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Number of computers: 5

May 29, 1999: and it's better than real--it's a real imitation


Let me offer you a biased opinion. I think Meat Wars is utterly brilliant--and I wrote it.

A few caveats. It's probably only brilliant if you're familiar with both Red Meat and Star Wars. You may actually need to like Red Meat, as well. I don't have a perfect perspective on the subject. I do know that I don't universally think that everything I've done is brilliant.

Indeed, I'm willing to say that I think it's brilliant, because I'm not so sure that my effort was that brilliant. At least, I think the idea is brilliant, and my execution is "sufficient" to let that brilliance shine through.

Its earliest origin was in a Red Meat Construction Set comic I made in which Milkman Dan implied he was Karen's father, and she replied, "No, that's not true. That's impossible." (Later, someone else independently authored an RMCS comic that was a more explicit retelling of that scene from The Empire Strikes Back).

Then, Bryan O'Sullivan offered up an RMCS comic which featured the final Rutger Hauer monologue from Blade Runner. Then Dan "crisper than thou" mentioned on a MUD that he had considered trying to recast Blade Runner into RMCS form, inspired by Bryan's comic, but had realized he was pretty stuck because there weren't enough female characters in Red Meat.

That provided the creative spark: retelling an entire movie through Red Meat comics. It would be an endeavor inappropriate to hosting directly on the RMCS site, since it wouldn't really be Red Meat humor. I'm not sure I would have ever thought of trying to sustain a narrative through Red Meats, and I'm sure I'd never have thought of recasting an existing work into that form.

As I thought about the idea, Star Wars pushed its way into my brain as the obvious candidate. I'd already played around with referencing Star Wars within Red Meat. It has only one female character, the same as Red Meat; that character is Karen, and the Karen-Milkman Dan tension translates beautifully to Darth Vader's capture and torture of Leia. And Star Wars is, in some sense, the biggest pop culture icon around. Yeah, MacHomer (MacBeth performed by the Simpsons) is clever; but I think Meat Wars is even more clever, mixing a radical, way-off-mainstream comic strip with the biggest, most pop culture movie ever. (And, yes, Meat Wars predates MacHomer.)

In some sense, Star Wars is clearly "the right thing". Everything converges too perfectly for any other movie to be appropriate. In some sense, then, I don't feel so much like I invented a clever thing than that I discovered the clever thing. (Which is why I feel comfortable saying it's brilliant--because I feel more like I uncovered a gem and polished it and shared it with everyone else.)

Once the idea was there, I had no choice but to carry out the execution. Of course, the execution was relatively easy. In many ways, because of what it is--a retelling of the Star Wars story through Red Meat comics--it wrote itself.

This is not to say that I didn't make authorial decisions, and some significant and clever contributions therein; but, on the scale of constrained creativity, Meat Wars is definitely a 10. The only thing which I had real freedom for were the taglines (the titles of each of the comics), and this was the part in which I spent the least effort, because I considered them very tangential to the "story" I wanted to tell. (Indeed, they are the weakest part of Meat Wars, and they often deviate from the rules of Red Meat taglines--and they probably shouldn't, but coming up with forty of them off the top of my head was a pain.)

But the actual process went like this:

First I found a copy of the script on the web (which saved me a trip to the bookstore). Apparently it's received wide distribution; I assume George Lucas must have approved people copying it around.

Next, I started simultaneously doing the two main tasks of creating Meat Wars: casting and rescripting.

Casting involved assigning a Red Meat character to each of the characters who would appear in the Meat Wars script. Besides Karen, there were eight major characters in the script (C3PO, R2D2, Darth, Luke, Obj-Wan, Han, Tarkin, and all the stormtroopers); and there were about ten or twelve Red Meat characters I could assign to those roles. There's about 21 million combinations, so obviously there were some real decisions to be made there.

On the other hand, the scripting was a somewhat mechanical process. I carefully went through the original script, locating sequences in which only two characters spoke alternately, in lengths that would allow for a three panel script. Of course, this reflected one of a number of basic authorial decisions I made:

The process involved a lot of thought and care. As I looked at a conversation, I considered which character should go first. What part of the conversation could form three panels? Should I allow a character to split a monologue across multiple panels? There was definitely real creativity here, or at least careful application of some particular sense of aesthetics.

Today I noticed on a scriptwriting site a comment that George Lucas had suggested that a 120-page script should be "60 two-page scenes". This was slightly debated as to whether it was really appropriate, but I think it probably accurately describes Star Wars. I ended up with 41 comics; the rest was material that didn't work without a visual context, or couldn't be arranged to involve only two speakers. The biggest cut was Luke's training on the ship and Obi-Wan's comment about "disturbance in the force" in response to the destruction of Alderaan. Yet in the final Meat Wars script, this sequence comes out quite well with the destruction left entirely off-camera.

Casting didn't occur right away, as I waited to see what the scenes would be so as to decide which characters would make for the best scenes. My hands were tied for a few: Karen and Milkman Dan especially (although I considered alternate roles for Dan anyway). I chose to cast Steve and Stacy "with type"--Steve as Greedo for visual reasons, and Stacy as Han Solo. I was slightly uncomfortable with these decisions, since most of the rest of the casting was against type, but I think in the end they serve to ground the comic better against the original movie. Steve's appearance is effectively a cameo, and if you imagine Solo's line in Stacy's traditional speech patterns, it does wonders for the performance.

The biggest decision was how to best use Earl. He might have made a decent Luke. Once I cast him as Obi-Wan, though, a few things fell nicely into place. He gets a few beautiful Earl moments (discussed below), and I got the one really personally creative thing (that is, something that wasn't "forced", something that you would never expect to see if someone else independently did their own Meat Wars): the dual names 'U.R.L.' and 'Earl'.

That didn't leave any really good options for Luke. I nearly used Ted's son instead of Sluggo, and I'm not sure why I ended up with the pairing I did.

From the final version of the Meat Wars script:

Cast of Characters (in approximate order of appearance):

                                                verified GIF name
 Johnny Lemonhead     as   C3PO                       lemon
 Ted's son            as   R2D2                       kid   
 Karen                as   Princess Leia              karen
 Milkman Dan          as   Darth Vader                dan
 Sluggo               as   Luke Skywalker             sluggo
 Earl                 as   Obi-Wan Kenobi             earl
 Stacy                as   Han Solo                   stacy
 Padre Torkington     as   Grand Moff Tarkin          padre

 Postman Matt         as   the Stormtrooper           postman
 Ted with Gun         as   asshole in bar             tedhunt
 Ted                  as   Uncle Owen                 ted
 Wally                as   Tagge                      wally
 Steve                as   Greedo                     steve
 Don                  as   Dadonna                    don
 Ken                  as   Red Leader                 ken
 Skull                as   Gold Five                  skull

Casting Matt as the stormtroopers was based on an older RMCS comic I had made in which I attempted imply there were a lot of different characters which all looked the same. (Since Matt faces forwards, the comic claimed there were a bunch of Matts in a line, and each frame the frontmost would leave.) Also, the use of the name "Torkington" for "Tarkin" is an RMCS inside joke, a homage to one of the best RMCS authors, or at least, the author of some of the best RMCS comics.

At this point, all that was left was to merge the two--the casting and the Meat Wars script. (I actually came close to setting up a system that would let me change the character assignments so I could see it "on the page" and decide what was best, but I decided I preferred to try to get it right initially and live with that.) But this was a purely mechanical process (although I also did some casting of the minor characters during this stage of the process.)

Now I'm going to give you the best of--the comics that really resonate with me for various reasons.

RED MEAT walk softly but wear a big suit from the secret files of max cannon
Milkman Dan. I should have known. Only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this--when they hear you've attacked a diplomatic...
Don't play games with me, Your Highness. You weren't on any mercy mission this time.
You passed directly through a restricted system. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they send you.
I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan...
You're a part of the Rebel Alliance...and a traitor. Take her away!
By buzzard

The quintessential Milkman Dan and Karen confrontation. I decided to stick to the Star Wars text, so I wasn't allowed to change it to read "I hate you, Milkman Dan", so it's left as an implication--Karen's natural response.

The text of the script reads naturally as two panels, although Vader gets one relatively long speech. The decision to arrange it as above was natural, but certainly not automatic.

Pacing: After reading the last bit of speech, glance down at Dan's smiling face.

RED MEAT get leia'd from the secret files of max cannon
Well, my little friend, you've got something jammed in here real good. Were you on a cruiser or...
Help me, U.R.L. Kenobi. You're my only hope.
Who is she? She's beautiful.
Help me, U.R.L. Kenobi. You're my only hope.
Is there more to this recording?
Help me, U.R.L. Kenobi. You're my only hope.
By buzzard

I cheated and broke my rule about sticking to text (omitting some of C-3PO's comments). The refrain is appealing, but of course it's not explained here that this is a hologram, nor did we see the earlier momentary vision of Leia, er, Karen planting the message, so it doesn't make any sense without the movie.

RED MEAT hippieness in slavery from the secret files of max cannon
I think my uncle knew him. He said he was dead.
Oh, he's not dead, not...not yet.
You know him!
Well of course, of course I know him. He's me! I haven't gone by the name 'U.R.L.' since... oh, before you were born.
Then the kid does belong to you.
Don't seem to remember ever owning a kid. Very interesting.
By buzzard

The last line, coming from Earl, is priceless.

RED MEAT you want fries with that? from the secret files of max cannon
These are not the droids you're looking for.
These are not the droids we're looking for.
He can go about his business.
You can go about your business.
Move along.
Move along.
By buzzard

One of the most memorable bits of the film (and something I have serious problems with The Phantom Menace over). It works astonishingly well in the motionless-comic-strip format.

So between this comic and the second one, we've got a comic in which one character says the same thing every time, and another in which both characters say (essentially) the same thing, thus running the gamut of this sort of wordplay. And yet it means something. In some sense, that makes it even more surreal than the movie.

RED MEAT but what shall i wear? from the secret files of max cannon
Her resistance to the mind probe is considerable. It will be some time before we can extract any information from her.
Perhaps she would respond to an alternative form of persuasion.
What do you mean?
I think it is time we demonstrate the full power of this station. Set your course for Princess Karen's home planet of Alderaan.
By buzzard

This isn't so much great and memorable as simply a good example of something. In the first comic I showed above, the raw script has two characters, each delivering two "lines" (continuous blocks of text). Because Darth Vader's first speech is so long, it blocked naturally into three panels, with his speech continuing from the first panel into the second one.

In this comic, there are also two "lines" for each of the characters. This time, though, I reverse the character's order within the panel, and give one character the entire first panel, and the other the entire second. As you can see, this is well suited to the lengths of the respective lines. As much as possible, I tried to create comics that kept the text heights similar. Often, I couldn't, because there was just too much text (especially some of Earl's lines).

RED MEAT the liar, the snitch, and the robot from the secret files of max cannon
She's rich.
Yes. Rich, powerful! Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be...
Well, more wealth that you can imagine.
I don't know, I can imagine quite a bit!
By buzzard

This is an example of how naturally some of Lucas' scenes translate into the comic strip medium--a simple, brief exchange between characters, which ends naturally on a bit of humor.

Here's another one:

RED MEAT brother of pearl from the secret files of max cannon
I think we took a wrong turn.
There's no lock!
That oughta hold it for a while.
Quick, we've got to get across. Find the control that extends the bridge.
Oh... I think I just blasted it.
By buzzard

RED MEAT deus ex mocking from the secret files of max cannon
I've been waiting for you, U.R.L. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete.
When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.
Only a master of evil, Dan.
Your powers are weak, old man.
You can't win, Dan. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
By buzzard

Another classic Star Wars moment. While not everything here works quite right, "Only a master of evil, Dan" is just too perfect.

Other notable strips: another bit of Lucas humor ("do you think a princess and a guy like me") with the Leia-Han-Luke love triangle comes out perfectly in three panels. The "so you got your reward and you're just leaving" exchange also comes out nice. Then the last six strips, the climactic battle over the Death Star, are written using solo characters with offscreen speech for voices heard over the radio. I got a kick out of using the skull for the "stay on target" guy, and threw in a bit of irreverence with the tagline for Darth's "I have you now", noting the rhythmic and rhyme equivalence of Bart Simpson's "Don't have a cow".

By the way, the purpose of this journal entry isn't to toot my own horn, but to attempt to offer a view of some inner workings of the creative process. I only made a big spiel about it being "brilliant" as an attempt at a hook to suck the reader in.

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attribution dammit: Frankenstein Aimee Mann