Emulating other artists?

Earlier this week I was gathering my thoughts on which of the many ideas I had for fantasy worlds over the last years I really want to focus on with my first proper stories. There’s always more ideas than you can possibly use and not all elements that are appearing “cool” are really contributing to every individual core concept. I recommend this article on Mythic Scribes for some further details on this.

To find the focus for A Wanderer of Kaendor, I made a list of scenes from other works that serve as my reference points for overall style. (To me, concept work is mostly making lists.) And one source of inspiration is standing out above all others. Who could have guessed it? Star Wars. Seriously, what else could it have been if you’ve read anything I’ve written about style and worldbuilding before.

As a pure novice, what seems to be the easiest way to emulate the way parts of these movies made me feel is to replicate many of the elements they are build from. Not so much the Rebels against Empire stuff, that’s Epic fantasy that isn’t really my cup of tea. But the way magic works, the Jedi as a scattered group of monks, the Sith as secretive sorcerers that have gained the upper hand without revealing their true nature, and the criminal underworld of smugglers and bounty hunters are all things that resonate with me the most and that I can see working very well in a Sword & Sorcery context.

But should I? Few things seem as creatively bankrupt as rippoffs of successful and popular works. I despise them myself. Not only do they feel like atempts to fake skill and ride to success on someone elses coattails, there is also very little creative satisfaction in it. Even if you can permit it on moral grounds as doing no evil or harm, it still feels dodgy as hell ethically. How doe it make you feel about yourself and your own art and creativity? On the one hand I fully support the notion that whatever makes you passionate to create, you should go with without fear or shame. If you think it’s amazing, then there are other people who feel the same and with persistence and some luck you will find your audience. Yet at the same time, how you can respect your own work as an artist is also hugely important and what joy can there be in art when you feel like being a fraud and can’t argue with confidence against those who would call you an immitator? Taking the magic, sorcerers, and scoundrels from Star Wars, the culture from Morrowind, and the landscapes from both as the stage for a Sword & Sorcery story is, in my eyes, the coolest idea ever! But can I justify it to myself and defend it against accusations of being a knockoff?

While thinking about these things, I remembered having seen a short documentary called Everything is a Remix, thas is talking about how all art is really the process of creative recombinations of existing ideas, rather than the inception of completely new ideas. Looking for some additional perpective on my problem I went to watch it again, and, to my only mild surprise, it contains a whole section dedicated entirely to how Star Wars is the product of almost straightly copied parts from other movies. The concept repeatedly returned back to in the documentary is Copy, Combine, Transform. This is presented as the essence of the creative process. Transformation could be seen as the most creative and original aspect of creating, as with thousands of years of storytelling it’s basically impossibly to come up with anything truly new and the act of copying is not simply a necessity. But the choice of which elements to copy and combine is already a deeply creative process. With there being nothing new under the sun and everything that could be said having been said before, the potential pool of elements to pick from is almost limitless. Chosing eight or ten things out of an infinite number to combine and transform is a hugely important part in the creation of a new original work. Your choice will inevitably be one that leads to a combination that has never been made before. Combination is the point where a work becomes original.

Looking at some other related videos, I realized that this copying of other director by Lucas isn’t limited to the first movie being a combination of Kurosawa’s samurai movies and British World War 2 bomber movies. Star Wars is perhaps the most remixed thing popular culture has ever produced. Like Kill Bill, you could recreate the movies entirely with footage from other movies. An in fact, someone did. Even without the video title and the iconic opening crawl, it’s instantly recognizable.

The amazing thing about this is that these sources don’t seem to have any common traits, except being works from the early to mid 20th century movies. (Which at that time was pretty much all but the most recent history of movies.) How could you put British pilots, medieval Samurai, and Gone with the Wind in the same movie? In SPACE!? But Star Wars is not just copying and combining, most importantly it’s transforming. It manges to fuse all these things together and feel like a seamless whole that is impossible to separate. And it lead to works that are absolutely unique in fiction. Nobody has ever created anything that would be the same type of fantasy, like you have lots of works of the same type as The Lord of the Rings or Conan. And people love it! Star Wars is one of the unchallenged titans of entertainment. It defies categorization yet is one of the most succesful concepts ever.

From this I am taking confidence that I can fully justify to myself to take elements directly from other creators and try to emulate some of their distinctive style. And eapecially when it comes to Star Wars, nobody can ever justify any claim of ripping it off. Star Wars is the gold standard for remixing. However, this also made me realize that simply copying my favorite elements from Star Wars will not be enough to create something original. When you draw almost entirely from only one source, then no combination can be happening. And without combination, how do you want to transform! I thick that’s what gets people to regard something as a knockoff. When an artist only copies from a popular work, but doesn’t meaningfully add to it to make it really feel like something new.

I already have some things in mind that I would want to explore for their potential to enrich this mix, but those are thoughts for another time.

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalog, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo-Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.) And then there is Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of amazing movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Two decades ago, on a tiny TV in a city not far away

It’s May the Fourth, and not just any 4. May. 40 years ago, in May 1977, Star Wars was first released in theatres. The public had not seen it yet, but it already existed and the hype was already on.

For me, it’s also my 22nd May the Fourth. As far as I am able to piece it together, it was some time in spring 1995, around my 11th birthday, when I had just moved to a new city and went to Hamburg to visit a friend from my old class for a weekend. I remember quite well how my dad dropped my off at the train station where I got picked up by my friend and his mother. But before we drove to his home, we still had to go to the department store across the street because my friend wanted to buy a toy. It was a pretty weird looking toy and in the car I asked my friend what it was. His reaction was pretty much “Dude, you’ve never heard about Star Wars?!”

From what he told me it sounded quite interesting and once we got home he went to show me his collection of Star Wars toys. All the times I had been to his place before after school we mostly played Super Nintendo. And all those little weird figures looked really cool and we ended up playing with them the whole afternoon. And eventually he asked his mom if we could watch Star Wars on video in the evening. Which we did!

I can still quite well remember the room with the small TV that probably wasn’t bigger than 15″. I think I was quite excited by that point and from the moment that Star Destroyer thundered on the screen nothing would ever be the same. I was hooked. Instantly. I’ve known fairy tales and The Hobbit all my life and I can’t even remember a time when we didn’t watch Star Trek practically every day. But this was something completely different. It was simply awesome. In every sense of the word. When it was over I was thrilled and so we just went on watching The Empire Strikes Back right after it. I don’t think we asked if we were allowed to watch videos that late. The next morning we watched The Return of the Jedi and the rest of saturday and sunday morning was all Star Wars.

That same year I finished elementary school and in my next new class I made a new friend who also loved Star Wars. And his dad had a computer but was at work during the day. And on that computer we played X-Wing. A lot! I think for months we spend at least one afternoon after school per week at his place and a lot of that was playing X-Wing. When we got out own first computer, X-Wing was the first game I had to get. And then Tie Fighter.

And then came 1997. Star Wars was rereleased in cinemas. Of course we had to go. My dad thought it was okay. My mother quite liked it. And my brother was just as blown away by it as I was. Then we got it on video as well. And here I am, still gushing about it 20 years later. I can safely say that Star Wars changed my life. I liked Star Trek before and fantastical childrens books, but seeing Star Wars on that little crappy TV on the floor opened up a whole new world for me and came to define my imagination and passions. I am as much a fan of Star wars as one can possibly get before it becomes embarassing. To this day The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie ever and all creative work I do is filtered through that movie. This website exist because of it. All because of that little blue and white plastic trash can.

The Force is strong with this one

I’m not just a huge classic Star Wars fan, I am also one of those 90s kids who think Tie Fighter is one of the greatest videogames of all time. And purely be coincidence I found this video that has been around for over a year now.

If you played the game, you recognize that this isn’t just a Star War movie, this is a real Tie Fighter movie. I’ve played this game and X-Wing to no end and this one was clearly done by someone who has not just seen it, but knows how it feels to play. I’ve never seen such a smoothly done attempt at representing game mechanics in a movie. If you haven’t played the game, you probably won’t be able to spot the moments that emulate it.

Very nicely done.

Comic Review: Tales of the Jedi

Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi is a comic series that was published by Dark Horse from 1993 to 1998 with a total of 35 issues. This was only two years after the Thrawn Series by Timothy Zahn had kickstarted the Expanded Universe as we know it now, placing it pretty early in the history of Star Wars tales. The series was created by Tom Veitch, who had written the Dark Empire comic series a year earlier (which I consider the greatest travesty of the Star Wars universe after the Holiday Special), but he was joined by Kevin Anderson in 1994, who had just released his Jedi Academy novel series (which also has a pretty poor reputation among fans) and became the sole writer for the series a year later.

The Tales of the Jedi are set 4,000 years before the movies, in a time when the Republic was still smaller, the galaxy less explored, and the Jedi much more numerous. The first three story arcs, written by Veitch, (and giving us the now popular title “Knights of the Old Republic”) follow the adventures of the young Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma and his brother Cay and their fellow knight Tott Doneeta, who are send to the planet Onderon to help the government of the capital city end a war with the tribes living in the surounding jungles. They discover the spirit of the Dark Jedi Freedon Nadd manipulating the events on the planet, facing the three Jedi with a much bigger threat than they anticipated. As the crisis escalates, Ulic’s path crosses with the newly trained Jedi Nomi Sunrider, who has an exceptional talent for the Battle Meditation technique, which allows a single Jedi to coordinate the efforts of an entire army and making her extremely valuable.

Once Kevin Anderson joined as second writer, he introduces Exar Kun, a character from his Jedi Academy novels, whose spirit is trying to turn Luke’s Jedi students on Yavin 4 to the Dark Side. Exar Kun is unhappy with his master not trusting him to learn about the dangerous powers of the Dark Side and so sets out to learn more about them on his own. A path that very much mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker in the movies that were made a few years later. Exar Kun gets corrupted by the still not fully destroyed spirit of Freedon Nadd who leads him to the ancient Sith tombs of Korriban, where he once more unearthes the ancient secrets of the Sith. At the same time Ulic Qel-Droma is trying to infiltrate the leadership of a new Sith cult called the Krath who also have been guided by Freedon Nadd and establishing their own galactic power by allying with the Mandalorians and become a major threat to the Republic. Halfway through the arc, after the Dark Lords of the Sith series, Veitch left as a writer, leaving the field entirely to Anderson with the Sith War series.

A third main arc is set a thousand years earlier and centers on the first clash between the Republic and the Sith Empire under the leadership of Naga Sadow, who uses trickery and conspiracy to first destroy his rivals for control over the empire in The Golden Age of the Sith and then sets his eyes on the Republic in The Fall of the Sith Empire. A final, much shoter arc called Redeption, is set some years after The Sith War, but is mostly a personal story of Nomi Sunrider’s daughter Vima and doesn’t really add much to the historic lore of the Old Republic.

The setting of these comics would later return on the Knights of the Old Republic videogames, which right after the release of the second game got another comic series also, and confusingly, called Knights of the Old Republic. I was interested in those comics and had read the Jedi Academy novels at some point in the late 90s, so I decided to start at the very begining with the Tales of the Jedi series to know more about those references to Exar Kun, Ulic Qel-Droma, and Naga Sadow. When I first read them some three or four years ago, I quite enjoyed them. But having read them again over the last two weeks, my opinion of the series is now very different.

The first arc, written by Veitch, is really pretty bad. The art is very sloppy and ugly, characters are as flat as it can get, and what little traces of a plot there are are almost entirely told by exposition in boxes with the characters not really contributing anything with their own words. The second arc, begun by Veitch and Anderson, is a noticable improvement in that the art now looks only bad and that the plot consists of exposition in speech bubbles instead of boxes. It’s still a bad comic, though. The third arc, now done completely by Anderson alone, first starts surprisingly well with Golden Age of the Sith. The art has now been upgraded to simply ugly, though servicable, and there’s actual plot and Naga Sadow has some real personality as we follow him taking out his rivals and becoming new Dark Lord of the Sith. Sadly that didn’t last and The Fall of the Sith Empire is right back to being a jumbled mess of exposition. The short Redemption at the very end is okay, I guess. I still don’t think it’s any good or very interesting.

So yeah. My final impression of the Tales of the Jedi series is that it’s bad! There are noticable improvements over time, but those are simply from “godawful” to “only bad”. The only reason why I would recommend to anyone to read any of these comics, would be a great interest in the lore of the early days of the Star Wars universe. But even then I would say that only The Golden Age of the Sith and The Fall of the Sith Empire are worth it. If you really want to know about Ulic Qel-Droma and Exar Kun, then you’re much better of at just reading the page on Wookiepedia. There is so little plot and characterization in Veitch’s comics that you really are not missing out anything. It probably is much more exciting to read a detailed summary than to shovel your way through that pile of dung yourself.