Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

This Counts, That Does Not: On Canonicity in Media Franchises

It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway.  I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution).  Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while.  But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.

George Lucas looks to the horizon

Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI.  Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).

The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy:  No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story.  Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born.  Han and Leia had twins!  Luke got married!  Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin!  A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Warsa vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.

The Force awakens? For many fans, it never went dormant

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology.  And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical.  This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand.  Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official.  Where was the justice—the sense—in that?

 

VIRTUAL REALITIES

“[I]n place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’” (Grant Morrison, Supergods:  What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, [New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011], 114).

To fully comprehend the fans’ indignation—their sense of betrayal—you have to try to appreciate how much time and effort goes into studying and making sense of the sprawling continuity of any “shared fictional universe” with a fanatical following, be it Star Wars or the movies and comics of DC and Marvel.  (Hell, even The Blacklist isn’t exempt from such sine qua non.)  For instance, no less than the online business and finance journal Forbes—hardly a bastion of fanboy fervor—recently published a staggeringly comprehensive argument for the in-universe justification of the (controversial) appearance of Darth Vader’s “Force ghost” in the visage of Hayden Christensen, the actor who portrayed him as a young Jedi in the prequels.  To say nothing of the copious digital ink that gets spilled on Reddit and in Facebook fan communities analyzing and debating Rey’s parentage (I mean, won’t we find out soon enough?), or the quantum mechanics that allow for Supergirl and the Flash to visit one another’s shows (a complex cosmic phenomenon otherwise known as a ratings stunt), or why the X-Men don’t appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (because what’s the existential significance, after all, of a reason as mundane as licensing issues?).  Scroll through any one of those feeds and something soon becomes starkly apparent:  This shit matters to people.  Far from ornamental details, the minutiae and Easter eggs that crosspollinate these fictional worlds are exhaustively examined for rules, for order, for consistency—for meaning.

But, then, that’s the whole point of storytelling nowadays.  The original Star Wars—which later became known as A New Hope—was a classically structured three-act hero’s journey about an idealistic farmhand who learns he is destined to become the savior of the galaxy; in the second film he trains for that role, and in the third he fulfills it—done, done, and done.  But stories simply aren’t that straightforward—that linear—anymore in our fractured Digital Age.  On the contrary, anyone who’s as much as peripherally aware of ongoing, ensemble-driven sagas like Lost and Game of Thrones recognizes, if even unconsciously, that narrativity as we once understood it has been “replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now, [New York:  Penguin Group, 2013], 34).  So when an editorial group selectively renders a swath of fictive episodes noncanonical, as Disney did with the SWEU, what they’re in effect saying is that the whole thing is fungible bullshit—that it never had any permanence or significance to begin with.  Now, perhaps to you or me, that’s elementary—they’re just stories, after all.  But to fans—the ones who puzzle over the enigmatic numbers on Lost, or who study bloodstain patterns for clues to Jon Snow’s lineage, or who track the appearances of the Infinity Stones in the MCU (something casual viewers, like myself, hadn’t even noticed!)—they’re oftentimes scripture.

Searching for meaning in a world where everything happens simultaneously, not sequentially

Now, any ongoing continuity, especially those that run for decades, is going to eventually grow unmanageably convoluted and require periodic reset—when the mythology becomes so Delphic and complicated that writers feel creatively confined, and prospective new fans are wary of joining in for fear of having to commit themselves to learning the monumental fictional history that precedes a given starting point.  It’s uncommon that such a history—or a sizeable chunk of it, anyway—will simply get thrown out à la the SWEU.  More likely, out of respect for the fidelity of longtime fans, the custodians of pop culture will go out of their way to establish a concurrent “alternate timeline” (as was the case with X-Men:  Days of Future Past, Terminator Genisys, and J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek) or perhaps a “multiverse” (that’s DC’s cover-our-ass catchphrase) to justify within the context of the fiction itself how every competing iteration of their characters can coexist and make an equal claim to legitimacy.  In the 1950s, DC used to identify tales that took place outside the mainstream continuity as “Imaginary Stories,” until someone presumably realized how stupid that must’ve sounded—aren’t all superhero stories imaginary?—and the term “Elseworlds” was adopted in the late eighties (right around the time—coincidence?—comics stopped catering to children).  Regardless, to appease fans, a lot of effort is put into making sure that nothing is ever abolished, necessarily, merely reassigned to an “alternate reality,” and those retconned events may be incorporated into the new continuity in part or whole, or altogether ignored, at the storytellers’ discretion.  That’s often the consolation prize for a continuity reboot:  It happened… it just happened elsewhere.

But why all the politics, though—the careful hedging?  Why isn’t it enough to say, as Disney did, “You know what?  This narrative has become very intricate and unwieldy, and in order to produce something more commercially accessible that all can enjoy, liberated from the baggage of dozens (if not hundreds) of artists that have contributed to the mythology over the decades, we’re just going to bring everything back to basics now and move on from there”?  Why can’t hardcore fans accept that canon is fluid, not fixed, and that in order for these mythologies to reinvent themselves and remain creatively fertile, some storylines are just given the clean sweep now and then?

Alan Moore, writer of such classic graphic novels as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Batman:  The Killing Joke, has a theory:

“It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics” (Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks; “Last Alan Moore Interview?,” blog entry by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, January 9, 2014).

Now, that is a categorically extreme position that’s likely to gall some people.  But let’s take a closer look at it, anyway.  Is it possible that our fantasies, rather than providing a diversion from reality, have instead become our preferred realities?  Have “the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence” (ibid.) pushed some of us to a place where the world-building of fictional universes is more manageable—more gratifying, ultimately—than the world-fixing of this one?  We are a generation that’s been summoned by history to rise to unprecedented existential challenges:  Global warming.  Bioterrorism.  Religious extremism.  Mass shootings.  Income disparity.  Big data.  Each problem daunting in its own right and downright insurmountable their totality, our anxieties about all of them are only stoked by the continuum of real-time updates we receive day and night on our smartphones.  We can’t make sense of any of it anymore—can’t see our way out.  And our democracy—our most efficient instrument to address such issues—has become hopelessly dysfunctional, as the last year painfully reminded us all.

Is it any wonder, then, the problems of Luke Skywalker and Tony Stark are appealing in comparison?  As broad as their worlds are, they are circumscribed:  We can make sense of the way everything within them correlates.  So, when an editor says, “This is getting too complicated” and hits the reset button, he’s not only dismissing as futile the search for order and meaning in those narratives, he’s exposing our last hiding place:  the narratives themselves.  For when the tangled complexities of a fictional universe become too ungovernable, somebody somewhere simply initiates a hard reboot and voila—everything’s wiped clean like a whiteboard at the end of class.  And all we’re then left with is our actual reality with its intractable problems, which, alas, isn’t subject to the convenient sorcery of deus ex machina (hence the reason we also love apocalyptic fantasies like The Walking Dead that envision a societal do-over).  So when we can’t make sense of or find meaning in the world we live in, and our intricately assembled fictional worlds are revealed, despite our only-too-willing suspension of disbelief, as artifice, where do we have left to turn?

“The Walking Dead”—an American nightmare… or dream come true?

So I tend to think Moore is right:  A significant section of the public, from what I myself have witnessed, has indeed given up on attempting to understand this reality in favor of immersing themselves in the arbitrary trivialities of another, be it Marvel or Star Wars or whatever their pleasure.  And he’s not the only one who thinks so:

“Noam Chomsky once observed that when he listens to a sports call-in show, he said, ‘It’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that.  People know all sorts of complicated details.  On the other hand,’ he said, ‘when I hear people talk about international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.’  In other words:  We’re not clueless, we just apply our brainpower to bullshit” (Bill Maher, “New Rule:  The Danger of False Equivalency,” Real Time with Bill Maher, October 28, 2016).

Look, I’m not suggesting we can’t or shouldn’t have hobbies—on the contrary, it can be therapeutic to channel our energy into healthy diversions that require time and meticulous attention, be it modelmaking or baseball-card collecting (if people still do that) or immersive online gaming.  Such activities help us step away from our actual problems for a while and clear our cerebral conduits—no arguments here.  But are we really a culture that practices recreation in moderation, or have we become—with our mega–movie franchises and multiplayer videogames and 500 scripted television shows in production, not to mention all the podcasts and aftershows dedicated to scrutinizing their every last excruciating detail—a hopelessly decadent people committed to using our time on this earth for nothing more than amusing ourselves to death?

When Star Wars or Marvel contradicts the rules of its reality, either by design or by error, fan theories about what it means or why it’s justified go viral overnight.  But who held Trump accountable when he flagrantly disregarded reality—meaning truth—during his presidential campaign?  Who demands congressional climate deniers be answerable for the same?  In the wake of the election, commentators argued that Democrats need to do a better job at “messaging”; there might be some truth to that, but what about the electorate’s civic responsibility to stay informed, challenging (and time-consuming) though that may very well be in light of all the misinformation out there?  Because we’re quite happy to engage in endless speculation and debate about the true motivation behind the Chitauri invasion at the climax of The Avengers—we have plenty of time and mental capacity for that—but who’s analyzing the long game of some of our actual supervillains with their hands on the levers of power?  (In that respect, cable news is no different than fanboy culture, endlessly assessing minute details and late-breaking developments of real-world affairs, but consistently failing to see the bigger picture, to glean the larger takeaway.  Again:  See the Trump candidacy.)

What I’m asking is this:  How is it some of us can care so passionately about the granular details of our fictive worlds when our real world is in such dire need of the same vigilance and creative thinking?  Stories used to help us make sense of reality; now making sense of the fiction itself is the entire purpose of narrative.  And I submit that if we deprioritized the need, the obsessive search, for patterns and correlations—a.k.a. continuity—in our fictional “universes,” our fixation with what constitutes canon, a meaningless designation if ever there was one, would then itself seem equally pointless.

 

“IF ONLY YOU COULD SEE WHAT I’VE SEEN WITH YOUR EYES”

It was the cinema of George Lucas, more than any other formative influence, that inspired me to be a storyteller.  As such, I’ve often been asked by friends and colleagues to rank the Star Wars movies, as I judge them, from best to worst.  I can’t do that.  Not won’t—can’t.  I don’t consider The Empire Strikes Back superior to Return of the Jedi on account of its lack of Ewoks; rather, I view the classic trilogy as one story told across three movies, each inseparable from the other—each one great in its own right and somehow even better in their combined totality.  (I feel the same about the original Indiana Jones trilogy:  I love all three entries equally, each for entirely different reasons.)  Lucas’ six Star Wars movies, for better and for worse, at least felt like an artistic vision—the singular imagining of an uncompromising filmmaker—whereas the recent two Disney offerings come off more like a corporate product; the further the series gets from Lucas’ creative intentions, the less I seem to care for it.  Even though The Force Awakens and Rogue One are objectively superior narratives to the prequels, I think I actually prefer the prequels, God help me:  They are (mostly) failures, but noble ones, at least.  When it comes down to it, though, my heart belongs to the first cycle films from the seventies and eighties—along with a few of the books published in the nineties—and everything after that I can quite happily live with or without.

The prequels certainly didn’t “ruin my childhood”—no more than the utterly ill-conceived Beverly Hills Cop III tainted my affection for Axel Foley’s first two outings; it disappointed me, sure—it was not fun seeing one of the formerly coolest wiseasses in cinema (and personal role model back in the junior high school days) reduced to slumming his way through an idiotic “Die Hard in an amusement park” plotline—but I simply resolved to never watch that third one again.  The umpteen Alien sequels—a case study in the perils of monster-movie franchising—haven’t diminished my fondness for the first two installments in the least.  Hell, I love Bridget Jones’s Diary—my wife and I watch it every Christmas—but I’ve never even seen or read either of the sequels; I’m told they’re terrible, so why bother?

Is Beverly Hills Cop III “canon”?  (Whatever that means.)  What about Alien vs. Predator?  (Yeesh.)  Or Prometheus?  (Swing and a miss.)  Or the forthcoming Alien:  Covenant?  (The sequel to Prometheus no one asked for.)  What about The Edge of Reason and Bridget Jones’s Baby—do those “count,” even though Bridget’s arc of learning she’s worthy of love was so conclusively and satisfyingly fulfilled in the first story as to leave viewers not wanting more?  Will the inclusion of Harrison Ford in the belated sequel Blade Runner 2049 definitively settle the age-old philosophical debate of whether Deckard was human or replicant?  Based on the rules established in the first film, it would certainly seem to (guess we’ll have to wait and see), but isn’t the enduring joy of Ridley’s Scott’s cult masterpiece—the meaning in it—derived from making up our own minds about that?  Does the “canonization” of Blade Runner 2049 (produced by Scott and co-written by original screenwriter Hampton Fancher), with whatever new insights it may bring to the context of its forebear, outweigh our own personal interpretations of the self-contained events of Blade Runner itself?

Thirty-five years later, Rick Deckard’s true nature remains a culturally defining mystery

Of course not.  A story’s value isn’t predicated on how faithfully it adheres to some greater mythology, how it fits into some arbitrary “grand scheme” of things—which is, let’s face it, hardly a scheme at all, given how often these allegedly “canonical” continuities are subject to relaunch, like the Spider-Man movies (three distinct, unrelated incarnations over six feature films in just fifteen years) or DC Comics with their “Rebirth” initiative following so closely on the heels of “The New 52.”  On the subject of DC, the “Death of Robin” story arc devastated my twelve-year-old self—in the best possible way—when it was published in Batman in 1988; that DC reintroduced the character into the continuity almost two decades later pissed me off—Jason Todd’s death had proven more emotionally valuable to the mythos than his (brief) life had ever been—but it didn’t in any way lessen the impact of “A Death in the Family” for me, ‘cause I simply opted to disregard that creatively desperate resurrection.  Because whether we’re talking about Star Wars or Star Trek, DC or Marvel, Alien or Blade Runner, or A Song of Ice and Fire or Bridget Jones, the only stories in a media franchise that are truly canon—by the one metric that matters—are those that have meaning to you.

31 Comments

  1. Interesting article, Sean. I wasn’t aware that there was a Star Wars “expanded universe” (horrors, I know). I can relate to the ire of all those fans who see that universe as sacrosanct, but I can also see how the movies can’t possibly incorporate all that complexity – they are made for people like me, perhaps, who follow the films, but don’t go any further.

    I find the same sort of challenges with books to movies. I find myself disappointed when the movie fails to capture the complexity of the book and routinely makes changes to the narrative. Similarly, the Game of Thrones serial got so far ahead of the books (and so different) that I won’t go back to the books even though a new one is coming out.

    I guess I don’t find any of these approaches wrong, simply interesting. Writers and other creators realize pretty quickly that it’s impossible to please all of the folks all of the time, so we make choices. I think as consumers we find our way to what we enjoy.

    • Thanks, Diana, for leaving such a thoughtful comment!

      I agree with your first point: While the “retconned” Expanded Universe stories have meaning to the fans who’ve invested in them (myself included, though not to a fanatical extent), I do understand Disney’s position, too: It’s too commercially inaccessible and creatively confining to be beholden to all of that multilayered mythology (even Lucas himself superseded aspects of it with the prequel trilogy). Part of the fun of The Force Awakens was seeing what Luke, Han, and Leia had been up to in the intervening years since Return of the Jedi, even if what was presented in that film contradicts what had already been established in the novels — or, for that matter, the happily-ever-after each of us personally may’ve envisioned for those characters when the curtain went down on them in 1983, which might be something altogether different than any of the scenarios depicted in the subsequent books or movies. That’s why worrying about what constitutes “canon” is pointless, and the only stories that should matter are the particular ones that matter to each of us, personally and emotionally. I have my own private notions about what became of Luke, Han, and Leia after the death of Darth Vader, and they are no more or less valid than Timothy Zahn’s or J. J. Abrams’ (even if they are less widely known!).

      As for your second point: One of the great joys of shifting from screenwriting (which I’ve been doing since 1998) to writing novels (I’m on the second draft of Escape from Rikers Island, my forthcoming debut) is the opportunity to tell a much more psychologically complex, emotionally immersive story. Now, I do love movies, but screenwriting is such a restrictively compressed form of storytelling, and getting to paint on the broad canvas of prose is like being let off the leash! And it is rare that I see a movie that improves upon the narrative experience of a great novel. Case in point: Even the eight-part miniseries 11.22.63, which I greatly enjoyed (and recommend as a supplement to the source material), couldn’t do justice to all the rich intricacies of Stephen King’s 900-page literary masterpiece.

      Game of Thrones is an interesting case study because, for reasons I’ve explored in-depth on this blog, I do not personally believe George R. R. Martin will ever complete his Song of Ice and Fire saga, no matter what he insists, because the postnarrative nature of it demands that it grow more open, not closed, as it goes along. But such is the luxury of a literary series that isn’t beholden to the realities of aging actors or creative restlessness (David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are clearly ready to move on to new challenges); as such, the Game of Thrones television series must cease production at some point, so steps have already been taken to bring closure to its sprawling narrative. Is Martin’s vision “canon,” as creator of the enterprise, or will the version of events presented by the TV series, which reaches a much larger audiences than the books ever have or will (right or wrong), go down as the chronology of record? Many consider the novels superior, while still expressing frustration over Martin’s unwillingness or inability to keep the narrative focused (some installments, like A Feast for Crows, have shifted emphasis from the characters and events of previous entries) and driving it toward a definitive resolution. Which begs the question: Is there a superior version of this epic fantasy — the novels that originated it or the TV show that brought it to new heights of commercial and artistic prominence — and is that by definition the “official” one? It’s a question that can never be answered and is, therefore, irrelevant. As with Star Wars, the only stories in this saga that matter are the ones that matter to you. I just keep coming back to that same conclusion.

      And ultimately, you are right: No approach is right or wrong. Whether a mythopoeist attempts to fit his work into the tapestry of a grander narrative (like the MCU), tells an “alternate” version of events (like the Game of Thrones TV show vis-à-vis the books, or The Force Awakens to the Expanded Universe), or honors all that came before by way of a concurrent timeline (like the new Star Trek or the ever-shifting mythology of DC Comics), there’s no way to please all the people all the time — such are the perils of playing in the pop-cultural sandbox. George Lucas created Star Wars, and Disney owns it, but it belongs to everyone; Bob Kane created Batman, and DC owns him, but he, too, belongs to everybody. So just as the custodians of pop culture get to decide what happens next, the audience gets to determine how much weight we lend those narrative developments. We all get a say in how meaningful our shared folklore is, and we all decide — collectively and individually — which of these stories have cultural significance, and which don’t. It’s a very democratic acid test known as the test of time.

      Thanks, as always, Diana, for contributing to a lively conversation! Comments like yours help me refine my own thoughts on a given matter. Much obliged. Best to you for a nice weekend…

      Sean

      • I have to say, Sean, that I’d never really been able to succinctly put my finger on the difference in such as Games of Thrones (though I knew it was there) until my first encounter with your blog, which was the post on the shift to postnarrative storytelling (a word I had never heard prior). Since then, the word and explanation have become both useful and oft used. So thanks!

        • I agree, Erik. I’ve learned quite a bit reading Sean’s posts. The discussion of postnarrative storytelling put a word to something I enjoy, but hadn’t identified as a “thing.” 🙂

        • A few years ago, when I first started watching the wonderful sci-fi series Orphan Black, I was trying to figure out which of the ten Save the Cat! genres it belongs to (a little writers exercise I practice whenever I watch or read something new). And the thing was, I was having the damnedest time making it “fit” within one of the categories, which had never been a problem for me before. I really puzzled over it, and then, as fate would have it, I saw an interview with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff on The Colbert Report during the promotional tour for his book Present Shock. I was so impressed with what I saw, I bought the book, and to my enormous surprise, the first chapter of it is all about how our sense of linear narrativity — of stories that have a beginning, middle, and end — has been catastrophically disrupted with the onset of the Digital Age, and he specifically cited shows like Game of Thrones as proof of a new “postnarrative” worldview. This was eye-opening to me, and all of a sudden I had a brand-new understanding of a subject I previously thought I knew everything about: narratology.

          The book absolutely changed the way I look at both my craft and the world at large, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you’d rather sample Rushkoff before committing to the book itself, I’d recommend reading this brief interview with him (which covers his theories on the collapse of narrative), or watching this fifteen-minute lecture he conducted on the subject. It’s mind-blowing stuff, with far broader applications and ramifications than merely the way we approach storytelling craft.

          And as for how Rushkoff’s notions of postnarrativity apply directly to Game of Thrones, I wrote an entire piece about that, too, just this past summer!

      • Your point on the novel versus film regarding storytelling is the main reason that I love books, Sean – that ability to go deep! Congrats on getting through the second draft on your book. I’m looking foward to its release!

        • Thank you for that support, Diana! It means the world. The encouragement I’ve received so far from the blogging community — folks like yourself and Erik — has exceeded the expectations I had when I launched this endeavor (meaning Sean Carlin, author, and all that that entails) in 2014. I’m eager, too, to have EFRI out in the world…

          You know, I certainly don’t mean to be a literary snob. Stephen King once said books and movies are like apples and oranges: Each is delicious, they’re just different. But as someone who’s now written for both forms, I can say with experience I personally prefer to work in prose. On a movie, you’re just the writer (which basically means you’re there to execute someone else’s vision), whereas with a novel, you are not only the writer, but the director, costume designer, set decorator, and casting agent — all decisions begin and end with you. It makes writing novels a much more challenging experience… but a far more rewarding one, too. I’ll never go back.

          And having written a novel has also changed the way I read them: It’s allowed me to appreciate the artistry of the medium in a much richer way. That’s the funny thing about craft: Far from spoiling the “magic” of art, the more you learn about the artisanship of a given discipline, the deeper you appreciate all manner of creation that springs from it — the stuff that works (for the reasons it works, like classic Star Wars), and the stuff that doesn’t (for the reasons it doesn’t, like the prequels). That’s the reason I started this blog: to celebrate craft. I’m happy you’ve joined my party!

    • Diana, where on earth do you find time to read others’ books — series no less — as well as write so many of your own?

      • Reading is a critical part of writing! I love reading and wish I had time to do more 🙂

        • Could not agree more, Diana! I know so many screenwriters who never read (save perhaps other screenplays)! Now, reading is arguably less important in screenwriting, because a screenplay just a blueprint for things we’ll see (and, to a lesser extent, things we’ll hear) in a filmed production, but reading for authors is critical. And don’t just keep up with your own genre, either: Read all manner of fiction, nonfiction, essays, magazine pieces — comic books, even! Like I said in a previous comment, I don’t read quickly, but I try to at least read a diverse selection of materials. It’s good for an author to have a lot of interests, because it’s our job (not the readers, as this essay argues) to find “signals in the noise” — to recognize patterns in disparate social operating systems and make sense of them through our fictions.

          One of the reasons I’m looking forward to finally publishing Escape from Rikers Island is that it will be a chance to showcase some of my other writing chops; it is altogether different from the kind of long-form essays and analytical pieces I publish here on my blog. I love writing essays — I’m inspired by the likes of Matt Taibbi and John Jeremiah Sullivan, among others — but my essays are utterly different in form, function, and voice than my fictions. Sometimes ideas that incubated in one form wind up informing the other, but that only underscores the need for writers to read — and to write — as much as possible: Everything goes into the soup of your cerebrum, and eventually finds its way onto the page — often in totally unexpected ways.

      • Hear, hear, Erik! I’m always hesitant to start a series because it takes me so damn long just to read a single book! I’m not a fast reader by nature, and I like to read all sorts of stories/genres (feel free to follow me on Goodreads), and by the end of the day, when I finally get a little time for recreational reading, my eyes are so shot to hell from going over my own words all day that I’m lucky if I make it through five pages of a novel. If I wanted to read, say, all the books in the Song of Ice and Fire or Vampire Chronicles series (which, for the record, I do), either one would be a commitment of easily a solid year that would leave me no time for anything else. (And if I wanted to keep up with all the Star Wars books, I’d have to make it a full-time job! Star Wars doesn’t even get shelved with the sci-fi books at Barnes & Noble — it’s got its very own section!)

  2. Great post, Sean! As an inveterate Star Wars fan, I can really understand the turmoil around the post-narrative approaches to the story. Give me cannon or give me death!

    • Thanks, Lennie, for reading and commenting! As a Star Wars fan curious about the complexities of canon, you may be interested to know that there is a website called Canon Killer Base (not affiliated with Lucasfilm) devoted to these matters (and it even lets you keep track of which movies/book/comics/videogames you’ve watched/read/played)! I myself wasn’t even aware of it till just this morning, when they retweeted a link to this very blog post. Check out this handy timeline infographic of all the current “canonical” material in the franchise, which only demonstrates that it doesn’t take long after hitting the reset button before a mythology soon succumbs to convolution once again. From the looks of things, Star Wars is well on its way…

      The mere fact that a site like that even exists only proves my thesis argument: that continuity matters to people — deeply. The kind of curation that Canon Killer Base is devoted to is certainly fascinating, and I myself can even get swept up in its world-building intricacies, but I think it also underscores the need to A) not allow forty-year-old franchises to monopolize the cultural stage, and B) reconsider the value of narrative from the inconsequential exercise in continuity scorekeeping it’s become to what Lucas intended when he made A New Hope all those years ago: “Well, when I did Star Wars I consciously set about to recreate myths and the — and the classic mythological motifs. And I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that existed today.” He said that myths and stories “try to show us our place. Myths help you to have your own hero’s journey, find your individuality, find your place in the world, but hopefully remind you that you’re part of a whole, and that you must also be part of the community, and — and think of the welfare of the community above the welfare of yourself.”

      That’s what we all responded to the first time we saw Star Wars, or Star Trek, or read a Batman comic, and the meaningless fictional “universes” — and their postnarrative pleasures — that have grown from those very basic hero’s journey stories are a bastardization of their intended purpose. Impressive though it was, the breadth of its scope and intricacies of its universe — Star Wars, I’m talking about — was secondary to the values it was attempting to impart: “The importance of, say, friendship and loyalty,” Lucas told Bill Moyers in 1999. “You know, and most people look at that and say, ‘How corny.’ But, you know, the — the issues of friendship and loyalty are — are very, very important to the way we live our lives. But it’s not common knowledge among young people. You know, they’re still learning. They’re still picking up ideas. They’re still using these ideas to shape the way they’re gonna conduct their life. And you need to tell the same story over and over again every generation so that generation gets it. And I think we’ve gone for a few generations where a lot of the sort of more basic stories have fallen by the wayside.” Say what you want about Lucas, but he is a storyteller with purpose.

      My thanks again, Lennie, for joining the discussion. Enjoy your weekend!

      Sean

  3. I think there are many things at play behind this issue which didn’t exist until the advent of film, and certainly not to the mounting degree they matter as the business of film evolves.

    It used to be that little thing called “internal validity” was a key marker to “good writing.” No one was holding up the Holy Grail of having their work make it to film … because there was no film. Now, I haven’t studies the history of film, but logic tells me that, at the start, book adaptations to film were primarily concerned with accurate visual and emotional portrayal of great works. Who knew that film would become such a business, or that writers would ever be concerned with things like franchises?

    The goal of a business (franchise or otherwise) is not to honor canon. The goal of a business isn’t even to tell great stories, beyond that such would meet the primary objective: to make the most money possible.

    The goals of the author, the publishing company (i.e., business) and the film company (i.e., business) may, then, vary. While the author would most likely not be opposed to making money, it doesn’t seem the primary impetus behind their writing, beyond perhaps the goal of being able to have writing provide a sole income. Once companies get involved, however, I think all bets are off. Whatever will make the most money is what’s going to be done, to hell with canons. A film company would only care about canons and die-hard fan outrage if those fans made up the majority of the consumer base and would result in lost profits to ignore. But this is rarely the case.

    And that isn’t a criticism of businesses (though some would make it one). Pure writers and their fans consider success to be sustaining and honoring the integrity of an increasingly intricate world. They are concerned with a form of elitism, where your status as a fan is based on how immersed you are in that world, how much you can keep track of. That simply isn’t one of the goals of a film company. As a business, the only filter is “what will bring in the most money?”

    So I believe that this “issue” and debate must exist, because there are more cooks in the kitchen now than authors and their readers, all of whom have competing goals.

    • An absolutely amazing and thoughtful response, Erik! Thank you!

      As far as I know (and I am by no means an authority), the notion of “canon” as it applies to a given fictional oeuvre started with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories — most of which were published, as fate would have it, right around the time of the advent of cinema. And as media started to become more tentacled in the 20th century — as books led to movies and movies to television and television to videogames and so on — you had this tremendous “feedback loop,” with many of our most prominent fictional characters, like Holmes and Batman and the heroes of Star Wars and Star Trek, proving versatile enough to cross over to both the Big Screen and small, the pages of books and comics, not to mention the media of radio and videogames, their hagiographies shaped and reshaped by hundreds of artists across numerous generations. And far from fictional ephemera, these characters became part of our cultural folklore — arguably even mythological in status. And as any student of myth and folklore knows, there is seldom a single definitive version of events (even the so-called canonical books of the Bible often contradict themselves). This is a good thing, as it allowed each successive generation and disparate culture to recast those heroes in their own image and make them “relevant and sufficient to its times.”

      But there’s no question that as the world became more globalized — and our culture, consequently, more homogenized — and our most iconic characters were developed under the exclusive ownership of corporate entities, the need for an “authoritative” account of their biographies and exploits became more culturally and corporately imperative. I certainly understand the corporate motivation, as you argued above, to safeguard the parameters of these mythologies, many of which are billion-dollar businesses, so what I hope this article sheds light on, in its own small way, is the cultural impetus for preserving canonicity, or continuity, or whatever you want to call it: that the (futile) search for meaning in the way our fictions connect is a rabbit hole that leads everywhere and nowhere — just like the quest to make sense of the mysteries of Lost was (for both the audience and the castaways) — and that the true value of fiction is in the meaning it helps us make of our real world. As I once observed, Luke Skywalker taught me idealism; Indiana Jones, determination; Axel Foley, self-confidence; the Ghostbusters gave me and my friends a model for teamwork. That’s what those fictions did for me.

      Corporations are going to continue to keep selling us new iterations of these stories — same as they sell us new iPhone models every few months — in the hopes that we’ll keep buying. But what I’m here to tell everyone is that we don’t need to keep chasing that unachievable endpoint; we can determine for ourselves at any time that what we already have is good enough. Like I said, I love Bridget Jones’s Diary, but I never felt the need to buy more of it. I adore Nelson DeMille’s Plum Island — it’s one of my favorite thrillers — but I hated the follow-up, The Lion’s Game, and never bothered to read any further John Corey adventures. Same with James Patterson’s Alex Cross: The first half dozen novels were great, and when they stopped being great, I stopped reading them; I wasn’t going to remain loyal to something just ’cause I loved it once upon a time. We can choose at any point to say, “I loved Iron Man and The Avengers, but I’ve had enough Marvel to last a lifetime”; or, “I loved the classic Star Wars trilogy, but the thrill is gone”; or “Star Trek changed the way I look at the world, but now it just bores me.” We don’t have to keep running on this corporately fueled treadmill for fear that if we don’t keep up or don’t have the “full picture,” somehow what we’ve already consumed is incomplete. Bullshit. As important as Batman and Star Wars were to me as a child, if I never read/watch another one of them again, that wouldn’t diminish what those formative stories mean to me. Hell, if anything, abstaining from further indulgence might even make them more special — as a keepsake of my own innocence, and a reminder that when a particular time in our lives comes to an end, there’s no recapturing it, so better we learn to cherish the experience we were lucky enough to have rather than chase in vain its elusive recapitulation.

      Erik, my friend, thank you as always for engaging in a lively discussion!

      Sean

      • Yes, I agree with your clear end point: we choose (I mean, my whole theme is choice).

        However, the business of film doesn’t care that we (as individuals) choose not to keep buying; they only care if the masses stop buying (or, more correctly, if the price per capita results in the highest possible ROI; i.e., if one person offered a film conglomerate half a billion to not divert from “the canon,” they’d take that deal, masses be damned, because it would pay the most).

        Again, not knocking it. But business, art and fandom rarely see things eye to eye.

        So I think we need to choose for ourselves alone, not because we think it’s going to “show Hollywood.” Just as bitterness doesn’t punish the other person, our withdrawal from buy-in on a brand doesn’t punish that company (unless it’s on a massive collective level).

        • Absolutely: It’s a numbers game, and right now the numbers, with respect to attendance and box office, are (for the most part) on the side of the so-called “mega-franchises” — they very types of movies that often follow the “shared universe” model (which is at the nexus of “business, art and fandom” these days). As a matter of personal preference, I tend to find those kinds of movies exhausting, because, just as I was saying in a previous comment about multipart book series, if I wanted to keep up with the MCU and all its umpteen movies and TV shows, I’d never have time to watch anything else! There’s not enough intellectual and aesthetic diversity in those franchises for me, and the human brain thrives on contrast. (Which is not to say all of those movies are bad or uncreative; on the contrary, Marvel has done a remarkable job at presenting some starkly different aesthetics across their different productions, yet somehow making it all seem credibly unified. It’s an impressive achievement — one not so easily emulated, as DC is to their great dismay discovering.)

          But there’s a segment of the population — the one paying for movie tickets — that can’t get enough of that, so Hollywood is indeed catering to that demographic (and I won’t argue the financial prudence of that). The masses have said with their collective voice that these are the kinds of stories that are resonating with them (the benchmark of what constitutes art if ever there was one), and these are the kinds of movies they want to see more of. And sometimes, as happened last summer with Ghostbusters and Star Trek, the masses say, “No, thanks.”

          So, yeah — we all need to choose for ourselves, individually, what we want to see, and then Hollywood responds to our collective voice. And perhaps right now someone like myself is in the minority because I really don’t want to see anymore Star Wars or superheroes, but, as a consumer, I have other entertainment options I can exercise. (As someone who’s worked in Hollywood for many years, on the other hand, I have direct professional beefs with its business model, which admittedly have occasion to bleed into my position on these very matters from a cultural or artistic perspective.) And withdrawing from a brand should in no way be catalyzed by a punitive motive, because, among purer reasons, we simply don’t have the individual power to affect its success or failure! You are a passionate, inspiring advocate of choice, Erik — anyone reading this is encouraged to check out Erik’s book and blog! — and art and commerce (what we support and what we buy) are choices that very much reflect our priorities and worldview. And I think the analysis of art and culture — something I’ve dedicated this blog to pursuing — is very much an attempt to understand why we make the choices we make, and what they say about us — good, bad, and neutral. Thank you for being such a reliable participant in that intellectual pursuit, my friend!

  4. Oh … and “fungible” is my word of the day now.

  5. I love a good discussion about cannon, and this article didn’t disapoint! I’m a little suprised you didn’t mention anything about the Harry Potter ‘Universe’, which seems to me as the textbook example of a post-narrative story where the focus is on the relentless expansion of the universe rather than on closing the narrative. It’s my belief that only the 7 novels count as cannon (and thus the series functions as a contained, aristolien-narrative whole) rather than accepting that everything JKR says is cannon (in which case the world becomes a post-narrative one). Keep up the good work!

    • Welcome back, Jed! Thanks for taking the time to join the discussion.

      Harry Potter was on the shortlist for inclusion, but an analysis of that franchise could probably support its very own article! I’ll say this about it, though: J. K. Rowling is in a very uncommon (and advantageous) position in that she alone controls the proprietary rights to the Harry Potter IP — no one is off publishing books, producing movies, staging plays, or developing theme-park attractions without her explicit consent (and, thus far, direct involvement). As such, she is able to maintain a tight leash on both the brand and its expanding continuity, much in the same way George Lucas was (prior to the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, that is): Star Wars had a designated story group tasked with maintaining the consistency and integrity of its fictive universe. (Even Indiana Jones, which only followed the exploits of a single character in a far less fantastical or expansive setting, still adhered to a rigidly structured timeline: Each of the movies, novels, comics, videogames, and episodes of the television show took place in a very specific month and year, spanning from 1899 to 1993. Indy lived a long, healthy life, it turns out!) Because the “universe” of Harry Potter isn’t under corporate oversight, and its development has thus far been restricted to the creative direction of a singular architect — Rowling — I think we can consider everything that’s been produced so far, be it the seven “Hogwarts era” volumes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and now Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (for which she wrote the screenplay) “canonical,” to whatever extent that term has meaning or relevance. I myself haven’t seen Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts, so I can’t speak to the merit of their inclusion in the canon, but I have read all seven novels (and seen the movie adaptations), and I personally wasn’t left needing or wanting more. But if she wants to expand her franchise, so be it. I know folks who don’t consider any Indiana Jones production after Raiders canonical, but I grew up on the original trilogy and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (not to mention Rob MacGregor’s series of novels set in the 1920s), and I adore all of it — it’s all canonical to me.

      But there’s no question that the so-called “Wizarding World” of Harry Potter is expanding, and, in true postnarrative fashion, becoming more interactive and experiential, certainly when you take into account Pottermore and the Universal Studios theme park. My feeling about the whole enterprise — and I didn’t grow up on Harry Potter, so I don’t have the same emotional investment in it as someone who did — is that Rowling is at least building a mythology that speaks to a new century and a new generation (even though the first book was published in ’97, HP is really a 21st-century cultural phenomenon), just like Lucas did with Star Wars, and she is using all the tools of the times to grow the brand and buttress its cultural relevance (also like the forward-thinking Lucas did in his day). I would say: Let her to continue to develop it for the next fifteen or twenty years, and when its time is over, let’s hope she — or whoever may be controlling the franchise at that point — has the wisdom to retire it gracefully and decidedly, unlike Star Wars. Harry Potter is having its moment now: It is inspiring the receptive imagination of its youthful audience, which is what these stories are meant to do — versus what Star Wars is doing, which is providing a nostalgia fix for the previous generation. And it’s very possible that Rowling’s ambitions to augment the franchise could lead her down some ill-advised paths, as happened to Lucas with the prequels, but that’s her problem if it does: Harry Potter has already secured its place in the pop cultural pantheon as Star Wars once did, and whether it rises or falls from here, only Rowling’s legacy will be affected, not the brand itself. But whether or not Rowling ever lets this series go, I just hope the generation that grew up with HP has the good sense, unlike mine did, to learn from the fiction that inspired it and accept that the time does indeed come to put away the bedtime stories of youth for good and all and embrace the challenges — the reality — of adulthood. Guess we’ll have to wait and see…

      Thanks again, Jed, for reading and commenting.

      Sean

  6. I always enjoy your posts. I’m going to comment on the part that struck home for me the most. When you speak of people who have devoted time and attention to fictional words to the point of no return versus understanding and participating in our real world. I worked with a man, many years ago, who was president of his Star Trek fan club. He called himself the captain. They wore uniforms that matched the show and as the uniforms evolved someone’s wife sewed new ones. They built space ships to scale and stood in the lobbies of movie theaters on release date. He spoke Klingon fluently. Now, like you I think everyone should have hobbies. Hobbies help to fill up our spiritual wells and when we have a place of peace inside us, we can be better people to others in our inner circles. Having said that, I thought this gentleman had spent an exorbitant amount of time on nothing. All the time and energy spent living in a fictitious world did not better his own world in any way. His job did not advance, his financial situation did not change, in fact it grew worse, he wasn’t bringing kindness to the universe, building houses for the homeless, or even teaching his child to play chess. Not all of our hobbies have to be selfless, but wouldn’t speaking a real language fluently, a hobby as well, be more beneficial than speaking a make believe language? I have never understood the fan or groupie mentality. I don’t swoon over celebrities. Well, I did get a little tongue tied when I met Mary Higgins Clark, but I don’t live in made up world of her novels. We have a responsibility to know what is going on in the real world. Sadly, that will never happen. Not when there’s light saber lessons on the horizon.

    • Clearly you are an editor, Stacey, because it was you — not me, I’m embarrassed to say — that supplied the critical element any competent argument should have: a real-world example.

      In many respects, Star Trek was the launch pad (pardon the hacky analogy) for the pervasive “fanboy culture” we have today, which found a thriving forum at sci-fi conventions long before the Internet ever provided one; Shatner spoofed the subculture to brilliant effect thirty years ago on SNL, you’ll recall: “You’ve turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time!” And that goes to something I explored in “The Great Escape”: Prior to Trek, no previous generation venerated the fantasies of their youth well into adulthood; my parents — and my friends’ parents — certainly didn’t revisit the fictional heroes of their own upbringings (be it Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan or Flash Gordon or what have you) on home video or through “collectables” (code for toys) or, God help us, via cosplay! No, that’s an idiopathic characteristic of those that came of age in the seventies and eighties — Gen X — that has only proliferated in the era of Star Wars and superheroic “cinematic universes.” It is a very troubling cultural trend that I tried to get to the bottom of, in my own way, in last year’s essay “The Exodus Is Here”: Generation X has come, in my view, to fetishize the 1980s the way the Boomers do the 1950s; we both long for a bygone era that’s never coming back (if it ever truly existed as it does in our collective memory, anyway). And the recapitulation of all these ’80s fantasies, like Star Wars, is emblematic to me of a very unhealthy nostalgic yearning — unhealthy because we place more care and interest in our fictive words when our actual one is in such dire need of the same attention.

      And Alan Moore’s appraisal — that “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence” — may be brutally trenchant, but who else is calling into question the emotional and cultural consequences of the deification of superheroes and Skywalkers? When grown adults are taking almost religious pleasure in revisiting characters created half a century ago to entertain ten-year-olds, it might be time to take a hard look in the mirror. I mean, the new Wolverine movie is rated R, for God’s sake. (The trailer alone features not one but two usages of the F-word!) And I’m not a prude: My novel employs the F-word in every other line of dialogue, but it also isn’t part of a popular franchise that has, up until now, ostensibly catered to the under-thirteen set. The R-rating of Logan is the biggest fuck-you imaginable to the ten-year-old X-Men fans from Generation X: We’re telling them in no uncertain terms that superheroes are ours, so bugger off and go find something else to inspire your imagination. (I beg everyone to boycott this movie for that reason.)

      Now, all that said, look at what’s happened over the last week: Millions of people across the country (and planet) have mobilized — and will hopefully soon organize — in protest of what they (rightly) view as an assault on our democracy. So, just when I openly accused “a significant section of the public” of having given up on reality, folks numbering in the millions have exercised their right and responsibility to participate in our democracy. So I am not a fatalist by any stretch. But I do feel very strongly that the stories and characters from whom we learned our values, be it Bert and Ernie, Batman, Mr. Spock, Luke Skywalker, Encyclopedia Brown — take your pick — ought to at some point either be put away like other childish things, or handed over to the next generation to inspire them. Because when we reach the point when we’re making superhero movies for our entertainment (Deadpool and Logan are rated R, as is the home-video edition of Batman v Superman), and not for the amusement of those characters’ intended preadolescent audience, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. And that we’re not is sad cultural commentary indeed.

      Thank you, Stacey, for reading the piece so carefully and for leaving such a wonderful, well-considered response. I’m indebted.

      Sean

      • I want to explore what you said about the R rating for Logan being a big F-You to the ten years olds of Gen X. Or is it to ten year-olds today? Aren’t those of us already well past our adolescence the ones saying, “hey kid, go get your own toys and your own sandbox? Logan is mine!” And why do you think we’ve taken such a stand? And where are the superheroes of the Millennials? They probably don’t exist because in my humble opinion Millennials have been taught being imaginative isn’t such a great thing. Common Core wants everyone the same and everyone to be a math or science whiz. Common Core is stifling the innovators and the dreamers. Boy, how we need Willy Wonka now.

        Thank you for the kind words about my editing skills. And you have nothing to be embarrassed about where your writing is concerned. You are well thought out, have an extensive vocabulary and theorize about things I’m sure most wouldn’t even think about. I pay attention when I read your work. I thank you for that.

        • Stacey,

          First off: Thanks for the follow-up. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than when a post creates conversation, let alone multifaceted debate, as has been the case here and with December’s piece on authorship credit.

          In my previous response to you, I created confusion with my sloppy choice of syntax: I meant, as you astutely ascertained despite my clumsy phrasing, that Gen X is giving the middle finger to the kids of today by co-opting superheroes, which were expressly created to entertain and inspire the imagination of children, and increasingly making them less and less appropriate for their intended audience. “In effect,” wrote Asher Elbein in a piece last year for The Atlantic about the superhero-comics industry, “adults were colonizing young-adult narratives and warping them in the process — an early example of what later occurred with Michael Bay’s legendarily crass Transformers films.” The R-rating of Logan (as well as that of the home-video release of Batman v Superman) represents, in my view, a stark example of this alarming trend of an entire generation (Gen X — my demographic cohort) that is submitting to self-infantilization at the expense of the health of the culture in general, as well as the formative experiences of the next generation in particular. We’re not fostering their imaginations with movies like BvS, Transformers, and The Force Awakens so much as we are chasing an ever-more-elusive nostalgia high by allowing the fairy tales of our bygone youth to monopolize the cultural stage. Once again, Alan Moore said it best:

          “‘[Superheroes] don’t mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men'” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013).

          This is not what the generation before us did — the George Lucases and Steven Spielbergs and Dan Aykroyds of the world. Flash Gordon served merely as the inspiration for Star Wars, as the Amazing Stories magazines did for Spielberg (note in the picture below the way the title font is identical to that of the Raiders of the Lost Ark logo), as the ghost comedies of the forties did for Ghostbusters, and Zorro did for Batman — old ideas were made new and pertinent again through sweeping reinvention by artists with influences and interests and idiosyncrasies that mixed with and mutated those germinal stimuli to deliver them to their next evolutionary phase. But what are we giving the next generation, exactly, except warmed-over second helpings from the eighties? How will a new set of stories and heroes take root in the imagination of a new generation when all we do is recycle yesteryear’s fantasies — the comforting bedtime stories of the analog age — rather than foster narratives that reflect the folkways of the here and now? So I second your concern: We are not teaching imagination in our schools or inspiring it through our popular fictions, which have become nothing more than a pathetic Gen X greatest-hits compilation. Far from modeling creative ingenuity, we are leaving a legacy of creative bankruptcy to the next generation. What we’re doing by feeding ourselves and the children we’re raising yet more Star Wars and Star Trek and Transformers and Ghostbusters — and all the ephemera of a previous century — is nothing short of a cultural catastrophe. We are encouraging them to “retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence” into the nostalgic dreamland of a previous generation, a previous century, a previous millennium. How are we going to cultivate forward-thinking innovators when all we put a premium on is looking backward?

          Amazing Stories magazine

          So, for those reasons, I don’t celebrate movies like Batman v Superman, Deadpool, and Logan — on the contrary, I find them all deeply culturally embarrassing. I hope we do boycott Logan (if for no other reason than the last two Wolverine movies were absolutely dreadful, and how many times are we going to fall for the old Peanuts football gag before we stop rewarding lackluster filmmaking?). I somehow doubt we will sit it out, though. I submit that Hugh Jackman could make fifty more Wolverine movies, each worse than the one before it, and we’d still line up on opening day to see every one of them. That’s how little we demand from our entertainers these days. All we want from our popular entertainments anymore is a nostalgia fix; quality is irrelevant and originality is anathema.

          Thanks again, Stacey, for being such a careful reader and thoughtful commentator — I’m always happy to have your voice in the mix! Especially since you yourself are an author creating new fantasies and new mythologies that attempt to speak to the ethos of a new generation.

          Sean

          • I imagine, since I haven’t had the privilege of a live conversation, that a discussion over coffee with you about this topic as well as many others would be highly engaging and entertaining. Thank you for that. And thank you for writing pieces that actually make me think about something.

          • Well, that’s why I started this blog, actually: All my friends got tired of hearing me pontificate!

            Thanks, Stacey — thanks for the kind words. I suspect our paths will cross one day, especially since we are neighbors from opposite sides of the GWB! When I was back on the East Coast last May, I had a chance to meet friend of the blog Erik Tyler in person — and he, too, was someone I only knew because we found each other in the blogosphere. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started this blog, because I was previously a total social-media luddite, but I’m so grateful for the people it’s put me in touch with and the ideas it has opened my mind to. I’d wanted the blog to try to be about something, and I appreciate that folks like yourself have responded to that and engaged. Thank you.

  7. We were discussing just this morning the issue that some people are apparently so divorced from reality (and so wrapped up in Hollywood worlds) that they honestly believe some Nigerian prince will split 9 million dollars with them if they help him smuggle it out of the country!
    My family has our own obsessions (“Destiny” and “Halo” ranking foremost among them) but I think our most meaningful discussions about these game-universes is not figuring out whether Cayde-6 loves Eris Morn, but rather relating the struggle of Light and Darkness in “Destiny” back to real-life theology, the struggle of God vs. sin (through Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross ♥), and His ultimate triumph – from which flows hope, purpose, and true heroism.
    I think you’re really on to something when you suggest people are so desperate for a deeper meaning which they’re not finding in their “real” lives that they pour themselves into a vicarious existence in some fictional world – and when that fictional world is challenged, they feel their own selves crumbling.
    I love fiction and writing, but I will never let it replace the God Who Created Me, from whom my life, my purpose, and my ultimate victory come from.
    Another thought-provoking post that points to the core of our humanity – thank you!

    • Thank you, Kimia, for reading the piece and leaving such a commensurately thought-provoking response! I’m delighted this post provoked so many diverse reactions, and that folks like yourself felt compelled to express them here and enrich the conversation.

      To your point, I don’t think the fictional metaphysics of Star Wars or Star Trek were meant to become religions unto themselves, nor the costumed superheroes of Marvel or DC religious icons. Yet that’s in some respects what has happened (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are collectively referred to as “the Trinity”). Star Wars, like good mythology, and Star Trek, like good science fiction, have attempted to do what religions, in their particular way, have been doing for millennia: to help us understand — or at the very least consider — why we’re here, what our place is in the universe, and if there’s some grander meaning to it all; George Lucas once described mythology as “constructing some kind of context for the unknown.” But these stories were never meant to become belief systems — that is a bastardization of their true intention. Lucas said so in his own words to Bill Moyers in 1999:

      BILL MOYERS: The central epic of our culture has — has been the Bible. And it’s about fall, wondering, redemption, return. But the Bible no longer occupies that central place in our culture today. More and more people today are — young people, in particular, are turning to the movies for their inspiration, not to organized religion.

      GEORGE LUCAS: Uh-huh. Well, I hope that doesn’t end up being the — the course that this whole thing takes because I think there’s definitely a place for organized religion and it’s a very important part of the social fabric. And I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world, where, you know, entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.

      BILL MOYERS: One reason when critics said that Star Wars has been so popular with young people, it’s religion without strings attached, that it becomes a very thin base for theology. In fact…

      GEORGE LUCAS: Well, it is a thin base for theology, that’s why I would hesitate to call the Force ‘God.’ When the film came out, almost every single religion took Star Wars and used it as an example of their religion and — and were able to relate it to young people and saying, ‘This is what’ — and relate the stories specifically to the Bible and relate stories to the Koran and, you know, the Torah and things. And so it’s like, you know — if it’s a tool that can be used to make old stories be new and relate to younger people, that’s what the whole point was.

      I think what Lucas was saying — among other things — is exactly what you asserted in your penultimate paragraph in the comment above: that our fictions can complement our religious and/or spiritual beliefs, can contextualize those beliefs — even and especially in a modern world in which they find themselves increasingly challenged for all sorts of reasons — but shouldn’t become a system of beliefs per se.

      GEORGE LUCAS: Mm-hmm. Well, there’s a — again, a mixture of all kinds of — of mythology and religious beliefs that have been amalgamated into the movie, and I’ve tried to take the ideas that seem to cut across the most cultures, because I’m fascinated by that and I think that’s one of the things that I really got from Joe Campbell, was that — what he was trying to do is find the common threads through the various mythology, through the — the religions.

      BILL MOYERS: One of the comparisons that came to mind just when I was re-watching the series recently is when Darth Vader tempts Luke to come over to the Empire by offering him all that the Empire has to offer, I was taken back in my own youth to the story of Satan taking Christ to the mountain and offering him the kingdoms of the world if only he would turn away from his mission.

      GEORGE LUCAS: Right.

      BILL MOYERS: Was that conscience in your mind?

      GEORGE LUCAS: Well, yeah. I mean, that — that story also has been retold; the temptation. I mean, Buddha was tempted in the same way. It’s all through mythology. I didn’t want to invent a religion. I wanted to try to explain in a different way the religions that have already existed.

      BILL MOYERS: You’re creating a new myth.

      GEORGE LUCAS: Well, and I — I — I’m telling an old myth in a new way. I’m just taking the — the — the core myth and I’m localizing it. As it turns out, I’m localizing it for the planet. But I guess I’m localizing it for the end of the — of the millennium more than I am for any particular place. This is the — the — you know, this is — this is — again, part of the globalization of the world we live in. The average human being has much more awareness of the other cultures that exist — co-exist with them on this planet, and that certain things go across cultures, and entertainment is one of them. And film and the stories that I tell cut across all cultures, are seen all around the world.

      But rather than viewing these contemporary myths as the composite analogies they were unambiguously intended to be, as allegorical entertainments, I think we are experiencing a cultural shift in which the world-building itself — the rules and origins and machinations of the mythology, collectively known as its “continuity” — have for many fans become the entire point of the fiction. It has been argued we are living in an increasingly secular world, and while that’s probably true from the perspective of traditional religions, what many fail to take into account is that the human need to have faith in a systemically organized universe has migrated (to some extent) from the Bible and the Torah to the mythopoeia of Lucas and Tolkien and George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling. And I am deeply sympathetic to the undeniable reality that we find ourselves longing for meaning in a world of overwhelmingly intractable complexities (geopolitical, environmental, and otherwise), one in which our institutionalized religions and certainly our classical narrative patterns no longer resonate in our new millennium the way they have for thousands of years (for reasons discussed here), but I think it is important to recognize that the meaning we seek will not be found in the painstaking scrutiny of “the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics,” or for that matter Star Wars or Game of Thrones or any of our contemporary entertainments. Fiction can help us to understand the complexities of our reality — it can give us a framework to start asking meaningful questions — but the hard, lifelong work of making meaning of it all is, in the end, up to us. Yoda, wise as he may be, doesn’t have the answers we seek, and I think the first step to finding those answers is to acknowledge that; he is not a surrogate for God, however one may define or understand Him, and the rich detail of a fictional universe like Star Wars, immersive though it may be, is still an artificial construct subject to continuity errors and editorial revamps, and should in no way be interpreted as something that has a fixed order or a meaning unto itself: It is merely a setting, a stage on which we can depict human drama to allow for an emotional experience that puts us in touch with the metaphysical realities of our own world in all of their mystery and wonder.

      Thanks again, Kimia, for exploring this issue with me. I take tremendous intellectual and emotional insight from the conversations I have here on the blog with those kind enough to engage me on these admittedly esoteric subjects!

      Sean

      • Thank you for taking the time, once again, for such a comprehensive, thought-out response – and for giving these complex philosophical discussions space on the internet!

        • My wife once suggested I change the blog’s tagline from “Writer of things that go bump in the night” to “Highly academic discussions of really dumb shit”!

          I was surprised, quite frankly, that this particular post, given its specific and rather esoteric subject matter, inspired so much conversation in the comments (possibly more than any previous post, with the notable exception of “This Is 40”). But so often I find that these posts serve a few beneficial, if entirely unintended, purposes:

          1) They act as a sort of intellectual incubator. By putting my thoughts on a given matter into words, I refine my own understanding of the issue at hand. Then, by engaging in discussion about it with folks like yourself, I gain even deeper insights, many of which then serve as the basis for future posts. An essay is only as good as the debate it provokes, so I’m indebted to anyone who takes the time to read and comment.

          2) The more I blog and read the work of other bloggers, the more I’ve come to realize that many other pop-cultural enthusiasts share my concerns about the state of our entertainment industry and the culture at large. For instance, just a few weeks after I published my plea to put Star Trek out to pasture, author David Dubrow published his own disquisition against the continuation of that aging franchise. Likewise, Scott Mendelson just published a piece in Forbes, a few weeks after this posted, in which he accuses Hollywood of being “a glorified fan-fiction factory,” which is a very cogent and eloquent way of making the case I’ve been arguing on my own blog for the past year (I myself view The Force Awakens and Rogue One as “glorified fan fiction,” and wish I’d said as much under the final subheading of “This Counts, That Does Not”).

          So what I’ve discovered is that there are many other folks like myself concerned about what’s happening in our culture right now, where we’ve got grown adults taking almost religious pleasure in the characters and stories of a half century ago. There are people out there making their voices heard about it, and demanding more from both our popular entertainers and Generation X, which has willingly and happily consigned itself to the teenage wasteland of a bygone era. Let’s keep talking about it and see if we can bring about a much-needed change in our cultural priorities…

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