Saturday, June 30, 2018

REMEMBERING HARLAN ELLISON


In no way can I claim that I had a close relationship with writer Harlan Ellison. Truth be told, we barely knew each other. Our paths crossed just a few times. As he was a giant in the field during those times, and I most certainly was not, I have no doubt whatsoever that I remember those encounters far, far better than he ever did, and that they were a hell of a lot more meaningful to me than they were to him.

So I was deeply saddened to hear about his passing on June 28, 2018, at the age of 84. I had actually been thinking about Harlan just a day or two before, wondering how he was doing, considering that he had been coping with major health problems over the last few years. Obviously, this was not the update that I was hoping for.     

I can’t remember the first time I became aware of Harlan Ellison and his work. I was definitely a pre-teen, and it was definitely either through the one episode of Star Trek that he wrote, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” considered by many—myself included—to be the very best installment of the franchise ever produced . . . 


. . . or the issue of The Incredible Hulk that he plotted (scripted by Roy Thomas), issue #140, which introduced the sub-atomic world of K’ai and its queen, the green-skinned Jarella, who would become a love interest for the Hulk and a pivotal character in the history of the series.


From there, I discovered my older brother’s copy of the fourth issue of Marvelmania, Marvel’s late 1960s/early-1970s fanzine, which featured an interview with Ellison. It was my first exposure to Harlan’s unique, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners outspokenness about pretty much everything and everyone. 


I was fascinated by him and his utter fearlessness when it came to expressing his opinions. That fascination led me to seek out more of his work—his novels, his short stories, his essays, and his movie reviews. 

I remember that it took me years to track down a copy of Starlog #33, from early 1980, which featured Ellison’s notorious, brutal, scorching takedown of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and when I finally got to read it, I was not disappointed. While I liked the film, I couldn’t really disagree with most of Harlan’s points about its shortcomings.


In my mid-teens—this would have been in the mid-1980s—I was lucky enough to be in a used bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, that just happened to have a copy of a book that I’d heard about for years but could never find: Six Science Fiction Plays, edited by Roger Elwood and published in 1976, which included Ellison’s original teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which was significantly different from the episode that aired on television. 


Naturally, I bought the book immediately and dived into the script as soon as I got home. It was prefaced by an introduction by Harlan himself, and it was through that compelling, revealing, memorable piece that I learned of the long creative process that ultimately soured the relationship between Harlan and Gene Roddenberry. Ellison was furious about what had been done to his script by the Star Trek production team. In reading the teleplay, I discovered just how much the televised version departed from the work that Ellison had submitted. It had gone through numerous rewrites that involved Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, Gene L. Coon, and Steven Carabatsos. I still prefer the filmed episode, but Harlan’s script is an absolute must-read. (As is the GORGEOUS graphic-novel adaptation published a few years ago by IDW.)   

It was also in my teens that I learned about Harlan’s sometimes petty, sometimes silly, sometimes ugly, and sometimes amusing public feuds with such high-profile science-fiction-related luminaries as Mark Hamill, William Shatner, and Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth.  

And as a faithful Hulk reader, I came to know how protective he was about his work, and how strongly he felt about being compensated for it. I remember being a bit bewildered when, in 1983, Marvel published an unusual apology to Harlan, the likes of which I had never seen before, on the letters page of The Incredible Hulk #289. It turned out that in issue #286, writer Bill Mantlo had plagiarized “Soldier From Tomorrow,” a story written by Harlan that was originally published in 1957 and adapted into Soldier,” a 1964 episode of The Outer LimitsAfter an understandably peeved Ellison called Marvel to complain—according to Jim Shooter, Marvels Editor in Chief at the time, Harlan could have demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages—the company appeased him by publishing a belated credit to him for the story in issue 289, along with the mea culpa. (Plus, as I found out years later when I was working at Marvel, Harlan was put on the companys lifetime comp list, and was regularly sent everything that Marvel published.)   


Clearly, this was a guy who was not to be messed with—as writer/director James Cameron would also find out when Harlan went after him over The Terminator.        

When my English teacher at Mark Twain Junior High School assigned each student in the class to write a report about a notable author, I chose Harlan Ellison. I wrote about his extensive catalog of fiction and nonfiction, his forays into television and comic books, his controversies, his conflicts, and the lengths to which he went to defend his work, his reputation, his integrity, and his principles. I wrote that if I could have a career as vast and as varied as his, I would be very pleased indeed.  

Fast forward a few years, and I’m a freshman at Stony Brook University, where the annual I-Con science-fiction convention was held. It was Spring 1988, and Harlan was one of the main guests at that year’s con. Of course, I attended his talk, and it was a bit of a thrill to see the man in person for the first time. He read an excerpt from one of his short stories—and at one point, after a particularly strong passage, he stopped himself cold, broke into a gleeful smile, and said excitedly to the audience, “God, I love what I write!” He then talked about a movie (or was it a TV series?) that he was developing, called Cutter’s World (it never got produced). Soon after, during the Q-and-A section, someone in the audience asked if he was going to be writing for the then-new series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, since he had written for the original.   

“Don’t ask me about Star Trek, man,” Harlan said grumpily. He then went on to accuse the producers of ST: TNG of mistreating their writers, and of blatantly violating Writers’ Guild of America rules—both of which turned out to be true. As I recall, I had kind of been hoping Harlan could be coaxed into doing a script for the new show, and it was during that talk that I learned that his negative feelings about Roddenberry and his creation had not abated at all. Oh well.

Fast forward three years. I’m now a senior at Stony Brook, and I’m serving as Comics Coordinator for I-Con X, scheduled for April 19-21, 1991. Harlan was coming back to the con for the first time since ’88, so that was a big deal. On my end, I wanted Stan Lee to be my Comics Guest of Honor, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. The head of the convention, a fellow by the name of Ralph Schiano, said Harlan could probably connect me with Stan. So Ralph called Harlan at his home in California, and put me on the phone with him.

I was terrified. I froze. At that point, I was well aware of Harlan and his infamous reputation. I had seen his crankiness live and in person. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and piss him off and become one of his many “victims. Reluctantly, I took the phone and, with hesitation, I introduced myself and explained my desire to reach Stan and offer him the GOH spot.

He could not have been nicer.

“Okay,” he said, talking to me as if he’d known me for years. “I’m going to give you his private number at home. Don’t you dare tell him where you got it from!”

“Okay,” I said with a chuckle. “I promise!” I was very grateful that he was willing to trust a complete stranger with this privileged information.

Long story short: Thanks to Harlan, I reached Stan directly, and he attended the con as my Comics Guest of Honor.


But I also wanted to do something even more special that weekend. Since Harlan was going to be at the con, along with legendary DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, and they were longtime friends with Stan, I wanted to put all three together for a special panel where they would just reminisce, goof around, shoot the shit, etc. I organized the panel and scheduled it for Saturday night, in the primetime spot—Harlan and Julie were more than happy to do it.

The first night of the convention, Friday, I attended the party that had been organized for all the guests. Harlan showed up, and I walked over to him to introduce myself in person—we hadn’t met face to face until that moment.

“Mr. Ellison,” I said, putting out my hand to shake his, “I’m Glenn Greenberg. You helped me get in touch with Stan Lee and I organized the panel you’re doing with him tomorrow night.”

“Oh, so you’re the asshole,” he replied. I can’t remember whether he shook my hand, but I was taken aback. “What was that about?” I wondered. I realized later on that he was probably just kidding around, just being “Harlan Ellison.” But at the time, I was just a 21-year-old college kid, I didn’t see it coming, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

Nevertheless, I introduced Harlan to one of my other comics guests, artist Gene Colan, who had drawn a Batman story that Harlan had written a few years before, which was published in Detective Comics #567. Harlan was genuinely enthused—he had never met Colan before.


The Stan-Harlan-Julie panel the following night ended up being the major highlight of the whole convention, certainly the best-attended event of the weekend. Standing room only. It was wonderful. Julie was a bit subdued, but Stan and Harlan were hilarious, taking good-natured potshots at each other.

“When I was on the Star Trek set, I hung around mostly with the production crew people, the guys who worked behind the scenes,” Harlan told the audience, suggesting that he couldn’t be bothered with prima donna, egomaniacal actors.

“Those are the only people who let you hang around with them—the stars of the show didn’t want to have anything to do with you!” Stan replied, causing the audience—and Harlan himself—to howl with laughter.

I stood off to the side, arms folded across my chest, smiling with pride and satisfaction the way Brian Epstein did when the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The following day, Sunday, as the convention was winding down, I was with a friend of mine, an optometrist by trade but also the host of a long-running science-fiction radio show. My friend—out of respect for his privacy, I’ll refer to him here as “Doc”—had invited Harlan to be a guest on the show in previous years, but Harlan always declined. (He finally broke down and did the show in 1999.)

Doc and I were standing near Harlan, who commented that he was having trouble with his eyeglasses—one of the temples had become excessively loose. Doc offered to fix it, since he had an eyeglass repair kit with him. It turned out that the screw in the temple had become almost completely stripped, so when Doc tried to tighten it, the temple popped off the frame and could not be put back on. Doc was mortified. He went back to Harlan with the eyeglasses now unwearable, and was profusely apologetic as he tried to explain what happened.

Harlan cut him off—but not rudely at all. He quite obviously wanted to put Doc at ease. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve had these glasses for years. I’ll take care of it when I get home.” But Doc kept going, trying to give the details of why the temple came off.

“Really, it’s okay,” Harlan said gently. “You tried to help me, that’s what matters. I really appreciate you trying.” But Doc kept going.

“It’s okay,” Harlan said, a little more impatiently. But Doc kept going, talking right over Harlan and determined to explain the whole thing whether Harlan wanted to hear it or not.

Finally, Harlan said, “Do you still live with your parents?”

“Yes,” Doc answered plainly.

“And how old are you?” Harlan asked.

“He’s thirty-five years old,” I chimed in—which was not even remotely true.

“You’ve got to get your act together,” Harlan told Doc. “You’re thirty-five years old, you’re still living with your parents—”

“I’m not thirty-five, I’m twenty-six!” Doc replied defensively.

Harlan immediately looked over at me and saw the mischievous smile on my face. He broke into a wide grin and pointed at me as if to say, “You rascally little bastard, you!” He laughed, put up his hand for me to give him a high-five, and I obliged happily.

I had just had a genuine moment with Harlan Ellison. I’d made him laugh. He gave me a high five. Yeah, that was a memory I was going to cherish. It more than made up for him calling me an asshole a couple of days earlier. 

Fast forward again, another three years. It’s Spring 1994 and I’m back at I-Con, this time as a guest, since I was now on the editorial staff and a budding writer at Marvel Comics. Harlan was back too, and I saw him at a special gathering for all the professionals in attendance. I walked over to him and reintroduced myself. “I’m the guy who put together the panel you did here with Stan and Julie in 1991.”

At that, a warm, delighted smile crossed Harlan’s face. “Oh, I loved that,” he told me. He remembered!

Now I was delighted. We chatted for a few moments, he congratulated me on having become a Marvel staffer, and we went our separate ways.

The next day, our paths crossed again. And as fate would have it, I was once again with Doc.

Doc boasted proudly to Harlan that he had recently read one of Harlan’s short stories aloud on his radio show. Despite knowing full well how protective Ellison was about his work, and how important it was to him that he be paid for its use, Doc thought Ellison would actually be flattered. Instead, Harlan scowled and told Doc, without a hint of humor, that his work was copyrighted and could not be read on the air without payment being made. Doc insisted that it was a nonprofit endeavor, but Harlan was not satisfied. He wanted to be paid.

“How much?” Doc asked nervously.

“How much do you have in your wallet?” Harlan replied.

Doc took out his wallet and checked. “Five dollars,” he said.

“I’ll take it,” Harlan told him. And he did.

“You had to open your big mouth,” I said to Doc, shaking my head with a bemused grin. We watched as Harlan walked off, pocketing the money.

It was the last time I ever saw him. 



UPDATE: Doc corrected me on some of the chronology of the events described above, so this post has been revised for the sake of accuracy. 


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2018.


Friday, December 15, 2017

REVIEW: STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII—THE LAST JEDI


While 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens established the next era of the Star Wars universe and positioned it for the future, Episode VIII—The Last Jedi puts forth the notion that for a generation to truly come into its own, it must break with the past. That notion is voiced quite fervently by Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo (Adam Driver), who, as you may recall, murdered his own father, Han Solo, as a means to completing his journey into darkness. And it is reinforced by none other than Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ren’s uncle and former Jedi master, who declares, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

Not everyone feels that way, though. First and foremost is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the young Force-wielding scavenger from the desert planet Jakku, who has emerged as the new central figure of the Star Wars saga. Since the end of The Force Awakens, it has been her mission to bring Luke back into the fight against the First Order, the power-hungry group built upon the ashes of the Empire and led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Rey is committed to holding on to the past; in addition to her belief that Skywalker’s return is crucial to defeating the First Order, she also clings to the hope that she will find her long-missing parents and feel whole again.

The Star Wars series itself faces the same issue as it continues to push forward beyond creator George Lucas, who famously sold the franchise, along with his company, Lucasfilm Ltd., to the Walt Disney Corporation in 2012. As written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous work includes 2012’s Looper and several episodes of Breaking Bad, The Last Jedi emphasizes that the few remaining elements from the Original Trilogy are slipping away, with the newcomers introduced last time—including Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron and John Boyega’s stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter Finn—forced to step up and take over.

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) continues to lead the Resistance, which has been severely weakened after the First Order’s Starkiller Base destroyed the capital world of the New Republic, and the losses continue to mount. The survival of the fleet depends on a desperate secret mission undertaken by Finn and a spunky maintenance worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), with whom he forms a fast friendship. Poe, meanwhile, has begun to openly defy orders he doesn’t agree with, whether they’re issued by Leia or her fellow Resistance leader, Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

There’s also plenty of internal conflict within the First Order, as Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) continue their rivalry and their efforts to outdo each other in the eyes of Snoke. Each man has his own task to complete for the towering, elderly Supreme Leader: Hux is bent on wiping out the Resistance once and for all, while Ren is focused on finding Rey and killing Luke.

Speaking of Skywalker, his relationship with Rey, which was teased in the very last moments of The Force Awakens, is the centerpiece of the new film, and it is fascinating, moving, and, in the end, thoroughly satisfying.

The same can be said about The Last Jedi as a whole. Though it clocks in at about two-and-a-half hours, making it the longest Star Wars movie ever made, there’s not a dull moment. It is filled with twists and turns and surprises that will cause the jaws of even longtime, jaded fans to drop. There are many deeply emotional moments that will trigger tears and cheers. And, at times, it’s pretty damn funny. Rian Johnson can proudly take his place alongside Lawrence Kasdan as one of the best writers to work on the series. In fact, it’s fairly clear that Kasdan’s work was a major influence on Johnson, as, throughout The Last Jedi, there are strong echoes of both 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, both of which were written by Kasdan.

The end result is the best Star Wars movie since Empire, which is widely acknowledged as the high point of the series.

Much of the credit for the film’s success must go to the cast, all of whom are top-notch.

Mark Hamill delivers what just may be his greatest performance as Luke Skywalker, though his stellar work in The Empire Strikes Back is tough to surpass. Anyone who felt slighted by Luke’s brief, non-speaking role in The Force Awakens can take solace in the fact that the no-longer Young Skywalker is a key player this time around. It’s not the story arc that I would have chosen for Luke—and Hamill has said the same thing on numerous occasions—but nonetheless, Hamill pulls off a combination of tragedy, humor, eccentricity, sensitivity, and badassery that overcomes any—well, most—of the qualms that I had.  

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

In her final turn as Leia, the late Carrie Fisher too is given more to do, and she handles all of it with charm, wit, and grace. Her interactions with Oscar Isaac are particularly wonderful. It is impossible to watch Fisher in this movie and not feel the weight of her untimely loss. And yet it’s not a distraction. It’s just comforting to watch her once again playing her most famous role, and to see her doing it so well.

Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa

Incidentally, Isaac provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, bringing the kind of down-to-earth, mischievous irreverence that was the stock in trade of Harrison Ford in the original three movies. It’s now common knowledge that Poe Dameron was originally supposed to die in The Force Awakens—and it’s a very good thing that he didn’t.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron

Daisy Ridley continues the masterful work that she began in the previous film. She is, without a doubt, one of the best actors to ever appear in a Star Wars movie, and she has been turning in among the very best performances in the entire series.

Daisy Ridley as Rey

Adam Driver builds upon his work in The Force Awakens by making Kylo Ren a more complex, more multi-faceted figure whose actions cannot be easily predicted. I would argue that Ren is a significantly more effective, more compelling character here than he was in the previous movie.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

John Boyega, who was truly one of the main highlights of The Force Awakens, remains a strong presence. While his character Finn doesn’t get quite as much room for major development here as he received last time, Boyega’s performance is every bit as good. (And his American accent remains a marvel.)

John Boyega as Finn

Of the new characters, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose and Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo are among the real standouts. Tran is adorable, Dern is enigmatic.

Also of note: Benicio del Toro, who is delightfully eccentric as a shady character that Finn and Rose encounter on their journey.

Returning players Serkis and Gleeson are given more to do as, respectively, Snoke and Hux, and both are more than up to the task. Gwendolyn Christie also reprises her role as stormtrooper leader Captain Phasma. And of course, Anthony Daniels is back as See Threepio, who gets some nice, touching moments.  

This being a Star Wars movie, it goes without saying that the visual effects are spectacular. And John Williams turns in another excellent score, building upon the work that he did in each of the previous seven films.

Needless to say, a lot happens in The Last Jedi. Surprisingly, several key plot threads introduced in The Force Awakens are definitively resolved here, instead of being carried over into the third film of the current trilogy, which is scheduled for release in December 2019. But there’s plenty of subject matter still left to explore, and returning writer/director J.J. Abrams has a strong starting point from which to build the next—and concluding—chapter.


The last shot of the film, which I won’t describe here, captures that sense that we are at a new starting point, and perfectly conveys the message that regardless of whether we embrace or discard the past, as long as there is hope and wonder and imagination, the future will endure.

Not a bad message, for this galaxy or one thats far, far away. 

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2017.