Geek Reads: The Disney Empire Strikes Back

In advance of the release of Episode VII in December, an avalanche of new Star Wars books has begun. Have you felt it? There are novels and comic books, with many more illustrated histories and sticker books for fans of every age demographic on the way. The marketing juggernaut is impressive, most impressive. I’m not sure that I’m going to read every new book, but I’m also not sure that I’m not going to.

When it comes to Star Wars, I am an unabashed and unapologetic fan even with the full knowledge that I am being manipulated with cheap nostalgia. I’m OK with that, because I’m also being entertained by stories I wholeheartedly enjoy. As I’ve written elsewhere, the first Star Wars toys were vitally important to the beginnings of my own writing life. So too will the new stories and tie-in products inspire a generation of writers. I’m sure of it.

At their best, the Star Wars stories participate in the age-old tradition of epic storytelling. Since the clay tablets of Gilgamesh, humanity has told and retold the tale of a hero who leaves home to face tough challenges, make friends, and defeat the bad guy before returning safely (albeit having undergone some transformation) to Uruk, Ithaca, 7 Eccles St., the Shire, or Tatooine.

Since the clay tablets of Gilgamesh, humanity has told and retold the tale of a hero who leaves home to face tough challenges, make friends, and defeat the bad guy before returning safely (albeit having undergone some transformation) to Uruk, Ithaca, 7 Eccles St., the Shire, or Tatooine.

The basic tropes and archetypical characters of the canonical Star Wars stories (wizard and child warrior, pirate and princess) feel familiar to anyone who has read Tolkien or Rowling, Martin or Greek mythology; the tale is timeless and every generation gets its own version. For me and many Americans who grew up in the 1970s, I first encountered the hero’s journey — as Joseph Campbell called it — in a movie that was at first called Star Wars and has since been rebranded as Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.

What has changed, even in the few short years since Tolkien’s time, is evident in that new and ungainly title: commercial marketing.

As a property of the Walt Disney Company, Star Wars is above all else a commercial entity with the sole purpose of making money — that is, of taking money out of my wallet and giving it to Disney shareholders. It would be easy to be cynical and believe that the countless, profitable, and officially-licensed BB-8 toys are what really matter to Disney and the stories only exist to keep the droid factories pumping out more products.

At this particular moment in time, however, 23 days before The Force Awakens hits theaters, I still believe that the movies — unlike the three prequels — are going to be glorious. That the Disney Empire is going to continue to tell timeless stories and update them with exciting new wrinkles. My hope is that they will also become more inclusive and culturally sensitive, and the new movie posters indicate that that’s happening. Some of the new stories will likely be better than others, but it’s also true that some of the Gilgamesh tablets are terribly dull.

Star Wars aftermath

To pass the time until opening night, and for the sake of this column, I will be reading many of the new Star Wars novels, comic books, and whatever other literary (or to some snooty critics like myself, pseudo-literary) publications I find. The first book in the pump priming “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens” series is the novel Star Wars Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (Del Ray, 379 pages, $28). There exists no literary criterion by which I could call this a great novel — and yet I enjoyed it tremendously. Considering that I read it in two sittings, the problem is with my own critical faculties and not with the book. That’s a topic I will look at in future columns.

There exists no literary criterion by which I could call this a great novel — and yet I enjoyed it tremendously.

Set right after Return of the Jedi, the plot of Aftermath sounds a bit like a rewritten episode of the excellent cartoon series “Star Wars Rebels.” It follows the odd-couple adventures of a former Rebel pilot and a former Imperial officer who team up in an attempt to prevent the Galactic Empire from re-forming after the death of Emperor Palpatine. Wendig does a nice job of keeping the plot moving and making enough familiar references to previous Star Wars characters and events to sound authentic, and he does so despite what I can only imagine was a very difficult assignment.

As I understand it, there exists a new Lucasfilm Story Team whose job it is to create a new, consistent canon within the Star Wars universe. I wonder if that means that Wendig and authors of future books are handed the basic plot outlines and given the tough task of bringing them to life. To complicate that further, because the book is set between two movies (in this case Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens) readers can be fairly confident that very little of real substance is going to happen. We know that all the important events will be depicted instead in the movies, which will have vastly larger audiences. That aside, it turns out that the real reason for Star Wars fans to read Aftermath is the series of short interludes set throughout the galaxy and featuring characters old and new. Those are excellent and might be hinting at some things to come in Episode VII and beyond.

Aftermath does manage to fill in some details about characters we haven’t yet seen on the big screen, but it’s not going to spoil anything for us. The book has to be captivating without really saying much of anything — and it is. In terms of storytelling, that’s a tough tightrope to walk and I have an enormous amount of respect for Wendig and any writer who can sustain my interest so elegantly in such circumstances.

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