Kenobi and the Moment

I am currently enjoying some vacation, so I’ve been watching stuff on TV. There have been a couple of reasonably hype-laden series on this summer, so I have checked them out. Kenobi has been interesting, and I have some thoughts on it this week. Next week I’ll get into Stranger Things. (Originally I was going to do them both in one entry, but that’d be a long ‘un.) Spoilers ahoy, of course.

As I said, Kenobi has been interesting; it is another beautifully made and very well acted piece of Star Wars entertainment. I liked the new villain, and a character who feels so let down by the Jedi that she becomes a Jedi hunter packs some punch. In fact, it’s really the new characters that have most of the appeal of this show.

Despite my usual antipathy for ‘the spunky kid’ characters, Tiny Incorrigible Leia is a delight and to me, what we’re seeing with her is far more interesting than a bunch of Kenobi/Vader stuff that can’t possibly go anywhere. Leia finding her cause, though, and becoming who she’s going to be: that’s something. At the same time, though, that gets to the root of Kenobi’s biggest flaw.

The biggest problem with it is that as a story being wedged in between some other stories whose outcome we know, it’s harder than usual to suspend our expectations and buy into the drama the show is selling. More than usual, we know Leia isn’t going to die. We know Obi-Wan isn’t going to get killed, and we know that Luke Skywalker will remain a sulky kid on his uncle’s farm and not be put up against the wall by stormtroopers or hauled off to an Imperial gulag. The final episode has this huge swirling lightsaber duel/Force battle between Kenobi and Vader and despite the action and the visuals it is absolutely DOA because there are no stakes. We know neither character can have any lasting consequences, so on some level it feels like wasting time, time that could have gone to a story they could actually tell.*

Even the ‘climax’ of Reva arriving on the Skywalker ranch with a heart full of pain doesn’t really work because we know where we have to get to: Owen and Beru looking after Luke in that same place, Obi-Wan off in the desert. It’s somewhat like watching a hockey or baseball game where you already know the final score. Things that happen along the way to that destination can still be interesting, but ultimately you know it ends up Habs 3, Bruins 2.

So overall I had fun watching Kenobi, but didn’t feel like it had a lot of impact, until this one line from late in that last episode. Obi-Wan has come to see Leia on Alderaan, back safe with her family, and he says: ‘I fear for her future. The Empire grows stronger, and bolder.’ They couldn’t have known it when they wrote that scene, but man there could scarcely have been a more appropriate sentiment for late June/early July of 2022, when we can so clearly see forces at work, growing stronger and bolder, that make it hard not to fear for the future.

I was saying to a friend on Twitter today that I don’t think I had realized, growing up, how much I internalized the idea of progress, that society was improving, things were getting consistently better, and that such problems that weren’t currently fixed would get fixed later. I watched (without really understanding what was going on, at the time) the Morgentaler cases in Canada, I have seen gay couples win the right to marry, during the time I have taught there, the college where I work has added gender-neutral bathrooms. Lots has changed – not enough, but lots – and I had never really questioned the assumption that society would continue, at whatever rate, to move in that direction.

The last few years, and the last months in particular, have upended that, and it hurts. In Star Wars terms, I think I grew up assuming I was living at the end of Return of the Jedi, but perhaps we’re really in that awkward space where Disney is still trying to make more content: after the prequels, but before A New Hope.

It’s sobering to think that way, but I think it’s important to look at where we are, assess it honestly, and confront it. There are people in society who want to push things backwards, take away things that were fought for and hard-won. Womens’ rights. LGBTQ rights. Progress towards racial justice and religious freedom. It’s tempting to go live in the desert, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s what the moment requires.

There’s another nice moment from that last episode, with another of those new characters, where Kenobi tells insurgent leader Roken not to give up and stop what he’s doing. ‘I’m just getting started,’ Roken replies.

That’s where we need to be, too. Our fight is just getting started.

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Moon Knight

What’s this, back so soon?

Well, there’s a good reason, as between blog posts I finished watching the Moon Knight TV series.

I have thoughts.

I was a bit surprised when they announced that they were doing a Moon Knight series, since while I was growing up he was very much a C or maybe even D list character and certainly not who you would have been likely to pick as one of Marvel’s main draws. I guess he’s had a bit of a higher profile in more recent years, though, and I think that’s good because Moon Knight is pretty unique, as far as superheroes go.

As I understand it, Moon Knight started out very much as a Batman-with-the-numbers-filed-off kind of deal, but whether it was originally the plan or not, veered off fairly quickly into its own reasonably unplowed furrow of a superhero with mental illness. (We’ll pass by, for the moment, the thesis that all superheroes, by definition, have some kind of mental illness.) Moon Knight’s various cover identities were in conflict, eventually becoming entirely separate personalities that didn’t always get along. Eventually things got more complicated, with other identities emerging over time. The question of whether or not Moon Knight actually had any relationship with a real-on-some-level Egyptian god of the Moon or was just delusional about the whole thing has also been puttered around.

So I was very interested to see what would happen with an (in source material, anyway) unquestionably mentally disturbed superhero when Moon Knight was announced. Overall, I think they did the right thing and really embraced the character’s strangeness and made what was going on in the main character’s head about three quarters of what the show is about.

There is, of course, a Nefarious Plot underway that needs thwarting (suitably rooted in Egyptian mythos) but it’s unquestionably secondary to figuring out exactly what is going on with the show’s protagonist. I’ve seen some people express frustration at not getting more of Moon Knight in action, but ultimately I think going all-in on what makes the character something we haven’t seen before, even at the expense of some punchy-kicky stuff, was the right call.

To me, they also struck about the right balance of having the show keep you off balance and wondering exactly what was going on at different moments without ever being completely impenetrable. I’ve grown a bit frustrated with ‘puzzle box’ style shows in recent years, mostly because they make me feel thick and I get enough of that in my regular life already. I thought Moon Knight always left you enough of a thread to follow that you had a least a general idea of what was happening, even while there was a lot of uncertainty.

I also really enjoyed the character of Layla, who as far as I can tell was a new creation for the show. She’s a little similar to Marlene from the comics, but reimagined to be Egyptian and (without spoiling things) elevated beyond sidekick/love interest status. She ends up in a very cool place in the series’ last (for now?) episode and I hope we’ll see more of her somewhere.

I’m not really sure how well Moon Knight would mesh with the rest of the MCU – which is often a problem for the character in the comics, as well. I think it was a cool idea to bring one of Marvel’s more unusual creations to the screen in this way, and I’d definitely be in if they decided to do more Moon Knight.

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A thing like unto a blog post

So I haven’t written one of these for a bit again. I’ll explain why.

A while back, Netflix did this series of Marvel ‘TV’ shows that garnered a lot of attention. Daredevil was first, then we got Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, The Punisher, Iron Fist, and then a sort of team-uppy one of The Defenders. People really liked Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and then were varying degrees of more critical of the others, down to Iron Fist, which got (and gets) the most static.

Perhaps predicatably, perhaps not, though, I am a huge fan of Iron Fist*. It’s not because I was a fan from the comics – he was just a character I was vaguely aware of. In typical backwards fashion, the show led me to seek out Matt Fraction’s run writing the comics, which I’ve mentioned before and love a lot. But that’s not why I like the show so much.

To be clear, I did like Daredevil and Jessica Jones a great deal, but I think Iron Fist is better because Danny Rand has, for me, the best character arc of any of the Netflix Marvel shows. When we meet him, he’s pretty annoying in the way that only someone who has spent literally their entire life being told how special they are can be, and he’s especially childish about his role as the Iron Fist and his role in fighting the Hand as a thing that is only about him and something only he can do. I 100% get why that immediately rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

However. If you hung in with it through the whole run of the series, though, by the end of it Danny has changed tremendously. First of all, he’s learned to use a lot of help. Second, although in the show’s universe there absolutely does need to be an Immortal Iron Fist to stand against the unstoppable hordes, Danny has learned that it doesn’t have to be him, and that in fact he’s probably not the right person to do it. He gives the job or role or whatever of being the Iron Fist to Colleen Wing, because she’ll be better at it than he will.

I love that arc of recognizing that yes, there needs to be someone who does a big important thing, but it doesn’t have to be him, and in fact there’s probably someone else who can do it better, and stepping back. Knowing that you don’t have to be the title character.

What does that have to do with me not writing the blog?

Well look, some of why I haven’t been writing many of these has just been the world and the moment we’re in, and that I’ve been tired and stressed and that writing the blog is something that I can let go of to give myself a little bit more of a break with the stuff that I absolutely have to handle.

But even so, there have been a few times where I’ve had a notion to write a thing, and even sat down to do it, but thought a little more and wondered: ‘Do I really need to weigh in on this?’ and ultimately decided that nah, the world (to whatever extent it is reached via this here blog here) does not need my take on whatever thing.

I Have Thoughts on all sorts of things, but I also increasingly recognize that they’re also often not especially expert thoughts. The invasion of Ukraine really crystallized this for me when historians (including me) were losing their minds about all the historically illiterate takes that were flying around from people who knew nothing about history but were suddenly feeling like they should weigh in with their historical analysis. That happens kind of a lot, and it’s kind of exasperating.

I do not want to be that exasperating guy. I am also pretty intensely aware that the world is not exactly starving for the perspective of yet another white cishet straight dude, and it’s probably more valuable for me to make space (in whatever small way) in the conversation for other voices. So, I keep shitcanning a lot of those blog ideas, and I feel all right about it.

Maybe this is just me giving myself permission to be lazy, I don’t know. I guess I need to think about what to do with this blog, also. But I thought I’d explain why I haven’t been doing this as much. I’ll come up with something, I’m sure.

For now, something from Marcus Aurelius that also crystallized this issue for me. “You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you.” You don’t have to weigh in on every god damned thing, much as the internet seems to encourage and almost demand that of us at times.

Neither do I. But I’ll try to figure out something to write here a bit more regularly.

Thanks for reading.

*-There are absolutely problematic elements of the whole character of Iron Fist as part of the ‘white master of Kung Fu’ genre that was really A Thing for a while, and arguably at least that hasn’t gotten any better. You could almost certainly write a better, less cultural-appropriationy Iron Fist character if you sat down to do it. But, the show adapted Danny Rand, the character from the comics, and I would argue did a solid job of it.

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Dread

Once again current events are such that I feel like I have to write something about them; as I write this Ukraine has been invaded by its neighbour Russia, or more precisely by the geopolitical power calculations of Vladimir Putin, who hearkened back to the standoffs and tension between Russia and NATO that we briefly believed in the 1990s were behind us.

Suddenly it was all back, Russia rather than the USSR but otherwise identical to exchanges of threats and posturing about spheres of influence and legitimate security concerns very much of a Cold War vintage, except that this was worse because it has actually burst forth into military conflict in Europe.* Along with that came the threat of nuclear weapons being used; first implicitly, as Putin warned off anyone from intervening to protect Ukraine, and then rather more explicitly as news ‘leaked’ about Russia’s nuclear forces being put on high alert.

It was almost certainly a calculated bit of saber-rattling, and I have no doubt that the alert status was already pretty high as soon as the Russian tanks started to roll, but it was still something I guess I thought I had seen in the headlines for the last time, a long time ago, and it also brought back a particular kind of dread, also from a long time ago. I imagine it had a unique manifestation for each of us who lived through any part of the Cold War, but with the same root cause – the fear of all those nuclear bombs and missiles being used at last, and what that would mean not ‘just’ for a war, and not ‘just’ for servicemen and servicewomen directly involved in armed conflict, but for the whole planet.

I can remember quite well how it started for me.

I was quite young, something like 7 I think, and my father watched a TV program one evening that somehow involved nuclear missiles. Obviously the details about the show didn’t stay with me, but the overall effect did. At the time our house was close enough to the Toronto airport that it wasn’t uncommon to hear jets overhead. Not super close like if you were on the landing approach, more of a distant noise, similar to the train whistle that I would also sometimes hear lying in my bed at night.

However, after watching at least part of the show on ICBMs, my feeling about those jets changed. Obviously now I know that a missile wouldn’t sound anything like a passenger jet, but for many nights I remember being under my blankets, trying to sleep, with a new, imperfect understanding that there was something Up There and that it could be a devastating weapon, being used for reasons I really didn’t understand.

Also obviously that understanding changed as I grew up, but for a good part of my childhood it was part of the world’s baseline assumption: that there was a not-exactly-zero chance that the world’s two superpowers could end up in a war that would devastate the planet. It was kind of a background nagging fear of mine for many years, as it was for many people – the idea of annihilation for reasons that were not at all under your control.

Basically everyone I had a conversation with about this had planned for it to some extent, and I think the two essential kinds of plans probably serve(d) as some kind of Rorschach-like psychological insight: either you had thought about where you would go and what you would do to survive a nuclear war and its aftermath, or (like me) you had thought about where you would go and what you would do to be sure that you didn’t.

All of which to say – like a lot of things, fear of nuclear war was something that we were supposed to have left behind a long while ago, and I was a little surprised how quickly that nagging background fear returned. I mean on one level, you tell yourself that no-one is actually insane enough to really do it, and unleash that particular horror, but down just a little deeper: how certain are you? People have persuaded themselves that all sorts of awful things were either necessary, or even good. In this particular case, Putin has pretty much pushed in all his chips over this Ukraine thing. Do you have a thought about where you would go, what you would do, when there was suddenly no safe place at all to be?**

Anyway, if the worst thing I have to worry about coming out of all this is just that, the (presumably temporary) return of an old worry, that’s really not so bad at all in the grand scale of things. I hope, somehow, that the people of Ukraine will retain their freedom and their homeland, that the bloodshed will end soon, and that perhaps there’s some kind of solution for the threat Vladimir Putin presents to the rest of the world.

I wish, essentially, for an end to the dread.

Thanks for reading.

* – I’m aware that I am greatly oversimplifying a lot about the Cold War and leaving out the proxy wars and background struggles that meant that the Cold War was far from the bloodless confrontation it is often imagined or presented as, but I’m not the right person to write authoritatively about it, and I don’t want to make this thing super long tonight.

** – Of course this is probably the kind, or at least level, of concern we should be having anyway, about the effects of climate change on the planet, and many of us do. Again, trying to keep this short(ish).

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Update!

And we’re back (again!) after missing last week because honestly, I wasn’t having a very good week.

This one won’t be super long either because the main thing I want to do is, for the first time in a long while, do an update on an actual thing I wrote! I think I said a while ago that the novel I have been calling Heretic Blood was accepted for publication by the same press that did my other two novels, Renaissance Press.

We’re moving forward with that, aiming to have the book out sometime in the fall. Part of ‘moving forward’ has been a title change – the book is (at the moment) now called Easter Pinkerton and the Case of the Heretic Blood, which was what I originally wanted to call it (thinking that it has more of an old-timey feel) but shortened because, wow, that’s a long title. Anyway, Renaissance is happy with the long, original idea title, so that’s what we’re calling the book.

I’ve also seen concept art for the cover (which I unfortunately can’t share yet) and have gotten the first round of edits back. Seeing art that will eventually be the cover for a book I wrote is always super cool, and although editing is a lot of work, a) it’s making the book better and b) it just feels good to be doing actual writer things again after finding it a struggle for as long as I have. I need to chew through these as quick as I can so that we can keep our progress towards the book being ready for readers, but I’m also kind of hoping that this might break the ice a bit on getting me back writing some new material too.

So these are exciting times, albeit busy ones!

I am very much looking forward to being able to put Easter Pinkerton and the Case of the Heretic Blood into your hands! I’m pretty proud of the story, it contains probably my favourite character that I’ve ever created, and I really hope you’ll like it.

Thanks for reading.

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Occupation

So I guess I’m finally going to write something about that occupation that showed up where I live.

I had considered it last week, but a) this isn’t typically that sort of blog and b) I sort of assumed that it would all be over in another day or two. That speaks to one of the basic things that was certainly true about the convoy of protestors who arrived in Ottawa a little over a week ago now – a lot of people misunderstood what was happening.

I absolutely include myself in that. If you cared to go back and look, I know I was pretty dismissive of the whole thing on Twitter, in particular. In some ways I could argue that I wasn’t entirely wrong – in terms of numbers, the group that showed up is not particularly large and nothing like the 50,000 trucks some people had told us to expect. However, in terms of impact, meaning lives disrupted and damage inflicted, far greater than expected and, of course, still ongoing as I write this.

I don’t have any particular insight into the composition and motivation of the convoyeurs that you can’t get in superior fashion from better informed commentors, so I won’t try to dig into that. I will say that the level of misdirected and generalized anger, and open expression of extremist points of view, is far greater than I would have ever expected to see in protest in Canada. I really didn’t expect to see the Nazi flag. I didn’t expect the bullied soup kitchen workers, the threats of rape, the assaults on people just trying to go about their lives. That has been disheartening, and sobering.

I’m profoundly disappointed in how the people of Ottawa have been let down by the city’s government and police force. They obviously read the protest even more badly than I did, and allowed it to turn into a crisis that has brought fear and pain to many people who live here, and that still has no clear solution. To me this is the most important insight to come out of all of this.

A lot of people have pointed out that one of the things the COVID pandemic has done and is doing is to expose a great many of the inequalities that were already present in our society. How we react to that is obviously yet to be determined, but I think in a similar way what the occupation has done is expose the fragility of the authorities that we often consider to be quite powerful. It’s quite something to hear to chief of police say that he can’t solve the problem before him.

To me this clarifies a lot of criticisms of policing in Canada and especially how vulnerable communities have been told they should feel about the police. The response to criticism has often been, essentially, that the day will come when we’re all grateful the police force is there. Well, the day came for the people of downtown Ottawa, and their police force wasn’t actually able to do anything for them. That’s an important piece to add to the conversation about policing and police reform in Canada, but also (I think) to how we should see our society overall.

This goes back to things I learned about medieval society. If (god help you) you read my PhD thesis, you will find that one of the things I said is that this was a society largely run by community consensus; people behaved in particular ways and adhered to particular standards because that was what the community expected of them. I remember in one of our early conversations, my PhD supervisor said that this was probably basically true of modern society as well. As she put it, do we really not shoplift because we’re afraid the police will immediately arrest us, or is it that we’re concerned about what the people we know and interact with will think if they know we’re a thief?

I think recent events in Ottawa have shown she was more or less right on, because we can see very clearly what happens when a fairly small number of people just refuses to follow the consensus. There’s not actually that much that can be done if they decide they just don’t care that they’re ‘not supposed’ to do certain things, as it turns out.

I’m not saying this to suggest that we would be better off living in some kind of Judge Dredd-like situation where there are mighty fists of authority waiting to smash down on misbehaviour. But I do think this reminder (which is really what it is) that almost all of the standards of behaviour that we have for society are basically opt-in rather than something we can compel people to follow is potentially an important one. On a basic (and somewhat distressing) level, it means that we do need to be prepared, probably in a variety of ways, to look after ourselves and our own communities, because institutions probably cannot do it.

We should probably also think about how it was that (say) medieval society ticked along for as long as it did without anything that even approached the coercive institutions we have today. How was that consensus, that feeling of responsibility to community, created and maintained? This is not to say that I think medieval society was better – we’d all be deeply unhappy if suddenly chucked into it, and so much of the framework of society is so very different that their model would not work for us even if we wanted it to.

But, however important those differences are, as we’ve seen again over the past 10 days in Ottawa, we live in a society bound far more by consensus than anything else. It sticks together and it works when we are a group of people with some basic agreement about how we relate to one another and what kinds of actions are tolerable. It breaks down very quickly when there are people willing, on some level, to just ignore those communal assumptions. I think there’s a lot of work to do figuring out how to refashion the connections that mean we have a society to begin with, if it can be done.

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In happier news, I finished watching Season 1 of The Mandalorian and what I am optimistically telling myself is Season 1 of Hawkeye. I’m not going to thoroughly dissect either, but did think that I’d report back to say that my initial impressions were more or less maintained. To me, The Mandalorian is a good show, a fun one to watch and has great production values, but not one that is really doing anything I haven’t fundamentally seen before. Subjective though it be, I had more fun watching Hawkeye, and Kate Bishop remains an absolute delight.

Anyway, that’s it for me this week. Thanks for reading.

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Rorschach

So I’m not quite ready to do the topic I had in mind this week, but do want to get weekly blog entries back to being a habit, so scrambling around I land on … Rorschach from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This isn’t entirely a random brain eccentricity – in the past few days I have seen a few people on social media complaining about how people who read Watchmen come away thinking that Rorschach is cool, when one of the overall messages of the work is that superheroes in general, and Rorschach in particular, are fairly terrible.

The thing is that I can partly understand it because, just as Younger Me was big into Boba Fett (as he deftly links back to earlier blog content), Younger Me also had some affinity for Rorschach when I first read Watchmen, back in the very dusty past when the comic was not that old. Part of it is that he has a bunch of scenes that do make him seem like kind of a badass, and things like the ‘I’m not locked up in here with you, you’re locked up in here with me’ is an objectively cool line. He has a striking visual design, which (as we’ve discussed with Boba Fett) can get you a long way. So, especially for a teen audience, maybe not a surprise that some people read the book and think the character is cool.

I know for me that part of it as well is that some of Rorschach’s view on the world are at least understandable. He becomes a vigilante because of the evil things he’s seen people do with no consequences. His big reveal of the central horror that tipped him over into ‘really’ being Rorschach instead of ‘just Kovacs pretending’ is striking, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. I’m still not actually sure that he’s wrong that what makes the awful things that people do truly horrifying is that there is no plan or purpose behind it, it’s just that people do evil things to each other. I’m certainly not saying it therefore makes sense to become a murderous vigilante, but … I’m not sure he’s wrong about that.

So, there’s parts of the Rorschach character that, I think, it makes sense that readers, and maybe especially a certain kind of reader grab onto. At the same time, Moore works pretty hard to indicate that this actually isn’t a character you’re supposed to like. His political and social views are so extreme that they’re right on the line of caricature. The same with his violence – it’s exaggerated to a nearly ridiculous level, which I think is supposed to clearly communicate both that no, this is not a good guy, and also something about the idea of ‘the superhero’ overall: that actually, if we had people in odd costumes running around taking the law into their own hands, we probably wouldn’t like the way that looks very much.

You can definitely read Rorschach as a character who starts out with arguably good intentions and allows his single-minded devotion to a perceived cause to take him to very bad places. That’s an idea that probably has some resonance in the current context. But, the people complaining on social media are right – there’s a lot of people who just seem to unproblematically approve of the character, in a way that I’m not sure even Young Me did.

I think part of the answer is just Viewpoint Character Syndrome – we see a lot of the story of Watchmen via Rorschach and so it’s not a mammoth surprise that readers connect at a certain level with the character. It also probably doesn’t hurt (or help, depending how you think about it) that Rorschach is right about a lot to do with the book’s central mystery. The Comedian’s murder was more than it appeared. There was a conspiracy targeting ‘superheroes’. There’s a lot wrong about Rorschach and his world view, but I think a lot of readers tend to like the character who was (at least partially) proven right.

To me that speaks to the depth and complexity of Watchmen – Rorschach was right about the existence of a conspiracy, and I think most readers would agree with his assessment that it was an appalling one. But I don’t think you’re meant to come away from the story with the conclusion that that means he was right about everything. Every character in Watchmen has the things they’re right about, things that are questionable, and things I think we’re meant to see as wrong. Rorschach is an intolerant arch-conservative bigot, and by the ‘present’ of the comic he’s a vicious murderer as well. I don’t think Alan Moore intends us to approve of that, even if there are some things he was right about in his brokenness and illness.

Thinking of it as a writer, I think that while it’s not exactly easy to create characters that are unproblematically Good or Evil (he says from experience), it’s definitely very hard to create a character that your audience will love parts of while hating others. It’s also a bit of a risk, because you can’t exactly be sure your audience will read a multi-levelled character in the way that you did, creating them. I think it speaks to a level of confidence in your intended reader when you hand them a complicated character and trust that they’ll figure it out.

I haven’t read enough interviews with Moore to know how frustrated he is with how Rorschach, and the rest of his Watchmen characters, have been interpreted and consumed by readers. I do think it says a lot about the complexity and richness of the work he did that people are still chewing it over so many years later.

That’s it for me this week. Thanks for reading.

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Hawkeye and The Mandalorian

So I have finally watched (an episode of) The Mandalorian, by all accounts the last person on the planet to do so.

I didn’t mean for it to take this long, exactly. It started out that I just didn’t want another streaming service, and then it got to be a bit of a grimly-held principle that I wasn’t going to cave and get Disney Plus. But (as is of course the strategy) they kept piling more and more things that I wanted to watch up on there, and the cable company has a ‘free for a year’ deal on, so finally the time had come.

As I write this (slightly late, for reasons), I have watched the first episode of The Mandalorian. I’m sure I will have more to say later, but here are my very belated thoughts.

First reaction was that this show is gorgeous. It’s indistinguishable in terms of how things look on screen from what you’d expect in the movies, so it feels like Star Wars right off the hop. There’s a lot of familiar thematic elements as well, with a super-sketchy dive bar, rickety technology, and a planet where people co-exist with abruptly lethal wildlife. There are Stormtroopers, kind of the ‘and it comes with fries’ of the Star Wars setting. I really enjoyed that they made IG-11 move in ways that were clearly inhuman and also made sense for how a robot might move.

So lots of plusses. And, before I go any further, I enjoyed ep. 1 and my feeling at the end of it was very much ‘yeah, I’ll watch the rest of this.’ Which I guess is all you want as a writer/showrunner, when it comes down to it.

I also had a sort of nagging grumpiness (over and above my usual) about what I’d seen, and I think the reason is simply this: it was beautiful, it was entertaining, and I had an underlying feeling of having seen this all before. The grim, lone wolf, anti-hero protagonist with the tragic past. The even-more-sinister (we assume) antagonist. The “it’s just business” job that will clearly turn out to be So Much More.

I know part of this is that the intent behind the show was very clearly to do a Western in the Star Wars universe, and a lot of this is sort of classic to the genre. Even so, I guess I can’t help feeling that we’ve basically met this character before, very many times and in very many contexts, so I’m not that excited about him. Yes, yes, you like those odds. You’re death on legs. You are also the ‘fries with that’ of a great many stories. (And yes, I’m aware that this type of character gets reused because they’re effective. Fries are delicious.)

Also – and, I acknowledge, this sits a bit uneasily with my affection for how Star Wars is a grimy and knocked-about vision of Life in Space – I am a little sceptical about the decision to set a grim and gritty story in the Star Wars universe at all. Like, you can do it, but why? To me, a gonzo setting like Star Wars with giant ships and galaxy-spanning empires and laser swords makes sense as a stage for the epic and the heroic. If you throw all that stuff away to do your space Western, I’m left wondering why this is in the Star Wars setting at all, at least part of the answer to which is probably that people will underwrite (and, less cynically, watch) a Star Wars space Western where they wouldn’t do the same for a story in a different setting. So yes, of course you can do Star Wars without the Jedi. I’m just not entirely sure why, when that’s so much of the setting’s DNA, but look, this is a genre unto itself by now that lots of creatives are mining for all it’s worth.

I Have Thoughts about the decision to make the show about a Mandalorian at all, but I think I’ve already been through them pretty much on here, and this is already going to be a long one. Because I watched ep. 1 of The Mandalorian, enjoyed it, but then didn’t immediately watch ep. 2. There was something else I wanted to check out.

I watched episode 1 of Hawkeye.

Hawkeye is one of the things on that vast pile of stuff I want to watch that tipped me over into finally getting Disney Plus. I was a bit sceptical because movie Clint Barton is pretty different from comics Clint Barton, but though I have been a Star Wars fan for a very long time, a bit more recently, the Fraction and Aja run on the Hawkeye comics was one of my very favourite things. So when I heard this series is heavily influenced by it, I knew I wanted to watch.

Episode 1 was awesome. Also visually amazing, slick-looking, slides right into the MCU. But, that’s not the main reason I liked it, a lot.

Kate Bishop is great. Part of what I loved about the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye is the dynamic between her and Clint, which is very unlike most hero/sidekick relationships. For one thing, it’s not ‘hero/sidekick’ – they’re both Hawkeye. To Clint, Kate is spoiled rotten and the most gifted archer he’s ever seen. To Kate, Clint is old and uncool but also exactly what she needs to be the hero she’s becoming. It’s pretty great.

Based on ep 1, this show absolutely nails Kate. She’s tremendously good at stuff, probably that tick too confident, definitely a little more brave than she should be. Impertinent. Idealistic. Kind of a mess under it all. We haven’t seen as much of how this show is going to portray Clint, and it’s obviously not going to be much of comics-Clint, with his carnie background and disaster bachelor personal life, but the way they have been setting him up is promising. Family guy, seems mostly sort of done with wanting to be Hawkeye, some rough baggage from the time when he was. I can see this working.

I am much more excited to see where Hawkeye goes (although, still haven’t watched ep. 2, partly for symmetry and partly because I gotta sleep) because I don’t feel like these are characters I’ve seen a bunch of times. Obviously I’ve read some stories about Kate Bishop, but I haven’t seen her story on my screen yet, and man I really want to.

Bringing this back around to The Mandalorian, I had a brief hope when the show was first announced that it was going to be the further adventures of Sabine Wren from Rebels, another unique character I love a lot. A Mandalorian in that now-ubiquitous armour, sure. But an artist who is as much about bright colours as big explosions, symbolism as much as gun fights. That’s a character who I would love to see more of.

Maybe she’ll show up in The Mandalorian eventually. I’ll get there.

Thanks for reading.

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Silverview

Late last fall, I had a pleasant surprise when I read a newspaper article which revealed (to me, anyway) that there was one final John Le Carre novel coming. When Le Carre passed away in 2020, I had thought Agent Running in the Field would be the last story we’d get from him, but it turned out that he had one more novel that was close to completion and he had asked his son to bring Silverview to publication.

I’ve talked about my affection for Le Carre stories and admiration for his craft several times on this thing, so no surprise I am sure that I was very excited by this, and sat down to read Silverview over the Christmas holidays with a lot of anticipation, and pleasure.

I’m not going to do a review of the book, because I don’t really do them at all, but very briefly if you dig Le Carre’s usual oeuvre of modern espionage and the people caught up in it, you’ll enjoy Silverview. As usual it’s much more about the people who live with secrets and the things those secrets do to them than anything 007-y, and although it isn’t set in his George Smiley continuity, nevertheless some of these characters may be comfortably familiar to people who have read a bunch of his stuff.

I liked it a lot.

It is very much the sort of thing you would expect a Le Carre story to be, which brings to mind something I saw on Twitter recently, basically that no-one really ever seems to have said to Agatha Christie: ‘what, you’re writing another murder?’ Writers are told a lot that they need to do something different things all the time and that our next story shouldn’t be anything like the last one we did. While there is certainly merit to challenging oneself and pushing limits as an artist, there’s also not a thing wrong with a) telling the kind of stories you love, no matter what they are and b) doing what you know you’re good at. It’s ok to pick the thing that you know how to do and you have a lot to say about and let that be how you express yourself.

There was also an interesting afterword by Nick Cornwell (the aforementioned son) where he wrote a bit about his father and his writing, and about Silverview in particular. He points out that it’s actually a bit unlike a lot of Le Carre’s spy stories, because <<<<SPOILER ALERT>>>> it ends with at least raising the question of whether intelligence agents and agencies like the ones Le Carre worked with and for accomplished anything worthwhile, and sort of suggests the answer is ‘no’. As Cornwell says, that’s not like most of Le Carre’s work that usually holds onto the idea that there was something of merit behind it all. That’s the conclusion George Smiley is still holding onto when we last see him.

Anyway, Cornwell suggests that perhaps it was Silverview that was left unpublished because it was hard for his father to arrive at that conclusion, or have one of his stories get there, anyway. I think that speaks to how a lot of writers are working through our own issues and dilemmas through our writing, and sometimes that does either mean that writing is a learning process for us too, or that sometimes we end up with a story that took us somewhere uncomfortable. Obviously I don’t know if either of those things were true for John Le Carre and Silverview, but it’s interesting to think over.

One last thing – this is not a book in which everything is ever spelled out for the reader. It’s up to you to connect some of the dots and figure out exactly what it was that happened in the shadows that got all the characters we met to the various places we see them in. There’s basically no action. The opening scene is a conversation where we don’t really know what is going on (what’s hinted at is compelling) and then we don’t see the characters involved in it again for about half the book.

To be clear, I love all this. Almost all the scenes are dialogue, either literal conversations or the internal dialogue of our main character, but Le Carre is so good at it that I could read various Le Carre conversations basically forever, and his use of language is such that you can, if you’re paying attention, put together a series of pieces and figure out how they fit, even without the solution being spelled out for you. My only complaint is that I can’t really read his stuff when I’m getting tired, because to really get the most out of it you have to be paying very close attention. But that close attention is rewarded.

So obviously I like the style, but I also take this all as a comfort to me as a writer because his stuff doesn’t at all follow the various Commandments of Writing that are thrown around so liberally. And look, I think all of those things are generally well-intentioned, and there’s a lot of value in learning some rules before you start breaking the rules, and all that sort of thing. But, if you look around there’s also tons of evidence that you can create art people will love without rigid adherence to a set of precepts. As someone who tends to write stories that don’t necessarily start with KABOOM and who also writes a lot of dialogue, even though I don’t do it half so well as John Le Carre I still like the reminder. That there isn’t only one way to tell a good story.

John Le Carre told us a bunch of them, and it was a wonderful treat to get that one more.

Thanks for reading.

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The Green Knight

Ok, so first of all the ‘why wasn’t there a blog entry on Tuesday?’ is especially embarrassing this time around because I fully intended to do one and (as you’ll see in a second) even have a topic this time. On the other hand, I also, ah, forgot it was Tuesday until this (Wednesday) morning. I blame the pandemic-isolation effect a good friend of mine has christened ‘Blursday’ under which time has no meaning.

Anywho, happy Blursday and on with the blog.

I finally got around to watching The Green Knight over the holidays, which (as you probably know/have guessed) is an adaptation of the medieval poetic story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, somewhat inexplicably inflicted on non-specialist undergraduates at many universities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I Have Thoughts. Also fair warning that spoilers for Green Knight lie ahead, so if you have somehow waited even longer than me to watch it, either go watch Green Knight and then come back, or maybe spoilers don’t bother you, in which case tally ho!

Broad strokes first: I liked it! It definitely is not a Rousing Fantasy Epic, so if you are looking for a lot of ‘YAAAA CLEFT BY MINE BATTLE AXE!’ or ‘VALIANTLY, AGAINST YE NECROMANCER!’ moments, this is, uh, not that. Although anyone familiar with the source material would expect that. It is (to my untutored eye) beautifully shot and the performances (again, untutored) are very good, especially Dev Patel as Gawain. I think the movie does a great job of conveying the magical fantastic world of Arthur and his Knights, both in major elements like the creepy, elemental Green Knight and things like Suddenly, there are Giants!

Do I mind that they cast POC as Gawain, and his mother? I do not. There’s probably all kinds of layers to unpeel about how ethnicity factors into what is going on in Green Knight (still percolating, for me) but on first principles a) the actors in both cases are really good and b) we have scads of evidence that Britain (as with the rest of Europe) was always a mix of ethnicities to begin with. Arthur’s Round Table is multi-ethnic in the 12th century versions of the story, so there’s no reason it can’t/shouldn’t be in modern reworkings.

Is it a good adaptation of the poem? Well, that’s a complicated one. The broad strokes of the story are unquestionably there, with the arrival of the Green Knight at Camelot, Gawain taking up his challenge and getting burned in the ‘oh shit, not dead’ moment, and then having to gird himself to follow through with his half of the bargain. But, there are important differences!

First, there’s a lot of things that are added. Almost everything that happens after ‘oh shit, not dead!’ and Gawain’s arrival at the mysterious Lord’s castle is new material, as is the lady friend he leaves behind and the bit about his mother. (In the poem, we are told that Gawain goes through some shit getting to the lord’s castle, but the shit remains unspecified) On the whole, I think the new stuff fits into the fabric of the story quite well (as above) and also thematically: we see Gawain falling short of the ideals of chivalric knighthood in a variety of ways. Arguably, his problem with the battlefield scavenger stems from a failure of generosity and perhaps excessive pride, he screws up with St. Winifred by asking for a reward in return for his help, he doesn’t declare his love for his lady friend.

All of which fits with the thrust of the poem, that Gawain sets out having to do this crazy thing because of an agreement made on his honour, and ultimately fails to live up to the ideals of a knight by not entirely resisting the temptations of the Lord’s lady (in the movie, visually identical to his lady friend), not entirely keeping his word in giving the Lord everything that he himself received while staying at the castle, especially in concealing the magic sash/girdle that’s supposed to prevent him dying when the Green Knight gets his chance at cutting Gawain’s head off.

Which gets us to the larger and more important difference. The movie gives us a very ambiguous ending, in which Gawain (after really thinking it over) eventually reveals that he hasn’t really kept up his end of either bargain and submits to the Green Knight’s axe, for which he is praised … but then his fate is left to our imagination.

On the other hand the poem is very clear about what happens next: Gawain ends up with a tiny cut on the neck (that only because he had tried to conceal the sash), the whole thing is revealed as another of Morgan Le Fay’s underhanded schemes, and – here’s the most important part – it’s recognized that although Gawain failed to live up to chivalric perfection, he’s still ‘the most blameless knight in the land’ because he tried.

No-one (as the poem would have it, anyway) could possibly have come through these impossible situations any better. (Except, of course, Galahad, who is No Fun) Gawain tried, as hard as he could, to live up to this immense ideal, and even though he fell short, the effort was praiseworthy. In a sense that’s the them of the whole Arthurian story: a grand attempt to achieve something superhumanly great that ultimately doesn’t work out but is still admirable because trying to do it was good.

It’s interesting to me that David Lowery made this change, because it really changes the whole tone of the story. Gawain trying to do something, not really being able to manage it, and then probably dying at the end is, for sure, much more of an early 21st century vibe than the more generous message of the medieval version. The more positive outcome is of course possible, but there’s no hint of the epilogue/coda where Gawain returns to Camelot, explains what happens, is again told that he did as well as anyone could have, and Gawain swears to always wear a sash to remind himself of the time when he failed to behave honestly.

None of that fits especially comfortably with the grim and bleak staging of Green Knight, with its aged and exhausted looking King (never actually explicitly named as Arthur) and rather sinister Merlin. So, you can still get to the positive resolution from the poem, but I’d argue you’re rather reading against the grain of the film to get there. (The vision Gawain has about how shitty everything will turn out if he entirely skips on the Green Knight’s deal affirms a slightly different point of view that if you achieve greatness by being a shady jerk, it won’t really be what you wanted it to be)

I haven’t gone out and looked for interviews or anything to see what the intention of the change may have been, but from my own perspective it’s a downgrade. We’re in particularly difficult times right now, which might tempt us towards a cynical view of things, but maybe the message of the original, that it’s praiseworthy to try and be great, to try to do good in the world, even recognizing that we probably won’t achieve everything that we want to. We’ll fail, because we’re human, and what we do then is acknowledge that failure and then go and try to do better. That’s what poem-Gawain ends up doing, and to me that’s a fantastic message. Do your best. You’ll fuck it up. Mark those fuckups and then do better the next time.

None of this spoils Green Knight for me, and there’s loads more to chew on in a film that is steeped in symbolism and has messages layered on top of messages, but this is also a pretty long blog entry, so I’ll stop for now. I probably need to watch the film again, and then maybe I’ll come back and gnaw on it some more.

Thanks for reading.

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