The Han Solo Factor

Ah, another Monday is here.  Where does the time go?  Time passes us by and soon enough, we’ll all be mouldering in our graves.  So best make hay while the sun is shining.  A stitch in time saves nine.  A rolling stone gathers no moss.  He who hesitates is lost.  And various other cliches that may or may not apply.

Where was I?

Having previously tackled the subjects of racism, the trials and tribulations of fictional characters, and why dinobots are always awesome, I think it’s time to talk about the paradox of being a fantasy fan.  It’s a paradox embodied pretty solidly by my own career.

Fantasy is usually considered frivolous and childish by default.  And it’s hard to disagree on the surface that jetpack gorillas and dragons are silly ideas.  The nature of almost all fantasy is built on this absurdity.  At the same time, fantasy doesn’t have to be stupid, as in simple-minded, as in a bit of colorful distraction with no real meaning beyond that.

Yet the paradox is this.  The more fantastic something is, the more unapologetically fantastic it is, the less “serious” it’s considered.  If gorillas suddenly become smart and rise up to attack us, it’s silly, but still a serious piece.  If those same gorillas get laser guns and fight giant robots, it’s goofy.  Nobody would take such a movie seriously.  I’d go to see Laser Apes Vs. Robots in a heartbeat, but I know I’m the exception.

The alternative to having your fantasy dismissed is to take it very seriously.  Have your characters stand around looking serious.  Have a tragic moment.  Be sure to remind everyone how important everything is.  Remind everyone that this is not “kid’s stuff”, and that if anyone’s actually thinking of enjoying watching a dinosaur getting punched by an alien, then be sure to throw some blood on the screen or have a lot of really boring talky scenes around it.

Recently, I watched M. Night’s live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender.  I’ve only seen a few bits, here and there, of the original animated show.  But what struck me most about the movie, aside from it’s rather stilted and clumsy direction, was how Serious (with a capital S) it was.  A story about a fantasy world where people control elemental powers was absolutely joyless.  It’s true that the animated series is about some serious stuff, but it also has moments of joy, of humor, of unapologetic “cool”.  The movie forsakes all that.  I don’t even remember a single laugh or smile in the whole damn thing.

As fantasy slips further into the mainstream, this happens more and more.  One of the things I disliked most about The Dark Knight is just how joyless it is.  It’s true Batman has his share of noir-ish sensibilities, but he’s also a guy who fights criminals dressed in purple suits, who wear tuxedos, and who can even shapechange or be werebats.  I’m not looking for a comical Batman, but I am looking for moments when I feel like I’m seeing something fantastic.  Instead, Batman is just a vigilante with a few gimmicks.  The Joker is just a killer without any sense of style.  And we are persistently reminded that being a superhero and living in Gotham City sucks.

Even the Star Wars prequels have this problem.  When you watch the original, there are certainly plenty of serious moments.  Especially between Luke and Darth Vader.  But the prequels lack their Han Solo, a dashing character who is there to have fun and be awesome.  I’ve always felt that Han was more important to Star Wars than just about any other character.  He gives us permission to enjoy ourselves.  Even when he’s being lowered into the carbonite pit, he gives us a sly wink and a cocky grin, and we know that it’ll take more than being frozen alive to stop Han.

The prequels don’t have that character.  And they suffer for it.  Indeed, Han might just be the perfect example of fun fantasy that still has some teeth.  Jar Jar Binks is just stupid, a character with no redeeming qualities, who exists only to be goofy.  Obi-Wan and Anakin are both maudlin, mopey characters.  And there’s good justification for that.  But without a Han to be both fun and serious, the prequels ends up either coming across as slight or angsty, depending on the scene.

A character like Han Solo can make or break a fantasy story, and thinking about it, Harrison Ford has made a pretty good career playing that type.  Indiana Jones has swagger and heart.  Even Ford’s version of the President gets to fight terrorists.  It’s just another small strike against Cowboys and Aliens that Ford plays the unlikeable version of Han Solo in it.  He’s so grizzled and unpleasant and deliberately avoids any moment of his trademark smile that by the end, I realized just how much I missed it.

This is why I often struggle finding an easy sub-genre in my own work.  I’m usually writing about strange things without apology.  I don’t feel the need to say THIS IS IMPORTANT every chapter.  And I even dare to have large chunks of humor scattered liberally throughout.  It has the twin handicap of making me seem too goofy to some, too serious to others.

Am I a fantasy adventure writer who uses humor?  Or am I a humor writer who uses fantasy adventure as a backdrop?  I’d like to think I’m both.  But the danger is that by trying to walk in two worlds, I might not be accomplishing as much as I could if I settled on planting both feet in one realm.

Even removing the humor though, when I write about robots detectives and space squid supervillains, I’m already working against myself as a “serious” storyteller.  When the plots of my stories hinge on raccoon gods dropping by to crash on the couch or about a fuzzy green monster that wants to eat the universe, one morsel at a time, I’m going to fall hard on one side of the spectrum.

If Mack Megaton was just a robot detective, I might get away with it as a “serious” writer.  But Mack lives in a retro-future city.  His best friend is a talking ape.  He fights aliens and giant slime monsters.  Regardless of the context, it implies goofy.  And it is.  But it doesn’t mean it’s slight or frivolous.

The paradox of my work is that, no matter how serious I might make it, the stories are always going to sound silly upon basic description.  The only way to offset that would be to write more seriously, to remove the smiles, the moments of joy.  And it wouldn’t hurt to kill more characters in the stories and possibly blow up a city or two.  Heck, even the original Star Wars blows up a planet to make sure we realize how nasty the Empire is.  And it doesn’t hurt the film to do so.

There’s a similar moment in Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain (due out next year) that isn’t played for laughs either.  But considering it’s the climax of a war between a space squid supervillain and rock men from Saturn, it’ll probably either come across as goofy to some or too serious to others.

And even as I write my current project, I find it’s a story full of humor.  And I live with it because it’s vital that it remain in there.  I’m not interested in backing away from the fantastic, from treating it as anathema to serious storytelling.  Fantasy can be fantastic.  It can be fun.  It can be every  bit as meaningful and worthwhile as any other story while still retaining humor and poise.  And it can do all these things while having jetpack gorillas and giant fightin’ robots.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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9 Comments

  1. Zovesta
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Don’t ever write only humour or only fantasy. I enjoy your work because you have a good balance between them. It’s uniquely you, and if you lose that, you start blending in with the mediocre writers of fantasy and humour.

  2. Posted August 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I think you can have both. PIXAR does a great job of this. Wall-E is in my opinion one of the greatest science fictions ever made. It’s not only full of great comedy, but carries a serious message. It’s also probably one of the greatest examples of love ever. So it can be done.

    I personally love serious fantasy, but I think the seriousness has to backed up by something of value. And most importantly, I think the story has to have hope driving it. And a roguish secondary character who prefers a straight fight to all the sneaking around.

  3. Posted August 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I was on your original board years back and remember you still struggling with the goof/serious dichotomy, and it’s nice to see a writer remain conscious of how s/he interprets his/her own work versus how the audience perceives it while trying so very hard not to compromise themselves. Admittedly, I’m not too active with a lot of authors, etc, so this may be common place. But it’s still nice to know. Thanks.

    (btw, I still very much want to make Tanks vs Mummies into a movie … I kind of hate you for putting that idea in my head.)

  4. Posted August 22, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Whatever you write, it will be golden, Alex. Don’t ever change! (I was having a discussion about how jealous I am of your brilliance just the other day…)

  5. Frankie
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    You’re right, of course. The best heroes, the ones who feel real, are the ones who weild tremendous talent and audacity, but dismiss it, as they rely on it. If WAL-E had been made in the manner of the Star Wars prequels, he would have wound up killing the entire ship, using his army of malfunctioning robots. Seriously, WAL-E was a bad ass. He was able to survive, adapt, and overcome in the harshest of envrionments, and when the situation called for it, he was able to break into a Space ship in flight and inflitrate all the way up to the captain. But WAL-E didn’t have murder in mind, just getting a girlfriend. AS with Han Solo. In the Original Star wars, Han shoots Greedo under the table. That one moment told me ‘This guy is a pirate! A SPACE pirate!’ THen he apoligizes to the bartender. ON the death star, it’s another day in the life of, and the audience is given the impression that this isn’t the first heavily guarded Space Station he’s smuggled himself onto. When he blows away tie fighters in the escape, he fires off a little grin, and we KNOW that he’s chalking up another victory. And what is he doing this for? Revenge? peace and freedom in our time? Nope, just a little gas money really. Everyone else has these high minded ideas, but Han just wants to get paid. Which makes him real. In the same way that Jojimbo, at the end of his final fight, sheathes his sword, adjusts his kimono and proclaims ‘Now we’ll have a little quiet around here!’

  6. Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    The Han Solo factor. That has a nice ring to it. I feel that this is likewise well displayed in manga and Anime. My favorite title ‘One Piece’ rides the line of slapstick comedy and seriousness quite well. It knows that even in a serious moment, humor comes out. But that’s what make it all the more real to me. We don’t go through entire weeks only sticking to a single mood. We don’t even go through entire days like that. Even in the most tragic moments we might catch ourselves glancing at a re-run of everybody loves Raymond and laughing out loud. The reality of life is that the emotional tone of “the room” can and does change. I couldn’t agree more that both is usually best.

  7. Posted August 23, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Actually I think that by not knowing exactly which way to take and not deciding on taking a way makes you a creative person. Saying “I’ll take this way now!” totally kills creativity and you’ll start recreating. I’m not a writer, but like to do some graphics stuff and music. And the later suffers immensely from a genre-choice. So I just keep doing what sounds right for me, even if that doesn’t sound like 90% of the music I like listening to.

    Furthermore are humor and seriousness one and the same thing, you just look at it from a different point of view.

  8. Posted August 27, 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    This was an excellent smart post, thank you.

  9. Ripply Farts
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    The comic rogue, the picaro, the ne’er-do-well, the comic relief, oh where did you go? Where art thou, my fool?

    Mr. Martinez, I feel the same way you do on this issue. I wish your writings could be taken seriously for their humor (the paradox). I realize you try to be post-modern avant garde; despite your work being a traditional form of satire. But humor refuses to be taken seriously. As I’ve written before, I’ve used a few of your books in classroom setting, namely to talk about the modern use of mythos, but the humor distracts us from the overall themes we try to extract. We realize you tackle some serious issues behind the laughs and the plot, but in the end we can’t quite get our claws into it. You, sir, are great at weaving ancient myth into modern fantasy; yet, as a humorist you intentionally write your characters in a manner that they lose their essence. No substance. No Ulysses. Hence, no value.

    Your gods want to reclaim their traditional glory. The comic twist is they’ve become either slackers or complacent assholes. Well, when your Matchstick Man of god, Lucky, finds value in humanity it seems lost, because your aim is to humor me. Your aim isn’t to show me the seriousness of Atheism in a world where lack of belief can wipe a god from existence. You want to gloss over serious and replace it with fun. But, then, how can you expect your message to be received seriously? The answer is you do not want your audience to take it seriously, but you also do not want your audience to consider it FLUFF. Well, give us an example outside your works where we can see this middle road. Because even gallows humor begs to be taken seriously before it’s taken to be humorous.

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