Steampunk E.T. : The Bozz Chronicles

The Bozz Chronicles was a six issue comic book series by writer David Michelinie and artist Bret Blevins.  It was originally published bi-monthly by Marvel Comics under their Epic imprint from December 1985 to November 1986.  I recall seeing house ads for the series back when I was nine years old, but I never had an opportunity to read it.  Now, thirty years later, The Bozz Chronicles has finally been collected into a trade paperback by Dover Publications.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB cover

Michelinie was inspired to create The Bozz Chronicles after seeing the Steven Spielberg movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  An idea struck Michelinie: What if an alien landed on Earth in an earlier era, before human technology was advanced enough to cobble together a device with which to phone home?  Michelinie decided to have his alien protagonist become stranded in England in the late Victorian Era, a period that he knew would be familiar to readers through literature, television and films.

Epic Comics editor Archie Goodwin suggested that Michelinie collaborate with up-and-coming artist Bret Blevins.  It was Blevins who designed the looks of the characters, including the unique appearance of Bozz (so called because his unpronounceable alien name begins with a buzzing sound).

Having become marooned on Earth in the late 19th Century, Bozz is overcome by despair.  He is a gentle, soulful being, a total outsider in the chaotic world of humanity.  Despondent over the thought of never returning home, Bozz is ready to kill himself.  His suicide attempt is interrupted by Mandy Flynn, a London prostitute.

Mandy immediately takes a liking to Bozz.  Inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, she decides to set herself and Bozz up as private investigators, hoping that the intellectual stimulation of solving mysteries will distract the alien from his severe ennui.  On a more pragmatic level, Mandy also recognized that the brilliant Bozz has the potential to bring in a large number of well-paying clients, thus providing her with a way out of the dangerous, degrading profession of a hooker.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 137

On one of their early cases, Bozz and Mandy encounter “Madman” Salem Hankshaw, a two-fisted Texan expatriate.  The rough & tumble American joins their detective firm, providing both muscle and snarky wit.  Bozz and Mandy’s investigations also results in them crossing paths with the aristocratic Colin Fitzroy who, dissatisfied with the life of the idle rich, joined Scotland Yard.  Salem and Fitzroy are polar opposites, so naturally enough a rivalry develops between them, especially after the police detective takes an interest in Mandy.

I’ve been a fan of Michelinie’s writing for many years, especially his two now-classic runs on Iron Man with Bob Layton.  Even so, I was especially impressed by Michelinie’s writing on The Bozz Chronicles.  It is very witty and intelligent, a deft blending of Grand Guignol and farcical slapstick with a helping of genuine sentiment.  Michelinie does good work in developing his cast of characters, and in constructing the bizarre mysteries that drive the plots.

Blevins is another creator whose work I enjoy, and I was very impressed by his art on The Bozz Chronicles.  He demonstrates a genuine versatility in these issues.  Bozz is a cartoony, abstract figure, and Mandy is drawn as a sexy “good girl” pin-up type.  In contrast, many of their adversaries are grotesque monstrosities.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 65

The Bozz Chronicles is an early example of what is now known as steampunk.  I think it is noteworthy that most steampunk involves taking the aesthetics of the late 19th Century and transplanting them into a different era or dimension.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that for most of the population of the Victorian Era life was extremely difficult and grueling.  It was characterized by a cavernous divide between an impoverished majority and a wealthy aristocracy, by the exploitation of labor, and by the beginnings of global pollution as private industry ran completely unregulated.

(The novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854, offers a particularly brutal portrait of this time period.)

Michelinie and Blevins do not shy away from the unpleasant realities of the Victorian Era.  The character of Mandy is a definite example of this.  Orphaned after her father abandoned her and her mother died, the uneducated young woman was forced to become a prostitute to make ends meet.  In one story Michelinie introduces a group of wealthy men seeking to use super-science to manipulate the political landscape, to ensure that the dire economic status quo remains in place.  As rendered by Blevins, London during the Industrial Revolution is a grimy & dangerous city.

Veteran artist Al Williamson assisted with inking The Bozz Chronicles.  His detailed embellishments suited Blevins’ penciling perfectly.

Also contributing to the series is John Ridgeway.  Due to deadline problems, he drew issue #4.  This made for an unusual experience.  On a creator-owned title you very seldom see outside artists coming in to do a fill-in story.  Cerebus the Aardvark was only ever drawn by Dave Sim, every issue of Strangers in Paradise was by Terry Moore, and no one is going to be pinch-hitting for Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Yet for one issue The Bozz Chronicles was drawn not by Blevins but by Ridgeway.  It was interesting to see Blevins’ designs interpreted by Ridgeway.  His style is so quintessentially British.  It was so very well suited to drawing this story, a horror mystery set in an English country village in the middle of the winter.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 112

The only weak point I found in The Bozz Chronicles is in the depiction of native Africans.  In the last two issues of the series we meet a tribe who, having encountered other members of Bozz’s people centuries before, believe he is a god.  Now admittedly Bozz is a very unusual looking figure, and he possesses some amazing abilities that seem very much like magic.  Nevertheless, the Africans do come across as rather superstitious and a bit gullible.

Okay, aside from that, I really enjoyed The Bozz Chronicles.  I read the entire book in less than a day.  I did not want to put it down.  And when I got to the end I was disappointed, because I knew that was it, there were no other stories by Michelinie & Blevins featuring Bozz and Mandy and Salem.  I wanted more!

Fortunately, because The Bozz Chronicles was published through Epic, Michelinie & Blevins retained ownership of the series.  Hopefully, with the original material now back in print, it will generate enough interest for them to reunite to create new stories.  Blevins drew a new illustration for the TPB cover, which I take as a good sign.  Cross your fingers.

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Our Family by Victor Pemberton

My girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away yesterday morning. This post is being written in her memory.

May Alley was born in Liverpool, England in the 1930s. As a young girl she lived through the horrors of World War II, as the Nazis inflicted their terrifying Blitz upon Great Britain. Following the War the UK experienced a severe economic depression, and May came to the United States in the 1960s to look for work.  Living in New York City she married and eventually gave birth to Michele.

Michele and I have been a couple for almost eight years now. I was fortunate enough to meet May on a number of occasions during this time. She was a very sweet woman.

I was often reminded of May when I read the historical novels of London-born author Victor Pemberton.  I initially knew of Pemberton from his work as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who in the late 1960s.  In fact, Pemberton has had a very diverse career in television, radio, and documentary films.

In 1978 Pemberton wrote the ninety minute radio drama The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore, which starred Nerys Hughes and was broadcast by BBC Radio.  It was inspired by the lives of Pemberton’s parents.  The play was followed up in 1987 by two additional installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea.  In 1990 Pemberton was asked to adapt this trilogy into a novel. That book, Our Family, became the first of 15 historical novels, which Pemberton refers to as his “London saga.”

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family opens in London during the First World War.  Letty Edgington meets Ollie Hobbs, a soldier recuperating from wounds sustained on the French battlefield.  Letty and Oliver fall in love and, despite their very different socioeconomic backgrounds and the objections of their families, marry.  The novel follows their lives over the succeeding decades, through both good times and bad.

Pemberton invests his characters with real humanity.  They are very much living, feeling individuals.  No one among them is all good or all bad; Pemberton succeeds in finding redemptive qualities in even those people who at first glance would seem completely unlikable.  He delves deep into the minds and souls of Letty, Ollie, their families and friends, revealing what motivates their actions, giving us a real understanding of who they are.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of Our Family was the chapters set during World War II.  I am Jewish, and so when I was growing up I learned about the Holocaust.  Additionally, in college I minored in History.  From my classes on European history, as well as outside reading, I gained some knowledge of the events of the War.

But, truthfully, I never truly understood the terrible experiences on the Home Front in Britain until I read Our Family.  Pemberton’s depiction of the Hobbs family’s struggles to survive through five long years of almost-daily air raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe and subsequent rocket attacks on London, seeing their beloved city turned to rubble, watching innocent civilians die in the terrible bombings, is incredibly powerful.  Pemberton communicates all of this in a way that the matter-of-fact text and still photographs of a history book can never achieve.  I was left with a profound admiration for the British civilians who endured half a decade of the horrors of war.

I also came away from Our Family with a realization of what Michele’s mother went through as a young child as Liverpool was bombed, and an understanding of how decades later May could still be traumatized by those events.

Pemberton chronicles the story of Letty, Ollie, and their children through to the late Twentieth Century. When I reached the end of the novel, it was a sort of bittersweet experience. Throughout the course of the book, I had gotten to know the characters so well, and I was reluctant to part with them.  I almost felt like I knew these people personally.

In 2011, after reading Our Family, I e-mailed Pemberton with some of my thoughts concerning the novel, particularly the chapters set during the War. He was kind enough to respond to my missive:

“As I’m sure you have gathered, I myself lived through the horrors of the London blitz, and it is a period in my life that I shall never forget. In many ways, writing those fifteen saga novels, most of them set during that war, has been an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind, but the memories still linger, especially the dark moments of sudden death in one’s own family, and the appalling destruction wreaked on the civilian population.

“Yes, Our Family is basically the story of my own family through the ages, Letty and Oliver were my own parents, and Mick is me. Ninety-eight percent of the story is true, and I look back at it with a mixture of affection, bewilderment, amusement, and sadness, the same, I imagine, as with so many other families.”

Pemberton’s novel is a stirring narrative that left me deeply moved. I highly recommend it.

Our Street by Victor Pemberton

The second book in Pemberton’s London saga, entitled Our Street, is also a very heartfelt work. The novel chronicles the friendship between Elsa, an elderly German Jewish refugee, and Frankie, a teenage boy (a fictionalized version of Pemberton himself), in 1940s London.

Although it is not quite as easy to find a copy of Our Street here in the States, it is worth tracking down, as well.  A number of web sites have used copies for sale.

By accident I purchased two different copies of Our Street through used online booksellers. I gave one of them to May, who was a voracious reader. Michele subsequently informed me that her mother had enjoyed the novel, and that it reminded her of her own childhood. I hope that I was able to bring her some small measure of happiness with that gift.

It has been a few years since I read both Our Family and Our Street. I hope to have the opportunity to read them again in the near future. Pemberton’s rich writing is well worth experiencing a second time.

Star Wars reviews: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens arriving in theaters this December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today’s post looks at the very first entry in what is now referred to as the “expanded universe.”   Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and published in February 1978, eight months after the debut of the original movie.

Splinter of the Minds Eye novel cover

Foster’s novel opens shortly after the events of A New Hope.  Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, accompanied by the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, are traveling to the fourth planet in the Circarpous system.  They hope to convince the inhabitants of Circarpous IV to join the Rebel Alliance.

Before they can arrive at their destination, Leia’s spacecraft develops a malfunction.  They are forced to head towards the fifth planet, Mimban, an inhospitable swamp world.  A sudden electrical storm causes both Leia and Luke’s ships to violently crash-land.  After days of slogging through treacherous swamp, the two Rebels and their droids come across a human settlement. Unfortunately it is an Imperial installation; the Galactic Empire is secretly mining the planet’s mineral wealth.

Stealing mine uniforms, Luke and Leia visit the town saloon.  They meet Halla, an elderly woman who possesses a slight affinity for the Force.  Halla is seeking the Kaiburr Crystal, a red jewel that “increases one’s perception of the Force.”  The crystal is thought to be a myth, but Halla has acquired directions to the ancient native temple where it is supposedly located, as well as an actual shard of the crystal (the eponymous “splinter of the mind’s eye”).  Luke touches the shard, and his connection to the Force confirms that it is genuine.

Halla makes a deal with Luke and Leia: if they assist her in locating the Crystal, she will help them steal a spaceship to escape Mimban.  Before plans can be made, Luke and Leia get into a brawn with a group of drunken miners and are arrested by Stormtroopers.  The two are brought before the planet’s Imperial overseer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel.

While suspicious of their claim to be criminals fleeing from Circarpous IV, Grammel is intrigued by the crystal shard Luke and Leia possess.  He orders them locked up and contacts his superior, Governor Essada, who possesses some knowledge of crystals and minerals, hoping to obtain an assessment of the splinter’s value.  Essada unfortunately recognizes Leia from the security photo Grammel sends him, and the Governor orders the two to be held until someone can be dispatched to interrogate them.

Luke and Leia are placed in a cell with two large hairy aliens known as Yuzzem.  Hin and Kee have been jailed for drunk & disorderly conduct, having caused a major ruckus after they realized they were unable to get out of their indentured servitude to the Empire.  Luke convinces the angry, hung-over Yuzzem that he and Leia are also enemies of the Empire.

At that point Halla pops up at the window of their cell.  She combines her minor Force abilities with Luke’s, and the two of them levitate a food tray between the bars, using it to activate the switch for the cell door.  The prisoners make a break for it, with Him and Kee causing tremendous destruction.  They rendezvous with Halla and the droids, steal a swamp crawler, and flee the settlement.

Heading out in search of the Kaiburr Crystal, the seven fugitives encounter numerous dangers in the swampy wilderness.  Luke eventually realizes that they face another fearsome adversary: Darth Vader has arrived on Mimban searching for the Rebels.  The Sith Lord also recognizes the significance of the Crystal and seeks it to augment his dark powers.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB cover

Alan Dean Foster was involved in the Star Wars universe from very early on.  When the first movie was still in production he was hired by George Lucas to ghost write a novelization based on an early draft of the script.  Foster was also contracted to write an original novel that could serve as a sequel.  Lucas was uncertain if Star Wars would be successful, and he instructed Foster to devise a story that could be shot on a small budget, using as much of the existing props and costumes as possible.  From this directive Foster devised Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with its relatively small cast and its setting on a dark swampy planet.

Of course, as we all know, Star Wars was a gigantic success, and Lucas was able to make a very ambitious sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.  Nevertheless, although Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was never filmed it is still a good read, an interesting link between the two movies.

Even working within the constraints given him, Foster writes an entertaining novel with exciting action sequences.  There is a cinematic quality to Foster’s writing that definitely brings these scenes to life.  The novel culminates in a riveting lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in the ruined Temple of Pomojema for possession of the Kaiburr Crystal.

Written as it was in 1977, there are inevitably a few aspects of the novel that don’t fit the later canon too neatly.  There’s no indication that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.  Some of Foster’s dialogue for Vader seems a bit off, at least considering how the character was subsequently scripted in the next two movies.

Foster includes sexual tension between Luke and Leia, as this was well before Lucas revealed (or perhaps even decided) that they were brother and sister.  Commenting on this in 1996, Foster stated “the tension in the book between Luke and Princess Leia works even better in hindsight, now that they can be seen as squabbling siblings ignorant of their true relationship.”  I suppose you could argue that.  At least Foster didn’t show the two of them actually kissing, unlike that now-unfortunate smooch on Hoth a couple years later!

On the other hand, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye actually forecasts certain elements of the series.  I wonder if Lucas was influenced by it when writing the sequels and prequels.  Mimban is very much like the planet Dagobah.  During the battle in the Temple, Vader uses something similar to the “Force lightning” later utilized by the Emperor.

An interesting thing occurs towards the end of the novel.  When the group arrives at the Temple, Luke leaves R2-D2 and C-3P0 outside to keep watch.  Later, when Vader appears, surprising them, the Sith explains “As for your ‘droids, they are conditioned to obey orders. I had them turn themselves off.”  When Luke reactivates them, a panicked C-3P0 tells him “We couldn’t escape him. He knew all the proper code words and commands.”

The first time I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1989 this was puzzling.  How could Vader possibly know how to shut down R2-D2 and C-3P0?  Of course, once the prequels came out, this made perfect sense, as we found out that C-3P0 was built by Anakin Skywalker, and R2-D2 was his astromech droid during the Clone Wars.  So of course decades later Vader would know how to deactivate both of them.  Again, I wonder if Lucas got the idea of tying Anakin / Vader to the two droids from Foster’s novel.

One of the weak points of the original Star Wars was that we never saw the events of the movie having any sort of lasting impact on Leia.  The way that Lucas filmed the scene setting up Leia’s interrogation by the Empire, it is very strongly implied that they are going to do something horrifying to her.  But the next time we see her she is seemingly unharmed and defiant.  Likewise, the destruction of Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is almost shrugged off by Leia.

Foster addresses this in his novel.  Leia has been hardened by her experiences.  Luke is aghast at the carnage and bloodshed of their battles with the Empire, but the more cynical Leia grimly accepts it as an unfortunate necessity.  While imprisoned by the Empire on Mimban, Leia finds out from Grammel that an Imperial Governor will soon be arriving to question her.  Her immediate reaction is uncontrollable panic as she flashes back to her ordeal on the Death Star.  Leia soon recovers her composure, but it is apparent that she still carries psychological scars from that experience.

The cover for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was painted by Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who played a significant role in devising the look of the Star Wars universe, designing many of the characters and sets for the original trilogy.  His atmospheric rendering of a stunned Luke and Leia witnessing Vader’s arrival at the Temple of Pomojema is now an iconic image.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB pg 32

In 1996 Dark Horse published a four issue comic book adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye written & inked by Terry Austin and penciled by Chris Sprouse.  The miniseries was collected in a trade paperback with a cover by Duncan Fegredo.  Alan Dean Foster contributed an introduction.

It’s interesting to observe the choices Austin made in adapting a 300 page prose novel into a 97 page graphic novel.  A certain amount of condensing of scenes and dialogue was required.  Austin did a good job at keeping the important plot and character elements while working within a smaller length.

Austin took advantage of the fact that he was working in 1996 to add a few elements from subsequent movies.  Darth Vader is given a couple of short scenes that precede his original introduction more than three quarters of the way into the original novel.  In these Austin gives glimpses of Captain Piett, the flagship Executor, and an Imperial shuttlecraft arriving on Mimban.

Sprouse does wonderful work bringing the elements of the novel to life.  His designs for Halla, the Yuzzem, the giant swamp worm Wandrella, the native tribe of the Coway, and the Temple are all very effective.  Sprouse has always done good work on sci-fi / pulp-themed series, most notably Legion of Super-Heroes and Tom Strong.  That makes him a great fit for the Star Wars universe.

Austin is, of course, one of the all-time greatest inkers / embellishers in comic books.  As good as Sprouse’s penciling is on the Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Austin’s inking makes it even more amazing.  Their styles mesh very well indeed, and their adaptation of Foster’s novel is wonderful.

Star Wars reviews: Marvel Comics Star Wars #89

As we await the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today I’m looking at issue #89 of the original comic book series published by Marvel.

From 1977 to 1986 Marvel Comics published an ongoing Star Wars title.  Marvel’s writers & editors were basically working in a vacuum.  They had no idea what was coming in subsequent movies, they weren’t able to explore the era before the first film, and they had various restrictions placed on them as to what the characters could do.  The result was some comic books that, by today’s standards, are quite odd.

Despite all of that, there are some very good stories that appeared during the first Marvel run.  One of these is “I’ll See You In The Throne Room” from issue #89, published in November 1984.  It is written by Ann Nocenti, illustrated by Bret Blevins and edited by Louise Simonson.

Star Wars 89 cover signed

It is shortly after the Battle of Endor.  The Rebel Alliance is working to topple the now-reeling Galactic Empire.  Luke Skywalker is on the planet Solay, assisting the local cell of the Rebellion to overthrow the Imperial-allied government headed by the monstrous King Blackart.

The revolution is successful, but its leader Raggold is mortally wounded.  Raggold tells Luke and the beautiful Mary that this is the work of a traitor, but he dies before he can name the culprit.  Luke is ready to seek out the murderer, but Mary restrains him, perceiving that his motivation is vengeance rather than justice.  Luke, realizing revenge is a path to the Dark Side, reluctantly backs down.

A week later Solay is still celebrating victory.  Luke is concerned that the rebels haven’t begun to organize a new government, but Mary urges him to relax.  Luke is about ready to do so, when suddenly the skies above Solay darken, filled with a massive fleet of Imperial spaceships.  Mary is brutally cut down by a volley of blaster fire that accompanies their arrival.

Luke realizes that the Empire used the Rebels to dispose of Blackart so that they could then take direct control of Solay.  Over the next few days the planet descends into chaos as individuals attempt to grab up wealth and escape before the Empire solidifies its rule.  The brooding Luke is obsessed with finding the traitor who sold them out, and with avenging Mary and Raggold.

Luke finds himself teamed with Scamp, an urchin who tries to steal the Jedi’s lightsaber.  Luke takes advantage of the pickpocket’s knowledge of the Solay underworld to search for clues to the traitor’s identity.  Unfortunately no one knows anything.  Scamp finally leads Luke to Braxas, an information broker who had a secret surveillance network installed in Blackart’s castle.  Braxas agrees to reveal the traitor’s identity in exchange for the Jedi helping him escape from Solay.

After Luke passes a harrowing test of nerves & skill involving a scorpion and a pair of chopsticks, Braxas gives him the surveillance tape with Raggold’s murder.  Luke wonders if he truly wants to view it, fearful that once he knows who the traitor is he will not be able to resist killing him.

Reluctantly playing the tape, Luke is shocked to see Raggold standing alone in the castle.  The old Rebel reflects on how he has played the part of revolutionary perfectly, manipulating his comrades on behalf of the Empire.  But now, having fought alongside the rebels for so long, Raggold realizes that he has come to admire his comrades and their cause.  Consumed by guilt over his treachery, Raggold shoots himself in the chest.

Now knowing the truth, Luke recognizes the futility of seeking revenge.  Fulfilling his end of the bargain, the Jedi helps Braxas escape Solay.  Departing the planet, Luke promises to one day return and continue the quest to liberate it from the Empire.

Star Wars 89 pg 9

I actually bought Star Wars #89 when it first came out in 1984.  I was eight years old and it amazed me.  It was an interesting examination of what could occur after Return of the Jedi, of how both the Rebellion and Luke would proceed following their biggest victory.  This must have been the very first story I ever read by Nocenti.  It was one of those comics that I read so often it fell apart.  About 15 years ago I bought a replacement copy.  Re-reading it as an adult, I found Nocenti’s story definitely held up.

Nocenti effectively examines the aftermath of revolution.  As difficult as it can be to defeat an oppressive regime, it is often even more of a challenge to replace it with a stable government that is better than what preceded it.

Following the overthrow of Blackart, Mary is celebrating Solay’s freedom, but Luke is more sober in his assessment:

Mary: This is just the beginning! Imagine, to be free to do and think whatever we wish! We’ll revive the arts!

Luke: But the people will need help. They don’t know what freedom is!

Mary: True, to ones enslaved so long, will they know what to do with freedom? I guess it isn’t so easy to be free.

Luke: We toppled another figurehead. So what? It’s not enough to be against something. One must be for something!

One of the themes running through the Star Wars movies is the cost of power, the weight of using it responsibly.  Luke is in danger of being overwhelmed by the awesome abilities that he possesses, of repeating the terrible mistakes made by his father Anakin.

Nocenti actually predicts a plot point that would appear two decades later in the prequels.  As was seen in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin became obsessed with preventing the loss of those he loved.  His mother was killed, and he was terrified of his wife Padme also dying.  Anakan wanted to be able to conquer death itself.  His fear and his desire for greater powers enabled Emperor Palpatine to turn him to the Dark Side.

In the pages of Star Wars #89 we see Luke expressing these exact same thoughts.  Anguished over Mary’s death, Luke cries out:

“I want her alive! I want to heal! What good is the Force now? It’s not good enough! I wish I were a god.”

Still mourning Mary’s loss, Luke has Scamp lead him to a member of the Rebellion who was in it solely for the money.  Luke is certain that this man must either be the traitor or know who is, and the Jedi uses his powers to brutally interrogate him.  It is apparent that the man known nothing, but Luke still contemplates killing him.  He is acting exactly like his father, Darth Vader, would have in this situation.  It is only when Luke remembers that Mary would have wanted him to be merciful that he reluctantly lets the man go.

As his quest continues, Luke eventually becomes aware that his actions are motivated not by loyalty to the Rebellion, but by anger and vengeance.  He realizes that he is in danger of turning to the Dark Side.

Star Wars 89 pg 16

The character of Scamp is interesting.  The young pickpocket is like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.  Despite Luke’s dismissal of the young boy as “a shallow petty thief,” Scamp ends up serving as the Jedi’s conscience in this story.  Luke is genuinely surprised when he learns that Scamp’s larcenous activities are actually in service of supporting his impoverished family.

Perhaps a weak point in Nocenti’s story is Mary, who is rather one-dimensional.  It seems she is there to act saintly & innocent and then be killed off.  Admittedly it is very difficult to develop a character who dies a third of the way through a 22 page story.  I imagine that if Nocenti was writing this story today her editors would instruct her to spread it out over four or five issues.  While that would have given her room to develop the characters, there’d nevertheless have been less dramatic punch if this story was padded out.

The artwork by Blevins is fantastic.  He utilizes dramatic, inventive layouts to tell the story.  His inking is very detailed and rich.  The pulp sci-fi / space opera designs for many of the characters, especially the hulking, brutal Blackart, are striking and effective.  The sequence where Luke uses the Force to lift up the body of the dying Mary is genuinely powerful.

Blevins brings out both the drama and the comedy of Nocenti’s story.  Scamp is, naturally, a constant source of humor.  Blevins’ depiction of Blackart is simultaneously terrifying and comical.

The art Blevins did for this issue is especially impressive when you consider that he had only been working professionally for about three years when he drew it.

Star Wars 89 pg 22

Simonson (under the name Louise Jones) was the editor of the Star Wars comic from 1981 to 1984.  Many of the best stories to appear in the series were from that four year period.  As with her editing on other Marvel titles, she got really great material out of the creators working on Star Wars.  Simonson has always impressed me as the type of editor who identified the strengths of her creators and guided them in a direction that utilized those abilities, and who then stepped back and allowed them to tell stories without undue interference.

Looking at Star Wars #89, it’s not surprising that Nocenti, Blevins and Simonson all went on to very successful careers in the comic book industry.  They did excellent work on this story, both in examining the character of Luke Skywalker and his struggles with power & responsibility, and in delving into the complicated issues surrounding rebellion and freedom.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

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In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

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This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Kim Davis versus same-sex marriage

I have been following with interest the events in Rowan County, Kentucky.  Since the Supreme Court handed down their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26th legalizing same-sex marriage, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses.  Davis has cited her sincerely held religious beliefs as an Apostolic Christian, specifically her opposition to homosexuality, as the reason why she should be exempted from issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.

Represented by the ultra-conservative Liberty Counsel, Davis took her case all the way to the Supreme Court.  On August 31st they declined to stay the United States District Court’s ruling that Davis must issue marriage licenses to all applicants.  In response, Davis continued to refuse to issue licenses, arguing that she was acting “under God’s authority.”  In a statement earlier this week Davis declared:

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.  It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision.”

Finally, on September 3rd Davis was jailed by Federal District Judge David L. Bunning for contempt of court.  Bunning ordered Davis’ deputy clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses, which they did the following day.

I have no doubt that Davis’ beliefs are deeply and passionately felt.  Nevertheless, for several reasons, her actions are wrong.

First of all, there is a question of hypocrisy on Davis’ part.  She has been married four times to three different men.  As reported by U.S. News and World Report:

“She gave birth to twins five months after divorcing her first husband. They were fathered by her third husband but adopted by her second. Davis worked at the clerk’s office at the time of each divorce and has since remarried.”

I am not a Christian.  Nevertheless I know how to use Google.  After conducting a quick search I came across this passage:

“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:32

Davis’ attorney argued that whatever her past sins, when she converted to Apostolic Christianity four years ago it wiped the slate clean, and she has been a God-fearing, righteous woman since then.  That’s more than a bit convenient!  But let’s go with that.  Even if that was the case, are we to believe that Davis didn’t issue any marriage licenses to divorced people since she found God?  If she now values the sanctity of matrimony so much, shouldn’t she be denying not just gay people licenses but also people who were previously married?

Kim Davis bigotry cartoon

Second, the argument that she should not have to perform the duties of her job because they violate her ethical and moral beliefs is nonsensical.  Most people will be able to tell you about occasions when their jobs required them to perform tasks that they found onerous.

Speaking from personal experience, I worked at a health insurance company for seven years. On several occasions that company canceled group short term disability policies held by businesses because they had too many claims. I was told to inform those businesses that A) their policy was canceled and B) they still had to send us their past due premiums.  I thought it was wrong to cancel policies like that.  But I did what my bosses told me to because I had bills to pay and I did not want to get fired.  I did not say to them “I refuse to perform my job because what you are asking me to do is against my personal moral beliefs, but I expect you to still keep me on as an employee.”  If I had really felt that strongly then I should have just resigned.

And that is what Davis should have done. If you believe that you cannot perform your job without violating your “sincerely held religious beliefs” then quit and find a new job that will not present that conflict.

Just imagine if a situation similar to this occurred with, say, an ultra-conservative Muslim man who worked for the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Suppose that Muslim refused to issue drivers licenses to women due to his religious beliefs.  I fully expect that the same ultra right-wing conservatives who are championing Davis’ cause would be utterly aghast at this.  They would be screaming in horror about “Sharia law” and predicting the downfall of America.  But because Davis is a white Christian woman she is a “martyr” whose religious liberty is being trampled, or some such nonsense.

As for why Davis doesn’t just quit and find a new job, per the Lexington Herald-Leader, there is this:

“County clerk jobs are worth quite a bit. Davis earns about $80,000 a year in a county where per capita income is about $15,600 and median household income just under $30,000, according to recent numbers from the U.S. Census.”

Davis wants to have her cake and eat it too.  She wants to follow the dictates of her faith and keep her well-paying position.  In this matter another Bible verse immediately comes to mind:

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” – Matthew 6:24

Third, Davis and her lawyers argued that gay couples simply travel to the next county and obtain marriage licenses there.  To which I would respond, why should same sex couples be subjected to an inconvenience that heterosexual couples do not have to deal with?  And let us say that these couples did travel to the next county to obtain licenses.  What happens if they get there and that county’s clerk, due to his or her “sincerely held religious beliefs”, also decides not to issue them licenses?  How far do these couples have to travel before it becomes utterly unreasonable?  Fifty miles?  One hundred miles?  Five hundred miles?  How much is too much?

In any case, the whole “go to the next county” argument is more than a bit reminiscent of segregation.  It is like a black person being told “No, you cannot use this water fountain, it is for whites only, but there’s another water fountain out back that you’re allowed to use.”  Simply put, that is humiliating.  It is an affront to basic human dignity.

sanctity of marriage

Fourth, and most important, the United States is not a theocracy.  We have a very clear separation of church and state.

On September 3 the Anti-Defamation League issued the following statement:

“Many of us make important decisions in our daily lives grounded in our religious values and beliefs. That should be respected, even per­haps, applauded. However when one chooses to take an oath of office or accepts a position as a public official in a secular constitutional democracy like ours, she has a responsibility to do the job she was hired to do. Rowan County Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis’s job requires her to issue marriage licenses to anyone who may legally get married.

Likewise, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear stated that upon being elected Davis swore an oath of office to perform her duties.  Therefore:

“Neither your oath nor the Supreme Court dictates what you must believe. But as elected officials, they do prescribe how we must act.”

Davis’ religious freedoms are not being suppressed or discriminated against.  She still has the right to go to church and worship God in the manner she wishes.  She is not being asked to change her mind about gay marriage.  When she is not at work she is free to get on a soapbox and preach to the world about the supposed evils of homosexuality, or to spend all her free time campaigning for the passage of a Constitutional amendment outlawing same sex marriages.

But when Davis is in the County Clerk’s office, acting in an official capacity as an agent of the state, she must perform the duties of her job.  Either that or she must resign.

Yes, some laws are bad and should be fought.  But there are proper methods to challenge unjust statues, by court actions, peaceful protest and civil disobedience.  A person cannot simply argue “This law is wrong, I refuse to follow it, and I am going to perform my job the way I personally believe it should be done. Now go away and leave me alone.”

If Davis is accommodated in this case it would set a dangerous precedent.  Imagine if any government employee could refuse to follow orders or perform their duties due to ethical or religious concerns?  The result would be complete chaos.

Perhaps you may be wondering why I, as a heterosexual male, feel so passionately about this.  Why am I happy about the Supreme Court’s decision in June?  Why am I so alarmed by the actions of Kim Davis and others like her?

Well, in addition to actually possessing empathy for other human beings and feeling distress at seeing others denied equality, there is also my personal background.  I was born & raised Jewish. Growing up I learned all about the immense suffering and discrimination that Jews experienced over the centuries in countries that had an official state religion.  I am a very firm believer in the separation of church and state.

So when I see the rational for denying gay couples the right to marry as “God defined marriage as between a man and a woman” or “the Bible says homosexuality is a sin,” no, I am not going to stand for it.  Keep your religion out of my government.