Dan Wallace Interview
Back in January we collected questions for an interview with Star Wars guru Dan Wallace, author of numerous articles, essential guides, contributing author to the hew Encyclopedia and author of the upcoming Atlas. After much delay and some site technicalities, you can now see that interview just after the jump and read his thoughts on the new Encyclopedia, working in multiple genres, the truth about the legendary LFL Holocron, hints of the new Atlas, and more!
How would you gauge fan reaction to the release of the new Encyclopedia?
Pretty positive so far, but then again people don’t often say “it sucks” to my (virtual) face. They should, though — I’d love to hear criticism — but I’ve heard good things overall. Critical reaction from sources like Entertainment Weekly has been very positive.
Do you have any guess as to how much new content is present in the new Encyclopedia?
Not much. The purpose of this encyclopedia, like any encyclopedia, is to collect existing data in one place for ease of reference, not to act as a content source in and of itself. There are new bits in the Encyclopedia but they tend to be of the continuity-spackling nature.
Which parts of the Encyclopedia did you work on? Is it so cut and dry so say that each of you worked on specific articles or did responsibilities overlap?
I worked on S-Z. Steve Sansweet was pretty precise in terms of deciding who would work on what. I didn’t see A-R until I got my copy of the Encyclopedia. But Steve and Pablo were the ones in charge of the big picture. Once they got my material, or Mary’s, or Chris’s, they did their best to make sure everything fit together and that the Encyclopedia didn’t feel like the work of several different people.
What was the process like to make decisions on the Encyclopedia content? In as large a universe as Star Wars there were bound to be contradictions – how did the team coordinate in making these determinations?
Steve and Pablo were the two in charge of the overall product, and therefore had responsibility for deciding how everything fit together once all the pieces were assembled. That included ironing out any continuity errors. I think the Encyclopedia was originally a Steve and Pablo project only — the rest of were invited aboard once the workload proved to be heavier than expected.
Which of those universes that you write in is the most fun to work with?
I’ve written for Star Wars, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Indiana Jones, Superman Returns, and Smallville. Star Wars is of course the closest to my heart. It’s my first love. I am a Star Wars freak and could destroy you in trivia. After that, however, I do love my comic book universes. DC Comics is particularly fun because I like the legacy aspect of the characters, since DC heroes have been in continuous publication since the 1930s and there’s still such a key role played by World War II characters like the original Flash and the original Green Lantern. For the most part Marvel and DC have the same problem as Star Wars in trying to fit everything together into one cohesive narrative. Both of them “cheat” a little, DC with reality-altering Crisis events and Marvel with deals with the Devil. Because the rules that govern those universes are looser they’re allowed to get away with selective wipes.
When you work on something like the Encyclopedia do you have full access to the Holocron, even the super-duper-secret stuff? And do Marvel and DC also use something similar to manage canon in their respective universes?
I’ll tell you something about the Holocron — Wookieepedia has it beat in terms of sheer volume. The Holocron began way, way pre-Wiki and is a database formatted for Filemaker Pro. The appeal of the Holocron isn’t that it has the most information, but that it represents Lucasfilm’s official stance (every fact in the Holocron is essentially pre-approved) and that it has some interesting behind-the-scenes notes taken from conversations with George Lucas. But it’s not friendly for casual browsing.
The Holocron was hugely useful in putting together the Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia because it provided a good guide for which entries were important and should be included, and which entries were pretty slight and could be safely dropped.
DC and Marvel don’t have equivalent databases. For the work I’ve done in those universes, you’re basically just expected to know your stuff.
As an author and contributing author, you’ve worked on Encyclopedic-style projects in multiple genres/fandoms. Has the discussion ever come up to the “need” of such releases given the explosion of Internet-based sources that achieve the same goal. Granted there’s no official backing behind those organizations but they have the ability to be current and up-to-date as the content evolves which is an ability that printed books lack (especially in universes that you’ve worked in such as Star Wars, Marvel and DC that are rather prolific in the amount of new material that gets turned over). What are you opinions on the future of the non-fiction Encyclopedic resources throughout printed literature?
This is an excellent point and something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I’ve been writing guidebooks for almost 15 years now. I basically got the job because of a file that I posted on the Internet in 1995, and since then the net has exploded in reach and usability. The two most recent innovations that have changed the way I do almost everything are Google and wikis.
If the entire contents of an encyclopedia are available online as a Wiki, or even as .pdfs, does that mean that there’s no desire for a print version? For some people, sure — if you just want to know the number of guns on a Star Destroyer you can find the info quicker online than in the Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels. Also, as you note, online sources can be dynamically updated.
On the other hand, there’s still something about print. Writers who’ve published books online (for free) have sometimes subsquently released a print version (for money) to satisfy the demand some people have for a physical book. That won’t apply in every case, but I think it’s *more* likely to apply to Star Wars fans (or comics fans, or birdwatchers), because geeks already have a stake in those specific worlds and want to invest in them.
So what can printed encyclopedias provide that online resources can’t? First off is their official seal of approval. This shouldn’t be underestimated, but in my experience wikis are generally as reliable.
Second would be the physicality of the thing: its heft, the paper stock & sheen, the book’s layout. There’s something luxurious about having a book these days, and the physical attributes of books have gone up accordingly. (Compare the original Essential Guide to Characters with any of the recent Essential Guides.) The Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia is a good example of tangible luxury, as are the DC and Marvel Encyclopedias. Books that exist solely as fast & cheap references, such as the old Guide to the Star Wars Universe, aren’t likely to be reprinted. They can’t replicate this particular advantage that books currently have over bits.
Finally, there’s the difference in the browsing experience. I’ve spent a lot of time browsing Wikipedia and the Marvel Database Project. I’ve also spent a lot of time with the Marvel Encyclopedia and Who’s Who in the Marvel Universe (a series of guidebooks from 1987). The browsing experience is completely different between the two. I might never stumble across Orka while link-clicking online, but if I have a printed source, darned if Orka doesn’t show up when I’m flipping, or opposite another entry that I *was* looking up. There’s something pleasurable about that and it can’t currently be replicated online.
What is you favourite EU retcon and why?
I don’t have one specific favorite, but I always enjoy clever retcons from the Ruusan Reformations to the Stark Hyperspace War. Abel Pena is very good at retcons. If it all goes through, there are some fun retcons (some of which Abel suggested) in an upcoming WOTC book I worked on surrounding the history of the Sun Guards of Thyrsus.
Conversely, what is the retcon you dislike the most and why?
I don’t have a specific retcon I hate, but I’ll tell you a story instead. When I was writing the first Essential Chronology with Kevin Anderson, I saw an opportunity to make what I thought was a clever retcon. See, in the book Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon Lando teams up with a police officer who looks like a giant bird. I had it in my head that this police officer, Waywa Fybot, should be a member of the avian Quor’sav species that had recently been introduced in some other source. So I wrote an particularly clunky sentence that went something like, “Lando Calrissian teamed up with two police officers, one of whom, Waywa Fybot, was a member of the bird-like Quor’sav species, and then…” So when Kevin sent comments during one of our edit sessions, he sent a note that said basically “You don’t need this.” And he was absolutely right. The thing that I have tried to do since then is resist the urge to throw retcons into everything even when there’s no need for them and there’s no continuity problem that needs solving. At best, they’re like a spice. And while I like spicy food, I have to remind myself that not everybody has the same palate.
And I think Waywa Fybot wound up getting retconned as a Quor’sav anyway, so it all worked out.
In what directions (and/or eras) would you like to see the universe expand in?
I’m really surprised, and impressed, by how well the Expanded Universe has stretched into the distant past and distant future. Star Wars Legacy sounded insane when I first read about it, but now I really enjoy the setting — it still has all the familiar tools but it takes place on a completely blank canvas, and therefore can give a WTF thrill that a story set during the Clone Wars can’t. In the same vein, I’m excited about the new MMO taking place in an entirely new century of ancient Star Wars history. Sure, the opportunity for continuity foul-ups is there, but nobody know *anything* about what they have planned and therefore it’s all fresh.
Do you think there is a danger in making the universe so big that there won’t possibly be a chance to maintain its coherency?
That sounds like a challenge! Seriously, if Marvel and Glove of Darth Vader can be fit into continuity — and both of them have — then I’m not too worried about continuity falling apart. In the mid-90s there was a lot of fan debate about Marvel being apocryphal, but now nobody has a problem with Lumiya reappearing as a major villain. In fact, at one point there were huge fan debates about the canonicity of Dark Empire, which is now a cornerstone of the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe.
Beyond the forthcoming Essential Atlas, are there any projects you’re involved in that you can reveal (Star Wars or otherwise)?
Nothing yet, though I’m awaiting confirmation on my involvement with a new Star Wars book. I’ve completed work on Wizards of the Coast’s new roleplaying guidebook Galaxy at War (due out in September) and I have a non-SW book due out within the next year from Harper Collins.
Speaking of the Atlas, how was this project to work on? This time you couldn’t pull specific canonic data from the printed resources – is it safe to call the creation process of this book is a bit more subjective in terms of the decisions that had to be made?
Yes, definitely more subjective. One thing that I can’t believe we convinced Lucasfilm and Del Rey to include is an appendix containing every star system EVER mentioned in the Expanded Universe along with their grid coordinates on the galactic map. Completing that required a lot of educated guessing.
Out of all the characters in the Star Wars universe who’s your favorite?
My standard reply to this is that the character I most enjoy is Lando Calrissian, while the character that most resembles me in real life is C-3PO.
Lando is criminally underused in the Expanded Universe. There are a million adventures that could be told with Lando, who is simultaneously a con man, a card sharp, and a charming but dangerous sophisticate in the vein of James Bond.
I think Artoo and Threepio are also underused in the EU, and when they appear Threepio is played for laughs as a sissy or only present so someone can tell him to shut up. Yes, he’s supposed to be funny, but he speaks six million languages — when was the last time you actually saw him translate? Or take charge in a situation that requires etiquette and protocol? It would be funny to see Threepio guide a clueless Anakin Skywalker through an elaborate state dinner.
What kind of content can we look forward to in the Atlas? The Star Trek equivalent had primarily maps and more maps and general stellar info. Will we be seeing something similar or will there be a mix of map and written content?
One of the first things I did when we were at the pitch stage was to buy a copy of the Star Trek Atlas. It’s a great book, and it did a great job of laying out the TV shows visually (particularly the linear journey of Voyager). But it’s skimpy on other data, so if you don’t know what Rigel 7 is the book doesn’t do much to fill you in. The Star Wars Atlas is more of a combination of the Star Trek Atlas and the Essential Chronology/Essential Guide to Planets and Moons, if you can picture that.
What are some of your favourite EU works (books or otherwise)?
I have a soft spot for Brian Daley’s Han Solo novels — they’re just immensely fun and he captured Han’s voice really well. I also really liked Matthew Stover’s Traitor, which is one EU book that really stuck in my head due to its eye-opening philosophical debate. (That doesn’t sound much like an page-turner, philosophical debate, but it’ll stick with you.)
My favorite video game is the original X-Wing: Space Combat Simulator. I saw this on the shelves in 1993 and was dumbstruck by the fact that somebody had made a Star Wars game that wasn’t merely an adaptation of the movies. This was an original story, starring you (as Keyan Farlander), and it plopped you into a first-person role to explore a new corner of the Star Wars universe. It’s the grandfather of all similar games like Dark Forces, Knights of the Old Republic, and The Force Unleashed.
In comics, I really enjoyed Darko Macan’s Jedi vs. Sith and Chewbacca.
Glove of Darth Vader series: How easy is it to work things like this into canon? What are some of the pitfalls of working with a continuity that tries to incorporate every little detail?
I’m not a huge fan of the “Robin Hood Defense,” but let me explain it quick. Since there are multiple and conflicting stories about Robin Hood, we chalk up the differences to the fact that Robin Hood is a long-ago legend and that discrepancies have naturally cropped up over the centuries. That’s one way to explain Star Wars, but it’s always felt unsatisfying to me since I want to know which version of events is the REAL version. It’s an ongoing process, and you can count on a continuity panic every month now that the Clone Wars TV show is pumping out a steady stream of content.
If given the chance, would you consider writing a full-fledged novel set in the EU? Why/why not? And what are some of things you would cover?
Of course! I’m fascinated by bit players. I once wrote a short story starring Captain Panaka, and had another one in the planning stage starring Grand Admiral Grant.
Did Prince Isolder ever know of Allana’s paternity? Is this a subject that was ever considered?
It didn’t come up when writing the Encyclopedia. But there are a couple statements in Tempest to the effect that no one knew of her parentage besides Jacen and Tenel Ka.
In recent years, it can be argued that “comic book movies” and indeed, the comic sagas they’ve evolved from, have become more popular, and even more well received by the critics. To what do you attribute this rise in recognition?
I definitely agree that comic book movies have become more popular. I’d probably peg X-Men as the start of the current trend of adaptations that are generally pretty faithful and have some money behind them. I admire how Marvel is bringing all their properties under one roof, and wish DC/Warner Brothers could do the same with their properties — the TV series Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a great example of how crazy-insane the DC Universe can be if characters are allowed to mingle. And while The Dark Knight was great, I really think it was Iron Man that secured the immediate future of superhero movies last year. Batman is expected to be a big hit because it’s Batman. But what does the average moviegoer or critic know of Iron Man? That movie could have failed spectacularly but instead it was ridiculously entertaining.
DC and Marvel: Who are your favourite superheroes from these companies? Villains?
The easiest response would be for me to run down my favorites, both major and minor:
Favorite major DC hero: Superman. C’mon, it’s Superman. I don’t buy into the criticism that Superman is too much of a godlike figure to inspire good storytelling. He’s not a god — he’s an adopted farm kid who grew up in a hayseed town fixing tractors, and he will always look for the best in people. His weakness isn’t kryptonite, it’s that he’s naive. And he KNOWS he’s naive, but since the alternative is cynicism, he will never stop. You could con Superman out of money pretty easily, but he’d still give you the money again the next time he saw you because he still hopes to see the best in you.
Favorite major DC villain: Joker and/or Lex Luthor. The two are the reigning monarchs of DC villainy, yet are just human beings with no powers. Their power is their brains. Lex is the smartest person on the planet, and the Joker is utterly random and insanely brilliant. Nothing’s better than a Lex Luthor/Joker teamup.
Favorite minor DC hero: Guy Gardner. Out of all the members of the Green Lantern Corps, Guy is the most fun to read, because he’s an unrepentent jerk. I cannot put it better than Geoff Johns, who said “Guy isn’t the buffoon of the DC universe, Guy is the ass-kicker of the DC universe.”
Favorite minor DC villain: The Monocle. Okay, not him specifically, but DC has a completely mental number of one-note villains such as Kite-Man, the Key, Sportsmaster, and Clock King. Please, please give me the Fiddler and his mind-controlling violin instead of an overmuscled killer carrying an oversized gun.
Favorite major Marvel hero: Captain America. I obviously have a soft spot for the iconic “purer than pure” heroic archetype, and Captain America fills the Superman role in the Marvel universe. He also has an added wrinkle in that he’s so closely associated with World War II. So not only did Cap beat the Skrulls, he also punched out Hitler.
Favorite major Marvel villain: The Kingpin. Kingpin is essentially the Lex Luthor of the Marvel universe. He’s more of a mafioso than a mad scientist, but he wields power behind the scenes and is never, ever to be trifled with. He’s also bald, natch.
Favorite minor Marvel hero: Nightcrawler. Too many cool things to list. He’s fuzzy. He goes BAMF. He looks like a demon from Hell. He’s a devout Catholic. His BAMF clouds stink of brimstone. He’s a ladies’ man. He’s infatuated with Errol Flynn. He can swordfight with his tail.
Favorite minor Marvel villain: The Taskmaster. His power is “photographic reflexes,” which means he can reproduce any physical action that he sees. This is a pretty sweet power, and is probably the power that I would pick in answer to the question “If you could have one superpower, what would you choose?” Plus his costume equals awesome.
How did your involvement with the Superman Returns tie-in novel come about? What was it like to work on this project?
DC invited me to come aboard to write The Art of Superman Returns, which is still the book that I’m the most proud of. This required a trip to FOX Studios in Sydney Australia and time spent with the production designer and costume designer. Later, after I returned to the U.S., I wrote the Superman Returns Visual Guide as well as the official movie program book (which involved a telephone interview with Kevin Spacey!)
It was a fantastic experience because I’m a giant Superman fan and it was my first time visiting a movie set. Touching the crystals inside the Fortress of Solitude was indescribable. They’re fiberglass, but still.
What do you believe are some of the strengths and weaknesses of Superman Returns as a “relaunch” of the movie series, or as a platform for a new set of films?
Everyone involved with the production, not the least of whom was Bryan Singer, was extremely respectful of the work that Richard Donner had done with the 1978 Superman movie and on the sequel. This was kind of a big deal, since previous attempts to reboot Superman went too far off-model, such as putting Supes in a cool black suit or changing Lex Luthor into a Kryptonian.
That said, the final film left a lot of people cold, and I think it lost some steam in its final 20 minutes (but I thought that about The Dark Knight too). Could they have been too reverent? I don’t think the kid was the problem. I think a super-powered opponent — a Zod, Brainiac, or Bizarro — could have filled the need for more high-flying action while still allowing Luthor to play his mastermind role.
When you’re working in a franchise that has an extensive background, whether it be the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, or the decades long histories of any given DC/Marvel character, what are the rules in terms of when you’re working on a new project and you need research materials? Do authors get free titles/sources or are there no such perks? Do you get to keep any materials they lend you?
Not as much as you’d think. In general I think you’re largely expected to be the expert on whatever topic you’ve been hired to write. If I really needed some trade paperbacks to fill holes in my knowledge I could probably get them from DC for free (I did exactly this with Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory), but asking for too much seems like bad form and a tacit admission that you’re not as up to speed as you should be to write the project for which you were hired. To avoid this I keep pretty up to date with the goings-on in all the universes I write for, and there are times when eBay can be your best friend.
What’s it like to be living the dream of the ultimate fan, being able to play in all these multiple universes but not be strained by some of the more stringent requirements placed on the authors in regards to communication with the fans? Do you ever wake up and think “really? I get to do this and get paid for it?”
It’s as good as you imagine, and I’ve had as much fun writing in these universes as I’ve had watching and reading them.
NJOE thanks Mr. Wallace for his time in completing this interview; comment on his answers on our message board.