Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Between Books - Star Wars: The Living Force


Book cover for Star Wars: The Living Force showing the 12 Jedi Masters including Yoda and Mace Windu.



The Star Wars literary world has recently moved us from one prequel, The High Republic, to another. It’s been 25 years since Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. This prequel was criticized by fans and general audiences, much like I feel about The High Republic. But now, decades later and after stories like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this period is beloved by many fans.

Star Wars: The Living Force by John Jackson Miller is two storylines that merge together in an action-packed conclusion. In the first storyline, the Jedi find themselves closing outposts as trade and population centers move in the galaxy. With those movements, crime fills the vacuum. The Jedi Council decides to leave their temple before closing the beloved outpost on the planet Kween in The Slice region of the galaxy. Many Masters have a history with this location, and they realize that the criminal element has increased as Jedi outposts nearby close. The Jedi Council Master plan to hold a session in person on the planet and celebrate publicly the history and legacy of the outpost. Readers follow the members of the Jedi Council as they interact with the citizens of Kween and follow the Force’s urgings to aid groups and individuals. The second storyline follows Jedi Master Depa Billaba who has gone undercover into a criminal ring to help one young girl escape a life of crime. Master Mace Windu, her former Master, stops on his way to Kween to ensure she makes the meeting and if needed provides aid. Both stories meet on Kween as all 12 Masters influence the book’s conclusion.

John Jackson Miller knows science fiction and Star Wars. He has written several prose Star Wars books, though he had taken a decade's leave from this universe…with him writing some Star Trek books during that time. He has written even more Star Wars comic tales, especially for the Dark Horse era. So while we honestly won’t get many revelations, he weaves a tale that will keep the reader’s attention as someone who has completed the assignment before. While it’s not a full-on giant battle piece, I think he does a good job of showing the personal failure of the Jedi Council. They had removed themselves from the people. So to the people, they were merely rumors. And for the Jedi Council, the needs of the people were abstract. They have lost connection with the reality of the galaxy. For me, this shows how a Sith Lord could manipulate a galaxy Jedi leadership knew nothing about in a practical way.

Miller also allows us to use familiar mental images and a hook to bring in readers of other Star Wars media. First, most moviegoers have seen the majority of Masters on the screen. So we have general images for most of them. Miller is then able to use his space to give us a story that we never knew and lacks conflict with other stories as most of them are enigmas to us. Let us also not forget we have Yoda as a Master, who is very active in this book and invites us to get to know the others better, and their faults. Along with him we also get Mace Windu though his interactions with the other Masters are limited. Second, we have a halo effect for Master Billaba. She is the Master of a character not found here, Kanan Jarrus. I personally think that Jarrus may be one of the most effective Jedi found in Star Wars stories, and definitely, he is beloved. Billaba has been seen just a little bit in comics and television. This story allows us to see her in more fullness and we want to see her personality in view. While she challenges herself to help just one person, we can see a moral compass that she passed down to Jarrus. 

Star Wars: The Living Force by John Jackson Miller is refreshing. It is a standalone story, that has a clear beginning and end that really only needs the basic understanding of the prequel trilogies. One can get in, enjoy, and move on to their next read. I think the publishing program can use a little more of this, a stand-alone adventure that serves to just provide adventure while also reinforcing the action we saw on the screen.

 

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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Between Books - The Magic is in You

Cover for The Magic is  in You with the title in the middle surrounded by Disney characters including Mickey Mouse, Dorry, Pascal, and Aladdin



Cash or prizes, which do you prefer? What do you like to give for graduations or other turning point celebrations?

The Magic is in You by Colin Hosten and Brooke Vitale illustrated by Grace Lee is an inspirational children’s book, which reminds us of a core message, the magic is in you! The book follows a basic pattern. A crisis is presented by the writers using images from Disney or Pixar animated films. The moment is illustrated in soft original art. The next page resolves the issue by pointing out the magic and strength in each of us. The book is simple and repetitive and repetitive as the situations are demonstrated in the worlds of Tangled, Toy Story, and more.

The book as I mentioned is simple. The pattern is easy for a child to grasp and predict, especially after a few readings. It is one of those reads that I expect a child would start saying the resolution line as the page is turned. I would not read it at bedtime. While I love the message of internal strengths and magic, it does present a series of crisis moments that could create anxiety. And at bedtime, no parent really wants to set up an obstacle blocking sweet dreams.

This is a nice hardcover book with an attractive book cover. And it reminds me of when Dr. Suess’ books meant to inspire young adults were often gifted at high school graduations. I can see doing the same with this edition especially if they are a Disney family. Young adults will face challenges. Hosten, Vitale, and Lee inspire for those moments. But I think if you are not close to the graduate and don’t know their Disney Young Adult Status, I would go with cash. If they are not Disney film fans, the book may seem too brief and not connect.

Cash or prizes? I lean toward cash in most circumstances. Young people transitioning into the next stage really need a nest egg for computers, pens, and late-night pizzas. But The Magic is in You by Colin Hosten and Brooke Vitale illustrated by Grace Lee provides a delightful option for transitioning young people who are also Disney fans. It also is a book that can remind kids of the magic within themselves as they grow using Disney’s fanciful and beloved characters.

Maybe the question is really cash, prizes, or magic? Two out of three ain’t bad. Three out of three is better!

 

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Between Books – Hyperion Historical Alliance Annual 2023


Cover for 2023 Hyperion Historical Alliance Annual showing the contents and images of subjects in the collection like Woolie Reitherman in a military pilot's uniform and Pete Seanoa in Polynesian clothing.



New year, same review?


I feel like I restate the same thoughts whenever I read the latest Hyperion Historical Alliance annual.

Maybe it’s because I feel “excluded” and I don’t like that. I’d like to think I’m pretty serious when it comes to history.

The “2023 Hyperion Historical Alliance Annual” consists of five articles that span decades of Disney history from the early days of animation to the 1900’s in Disney parks. The five articles are:
  • “Oswald the Laemmle Rabbit” by Tom Klein

  • “Walt Disney and The Life of Hans Christian Anderson” by Didier Ghez

  • “Woolie Reitherman Needs to Fly” A Disney Artist Goes to War” by Lucas O. Seastrom

  • “1945-1946: Edgar Bergan and Disney’s Story Department” by Didier Ghez

  • “Direct from the Islands: The Polynesian Magic of Pete Seanoa” by Nathan Eick


The articles are all written with an academic slant. And they have extensive footnotes with bibliographies showing source material. They definitely as a group are attempting to show the seriousness of Disney history.

For me, the most engaging topics were Oswald and Woolie Reitherman. Klein’s article demonstrated that the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was not fully in the mind of Walt Disney. In many ways, Oswald was a corporate creation, which reminded me of the modern studio and network system where executives, producers, and writers all have claim to pieces of the character. Disney’s additions were critical, providing Oswald with much of his character development and growth. But Klein makes it clearer that the Lucky Rabbit was a corporate rabbit not a Disney one. We might even call Oswald work-for-hire. The Reitherman article dives deep into the artist’s non-animation career as a military and civilian pilot. The article helps remind us of how the Greatest Generation was often more than one thing and career, which should inspire us! But it is also a history that includes World War II, transportation over The Hump into China, and the growth of commercial air travel.

The “2023 Hyperion Historical Alliance Annual” to me has an audience, Disney fans who want serious historical research. They want their passion to be validated as a serious academic pursuit. I also think these fans, like me, would love to support the Hyperion Historical Alliance in their mission. In fact, my proof is the purchase, reading, and review of now four Annuals. I just think that they need to grow the mission. I am someone who has a master’s degree in history. I’d like to think I am taking my history seriously. I am also not currently mining archives for serious historical additions to the knowledge base. But I would like to support those that are doing so. As someone who’s been a member of the Society of Baseball Research, who has a model I think can be used here, I don’t get why this isn’t being democratized. I’ve also been a member of the Society for Military History and American Historical Association, founded in 1884 and very serious, which both have options for non-working historians.

The “2023 Hyperion Historical Alliance Annual” is a collection of five historical articles that span the varying topics in Disney history. Most Disney fans, like I did, will likely find a topic of interest and comparisons to trends today in media. Again, I wish they would open membership up to a more scalable and likely-lasting membership model.


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Monday, May 6, 2024

Between Books - Why Wakanda Matters


Book cover for Why Wakanda Matters with the profile of a panther on a field of yellow



I am a huge comic book fan. One of the things I love about comics is our ability to learn lessons in multi color action stories. I get why a lot of people don’t like the rude and crude Deadpool. But if you read some of the best Deadpool comics(like Gerry Duggan and Joe Kelly) you find lessons that readers can learn about self-worth, friendship, grieving, self-care and so much more. Many of these great stories and their lessons have been translated onto the screen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences worldwide learned that superheroes can help teach lessons through many of these movies, with one of the most impactful being Black Panther.


Why Wakanda Matters: What Black Panther Reveals About Psychology, Identity, and Communication edited by Dr. Sheena C. Howard is a collection of academic articles discussing the impact of Black Panther on audiences and the general population. A common theme in the book is the power of a movie starring and made by a cast and crew of people of color. The movie seeks to avoid and overcome stereotypes found in the media. By not falling into the expected movie tropes for people of color, it communicates messages to young people about the roles that they can take within society. Additionally, it helps to combat the impact of stereotypes found in media.


I won’t go into the essays in-depth as they are many varied in their messages and themes. The big messages that I see are first and foremost, representation matters. Ryan Coogler and crew when creating the world of Wakanda intentionally built a world that audiences saw as important models for what people of color could be, with the movie showing scientists, soldiers, and kings as just a few of the many options open for futures. This world-building moved beyond stereotypes and generalizations, which often are used in film when creating for broad audiences. Another theme is while all authors agree that the representation in the film is impactful, they may disagree with the messages that the movie projects. For example, some writers see T’Challa’s final choices as conforming to long-term imperialistic and disempowering frameworks. But Killmonger’s strategies challenge the status quo and can be at times applauded. As one reads, you can tell that the authors as a group are very conflicted by the image of Killmonger who they applaud and criticize for his over-the-top aggressive choices…much like the movie-going audience.


Why Wakanda Matters is an academic work, and likely not for every reader with its heavy focus on theory and research. But I think it is more accessible than many academic works because the examples are often ones we know from viewing Black Panther. With it being a work that delves into many cognitive theories, I can also see readers who do not agree with everything written. Let’s be honest, this book talks about a charged issue with race. But, I also do not believe that the authors fully agree with each other, and Howard does a great job of bringing multiple perspectives together.


Why Wakanda Matters: What Black Panther Reveals About Psychology, Identity, and Communication edited by Dr. Sheena C. Howard is an academic collection that makes you think about race, representation, and portrayals of people of color in media. It helps to teach the importance of our stories, even when super, in teaching us important social and cultural lessons about how we interact and treat each other. For comic book fans, I think it is a great collection for understanding the power of comic characters. And for media fans, it demonstrates the power of story. I think it is definitely worth the read for Marvel…and DC…fans.

 

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Monday, April 29, 2024

Between Books - Disney Parks Presents Jungle Cruise

Book cover for Disney Parks Presents the Jungle Cruise featuring a smiling Skipper John leadng his crew and boat down a river with a hippo, snake, and tiger.



I looked over at the Between Wife and said, “this is about to be a world of screaming and crying!”

We were standing in the foyer for The Haunted Mansion. Many of the kids around us were nervous and bargaining to escape! The parents were reassuring their children because they were prepared. When the Ghost Host declared that one way of leaving was “his way” none of the kids lost it…they were ready! We truly cannot underestimate the power of books or YouTube videos in preparing our next generation of Disney fans. And I want those kids to make sure that when I have to be rolled down the dock, the Jungle Cruise will be there for me in my later years!

Disney Parks Present Jungle Cruise
with narration by John Lasseter, illustrations by Edrwin Madrid, and words by Walt Disney Imagineering and the Jungle Cruise Skippers is a literary walk through of the Jungle Cruise attraction. The book is simple, Skipper John, as in Skipper John Lasseter, takes his crew through the show scenes of the Jungle Cruise, before the 2021 refurbishment and Alberta Falls. All the important scenes are depicted in Madrid’s fun and vibrant pictures. The narration from Skipper John clearly shows highs and lows in tone which I think would make reading aloud fun. I am sure I can hear on the accompanying CD, if I choose to find a way to listen.

This book is likely not the best way to prep a young skipper for the attraction. Now, I was going to say part of that is because the attraction was revised a few years after this was published. The but is we can see in the credits that Kevin Lively was involved, as he was the attraction reset. And the narration is universal as I can see the puns being used today in most cases. The chunks revised out were not used on these pages. And it’s not for the art, which while not exactly what you would see on the Cruise, is strong illustrated homages to it.

No, the reason is that like many of these Disney Parks Presents books, it is out of print and $30 plus for purchase. I just can’t justify that when the Little Golden Book edition is currently available at a much lower price point. I believe part of the reason this one is out of print is due to John Lasseter’s participation. He truly did enjoy his days as Chief Creative Officer and loved reliving his days as a Skipper. But now, like C.W. Wood, Lasseter is someone not spoken of in official Disney channels. That leaves this book as really one of the last major Disney publicity pushes of his time with the company. And of the four books in this series on Amazon…it’s the one that fails to display the cover image and is a little hard to find in searches (just a little hard).

Disney Parks Present Jungle Cruise
with narration by John Lasseter, illustrations by Edrwin Madrid, and words by Walt Disney Imagineering and the Jungle Cruise Skippers is a book that as a Disney book fan and Jungle Cruise fan I am thrilled to have in my collection. It just isn’t the most cost-effective book for getting young fans ready for the BACK SIDE OF WATERRRRRR!

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Monday, April 22, 2024

Between Books - Star Wars: The High Republic Defy the Storm

Book cover for Star Wars The High Repbulic Defy the Storm filled with numerous characthers surrounded by gas masked wearing Nihil.




The High Republic publicity machine continues!

Star Wars: The High Republic Defy the Storm by Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland continues the story of the Republic’s attempt to free citizens from behind the Nihil Stormwall. This installment focuses on a handful of characters, which we have seen in other installments, but not the most recent book in the series. A group including a Jedi, a young scientific savant, a crass businessman, and a law enforcer find a way to sneak behind the Stormwall and enter Nihil space. Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh returns from a year of self-exile to save her former Padawan from the Nihil. Avano Starros attempts to overcome her mother’s betrayal and misuse of her technological innovations to destroy the Stromwall, even if she has to become a killer. Xylan Graf seeks a good haircut, freedom for his dog, and expanding his self-interests. And Jordanna Sparkburn hopes to save those she left behind the wall. The four unlikely allies go on an adventure to learn more about the Stormwall, the secrets of the Nihil’s greatest weapon against the Jedi, and themselves.
 

Yoda joins us for around 2 pages of this addition to the story.

I did not hate Defy the Storm. In fact, I found myself having a good time. While this is not my favorite Star Wars book, Gratton and Ireland give us mostly a self-contained adventure. We can focus mostly on just these four, their relationships, and their struggles. I think the small cast is in fact a positive as it allows character development. We find ourselves with an adventure with stakes, all but Vern who will be live-action soon, can be killed, which also gives us character development moments. Mentally the majority of main-cast are humanoids and the Nihil can give us mental images of anything we want since they are meant to be chaotic. The story by itself worked for me, but it also led me to earn for a new classic Star Wars cast story. 


I am not a fan of the High Republic. But I like what Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland give us in Star Wars: The High Republic Defy the Storm. The authors give us an adventure tale with character development. While I want more Yoda and connection to what happened in the last story I do think and hope that this series is heading to another major climax like we found in the fall of Starlight Beacon. 

 

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Monday, April 15, 2024

Between Books - True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

Book cover for True Believer showing a profile of an older Stan Lee





I think it’s impossible for a biographer to not develop a bias. As you spend enough time with a figure, the time really needed to chronicle a life, you either come to put them on a pedestal or despise the thought of them. I think that Abraham Riesman came to despise Stan Lee while detailing the Marvel legend’s life. It could have been due to choosing a side in the Marvel creator wars, everyone needs to side with either Stan or Jack right? Or maybe the drama and messiness in the final decades of Lee’s life was too much. But it is clear in with commentary often found in the text, Riesman has little to no admiration for Lee.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman is an extremely depressing tale. The biography provides the major steps of the Marvel legend’s life from birth to death to legacy. The story, without summarizing every milestone, is one of creative frustration, professional duplicity, familial strife, and business criminal charge. Lee is portrayed as a man who was an excellent marketer with questionable creative skills. As a man who disliked confrontation, he failed to always share the full story and allowed myths to build up around himself. This trend also allowed unscrupulous people, including family, to surround him and take illegal actions often in his name through Stan Lee Media and POW!, which were both accused of several criminal financial offenses in Lee’s name. Finally, in his final years, Lee was a victim of elder abuse by business partners and his daughter who all saw him as a financial cash cow.

Let me start with Riesman’s writing. It is riveting, engaged, and brings a reader into the sad story. But Reisman also clearly as an anti-Stan bias. This leads to commentary within the text that takes the opportunity to tear down the Marvel editor even when it’s unneeded. There is definitely a view that says Stan Lee was all bad while others, like Jack Kirby, were all right. And while Kirby may have some of the higher road in this story, I think we cannot automatically argue that Lee brought little to Marvel’s greatest creations. I think the clear bias is what leads me at times to question all of the story as fact. For example, in Lee’s senior years, it comes off as Riesman wants Lee to be involved in the illegality done in Lee’s name versus what he claimed which was ignorance. It’s not impossible to believe that Lee has some level of confusion and deniability to these acts due to his age, financial pressures, and series of bad choices of those he put around himself. For me, I can see the Lee was bad story but I can also see the Lee was a senior citizen who made bad choices about those he trusted. Lee the marketer was a manipulator, and I can see Lee being manipulated.

I will also admit I have a bias too. I am generally pro-Lee thanks to early exposure to him in media like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I enjoyed his public persona. And I have come to believe that Lee and Kirby were better together than apart. This left me feeling combative at times to the author and definitely made me feel queasy.

Here is for me the real value of Riesman’s book. Stan Lee’s life was not as marvelous as we may want to believe. He was creatively frustrated. He produced less than he wanted to and never felt creatively accepted. While he was in a marriage full of love, it also created financial strains that would always put pressure upon him. Even more sad, his relationship with his own daughter was broken beyond repair. And while in his final years we saw the public smiling Stan at premieres and in videos, he was surrounded by people who really only wished to use his name for their own purposes. It is a life less excelsior than any of us would wish for another human.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman is not a happy book. Readers should be warned. It is well-written and interesting but is also clearly anti-Stan. The picture that the reader walks away from is sad, will make you question your heroes and mad about how we can treat each other. In the end, Stan Lee’s life was as real as those he attempted to create in the pages of his comic books. 

 

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