Star Wars reviews: Obi-Wan Kenobi

The six episode Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries has come to its conclusion on Disney+. Quite a few other people have already posted in-depth reviews & analyses of the show. Since I’m a huge Star Wars fan, I did want to also share some of my thoughts on it, too.

1) Hello There

Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi was, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant casting decisions of the prequel trilogy. McGregor is an incredibly talented actor, and he admirably succeeded at evoking Alec Guiness’ performance while bringing his own particular take to the role.

McGregor continues to do quality work in this miniseries. He really brings to life an Obi-Wan who, a decade after the events of Revenge of the Sith, is suffering from depression and PSTD, crippled by the fall of the Jedi and by his own guilt at not having prevented Anakin Skywalker from turning to the dark side of the Force and becoming Darth Vader.

There are moments here where McGregor’s performance, solely through facial expression & body language, evocatively brings across the pain this man is feeling. Deborah Chow did a superb job directing McGregor and the other actors. That moment at the end of episode two, when Obi-Wan learns that Vader is still alive, is an absolute gut punch, with the devastation & horror on McGregor’s face communicating volumes.

Likewise, as Obi-Wan sets out to rescue young Leia Organa from the Imperial Inquisitors, McGregor effectively shows the character’s gradually journey back from the despair event horizon, eventually bringing him to the place where he finds peace & acceptance.

Besides, Obi-Wan’s infiltration of Fortress Inquisitorius and his rescue of Leia was absolutely riveting. Plus that scene where he discovers the “mausoleum” with the dead Jedi displayed as trophies was one of the most disturbing in the entire Star Wars mythos.

2) Retcons R Us

There was some skepticism among fandom over this show inserting a major encounter between Kenobi and Vader in the time between the prequels and the original trilogy. Honestly, though, Star Wars has been revising is history & backstory pretty much from the word “go.” Despite what George Lucas likes to claim, he did not intend for Darth Vader to be Luke Skywalker’s father right from the start. Luke and Leia being brother & sister was also a late development. So there’s a long precedent for this sort of thing.

The key here would be how well this retcon got pulled off. I actually feel there was some wiggle room that allowed for it. Obi-Wan believed Anakin was dead at the end of Revenge of the Sith, but he’s aware Vader is alive in A New Hope, and when the two meet on the Death Star Obi-Wan shows no surprise at Vader now being a black-clad armored cyborg. At some point he must have learned that Anakin survived their duel on Mustafar and been radically transformed into a creature “more machine than man.”

And we get just that as Obi-Wan first comes face-to-face with his former apprentice on Mapuzo and utters an absolutely horrified “What have you become?” It’s another emotional gut punch, especially as we then see a badly out-of-practice Obi-Wan literally get raked over the coals by a vengeance-obsessed Vader.

Likewise, in their rematch in episode six, with the two on much more equal footing, we get an incredibly dramatic confrontation.

I try to look at this from the perspective of a younger fan. If you traveled back in time some 39 years to 1983 and said that one day we’d get to see a live action Star Wars television series featuring a stunningly fierce lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Vader, with each of them hurtling entire chunks of a planet at each other, seven year old me would never have believed you.

So, yeah, maybe it doesn’t fit 100% neatly into established continuity, but it was damned exciting, and I’ll take that over being overly anal about the consistency of a fictional universe that, as I said, already has a long history of being inconsistent.

3) From a Certain Point of View

“Anakin Skywalker was weak; I destroyed him.”

That is what Darth Vader tells Ahsoka Tano in the Rebels second season finale “Twilight of the Apprentice.” I always found that to be one of the most heartbreaking lines in Star Wars. It really encapsulates all of Vader’s self-hatred & loathing for himself, revealing just how far he has fallen.

Vader something similar in episode six. When Obi-Wan once again apologizes for having failed his former student, Vader flat-out tells him “I am not your failure, Obi-Wan. You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did. The same way I will destroy you.”

This appears to be the first time that Vader finally admits to himself that everything horrible that ever happened to him is his own fault. And it does help explain how Obi-Wan gets to the point where he is at in the original trilogy, where he truly believes that Anakin is “dead” and gone forever.

4) The Circle Is Now Complete

I’ve mentioned in the past that I enjoyed the prequels and found them underrated, and that certainly extends to Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin Skywalker.

I admit, at first I was puzzled by the decision to have Christensen reprise the role, since he was fully encased in the Darth Vader armor, with James Earl Jones supplying the voice.

But then in episode five we get an extended flashback to a training duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin the days before the Clone Wars. It was an effective sequence, especially as the narrative cut back & forth between this past segment and the “present” where Vader is hunting his former master, and Obi-Wan is able to draw on his knowledge of Anakin’s impatience, impulsivity & need to visibly achieve victory to outwit him and get the members of “The Path” to safety.

And then in episode six when we see Vader’s helmet split open, revealing his scarred face to Obi-Wan, enabling Christiansen and McGregor to act opposite one another when we get to the all-important moment when Vader tells Obi-Wan that Anakin is dead.

5) Fear Leads To Anger, Anger Leads To Hate, Hate Leads To Suffering

There’s a moment in episode three where Yoda’s warning to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back very much came to mind. After Obi-Wan and Leia arrive on Mapuzo, a fearful Obi-Wan panics & becomes angry, believing they’ve been betrayed. So it falls to ten year old Leia to have to try to take charge, leading her to accept a ride with the seemingly-friendly Freck… who unfortunately turns out to be an Imperial sympathizer.

It can be argued that if Obi-Wan had not let his fear get the better of him, if he had been patient and waited then Tala would have arrived soon after & quietly taken them to safety, and everything that subsequently went wrong, all of the death & suffering, might never have occurred.

6) Make the Galaxy Great Again

The alien truck drive Freck, voiced by Zach Braff, comes across as a commentary on Trump supporters. Freck is a working-class alien, just the sort of individual we have seen exploited again and again by the Empire. Yet Freck, with the Imperial bumper sticker on his truck, his chumminess with Stormtroopers, and his fondness for “law & order” is very much siding with the oppressors.

When Freck turns in Obi-Wan and Leia, two people who want to genuinely make things better for people like him, it really evokes the phenomenon of voting against your own interests, of blindly swallowing propaganda, of treating liberals & progressives as “the enemy.”

(Gee, you’d think that, considering they co-starred in Garden State, Braff would’ve been more conciliatory to Nalalie Portman’s daughter 😊)

In contract to Freck we have Tala, portrayed by Indira Varma, an Imperial officer who joined up because she genuinely believed the Empire would make the galaxy a better place. Unlike Freck, Tala doesn’t have her head in the sand. She is able to face up to reality, to recognize that the government she serves is irredeemably evil, and as a result she now helps Jedi fugitives & force-sensitives escape the Empire.

7) “They were the only family I knew.”

I guess there has always been a small-yet-vocal subset in sci-fi and comic book fandoms who are angry & narrow-minded. Unfortunately social media really amplifies their voice out of proportion to their size. I was disgusted at all of the vitriol directed at actress Moses Ingram for her performance as Reva / Third Sister. Honestly, I felt Ingram did a great job with the role.

Reva, a former Jedi youngling, encapsulated just how dangerous & all-consuming the quest for vengeance can be. Reva joined the Inquisitors solely to get close enough to Vader so she could ultimately gain revenge on him for having slaughtered her friends & loved ones years before. So overwhelming was her desire to kill Vader that ANY price, no matter how horrible, seemed reasonable to Reva, even if it turned her into everything she hated.

In the end Reva is finally able to step back from the precipice. Before the final episode aired, a few viewers expressed the desire that she NOT reform, stating that that there have been too many redemption arcs in Star Wars and that some people simply cannot be saved from themself. And that’s true. But Lucasfilm ultimately wanted this series to be a hopeful one, and so, having seen that Anakin was seemingly beyond redemption, it was important for Obi-Wan to witness someone else make the conscious choice to walk away from darkness.

8) Cry “Uncle”

Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru have never been what you would consider three-dimensional characters. They exist in the original movie to basically be an impediment to teenage Luke’s dreams of the future. Owen comes across as unreasonably harsh & inflexible.

The final episode of this miniseries does a good job of fleshing them out. Underneath it all, they both love Luke, and they’re willing to risk their lives to protect him from Reva. It definitely adds some important nuance to the couple. It also helps explain why Obi-Wan left Luke with them in the first place. He knew they would care for Luke and, having witnessed the failings of the Jedi Order in raising Anakin, realized it was important for Luke to have a real childhood.

It also ultimately makes Owen and Beru’s off-screen deaths at the hands of the Empire in A New Hope all the more tragic. They were probably protecting Luke right up to the end.

9) The Sass is Strong with This One

Ten year old Vivien Lyra Blair does a good job playing young Leia. Working with child actors can be tricky, but Blair really pulls off the role, doing a good job playing off McGregor, as well as feeling like she could be a young Carrie Fisher.

Having Obi-Wan and Leia interact with each other at this point in the timeline is another one of those pesky retcons that the show manages to pull off.  You can argue that it’s rationalizing older plot & character beats long after-the-fact, but this story does explain why nearly a decade later Leia went to Tatooine to find Obi-Wan, why when Luke showed up on the Death Star and told her he was with Ben Kenobi her immediate reaction was an excited “Ben Kenobi? Where is he?” and why she eventually ended up naming her own son Ben.

I really did like the scene at the end where Obi-Wan told Leia about her parents; some viewers said it moved them to tears.

10) A Jedi with a Very Particular Set of Skills

I’m sure most of us were half-expecting it to happen, but it was still cool to see Liam Neeson return to live action Star Wars as the Force ghost of Obi-Wan’s old teacher Qui-Gon Jinn. Neeson had already reprised Qui-Gon when he voiced the character in The Clone Wars animate series, revealing how Yoda first learned that the fallen Jedi’s spirit lived on within the Force. But it was nevertheless great to see McGregor and Neeson share the screen again one more time.

Speaking of Jedi who’s names begin with the letter Q, the show had a very cool Easter Egg when Obi-Wan learns in episode three that his old comrade Quinlan Vos (created by writer John Ostrander & artist Jan Duursema for the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse) survived Order 66 and escaped to freedom along The Path.

11) “You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

Okay, so why didn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi kill Darth Vader when he had the chance?

Yes, obviously Vader couldn’t die here, because he’s still very much alive nine years later in Rogue One and the original movie trilogy. But I do think there should have been more of an explanation for Obi-Wan not finishing off Vader. Maybe the Grand Inquisitor and a bunch of Stormtroopers could have arrived at the last minute to save Vader, forcing Obi-Wan to flee? That might have made more sense.

I guess in-story Obi-Wan did not want to kill a foe who had already been defeated. He also might have felt that killing Vader wouldn’t have changed anything, because the Empire would still be in power, and Emperor Palpatine would have just found a new apprentice.

Whatever the case, it did feel to me like the one misstep in an otherwise well-done miniseries. Definitely could have used a bit of clarification.

Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but it was enjoyable. Hopefully we’ll continue to see further quality Star Wars content coming out soon.

Six sketches for Spider-Man’s 60th anniversary

This month is the 60th anniversary of the debut of Spider-Man. The iconic Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, which went on sale in June 1963.

I’ve never been a huge Spider-Man fan, but I have followed the character’s various series from time to time, especially when he’s been written and/or drawn by creators whose work I enjoy.  And I’ve ended up with a few Spider-Man convention sketches over the years.

So, to celebrate Peter Parker’s 60th birthday, here are six sketches featuring the web-slinger…

First up we have Spider-Man by John Romita Jr. Romita has been associated with the character for over 40 years, having had several lengthy runs penciling Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. This was drawn as part of a charity event in May 2002. To raise funds to help pay for his niece’s medical bills, Romita sat down for a marathon sketch session in Manhattan, drawing Spider-Man sketches for $25 donations. As you can see, this is sketch #115. There was a really large turn-out for this event, so I believe Romita was able to raise a good amount to help out his niece.

Next we have Alex Saviuk.  He’s drawn a great may characters over a 45 year long career, but the one he undoubtedly most associated with is Spider-Man.  I fondly recall Saviuk’s work on Web of Spider-Man back when I was a teenager. He penciled nearly every issue of that series from 1988 thru to 1994. I’m glad I had the opportunity to get a sketch of the web-slinger from him in 2008.

My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo shared a table with Matthew Southworth in Artists Alley at the 2010 New York Comic Con. At the time Matthew was relatively new to comics, having made his debut a few years earlier drawing back-up stories for Savage Dragon and Infinity Inc. He had recently come off of the critically acclaimed noir miniseries Stumptown written by Greg Rucka.

I had the chance to chat with Matthew throughout the weekend, and he definitely came across as a good guy. He had also just  worked on an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, so I asked him if he could do a quick sketch of Spidey for me. Instead, Matthew went all out, drawing a nice color piece for me. In the decade plus since then he’s continued to do superb work.

Former long-time Marvel and Topps Comics editor, and current editor-in-chief of Papercutz, Jim Salicrup draws what he refers to as “lousy full color sketches.” More often than not, though, they turn out to be of the non-lousy variety. I asked Jim if he’d sketch Spider-Man, since he edited the web-slinger’s books for several years, specifically from 1987 to 1991, which is the period when I really got into comic books. Consequently he edited some of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read. Instead of just doing a quick doodle, Salicrup proceeded to produce this magic marker masterpiece featuring Spidey in combat with Doctor Octopus.

Michele and I had a great time at the Forest Hills Comic Con held at Forest Hills High School in Queens, NYC last month. It was a fun little show. As any long-time Marvel Comics fan can tell you, Peter Parker is from Forest Hills, so I asked artist Keith Williams, who’s worked on a lot of Spider-Man comic books, including a four year run inking Web of Spider-Man, for a sketch of the character. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate piece to get done at that show.

Hey, what’s the Green Goblin doing here?!? Okay, seriously, I only have five Spider-Man sketches in my collection, and I needed one more for the “Spider-Man six sketches at sixty” alliteration thing. This one seemed like a natural fit since the Green Goblin is Spider-Man’s arch-enemy.

Veteran artist Sal Buscema was the initial penciler on the Spectacular Spider-Man series in the mid 1970s. He returned to the title in 1988 and remained on it for eight years, drawing over 100 issues. My favorite period from this lengthy run was issues #178 to #200 where he was paired with writer J.M. DeMatteis, which is when the Green Goblin showed up. “Our Pal Sal” did a spectacular job on the macabre Spider-Man villain. And that’s the reason why I asked him to sketch the Green Goblin for me.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little artistic spotlight. Truthfully, part of the reason why I put it together is that I’m sort of depressed from doing so many obituaries on this blog. This was an opportunity to showcase the work of half a dozen talented creators who are still with us, and who hopefully will continue to be for a long time to come.

Ken Kelly: 1946 to 2022

Longtime fantasy artist Ken Kelly passed away on June 3rd. He was 76 years old. During a career that lasted half a century, Kelly became renowned for his incredible paintings of fiercely heroic warriors, stunningly sexy women and hideously awful monsters. Kelly was also acclaimed for his work illustrating album covers for rock bands.

Kelly was born in New London, Connecticut on May 19, 1946. He had always liked to draw & paint and so, after four years overseas serving in the Marines, in 1968 Kelly returned to the States and decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. Kelly’s uncle by marriage was Frank Frazetta, and he studied under the acclaimed illustrator for the next few years.

Kelly’s first professional sale was the cover painting for Vampirella #6 from Warren Publishing, which was released in July 1970. Kelly would regularly contribute covers to Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, when Warren finally shut down. The work was low-paying, but as Kelly would explain in a 2018 interview, the experience got him used to producing quality work while hitting deadlines:

“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast. You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one.”

After several years of toiling at Warren, Kelly’s life & career was literally changed almost overnight when he was hired to paint the cover artwork for “Destroyer,” the fourth studio album from hard rock band Kiss. “Destroyer” was released on March 15, 1976 and over the next several months became a hit record. Kelly’s cover painting for the album put him on the map, making him a very much in-demand artist from that point onward.

I certainly cannot say that I’m a huge Kiss fan, but even so I’ll readily acknowledge that Kelly’s dynamic cover painting for “Destroyer” is one of the most iconic images featuring the band.

Kelly was subsequently hired to paint the cover for Kiss’s six studio album “Love Gun” (1977), as well as the Rainbow album “Rising” (1976) and half a dozen album covers for Manowar between 1987 and 2007, among others.

The cover to “Destroyer” also brought Kelly’s work to the attention of paperback publishers, and from the mid 1970s onwards he was regularly hired to paint heroic fantasy covers. Among the authors whose work Kelly was most associated with was the late Robert E. Howard, creator of the barbarian anti-hero Conan.

It was through Howard’s writings that I first became acquainted with Kelly’s artwork. In the mid 1990s Baen Books published seven paperback volumes of The Robert E. Howard Library. Up until that point in time Howard’s Conan stories had been widely released, but much of his other fiction had never been properly collected together. One of the Baen volumes was the first complete collection of Howard’s stories featuring the grim swashbuckling Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I’d heard of Kane in the past, and been intrigued by him, so when Baen released that collection in late 1995 I eagerly snatched it up.

That book had a gorgeous painted cover featuring the climax of REH’s story “The Moon of Skulls.” Looking at the copyright page, there was a credit that read “Cover art by C.W. Kelly.” Well, I had no idea who this C.W Kelly was, but he certainly seemed like a talented artist.

“C.W. Kelly”would provide the other lushly illustrated painted covers for The Robert E. Howard Library. I bought several of those volumes, although in the intervening years, having moved half a dozen times, I misplaced a couple. I still have the Solomon Kane collection as well as a couple others from the series.

In the late 1990s Kelly produced a number stunning covers for Dark Horse Comics for their Star Wars line of comic books. He painted several covers for the ongoing Star Wars series set during the Prequel era, as well as covers for the four issue miniseries Star Wars: Boba Fett – Enemy of the Empire and its collected edition. Kelly created some really great art for George Lucas’ epic space fantasy, and I wish he’d had more opportunities to work on the series.

I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly on a few occasions, at the Chiller Theatre conventions held in New Jersey in 2007 and 2008, and at one of the I-CON sci-fi conventions held at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

Kelly came across as a genuinely decent guy. The first time I met him I purchased a copy of his oversized art book Ken Kelly: Escape. It was a gorgeous collection of his paintings & illustrations. Looking through it I saw several familiar pieces, and I finally realized that the “C.W. Kelly” who had painted those covers for Baen Books was Ken Kelly.

Even though he was best known for his paintings, Kelly also worked in pencil and pen & ink, and when he was at conventions he would sell these types of illustrations, as well as do fairly basic convention sketches, for quite reasonable prices. I thought that was a nice gesture, as he obviously understood that a lot of his fans who would like to own a piece of his art would not be able to afford his paintings.

I got a couple of sketches from Kelly. Due to his aptitude for depicting heroic fantasy, I asked him to do a Thor drawing in my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook. The next time I saw him I had him draw Boba Fett in my Star Wars theme book. He did nice work on both.

Kelly painted literally hundreds of beautiful, striking pieces during his five decade career. There’s no way for me to adequately present an overview of his work within the confines of this blog. So, instead, I’ll merely present a few of my favorite pieces by him.

First we have the dark fantasy armored figure of “Death’s End” which Kelly described as “one of my most popular paintings.”  Kelly utilized the central armored figure for the cover to his Escape collection. A limited edition 20” tall resin statue sculpted by Tony Cipriano was later issued.

The beautiful, sensuous “Anastacia’s Lair” appears to have been one of Kelly’s personal favorites. In the Escape collection he described it thus:

“This is a personal concept I wanted to pursue, focusing on an interior setting. It’s always interesting to paint cats to I included one as her protector and pet. I am at any given time working on five or more of these types of paintings, it’s very relaxing for me.”

Stepping outside of the sword & sorcery genre, Kelly produced “Snowtrap” in 1997. As he explained it:

“Scenes like this are most liberating for me. There’s no alternative universe to create, no debating whether the weaponry matches the era or architecture, or whether the plausibility of the creatures detracts from the scene. This is simply a female mammoth desperately struggling to keep her calf from the jaws of death.”

That’s the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kelly’s artwork. I highly recommend visiting his official website to see a wide selection of his paintings.

Kelly was apparently active as an artist up until almost the end of his life. One of his most recent pieces was sci-fi swordmaiden Taarna for the cover of Heavy Metal #308, which was released last year.

Ken Kelly was a very talented artist who had an incredible career, impacting comic books, fantasy and American hard rock. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.