Friday, January 29, 2010

The Last Time Michael Talked About Star Wars

I recently read how comics blogger Tim O'Neil felt slighted at how over the last decade comic books have gained wider reception. Because he had stayed with comics through the lean, dismal years, he found it hard to reconcile the current marketplace where comics are prosperous, hip and respected. I lived through those lean years too. His feelings reminded me of my own thoughts on the Star Wars franchise. It's something I've had on my heart for a while and his post has spurred me to finally get it out.

Before I delve into this, I have to say up front that while I might sound like an entitled fanboy at times, this is my therapy and blogging is cheaper than psychiatry. I'm not interested in accusations or persuasions, just to tell my story and the emotions I felt at the time.

To begin with, Star Wars was the single most important thing to me as a child (and for many of my teenage years). I was born a year after the first film debuted and saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre on at least two occasions. My family didn't purchase many films for our home library (videos were a luxury) but we taped a lot of movies off TV and the Star Wars films were my favorites (I didn't see Empire Strikes Back until years after Jedi, not until it turned up on TV).

Now, there's a lengthy period there between the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and the next theatrical Star Wars event (the Special Edition re-releases, 1997). It was during that in-between period that I was growing up...growing up on Star Wars. Even though the franchise was largely dormant, it never died for me. There were still the Star Wars comics that Marvel published (until 1986) and I began collecting a complete set of them. You had the occasional foray into television like the Ewoks and Droids cartoons, marketed to my demographic (little kids who liked Star Wars). And what about those great Kenner action figures that I collected for years after the line had ended. Playing with those toys regularly kept the series ever-new to me.

In junior high I had decent disposable income for the first time and comic books became my number one interest. Still, Star Wars was very important to me; it was something that I shared with my siblings and other relatives but I was really unaware of what a large following it had enjoyed in the past and how much of that following remained. Remember, this is before the internet allowed you 24/7 access to people who shared your interests.

A watershed moment for me came when the Sci-Fi Channel ran a Star Wars film marathon, hosted by Carrie Fisher. I saw to it that all of the films and bumper segments were recorded for the family collection, meaning that the films were finally together on one tape and in better quality than our earlier attempts. Seeing the marathon fired me up about Star Wars again, so much so that I brought up the subject to my friends at high school.

I suppose I must have been naive. I approached the subject with an innocent, "So...have you ever seen Star Wars?" I really didn't take the films' popularity for granted. Since Jedi had exited theatres it had been "underground" and it was something from my childhood...I didn't expect my friends to have more fondness for Star Wars than any other "fad" of the 80s, be it Transformers, He-Man or Thundercats.

So I was surprised and pleased to learn that yes, my friends did know what Star Wars was and yes, they liked it. How about that? Maybe if I had seen the films' box office numbers I would have been a little less naive.

But it wasn't long after that film marathon that the Star Wars phenomena started to rise again. The first sign I observed were the novels by Timothy Zhan. Now, I've never read them; I was devoted to the Marvel Comics interpretation of what happened post-Jedi and, much as I would reject alternate continuities in comics, I wouldn't stand for a different Star Wars continuity.

The thing was...other people at school were reading those novels. I'd see them in classrooms, in hallways...and I'd think, "Who are these people? Why do they suddenly like Star Wars?" It never occurred to me that maybe Star Wars was something they enjoyed in their childhood, just as I had. To my mind these were a bunch of fair-weather friends who had turned out just because the novels were new and shiny. I had never stopped keeping the faith.

Near the end of high school I had begun to drift out of comics, but something new appeared on my fan-obsession menu: Star Trek. If I was perhaps a little naive when it came to Star Wars' popularity, I was flat-out ludicrous when it came to Star Trek. Here, I had the reverse problem - I was wholly unaware that admitting to liking Star Trek was something that subjected you to ridicule from all corners, even among friends who enjoyed Magic: the Gathering or...well, Star Wars. The image of the Star Trek geek is burned into my mind pretty well now (I've certainly met enough of them), but at the time, Star Trek was just another cool science fiction program. That was my blind spot.

And then...I had my first brush with real Star Wars fandom. Not simply friends from school, but the larger, organized sectors. The renewed interest in Star Wars by the mid-90s led to the publication of a few Star Wars fan magazines and from the letters page of more than one publication I began to notice a pattern: self-proclaimed Star Wars fans did not like Star Trek. I mean, they went out of their way to ridicule it on the letters page. Even the magazine editors would take cheap shots at Trek. And yet, in Trek publications it seemed as though every self-proclaimed Star Trek fan liked Star Wars too. Why were the Star Wars fans trying to split fandom into two separate camps that, to my mind, had more in common than anything?*

There was also some kind of multimedia event around then called Shadows of the Empire, which purported to reveal the gaps between Empire and Jedi. But wait, what about the Marvel Comics that filled those gaps? I sought out an interview with the architects of the story and was mortified when the creators bad-mouthed the Marvel Comics, dredging up only the most ridiculous elements of the stories (like the notorious Jaxxon) to paint the entire series as some sort of inferior Star Wars knock-off. "Star Wars: Made in Taiwan" perhaps. Well, their project had the benefit of hindsight, I guess. I never read Shadows, whatever it was.

So, I had these problems with Star Wars. It had nothing to do with the films, but I was troubled to see the thing I liked and considered my personal, secret pleasure adopted by one and all, and to see that some of the most outspoken fans didn't like the same things I did.

Then the Special Edition films came out and I was there, eager to see them on the big screen (in the case of Empire, for the first time). I had convinced myself then that the newly-added scenes made the films better, although even then I had reservations about some of the changes. Whatever, it was nice just to see new Star Wars footage. There was talk in the fan magazines about new movies coming but I took it about as seriously as talk of a new Indiana Jones film (shyeah, like that'll ever happen). At the time, I though the Special Edition was the last grand hurrah of the franchise, the gold watch, the last day before retirement.

Of course, I was wrong. But my life went through a lot of upheaval by the time the Phantom Menace arrived. I don't recall even viewing the trailer for the film, despite being on the internet by then (did the internet have trailers in 1999? it seemed like an awesome new technology when I discovered it around 2001). By the time the Phantom Menace arrived I was in college and working full-time to support myself. I was back into comics but had rationed myself down to four books a month to make ends meet (even that was a luxury). And there was the internet, my new place to waste time and obtain validation from others. I was alone in a new city with no real friends and hardly any spare time so seeing the film felt like a low priority.

I don't know how my 12-year old self would have reconciled the ambivalence my 21-year old self felt toward the Phantom Menace. I wasn't expecting it to be terrible, I wasn't against watching it, it just didn't seem important to me. Realization hit me: I wasn't a Star Wars fan any more. And that was okay.

Before I went to college I had made a conscious decision to avoid watching the Star Wars films. I have an annoying tendency to memorize the things I enjoy the most and I felt that having watched the films so often I had begun to cheapen the viewing experience for myself. I knew all of the beats before they happened so what was the point in going through the motions of watching the films again? I thought that Star Wars - and all of my most favorite films - should be packed away for at least a year so that I could begin to forget them, then dig them up and enjoy them with slightly refreshed eyes.

But that didn't happen...well, I did dig up the other movies. I still unearth my Hitchcock collection a few times per year. But it's 12 years now and I haven't pulled the Star Wars trilogy out. In 12 years I found more opportunities to watch the Chronicles of Riddick** than I did Star Wars.

So, the Phantom Menace came and went from theatres and I didn't pay it much heed. Reaction on the internet was divided, but from the sheer volume of horrified viewers I surmised that I had dodged a bullet.*** I moved on. I'm not saying any of this to gain sympathy or understanding because I don't think falling out of love with a movie is worthy of consolation. If I woke up tomorrow and realized I wasn't in love with the Third Man anymore, well, heck, I've still got Our Man in Havana.

There is enough of my childhood love of Star Wars left in me that I have occasion to wince when I see something glaringly bad associated with the franchise. My feelings are also sore enough that I can chuckle good-naturedly with Tag & Bink and ill-naturedly with Red Letter Media. When I was in high school I thought that I had to force myself to outgrow comics because it was a juvenile medium. I was in denial then, and my adoration of the medium has only prospered since. The real mark of outgrowing something you love is that you simply leave it in the past. It doesn't have to be tragic, turgid or filled with shame and regret. It's simply left behind.

(*It, uh, didn't occur to me then that my own "Marvel first, last and always" perspective against DC, Image or any other publisher in the 1990s was not dissimilar)

(**Which, to its credit, is a hilariously awful movie that demands repeat viewings)

(***But only for so long. The story of how I finally saw the Phantom Menace is a blog post unto itself and this is too long as is; suffice to say, my pride was my own undoing)

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