What Is Really Challenging: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi

The Rise Of Skywalker, supposedly the last of the mainline Star Wars saga is coming soon. And even so, people are still talking about Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi. Even me. There is something about the eighth Star Wars film, and Rian Johnson’s own responses to fans that I’ve tried to explain, and put into words.

I mean, I even wrote an article for Sequart on The Last Jedi itself, and while it isn’t perfect, I knew the moment I saw it, it was going to become a classic: if only because of how controversial it was, how final it felt, and jarring, and experimental in some ways, while being conventional in others.

Then, I came across this article from IndieWire. It’s title is practically a thesis statement, and it doesn’t hide what it is: Rian Johnson Says Catering to Fans, Rather Than Challenging Them, Is a ‘Mistake.’ This title, combined with the subheading “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard,” left me with quite a few strong thoughts on the matter, and I want to attempt to communicate them as clearly, and lucidly — as both a writer with critical background, and as a Star Wars fan myself — as much as possible.

A lot of what I am going to write is something that has already been written, or talked about, before. After reading the article, which derives its points from an interview Johnson made, and then states that some critics apparently believe The Rise of Skywalker is “disrespectful” to Johnson, his work, and the originality of what he was attempting to do, I was reminded of something.

In 2015, I took took classes in Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp. And, in those classes, we learned many lessons not just about comics writing, but writing, world-building, and even franchise-making and supporting fandoms around it. It wasn’t completely indepth, but there was something Ty mentioned about “supporting a fan club.” Let me try to explain it as best I can recall.

Everyone likes to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone, to some extent, also likes to feel smart, and informed, and included. Ty taught us about creating emblems, and certain recurring phrases, and the value of “always bringing a character home” each time for each new story or episode: figuratively, and literally. I don’t think about forty or so years, I need to explain how that concept particularly applies to a franchise like Star Wars. But there is something in particular about this that I want to make clear.

A lot of the time, fans will speculate on a work, or details within it. And, sometimes, they will come up with an idea of where something is going to go … and they will actually be either close to it — or completely right. And especially in this Age of Information, these speculations and their conclusions are more accessible and widespread: along with the means of more rapid and open communication.

There is nothing quite like figuring something out, and realizing that you were right. And, while some fans or audience members might be like Rian Johnson and say something like: “‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me,” there is another contingent that will feel pleased, and enlightened. They might even feel a sense of belonging to that fan club. Of course, you can take that too far as well into the pedantic and condescending, but I think every story has a common source: especially human stories like mythology. Like Star Wars.

Back in ancient times, if you look at Greece, you have plays being created. And everyone knew about Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, Lysistrata and the like from oral tales but they still watched the plays. The point I’m trying to make is that even if someone does predict a story, or they want something to happen, you can still give it to them … in the way that you want to give it to them. You focus on the details, on the buildup, the pacing of the narrative, on especially the character development. You don’t do it to give the fans what they want when and how they want it. Likewise, you don’t change the story, or the way something is going to happen just to “subvert expectations.” You do it to make a point, or make an interesting twist: to focus on the story itself.

There are a lot of interesting elements in The Last Jedi that I appreciate, such as Johnson’s critique of the cycle of violence in Star Wars itself. There is a bit of preaching and condescension, and the mess that is Canto Bight but there is also the meditations on the Force itself, the stop motion illustrating an ecosystem and circle of life and death, some words about self-actualization, and even a metaphysical look on how to break out of the cycle. Then you have the milking creature, and Luke Skywalker not learning anything after the lessons of thirty years ago when dealing with his nephew.

But all the Star Wars films are flawed in some way. I mean, I don’t even have to go into the Prequels now, do I? Or even some of the questionable decisions about clunkily revamping character origins like Ventress’ or Maul’s in The Clone Wars cartoons.

I can see, for instance, that The Last Jedi was meant to be an Empire Strikes Back as Johnson put it in the article. You have a story and even advertising build up to make you think A New Hope was going to lead to the enemy being defeated in the next film, but then you get that bombshell: only Johnson attempted to do this by subverting tropes and themes in a very heavy-handed, but clever manner.

The problem is, to imagine Yoda stating this point as I did in my other article, cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. And sometimes what some might see as challenging, can also be perceived as condescending.

This is especially true when you consider all the build up and hype towards Rey’s origins, Snoke’s and then … nothing. It’s supposed to show that those expectations are irrelevant and it is the current adventure and the concepts of overcoming war and hatred that matter more, as well as friendship and love being ascendant. But they are particularly abstract concepts. So is the cycle between good and evil, of course, but then we have the other issue.

What changed as a result of The Last Jedi?

Did the concept of war get challenged? Did the Light and the Dark Sides of the Force get scrutinized and be seen beyond a simple binary good verses evil dichotomy? Did Rey and Kylo Ren realize they didn’t have to be enemies and go into a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis Hegelian dialectic: two opposites meeting to make something new, and challenging for the next film. According to the Indiewire article, as I mentioned critics are annoyed that Johnson’s innovations are seemingly being downplayed to “pander” to fan and fandom expectations for Star Wars in The Rise of Skywalker. However, it was Johnson himself who kept Rey and Kylo Ren on different sides. Rey is still on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is still motivated by the Dark Side. Perhaps they are challenged, as fans are supposedly challenged, but in the end their resolve is more or less the same: except for the regret in Kylo, which doesn’t matter as he continues on from that point until, presumably, the next movie by J.J. Abrams.

I could make a compelling case that Johnson uses the aesthetic or the seeming of innovation and subversion, but really just makes opposite, contrary trope choices that ultimately lead right back to the status quo. And this seeming of change or challenge, doesn’t really change anything. And it wouldn’t if it were simply a standalone film with its own story, but the issue is that it is supposed to be part of a nine film saga arc in which seven of those films said something else entirely. It’s jarring. And it does sometimes feel like he is subverting tropes to make it look clever, instead of actually focusing on character development and working with what came before, and making something cohesive after.

It reminds me of those creators that imitated the style and edginess of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s comics works, but didn’t really look at the content or spirit of them. I’m also reminded of something EA Games apparently did where, apparently, when some fans figured out a major plot point in the Mass Effect series, the creators went out of the way to change it so as not to seem “unoriginal” or to have people guess their story, and not want to play their game. But they forgot the lesson: that the fandom, in solving that puzzle, would only make it more interesting because even they couldn’t realize all of the details, and it’s one thing to know something — like an ancient Greek tragic story — but it is a whole other thing to see it play out, even with that knowledge or good guessing.

I don’t know. Sometimes, I think that Rian Johnson in how he has dealt with the criticism of his work can be as condescending as some of the fans who also have a tremendous sense of self-entitlement.

Either way, it is all right to like The Last Jedi or this Sequel Trilogy. It is also valid to dislike it. But I do think that if it is ridiculous to think one is insulting a fandom over the change in a film in a forty year old franchise, it is just as silly to believe a writer is being slighted when something else is being written in a different tone from his own work: which is what he did to begin with, and even then he ultimately went right back to where it all started despite that finality of a child with a broom sweeping away the past, readying for the next words to be shown on a screen.

Their Voices Are This Film – Review: She Makes Comics

She Makes Comics is a documentary directed by Marisa Stotter, and produced by Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect! Films. It is also executive produced by Sequart’s Julian Darius and Mike Phillips and comics librarian Karen Green of Columbia University.

It’s hard to review a documentary. I think it’s even more difficult review a documentary that you like. In the interests of full disclosure, I backed the She Makes Comics Kickstarter. I even wrote about it twice here on GEEKPR0N and promoted it before I knew what film I was going to see. I was utterly fascinated with the concept of a documentary that focuses on not only the past, but the present history of women in comics: as creators, publishers, and fans.

Unlike other documentaries I’ve seen, the interviewers aren’t present. There is no presence of a single interlocutor or a primary voice. In fact, there are several voices that create the narrative of She Makes Comics: both in terms of the film’s structure and the history of women in comics. What I found fascinating was how each figure interviewed not only seemed to bring a particular topic or issue, but they interlapped with each other, and sometimes talked about one another in each cut, and even attempted to give a voice to the women in the comics industry who had long since passed. While the first and middle part of the film focused particularly on creators and historians and women who are, and were, in the industry, this gradually gives way to a multitude of newer and more contemporary presences in comics.

Also She Makes Comics was edited extremely well. Sequences with interviewed figured were accompanied by cuts of these creators interacting with their fans, of cosplayers at conventions, of segments of historical filming and popular cultural scenes, and even dramatic re-enactments. I do feel that the section about a woman feeling uncomfortable in a comics store, while definitely a valid experience, was overwrought and could have been portrayed much more realistically: though the discussion about it made up for that somewhat jarring, almost kitsch portrayal.

There were different section in this documentary, though the segues to each were so smooth and organic that it takes more than one viewing to identify where the topic begins to shift. Roughly speaking, She Makes Comics starts with the history of women on comics, the formation of Comic Cons and women trying to find a place in them, a powerful section on X-Men and its inspiration on female creators and fans, women in comics publishing positions, difficulties dealing with the insular chauvinism and misogynist mentality of “all-boys clubs” shops, the advent of groups supporting women in comics, some insights into the creative processes of the female artists that make comics, the treatment of female characters in comics in relation to their male counterparts, the importance of discussion of sexism and an emphasis on diversity in the comics medium, the importance of Internet communities, the acceptance of the graphic novel in mainstream culture but women still not being taken seriously in that field, the cultural difficulties of women pitching comics ideas in the industry, the creation of female comics spaces, a section focusing on harassment, and a final segment ending off with a focus on female-led or created comics and geekdom.

As you can see, this covers a lot of territory though by no means is it exhaustive: and these places definitely interlap. There were many things of note, but here are some of the few that stood out for me. The earlier history portion of the film particularly focuses on Jackie Ormes: the first female African-American cartoonist who will actually be getting her own mini-documentary by the creators of She Makes Comics due to them meeting their Kickstarter goals.

Jackie Ormes: creator of the Torchy Brown strip and the single-panel cartoon Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger.
Jackie Ormes: creator of the Torchy Brown strip and the single-panel cartoon Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.

There was mention of the fact that there were more women creating comics when men went off to war and how female readership began to decrease after the Comics Code was enforced and superhero comics were supported over other genres. It was interesting to learn about the Marvel and EC comics artist Marie Severin in addition to Ormes, though I would have liked a little more information on Miss Fury creator Tarpe Mills.

The discussion of Comic Cons and cosplay is really timely, however, based on the recent flak the latter has been getting from some industry artist. Wendy Pini hits home the fact that, as a cosplaying pioneer — specifically of Red Sonja — she managed to create the persona for herself necessary to make her art, get into the industry, and essentially become completely independent with Elfquest.

Wendy Pini and so many others after her identify so much with their cosplay and fandom that they create works and spaces for others.
Wendy Pini and so many others after her identify so much with their cosplay and fandom that they create works and spaces for others.

She is an interesting parallel to Gail Simone who got into comics through her critical work in Women in Refrigerators: analysing how dead or traumatized female characters were used to advance male plots and eventually making nuanced female heroes herself. Both creators got into the industry in different ways through geek culture and their insights and I just thought it was truly awesome to have that reminder that fandom and criticism can lead to creation.

Some male figures in comics were also interviewed such as Chris Claremont, Paul Levitz, and Richard Pini: but the focus was on them in relation to their female influences, employees, and creative partners. Certainly, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, both editors of Claremont’s X-Men run, influenced his work considerably: a series many of us have related to as marginalized geeks and nerds in our time. And Nocenti’s anecdote about initially thinking she was tapped to help write porn was rather hilarious. Karen Berger was also interviewed and her comment about liking “psychological stories and weird shit” as inspiration for what she helped to promote and publish in her Vertigo imprint made me smile as well.

Even though queer creators in comics were mentioned in the same place as online spaces, I feel there wasn’t as much focus on them. In addition, there were a few creators I was hoping to see such as Alison Bechdel and Aline Kominsky-Crumb that didn’t make it into the film: though the former was mentioned. Carla Speed-McNeil and Hope Larson made brief appearances, which was nice to see.

According to Kelly Sue DeConnick, there is even a rocket scientist in the ranks of those who idolize Carol Danvers and what she represents to them.
According to Kelly Sue DeConnick in She Makes Comics, there is even a rocket scientist in the ranks of those who idolize Carol Danvers and what she represents to them.

But there were two things She Makes Comics truly did for me. The first is that it introduced me to all-female fan groups like the Carol Corps, organizations that support women reading and making comics such as the Friends of Lulu, and even spaces like the Brave New World Comics Geek Boutique that challenge the very form of what a comics store is. And I want to read Marjorie Liu, G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. They are not talked enough nearly enough in mainstream comics geekdom, even now, and while I was curious about them before, I’m definitely inspired to look at Birds of Prey, Captain Marvel, Ms. MarvelPretty Deadly, and others now.

I feel as though, even and especially if, you are a comics aficionado you will learn a lot from She Makes Comics. And if you are completely new, this is even better for you: for while it doesn’t give you everything, it is an excellent starting point into some works with different perspectives and interesting stories.  I would definitely like to think that She Makes Comics hits home the fact that not only have women contributed to comics and geekdom, but they still do and they will.

Wendy Pini at one point shared an anecdote about a young woman who, despite her skill, didn’t have the confidence to acknowledge her art work as good: and even had difficulty presenting it to her without urging. Janelle Asselin, former editor at DC, mentions that she had very few women give her pitches. I hope that this documentary — and other works and groups and people of similar spirit — help to change this climate and culture, and make something as multifaceted as the film I had the privilege to finally see.

She Makes Comics is now available in both digital and DVD form.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: David Mack And Speculative Fiction As A Harbinger of Diversity

Star Trek would have you believe that, one day, Earth will become a virtual utopia. War, famine, and poverty will be eliminated. Advanced civilizations will come and help humanity solve its problems, and even explore the very stars themselves. Humanity, through a United Federation of Planets will encounter new species, societies, and ways of living. And while there will initially be conflict and fear, it will ultimately give way to tolerance, peace, and love.

Personally, I don’t find this realistic. Strip away the technology and science, even accepting the caveat that somehow unlimited resources and energy can be had, and you still have human beings that still feel greed, possess hubris, and fear what they don’t understand. And that is how we treat our own fellow human beings. I think that, if anything, our interactions with each other and other species would be a lot more like the scenario set in the universe of Babylon 5: where there are differences of opinion, internecine and squabbling politics, sanctions, and warfare but a degree of acceptance and understanding among individuals. But that is assuming that human nature will remain the same. Certainly, the anonymous reader that wrote a letter deriding the lesbian relationship between a Vulcan and Klingon in David Mack’s Star Trek novel Harbinger reflects some current human traits all too well.

It can be disheartening to consider that such bigotry exists — and has done so for some time — in speculative fiction and geek fandom. Even David Mack, in his epic open letter rebuttal of this reader’s email, admits that diversity is not nearly as represented in the Star Trek television series as it could have been. And even if the writer of the email to Mack wasn’t a hardcore Trekkie, this is not an original sentiment in whatever might constitute itself as geek culture or the various fandoms that make up some kind of community. I don’t think it is too much of a revelation to state that Star Trek — or speculative fiction itself — and fandoms can be problematic with regards to gender and cultural diversity.

But there is more to this. There always is. I think what really stands out at me is the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series. Part of the reason I bring this up is because of the image that Katharine Trendacosta uses in her i09 article Star Trek Writer’s Defense of Diversity in Sci-Fi Is Damn Near Perfect. It depicts the episode “Rejoined” where Jadzia Dax encounters Lenara Kahn. In fact, both women are Trill hosts for their respective symbionts: whom had been married. I was either in the latter stages of elementary or in the middle of high school when I first saw this episode, and I didn’t understand it.

Dax and Kahn

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand why Dax had feelings for Kahn. I assumed, then, that she was just experiencing echoes of emotion from her symbiont’s last host. Naively, I was more confused as to how she could even pursue a relationship with her even though the symbiont no longer had a male host and if disrupting the rules of their society was worth the trouble. I will even admit that, at the time, it made me uncomfortable. In retrospect, many adults seemed to feel the same way, or so Star Trek producers believed. Years later, of course, I realize that the Trill philosophy of wanting to prevent symbionts from “limiting their experiences by relationships from their previous lives” was another way of stating that people were uncomfortable with two pansexual beings — who both happened to be women this time around — from continuing and having new experiences with their relationship. You can say that it was the nineties and that we weren’t “quite there yet” (and we still aren’t in a lot of ways), but when I look back at that episode and even my own naivete and ignorance, I feel a kind of righteous anger that they couldn’t pursue that relationship further.

There are many other instances of how Star Trek poorly handled their depictions of gender and ethnic diversity, but there is one other story line that particularly got to me: though not, again, until recent years. There was a story arc between Miles O’Brien, his wife Keiko, and the Bajoran Major Kira Nerys embodied best by the episode “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places.” Due to a potentially lethal accident, the O’Briens’ unborn son had to be transferred into Kira’s womb. During this episode, Kira moves in with the O’Briens so that they can take care of her in the meantime. Miles and Kira end up spending a lot of time together, which Keiko actively supports. Their family dynamic changes during this time and Miles and Kira actually end up developing feelings for each other. Nothing comes of this, however, and after she carries the child to term Kira leaves the O’Briens.

I definitely remember being distinctly uncomfortable with this arrangement at the time: seeing the two characters bordering on cheating. Certainly, while life happens in chaotic ways, their situation was no time to develop a relationship. But now I can’t help but feel that there were a few possibilities in how that relationship could have turned out. While the resonance feels more like something Robert A. Heinlein would create as opposed to Gene Roddenberry or other like-minded writers, it would have been fascinating to see a polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship dynamic form from that particular episode: another kind of diversity and representation in a futuristic series priding itself on philosophical and human progress.

Kira Miles and Keiko

Even so David Mack, in his own open letter, states that “those of us who write the licensed Trek fiction continue to do our best to depict a more progressive, enlightened, open, and harmonious future, not just for humanity but for all sentient beings.” And maybe it was these words, along with seeing Dax and Kahn again, that reminded me that although the writers of Star Trek couldn’t be too radical, they pushed the envelope of diversity as far as they thought they could: particularly in Deep Space Nine.

It’s funny. When I think about it, Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 both aired more or less during the same time period. Perhaps that’s why I mentioned both programs in the context of this article. Maybe it reminds me of how different I am from the child and adolescent I used to be. But I also learned something new. David Mack, in his rebuttal to his anonymous reader over the accusation of “remoulding the Vulcan persona to suit himself,” quotes the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It even has its own symbol worn by many Vulcans: including Spock himself. Whether or not Gene Roddenberry created the symbol to sell merchandise is kind of irrelevant but it reminds me of something else. I realized that even if that utopian ideal is unrealistic and will never happen, it is something to strive for. That sense of hope and wonder in the form of sheer possibility and diversity is what Star Trek is, and what it should ultimately be about.

This is what speculative fiction and geekdom should be about: what it should be the vanguard for.

David Mack, in not only being unashamed of the lesbian relationship between his two characters but even supporting and rejoicing in it, states that he will continue to support diversity in his writing. When you look at current fandom and some of its displeasure over other changes or recent iterations in franchises such as a Black Captain America, Thor now being a woman, and a female lead in a Spider-Man film you begin to realize something else. Not only is diversity important in representing various people in the franchises that they love, but it is utterly integral in keeping those worlds fresh and alive: keeping them changing.  Closed mindsets will be maintained and never challenged. No one will care about stories that never change or make them feel a part of them.

Without diversity, without change, genres and mediums will die.

It is my hope that writers such as David Mack continue to travel these places and bring us along on the ride: to make a place where a story is judged by the quality of its writing and interactions and not solely by an idea that hasn’t been fully fleshed out, or reactionary responses.

To boldly go where no one has gone before, or to go to where other people go and you don’t.  Frankly, if this is a journey that doesn’t suit you, then you shouldn’t come for the ride. As for me, I want to see where these explorations will take me.