Swan Watch: Clone Wars Adventures

Bultar Swan stars in “Impregnable,” the third story in the short comic anthology of Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7. The script’s by Chris Avellone, with art by Ethen Beavers and colors by Dan Jackson. It’s a fine little action story. Swan, her forces demolished, strides into an allegedly impregnable fortress, slowly dismantling defenses and sealing the surviving commander inside. Locking an opponent in as the life support fails is more “Cask of Amontillado” than Jedi Code, though. I thought the story worked well enough for the format, but I was very disappointed by the use of Bultar Swan as the protagonist. This seems to go against what little character development had already been established for her. A ruthless killer willing to leave someone to die is basically antithetical to what interested me about her in the first place. (And while it goes unaddressed, her ability to simply walk into the fortress certainly suggests she might have sacrificed wave after wave of soldiers for little purpose.)

Plus, she’s silent the whole time, while the despotic villain in the fortress core taunts her throughout. It’s not an unheard-of form of storytelling, and it can work well, but her silence and martial prowess evoke uncomfortable comparisons to the silent, stoic Asian martial artist cliche. In this light, the otherwise forgivable caricature of her facial features that is typical of the style of art employed comes off as a way to accent her Asian-ness while removing much of the character’s resemblance to her film counterpart. There’s even one panel where her face is bathed in a greenish light (which does not affect the warm colors behind her), calling up comparisons to the racist and offensive imagery portraying villainous Asians in mid-twentieth-century America.

Outside of this rather disappointing Swan appearance, I overall enjoyed the anthology, which captured the visuals and action-packed fun of the television miniseries. The first story, “Creature Comforts” (script and art by The Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison) was a near pitch-perfect portrayal of war hero Obi-Wan and Anakin at their wittiest while being tossed from monster to monster. The one misstep is at the end, when Obi-Wan rather cruelly crushes a tiny crab “monster” to stop its cry. It’s meant to be funny but makes Obi-Wan seem like a sociopath rather than a kindly, wizened Jedi Master.

The other two tales try out a girl-power spy story (“Spy Girls,” script by Ryan Kaufman, art by Stewart McKenny, colors by Dan Jackson) and a bank heist gone wrong (“The Precious Shining,” script by Jeremy Barlow, art by the Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison). I might have enjoyed the last story the most, as it showed people caught between the Republic and the Separatists. It presented a level of moral nuance, and a more down-to-earth perspective, that was more likely to be found in the later Filoni-helmed series on the Clone Wars, though it ends in a simple twist of fortune.

The anthology was slender and quick to read. It was mostly fun. Too bad that this was my least favorite portrayal of Bultar Swan yet. At least she got to be an action hero for a little while.

Clone Wars Re-watch Go!

The official Star Wars site is leading a chronological re-watch of The Clone Wars, with new posts by the site’s Associate Editor, Kristin Baver, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that sort of thing sounds appealing to you, you can find the first episode recap/analysis here and a list of all the episodes here; the show and the film are available in their entirety on Netflix.

It’s still fairly early in the re-watch, and the pace of two episodes a week is not too demanding, so it’s still an easy time to get started. As of this writing, they’re just now through the film.

There are two improvements about this particular viewing schedule.

First, there’s a more consistent narrative, and it’s easier to see the war–and individual battles–evolving. The show seemed to take a while to settle into itself and didn’t get into long-form storytelling until later on, but part of that is attributable to the fact that episodes were aired out of chronology. With a streaming service like Netflix, the effort involved in hopping between episodes (and seasons, and the film itself) is minimal and the payoff, in having a richer narrative immediately with clearer character development, is big.

Second, this re-watch breaks the film into three acts. Watching the acts on their own, as complete episodes in and of themselves, makes the film just another arc in the series. Its lower stakes (compared to the saga films), meandering pacing, somewhat jarring cuts between acts, and shifting tonal dissonance is forgivable when it’s understood that each episode is doing its own thing. We don’t need to have a galaxy-shaking event every week for the television show; The Clone Wars was often at its best when showing clone troopers with their boots on the ground. And it feels natural to make these divisions–after all, the film was originally a few different episodes of the planned television series, spliced together into a single theatrical release at the request of George Lucas.

Also, treating the film as its constituent episodes rather than a single component separate from the series means that it flows rather well with the supporting stories that chronologically take place earlier. We see Anakin and Obi-Wan break the blockade of Christophsis, deal with loss and betrayal, encounter Ventress, and then meet Ahsoka just in time for a final battle before racing off to beat the Sith to recovering Jabba the Hutt’s child. I wouldn’t point to any part of the film as one of my favorites in the entire series–a lot of it was silly, the animation and character models and storytelling still having had a bit of growing to do. But the Anakin defying Jedi orders in “Cat and Mouse” and the Rex who was just shaken by a betrayal of one of his own in “Hidden Enemy” meeting Ahsoka for the first time and being changed by her even as they provide guidance is a pretty cool thing to see. Plus, the Battle of Teth sequence, with its electric-guitar-and-exotica soundtrack, misty purple forests, and vertical firefight, is a fantastic television experience, even if it’s a bit short and (relatively) quiet for a theatrical sci-fi war film’s centerpiece battle.

Another takeaway from the re-watch: I don’t recall registering just how brutally the war was depicted. Maybe it’s the structure of the re-watch, or maybe I’m just registering because I already know that I got attached to some of these clones. So many die, often in heroically pointless ways. So much of the Battle of Christophsis, for instance, is repeated Jedi over-extension, with the clones dying for Jedi heroics. It’s not remarked on so much yet, but it’s very visible. And while the droids are played for laughs, it’s hard not to read them as sentient, many with full and unique personalities. While Anakin and Ahsoka are quite willing to mow down hostile droids, they do show an endearing love and respect for allied droids, especially R2-D2; similarly, while they are both willing to accept battlefield losses (at least later on), both are fiercely loyal to and protective of Captain Rex.

Similarly, the failings of the Jedi Order are really apparent to me now in a way that they weren’t on my initial watch. While Anakin is unwilling to leave an infant Hutt to die, he thinks it’s a very bad idea to work with the Hutts. Of course he would! They enslaved him and his mother! And Jabba is a notorious criminal! The Jedi and the Republic are willing to throw away principle and get in bed with a slave-dealing criminal organization for a strategic advantage. The war has already skewed their thinking. And while Ahsoka might be old enough to be a Padawan, placing her in command of troops and in the midst of battle is a terrible idea! The use of child warriors is shockingly poor judgment. It’s hard not to see the Jedi as radical religious crusaders at that point. Ahsoka sees so much killing and dying, and while she handles it well, it’s just wrong for the Jedi to have put her in that situation.

One of the weirdest things for me on re-watch is knowing that The Clone Wars represented a sort of soft canon reset before the official Disney reboot. Dave Filoni always showed himself to be aware of the Expanded Universe, even when he changed it. There was more respect for the EU setting than George Lucas ever showed, at least. But still, it was jarring to see an over-complicated, cluttered Clone Wars added to even further with so many new central characters and events when there was supposed to have been so much already documented post-Attack of the Clones. Re-watching with knowledge that this series represents almost the entirety of the “official” version of the Clone Wars relieves a lot of confusion and some mild frustration that younger me had (I’ll admit that I’m also just a lot mellower and less worried about canon issues than I was as a teen).

There’s a new, minor thing that bothers me now though: there is a level of familiarity with the old Expanded Universe, and that causes a new bit of confusion when those stories don’t “exist” within the current canon. Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ventress have a clear history together. They hint at it a lot in their sparring. At the very least, this would seem to incorporate the introduction of Ventress from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars. This makes sense–prior to Filoni’s run, Tartakovsky’s show had been well-promoted, highly praised, and rather visible on Cartoon Network. In addition to introducing Ventress, the show introduced Grievous, and it also showed Anakin’s transition from Padawan to Knight! But we don’t have any canon versions of these happenings, and Tartakovsky’s series now has very little visibility to new audiences. I feel that, at some point, at least certain elements of Clone Wars should be retold in the new canon. We can iron out the continuity contradictions, dial back the hyper-stylized format, and develop certain plot points more, but introducing Grievous and Ventress, charting the early course of the war, and showing Anakin’s growth from Padawan to a Knight ready to train the next generation would be great material for new stories.

Finally, I am struck by how much the chronological re-watch clearly centers the show around Anakin, Ahsoka, and Rex. This is really Ahsoka’s story–she’s present almost from the very beginning, and what comes before in that story directly lays the groundwork for her entrance on the scene. Yes, I know the film came first, but it felt like a separate and detached experience. The show itself started with more of a scattered anthology approach. The impact is rather different when we get this focus on Ahsoka almost immediately, with just enough of Anakin and Rex to see where they are when they meet her. It’s a different experience than encountering the show for the first time with the one-off “Ambush” episode. (And I didn’t even watch the show episodically at first–I was very sporadic and really only got interested in the series after seeing the 1.15 episode “Trespass,” though I later went back and watched in order after picking up the DVDs.)

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Clone Wars, or if you’ve never watched chronologically before (or even never watched the show at all), now’s a great time to dive in.

Bultar Swan Watch

I’ve been following 365 Days of Star Wars Women, which is exactly what it says on the tin: daily posts about the women in Star Wars–and not just the heroes and villains, but the actors, writers, producers, and film crew as well. It’s a fun way to highlight women’s representation in front of and behind the camera in a franchise that still leans heavily male both ways. I bring this up now because Bultar Swan recently got a post! I’ve written about my fondness for the character before…and it’s not often that she gets much notice.

20171001_150537I’ve reviewed the Powers of the Jedi Sourcebook entry on Jedi Knight Bultar Swan once more. It’s not just that such a minor background character had a write-up, though that was enough to get my attention as a youngling. What’s stayed with me about her is that she was a Jedi who was so familiar with violence and yet made a point to avoid killing in combat. The Jedi are depicted as quite willing to kill, despite Yoda’s admonition that a Jedi “uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” It’s veering on an uncomfortable reduction of Chinese martial arts that Swan is written as notable for a unique fighting style “that required her to maintain physical contact with her foes to judge their next moves,” but that fits into the character profile of one who focused on defense and disarming attacks to subdue, rather than disable or kill, an opponent. She knew there would probably come a point in time where she would have to kill an opponent, and while she apparently did not take pride in her mortality-free combat record, she was concerned with how she would react to the taking of a life. She first apprenticed under Micah Giett and then Plo Koon following her Master’s death; when Master Plo mentioned the possibility of her one day joining the Jedi Council, Swan said that she would not be anywhere near ready “until she had more experience with life and the Force,” including understanding how she would react to killing an opponent, before she could sit in judgment over any other Jedi. To me, all the above made Bultar Swan the model Jedi, much like Obi-Wan.

But that opinion must not have been very popular, as she remained virtually unused throughout the years of Legends storytelling following her initial appearance in Attack of the Clones, in which she was portrayed by Mimi Daraphet (Power of the Jedi was published in the same year as the film). The closest to starring role for Bultar Swan was the first arc of the Purge comics. Written by John Ostrander with art by Doug Wheatley, the first story followed a group of Jedi survivors of Order 66 who met in a secret conclave to discuss what to do next; one of the Order had actually betrayed the location of the conclave to the Empire, so that her fellow Jedi would be forced to fight against Vader and hopefully destroy him in a final battle. Swan and Tsui Choi are close to protagonists–to the extent that the protagonist isn’t Vader himself. Swan and Choi argue against seeking revenge against Vader. When they are forced into battle anyway, Swan attempts to stop one of her Jedi by giving in to the Dark Side, and she is killed by her fallen compatriot when he refuses to back down.

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For me, Purge represents a disappointing appearance for Bultar Swan. She has little agency over the story, and she is quickly transformed into a martyr, killed off. I recognize that a story like Purge doesn’t allow for a happy ending, and almost all the Jedi had to be killed off somehow, but aside from highlighting Swan’s embodiment of the Jedi Code, it doesn’t really do anything with her as a character. She’s a prop to show Vader killing some last, desperate Jedi.

Bultar Swan also has a very brief appearance in the 59th issue of Star Wars: Republic (also written by Ostrander, with art by Jan Duursema). Unfortunately, she just provides a few moments of exposition as a subordinate under Ki-Adi-Mundi.

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The 365 Days post references one other Bultar Swan appearance: Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7, in the story “Impregnable.” I’ve never read it, but it turns out that it’s fairly cheap and easy to find online. I’ve ordered a copy. That’ll probably result in a short follow-up to this post somewhere down the line. But given that it’s Clone Wars Adventures, a pulpy action series modeled after the Genndy Tartakovsky cartoons, I don’t expect anything close to a deep examination of the character.

Finally, Wookieepedia informs me that Swan also appeared in the children’s series Star Wars Adventures. I’m not particularly desperate to track that down for what seems to be a minor appearance in a children’s book.

Of course, all of the above representations of Bultar Swan, except for Attack of the Clones, are now non-canon, Legends. The character could be written in an entirely different way now, if she ever really appears at all. Her only new-canon appearance so far is in On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace. Her character is presented as young, inexperienced, and surprised to see opponents willing to fight back instead of surrender before a lightsaber. There’s nothing that suggests that the original interpretation of the character is invalidated, but I do get the impression that Swan still has a lot more growing to do in this incarnation. It’s enough to know that she canonically survived the battle and was able to recount it, for now.

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What happens to Bultar Swan after she gets a taste of war? Does she soldier on, like a loyal Jedi? Does she recoil at the taking of life? Could she at first be accepting but later rethink the Jedi’s methods as the droids are recognized as increasingly sentient? Maybe she would stay loyal; maybe she would eventually become disillusioned and leave the Jedi Order, like Ahsoka, or stay to attempt to reform it from the inside. Could she have survived the Purge? And if not, how did she meet her end? She’s an excitingly blank slate of a character with just enough motivation and just enough dangling plot threads to remain compelling to me. I really hope that some day she sees more use.