Compare and Contrast: Leia in 2013

comics_star_wars2013 was a big year for Leia in the Expanded Universe. First up, we got the Brian Wood written Star Wars comic, which Bria and myself were less than impressed by. Today we got Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells, which we were significantly happier with. Why the difference in reactions? Simply put, it boiled down to how Leia was used and characterized. To see what we mean, head below the cut.

What’s the problem with Leia in the Brian Wood Star Wars comic?

Brian: Ultimately I think the issue is that Brian Wood’s Leia falls into the Action Girl != Strong Female Character* trap. In this comic she’s a supremely skilled combat pilot, dead-eye shot with a blaster, commando, skilled military tactician. Add in a touch of angsting over Alderaan, and there’s the extent of her character. Essentially what’s happened is that the only side of Leia that exists is her Action Hero side, and it’s played up to such a comical extreme that it reduces her to a fairly shallow caricature. In attempting to make Leia more interesting by playing up her action ability over everything else, the opposite result is achieved. She becomes less interesting as she becomes so over-skilled on the action side of things, stretching the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Yes, Leia can be good at the action elements of her character, but there’s a fuzzy line in the sand where suspension of disbelief gets shattered and Wood blew past it.

I will note that this has nothing to do with Leia being female, either. Let’s try an example: If Wedge Antilles had been a supremely skilled diplomat in Starfighters of Adumar (instead of a hilariously inept and uninterested diplomat that succeeded in spite of himself), I would have had huge problems with that book. Using that characterization foil made his character and the book work. That foil is something which is missing from Wood’s Leia.

Bria: In all fairness, I only read the first three issues of the book and I’m also taking his interviews into account here.  But I mostly agree with what Brian said.  In order to be a great character, Leia doesn’t need to be awesome at everything.  Leia’s already a pretty great character and her flaws are what make her human.  And hey!  Leia’s good and she may be a princess but not even a princess can be a skilled diplomat, a commando, a good shot with a blaster, and an ace starfighter pilot all by 19.  My biggest problem with how Wood writes Leia is his justification in interviews for having her be an excellent pilot of the level of Luke and Wedge.  He makes a false equivalency and says that flying a ship is akin to driving a car on Earth and that it’s a right of passage.  I insist that driving a car is equivalent to flying an air or landspeeder in the galaxy far far away and that flying a ship is like flying a plane.  He also said something along the lines of how Leia being rich and her parentage were more reasons for why she’d be a great starfighter pilot.  To that, I say that children don’t automatically inherit all of their parents’ skills and also that Bail Organa is a very smart man.  While he’d make sure that Leia has basic training for piloting a space ship, he’s going to be sure to subtly steer Anakin Skywalker’s daughter away from being known as an ace pilot.  That’s not to say that Leia can’t fly a ship or a starfighter because we’ve seen her do so.  It’s canon that Leia can fly a Y-Wing decently well but she just doesn’t have the innate abilities that other pilots do.

Brian: I will point out that I have borrowed and read all the issues so far, but I’ve heard from several people that they dropped this comic after a handful of issues. Primary reason cited? Leia’s characterization.

*I hate that term. Lots of writers lose sight of what this means. It doesn’t mean people are looking for an ass-kicking female character; they’re looking for a deep and well-written female character.

Doesn’t the justification exist in the films to have Leia fit the Action Girl trope in this comic?

Brian: Sure, she’s seen flying the Falcon and being a decent shot with a blaster. Extrapolate on that and you can find some justification to make Leia a combat-first Action Girl at the expense of other characterization. Still, just because that justification is there doesn’t necessarily mean that you should go down that characterization path. In the Wood comic, Leia comes off as fairly one-dimensional, and that’s disappointing for a character like her.

In the past on various reviews for things, I’ve talked about the inherent problem with shoehorning characters into things. Wood’s comic very much feels like he’s trying to shoehorn Leia into a well-used action lead role without much thought into her character. Turn your head and squint, and yeah, you can see the justification. But it requires a bunch of shaky logical leaps and at the end of the day, it just feels like he needed Leia for a familiar action lead role and was going to make that happen at any cost.

Bria: I’d say that she already is an Action Girl but again, you don’t have to be great at everything to be a badass in combat.  Also, we’re talking about Princess Leia Organa here and not Nikita.  She doesn’t have to be the Rebellion’s #1 Fighter in order to be one of its respected leaders and suddenly making her an amazing top tier starfighter pilot just doesn’t feel right when held up against years of canon and characterization.

Brian: And to play on this last point, yes I understand that we were told that this comic wouldn’t be completely beholden to existing EU canon and characterization. That said, this is one instance where you may want to look into what already exists in the EU as far as characterization to borrow, because the Leia in this comic simply isn’t as compelling and deep as the Leia that has shown up in earlier and newer EU works (see below). Not to get all Ian Malcolm again, but just because you can overlook years of characterization doesn’t mean that you should.

Bria: Actually, the more I think about it, by some of Wood’s justifications for making Leia a great pilot (ie: her family genetics), we should see Luke Skywalker turn out to be a master politician who is genius at diplomacy in the comic any day now.

Brian: Well if that happens, we can just recycle this article and find/replace ‘Leia’ with ‘Luke’ and ‘action’ with ‘political savvy.’

What sets Martha Wells’ Leia apart in Razor’s Edge?

Brian: I think in the first five pages, Leia’s shown as being rough-and-tumble, but doesn’t become an overpowered character that can do anything and everything. She immediately designates the task of navigating a crippled ship to a trained pilot. In those first few pages, you see that Leia is plenty tough but also smart enough to recognize when someone else is better suited to a certain task. That grasp on Leia’s character continues throughout the book. She’s capable in an action sequence, but she’s shown as being more than just a generic commando-type character like she appears in the Wood comic.

Really if I were to boil it down, Martha Wells nails Leia’s characterization in one simple way: Leia gives the vibe that she’s capable of pinch hitting in any sort of action role, but she’s simultaneously smart enough to delegate tasks to those around her who possess more honed skills than she has in order to maximize the chance of success.

Bria: Martha Wells just gets Leia.  It’s obvious from page one.  Throughout, we get to see her in action with both a blaster and words.  I really loved that Wells gave Leia a chance to show off precisely why she was a Senator at the age of 18.  She’s good at playing the political game and those skills translate over to negotiating with a pirate who also happens to be a Lorrdian reader.  This, combined with us getting to see Leia be capable in a fight and some of her trademark snark, puts together a characterization of Leia that I’ve been waiting for years to see again.  Honestly, everything about Wells’ Leia is note perfect.

Any last thoughts?

Brian: Really only what we talk about all the time on the blog and podcast. It isn’t enough just to give female characters page time. You also have to consider how they’re being used and whether or not it makes sense. That, and there’s more to writing a deep and well-thought-out female character than just making them action savvy.

Bria: I just want to emphasize that none of this is a personal attack on Brian Wood.  I actually really love his current work on X-men.  Unfortunately, I think he just seems to misunderstand where some of us are coming from with our objections to Leia being a A+ pilot all of the sudden.  While I don’t doubt that there are some people shouting about it mostly because Leia is a woman, those of us who object to this power upgrade for Leia do so because we sincerely do not think it fits with her character and that it is changing her into something she’s not for the sake of the story.  Leia’s already an incredibly capable woman who can hold her own in both the political arena and a fight.  She doesn’t need to be an ace starfighter pilot too and it doesn’t fit with the Leia we’ve known and loved for decades.

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7 Responses to Compare and Contrast: Leia in 2013

  1. Great article and agree entirely with the assessments within. Sure, we've known since 1977 that Leia is ballsy, tough, determined, bolshy, headstrong, organised, intuitive and a born leader. She also wears her heart increasingly on her sleeve, and as Razor's Edge shows, this sometimes leads to lapses of judgement which get her and her people in trouble. I also enjoy Wood's Star Wars title (what I've read of it) but despite the spotty levels of quality from issue to issue the big Bantha in the room is what you've identified, Leia's sudden elevation in competency at, well, EVERYTHING. It doesn't make her cooler or better. Quite the opposite, it makes her rather annoying, like an overpowered RPG character that can suddenly do all skills to the highest level.
    I always believed that Han Solo talked up his skills to such a degree (best pilot, great shot, fastest ship, best smuggler) that not only did his contempories believe it but also most people who write Star Wars believe it as well, and as such overpower Solo to a crazy degree. He was a character who dumped his cargo at the first sign of trouble, who had only been smuggling for around 6-8 years before A New Hope and who always shot from the mouth. Brilliant character, but to ACTUALLY have him be the best at everything - to me at least - kind of misses the point.
    Martha Wells (and how many times have I written Martha Reeves and had to delete?) has certainly nailed Leia's character and presented a very cool version of Solo, in that he's not constantly wise-cracking and hot-headed, at least not initially. Great fun, and brilliant banter.

    • Brian says:

      That's pretty much it exactly. No one's saying that Leia can't be adept and familiar with combat and piloting and the like, but to be so OUTRAGEOUSLY good at everything shatters the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. You go too far in that direction and a character can, as you point out, become annoying and/or significantly less interesting. Flaws and weaknesses make up the total package of a character, and if those are lacking, the character isn't interesting.

      That's what I love about Razor's Edge more than anything. Martha Wells finds that tough balance of action capability and political savvy and rides that through the book while simultaneously showing off Leia's flaws as a human being. Wood misses the mark there.

      • That's true, for non-Jedi characters who don't have super powers on tap, it's unfair on the character to have them act so out of character. (wow, I managed to say 'character 3 times in one sentence). As you guys say, Wells gets that about Leia certainly, she plays to her already existing strengths instead of adding to them.
        Let's hope Martha gets the chance to continue her great work with Leia and perhaps tell a story pre-Star Wars of her time working with her father Bail Organa.

  2. Matt Cloutier says:

    Brian Wood is not very good at characterization. I was excited for both his Star Wars and X-Men books this year, and was sorely disappointed by virtually every character being completely out of character or totally lacking personality.

  3. Pingback: EUbits: Heddle on the Expanded Universe going forward

  4. Mike says:

    Without really getting into the broader characterization issue, there are two things I would point out here--one, having followed the whole Wood series from the beginning, I don't think she's portrayed as an "ace", necessarily. I don't know exactly what Wood has said about that in interviews, but my primary impression of her piloting in the series is "crafty and resourceful" more than preternaturally talented--especially compared to Wedge. The series has hit that particular beat pretty hard, I admit, but that's been the nature of the story thus far; I don't think it's suggesting that that's all there is to her.

    Second, the best argument I've seen in favor of the breadth of Leia's combat prowess is the idea that Bail Organa would've been a "Sarah Connor parent". Far from keeping Leia away from piloting, I think that knowing exactly how bad things were going to get (he was definitely one of the very few people to know of Palpatine's Sithiness from the beginning) he would've seen fit to train Leia to proficiency in as many areas as he could manage. I'd go so far as to say that could be why Winter was so handy to have around--Leia couldn't have maintained the Princess thing 100% of the time and still be the good little Rebel Bail needed.

    Does that mean she's an ace? I don't think so, and I'd agree that she shouldn't be; but I don't think her depiction in the comic is as cut-and-dried as that.

    • Brian says:

      I think you might be getting caught up in the whole "ace pilot" thing and kind of losing the bigger picture of what Bria and I are getting at here. Even if she's not necessarily an ace pilot, why does Wood have to shoehorn her into a generic action lead role? I find his use of her particularly lazy. Rather than try and find a way where he can show off her ability in a politically savvy role, he's sort of forcing her to be a dull and tired action hero. There are PLENTY of characters who are action savvy ass kickers. Leia was always cool (particularly in many EU novels) because was so cunning and politically brilliant. Reducing her to yet another standard action hero like Wood has done is a big letdown.

      That's the big point we're trying to make. Yeah you can justify her being just another dull action lead, but should you? The contention here is that Leia under Wood is entirely too one-dimensional and way overpowered. Wells strikes a much better balance.

      No where do we say that Leia can't be any of these things. What we're saying is that it's not smart to write her as one-dimensionally as Wood has because it makes her quite a bit less compelling.

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