Sunday, August 5, 2012

On Continuity and Accessibility in the Star Wars Expanded Universe

The combination of Star Wars Beyond the Films latest podcast #30 and Eric Geller's recurring feature on, "Suvudu Gateway Series" had me pondering the accessibility of the Star Wars Expanded Universe to new readers or lapsed readers.

I must confess that as big of a Star Wars and SWEU fan as I was growing up as I got older, sports, politics, life took me farther away from the franchise.  My college years were my Star Wars fandom dark times.  It wasn't until I stumbled upon a used paperback copy of Vector Prime in the book section of a Salvation Army store that I began reading Star Wars books again in 2004.  I missed about five years of Star Wars publishing in total and I was confused by the universe I was re-introduced to.  I was lucky in that the first book i picked up was also the first book of the New Jedi Order mega-series, but I think the results would have been the same if I picked up any NJO book.  Very quickly reading Vector Prime it was like re-connecting with old friends.  I wanted to catch up with these friends and find out what happened in their lives to get them from when last we met to where they were now.

After Vector Prime, I began purchasing the NJO books as quickly and as in order as I could get my hands on them.  But I was just getting started, my appetite for SWEU rekindled I began purchasing books that I remembered liking (that are still sitting in my Mom's house), purchasing books that I had missed along the way, and finally as I caught up began purchasing the books as they where released.  Today I have a massive collections of Star Wars novels as well as some other books, comics and assorted merchandise.  I would probably have none of this and Lucasfilm would probably have much less of my money if it wasn't for the films and the random selection of a novel to read.  I didn't read Vector Prime because it had Luke Skywalker on the cover, I read Vector Prime because it had "Star Wars" on the cover and I knew that I enjoyed stories set in that universe regardless of the cast of characters.

On Continuity:

There has been much talk recently of continuity and the issue of rebooting the Star Wars franchise's storytelling.  I am concerned by comments like those recently expressed by Dark Horse Editor Randy Stradley on the Dark Horse Message Boards,

"I will say this: feedback  from comics retailers and bookstore buyers (the people who actually  order our books) indicates overwhelmingly that they want more titles  that are accessible to casual fans. For instance, Dawn of the Jedi and Legacy, each being at relatively continuity-free ends of the timeline are good fits. The new Star Wars series, which is designed so that readers need know nothing more than what happened in A New Hope is another good jumping on point.
This doesn’t mean that everything  we publish will fall into those kinds of categories, but it is a fact  that the more accessible titles (or those which focus on important movie  characters) sell better than those that require readers to be familiar  with Expanded Universe continuity. We totally get that hardcore or  longtime fans would like more exploration of the “between times,” but  the fact is that sales of those projects don’t come up to the levels of  the more accessible story lines. Every decision we make is a balancing  act between art and commerce. That’s why I have said — and will  continue to say — that telling a good story is far more important than  connecting the dots between existing continuity landmarks. A really good  story is always receive more consideration from me than one that exists  primarily to fill-in the blanks."
While I agree that good storytelling is the key to the health of any franchise long term, and think that slavish devotion to continuity should not be justification for bad stories, I am worried about the logic that Stradley is using here.

How many new fans are coming to the Star War franchise with only the knowledge of Star Wars: A New Hope?  Realistically if a new fan is a child they were likely introduced through the Clone Wars animated series, a young reader book, or by watching the films with their parents.  Alternatively if you are an adult consumer and unfamiliar with Star Wars if you see A New Hope and like the franchise enough to actually purchase a comic book based on that one film, then it seems likely you would first be more likely to watch the other five films.  Guess what happens when you watch the five films, you are not only introduced to a ton of new and minor characters, but you also see an entire trilogy that exists to "fill-in the blanks" of the Orginal Trilogy.

The Prequel trilogy develops out of some throw away lines exchanged between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, this is where we first get the knowledge that (1) Obi-Wan knew looks Dad, (2) Obi-Wan and Luke's Dad fought in something called the Clone Wars, (3) Vader turned to the Dark Side and killed Luke's Dad.

Did we need to know the story from the Prequel films to understand or find the Original series accessible?  No we did not.  A good writer can craft a story without abandoning continuity and fans are smart enough to be able to find out information by looking for earlier or subsequent works of fiction that answer the questions or explain the references they do not understand.

I still remember being confused by references that Kevin J. Anderson made in his novels that related to the events of the Dark Empire comics from Dark Horse.  I didn't read Dark Empire until '04-'05 many, many years after I had first read Jedi Search.  Did this make The Jedi Academy Trilogy any less accessible to me? Nope.

When a Star Wars novel is well crafted it is a self-contained story that has characters and plots that are fully fleshed out, but also introduce references to events and characters from other novels.  These continuity sign posts kept me hungry to learn more an more about the history of the galaxy far, far away.  Without a comprehensive continuity, these sign-posts are meaningless or like the classic cartoon gag are pointing you in the wrong direction.  Continuity allows stories and characters to connect in a way that makes the universe have a depth and breadth that cannot be matched by any other entertainment franchise.  By ignoring continuity intentionally or by rebooting the franchise you end up destroying the very thing that makes Star Wars so unique and keeps Leland Chee employed.  Changes to continuity are going to be necessary particularly for a franchise that his been rolling for over 35 years, but having to ret-con something to fix continuity isn't a negative, it isn't a reason to reboot the franchise, this creative effort and care that is put into continuity pays respect to both all of the creative individuals that have worked in George Lucas' sand box but also all of the fans that have lived and died with the successes and failures of their favorite heroes.

On Accessibility: 

This brings me to the other issue of accessibility.  Often we here the question from someone who likes the films but has never read the novels, or from someone who wants to introduce a friend to the novels, where do you begin.  The library of Star Wars novels is so vast and continuity so dense that people don't know where to begin.

The great myth of the Expanded Universe is that this vast sea of stories is too difficult to get into without a clear starting point. The reality is that you can begin with any novel.

The beauty of a unified continuity is that no matter where you begin in the novels, you will have a direction to go. If you start at one extreme end of the timeline you can work your way in the other direction, if you start in the middle you can go either direction.  You can even jump around from series to series depending on what tickles your fancy.  This ability to jump in at any point is because of the universe' foundation which was laid in the movies.  This familiarity with Star Wars from the films makes any one of the novels or comics accessible to the fans.  This foundation is also part of the reason why the publishers can publish novels out of in-universe chronological order.  We may already know the fates of many of the film characters, but that does not make the stories less interesting, the setting, story telling style, and characters all combine to make Star Wars so compelling.  Well crafted characters, whether you are familiar with them or not can be just as compelling as the film characters in the same universal setting if told in space opera style of Star Wars.

The exception to this start anywhere rule is that it is generally to better to start in the first book of any series if you are reading a book from a series, and certain books will be outliers in terms of style/content.  It would give a new reader the wrong idea about what Star Wars books are like if you introduced them to Death Troopers as their first novel.

So SWEU fans and SWEU initiates my advice to you is the same, just pick up any book and read. If  you do you will have "taken your first step into a larger world," a world that only exists because of continuity.

LINKS: Star Wars Beyond the Films Episode 30 and Suvudu's Gateway Series #1, 2, 3 and 4


  1. I really like the comments of this op-ed, but I, as an academic, would greatly appreciate it if you would cide you source for the Randey Stradley to provide timing and context to the statement. Always looking for sources on the internet on SW culture, and I definitely judge the quality of a website by its adherence to journalistic standards. You might see your website as a pastime, but your readers might not. And where the world is more online, sources of culture are becoming dependent on a well-written website like this one, which may become as important as the SW Technical Commentaries.

  2. Added link to Stradley's Message Board Post above. Here also is the link: