (represented by the TARDIS console room) and working though all of the variables and possibilities.

The direction on “Heaven Sent” by Talalay was amazing. She previously did superb work last year on “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven.”  It was great to have her back again to close out Series Nine.

Interesting fact: early in her career Talalay was a production assistant on the John Waters movie Polyester, and the producer of his next two films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. So, yes, Talalay has worked with John Waters and directed Doctor Who, which officially makes her one of the coolest people ever.

4) Repetition is good for the soul

There was that moment towards the end of “Heaven Sent” when it’s finally revealed that the Doctor had been repeating the same sequence of actions over and over and over again, hundreds of thousands of times, as he attempted to break through that twenty foot thick wall, wearing it down ever so slightly, before dying each and every time. There’s that awful instant when you realize that every single one of those skulls at the bottom of the lake belongs to the Doctor, each one of them the result of another cycle, another death.  It’s a genuinely chilling moment.

How many times did the Doctor have to die and be reborn within the Confession Dial before he finally broke through that wall? It seems that it couldn’t have been more than a week for each sequence.  There are 52 weeks in a year.  The Doctor was imprisoned for approximately 4.5 billion years.  Very roughly speaking, that comes to 234 billion times.  And now my head hurts.

5) Drawing a conclusion

Mike Collins is the artist who storyboarded “Heaven Sent” and several other recent episodes. When trying to figure out how many times events had repeated for the Doctor, I e-mailed Collins to ask if he knew how long each go-round was.  He responded that he didn’t recall a specific length being mentioned in Moffat’s script.

In any case, Collins is a very talented artist who has been involved with the Doctor Who comic books for a number of years now. Given his obvious fondness for the series, it’s wonderful that he now has the opportunity to work on the actual television program.

Hell Bent

6) A masterful plan

While inside the Confession Dial, the Doctor refused to divulge what he knew of the Hybrid, the entity that “will unravel the web of time, and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” We discover in “Hell Bent” that the reason why the Doctor kept this knowledge was because he needed a bargaining chip, something with which to manipulate the Time Lords into providing  him an opportunity to rescue Clara.

And, yes, she’s back… sort of. Takes from an instant in time from right before her death, Clara is neither alive nor dead.  The Time Lords are afraid that an attempt to undo Clara’s demise, a fixed moment in time, has the potential to cause massive, horrific damage to reality.  But the Doctor, having spent literally billions of years pounding against a wall, is in no mood to listen.

In the end, the mystery of the Hybrid is more a McGuffin to propel the story along than it is a question to be answered. The Hybrid could be the Doctor, who might just be half-human after all.  Or perhaps it could be Ashildr, an immortal half-human, half Mire.  Ashildr herself, still alive at the very end of time, suggests another possibility, one did not even occur to the Doctor…

Ashildr: What if the Hybrid wasn’t one person, but two.

The Doctor: Two?

Ashildr: A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman, so very similar to him. Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes.

The Doctor: She’s my friend. She’s just my friend.

Ashildr: How did you meet her?

The Doctor: Missy.

Ashildr: Missy. The Master. The lover of chaos. Who wants you to love it too. She’s quite the matchmaker.

The Doctor: Clara’s my friend.

Ashildr: I know. And you’re willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her. One wonders what the pair of you will get up to next.

7) Time Lord Victorious

I’ve previously hypothesized that the Doctor and the Master were once very much alike, but over the centuries they developed in extremely different directions. Certainly it has been suggested on more than one occasion that the Doctor, if he is not careful, if he disregards morality and ethics, has the potential to become someone quite like the Master.

The Doctor Who novel The Dark Path by David A. McIntee was published in 1997. It revolves around an encounter between the Second Doctor and a fellow Time Lord, an old friend known as Koschei, the Master before he became the Master.  Koschei is at this point not evil, but he is arrogant, as well as quite ready to utilize violence as a first resort, rationalizing that the ends justify the means.  He is in certain respects much like the Doctor was when we first met him in “An Unearthly Child.”

Koschei’s carelessness accidentally causes the death of Ailla, a young woman who is traveling with him. Consumed by guilt, Koschei attempts to utilize an ancient artifact known as the Darkheart to rewrite history and undo Ailla’s death.  In order to do so, he uses the Darkheart to destroy the home planet of the Tereleptils, killing millions of sentient beings.  This horrifying act sets in motion further tragedies, all of which place Koschei on the path to becoming the Master.

Doctor Who The Dark Path

I do not know if The Dark Path is considered canonical, but it certainly offers an interesting possible explanation for how the Master came to be. And there are undoubtedly parallels between McIntee’s novel and Moffat’s script for “Hell Bent.”

The Doctor, the man who never carries a gun, uses one to shoot the General (who was actually more or less on his side up until that moment) in cold blood so that he can escape with the retrieved Clara. The Doctor argues that he didn’t really commit murder because the General is a Time Lord and that he will regenerate.  But that sounds like a very self-serving justification indeed.  Certainly the fact that the Doctor is willing to resort to violence, that he is ready to gamble on the stability of reality itself, and that he wants to wipe Clara’s memories in order to keep her “safe” all leaves her aghast.

Finally, seeing Clara’s reaction to everything that he has done, the Doctor is at last forced to step back and look at acknowledge just what he is doing, what he is becoming…

“Look how far I went for fear of losing you. This has to stop… I went too far. I broke all my own rules. I became the Hybrid.”

8) The restaurant at the end of the universe

I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of Clara and Ashildr traveling through time & space in a TARDIS stuck in the shape of a 1950s American diner. Obviously at some point Clara needs to return to Gallifrey so that she can be sent back to her proper time to die, allowing history to continue uninterrupted.  But that might be in five minutes, or five years, or five centuries.  That’s really open-ended.  Besides, the whole crisis caused by the Doctor’s actions was supposedly predicated on the notion that the longer Clara is removed from her timeline the more danger reality is supposed to be in.  And I’d hate to think that down the line someone uses all this as an opportunity to somehow undo Clara’s seemingly-inevitable death.

Still, it was pretty cool to see a TARDIS console room with the “default” setting, just as the Doctor’s own TARDIS originally appeared back in the early 1960s.

Anyway, however they turn out, Clara is now off on her own journeys. The Doctor has had his memory wiped of all the specifics of who Clara was.  So this appears to be the end of their time together, which is a good thing.  Coleman did a very good job portraying Clara, but the character was sometimes inconsistently written, which was frustrating.  And after three years I think many viewers are ready for a change.  Hopefully the Doctor’s next companion will prove to be very different.

Star Wars reviews: The Force Awakens

Michele and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Thursday evening. We both wanted to go ASAP in order to avoid the inevitable spoilers that would soon be proliferating the Internet.

What did I think of it? Short answer: I liked it.  Long answer: read the rest of this review.

Be advised: there are MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you have not seen the movie yet and do not want it ruined for you then do not proceed any further.

SW The Force Awakens poster

1) First things first

In many ways the set-up of The Force Awakens is similar to the original trilogy. Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the remnants of the Empire have reorganized as the fascist First Order.  Opposing them is the Resistance, a movement made up of both veteran members of the Rebel Alliance including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and a younger generation of freedom fighters.  The Republic has begun to reform and is providing backing to the Resistance.  Both the Resistance and the First Order are attempting to locate Luke Skywalker, who vanished years before.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have gone back to smuggling. Due to personal tragedy, Han is once again a man who wants no part of any noble cause.  He’s looking to stay as far away from the war between the Resistance and the First Order as possible.  However, once again, despite his wishes, Han and his Wookie best friend are reluctantly drawn into the conflict.

2) New faces

Writer / director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt introduce several new characters in The Force Awakens.

The main protagonist is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a teenager eking out an existence on the desert world of Jakku. She comes across the droid BB-8, whose owner is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot captured by the First Order.  (For those who didn’t catch it, Poe is the son of Shara Bey and Kes Dameron from the Marvel Comics miniseries Star Wars: Shattered Empire.)

BB-8 contains part of a map Poe located, a guide to Luke Skywalker’s location. Rey and BB-8 soon encounter Finn (John Boyega), a young Stormtrooper who defected from the First Order and helped Poe escape.  Crash-landing on Jakku, Finn is separated from Poe.  Looking for a way off the barren planet and away from the First Order, Finn joins Rey in attempting to return BB-8 to the Resistance.

On the opposite side of the fence, the First Order’s efforts to locate BB-8 are spearheaded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force. Accompanying him are the ruthless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and armored officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).  Ren and Hux report directly to the Supreme Leader of the First Order, the mysterious Snoke (Andy Serkis), who only appears as a hologram.

SW The Force Awakens Rey and Finn

3) The Good, the Bad, and the Whiny

Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt do a good job introducing the new heroes in The Force Awakens, making them compelling characters. I definitely became very interested in Rey, Finn and Poe as the movie progressed.  The fact that Ridley, Boyega and Isaac all turned in solid performances certainly helped to sell this next generation to me.

I did think Finn had a few too many humorous “Aww yeah” lines of dialogue. You would think someone raised by a militaristic dictatorship might be a bit more socially awkward and have some trouble coming up with snarky remarks.

There’s also the breakout “star” of the movie, namely the droid BB-8, who looks across between R2-D2 and a soccer ball. The SFX and sound people gave him a fun, mischievous personality.

Wisely, much of the movie was devoted to introducing these new heroes. Other than Han and Chewbacca, all of the original trilogy characters have small roles.  That was a good way to establish ties to the previous movies without overshadowing the new characters.  Ford and Ridley definitely work well together, as we see the world-weary, mournful Han begin to once again lower his guard and become something of a reluctant father figure to Rey.

On the other hand, the villains Hux and Phasma are both very one-dimensional and don’t have too much screen time. Well, most Star Wars antagonists are unfortunately underdeveloped, so this is not too surprising.

And then there’s Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa.  He reminds me of a brooding Goth teenager who wants everyone to take him seriously.  Ren idolizes Darth Vader and wants to follow in his footsteps.  One gets the impression that the reason why Ren wears a sinister black mask with a voice modulator is because he is so desperately attempting to emulate Vader.  And if you thought Vader had a short fuse, well, Ren is worse.  Something goes wrong, next thing you know he’s furiously hacking up equipment with his lightsaber.  I don’t know how the heck the First Order can afford a weapon like the Starkiller if they have to repair all the property damage caused by Ren!

It appears that Ren’s weakness as villain is actually deliberate. Han Solo suggests that to Ren that Snoke regards him as nothing more than an easily manipulated pawn that can later be discarded.  Certainly Ren would not be the first hotheaded bully attempting to mask an inferiority complex with a façade of strength.

SW The Force Awakens First Order rally

4) Take this job and shove it

In the past I touched upon a question occasionally asked by fans, namely who would actually want to work for the Empire. That query is especially raised in regards to Stormtroopers, who appear to have the most thankless job of all, typically serving as cannon fodder.

The Force Awakens addresses that particular question, and the answer is very unpleasant. Stormtroopers are conscripts who are kidnapped while only infants, who are then indoctrinated with the ideology of the First Order throughout their childhoods, emerging as adults who mindlessly follow the orders of their commanding officers.

Finn was one of these children. In fact, Finn isn’t even his real name.  All he knows is his serial number, FN-2187.  The capture of Poe on Jakku is his first mission in the field, and despite years of brainwashing FN-2187 is shocked at the slaughter of innocents.  Horrified at what the First Order is doing, FN-2187 helps Poe escape from them.  It is the Resistance pilot who gives him the name “Finn” after the letters in his First Order ID.

There are obvious real-world analogies at play here. The most obvious is Nazi Germany, with its Hitler Youth program, which indoctrinated young children into serving the State first and foremost.  At one point in The Force Awakens there is an assembly of First Order military forces that is reminiscent of a Nazi rally, with General Hux giving a Hitler-esque rant against the Republic.

Of course, other totalitarian governments have utilized this technique, such as the various Communist regimes of the mid-20th Century. More recently various terrorist groups like Boko Harem have kidnapped large numbers of children to mold into future members.

5) Build a better Death Star

Seeking to outdo the Empire, the First Order has created an even more insanely dangerous superweapon. Instead of a moon-sized battle station, the First Order transformed an actual planet into the Starkiller (no doubt a nod to George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker in the early drafts of Star Wars).  Rather than merely destroying nearby worlds, Starkiller can obliterate multiple targets on the opposite end of the galaxy.

The Starkiller is also a hell of a lot more fortified than the Death Star. Even after Finn provides the Resistance with the location of the Base’s obligatory weak point, destroying it still proves to be an almost-impossible task.

6) Go Snoke yourself

Sorry, but Snoke is just too ridiculous a name for a character who is supposed to a dark, menacing villain. Yes, I know, nearly all Star Wars character names are strange: Obi Wan Kenobi, Boba Fett, Mace Windu, Padme Amidala, etc.  But most of the time George Lucas devised names that were odd but still cool.  Snoke just sounds goofy.  I mean, that’s the thing you get at a fast food place when the management is too cheap to supply both spoons and forks, right?  No, wait, that’s a spork.  Never mind.

Maybe in this particular case Abrams should have asked Lucas for a favor. “Hey, George? Look, I know that you sold Star Wars to Disney, and that we then decided not to use any of your ideas for the new trilogy of movies. But could you help us out on one thing? We’re having a hell of a time coming up with a really cool, evil name for our Big Bad. Got any ideas?”

SW The Force Awakens Chewbacca and Han Solo

7) There’s no service like fan service

Michele expressed the opinion that The Force Awakens was much better than the prequels, stating “They made the movie that the fans wanted.” I responded that the prequels were better than most people give them credit, and that sometimes it is not a good idea to give the fans exactly what they are asking for.

The late Marvel Comics writer & editor Mark Gruenwald once observed “The writer’s job isn’t to give the fans what they want. The writer’s job is to give the fans what they didn’t even know they wanted.” Another comic book writer, the very talented Steven Grant, has expressed similar sentiments, and also offered the view that “The best ideas are usually the ones that are almost obvious, the ones that when you get it you stop and wonder why no one ever came up with it before.”

As much as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, as well made and visually impressive a movie as it was, in a certain respect it was by-the-numbers. One can visualize Abrams and his collaborators literally going through a checklist of what to include…

Appearances by a whole bunch of the original trilogy characters? Check!  A ragtag group of freedom fighters struggling against a monolithic adversary of pure evil?  Check!  A massive superweapon that can destroy entire planets?  Check?  A hero who grows up on a desert world and who discovers that it is her destiny to embrace the Force and become a Jedi?  Check!  Another hero who is concerned with self-preservation but who gradually comes to believe in a cause bigger than himself?  Check!

As I’ve observed before, the prequels were flawed, but they were still enjoyable. What Lucas really, REALLY needed to have on those three movies was a strong co-writer on the screenplays, someone like, well, Lawrence Kasdan, who previously worked on The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.  I expect that the reason why the dialogue in The Force Awakens is so well written is due to Kasdan’s involvement.

Because of weak scripts, as well as the fact that Lucas was attempting to tell a story that was somewhat different from the original trilogy, the prequels were not well received by many.

Imagine a scenario where you enjoy a new music group because they do amazing cover versions of old songs that you love. In fact, you like this new group even better than the more recent work of the original artists, whose later albums weren’t as well written, and who no longer can hit the high notes as often, or play the guitar as fast.

That’s sort of how The Force Awakens came across to me, as J.J. Abrams doing a cover album of Star Wars Greatest Hits. But the thing is, no matter how you play around with the material, tweaking it, speeding it up, emphasizing certain things over others, no matter how fantastic it turns out, at its core are still the same notes  & lyrics Lucas wrote over three decades ago.

As I said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun, well-made movie. It is also a movie that plays it very safe.  Obviously Disney was not going to allow anything too experimental or offbeat on their very first Star Wars movie.  I hate to think that they are going to require the entirety of the franchise to remain so formulaic.  Hopefully in the future, in some of the spin-off movies that are in the works, Disney will let the directors & writers strive for a different tone and go in new directions.  We shall have to see.

Super Blog Team-Up 7: Star Wars sketchbook

Welcome to the seventh edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time, to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, all of the participating bloggers will be writing about various aspects of the Star Wars phenomenon.  This ties in very well with what I’ve been doing on my own blog.  For the last few months I’ve been writing reviews of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.

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For my contribution to SBTU 7 I’m glancing through the Star Wars theme sketchbook that I started in 2003. In the last 12 years I’ve obtained incredible sketches & commissions from a number of very talented artists.  There are so many great pieces that I had genuine difficulty deciding which ten I should include here.  I would have featured more, but then this post would have been much too long!

1) Princess Leia by June Brigman

Princess Leia by June Brigman

June Brigman has a charming style to her work that I have always enjoyed. With her husband Roy Richardson she illustrated the Star Wars miniseries River of Chaos which featured Princess Leia.  June also did a cute trading card of Leia with the Ewoks for the first Star Wars Galaxy set from Topps.  She’s also drawn illustrations for a few SW young adult novels.  It was an obvious choice to ask June to draw Princess Leia in my sketchbook.  She did a really wonderful job!  The backgrounds on this commission remind me a bit of the SW work of legendary artist Al Williamson.

2) Boba Fett by Tony Salmons

Boba Fett by Tony Salmons

Tony Salmons penciled “Wookiee World,” issue #91 of the original Marvel SW comic book series. At first I was going to ask Salmons if he’d draw Chewbacca.  But I thought Salmons might prefer to tackle another character.  I asked him who else he’d enjoy drawing.  He suggested Boba Fett.  That was a great idea.  Salmons had a lot of fun drawing the bounty hunter, and it shows.  I love that “ZAT” sound effect.

3) Han Solo by Rich Buckler

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

Rich Buckler has a very bold style, influenced by Kirby. I thought Buckler he’d be perfect to draw either of the action heroes from the first movie, namely Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.  I asked Buckler who he’d prefer, and he immediately chose Han.  Buckler did an amazing job at capturing Harrison Ford’s likeness.  Buckler’s only published Star Wars art was the Lando Calrissian trading card he drew for the Galaxy series two set from Topps. That’s definitely unfortunate.  This sketch shows that he’s perfectly suited to the material.  I would really enjoy seeing him do further SW work.

4) Admiral Ackbar by Michael William Kaluta

Admiral Ackbar by Michael Kaluta

Michael Kaluta previously did an imaginative rendering of Ackbar for the first Star Wars Galaxy trading card set. When I began this sketchbook, I hoped to eventually have Kaluta draw that character.  Kaluta was generous enough to agree to it, with impressive results.  Note that he rendered Ackbar’s pupils in pencil to convey a watery, “fish-eye” look.  It’s that attention to detail that makes Kaluta such an incredible artist.

5) Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark

Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark

I suppose you can lay the “blame” for this one at the feet of fellow Star Wars sketch collector John Higashi. He obtained a nice sketch of Tarkin from Gotham Central artist Michael Lark.  When I later met Lark at a convention I asked him if he would be willing to draw that character again.  Lark felt it would be more fun to draw one of the Sand People on a Bantha, and asked me if that was okay.  I decided to let him go for it, and Lark produced this very impressive illustration.  It’s interesting to see Lark, who often works on noir-themed stories, illustrate sci-fi material.

6) Yoda by Guy Dorian

Yoda by Guy Dorian

Guy Dorian saw a scan of a Star Wars sketch his brother Ian had done for me, and he e-mailed to say he wanted to contribute one too. Guy told me that he’d worked on a SW coloring book several years earlier, and so had drawn a number of the characters before.  A few months later at the next Big Apple Comic Con, I stopped by Guy’s table with my sketchbook.  Guy told me he was interested in drawing Yoda.  He spent a fair amount of time working on this.  As you can see, there’s some very detailed linework to this piece.

7) Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta

Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta

Paul Azaceta was at the 2007 New York Comic Con to promote the release of the trade paperback collection of the Grounded miniseries he drew for Image Comics. He was also doing a lot of sketching at the show.  An incredible drawing of Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean that was sitting on his table immediately caught my eye.  Seeing that, I asked Azaceta if he’d be able to draw something in my SW sketchbook.  He agreed, and produce this stunning rendition of the malevolent Emperor.

8) Mace Windu by Jim Webb

Mace Windu by Jim Webb

When getting SW sketches, some artists are understandably uncertain if they’ll be able to do good likenesses. In his Comic Art Fans gallery Jim Webb has posted a scan of advertising art he did for the board game Stratego that had the characters from the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. I figured if Jim could draw a good likeness of John Lithgow, I might as well ask him if he’d have a go at sketching Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Mace Windu. After Jim agreed to do a commission for me, I said something along the lines of “Maybe you can have him fighting a snake as a nod to Snakes on a Plane.” That’s how we got this epic struggle. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, one very frustrated Jedi Knight is shouting “I have had it with these mother@#&%ing snakes on this mother@#&%ing spaceship!”

9) Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema

Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema

I saw Jan Duursema at the November 2002 Big Apple show where she was drawing some amazing convention sketches of Star Wars characters. That was what inspired me to start this theme sketchbook in the first place.  One of my goals was to get a sketch by Duursema. Well, it took some time, but I finally met her again at the 2009 New York Comic Con.  I asked Duursema to draw Aayla Secura, the very cool character she created with John Ostrander for the Dark Horse comic books.  Fortunately, I just managed to get onto Jan’s sketch list, and she drew this on Sunday afternoon.  It turned out great.  So, yes, it was worth waiting six and a half years for this after all.

10) Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong

Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong

Jodi Tong is a talented artist with a really fun style.  Every time I get a new sketch from Jodi it’s inevitably better than the last one. She did an amazing job on this drawing of Shaak Ti, one of the Jedi from the prequels who was featured prominently in the Dark Horse comics.  There’s so much detail to this piece.  I’m hopeful that I’ll have an opportunity to obtain more sketches from Jodi in the near future.

I hope everyone will check out Comic Art Fans to see the rest of my Star Wars sketch collection. There are some really great pieces.

SBTU Crawler

Here are the links to the other Super Blog Team-Up 7 contributors.  You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…

This concludes Super Blog Team-Up 7.  May the Force be with you!  Well, either that or… Something, something, something, Dark Side; something, something, something, complete :P

Alter Ego #138

I am excited to announce that my very first published writing will be appearing in Alter Ego #138.  Edited by comic book legend Roy Thomas, Alter Ego is published by TwoMorrows Publishing.  Issue #138 is scheduled to ship on February 17, 2016.

It was due to my work on this blog that Thomas generously invited me to contribute to Alter Ego.  He asked me to write a short article on the life and career of artist Fred Kida, who passed away on April 3rd of last year.

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The cover feature of Alter Ego #138 is an interview of Harlan Ellison by Brian Cremins wherein the acclaimed science fiction author discusses his love for the original Captain Marvel from the Golden Age of comics.  Also in this issue are excerpts from the 1944 deposition of Captain Marvel co-creator C.C. Beck from the infamous National Publications / DC Comics lawsuit against Fawcett Comics, as well as a piece Beck wrote in 1981 looking back on that sordid affair.

It is a genuine pleasure to have my first professional writing appear within Alter Ego, a quality publication which I have long enjoyed reading.  And it is an honor to be present amongst the prestigious company of Harlan Ellison and C.C. Beck.

I hope that everyone will purchase at copy of Alter Ego #138.  It is currently available for pre-order on the TwoMorrows Publishing website.  Thank you.