"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Monday, July 13, 2015

Riding With the "Lords of the Sith"

Lords of the SithLords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges their disparate storytelling styles. In this novel, the stately bureaucratic world of Episode III provides a framework which is quickly torn asunder--quite entertainingly--by the Wild West outer rim of Episode IV. This book comes as close to being the Star Wars novel I’ve hoped for since the now long ago and far away Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn.

In Lords of the Sith, we encounter an early attempt at a rebellion against the Empire. We follow a younger, more acrobatic Darth Vader. He flanks a quite nimble Emperor Palpatine eager to take his eerie needling personality on the road. They head for Ryloth, a planet key to Galactic Trade...no, no, don’t tune me out. This novel is no trudging prequel mired in trade negotiations. We get just enough political background to justify Vader and the Emperor taking a Star Destroyer to Ryloth to quell insurrection. Almost immediately, battle breaks out and does not stop until the novel ends.

As for the nascent rebel band scheming on Ryloth, I did not find any of them especially memorable. Isval, a hot-blooded second in command is easily the most interesting. She reminds me of a younger, impetuous Luke Skywalker, though without being a brat. The cast is not especially large, which serves the novel well. We get to know a few people, spend appropriate amounts of time witnessing their internal monologues, before embarking on the next action sequence.

As stories go, Lords of the Sith owes more to Episodes IV through VI than the prequels. It’s a relatively lean ensemble piece. There is even a bit of romance, similar to what we see between Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back. Isval and the rebel leader Cham struggle to keep their feverish attraction at bay while chasing Vader and the Emperor to the surface of Ryloth. Most of this novel sees Vader and Palpatine on the run, but eager to make tactical stands and show off their Sith abilities. Making them, and their loyal soldiers, the novel’s prey, creates occasional odd moments of worrying about their safety.

This is an exciting novel. It does not obsess with tying every tiny string of subplot together from the movies it fits between. The plot is simple, the characters interesting if conventional. Perhaps its greatest weakness, in my mind at least, is its relative lack of humor or charm. Everyone is very serious and broodingly aware of their place in the galaxy. The novel is exciting, but it lacks the character-driven charm of Episodes IV and V. Yet, this is something I feel all Star Wars novels I’ve read lack. Capturing that charm may be impossible, given it was created by an ensemble of talent, not solely by George Lucas. So I suppose the next best thing is a really good chase across the deep of space to an exotic world tailor-made for adventure. Lords of the Sith is precisely that.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gawking at 'The Death of Superman'

The Death of SupermanThe Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It may be grossly unfair, on a literary level, to grade The Death of Superman as a graphic novel. More than any previous compilation-turned graphic novel, the serial nature of this publication seems explicit. That being said, DC Comics ultimately packaged and sold this multi-part story as a single work, which is how I encountered it this weekend. Special thanks to the group of local public libraries that diligently engage in inter-library loan, making it possible for me to read this work at no charge in one of its delightfully color-saturated 1993 editions.

The title of The Death of Superman is also a good summation of the plot. From the first chilling ram of super villain Doomsday’s fist against his subterranean prison wall, this entire story is all setup and execution (pun intended) of Superman’s demise. I am not cynical about this, sincerely. Comic books are forever reinventing and re-adapting their icons. Superman the icon was never in jeopardy, just this particular incarnation of him in the comic book realm. And I think periodically killing off our superheroes is a perfectly worthwhile narrative experiment.

There are a handful of highly suspenseful moments, in the context of a story whose title is a wanton spoiler. At one point, Superman has to choose between rescuing a victim trapped in a fire or completing the more tactically important task of keeping Doomsday busy. Another gripping moment, late in the story, involves Lois Lane trying to convince Superman not to kill Doomsday--because killing is not what Superman does. What a shame the authors wait until the final pages to hastily address what could have been the paramount moral question of the novel.

The creators of The Death of Superman do not spend significant time, or emphasis, on character study. If this had been a graphic novel in genesis, perhaps they would have. But this is actually a high action, multi-part story originally told in monthly comic book form. With token exceptions like those mentioned above, it is a single relentless action sequence. In this respect, I found it grandly successful. Yet, it hits with all of the intellectual nuance of the last 30 minutes of any given superhero flick. Exciting? Yes. Thought-provoking? Not especially.

The creators can’t even be bothered to supply an aftermath. Superman dies. The end. They may have supplied a proper aftermath in the monthly single magazine format, but not in the graphic novel form in which this story now exists.

Like I indicated earlier, The Death of Superman is all setup and execution of a single story beat. And the setup is lots and lots of fighting and chasing. There is a TV interview sequence spliced into the battle. It plays as overt exposition, with all of the charm of a just-the-facts inverted pyramid style. Nothing subtle or gray here.

Still I am glad I read this work. I was entertained. Superman has always been a messiah story, rightfully so. Messiahs usually die. Their mission seemingly demands it. Yet there is a risk for authors of getting lost in the spectacle of the hero’s demise. When this happens, something that could have been thoughtful winds up feeling merely sensational. In the context of a proper sendoff, that seems a missed opportunity to say the least

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Five Times a Moth

A little over a year ago, I performed at a Moth StorySLAM for the first time. Telling a true and personal story live was something I wanted to try. It was nerve-wracking. But it was the adventure I needed. Tonight was my fifth time performing. Each storytelling has included a lot of struggle and second guessing (and wishing storytelling came easier to me). Each time has been worth it.

The audiences at a Moth performance tend to be awesome and gracious. After the performance tonight I had the chance to talk with a few people about the experience. This meant, in its own way, as much as telling the story did. I'm so grateful for the people who approached me afterward and visited. It took me a good hour to wind down, and chatting with people from the audience helped. If any of them should read this, thank you. I hope we meet again in a place where great stories are told.

Here is a link to one of my Moth StorySLAM performances.

A photo posted by Michigan Radio (@michiganradio) on