Some Speculations on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Some Speculations on “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”

One of the things I like about the Star Wars movies is that they reward thought. If you pay attention, there are a lot of details in the films and those details fit together in ways that add depth to the galaxy in which the story is set. This is in stark contrast to so many other films which don’t reward thought — such as The Tuxedo or the film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which actually have the remarkable property of revealing entirely new levels of stupidity the more you think about them. Which, I suppose, is also an achievement in its own way.

What’s especially nice is that none of these details are dwelt on or spotlighted; they’re just there. That means Star Wars is one of the better examples of filmed science fiction, since it doesn’t waste time in elaborate explanations of its universe, it simply presents that universe as a going concern and expects the audience to pick up the details as it goes on.

I did a previous essay, speculating on various aspects of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Like that, this piece approaches the Star Wars films as source material for roleplaying games. That means what follows is chock-a-block full of spoilers. I’m going to assume everyone reading this has already seen all the films and is familiar with the various revelations made along the way. Those looking for advice on whether or not Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the sort of film they’d like to go see should go to any one of the hundreds of regular reviews the film has received. This discussion presumes those reading are familiar with the film and are interested in analysing it for what it tells us about the universe it’s set in. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want anything spoiled, you should stop reading now.

Star Wars as Serial

It’s no secret that Star Wars is based on the cliffhanger movie serials that flourished from 1912 to 1956. The text scrolling towards infinity that opens each movie is taken from the chapter openings of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). And the most recent film features a character — the clone leader working with Obi-Wan Kenobi — named Commander Cody, which I take as a deliberate tip of the hat to Commando Cody, who appeared in the serials Radar Men from the Moon (1952) and Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953). A nice acknowledgment of sources.

However, to work as a serial, it should be possible to watch the six movies in numerical/chronological order. As I pointed out in my previous essay, this was already difficult because the introduction of Yoda in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, with the gag that the annoying little green alien turns out to be the great Jedi master, is completely undercut by having Yoda appear in Episodes I and II. As it turns out, that’s the least of the problems, since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith undercuts (or blatantly telegraphs) almost every major revelation in the latter episodes.

Remember the big revelation of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back? The moment where Darth Vader tells Luke “No. I am your father.” An absolutely stunning moment. Well, if you watch Episode III before Episode V that revelation has no impact at all. Episode III makes it blatantly clear that Vader is Anakin Skywalker and that Luke is his son. Instead of being surprised, you’re left wondering why it took so long for someone to get around to telling the kid. Okay, Yoda hints at it, but Obi-Wan (Ben) just flat-out lies.

Or the exchange between Yoda and the spirit of Obi-Wan earlier in the Episode V:

Obi-Wan: That boy is our last hope.
Yoda: No. There is another.

Instead of sitting there wondering “Who? Who is this other?”, after seeing Episode III you will instead be sitting there wondering what’s wrong with Obi-Wan. I mean he was there at the birth alongside Yoda. He knows who the other is. Why has he forgotten? Does being dead degrade the memory? And the big revelation of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi that the other is Princess Leia and that she is Luke’s twin sister is, of course, rendered completely moot.

At the moment, it seems the only way to really watch Star Wars is in the order in which the films were made. Start with Episode IV: A New Hope, then Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Then swing back to Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and end with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Rather than working as a traditional serial, Star Wars is more like a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s like Pulp Fiction (1994); it starts in the middle and ends in the middle, with the chronological beginning and end of the narrative occurring along the way.

Now this isn’t a big deal if you’re mining the movies for background information. From that perspective, it really doesn’t matter what order the films are best viewed in. But it does come across as a failure of craft on the part of George Lucas. Ideally, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith should have ended with certain mysteries preserved and the impression that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker were different people. Sure, the audience would have known the answers to the mysteries and that Vader and Anakin were one and the same, but that should be because they’re familiar with where the story goes, not because the film goes out of its way to answer all the questions.

Or, perhaps not. Once Episode III: Revenge of the Sith comes out on DVD, I’ll sit down and watch all six movies in numerical order. I’ll see how the later episodes unfold in light of the earlier ones. Perhaps they’ll work in a different way, with things like the revelation of Luke’s parentage having a sense of suspense and tragic inevitability rather than surprise. We’ll see. But, for the moment, I’m feeling somewhat disappointed.

Republic and Empire

One of the joys of the prequel trilogy is watching Palpatine’s plot unfold. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many years involved with games in which players think “planning” means talking about making a frontal assault before launching it rather than just attacking without any discussion, but I really like Palpatine. Oh, sure, he’s evil, but at least he knows how to go about achieving his goals.

One of the things I noticed in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is Palpatine’s aides — a bald-headed woman (whom I’m informed is named Sly Moore) and a male with white horns or tentacles (who I’m informed is named Mas Amedda). These are the same aides he had in Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Mas Amedda (at least) is also seen assisting Chancellor Valorum in Episode I: The Phantom Menace. They are both obviously part of the Senate bureaucracy. As such, it makes sense that they should transfer over to working with Palpatine when he becomes Chancellor. However, the fact that keeps them on right up to the point where he declares himself Emperor (and, possibly, beyond; we really don’t see the capital planet Coruscant again after Episode III) suggests he’s very confident of their loyalty. Which, in turn, suggests something about how Palpatine came to power.

In the real world, Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) gained power by becoming the General Secretary of the Communist Party. While this title came to be synonymous with “leader of the Soviet Union”, it originally meant little more than what it said: “secretary”. You know, the person responsible for organising meetings, keeping the minutes, preparing official correspondence, overseeing the membership rolls, and so on. None of the other party members wanted the position because it involved all the mind-numbing trivia that goes with running any sort of large organisation. Stalin, however, realised that while the position required a lot of work, it also allowed him to exercise a great deal of hidden control. As General Secretary, it was Stalin who set the agenda for meetings, deciding what would be discussed and — perhaps more importantly — what wouldn’t be. Controlling membership rolls allowed him to stack party branches with his allies and to fill administrative positions with those who supported him — or, at least, didn’t oppose him. The General Secretary was the bottleneck through which all decisions passed and that gave whoever held the position a great deal of quiet and unobtrusive power. Stalin once said “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” And Stalin always made sure it was either him or his people who counted the votes.

Another real world example is J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972) who became head of the FBI in 1924 and held that position until he died. Though unelected, he wielded sufficient power that even successive Presidents were afraid of him and reluctant to go against his wishes. While Presidents and members of Congress (or, in the Star Wars universe, Chancellors and Senators) may come and go, the bureaucrats go on forever. For an amusing take on this phenomenon and how it affects the political system, one cannot do better than the British television series Yes, Minister (1980 – 84) and its follow-up Yes, Prime Minister (1986 – 88).

So, by the time of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the bureaucrats have ensconced themselves in positions of power and are the ones really running things. Palpatine even tells us as much:

Palpatine: If I may say so, Your Majesty, the Chancellor has little real power. […] The bureaucrats are in charge now.

Just as an aside, one of the interesting things about the Sith in the movies is how they all get better mileage out of telling the truth than by lying. Palpatine does it. In Episode II, Count Dooku tells Obi-Wan there’s a Sith Lord secretly controlling the Senate. Even Darth Vader’s revelation about being Luke’s father. It’s just that the heroes are reluctant to believe them. The Sith deceive not by lying, but by withholding information. By contrast, it’s the various heroes are who are occasionally rather loose with the truth.

We don’t know how far along the concentration of power in the hands of bureaucracy was when Palpatine arrived on Coruscant as the new Senator from Naboo. I’m inclined to think it was the usual level of petty privilege and empire-building one finds in any large administration; the sort of thing that can be annoying, but which can be overcome by effective leadership. Palpatine, however, recognised it as a path to power and seems to have gained control of Mas Amedda (and, presumably, others) allowing him to wield a great deal of control over events behind the scenes. He could tie up legislation in endless red tape and derail discussions with points of order. He could even indirectly influence the appointment of Senators — those who could be brought around to his way of thinking would find their proposals and initiatives progressing smoothly through the system; those who couldn’t would find their effectiveness limited. Since governments like those who get things done, members of the first group would be rewarded and re-appointed by their home systems; those of the second would be recalled and replaced. After a while, Palpatine would have a vast base of support within the Senate while appearing to be no more than a mild and inoffensive Senator from a small and distant system.

That such a base existed is obvious from the films. When Palpatine deposes Chancellor Valorum in Episode I he has no apparent difficulty in being nominated as a replacement and in winning the subsequent election. Part of that would have been a sympathy vote in reaction to the Trade Federation’s invasion and occupation of Naboo, but a large part of it had to be genuine support. Perhaps Palpatine’s base was not enough to get him elected without the addition of a sympathy vote, but a sympathy vote would not have been sufficient all by it self. By Episode II, the base has grown; which makes sense, since, as Chancellor, Palpatine would have been in an even better position to reward supporters, discredit opponents and to quietly corrupt the uncommitted. As we see in that film, once the proposal is made, Palpatine is voted his Emergency Powers without difficulty. And in Episode III that base seems to have grown to become a majority; when Palpatine declares himself Emperor, there’s thunderous applause. Doubtless, this reflects not only the growth of his own base, but also the removal of the Senators who would have formally represented the various systems that joined the Separatists.

Still, it’s worth noting, that for all the support he enjoys, Palpatine still uses cat’s paws in the first two episodes to initiate his moves. He manoeuvres Queen Amidala into calling for the vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum and Representative Jar Jar Binks into proposing that he be given Emergency Powers.

Another quick aside. In my last essay, I described Jar Jar as a “Senator”. Turns out that he’s not. He’s actually described as a “Representative”. Since the Galactic Republic doesn’t seem to be a bicameral system, that probably doesn’t mean that he’s a member of a House of Representatives or Commons in contrast to the Senate. Instead, it seems that while each system or region has one Senator, major groups within that system have Representatives who act as assistant- or vice-Senators, observing and advising the main Senator and able to act on the Senator’s behalf when the actual Senator is not available. A minor point, perhaps, but I think it’s worth noting. Especially if someone wants to run a game centred on the Old Republic Senate.

While there is a certain dramatic irony in having the heroes do the things that ultimately bring about the fall of the Republic, Palpatine’s manoeuvres do bring up the question: why doesn’t he just have one of his supporters initiate these moves? Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, while Palpatine may have control of the bureaucracy and various Senators, he doesn’t have wide public support. If an action proves sufficiently unpopular it could backfire on those seen as sponsoring it. Thus, Palpatine and his supporters need fall guys — Amidala and Jar Jar — who can take the blame in case things don’t work out. It’s not until Episode III that Palpatine is secure enough in his power to dispense with the cat’s paws and to announce the creation of the Empire himself.

Second, there seems to be a strong division between the public and private life. People seem to be willing to do and support all kinds of things privately, but want to project a different public image. It’s all about appearances. And, in fact, that’s one of the themes running through the series. In Episode I, Queen Amidala pretends to be one of her own handmaidens. In Episode II, Padme and Anakin pretend to be refugees and in Episode III they keep their marriage secret. Darth Vader’s armour disguises the fact that he’s Anakin Skywalker. Three of the four Sith we encounter have two identities — Palpatine/Darth Sidious, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader — and I’m willing to assume the fourth, Darth Maul, also had another name, it’s just that it was never revealed.

It’s this sort of duality — some might call it hypocrisy — that allows corruption to grow. Basically, the Galactic Republic seems to have fallen because it allowed its public life to become just a facade. No doubt, most people saw this as a sign of sophistication and Realpolitik — no-one could really support and live by all the ideals and principles they publicly espoused; all that was just for show. Or, as the Romans used to say, “the forms must be observed”, no matter what the underlying reality. But the overall effect of such attitudes is corrosive. Certainly, it weakened the system enough to allow Palpatine to bring about the collapse of the Republic.

From the Army of the Republic to the Forces of the Imperium

One of the surprises of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is that, against all expectations, it wasn’t Darth Vader who changed sides. It was everyone else. Throughout the film, we see various Jedi happily leading large numbers of Clone Troopers against Separatists fighting against the central government. In Episodes IV to VI, we see Darth Vader leading large numbers of Stormtroopers against a new group fighting against the central government. He’s stayed the same, while the surviving Jedi, Obi-Wan and Yoda, have gone from leading the Troopers to supporting those fighting against them.

Of course, that was after the Troopers turned against them. It’s interesting to note that the Jedi were exterminated by being fragged by their own troops, not unlike what happened to American officers in Vietnam.

About forty minutes into Episode III there’s a scene where Anakin meets Chancellor Palpatine at a theatre where he’s watching an aquatic ballet. The scene is interesting because it takes place after the battle of Coruscant, the final stages of which we saw at the beginning of the film, yet you’d never know it if you hadn’t seen the earlier part of the movie. All the people seen in the background act normally, as if it’s just another night at the opera. I know as I was watching the sequence, one of the things that went through my mind was “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you know there’s a war on?!”

Now, the behaviour of the citizenry of Coruscant may just have been an example of them keeping a stiff upper lip; of not allowing the Separatists a moral victory by having their lives disrupted. But, then it occurred to me, other than bits of debris from the space battle raining down onto Coruscant, there’s no reason why any of the citizenry need to be aware there’s a war on. The entire conflict is being fought by proxy.

The Army of the Republic consists of clone troops led by Jedi Knights. The only people outside of the Jedi and the Senate who seem to be involved in the fighting are those actually living on the planets where some of the fighting is taking place, like the Wookiees on Kashyyyk. For everyone else, the war would be no more than something that appears in news reports or which gets blamed for certain goods being more expensive or unavailable. The Clone War is more of an inconvenience than a direct threat.

This seems to be the case even with the Separatists, who deploy droid armies to do their fighting for them. We don’t see any more than a small slice of the war, but since the opening text of Episode II: Attack of the Clones tells us that “Several hundred solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the Republic”, it may be possible that some of those seceding systems were directly invaded by the Jedi and their Clone Troopers, bring the war up close and personal to at least some of the Separatists.

Or, perhaps not. The Jedi were more like police officers than soldiers. They seem to have been pressed into service to lead the Clone Army only because there doesn’t seem to have been anyone else available. This can be seen from how they approach the task. Only Yoda seems to have made the transition to a military role; he acts like a General, directing operations from a secure position. The other Jedi all lead from the front, treating their troops as ancillaries to their own personal efforts rather than military units. And Obi-Wan doesn’t even treat them as ancillaries, they’re back-up. He goes ahead of his troops to Utapau looking for General Grevious. While it may make sense, given a Jedi’s abilities and training, for Obi-Wan to act as a commando, infiltrating enemy positions ahead of the main force, that’s not how the leader of a military operation should behave.

Given that, it’s entirely possible that the Jedi-led Army of the Republic confined itself to countering the military moves of the Separatists, while concentrating on killing or capturing the leaders of the movement. Certainly, in Episode III the Jedi are more concerned with eliminating General Grevious than with defeating the droid armies. To them, the entire conflict seems to be about individuals and personalities, not about widespread disaffection or vast impersonal forces.

It that’s correct, it means the task of occupying the defeated Separatist systems would have fallen on the Clone Armies after the destruction of the Jedi. These armies would have been led by a newly recruited officer class drawn from those systems that remained loyal. And everyone who signed up would have become an officer, since the clones filled all the front-line positions, which would have made recruiting easy. That would be the seed of newly formed Imperial forces and their primary job wouldn’t have been fighting — the war was over — it would have been occupying recalcitrant systems and bringing them into line. Armies of occupation invariable attract petty tyrants — those who enjoy exerting power over others — and bring out the bully in even the most well-meaning individuals. Given Palpatine’s predispositions, these natural tendencies would have been given free reign, or even actually encouraged. After all, if the citizenry hates the occupying forces, the officers of those forces will be that much more loyal to the Emperor, since they know what will happen to them if the Emperor were removed.

The newly occupied systems would have been put under the control of military governors. This would have set up a hierarchical system of local governors, planetary governors and regional governors all answerable to the Emperor. Once established in the occupied systems, this arrangement could be extended into those systems that remained loyal during the Clone War until finally in Episode IV: A New Hope the Emperor could abandon even the pretence of democracy and rule directly through the military hierarchy he had created.

Grand Moff Tarkin: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away. […] The regional governors now have direct control over territories.

Even though the Empire was declared barely twenty years before Episode IV, the members of the Imperial Forces would see themselves as part of a New Order, which would explain their contemptuous references to the “Old” Republic. A subtle sign of this is the use of titles.

In the Republic, various titles such as Queen, Count and Knight were in use, though they seem to have been survivals of an older time and no longer carried the political power they once did. The Empire doesn’t use any of these titles. They seem to have been swept away and replaced with ranks. This would strengthen the conviction among the members of the Imperial forces that they were part of a “new order”, distinct from the “Old Republic” even though, ironically, the Empire was much more feudal in structure than the Republic, even with all its titles, had been.

It’s interesting to note that in Episode I Tatooine is outside the Republic — Republic credits are not accepted and slavery exists despite the Republic’s laws against it. However, in Episode IV things have changed. Stormtroopers conduct searches through Mos Eisley without anyone batting an eye and Luke talks about going to the (Imperial?) Academy and is disenchanted enough with the Empire to talk about joining the Rebel Alliance. Apparently, the Empire was not willing to accept any systems outside of its control and extended its rule even to those parts of the Galaxy that never were part of the Republic.

Similarly, things seem to have deteriorated economically. Han Solo is a smuggler and, from his comments, it would seem the Imperial navy spends at least part of its time boarding ships and looking for contraband. Han’s problems with Jabba the Hutt all stem from the fact that he dumped a cargo when he thought he was going to be boarded. While there probably was some smuggling in the Republic, it seems to be a much bigger issue in the Empire. The reason is probably taxes: maintaining those large Imperial forces — much bigger and more expensive than the Order of ascetic Jedi Knights could ever have been — would take money and lots of it. Everyone would feel the weight of Imperial taxes and, as Imperial authorities went out of their way to try and collect as much revenue as possible, smuggling would become a growth industry. This may also explain why, in the later episodes, everything looks so old an worn. This may just be a reflection of the fact that Episodes IV, V and VI take place in outlying territories, far from the centres of power, but it may also indicate a general deterioration in the standard of living in the Star Wars galaxy.

It would also account for the Death Star. There would be no need for it as a military weapon. One of the effects of the Clone War would have been to eliminate every other military force in the galaxy, leaving only the Army of the Republic standing. In fact, that’s probably one of the reasons Palpatine launched the war. Not only did the Separatist crisis justify his Emergency Powers, but it also served to eliminate any potential rivals. The Death Star existed only as at terror weapon; a way to intimidate systems into co-operating with the Empire. Which is why, when the Rebel Alliance managed to destroy it, it was such a great victory. Since the Death Star was primarily a psychological weapon, it’s destruction had a disproportionate effect in showing that the Empire was vulnerable and could be defeated.

It also suggests why the Emperor took charge of the second Death Star and the campaign against the Rebel Alliance personally. He had to nip the Rebellion in the bud and show that the destruction of the first Death Star was no more than a fluke — perhaps one that could be blamed on incompetent leadership rather than Rebel resourcefulness. His plan in Episode VI — luring the Rebel Alliance into making a move designed to lead to their own destruction — also reflects Palpatine’s various manoeuvrings in the earlier episodes.

Just in passing, I’d like to note that it’s not unreasonable that the first Death Star took around twenty years to complete. Prototypes often take a long time to get all the bugs worked out and, if the Emperor’s management style was like that of Darth Vader — choking the head designer or engineer to death every time a test didn’t work right or when he didn’t like the decor — the question isn’t “Why did it take them twenty years to complete it?” so much as “How did they manage to finish it in only twenty years?” Also, I assume the second Death Star was already under construction at the time of Episode IV rather than being built entirely in the time between Episodes IV and VI.

If the Clone War resulted in the elimination of all the other military forces in the galaxy, it also explains why the Rebel Alliance was so slow to form. It had only just won a major victory before the beginning of Episode IV. The Alliance would have been made up of various planetary militias, who would have had to find each other and link up. as well as disaffected members of the Imperial military, who found their job of oppressing the various systems of the galaxy distasteful. As with the construction of the first Death Star, it’s not so much that it took the Rebellion twenty years to form and take its first effective action, so much as it is impressive they managed to do it so quickly given the conditions they started from. And, of course, the members of the Alliance would have wanted to avoid using armies of Droids so as to disassociate themselves from the earlier Separatists.

Not that it would have helped. To the members of the Imperial Forces — and, perhaps, many ordinary citizens of the Empire — the Rebel Alliance would appear to be no more than a revival or a continuation of the old Separatist movement. The fact that the Separatists wanted to secede from Coruscant, while the Alliance wanted to take it over and restore the Republic, would be seen as a trivial difference.

While the Clone Wars may have been removed from the citizenry, the war between the Empire and the Alliance was fought directly. Very few proxies here.

Of course this is most obvious in the ranks of the Alliance, which are full of recruits fighting directly. However, it also seems to be the case in the Imperial Forces. While it may be safe to assume that any Imperial forces wearing full-face helmets — stormtroopers, snow troopers, scout troopers, TIE Fighter pilots, AT-AT drivers, etc. — are clones, in Episodes V and VI we seen enough individuals without such helmets in relatively low level front-line positions as NCOs and the like. Jobs that in the Clone War were filled by Cody-level clones.

We aren’t told enough to know why this is the case, but a few possibilities suggest themselves. First, Palpatine may have wanted to get as many non-clones — people with friends and families among the citizenry — into the military as possible in order to broaden his base. Military families tend to support the government of the day, no matter what it is. Alternately, the Empire simply may not have been able to afford to keep ordering Cody-level clones from the Kaminoans. It’s unlikely that Palpatine would have stopped ordering clone Stormtroopers, since they would constitute the one group in the military whose loyalty he could absolutely depend on, but he may have decided that Cody-level NCOs were an expense he could live without. Or it may have been some combination of the two.

The irony, of course, is that by creating a group of petty tyrants such as the Imperial officer corps, Palpatine not only extended his power, he also laid the groundwork for the opposition to it. Eventually, the people of the Galaxy could no longer ignore the abuses of the Empire, it affected too many directly. And that opposition is what ultimately led to the fall of Palpatine and his Empire.

The Jedi and the Sith

One of the things I was hoping Episode III: Revenge of the Sith would do is finally explain what the cause of the animosity between the Jedi and the Sith was. In Episode I we had:

Darth Maul: At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.

Revenge for what? Given that the drive for revenge is apparently what drives the entire plot, you’d think at some point someone would explain what the grievance was; what wrong the Sith felt the Jedi had done to them. In a film called Revenge of the Sith you’d think Palpatine/Darth Sidious would take time out from his machinations to have a good rant and explain exactly what it is that he’s taking revenge for. If for no other reason than to bring his new apprentice, Darth Vader, up to speed on what it’s all about. Or to tell the smug Mace Windu exactly why it is that the Jedi deserved what happened to them.

But no. At no point in any of the films is this important bit of backstory explained. Which, I guess, means we’re free to speculate and construct our own rationales.

So, let’s look at what clues we have. In Episode I it was established that an individual’s link to the Force was through the midi-chlorians in their cells. When someone is strong in the Force it means they have a high midi-chlorian count.

In Episode II it was implied that Jedi weren’t allowed to love and were probably celibate. This would keep with their overall ascetic philosophy. Yet, the numbers of Jedi, while limited, seem to remain steady. Just think of all the Younglings we saw being trained by Master Yoda. If Jedi don’t reproduce, where do these Younglings come from? The obvious answer is they are recruited from the population at large.

Qui-Gon: Had he been born in the Republic, we would have identified him early, and he would have become Jedi…

This is confirmed by the testing of young Anakin. The tests don’t seem to be improvised; if anything, they seem to be standard. The Jedi are used to testing individuals to determine their ability to use the Force. And, of course, there is the simple expedient of taking a blood/tissue sample to determine what an individual’s midi-chlorian count is.

This means that individuals with high midi-chlorian counts pop up regularly in the general population. These individuals seem to be distributed among all species. While we see more human Force-users than of any other species, that seems to reflect the fact we see more humans in general throughout the films than any other species. There’s nothing to suggest that any species has a greater propensity for being Force-sensitive/having a high midi-chlorian count.

We also know from the example of Anakin that Force-sensitive individuals can and do use their connection to the Force unconsciously and instinctively. Anakin’s reflexes appear faster than normal because he can see things before they happen. And, as shown by the test at the Jedi Temple, he’s also either clairvoyant or able to read minds, since he can identify what’s on the small viewing screen without seeing it directly. This means, Force-sensitive individuals would be faster and more effective than ordinary members of their species. While not as powerful as a Jedi (or Sith) whose training allows them to use their connection with the Force to achieve various spectacular effects, such individuals would nevertheless be superior to most of those around them.

Superior individuals popping up at random in the general population. They sound like mutants. Or super-heroes. It sounds like the basic premise of the X-Men from Marvel Comics.

If that’s the case, then the animosity between the Jedi and the Sith may be the same as the disagreement between Professor X and Magneto: the Jedi believe that superior individuals should serve the greater good; the Sith believe their superiority means they should rule.

Such an interpretation would explain why the Sith want revenge. It’s not for some specific wrong done to them in the past, it’s because each individual Sith would see the Jedi as denying them, personally, their proper position of power and privilege. The Sith resent being forced to hide and to operate in secrecy and they blame the Jedi for that. That’s why they’re angry. Further, they would also see the Jedi as weaklings who allow themselves to be bullied by inferiors. They would hold the Jedi in contempt. Which would make it especially galling that the Jedi are so effective at forcing the Sith to remain hidden and secretive.

It would also explain why the Jedi are celibate. The Jedi appear to be independent of the Senate. They have their own Temple and run their own affairs. Yet they serve the Senate and work as peace-keepers within the Republic. Clearly there’s some sort of arrangement between the Jedi Order and the Republic, probably one going back to the founding of the Republic. If these speculations are right, and the Jedi represent a group of innately superior beings, that arrangement probably reflects an ancient stand-off. The Jedi had power, but the Republic had sheer numbers. Rather than fighting what would surely have become a war of extermination, the two reached an agreement. The Jedi would be allowed to live in peace and pursue their studies in the Force provided they didn’t breed. That way the citizens of the Republic would be reassured that the potential menace of a horde of Force-sensitive super beings would be contained. At some point — perhaps as part of the wars accompanying the formation of the Republic — the Jedi also took on the role of protectors and keepers of the peace. This would have raised their public standing and undercut some of the fear and resentment they might have inspired, but it would not have eliminated it. Only the knowledge that Jedi numbers would remain limited could do that and the only way to guarantee that would be if the Jedi did not reproduce.

This also suggests that any group or organisation seeking to explore and develop the powers of the Force would need to be affiliated with the Jedi Order. It seems unlikely that the Republic would tolerated any such groups acting independently. A few unattached Force-sensitive individuals would be acceptable — the Jedi could always deal with them if they became a problem — but not any sort of organised group. Another reason why the Sith would resent the Jedi.

This raises an interesting question. If the Jedi maintain their numbers by recruiting Force-sensitive children who appear in the general population, where do the Sith get their recruits from? Clearly, it would have to be from the same source. But the pickings would be mighty slim after the Jedi got through recruiting all the infants with high midi-chlorian counts in an area. Either the Sith are content to take the leavings — those who were either missed or whose Force-sensitivity was considered too low to justify Jedi training — or they would confine themselves to the fringes of the Galaxy, where the Jedi and the Republic are spread thin. After all, as we know from the example of Anakin, even someone with the highest midi-chlorian count ever known could be missed if they’re born on a world outside the Republic.

If the first possibility is correct — the Sith recruiting the Jedi’s leavings — it would be another reason why the Sith want revenge. Each of them would have personally been rejected by the Jedi at some point as “not good enough.” Naturally, that would breed resentment. However, it would also diminish any threat the Sith might pose. After all, these are the guys who were rejected for not being good enough. Unless you assume the Jedi are spectacularly incompetent on a regular basis, then those rejected as not good enough presumably really aren’t good enough.

The other possibility is the more likely. The Sith would normally operate on the fringes of the Republic. The problem here is that the only Sith we see in the films are all based on Coruscant, the capital of the Republic and right under the noses of the Jedi Council. It is strongly implied, though, that Palpatine/Darth Sidious is the exception rather than the rule. And, it’s worth noting, that after the death of Darth Maul — who he may have brought with him to Coruscant — Palpatine recruits his next two apprentices, Darth Tyranus and Darth Vader, from what would be the only source of Force-sensitive individuals on Coruscant: the Jedi Order itself.

The relative scarcity of Force-sensitive individuals would also explain why there are only ever two Sith — “no more, no less. A master and an apprentice” as Yoda put it at the end of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. With the Jedi Order regularly scooping up the majority of Force-sensitive beings into its ranks, the Sith really couldn’t maintain any large numbers. Of course, if the Sith are all megalomaniacs convinced they have a right to rule, as I’ve suggested, they probably wouldn’t work all that well together in large groups anyway. Two at a time may be about as complex an organisational structure as they can maintain. A Master with two or more apprentices would always be worrying that they might team-up against him before turning on each other. Better to have only a single apprentice.

Of course, if there can be only two, an apprentice would always be worried that if their master found a better prospect, they could only take on that new apprentice by first discarding — ie killing — their current apprentice. And that’s what we see happen in the films. At the beginning of Episode III Palpatine manoeuvres Anakin, who he wants to take on as his new apprentice, into killing his current apprentice, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus. At the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi he tries to do the same again, trying to get Luke to kill Anakin/Darth Vader before taking his place. Such an approach would also have the benefit of selecting for the strongest possible apprentice; if a prospect isn’t capable of killing the current apprentice, then they’re obviously not powerful enough to take their place. It’s brutal, but effective.

Darth Vader: Luke. You can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and we can rule the galaxy as father and son.

Another possibility is that, unlike Jedi, the Sith aren’t celibate and take on their children as apprentices. This isn’t the case in the films, where the four Sith we encounter are clearly not related, but it may be the case under other circumstances. One element that hints at the possibility is the name “Darth”. All the Sith referred to in the movies have a appellation beginning with “Darth”: Darth Plagueis, Darth Sidious, Darth Maul, Darth Tyranus and Darth Vader. When Darth Vader first appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope I assumed that “Darth” was a name. Obi-Wan refers to “A young Jedi named Darth Vader” and even addresses Vader as “Darth” during their duel on the Death Star. When Episode I came out with two new Darths, it suggested a pattern where all Sith are called “Darth” and I revised my opinion and came to think that “Darth” was probably a title. The Sith equivalent of “Lord”, which is how the various Sith are also addressed: Lord Sidious, Lord Maul, Lord Tyranus and Lord Vader. More recently, however, another possibility suggested itself to me.

Perhaps “Darth” is a name, only it’s a family name and the Sith originate in a culture that puts the family name first, like the Hungarians or the Chinese. When accepting an apprentice, as Palpatine does in Episode III, the ceremony acts as a rite of adoption, in which the new apprentice is accepted as a descendent of some original founder named Darth Something-or-other. As part of the process, the apprentice is given a new name: “Darth” to show they are now part of the family and an individual name from a culturally appropriate list. It may be that Sith would normally take their offspring as apprentices, but have been forced to adoption because of circumstances. They still carry on using the family name “Darth” as a way of maintaining the appearance of a continuous line of descent and of thumbing their nose at the celibate Jedi.

One difficulty with this idea is that, if the Sith are using “Darth” as a way of indicating figurative descent from a common ancestor, then why are they also referring to themselves as “Sith”? Why would a group of two — who aren’t Simon and Garfunkel or The Captain and Tenille — come up with a name for themselves? The Sith are always referred to as if they are equivalent to the Jedi, a rival order, not just an occasional pair of lonely malcontents. The implication is that the Sith were once such an order and the successive pairs we see in the films are just the remnants of that. If that’s the case, and “Darth” is a family name, then presumably there were other families within the Order, but the Darth line is the only one to have survived. That suggests that the “revenge” the Sith are seeking is for the destruction of that ancient order and, if that’s the case, it’s something that really should have been explained somewhere in the films.

Another issue that isn’t addressed in the films is: what happens to all the Force-sensitive individuals born after the fall of the Jedi? If such individuals are constantly popping up throughout the Galaxy, then an entire generation of them would have come to maturity in the twenty-odd years following the end of Episode III. There are no signs the Emperor is recruiting such individuals to create a Sith Order in place of the Jedi Order he destroyed. Similarly, there are no signs that Force-sensitive individuals are being systematically hunted down and killed.

In Episode IV: A New Hope Darth Vader’s commitment to the Force is treated as a faint relic of an archaic religion. Even Han Solo dismisses talk of the Force as a “hokey religion”. This seems odd, since Episode I establishes that the Force has a material basis — the midi-chlorians — and the Jedi were running around only twenty-odd years earlier, performing amazing feats. This suggests that Palpatine must have been deliberately undermining belief in the Force, suggesting that it was no more than an ancient form of mysticism connected to the Old Republic and not something worthy of being taken seriously by the citizens of his brave new Empire. Fostering such an attitude is inconsistent with hunting down Force-sensitive individuals.

The Emperor could have fostered disbelief in the Force as an official attitude while he had a secret Task Force hunt down and either kill or recruit Force-sensitive individuals, but there’s no evidence of any such group in the films. In fact, if anything, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Further, we know that Princess Leia was the daughter of Anakin Skywalker and probably inherited some of his high midi-chlorian count — else why would Yoda consider her the other hope the Jedi had — and she served as a Senator, working in close proximity to the Emperor. Yet he ignored her. She must have shown signs of being Force-sensitive that a Sith Lord would have recognised, yet she seems to have merited no more attention than her actions on behalf of the Rebel Alliance justified.

The Emperor and Darth Vader only become interested in Luke Skywalker after he causes the destruction of the first Death Star. In the opening text of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back we’re told that Darth Vader is “obsessed with finding young Skywalker” and, later in the film, while the Emperor notes that “The Force is strong with him”, his main concern is that “The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.”

Finally, as noted, at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi the Emperor plays Luke off against Vader, suggesting that he’s sticking to the there-are-only-ever-two-Sith arrangement.

The obvious conclusion is that Palpatine is neither destroying Force-sensitive individuals, nor recruiting them into an expanded Sith Order. He seems to be just ignoring them, while playing down general knowledge of and acceptance of the Force. This indirectly supports the notion that the Force-sensitive constitute a mutant-like group within the broader population of the Galaxy. Since the Emperor is a member of this group, he doesn’t want the broader population to realise that they are being ruled by one of these superior beings. Even with his mastery of the Force and vast army of loyal clone stormtroopers, he may fear that, should the population turn against him, their sheer numbers would tell in the end. So he dismisses stories of the Force and the Jedi as exaggerated myths from a time gone by. Also, by keeping knowledge of the Force to himself and his apprentice, he preserves an edge over others.

Similarly, he’s not worried about other Force-sensitive individuals because without training, they may be superior to their fellows, but would present no threat to him. If any do arise that present a threat, he can do exactly what he did in Luke’s case: deal with them personally — either secure them as a new apprentice or try to have them killed.

One interesting possibility is that by following such a policy, Palpatine may actually have been serving the greater ends of the Force itself.

Balance and the Force

One of the elements introduced in Episode I: The Phantom Menace was a prophesy:

Mace Windu: You’re referring to the prophesy of the one who will bring balance to the Force…

Exactly why the Force was out of balance, why it needed to be brought into balance and how this was to be accomplished are questions that were not addressed. In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith an indication of what form this balance would take is finally given:

Obi-Wan: With all due respect, Master, is he not the Chosen One? Is he not to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?

So the Force would be brought into balance by destroying the Sith. While this does fit with what ultimately happens at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, it does represent a rather odd usage of the term “balance” and it is almost immediately brought into question by Master Yoda:

Yoda: A prophecy… that misread could have been.

Yoda is right. Obi-Wan’s interpretation of the prophecy doesn’t make any sense. When Qui-Gon reports to the Jedi Council in Episode I that he had been attacked by a mysterious warrior he believed to be a Sith Lord, he was met with incredulity. “Impossible! The Sith have been extinct for a millennium,” he is told. Obviously, at the time the Jedi Council believed that (i) the Sith were extinct, and (ii) that the Force still needed to be brought into balance. The combination of these two beliefs is inconsistent with Obi-Wan’s interpretation. If he were correct, then the Council would either have accepted that with the extinction of the Sith, the Force was already in balance and the prophecy had been fulfilled or rendered moot; or they would have concluded from the fact that the Force still needed to be balanced that the Sith were not extinct and would have been out hunting for them. Obi-Wan’s interpretation is clearly a bit of wishful thinking prompted by the exigencies of the Clone War.

So what is the prophecy about? In my previous essay I suggested that Anakin is the one who brings balance to the Force by falling in love. I still think that’s basically right, but let me put a slightly more hard-edged spin on it.

We know that Force-sensitivity is caused by a higher than average concentration of midi-chlorians in the cells of an individual. We also know that, even without training, such a concentration of midi-chlorians grants the individual certain superior abilities — they are faster, stronger (an unconscious application of Jedi telekinesis) and probably more insightful and persuasive (unconscious application of the Jedi mind trick). And, from the example of Anakin and Luke (and, probably, Leia as well), we know that a higher midi-chlorian count is somewhat hereditary.

The natural superiority of those that are Force-sensitive would mean they would gravitate towards positions of power. They would become great kings, gang-leaders, CEOs, conquerors and so on. Not all of them, of course, but enough. Given the propensity of those in such positions of power to spread their seed — it’s estimated that the direct male descendants of Genghis Khan (Temujin, 1167 – 1227) number around 16 million worldwide, for example — this means that a few Force-sensitive individuals in one generation would result in a disproportionately greater number of Force-sensitive individuals in the following generation. While specific Force-sensitive individuals might found their own Dynasties and Houses of their legitimate descendants, Force-sensitivity would gradually spread and the average midi-chlorian count of the general population would go up. After a few hundred years, Force-sensitive individuals would be in the majority. After a few thousand, they would constitute the entire population.

Unless, of course, something like the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic had established a compromise in which Force-sensitive individuals didn’t breed. Then, no matter how many new Force-sensitive individuals were added to the mix each generation, the midi-chlorian count of the general population would remain pretty low, even after thousands of years. If the Force is aiming at an entire Galaxy of Force-sensitive individuals, then, from an evolutionary point of view, the Jedi Council and the Galactic Republic are just huge blockages in the pipeline. Hence the prophecy.

Anakin helps bring balance to the Force so that ultimately everyone gets to be Force-sensitive, not just a concentration of Jedi and Sith. He does so by (i) destroying the Jedi, (ii) helping overthrow the Galactic Republic, and (iii) having children. Sure, he does it by initiating a long, bloody, drawn-out process that will cause much pain and suffering to all concerned, but if the Force is sufficiently indifferent to individual health and happiness and concerned with the long-term and big-picture, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to proceed. Sometimes you just have to clear out the pipes and let nature take its course. It’s not pleasant, but it works. In my previous essay I said “a balanced Force may be a luxury the Star Wars Galaxy really can’t afford.” That may still be true, but it may also be something that the Force doesn’t care about. Ultimately the Force gets what the Force wants.

Not quite as nice as saying Anakin brings balance to the Force by falling in love, but in the end it amounts to the same thing.

What Good is the Force Anyway?

Towards the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Padme Amidala lies dying. She’s struggling to give birth to her twin children, but as one of the medical droids attending her says “Medically, she is completely healthy. For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.” The individuals the droid is addressing these comments to are Yoda and Obi-Wan.

Think about that. Yoda, who we are repeatedly told is the most powerful Jedi of them all, who has a midi-chlorian count second only to that of Anakin Skywalker, in whom the light side of the Force is presumably more powerful than any other creature in the Galaxy, stands by and watches as Padme dies. All he can offer, referring to the twins, is:

Yoda: Save them, we must. They are our last hope.

Why doesn’t he use the Force to try and help Padme? Why do he and Obi-Wan just stand there and watch as the medical droids struggle to deliver the babies and preserve Padme’s life?

Two possibilities occur to me. The first is that Yoda — and, by implication, Obi-Wan as well — are really cold, Machiavellian bastards. If the children are the last hope the Jedi have, then the best way to hide them until they reach maturity is to keep the Emperor and Darth Vader completely unaware of their existence. To do that, having the dead body of a seeming still-pregnant Padme would be useful. Once the two Sith Lords hear about her death and funeral, they will assume that any child she was carrying died with her. The children can be safely raised by foster parents because no-one will be looking for them. From that perspective, a dead Padme is much more useful than a live one. Yoda realises that and that’s why he doesn’t make any effort to try and use the Force to save Padme’s life. It’s cold and heartless, but Yoda’s got the big picture to consider.

The other possibility is that Yoda doesn’t do anything because he can’t. That’s not the way the Force works. This is actually the more likely explanation, since Obi-Wan doesn’t try to do anything either. Nor does he argue with Yoda, suggesting that Yoda should intervene. Obi-Wan also realises that there’s nothing the Force can do. It’s all up to the medical droids.

Thinking about that, I realised that at no point in any of the films do we see the Force being used to heal. When various characters — who are mostly Jedi — loose limbs, the missing appendages are replaced with cybernetic substitutes. No-one uses the Force to reattach the severed member or to coax the body to grow a replacement. I know the Star Wars roleplaying games have listed healing Force powers, but there doesn’t seem to be any support for that idea in the actual films.

Well, no; strictly speaking, that’s not entirely true. One Force-sensitive character does suggest that it would be possible to use the Force to save Padme’s life and to preserve life in general. Unfortunately, it’s the chief bad guy:

Palpatine: He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying. […] The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

Now, Palpatine may well have been lying. After all, he was trying to bring Anakin over to the Dark Side. And, at the end of Episode III he doesn’t use the Force to help preserve the badly injured Anakin. He relies on technology — a medical capsule, droids and cybernetic replacements — just like everyone else. So, it’s possible that not even the dark side of the Force can be used for healing.

So, what is the Force good for? We have seen characters use it to move objects telekinetically, block and deflect blaster bolts, influence the weak-minded, perform amazing leaps and sense objects, events and presences otherwise beyond the range of their other senses. Force-sensitive individuals have preternaturally good reflexes because they can see events before they occur and, sometimes, they have prophetic dreams. That seems to be pretty much it. The Force helps make one a great fighter, but doesn’t seem to be of much use beyond that.

Perhaps that’s why Yoda is constantly counselling others to accept death and loss. It’s good advice because not even the Jedi can do anything about them. It’s just that, with all their great abilities in other areas, Jedi are likely to feel that they should be able to do something and to be angry and guilty when they find they can’t. For all their great powers, the Jedi have to deal with the same limitations as everyone else.

Politics

The Greek thinker Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) once divided systems of government into six broad types, based on how many people got to participate and on whether the results were good or bad. The scheme looked like this:

good bad
rule by one monarchy tyranny
rule by a few aristocracy oligarchy
rule by the many democracy anarchy

Of the good types of government, Aristotle ranked monarchy as the best, since it was the most focused and efficient. A monarch wouldn’t waste time and resources in discussion, exploration or trying to reach compromise. They would simply determine what needed to be done and would proceed to do it. The worst of the good forms was democracy. In a democracy, things would inevitably get bogged down in debate and negotiation, issues would get sent out to committees to investigate and nothing would get done, no matter how urgent or necessary, until a clear majority of the population could be brought around to agreeing on them.

When it came to the bad forms of government, he ranked them the other way around. There the worst was tyranny because the same qualities of speed, efficiency and focus that made a monarchy so effective at doing good, made a tyranny equally effective at inflicting harm. The best of the bad forms of government, by contrast, was anarchy. There the same inefficiencies and impediments that would slow a democracy down, would limit the amount of harm that an anarchy could do.

Now, down the centuries, many people have interpreted Aristotle’s ideas in many different ways, but to me what it’s all boiled down to is: unless you have some way of guaranteeing that a particular government will always be good, you have to assume that any particular government will sometimes be good, sometimes be bad, and usually be somewhere in the middle. That means, when deciding what type of government you want, you need to pick not the one that will bring the greatest benefit when it’s good, but the one that will do the least harm when it’s bad. You want the government that is the most survivable when it all goes wrong — because, in the long run, things will go wrong.

For those that read my previous essay, yes, this is another version of the same sentiment expressed by Sir Winston Churchill as “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the other forms which have been tried from time to time.”

I mention all this because it occurs to me that Star Wars presents two bad forms of government. An anarchy in the form of the Republic in Episodes I to III and a tyranny in the form of the Empire in Episodes IV to VI and invites us to compare and contrast them. The case isn’t biased by presenting the good form of one and the bad form of the other, both are pretty bad. We have the muddled mess of the Old Republic versus the bloody brutality of the Empire.

Of the two, I must admit I end up preferring the Old Republic. One may despair at how the Senate failed to deal with the Naboo crisis in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but that pales into insignificance when one considers the absolute horror of how the Empire casually destroys the entire planet of Alderaan just to demonstrate the power of the new Death Star battle station in Episode IV: A New Hope. The Old Republic may be frustrating, but the Empire is serious scary.

After the Empire

While on the subject of politics, it would be interesting to see where the Star Wars Galaxy goes after the defeat of the Emperor in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. While I have no doubt that the Rebel Alliance would try to establish a New Republic, I doubt they would succeed.

After the decay of the Old Republic, the Separatists, the Clone War, the Empire and the Galactic Civil War, I think that most systems would be very slow to trust any sort of new central authority, no matter how well meaning. While they may pay homage to the idea of a united Galaxy, it seems more likely that each system and region would end up primarily looking out for its own interests. It would be like Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire; no matter how much various regions may have missed the unity of the old system, none of them were prepared to give up any of their autonomy to a new central government.

Of course, the break-up of the Star Wars Galaxy may be more like periodic Times of Trouble that afflicted China between Dynasties. A relatively short period of division and jockeying for position before the Galaxy reunites under some new coalition.

Either way, though, I think the Star Wars Galaxy is in for a rough few hundred years. Mind you, such a period is rich with possibilities for a roleplaying campaign and would be perfect for the rise and spread of free-range Force-users as described above. Like I said: the Force always gets its way.

Unresolved Issues

With Episode III: Revenge of the Sith being the last Star Wars movie for the foreseeable future, there are still a couple of loose threads that remain unresolved.

Boba Fett

First is Boba Fett. I’ve never really understood the popularity of this character. When he was introduced in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, he seemed interesting enough, but not especially so. He was another bounty hunter. He just happened to be the one who captured Han Solo — well, okay, that suggested that he was a little smarter and better than the other bounty hunters, but not exceptionally so.

That changed with Episode II: Attack of the Clones when we learnt about his origins. Boba Fett, it turns out, is “brother” to all the clone troopers in the Galaxy. That gives him a certain significance. But there’s more.

In Episode I: The Phantom Menace we’re introduced to Anakin Skywalker, a young boy unusual because he has only a single parent (a mother). Around the age of nine he meets some Jedi and ends up losing that parent.

In Episode II: Attack of the Clones we’re introduced to another young boy with only a single parent (a father), Boba Fett. Around the age of nine this young boy also meets some Jedi (actually, one of the same Jedi: Obi-Wan Kenobi) and ends up losing that parent.

This creates a parallelism between the two characters, Anakin and Boba, almost as if they are slightly different versions of the same idea. Such parallelism usually means that the two characters will be used to comment on one another. It’s like an experiment and its control: we see how the slight differences between the two (one raised only by a mother and adopted by the Jedi, the other raised only by a father and left abandoned by the Jedi) lead to their different histories and fates.

Given that, I was interested in seeing what Episode III would do with Boba Fett. How it would develop this parallelism. Unfortunately, as you all doubtlessly know, Boba Fett doesn’t appear at all in Episode III — though another interesting parallel between him and Anakin is hinted at. When Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis who “could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life” the set-up of the shot and the way Palpatine is looking at Anakin suggests that he might have been the one responsible for causing Anakin to be conceived by the midi-chlorians. In Episode II it’s established that Palpatine is the one responsible for arranging for the Kaminoans to grow the clone army. That means he’s also indirectly responsible for Boba’s existence, since part of the payment to Jango Fett for providing the genetic samples from which the clones were grown was the creation of Boba Fett as a son. So Palpatine may be the hidden force behind both Anakin and Boba coming into existence. A sort of mutual shared grandfather.

Boba Fett’s next chronological appearance is in Episode V. His interaction there with Darth Vader is interesting. Throughout the rest of that film, Vader casually kills any subordinate who has displeased him and arbitrarily changes the terms of deal he made with Lando Calrissian, yet he relates to Boba Fett almost as if with an equal. He reassures Fett that Han Solo “will not be permanently damaged” and, later, when Solo is about to be carbon-freezed, that “The Empire will compensate you if he dies.” It’s almost as if Vader recognises that Fett is a distorted reflection of himself.

And, in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Boba Fett gets eaten by a Sarlacc. A rather sorry end for the character, who (if memory serves) doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in that movie.

Somehow, I just feel that there should be more. But that may just be me. When I noticed the parallelism, I was interested in seeing where it was going to lead, but, it seems that it doesn’t lead anywhere. Which is a pity.

Princess Leia

No, I’m not going to complain about Leia saying she can remember her real mother in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. when, as we see in Episode III, her mother dies within minutes of giving birth to her. Leia’s the daughter of Anakin Skywalker. The Force is strong in her. Obviously she developed an empathic bond with her mother while still in the womb. That’s why she says all she can remember is “Just… images, really. Feelings.” After the various other sensing abilities displayed by Force-sensitive individuals, that’s not all that big a reach.

The reason I bring up Leia is that, like Boba Fett, her story feels incomplete. When she first appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope her function seemed straightforward enough. She was the beautiful princess who needed to be rescued and who served as a love-object for a simple farmboy like Luke to aspire to. She was a prize. Okay, that sounds really sexist, but that’s the way the story worked.

However, as we learned more about her background in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Leia acquired some unexpected dimensions. It turns out that she’s another example of parallelism, only this time the character being paralleled is Luke. Consider: both Luke and Leia are the children of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. Both were taken away shortly after birth and raised by foster parents. Both developed adversarial relationships with Darth Vader without realising he was their father or having him realise they were his children. Both become important parts of the Rebel Alliance and both are considered the last hope of the Jedi by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The differences between the two are equally interesting. Luke is male, Leia female. Luke was raised by struggling moisture farmers on a distant, backwater world; Leia grew up amidst power and privilege as a princess on Alderaan and a member of the Imperial Senate. While Luke only yearned for a life of adventure until circumstances dropped one in his lap, Leia went out and lived it. She became an important part of the Rebel Alliance and seems to have had encounters with Darth Vader, in at least one of which she bested him — Vader’s comment “You weren’t on any mercy mission this time” in Episode IV hints at such. Leia seems to have fought the Empire with diplomacy and guile, while Luke confronts it as a fighter, piloting X-Wings and becoming a Jedi Knight. In the end, it’s Luke alone who confronts the Emperor and he’s the one who reconciles with the pair’s father as Vader/Anakin lays dying in a Docking Bay aboard the second Death Star.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we get to see Luke’s adventures — the original Star Wars trilogy is very much about the adventures of Luke Skywalker — while Leia’s adventures are only alluded to. This makes sense in terms of action and spectacle — X-Wing dogfights and lightsabre duels are much more visually interesting than diplomacy or negotiation — but the impression is that Leia led a very exciting life right up to the moment when she appeared in the first film. After that, it’s almost as if she passed a baton to Luke; as if there’s only so much adventure the Skywalker twins could have and, if Luke were to have his moment in the sun, she had to fade into the background.

The overall effect is that Leia’s story feels incomplete. As with Boba Fett, there’s a great set-up, but no follow through. None of it seems to lead anywhere. This is only accented by the developments in Episode VI where Leia starts to come back into her own. She infiltrates Jabba’s palace disguised as Boushh the bounty hunter and, later, kills Jabba. Finally she learns that she too is Force-sensitive and, potentially, as good a Jedi as her brother Luke. Then it all stops. Somehow, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. It feels unfinished, as if there should be just a bit more to it. Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me.

In Conclusion

As with my essay on Episode II: Attack of the Clones this hasn’t been a traditional review. Instead it’s been a collection of ideas and observations of the sort of things that can be gleaned from the Star Wars movies and which can be used to spark inspiration for a roleplaying game. And not necessarily even one specifically based on Star Wars or even space opera. There’s a lot of meaty goodness there which can be drawn on and used in all manner of games and settings.

A Mouse with Spirit

The quest for truth permeates much of the world’s literature, from the Grail romances of the Middle Ages, through the early picaresque novels to the moral fables of the world’s great religions. All use a physical journey to symbolise a spiritual quest — a quest for truth. Both the modern adventure story and the detective story are descendants of these romances and fables although the detective story marks itself off by internalising the quest for truth, transforming the physical journey into an intellectual one.

Much of the writing going on in these popular genres, however, takes place in the series format where the writer is required to produce further adventures every month or week. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that, on occasion, an adventure series ventures over into the allied realm of detective fiction.

Usually these stories are not very good — emphasising the writer’s unfamiliarity with the form — but this is not always the case. At least two such ‘occasional’ detectives, Mickey Mouse and The Spirit are well worth seeking out. Both are comic strips. Both appeared, for the most part, in the first-half of the twentieth century. And both have been reprinted in more permanent form.

First Mickey Mouse. This is not the megastar corporate symbol Mickey Mouse of the modern day. Back in the 1930s, Mickey Mouse was a scrappy little fighter, a quick and calm thinker and the very model of slippery grace under pressure — a genuine candidate for the worthy label of larrikin. His incarnation as a daily comic strip began on January 13, 1930 and was initially produced by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Disney’s senior animator. Floyd Gottfredson took over on May 5, 1930 and was still pencilling the daily strip on his retirement in 1975. He also wrote the strip until 1932 and plotted and co-ordinated the serials until 1943, all through the landmark years of high adventure.

Gottfredson, a fan of Horatio Alger, played down the humour of the strip — though it never completely vanished — and concentrated on the possibilities for adventure the strip’s basic premise allowed. With a flair for creating mystery, a talent for constructing sequences of tension and suspense and an almost complete mastery of the daily comic strip as a form, Gottfredson honed Mickey Mouse until it became one of the best adventure strips in a time celebrated for the quality of its adventure series.

Under Gottfredson Mickey caught cattle rustlers out west, thwarted mad dreams of world domination, discovered buried treasure and genie bearing lamps and became a first class detective. Many of the early stories featured in the strip contained elements of mystery and detection but these were essentially flourishes in otherwise action oriented narratives. By 1933, however, Mickey began appearing in serials that could be legitimately referred to as detective stories. The Seven Ghosts, for instance, which was serialised over 16 weeks in 1936, had Mickey running his own detective agency with Goofy and Donald his unlikely assistants.

He reached what many consider his peak as a detective in the 1939 story, Mickey Mouse Outwits The Phantom Blot. By this time the strip was appearing seven days a week; as a four panel daily Monday through Saturday and as a larger Sunday offering. Mickey Mouse Outwits The Phantom Blot ran in the daily strip, also over the course of 16 weeks, from the 5th of May to the 9th of September. Originally unnamed, it acquired its title when it was first reprinted in Four-Color #16 in 1941.

Since then it has appeared a number of times in various guises, most notably as part of the very attractive and very expensive art book Mickey Mouse in Color (Another Rainbow, 1988) and most accessibly as Disney Comics Album #14 — Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Outwits The Phantom Blot (WD Publications, 1990).

The story revolves around a series of bizarre acts of vandalism perpetrated by a mysterious figure known only as the Blot. The Blot has been breaking into shops, homes and department stores and, ignoring the booty lying about him, methodically smashing cameras. Moreover, not just any cameras are being vandalised, only a cheap imported line sold as Little Korker Cameras seem to attract this mysterious burglar’s ire. Further, the Blot appears to have almost mystical powers, apparently being able to appear wherever he wants, whenever he wants. As Police Chief O’Hara puts it, “This… this ‘Phantom’ we’re after can pop up anywhere, at any time!”

The police are baffled and Chief O’Hara calls in Mickey. Unlike most other members of that exclusive club of brilliant amateur sleuths called in by the police to deal with particularly baffling cases, Mickey holds a Special Investigator’s badge, making his enquiries semi-official. The Blot, however, is aware of Mickey’s investigations from the very start. With his seemingly supernatural talent for travelling unobserved he takes the same taxi to police headquarters as Mickey, even following him into O’Hara’s office. The Blot warns Mickey off the investigation but, in true romantic tradition, Mickey refuses to be deterred, even when the Blot captures him and subjects him to some remarkably inventive — in a sadistic sort of way — death traps. The Blot claims his ‘tender heart’ prevents him from simply killing Mickey outright.

By story’s end most of the mystery has been explained away. The vandalised Little Korker cameras are made sensible, the death traps are escaped and the Blot is captured. But not all the truth is told. Most obviously the Blot’s preternatural ability to come and go un-noted remains unexplained. Part of the reason for this was the series format. Things left unsaid in one story can be used as a hook to generate another. But part of the reason is almost certainly conscious design on Gottfredson’s part. The story, written on the edge of war, is full of the creeping paranoia of the times. The hint of the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable, while unusual in the tradition detective story is, here, used with skill and care to put a barbed edge onto the apparently clear and simple.

Mickey went on to other adventures, even to other escapades as a detective, both in the daily strip and, when that had turned him into the middle-class wimp we know today (Gottfredson once said, “it’s as if our Mickey has had a lobectomy”), in the magazines such as Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. In the latter especially Bill Wright serialised many a strange tale through the late 1940s and 1950s. Many of these were old Gottfredson stories redrawn but some made up a run of entertaining but otherwise unremarkable original detective stories.

Mickey Mouse survives to this day, albeit in diminished form, his days as a detective and adventurer coming largely to an end 40 years ago.

Another whose swashbuckling days ended two generations back but who has not been diminished by shabby appearances in other guises is Will Eisner’s adventuring detective, The Spirit.

The Spirit first appeared on the 2nd of June, 1940 as the lead feature in an experimental 16-page comic book insert slipped, initially, into about 20 American Sunday papers. The Spirit occupied the first seven pages with two other features — Lady Luck and Mr Mystic — filling out the signature. Because the first page of the Spirit story also served as the cover the supplement came to be known as ‘the Spirit section.’ This unusual format meant The Spirit’s adventures were short, sharp self-contained stories rather than the long sprawling narratives characteristic of the daily adventure strip. Even when Eisner later began doing multi-part stories, he made each weekly part largely self-contained.

WIll Eisner, creator, writer and artist for The Spirit, was also the creator of the insert package in which The Spirit appeared, this venture being just one of the many varied and truly entrepreneurial ways in which the Manhattan-born artist sought to expand the range of markets open to him. Out of print for many years the entire run was reprinted in a monthly black and white comic book by Kitchen Sink Press. The same publisher also produced several collections of Spirit stories in colour, as they originally appeared [2000 addendum: Kitchen Sink Press ceased operations mid-1999 –BF].

The first Spirit story was straightforward enough. Danny Colt, criminologist and private detective, apparently dies, in suitably melodramatic circumstances, at the hands of the criminal scientist, Dr Cobra. Shortly thereafter a mysterious, shadowy figure helps the police track down and (after a fire-fight) kill Dr Cobra.

The mysterious figure is, of course, Danny Colt. Knocked into catatonia and buried alive he has ‘returned’ from the grave and now decides to remain ‘dead’ to fight crime as a ‘Spirit,’ thus joining the growing ranks of mysterious crime fighters of the day (eg The Shadow, The Spider and The Batman).

The Spirit remained a largely unremarkable example of the type throughout the war years, during which time Eisner was with the US Army drawing instructional material. After the war he returned to the strip “bristling with ideas” and, with a talent and skill sharpened by four years of drawing educational comics, transformed The Spirit into one of the greatest detective series ever to appear, in any media.

Eisner described his conception of The Spirt as “a satirical combination of Zorro and Philip Marlowe” and although accurate enough it only just begins to describe the range and depth of the strip. Eisner was essentially interested in telling stories about ordinary people, in highlighting both the humorous and the tragic, the sentimental and the heroic aspects of his character. This meant that many Spirit stories are not about The Spirit at all — in some the character makes only the most fleeting of token appearances.

Eisner sought — and to a large extent succeeded — to portray the world he perceived around him in much the same way as Charles Dickens portrayed his world just over half-a-century earlier. Like Dickens, Eisner had a real flair for creating characters with unusual yet very apt names — Sparrow Fallon, Humid J Millibar and the Halloween witch, Hazel Macbeth — and a concern with depicting elements of the world — rain, fog, flames and so on — in a way almost palpably real.

In the strip’s 12-year run The Spirit stared, featured and walked on in a seemingly endless series of fine stories. Ranging from The Big Sneeze Caper (February 6, 1949), a wonderful spoof on crime jargon to The Perfect Crime (January 5, 1947), a harrowing portrayl of psychological breakdown. Moving on further we find the series of Christmas stories, in which a different ‘spirit’ solves the crime and the regular Spirit’s constant affrays with beautiful, capable and deadly women (who had names like Wild Rice, P’Gell, Thorne Strand, Sand Saref and Wisp O’Smoke). Through all of these Will Eisner took his character as far and as deep as any detective the genre has seen.

For all their differences there is an essential feature these two ‘occasional’ detectives share which goes far beyond the coincidental commonalities of era and (series) format. That feature is humour. In Mickey Mouse the humour was broad and often slapstick, well in keeping with the rough and tumble, supremely confident character Mickey was. In The Spirit the humour, although occasionally stooping to the pratfall, was largely cerebral in appeal, concentrating on the wry observation and the deadly barb, rather akin to the side-swiping humour of so many Cary Grant movies. This shared trait is now rather rare in the detective genre, it being rather preoccupied these days with the gritty and grimy or the sinister and shadowy. When humour is used it is to spoof the whole genre (eg the Pink Panther movies or The Singing Detective) rather than enliven the tone.

In days past, however, the detective story was noted for sharp wit, tight and funny banter and often exceptionally clever writing. In Mickey Mouse and The Spirit those who have tired of the old clever detective fiction through too much re-reading have something ‘new’ and just as exciting to look forward to.

The Three-Day Novel

The idea of writing a novel is surprisingly popular. It seems that nearly everyone who reads a novel or two entertains the notion that they might, one day, sit down and write one themselves.

Of the reasons given for these notions never advancing beyond a Sunday afternoon’s daydream, lack of time is the most prevelant.

After all, even assuming research and planning for one’s Magnum Opus is complete, everyone knows that writing a novel is a painstaking, almost all-consuming task which will take months if not years. Or will it? During this year’s Adelaide Festival Fringe 40 people wrote novels in three days — and they were not the first.

In 1845 the French novelist and playwright, Alexandre Dumas, famous even today for such novels as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wagered that he could complete the first volume of his then projected three volume work Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge in 72 hours including time for sleeping and eating. He emerged from his study with his completed manuscript a mere 66 hours later.

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Torrents of Spring in a fit of inspiration that kept him going from the 20th to the 26th of November 1925. Just to show that it wasn’t a fluke he wrote Rasselas in 7 days in 1951. This time, however, it was the need to pay for his mother’s funeral rather than the touch of the muse which kept him going.

For more than ten years Walter Gibson, who, as Maxwell Grant, was chiefly responsible for the pulp detective character known as The Shadow, produced a complete 60,000 word novel every fortnight. His most spectacular show of speed occured on a holiday in Maine. The log cabin he had commissioned as a hideaway was barely started. With nowhere else to stay and a new Shadow novel due in three days he ordered the builders to throw together a desk and a chair. His work space secured he sat down and, whilst the cabin was being built around him, wrote the new novel in the three days he had left.

The Running Man, a novel originally published as by Richard Bachman but eventually revealed to be by Stephen King was written — and eventually published with almost no changes — in 72 hours ‘with an energy [King] can only dream about these days.’

Even Shakespeare himself was apparently not free from the need to produce work in a hurry. Tales suggest that more than once fellow members of his company locked the great bard in an attic and would not let him out until a completed play was passed, page by page, through the gap under the door.

So, it seems the old standby of ‘not enough time’ is no excuse for all those would-be novelists not producing their tomes. Given the right motivation anyone should be capable of producing a novel in a week.

Getting the right motivation, however, seems to be rather difficult. How many of us are ever hit with inspiration sufficient to keep us standing in the kitchen writing on top of our fridges for three days, as Hemingway is reputed to have once done. How many of us have held the wolf from the door as desperately as Thackeray, Walter Scott or Dumas were forced to. Each of these three were, at various times, writing almost literally one day ahead of their creditor’s demands for money.

All is not, however, lost. Something of the impetus needed to produce at such great speed is the guiding idea behind the literary marathon known as a Three-Day Novel Contest.

On the Canadian Labour Day Weekend of September 1978 Pulp Press International, a small press in Vancouver, British Columbia, held the first of its now locally infamous Three-Day Novel Contests.

The rules are simple. One registers an interest and pays the entry fee before the contest runs. Then, on the three days prescribed by the rules, you chain yourself to your typewriter or word processor and write.

Outlines are permitted prior to the contest; only the actual writing of the novel is restricted to the three specified days. Collaborations are permitted, but no more than two authors per novel are allowed.

The kick which make this contest an acceptable substitute for inspiration or economics is the first prize. The winning novel is released as a genuine published book the following Northern Spring.

Pulp Press have run twelve contests to date with the thirteenth scheduled to run over September 1 — 3 of this year. Winners in the twelve contests so far run range from bp Nichol the established Canadian poet whose novel Still won the 1982 contest to the 1989 winner Stephen Miller. His book, Wastefall, is his first novel.

In 1988 Landin Press, a small publisher based in Adelaide, decided that what was good enough for the Canadians was good enough for us and ran the first Australian Three Day Novel Contest during that year’s Adelaide Festival Fringe.

The only notable differences to the rules used in Canada were an undertaking to publish the winning novel before the end of the Festival and a requirement that the novel contain some reference to Adelaide’s Festival of Arts. For the 1990 Three-Day Contest the requirement was broadened to simply some reference to Australia.

The other stipulation, that the novel will be published before the end of the festival, may also go by the time of the 1992 contest. Many more than the forty entries recieved this year will make judging in time almost impossible.

So all would-be novelists out there have no excuses left. Next time you hear someone, as they put the latest blockbuster down on the easy table, sigh that they are sure they could do something just as good if only they had the time give them a nasty grin and tell them they have. After all it only takes three days.

Revisiting Friendly Street

Friendly Street is Australia’s most successful poetry group cum meeting place. It began on November the eleventh 1975, a day more normally remembered for its political significance than its poetic import. Since then, with only minor changes to format (a change from one to two guest readers, from fortnightly to monthly meetings and from the Media Resource Centre to the Box Factory, both in Adelaide) the meetings have continued unabated. During 1976 Richard Tipping, one of the original organizers and christener of the meetings, suggested an anthology of the best of poetry read during that year would be appropriate. He then went on to both edit and convince Adelaide University Union Press to publish The Friendly Street Poetry Reader. Since then there have been Readers published each year with the fourteenth due to be launched at the Adelaide Festival during Writer’s Week. In 1980 Graham Rowlands edited, and Adelaide University Union Press published, Dots Over Lines, an anthology containing generous examples of the work of eighteen Adelaide poets, all of whom had apppeared at Friendly Street meetings. In 1982 the Friendly Street Poets, having taken over the publishing of the Readers in 1980, published four individual collections, all launched during the Writer’s Week of that year’s Adelaide Festival. Friendly Street has launched individual collections at each subsequent festival for a current total of nineteen volumes of poetry.

But what is Friendly Street that it is so succesful? Why does it survive (to now be Australia’s longest running regular poetry reading) where others, with possibly better resources, do not? Answers to these questions lie in both what Friendly Street is and isn’t.

Friendly Street is not a movement. Unlike the Jindyworobaks, the Modernists and the Classicists, all of whom preceded it in South Australia, it has not even the loosest of manifestos or creeds. It is not a cabal of ‘in’ writers who dictate terms to all comers. While various cliques have existed and continue to exist, there influence has never been such as to affect the nature and purpose of the meetings. It is not a workshop. There is no organized or formal response to any poem presented. Readers must make what they will of whatever response the audience provides. Friendly Street is, however, both a venue and a community.

As a venue it provides an audience and a place for poets and poetry in Adelaide. The open readings which constitute the second half of any Friendly Street meeting are an unsurpassed opportunity for poets and poetry, of literally any type and quality, to be presented and heard. To visit Friendly Street is to hear poetry; good, bad and indifferent. To read at Friendly Street is to have an audience predisposed to your work, if only because it is poetry.

As a community it provides a flexibility and a support system which not only encourage writers to continue their writing, but also help protect Friendly Street from the excesses of the various cliques that inevitably spring up around such gatherings of people.

Beyond all this is its location. Friendly Street as it is could not exist in the larger cities of Sydney or Melbourne. In those cities groups equivalent to the Jindyworabaks or the Classicists can gather in great enough numbers to preclude joining together for the sake of venue. In Adelaide the descendants of the Jindyworabaks, the Classicists and the Modernists, both actual and spiritual, are not enough to survive on their own. Along with many others of various poetic ancestry they constitute the diversity and friction which both give Friendly Street its impetus and necessitate its communal aspects. When described as a community aspects of its behaviour as an entity are easier to understand.

Because it is a community it is able to develop unwritten rules of ettiquette. No poet is shouted down by listeners beholden to a different and apparently antithetical artistic manifesto, although poets whose work, in the general consensus of a meeting’s audience, is genuinely awful, have been heckled into silence. No newcomer is judged, publically at least, on anything other than their poetry, the social order imposed by community stifles any racism or (more prominently) sexism in the hearts of the audience. The neutrality of the venue has meant that when various sections of the community are at loggerheads (at one stage at least one faction within Friendly Street was known to be ringing up various members of the Australia Council’s Literature Board and abjuring them not to give any funds to anyone within another faction) the meetings and readings went ahead unchanged. Because it is a community it has survived the disappearance of many of its original organizers, many of whom have gone interstate, some of whom have simply reduced their commitment to that of any attendee.

The most dramatic example of the efficiacy and importance of community in Friendly Street’s continued existence is Friendly Street’s recent near collapse.

During Writer’s Week at the Adelaide Festival of 1988, as has become almost customary, Friendly Street Poets launched four new books of poetry. The only variation on the established format for these books was the inclusion of two collections, “The luminous ocean” by Louise Crisp and “Mad moon alight” by Valery Wilde in one volume entitled In the Half-Light. The launching passed by with no more than the usual comment.

As is also customary in a Festival year the launch of the annual Reader was included in the Writer’s Week programme. This launching brought forth much more than the usual comment. Edited by Jeff Guess and Donna McSkimming with book production by Graham Rowlands and Kevin Pearson the Number Twelve Friendly Street Poetry Reader had a cover which completely overwhelmed its content. The cover consists of various disembodied torsos, breasts, vaginas and penises strung together into an amorphous mass.

Jeff Guess and Donna McSkimming, who were amongst many who disliked the cover, accused Graham Rowlands and Kevin Pearson of choosing a cover that was at the very least innappropriate and, to many people, positively offensive. Graham Rowlands and Kevin Pearson countermanded with the suggestion that neither of the editors had shown the least interest in the book production itself, preferring to hand the manuscript over to them once the editing had been completed.

The absolute truth of claim and counter-claim remain open to at least some question. Undeniable is the enormous, and for the first time, public rift it caused between participants in the Friendly Street meetings. The story made it into Adelaide’s morning newspaper The Advertiser who proceeded to follow the story at least part the way to its bitter end with varying degrees of accuracy and luridness. A special meeting of a number of Friendly Street regulars resulted in the re-publishing and re-launching of the reader. A new edition in a plain brown cover was produced. For those with copies of the offending edition the brown paper cover was available free.

The changes this controversy wrought were minor. All through this period readings went on as normal. The decisions and meetings to make the decisions were announced at Friendly Street, but only during the pre-ordained times for announcements already long in place. Other than this no public discussion of the fight occurred during Friendly Street readings. For myself, far enough away from the dispute that my thoughts, one way or the other, were inconsequential, the only noticable change was a the vague sense of all not being right pervading the meetings for some months. With the re-launch done and The Advertiser no longer interested, even pruriently, the anger became memory and the event folklore. The rules of communal living were unspokenly invoked and Friendly Street survived.

All this, however, was merely prelude to a genuine and potentially fatal crisis. During 1988 it became apparent that Friendly Street’s finances were, putting it mildly, not as they should be. By the end of 1988 it was clear that nearly $13,000 was ‘missing’. Rory Harris, Jeri Kroll and Graham Rowlands, all then members of the management committee, denied any impropriety. Subsequent events confirmed completely the innocence of all three and identified the source of the money’s ‘disappearance’.

For reasons I am not privy to, and in what can only be described as a remarkable example of a community acting resolutely in its own self-interest, no direct action was taken. Friendly Street was re-funded by the South Australian Department for the Arts and the Number Thirteen Friendly Street Poetry Reader was edited by Constance Frazer and Barry Westburg, published by Friendly Street Poets and launched at a Friendly Street meeting early in 1989 as is customary.

Things have in no way returned to normal, however. Differences have not become memory and events have not become folklore. To a lesser degree the changes in Friendly Street can be attributed to the conditions imposed on it by the Department for the Arts as pre-requisites to its being re-funded. Friendly Street Poets now has a constitution, official membership and attendant membership dues and lists, regular conventional committee meetings and regular conventional committee chairholders.

To a much greater degree, however, changes in the atmosphere at Friendly Street meetings are due to the enormous range of often impossibly conflicting responses a community goes through when it faces such a betrayl of trust.

The community that is Friendly Street is currently less concerned with various sub-divisions than it is with simply maintaining itself as a viable and continuing entity. The monthly readings continue to provide as wide and diverse a range of the good, bad and indifferent in Adelaide poetry as ever. The readings, however, are touched by an undercurrent of tension not just the result of pre-performance nerves.

Other changes wrought by the crisis are evident in the planned additions to the Friendly Street list for the 1990 Writer’s Week. Since 1982 Friendly Street has published five or six book, including the reader, every festival. This year, in conjunction with Wakefield Press, it is publishing only three: The Number Fourteen Friendly Street Poetry Reader, edited by Ann Timoney-Jenkins and Neil Paech; Edison Doesn’t Invent the Car by Steve Evans; and The Inner Courtyard: An Anthology of Contemporary South Australian Love Poetry, edited by Anne Brewster and Jeff Guess. The reduced number of books is designed to save money. Publishing in association with Wakefield Press is designed to both save money and improve distribution. It is worth noting that Wakefield Press is also publishing four books of its own this festival. Two of them, Seventy-seven by John Bray and Rites of Arrival by Jeff Guess, are collections by poets long involved with Friendly Street.

To what extent the recent upheavals will affect Friendly Street’s viability is still difficult to predict. If it has been bureaucratised as a result of the upheavals the meetings and venue have nonetheless been left unchanged. One may be able to officially join Friendly Street. It is not, however, a prerequisite for reading at a Friendly Street meeting. If the people now running Friendly Street are new they are no less committed than their predecessors. Traumatic as the changeover may have been it is not the first time new people have suddenly become intimately involved in the running of the readings. Whether the feelings of community so vital to the success of Friendly Street as a venture survive or re-emerge is, even now, difficult to tell.

As this sees print the books will be being launched and Friendly Street will be re-forming once again to begin a new year of readings. If you are in Adelaide for the Festival make a point of seeking out any Friendly Street events being touted. For all its troubles Friendly Street is still Australia’a most successful poetry venue. Every festival writers and readers of poetry come from almost everywhere to take a turn in the spotlight, try and understand the mechanisms that enable it to survive and prosper or just listen to good poetry well read.

This year a lot more than just the poetry is going to be worth listening to.

The Many Masks of Batman

On 31 August 1989 the most popular movie to date, Batman, opened in Australia. The film revolves around two individuals. The first is the title character who, as a result of witnessing the murder of his parents as a small boy, decides to spend his adult life dressed up as a giant flying mammal chasing criminals across the rooftops. The second is the Joker, a gangster who takes an unplanned chemical bath, and decides that his resultant fluorescent features should be used to add a more theatrical touch to his activities.

The makers of Batman have thrown enormous sums of money about making certain the movie is talked about in every medium the developed world has to offer. Aside from this what good reasons are there to explain its enormous success?

The Batman character comes from the comics. Since the Second World War ended, comics have, in the English-speaking world, been considered fit only to entertain children. So why does a movie based on the character Batman have a PG rating? Why do reviews of the movie judge the film on its ability to entertain adults?

Any attempt to explain either the change in the Batman’s image or its financial success first needs to recognise the commercial nature of the character. Whatever else the Batman may be he is first and foremost a product of popular culture. His success or failure is judged primarily on economic grounds, rather like soap or chocolate. Unlike soap or chocolate, however, it is not just a matter of convincing people that the product cleans whiter or tastes better. The Batman, like all popular culture, is consumed as leisure or entertainment. To have enough people spending both their leisure time and money on a particular example of popular culture relies on the example having broad appeal. Knowing what will or will not appeal to a large percentage of the paying audience is not easy. The thousands of failed television shows and films are testimony to that. Broadly speaking, however, popular culture normally reflects the fears and desires of those who consume it.

In order to understand properly the popular appeal of the Batman, therefore, one must go back to 20 years before the character’s first appearance.

In 1919 the Volstead act, based upon the 21st amendment to the Constitution of the United States, was passed into law. The Volstead act brought in what we now know as prohibition. It became unlawful to manufacture, transport or sell alcoholic beverages. The act could do nothing, however, about people’s desire for the demon drink. Since the American public could no longer imbibe legally, it did so illegally. A huge underground industry sprang up to supply this public with the alcohol it desired.

Small criminal gangs, taking a lesson from legal free enterprise, began to organise on a large scale in order to properly control the manufacture and distribution of the now banned substance. The enormous revenue this ‘bootlegging’ earned for the gangs enabled them to establish themselves in a variety of legitimate and semi-legitimate businesses. When prohibition was finally repealed in 1933 it was too late. The few organisations that had survived the intense inter-gang warfare of the past decade had grown so strong and were so firmly entrenched in the mainstream of American life that it was impossible to remove them.

With time these criminal gangs were to learn the virtue of subtlety and the value of keeping a low profile. In the early 1930s, however, they had just established themselves and were inclined to declare their existence publicly and to flaunt their power deliberately. The public perception was one of complete chaos. The gangs had taken over. Civilisation had given way to a savage law of the jungle in which only the strongest survived. Marketplace competition was expressed in the most brutal terms imaginable with rivals literally killing each other on the streets.

The police forces and other law-enforcement bodies seemed unable to cope with these ‘new’ criminals. What was needed was some sort of super policeman who would meet these gangsters on their own terms. A hard and efficient lawman who could clean up the cities and keep them clean. The real world failed to provide any such figures but popular fiction abounded with them. Dick Tracy began his career in the comic strips; The Shadow started in one of the most popular pulp magazines. Books, film, comics and radio abounded with tough private eyes and square-jawed G-Man. The fear these times generated made these super crime-fighters and tough detectives enormously popular. None of these figures offered realistic solutions to the problem. What they did offer was a temporary feeling that the chaos, and therefore the fear, could be dealt with.

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27, cover-dated May of 1939. The very first Batman story, ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,’ establishes the tone and style of the series. Alfred Stryker murders two of his three partners in an attempt to gain control of the chemical company managed by all four. In his attempts to murder the third he is thwarted by the Batman and finally dies after accidentally falling into a vat of acid. “A fitting end for his kind,” remarks the grim-faced Batman at the story’s end.

The Batman of this tale is less super hero than detective, very much in the tradition of The Shadow, Dick Tracy, Phillip Marlowe and even Sherlock Holmes.

The Joker of this era (he first appeared in Batman #1 cover-dated Spring 1940) was, likewise, instantly recognisable as the pulp villain he was. His peculiar visage and colourful name had recognisable antecedents in other detective fiction of the time. His bizarre, seemingly pointless murders and robberies would today be described as psychopathic. To the audience of the day they were simply the sorts of things ‘the bad guys’ did.

The story itself, “a takeoff on a Shadow story” according to the author, is nothing more than ordinary. It points quite clearly to the character’s intended audience, however. The motivations are economic and spiteful, not just evil and rotten. The methods are sly and nasty, not just dastardly. This is not a character aimed at children. In fact the audience to whom comic books sold was, at the time, largely adult. Quite specifically it was white, male and increasingly made up of servicemen looking for light, quick reading.

The Batman stories of the next 15 years involved the character in adventures that were to differ in little more than details. They took place at night, in an almost surreal world of enormous shadows and impossibly angled buildings. The villains were all straight out of the pulp-detective tradition, wearing wide-brimmed hats and double-breasted suits with padded shoulders. Like the detective fiction it came from, all this appealed to those who felt powerless in the face of organised crime seemingly run rampant. The Batman’s peculiar motivations, his obsession with crime — a result of witnessing his parents’ murders as a boy — and his disavowal of guns and deadly force gave him an individual appeal. This formula was very successful.

The only relief from the grim and bitter texture of the stories of this period is Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin first appeared in Detective Comics #38, cover-dated April 1940.

The introduction of Robin didn’t change the sales of Batman comics significantly. Nonetheless the character was very popular with Batman’s then-current audience. A popularity reflected in the emergence of the ‘kid sidekick’ as a standard part of the superhero genre of the day.

In order to come to some understanding of that popularity we need to more fully examine the character’s origins.

Like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson (Robin) is left an orphan when his parents are murdered by criminals. Grayson is the only son of John and Mary Grayson. The three of them make up the trapeze act known as The Flying Graysons. The casual and easy-going life of the circus is shattered for Dick when the owner of the circus the Flying Graysons appear with refuses to pay protection money to a gang led by local crime boss, Zucco. In order to press their point further the gangsters arrange for an accident to occur. They cut through the trapeze ropes and John and Mary Grayson fall to their deaths while performing their act.

When Dick, by sheer chance, learns that the apparently accidental death of his parents is in fact murder, his only thought is to bring the killers to justice, and thus restore some little balance to his shattered life. About to go to the police he is stopped by a grey and menacing figure, the Batman. The Batman warns him the police are unable to help as Zucco “owns” the town. If Dick wants his parents’ killers caught he will need the Batman’s help.

When the Batman reveals that he too is an orphan as the result of murder, Dick pleads to be allowed to join the Batman in his crusade. Seeing more than a little of his own anguish in Dick Grayson, the Batman agrees to take the boy under his wing. After many months of intensive training the Batman assents to allowing Dick, now costumed and christened Robin, to take on a case. In their first adventure together they bring Zucco’s gang to justice.

The most important factor in the above story is the bringing of Zucco’s gang to rights. Within the framework of the Batman stories it explains much of the difference between Batman and Robin.

Both Batman and Robin experienced the trauma of seeing their parents murdered before their eyes. Both responded to the trauma with an overwhelming sense that justice has been destroyed. In Robin’s case, however, he was able to see some of the balance restored relatively quickly — “many months later” according to the story. This relief from the trauma was never available to the young Bruce Wayne who, as a result, internalised the anguish until it became the grand obsession that now drives him.

For Robin the motivation was always very different. Relieved of some of the anguish by seeing his parents’ killer brought in, he escaped from the horror relatively unscathed. Rather than being driven by an obsession he is motivated by a sense of duty, that justice be served, coupled with a strong sense of adventure. He was a trapeze artist and lived the life of a circus performer before his personal tragedy. The appearance of a legitimate father figure, and the relatively quick resolution of his feelings of helplessness at seeing his parents die meant the happy-go-lucky spirit he had acquired as a result of circus life was never completely crushed.

From the point of view of the reader, Robin represented someone almost all could identify with. For the younger readers (the material may have been slanted at adults but its very low price guaranteed it an audience of children as well) there was out-and-out identification. Gosh, may I could be Robin. For the adult reader Robin was an element of normality, a balance, rather like the various companions who have travelled with the Doctor in the Doctor Who television series. That Robin did not increase sales dramatically suggest that, for the most part, the readership simply accepted him as another character. An adjunct to the Batman rather like Commissioner Gordon or Alfred: not essential to the central premise but a nice touch all the same.

With the end of the war things began to change. The huge audience of servicemen stopped reading comics at about the same rate they stopped wearing uniforms. The comic-book was now seen as fit only for children.

American foreign policy became firmly rooted in the idea that the United States was the ‘guardian of the free world.’ Paranoia became almost respectable. Anything deemed a threat or potential threat to the American Dream weathered the full force of America’s growing sense of self-righteousness.

The Second World War had wiped away the old, dark world of the Depression and optimism was the new creed. Science was going to solve all our problems and technology was going to satisfy all our wants and needs. The only shadows spoiling the view of white America during this decade were the twin ones of the bomb and the Cold War.

The comic-book industry reacted to the changes in popular feeling in two ways. Adventure strips began to emphasise communist and communism as the villains rather than criminals and fascism. Horror and seamy detective fiction were out and science fiction was in, not only because it reflected the new dominance of technology, but because it was also believed to be more suitable for the children now seen as the comic industry’s major consumers.

Very few of of the strips and characters which came from the pulp traditions survived these changing times. Characters such as Superman, which drew their inspiration from science fiction, thrived in this environment. The Batman, however, was deprived of the very elements which were the character’s lifeblood.

Rather than fighting criminals Batman began encountering mad scientists, aliens and robots. Instead of appearing only in the shadowy streets of night-time Gotham he began visiting lost worlds and other dimensions. Deprived of both locale (Gotham City) and time (the night) his black and grey costume lost its menacing touch and became plain silliness.

Robin, on the other hand, remained largely unaffected. Throughout the ’50s he was the life-loving, risk-taking, pre-adolescent boy wonder he had always been. Not being intrinsically tied to the night or crime, Robin was able to go off to fight marauding monsters and aggressive aliens without losing credibility.

The Joker, like the Batman, was changed by this new and better world. No longer a homicidal maniac he became “the clown prince of crime.” His activities, although ostensibly criminal, seems more concerned with providing the Batman with an adversary than illegally acquiring wealth.

The changes were not successful, either aesthetically or financially. By the early 1960s, the sales of Batman comics were so low they faced the prospect of being cancelled. In Detective Comics #327, cover-dated May 1964, the Batman was again changed. He was returned to his natural locale (Gotham City) and was once more fighting crime. His audience was still considered to be children however, so dark and violent streets were considered out of bounds. There was no return to the vengeful character of the ’40s, and the Batman still went out during the day. The plots became concerned with classic detective work, full of clues and puzzles. Robin added to the general pre-occupation with word games and clues by becoming a wise-cracking teenager with an over-fondness for bad puns. The Joker was largely forgotten. The character who had once been the Batman’s nemesis was reduced to occasional appearances as a comic relief criminal. Batman and Robin became a sort of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in leotards. More explicitly the pair became something of a self-parody.

The change was successful. The sheer absurdity of running around city streets in skin-tight pants solving crime had an appeal which fitted perfectly the mood of the mid-1960s. How well this ‘camp’ approach slotted in to the times was to be seen with the success of the television series.

Television producer WIlliam Dozier picked up a copy of Batman #171 (cover-dated May 1965). The plot, featuring an abundance of he afore-mentioned puzzles, puns and self-parody, immediately appealed to Dozier. The Batman televisions series premiered on American television in January of 1966 and was an instant hit.

Comic-book camp became a national sensation. Comic-book heroes became the subject of magazine articles and fixtures on prime-time television. The proliferation of super-heroes on Saturday morning cartoon shows began.

The enormous success of the series was also its failing. The swiftness of national acclaim made most people’s interest no deeper than that of any fad. In its second season the TV series was already losing ratings. The re-vamping of the show, with the inclusion or a new character, Batgirl, bought the series a third chance. It fared no better and the show as cancelled at the end of the 1968 season.

Nonetheless, the television series reached much further and lasted much longer than three seasons in America’s living rooms. Success of this magnitude had the inevitable spillover into the rest of the English-speaking world and the Batman TV series was exported to Canada, England and Australia. In all of these countries, as in the United States, the show was screened just before the evening news, a time slot generally considered to straddle the afternoon children’s programming and the evening’s adult fare. The audiences both in the US and elsewhere were made up of the same mix of children and adults. For the first time since the 1940s substantial numbers of adults were including the Batman in their leisure time. Although not as successful outside the US, the show did make the Batman a universally recognised symbol of the camp ’60s. The show became a repeat stable on children’s television for the next 20 years. Only those who continued or began reading comics saw any change in the Batman’s image. For most people the Batman remained one of the quintessential images of the ’60s. Kind of goofy, lots of fun and rather naive.

The impact of all this on the comics industry was dramatic. In the first year of the television series Batman titles became the biggest sellers on the market. Comic-book companies everywhere were jumping on the bandwagon. By the end of the fad’s life several comic publishers had experienced their last fling before going out of business. As the Batman craze died, adults once more stopped buying comics. Many companies found the pre-existent children’s market was no longer enough to sustain business. Either a new approach, one which appealed more strongly to adults, or a new market would have to be found. One company had weathered the camp fad by assiduously cultivating a new market: the teenager.

The emergence of the teenager as an economic force in the late 1950s was to change the face of popular culture. As a group they had more income than children, and, unlike adults, almost all of it was disposable. Aside from rock ’n’ roll, teen movies and fashion, the teenage market was also to change the nature of comics publishing. DC Comics, the publisher of Batman, were not the first to recognise the possible benefits of slanting their products towards the adolescent market. With sales down by 10 to 15 percent across the board, they were not long in exploring the idea.

The Batman was included in this experiment with the release of Batman #217 (cover-dated December 1969). The changes wrought were in many ways a return to the character’s original conception. Once again he came out only at night. His motivation was once more an obsessive drive originating in his witnessing of the murder of his parents as a child.

It was not a complete return to the image of the 1940s, however. The audience this change in the Batman was trying to cultivate had grown up during the ’60s. People were increasingly prepared to blame the ‘system’ for the world’s ills and not just individual politicians or bosses. It was no longer enough for the Batman to simply assault and apprehend the bad guy. The Batman of the 1970s became a force for an admittedly abstract justice, rather than just a vengeful misanthrope.

Robin had been made into a teenager back in the early ’60s in an earlier attempt to cultivate the emerging teenager market. The understanding of teenagers demonstrated by DC Comics at the time, however, was laughable, and for several years the once popular boy wonder became the unpopular teen wonder. This unpopularity was largely due to his boyish enthusiasm being replaced with a ‘hipness’ that even the most willing suspender of disbelief was hard pressed to accept. With the return of the Batman to his dark night detective image this ‘hip’ Robin had to go. The new creative team did more than just change his image, however: they sent him off to college. Although Robin would occasionally drop in on a term break to share an adventure, the Batman of the ’70s was, by and large, once more a loner.

The Joker, however, was turned back into something more closely resembling his original conception. In line with the changing times, though, his rationale was, in effect, removed. No longer the consciously evil villain of the ’40s, the new Joker was murderously psychotic. In those uncertain times the almost arbitrary terror of the Joker’s schemes made him all the more frightening. The Batman and the Joker, once more transmuted, attempted to reflect contemporary desires and fears.

The changes to Batman did increase the teenage (and college aged) audience substantially. No individual comic, however, showed any return to the sales vigour of the middle ’60s. Comic books were competing with an ever-broadening array of material from the various popular culture outlets. In addition popular culture itself seemed to have real trouble in the 1970s providing a product any large proportion of the market would readily buy. The changes to the image of both the Batman and the Joker reflected that problem. To be sure, the Batman always won, the good guys always triumphed. But the victories were less satisfying. With the Joker no longer so resolutely evil, nor the Batman so self-righteously correct, their battles may have been more ‘realistic’ but they were less immediately gratifying. The Batman, comics and popular culture in general seemed to have lost the ability to personify the fears and desires of the public. Without that personification popular culture could not provide that temporary feeling that whatever might be wrong could be quickly righted.

The image of the Batman survived none the less. Sales stabilised and the only real change in the series was the eventual re-introduction of Robin. Dick Grayson had, since the early ’70s send-off to college, stopped cavaliering about as Robin and started cavaliering about as Nightwing. The re-introduction of Robin, in a series of stories running from May 1983 through to February 1984, was therefore accomplished by the introduction of Jason Todd. Jason Todd might best be described as a re-creation of the Robin of 1940. Although this did allow for the re-emergence of an interactive and teacherly Batman it could not hide the only other noticeable change in the stories: the emergence of a sense of malaise as the various writers and artists began simply putting the character through the motions.

Discussions towards making making a Batman movie began as early as 1977. It was not until the mid-1980s, however, that Warner Brothers began to pursue the idea seriously. The Superman movies had done quite well and, other than Superman himself, the Batman was the most recognisable costumed character around. The original intention was to do the movie in much the same spirit as the television series of 20 years before. Changes in the marketplace and within the comic-book industry were soon to kill that idea.

Unlike the English-speaking world, Europe had for many years accepted the fact that the comic was a story-telling medium just as suitable for adults as for children. Just as significantly they held the medium was capable of both serious and light material. In the middle 1980s this idea began to take hold in the book publishing spheres of both England and America. In 1985, Art Spiegleman’s Maus was published in book form by Pantheon. The story of Spiegleman’s father’s experience during the Holocaust gained widespread critical acclaim. THe book was nominated for an American Book Award and was praised widely as a significant contribution to the canon of Holocaust literature. All this came for a comic book. All for a story told with allegorical animals taking the place of humans in a consciously cartoony style. In 1982, British author Raymond Briggs, previously known for his delightful Father Christmas series of comic books, published When The Wind Blows, a disturbing and harrowing account of what happens to two very ordinary people when the Bomb goes off. It too received widespread acclaim.

The major American publishers reacted to this largely through a change in production values. They continued to publish stories revolving around the exploits of costumed heroes saving the world from costumed villains. Instead of publishing nothing but slim monthly magazines on newsprint, however, they began producing comics printed on heavy stock with proper binding. Although not about to publish something like Maus or When The Wind Blows, they also began experimenting with more ambitious projects, designed and packaged to appeal to an adult market.

In 1986, DC Comics began publishing a new and rather different Batman story. Published in four installments, each installment was square bound on heavy stock paper. It looked rather like a tall, thin paperback. Called The Dark Knight Returns, the story begins with a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne, retired and embittered, his crusade having made no difference. He has not been Batman for 10 years, but the old ghosts still gnaw and bite at his soul. Accidentally catching a reply of Zorro, the movie he saw on the night his parents were murdered, he re-lives his childhood trauma. The old ghosts become too much and, driven almost beyond the edge, he once more dons the suit and begins stalking the night.

The Joker also re-emerges in this story, after many years locked away in Arkam Asylum, an institute for the criminally insane. The Joker of this story is still psychotic and homicidal. More than a decade in Arkam has, however, taught him to play the psychiatric game. Having convinced his keepers of his sanity he uses his celebrity status to wrangle a spot on a a TV talk show. Taking full opportunity of his freedom, the Joker proceeds to do what the Joker does best and murders the entire studio audience as part of his escape. His next move is to set up his final confrontation with the Batman. The Joker of this story may still be psychotic but his obsession with wealth and power and his sense of theatre have been totally overwhelmed by his struggle to outwit his old enemy. He has come to be so obsessed, in the end his every action is directed towards and centred upon the Batman.

The Dark Knight Returns also introduces a new Robin, this time in the shape of a young girl called Carrie Kelly. If Dick Grayson was the typical kid of the 1940s then Carrie Kelly is the typical kid of the 1980s. She is streetwise, sassy and prematurely cynical. Unlike Dick Grayson she takes on Robin’s mantle completely independent of the Batman, convincing him of her worth as a student by simply showing up and doing the right thing.

In a story that ends with a nuclear bomb designed specifically to bring on the nuclear winter being detonated, Batman is back to his most vengeful and obsessed since the character first appeared.

The peculiar and particular appeal the Batman had in the 1940s was once again in vogue. The story did very well. When the four chapters were gathered together into a trade paperback it sold several hundred thousand copies and brought comics into the bookstore with a vengeance.

The plans for the Batman movie were changed. No longer the camp Batman of the ’60s, the Batman of the movie was going to reflect the new-found popularity of the comic book character.

It was not just The Dark Knight Returns. Also appearing on the bookshelves during this time were The Killing Joke, seen by many as the definitive statement on the nature of the Batman/Joker relationship, and an acknowledged influence on the Batman movie’s director, and Batman Year One, a gritty and modernistic retelling of the Batman’s first year of operations. All of these works re-confirmed Batman as a dark and vengeful figure of the night, an object almost as much of terror as of justice. The Dark Knight Returns earned the largest amount of money of any single comic book story in history. The Killing Joke and Batman Year One also did very well, clearly demonstrating that the darker and more sinister Batman was very much in tune with the spirit of the ’80s.

When the movie was released in America on 23 June 1989 it broke the box office record for any movie’s opening weekend, taking US$43.6 million. The latest figures to hand [as of September 1989 — BF] have the film grossing over US$250 million, well past the previous box office record of US$228 million set by E.T. in 1982. Even allowing for increases in ticket prices this represents many millions of people seeing the movie.

The Batman movie is set in a city where fear rules the average citizen’s life. Criminals and gangsters run the city with the help of crooked cops and corrupt city officials. Just as in the crime fiction of the 1930s chaos rules supreme. The ordinary citizen has no recourse to the protection of the law or the prospect of due process.

If popular culture is a reflection of the fear and desire of the public, this re-emergence of the Batman as a figure of mass popularity tells us much about the pre-occupations of the Western world. We have, it seems, returned to the 1930s. People everywhere are less and less confident the forces designed to protect them from harm and fear are able to do so.

Running around in a costume assaulting criminals is no longer funny, it seems almost necessary. Nothing else provides any sense that what appears to be wrong with the world is being put right.

The 1980s are very different from the 1930s. But the fears of both times seem to be the same. The implications this has for those who would say the world is, today, a better place than it was 50 years ago are enormous.