Monday, April 28, 2014

Phantom Troublemaker on Star Wars: Episode II - The Expanded Universe

When I sat down to post this I remembered that I had written sort of a general Star Wars post before. Oddly enough, it was almost exactly a year ago. If you want to check that one out, it's here. Also, after I looked at this picture I realized there are a few non-Star Wars books in there. Whatever. You get the point.

***Warning: This article will contain spoilers for things that have occurred in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. If you haven’t read the books but intend to, don’t read this. Also, Disney has said that none of it matters anyway. So whatever. This post is about how I feel about that.***

Before I start, let me clarify that this article addresses my personal experiences with the Star Wars Expanded Universe. That’s how I do everything here on Needless Things and it’s how I’m going to do this. I don’t write via Wikipedia. As such, I’m not going to be talking about the role playing games despite the fact that they are the basis for a massive portion of the EU. I never played them. I also won’t be discussing the video games very much, as I have never been a big gamer (despite working in video game retail for six or so years). This is mostly about the comics and the novels.

I’ve written before about how important the Star Wars franchise is to me. About my parents taking me to see the Original Trilogy in theaters and how one of my earliest Christmas memories was of running out to my grandparents’ living room and finding the Millennium Falcon standing there with a ton of figures surrounding it; set up like a scene from the movies. Like most people my age it’s been an integral part of my life almost since birth. And despite the fact that my parents are very much straight-laced, non-geeky people Star Wars has been of the few, precious things that we all enjoyed.

My mom gave me Heir to the Empire for my fifteenth birthday, which was nine days after its release. I don’t think that I was all that excited.

As much as I have always loved Star Wars, at age fifteen that love was directed at the toys and movies. Which had all but dried up over the last several years. I had tried the Marvel comics at some point, but I felt like the tone was off. To this day I can’t appreciate those as much as I do the rest of the Expanded Universe. So there wasn’t a lot of current Star Wars to enjoy. I was an avid reader, but at the time my head was buried in the fantasy worlds of Piers Anthony, David Eddings, and the various D&D novelizations. Or horror. My King’s name is Stephen. 
I had also read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster. I didn’t particularly like it. I became a fan of Foster’s other works later on, but for whatever reason that one didn’t do anything for me. That probably didn’t help my enthusiasm for Heir, despite the different author.

I remember receiving Zahn’s book and I remember a distinct feeling of disinterest. But then I saw something about what a big deal it was and how there hadn’t been any post-Jedi stories at all. Not in the comics or in novels. For some reason that struck a chord with me. It made this book seem like a big deal, like a special moment in time. Now it wasn’t just some extraneous thing that happened to feature the characters I had grown up loving – it was the doorway to the future. I’m not sure that I realized back then that it also signaled the end of hope for actual movies that took place after the Battle of Endor (for the time being, anyway), but I did later.

So I cracked open that tome and took my first step into a larger world.

Much larger.

I fell in love with the expanded characterizations of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, and all of the other people I had met only briefly in the films. They were so much more real and relatable. They were conflicted and scared and determined in a way that a few lines of dialogue and some hung over acting could never convey. I never understood the vastness of the Empire until I read those books. I didn’t know just how heavily the odds were stacked against the Rebellion. And my imagination produced outer space dogfights more epic than anything that had been filmed. I was immersed in a galaxy far, far away in a way that I never had been previously.

And then I had to wait thirteen months for the next book. Now, when you consider that the movies came out three years apart each time that isn’t so bad. But I counted the months until Dark Force Rising came out; and then each and every book after that for almost two decades.

Well, almost each and every book. I initially passed on the Rogue Squadron books. I (wrongly, as I eventually discovered) assumed that they would be too militarily oriented for me. I read them later on and was blown away. I had the same experience with Karen Traviss’ incredible Republic Commandos series. I figured it would be too military oriented for me and passed. Eventually I ran out of Star Wars books and picked up the first one, only to discover that this series was the Mandalorian backstory I had always wanted to read about. I loved it so much I made my own take on Mando armor:

I also made a figure:
My favorite villain in the Star Wars franchise is Grand Admiral Thrawn thanks to Timothy Zahn. My favorite hero in the franchise is Wedge Antilles thanks to Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston.

The success of Zahn’s trilogy cemented the continuation of the post-Jedi narrative, though it would continue in the hands of other authors. I faithfully followed along. But I’ll come back to that. First I need to discuss what might be the most innovative and daring media event that had been attempted at that point:

Even now I get a big ol’ nerd boner just thinking about the coordination between the major factions of nerddom that had to take place to make this happen. In what I think was an unprecedented move in the history of licensed entertainment the powers that be launched a video game, a novel, comic book miniseries, and a toy line based on an all-new narrative that took place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It introduced exciting new characters, new events, and the idea that Han Solo was actually in that chunk of carbonite for a really long time. Like, long enough for Chewbacca to get a terrible haircut that looked like Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China and then grow it back out.

This massive event launched in 1996, only a year after Kenner had relaunched the Star Wars toy line. That relaunch is what reinvigorated my interest in toys. I had been buying a few things here and there, but the last thing I had really collected was the Ninja Turtles line and I stopped that sometime around when they released the Neutrinos. But the Star Wars relaunch created an obsession in me. For the first time In years I had to have everything
And I didn’t look at this new sub line of Shadows of the Empire toys with a critical eye. Not even with names like “Dash Rendar” and “Snoova” in play. I loved the look of the new character designs and the vehicles. The Swoop bike is still one of my favorites. 
At some point I got “too busy to read”. Sadly, I’m there again now. But anyway, I stopped reading and missed a few years’ worth of Star Wars novels. Around 2002 I started to have time again and I immediately returned to the galaxy that I loved most. Of course, by that time the New Jedi Order was well underway, and nothing could have prepared me for the rollercoaster ride – both emotional and stylistic – that epic tale would end up being.

The story is of an alien race invading our beloved galaxy far, far away. They are called the Yuuzhan Vong and they are merciless zealots who abhor technology and accept nothing but subservience and utter capitulation from the civilizations they encounter. I took them as an allegory for Muslim extremism. The Yuuzhan Vong homeworld is long gone and they are desperately in search of a new place to inhabit. In short – they are brutal and have literally nothing to lose. They tear the galaxy apart and that oft-promised but rarely fulfilled thing happens – things change forever.

If you don’t know, Chewbacca dies. Quiet – I warned you at the beginning. Chewbacca dies saving Anakin Solo. And I hated it and I cried. But it wasn’t a cheap move. It wasn’t some device to gain attention. It fed the narrative. We watched as Han Solo became a darker man – lost and distant from the family he had loved so much. He could handle the galaxy falling apart around him – as it literally was – but the loss of his closest friend finally broke the man. And the people behind the New Jedi Order took their time putting him back together.

I mentioned Han’s family. Earlier in the novels Han married Leia and they had three kids – twins Jaina and Jacen and their younger brother, Anakin. Some Young Adult novels were written about them, but I couldn’t get into those. I didn’t want to read about the offspring of the main characters. But the New Jedi Order changed all that. It developed the Solo kids into main characters so subtly that I didn’t even realize that I was really starting to care about them. OR about Jaina and Anakin, anyway. Jacen was kind of an asshat.

Years passed and the characters that George Lucas had created so many years ago aged and change alongside new characters. Most specifically, alongside Mara Jade; one of Timothy Zahn’s creations and arguably the most important addition to the Expanded Universe. She started as an agent of the Empire and over time grew to love Luke Skywalker. They got married and had their own child – Ben. Time is key here. All of these things happened over the course of many books and many years. No one book tells the story of the Skinwalkers or the Solos. Or of Wedge Antilles and his rise to being the most respected pilot in the Alliance and later the New Republic. It’s a massive tapestry that took dozens of people decades to weave.

That’s exactly why I understand people being upset over Disney “discarding” it. I get it. This has been our Star Wars for so long now. If you’re like me, the novels take more precedent than the Prequels. Logically I understand that the movies are the be-all, end-all canon. But my heart tells me that the better-crafted, longer-spanning EU are more important.
And that’s the key – nothing will ever change how much I love the current EU.

And the thing is, it’s not going anywhere. Over-reactive posters and articles have used deceptive terms like “Disney Nuking Expanded Universe”, which is far from the truth. While the new Star Wars movies will not be direct adaptations of any post-Jedi novels – and did you really think they would be? – the creators are free to pick and choose any elements they wish to use from the EU. It has already been confirmed that many elements from the SW RPG will be used. Who’s to say we won’t see Thrawn or Gilad Pellaeon in some form? 
Additionally, they’re only nuking the EU if you consider keeping all of the novels and comics in print under their own “Legends” banner to be nuking them.
There are many key things to be taken away from this:
  1. Going forward, everything will be canon. Disney is establishing a committee to ensure that all Star Wars properties work within continuity and do not contradict one another. This will be a refreshing change from the old days of wondering how much the things we were reading “counted”. (as an aside, it’s funny that finding out that they don’t doesn’t really matter)
  2. Personally, I am very excited to see what kind of new creative directions can be taken with this particularly interesting period of Star Wars history. I have had the privilege of watching decades of events unfold. I’ve laughed and cried with these characters and lived alongside them since 1991. And now I get to start all over again with the same characters on an entirely different adventure. I get nerd chills just thinking about it. It’s like going back in time and turning left instead of right and we actually get to do it. If the left turn ends up sucking, we can still revisit the right any time we want.
  3. The people running the show now care more about Star Wars than George Lucas has in the last three decades. At least. They’re us. They grew up with this phenomenon and cherish it like a religion. A hokey religion, maybe; but I guaran-damn-tee you they will be conscientious caretakers.
  4. Oh, and let’s not forget that the people in charge – Disney – want to make GIANT FUCKTONS OF MONEY. If the franchise falters, they won’t allow it to happen for long.
I guess that’s about it. This almost teetered into becoming a recap of the post-Jedi EU (and I didn’t even touch on the comics or the pre-A New Hope stuff or The Force Unleashed, which I went through the trouble of digging up for that picture), but it didn’t because I am not that insane. It would take months of posts for that. I’ll just stop here by saying that my Expanded Universe isn’t going anywhere. I’ve read most of those books two, if not more, times and I will read them again in the future. I love them as part of Star Wars history and no decision any studio executive makes is going to change that.


  1. Does this mean we have to start calling you The Mando Troublemaker? :)

    I was very similar in my approach. Not a great deal of interest at first, but once I started reading Zahn's novels, I was hooked. Then came the X-Wing books and I was blown away. Wedge is also my favorite character, much of that is thanks to those novels by Stackpole and Allston.

    I didn't stick with it as long as you did. When they switched publishers and started facing a new villain, I used that as a jumping off point and haven't read any EU since then.


    1. No! Definitely don't call me that! Mandos are dicks. If you ever have the time there's an awful lot of the EU novels that are excellent.

  2. Stackpole (and Allston to a lesser extent) is very under-rated, mostly because he has a reputation for doing serialized books in book lines that tie into games like Battletech and Shadow Run. The irony is that his work is fantastic in all of them. The X-wing books (along with and especially "I, Jedi" which is imho the absolute best of the expanded universe line) were a high point for me.

    1. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Stackpole simply because he took subject matter that I thought I wouldn't be interested in and made it fascinating.

  3. When the announcement was made I really didn't have much of a reaction until today when I realized tag and bink were no longer on continuity. This is unacceptable.

  4. Good reasoning, it's refreshing to read someone who's really into the EU not slagging off Disney over what really was the only way forward. There are a lot of elements where I feel the novels went a bit wrong, so I'm very interested to see how it plays out differently. And you hit the key point on the head - the existing books aren't going anywhere!

    Great to see a lot of Rogue Squadron love out there as well, my EU experiences are limited but that series is damned good!

    1. I always try to be practical about things. If you get upset every time a change is made to a property you love, you're going to end just playing chess or something all the time.