Canon Wars

Expanded Universe1This past April, Lucasfilm announced, via the Official Star Wars website, that going forward, only the six films of George Lucas’ Star Wars Saga, and The Clone Wars television series would be counted as official canon (meaning they are a part of official Star Wars history).  Additionally, all future comics, books, short stories, television projects, and films would now be part of a cohesive whole and conform to that canon.  They also established that all books and comics previously released would now carry the moniker of “Legend” status, and would no longer be considered any part of Star Wars lore.  Lucasfilm was free to use characters, ideas, and stories from those releases for future projects, but from the perspective of the new Star Wars Story Group (responsible for shepherding the Saga going forward), these stories were now apocryphal.

The news was met by fans with a mixture of ambivalence, elation, shock, and horror depending on what side of the Expanded Universe as canon argument you fell on.  Some within fandom saw the announcement as a good thing, giving Lucasfilm and Disney a fresh start to tell new stories without the baggage of previously established stories.  Others saw the announcement as the ultimate betrayal of fans of the Expanded Universe who had loyally followed their favorite characters through hundreds of adventures told in books and comics, and were now being dumped on their heads.Star Wars #7

What became known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe (meaning stories told outside of the movies) began with issue #7 of the Marvel Comics Star Wars series which began to tell stories of what took place to our heoric Star Warriors following the Battle of Yavin.  1978 saw the release of the first spin off novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was followed shortly by a series of Han Solo novels written by Brain Daley.  A series of Lando Calrissian novels came later after the release of The Empire Strikes Back.

Guide to Star WarsAt the time there was really no need to consider the continuity between the novels and the comics since there were only a handful of stand alone novels which had no bearing on what Marvel was doing with the comics.  However, in 1984, following the conclusion of the Original Trilogy, author Raymond L. Velasco tried to put all of the information collected in the films, novels, and comics into one guide book of the Star Wars Universe.  A Guide to the Star Wars Universe was the first attempt to gather the history, people, and places of that far away galaxy in one place.  But the universe was about to explode in 1987.

For the 10th Anniversary of Star Wars roleplaying design company, West End Games, released the 1st Edition of their Star Wars Roleplaying Game, along with the Star Wars Sourcebook.  The era of the Expanded Universe was born.  In the years that followed West End released books revealing the inner working of the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and the aliens and planets that made up the universe.  The game became an instant hit with gamers and non gamers, and the Star Wars sourcebooks that were released became required reading for serious fans.  WEG - Star Wars Sourcebook

However, 1991 would go down as probably the most important year in the history of the Expanded Universe with two seminal releases that would change how Star Wars stories were marketed and revive the series among the general public.  Heir to the Empire, written by science fiction author Timothy Zahn, to the story of Han, Luke, and Leia years after their victory at the Battle of Endor.  A New Republic had emerged, and the Star Warriors were once again called to protect the universe from the Empire, under the direction of the evil  Grand Admiral Thrawn.  The book became an instant bestseller, and sparked a wave of more adult novels.  Meanwhile, later that year, Dark Horse Comics secured the Star Wars license and launched their own post-Jedi story, Dark Empire, which saw Luke Skywalker taking on a resurrected clone Emperor Palpatine.  The six issue miniseries (which was originally intended as a Marvel release) became Dark Horse’s best selling title to date, and Dark Horse immediately commissioned new comic titles.

For the next 20 years both Dark Horse and Bantam/Del Rey books released hundreds of stories which all became part of a larger Star Wars experience known as the Expanded Universe.  Lucasfilm tried to keep it all under control ensuring that continuity was maintained between various comics, novels and video games.  Eventually, the company attempted to set some firm rules about what constituted official Star Wars lore, and what was part of the Expanded Universe’s continuity.  Lucasfilm devised a muti-tiered program with the movies, and later The Clone Wars television series being called “G-Level canon,” meaning official Star Wars canon coming directly from creator George Lucas. Comics, most novels, and video games became a separate part of the Expanded Universe’s continuity and were intended not to conflict with each other.  Finally, other projects like The Star Wars Holiday Special, the Ewoks movies and cartoon series, the Droids animated show, and other projects were their own animal.

Zhan Trilogy

The two main continuity lines appeared to live together, but separate for a number of years, rarely intersecting or conflicting with each other.  However, that began to change as The Clone Wars animated series began to explore ideas and characters that creator George Lucas was interested in. Of course with hundreds of books, comics, and short stories telling new adventures, or filling in gaps left by the movies there were bound to be contradictions.  The first big salvo was about to be fired over the backstory of the Mandalorians.Mandalore

Lucas first devised the name Mandalorian when working on The Empire Strikes Back. According to the novelization they were a group of super commandos who hunted down the Jedi Knights.  Following the release of Jedi, it did not appear that Lucas would be revisiting Boba Fett’s backstory, or the history of the Mandalorians, so comic authors and novelists felt safe digging into the mysteries of Boba Fett and the Mandalorian people.  That changed with Attack of the Clones when Lucas first revealed the origins of Boba Fett and his bounty hunter father, Jango Fett.

Following that film’s release, author Karen Traviss authored a series of Clone Trooper books which went into great detail about the Mandalorians, their culture, history, and language.  Her writing on the subject was so in depth that it gave rise to a subculture of the Star Wars fanbase that was dedicated to all things Mando.  Unfortunately, the reality of Star Wars canon and what was considered the “real” history of Star Wars would be at odds with Traviss’ work when Lucas decided it was time to visit Mandalore itself in The Clone Wars.  Instead of a noble warrior culture as Traviss envisioned, Lucas saw Mandalore as a pacifist world that had turned its back on its warrior past and was trying to find peace in a galaxy at war.  In a three-part arc, the current ruler of Mandalore, the Duchess Satine, is trying to quell a rebellion by Death Watch, descendants of the Mandalorian warriors, while trying to keep her homeworld out of the Clone Wars.

SatineNeedless to say, the reaction among fans of Traviss’ Mandalorians was extremely negative.  Some accused Lucas of violating canon and implied that Traviss had created the “official” history of the Mando culture.  Others suggested Lucas was nothing more than a hack, strip mining Traviss’ good ideas, while injecting his own “crappy” ones.  It was at this point that I realized that Lucasfilm was simply in an untenable position.

George Lucas has always been very clear what constitutes official Star Wars canon, and what is considered “part” of the Star Wars universe, but outside of his Saga:

There are two worlds here. There’s my world, which is the movies, and there’s this other world that has been created, which I say is the parallel universe—the licensing world of the books, games and comic books. They don’t intrude on my world, which is a select period of time, [but] they do intrude in between the movies. I don’t get too involved in the parallel universe.” George Lucas Cinemascape, July 2001

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of Lucasilm’s representatives who muddied the waters with statements like this:

We’ve stuck to a very clear branding strategy for the past decade. This is Star Wars. Individual movies come and go, as do TV shows, video games, books. They all contribute to the lore of Star Wars, but in the end it is one saga and that saga is called Star Wars. We’ve wanted to send a clear message to our fans that everything we do is part of that overall saga.”  Howard Roffman, President, Lucas LicensingTales of the Jedi

Lucas Licensing Editor Sue Rostoni tried to elaborate on this, but only added to the confusion:

Canon refers to an authoritative list of books that the Lucas Licensing editors consider an authentic part of the official Star Wars history. Our goal is to present a continuous and unified history of the Star Wars galaxy, insofar as that history does not conflict with, or undermine the meaning of Mr. Lucas’ Star Wars saga of films and screenplays.

Long time fan and contributor to Lucas Online, Pablo Hidalgo and and Lucasfilm Continuity Database Administrator, Leland Chee were tasked with getting the Star Wars licensing behemoth under some sense of structured order.  They made it clear that there were essentially two hierarchies of Star Wars canon; George’s vision of the Star Wars Saga which included his films and The Clone Wars, and and Expanded Universe canon which included the six films. The Clone Wars, and the comics and novels.  Chee further clarified that the only “official” Star Wars story was George’s:

“Anything not in the current version of the films is irrelevant to Film only continuity.

Of course fans would continue to bicker endlessly  about canon and the Expanded Universe’s place in the Star Wars legend.  Some argued that The Clone Wars was not canon, others devised their own hybrid canon including some portions of the EU as part of the “official” Star Wars story.  However, the Disney purchase of the Star Wars license changed everything.

Finally, a definitive answer was given when Lucasfilm announced that going forward all comics, books, and stories would now be part of the official Star Wars timeline and would be supervised by the new Star Wars Story Group.  All Expanded Universe products released in the past would be rebranded as “Legends,” apocryphal stories that were no longer considered canon.  However, Lucasfilm reserved the right to use elements of the old EU in future Star Wars projects.  This outstanding video explains the policy changes:

Unfortunately this announcement was met by a lot of push back.  Fans had become attached to many EU characters like Luke Skywalker’s wife, Mara Jade, or Han and Leia’s children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin Solo. Other fans were immersed in the ancient history of Star Wars told in the Old Republic series.  The EU was a rich and diverse universe with many memorable characters of its own, and suddenly being told that these stories “don’t count” had to be a little jarring.  Naturally there was bound to be some disappointment, but some fans took things to a bit of an extreme.

New Jedi OrderFrom my own point of view, I’m happy with the change.  I never really viewed the hundreds of comics and books as having any impact on the stories George Lucas was trying to tell.  I never once considered him sitting down to write the treatment for Episode VII, then reading a copy of  Heir to the Empire and quietly saying to himself, “Dammit, Han and Leia have twins? What am I going to do?” As a long time Star Trek fan who read the comics and most of the novels during the 80s, I was intimately familiar with the concept of canon and ancillary merchandising.

I guess my backgound in film studies helped me grasp the idea that while all of these new characters and adventures can be exciting, in the grand scheme of things they really don’t amount to much to the filmmaker and his creative process; they are nothing more than a revenue stream.  I know it’s a somewhat cynical attitude, but it’s true.  I doubt in the 30 plus years that Lucas controlled the Star Wars empire that he ever cracked open a Star Wars novel or seriously read one of the many comic series.  He simply did not have time for that.

Over the years the sheer volume of books coming out from Bantam/Del Rey had led to a very spotty track record.  For every Kenobi, or I, Jedi, or Allegiance, there were a handful of books which were painful to read.  Concepts like the Yuzzan Vong, a clear attempt to cash in on the Star Trek Borg craze fell flat, and simply didn’t feel much like Star Wars.  Lengthy book series like The New Jedi Order, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi were mix of good and awful novels which tested the reader’s patience.Kenobi

Now to be clear, I’m a huge fan of many of the Star Wars novels (I consider John Jackson Miller’s Kenobi to be one of the finest Star Wars stories ever), and I’ve read every issue of the comics produced by Marvel and Dark Horse.  If you even dare to visit the Jedi Council Forums at theforce.net you can find me there posting as Gallandro (a nod to Han Solo’s nemesis, the villainous gunslinger created by Brian Daley).  I LOVE a lot of the EU, but it was time for a change…

And I understand that change is hard; I really sympathize with EU fans who feel betrayed by Lucasfilm/Disney.  There are a lot of fans out there who were introduced to Star Wars through the EU, so these stories hold a special place for them.  To them Jaina Solo is just a vibrant and real as Luke and Leia.  But the reality is these characters aren’t going anywhere, as long as you stay invested in them.  Sure there wont be any new licensed adventures featuring the heroes and villains of the EU, but its clear they are not being totally abandoned.  Del Rey is re-releasing many of the classic EU novels with the new “Legends” banner, and even Marvel will be releasing collections of selected series of Dark Horse Star Wars comics as part of the “Legends” series.  There’s no reason EU fans can’t introduce other Star Wars fans, or non fans to many of these classic stories.  The EU hasn’t gone anywhere… it’s just taking a different path.

A New DawnI would urge any EU fans out there who have given up on the new continuity to give it a chance.  The first official novel released under the new canon, A New Dawn, by longtime Star Wars author John Jackson Miller is an outstanding book (I’ll post a review soon) and a worthy successor to the long line of EU classics.  James Luceno’s Tarkin has also been receiving great advanced reviews. Additionally, a couple of the upcoming Marvel comics sound intriguing like the Kanan spin off comic and the upcoming Leia miniseries.

While the era of the Star Wars Expanded Universe has come to a close, there appears to be a bright future ahead for quality books and comics that fans can enjoy while we wait for the latest big screen Star Wars adventure.

May the Force Be With You

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6 thoughts on “Canon Wars

  1. Question: What do you think of the novelizations? They conflict with the movies and TCW in a lot of places IMO. However, the The Clone Wars 2008 movie novelization is one of my favorite EU books and it gave me a new-found appreciation for the pilot film. How about you?

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    • According to a Twitter exchange between Kyle Newman and whoever runs the Official StarWars.com feed, the novelization are considered canon when they don’t conflict with the films.

      So while most of Michael Khan’s Return of the Jedi novelization is canon, Obi-Wan’s revelation that Owen is his brother is out. I really think Del Rey should probably revisit the film novelizations down the road.

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      • Yeah, I heard about that. Problem is, Karen Traviss took a LOT of liberties with her novelization. Lots of the differences are simply themes briefly seen in the movie that are elaborated on to great effect in the book. Others clearly tie into her Commando/Mando novels. I’m not sure what to make of it.

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      • I would say most of her novelization is out unless it directly relates to what happened on screen. That seemed to be the guidance.

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  2. Pingback: Ultimate Star Wars – An Encyclopedia For a New Era | One Saga - An Exploration of the Star Wars Saga

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