Legacy Stories and Worthy Heirs

I am a little overwhelmed at how much of today’s pop culture is built on reboots, remixes, and legacy. Particularly when so much of it is based on things that really, no one originally had ever considered to be ‘timeless.’ Popular fiction, especially things like paperback originals, monthly comics, and series television, were originally designed to be ephemeral. Their life cycle was finite– initial premiere, maybe a reprint or syndicated rerun here or there, then pfft! Gone, remembered only as a trivia question or a whatever-happened-to magazine feature.

No more. The list of TV properties that have been revived or remade in the last two decades is way too long to list here, but I can tell you a few of the ones that genuinely shocked me– not that they were good or bad, but that they actually happened at ALL: Battlestar Galactica. The Prisoner. Charlie’s Angels (twice!) Ironside. The Equalizer. MacGyver. Nikita. Beauty and the Beast (not the fairy tale, the television series with Vincent and D.A. Catherine Chandler.) I was staggered that the CW launched Arrow in the fall of the same year that Smallville wrapped, and it wasn’t a spinoff but instead a completely rebooted version of Oliver Queen. And that reboot’s been a huge success, about to enter its sixth year and with two spin-off shows of its own. (Three if you count Supergirl.)

It’s not just television. It’s everywhere. For example, in publishing, unless you look carefully at the copyright information on the newer novels you’d never know Robert Ludlum died sixteen YEARS ago.

Not to mention Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, Don Pendleton, a host of others. There’s no question that a lot of these continuations are at best misguided, and at worst verge on grave-robbing. (The vast majority of Robert Ludlum novels are espionage stories about an innocent man accidentally trapped by a vast conspiracy, they all have basically the same plot as Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. None of those plots really can sustain a series. Granted, even Ludlum couldn’t resist revisiting Jason Bourne a couple of times, but to have Bourne continually sucked accidentally into life-threatening danger just makes him look stupid after the fourth or fifth time. Nevertheless, as of this year Eric Van Lustbader has written thirteen Jason Bourne books, with more on the way…. over four times as many Bournes as Ludlum originally did. Worse, now the Bourne movies are falling into this trap too.)

All that being said, this is not a rant about how people should create their own, brand-new things, though that case is certainly there to be made.

But the fact is… I LIKE a lot of these efforts.

I don’t think anyone would argue that Ron Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica isn’t a vast improvement on the original. Adam Garcia has been doing amazing work in his series of novels reviving the obscure old pulp and comics character the Green Lama. And the television series versions of, say, Friday Night Lights or M*A*S*H achieved heights that no one involved with the original works probably thought possible. Hell, I doubt most people even know those started as books.

No, instead, I thought I’d list a few of the efforts where I thought the revival equaled or even surpassed the original in one way or another. I’ve mentioned how much I like the new series of Max Allan Collins Mike Hammer books in this space a number of times but it’s worth mentioning them one more time, just so no one will think I forgot.

Another remarkable feat is Robert Goldsborough’s letter-perfect channeling of Rex Stout in his new Nero Wolfe mysteries.

Now, this is something I attempted myself with moderate success in the 1990s for the Wolfe Pack’s Gazette, and I can tell you it’s damn hard to do. So much of the charm of the Wolfe books depend on the authorial voice of Wolfe’s assistant Archie, who narrates. It’s the same burden that you face writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches; you have to get Watson’s voice right if you’re trying for the real thing (which is to say, not an ‘updating’ or a ‘re-imagining.’) But Archie’s voice is a lot harder to get right than Watson’s, because of the complex relationship Archie has with Wolfe, the tone of exasperated affection he uses, and his character’s irreverence toward Wolfe and his eccentricities has to be layered over a strict sense of justice and respect for Wolfe’s genius. It’s a hard target to hit and Goldsborough nails it.

Lots of writers have taken a swing at the literary James Bond, but hardly any of them have managed to achieve that odd mix of adolescent wish-fantasy and visceral pulpy realism (“Sex, sadism, and snobbery” is how one critic described them at the time) that made up Ian Fleming’s original novels. (We’ll leave the movies out of it– frankly, it’s trying to incorporate the movie version of Bond that has hurt the various print revival efforts more than anything. Looking at you, John Gardner.) However, there are two that have managed to really capture the feel of Fleming’s originals, particularly the tense, headlong forward momentum conveyed by using the same third-person recounting of Bond’s inner monologue as the primary narrative voice. Those two are Kingsley Amis, with Colonel Sun back in the late sixties, and Anthony Horowitz with Trigger Mortis from just a couple of years ago.

It’s worth noting that both writers came to their respective Bond projects as admirers of not just 007 but Ian Fleming’s writing as well (Amis had even written a scholarly study of the novels, The James Bond Dossier, beforehand) and both were bestselling writers on their own before taking them on.

Likewise, Lord knows lots of folks have taken a swing at writing Conan the Barbarian with varying degrees of success; some, like Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp, seemed to be doing it with almost a sense of contempt for the Robert E. Howard originals, given the way they edited and amended what Howard actually wrote.

I have a certain fondness for those paperbacks, but the fact is, those editorial additions did not serve the stories. The new stuff wasn’t nearly as powerful as the Howard originals… DeCamp’s “The Thing in the Crypt” just looks embarrassing next to a Howard classic like “The Tower of the Elephant.”

No, this is one case where I think it’s clear that it’s not prose, but comics, where the continuation transcended the original text. Specifically, the version of Conan from writer Roy Thomas, with magnificent art from John Buscema.

There have been a number of well-done Conan pastiches since the days of the DeCamp and Carter paperback misfires, but I think Thomas and Buscema’s seventies version still stands as the one to beat. Thomas wrote the series in a way that respected the world Howard built and yet subtly added to it– in particular, he took the pirate queen Belit, a paper-thin character that was largely a plot device for a one-off Conan story of Howard’s, and made her real and individual with a great backstory; not just a damsel to be distressed but a warrior in her own right, clearly a worthy companion for Conan.

Then Thomas took the time Conan spent sailing with Belit on the Black Coast, maybe a paragraph’s worth of interstitial padding in the plot of Howard’s original “Queen of the Black Coast,” and made it the engine that drove several years’ worth of great stories in the Marvel Comics version. It was all great fun and much more layered and thoughtful than the formulaic filler stories DeCamp and Carter were doing for the Conan paperbacks during the same time.

It was a career high point for both Thomas and Buscema, in my opinion. Other comics versions of Conan have been pretty good — Kurt Busiek and Tim Truman did some great stuff at Dark Horse Comics– but I think they themselves would probably tell you that it was Roy Thomas and John Buscema that showed them the way.

I mentioned the Charlie’s Angels reboots above. I am kind of sad that the second one, on ABC, never really took off.

Set in Miami, this version really was the sophisticated and classy detective/caper show the original aspired to be and rarely actually was. Alfred Gough and Miles Millar from Smallville put some actual thought into it, and one of the writers on it was Javier Grillo-Marxuach from The Middleman. Although critics hated it and it tanked hard in the ratings (ABC pulled the plug after seven episodes) I thought it was a much worthier successor to the original than the two incoherent Drew Barrymore movies. The seven episodes are available on DVD… bit spendy, but worth a look.

Finally, I wanted to mention a favorite legacy series of mine — two different continuations of a series that relatively few people even know exists. Everyone knows about The Wizard of Oz, but hardly anyone outside of fans, collectors and librarians know about the fact that Frank Baum wrote thirteen more books about the land of Oz.

In the early part of the last century, they were hugely successful books, and when Baum died after completing Glinda of Oz, the publisher recruited Ruth Plumly Thompson to keep the series going.

It was a very smooth transition, because a great deal of the series appeal was in the lavish illustrations from John R. Neill; so the books looked right. And for the most part, Thompson’s Oz books are better than Baum’s. That opinion’s considered blasphemy by many Oz aficionados, but I’ll stand by it. Thompson’s Oz books have more humor, they’re better-plotted, there are fewer tangents and more adventure, and Thompson wasn’t afraid of romance. I’m especially fond of her Gnome King of Oz and Kabumpo in Oz.

My pick for the other great Oz continuation series, I bet several of you have guessed– it’s Eric Shanower’s series of graphic novels.

Shanower does something in these comics that’s doubly difficult– He manages to capture not just the flavor of the stories but also the style of the original illustrator, John R. Neill… and without being imitative.

I could go on. Nicholas Meyer and Sherlock Holmes, Will Murray and Doc Savage, Ron Goulart and the Avenger… all pastiches that equaled or bettered the originals.

But I’ll content myself with mentioning just one more. Today we get the latest episode from Star Trek Continues.

With guest star John deLancie! These fan films are, almost without exception, far superior to the official Trek films and TV we’ve been getting the last few years. This is the ninth of eleven episodes– sadly, the Axanar mess prevented them from doing the rest, but they at least are going to be able to film their two-part finale.

With that, I’ll wrap it up. This is getting a little long, and anyway I suspect several of you are itching to list your own examples down in the comments– or take issue with mine. So I’ll leave it there.

Incidentally, should you be moved to click on any of the Amazon links above and do a little shopping– if you then make a purchase, we get a referral fee, even if you don’t buy the thing we linked to. It helps us pay the server fees and such without having to put up a lot of annoying ads. So please feel free to use our gateway if you feel like dropping a little cash there on some books or DVDs or comics or whatever. Bezos doesn’t need it, but we do!

Back next week with something cool.

16 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I keep hearing a lot of complaints about the state of things, with everything being an adaptation or a reboot or a remake or a prequel or a preboot; and my first instinct is ‘as long as they’re making good movies, I don’t mind’ (and it’s usually movies). Then I remember 1984, and the slew of movies I love from that year, including Gremlins, The Terminator, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Ghostbuster… all of them original! And I kind of miss that.
    (There were many others released that year, including sequels and things that I don’t love as much, but you get the motion picture.)

    One of the problems is, most of the time if I watch a comic book adaptation, I enjoy it a lot more than any original movies I see nowadays.

    That said, I’ve skipped most of the reboots – Robocop, Total Recall, Poltergeist… they look like they’re taking beautiful, beloved properties, and making them generic and dull.

    “Beauty and the Beast (not the fairy tale, the television series with Vincent and D.A. Catherine Chandler.)”

    My first reaction to this was total surprise / shock. Then I remembered that I had heard about it at the time; but it’s one of those that came and went without impact. And that people complained that they replaced Ron Perlman with some pretty boy. (Another reboot I never watched.)

    “to have Bourne continually sucked accidentally into life-threatening danger just makes him look stupid after the fourth or fifth time.”

    “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?”
    (Also, have any been named Bourne Again?)

    “Nevertheless, as of this year Eric Van Lustbader has written thirteen Jason Bourne books”
    This sentence has a very different – and impressive – meaning if your mind skips the words ‘as of’ like mine just did. 🙂

    “I don’t think anyone would argue that Ron Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica isn’t a vast improvement on the original.”

    … well, it does fall into the ‘let’s make everything dark’ and ‘let’s suck all the fantasy out of this concept’ traps somewhat; but I haven’t seen the original in so long that I can’t really compare.

    “With guest stat John deLancie!”

    I thought that looked like him!

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Hey, what about the Hatcher fellow and Holmes? 😉

    Not going to disagree with any of your examples. I definitely agree about the comics Conan by Thomas – I had that series of 12 paperbacks with the extra stories by Carter and DeCamp. The entire timeline created in them, and Conan’s entire life story up to when he became a king appealed to my inner, continuity-obsessed comics geek, but I later realized that the Howard stories were the only ones I really remembered later.

    As for Galactica, I agree that the re-imagined series was far better than the original. Yes, it was grim and dark, but in this case it seemed warranted. After all, the premise of both series was that humanity was virtually wiped out by a bunch of AI robots, with the survivors fleeing through space to find some mythical lost colony. Pretty dark stuff. However, I thought the new series really lost it’s way – I only watched it to the end of the penultimate season, at which point I found myself losing interest, as the story seemed to have gone off the rails at some point.
    My own example is also Galactica: the Marvel comics series. I thought the stuff after the initial issues adapting the pilot movie were better than the show (not a high bar to clear, I agree), and the last 10 or so issues in particular, with most of the art by Walt Simonson, were really quite good.

  3. frasersherman

    I’m not sure MASH really fits here as it was only five years after the original book came out.
    Total agreement about Conan. The Carter/deCamps convinced me for years that Conan was more boring than entertaining (that’s partly because they adapted some forgettable non-Conan Howard stories in addition to their own contributions).
    Don’t agree on the Thompson Oz books. While she was better than Baum in a number of ways, she had her own weaknesses that cancelled out for me (the fondness for having someone pick up a magic item that would turn out to be exactly what was needed at the climax). My favorite post-Baum is still the McGraws Merry Go Round in Oz. Least favorite is anything by John R. Neill
    (Curiously I find the Hidden Valley of Oz, which was despised by fans when I first got into it for a character who uses 1940s slang is actually pretty good–by the time I read it, the slang was just as unreal as everything else in Oz).
    The rebooting/remixing seems to be a common trend in pop culture. An article in Vanity Fair a few years ago pointed out there were massive differences in movies/tv/music/fashion/etc. at the far ends of pretty much any period of the twentieth century and at the time he was writing (2010, IIRC), everything seemed pretty consisted with the 1990s. Music critic Simon Reynolds’ Retromania makes the same observation about music: the 21st century isn’t offering anything that’s as radical a break as Elvis, rap, punk, etc.
    Possible theories on why that I’ve heard include
    •The world is changing so much thanks to technology we’re compensating by sticking with the tried and true.
    •Business is playing it safe by sticking with what works. Doing 1980s movie remakes is the equivalent of “hey, if I bring back the Silver Age status quo, it’s guaranteed to sell!”
    •Just the sheer amount of what’s available from the past is discouraging experimentation.

    I do disagree on the Bourne books–sure it’s ridiculous he’d keep finding himself in mortal peril, but that’s enough of a series-fiction convention it doesn’t bother me.

    1. Le Messor

      “at the time he was writing (2010, IIRC), everything seemed pretty consisted with the 1990s”

      When I read that, I thought you were talking about the typical ‘twenty-years-ago-nostalgia’ that’s been going on since… I don’t know when, but on TV it goes back to at least Happy Days.
      It should be taken into account with all the other theories you listed (which I suspect are all correct to a degree).

      OTOH: A few weeks ago some of the youth from my church took a drive up to Sydney for a weekend camp. Apparently, on the way, all they wanted to listen to was 80s music, not this ‘modern rubbish’. (I got that both from the driver and one of the kids – a 17yo.)
      Make of that what you will.

      1. M-Wolverine

        We’ve transitioned a little into 90’s nostalgia, but for some reason the 80’s seems to be hanging on even longer. I don’t know if that’s a commentary on the value of disposable pop in each decade, the fact that the Baby Boomers might have overextended their era of nostalgia, or what. But you look at things like the soundtrack to Atomic Blonde, and the popularity of Stranger Things, and the Gen X making things seems to have not finished just yet.

        Though I like to think that since WWII at least, and maybe some Depression overlap, that pop entertainment eras really have more to do with each other as a decade at the mid point. ’35-45 WWII, 45-55 post war, 55-65 Sinatra, Bond, cool, 65-75 counterculture, 75-85 disco, change of indie/art films to blockbusters, 85-95 Gen X years, 95-05 start of millennial era.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    MASH was pretty much its own thing in each form: book, movie and tv series. The book is a fictionalized version of Hooker’s (a pen name) experiences in Korea. It’s pretty anti-authoritarian, but not as anti-war. It’s more hijinks than anything else. The movie added the anti-war, while adding the dialog interplay that Altman is famous for. The tv series fleshed out the characters more, made it about them and their relationships and experiences (not surprising, as they had more time to work with).

    Another you could cite is Doctor Who, as the modern series built on the template of the original, sexed it up and pumped a hell of a lot more money into it than they had in the old days. It may be sacrilege; but, I love the two Peter Cushing movies, and thought they were a worthy, if slightly confusing take on the original.

    While I would agree that the reimagined Galactica was more consistently better television and storytelling, the original was more filled with the classic joy of space opera adventure. If they could have been more consistent with the scripts and had a game plan about where they were going, it would have been magnificent. I still think the original idea of a series of movies was the better way to go.

    1. Le Messor

      “MASH was pretty much its own thing in each form: book, movie and tv series.”
      What you’re reminding me of here (but I don’t know if it belongs in the article, since all versions were somewhat driven by the same guy) is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

      “I love the two Peter Cushing movies”
      I haven’t seen them myself (and just missed buying one of the DVDs second-hand a few months ago), but they mean there have now been three Doctors played by a Peter.

  5. M-Wolverine

    Some stream of thoughts…

    I actually don’t think the Bourne movies are actually all that good. They’re not bad. But they’re the main reason we still have shaky cam. But you have made me interested in trying the new Bond book.

    Nikita doesn’t surprise me because none are considered classic to be sure, but it’s such an easily adaptable trope. You have the original, the American remake, and two TV series. And none of them are bad.

    With Arrow (Boy Hartley must hate the CW) you could even add the upcoming Black Lightning, if we’re talking inspired to turn the network in DC Comics and not just Arrowverse.

    I don’t know if MASH the book is just one of those things I don’t put enough value on to remember, or if I only remembered the Movie/TV Show. But Friday Night Lights was a books still better than the movie or TV show.

    And while the world has had woefully too little Minka Kelly, and an even greater dearth of her in a devil dress, I don’t recall that Charlie’s Angels being actually that good. Doing it the year after John Forsythe died didn’t help either.

    1. And while the world has had woefully too little Minka Kelly, and an even greater dearth of her in a devil dress, I don’t recall that Charlie’s Angels being actually that good. Doing it the year after John Forsythe died didn’t help either.

      Well, yeah, but it’s all in the frame of reference. Compared to the movies, or even to the original series, it bordered on Shakespeare. I will always defend the original pilot movie for Charlie’s Angels, and several of the first season episodes were pretty good, but it fell into the trap so many shows did (and still do)… they started reading their own press, and it didn’t take long for it to become a jiggle show, just vague plots pasted together with silly justifications for putting the Angels in various revealing outfits. The 2011 series at least had more direction, and some thought put into each of the Angels. That alone puts it light-years beyond the original 1970s version, where the only thing anyone knew about the women was that Kate Jackson was the smart one. That is, until she left and then Jaclyn Smith somehow got a mysterious IQ upgrade.

  6. Dave Ziegler

    I liked most of Goldsborough’s Wolfe stories. Archie Meets Nero Wolfe was particularly good, but Murder at the Ballpark was TERRIBLE. I’m hoping his next one, Archie in the Crosshairs, is a return to form…

  7. Andrew Collins

    Those new Mike Hammer novels have been fantastic. It’s worth noting that there’s at least 3 more coming out, as well as a “lost” non-Mike Hammer Spillane novel called Killing Town that just got solicited on Amazon for spring 2018. I think Collins has a hand in that too.

    As for the overall theme of the piece, I have found that my initial thrill at some of the reboots/remakes of my childhood favorites has worn off. The majority have done absolutely nothing to justify their existence other than to be blatant cash grabs on my generation’s obsession with our nostalgia. I’m paraphrasing but I remember a review of the recent Ghostbusters reboot that criticized it for taking what we loved about the original, chopped it up in a blender, and then expected us to just accept it, with no consideration or understanding given as to what made the original so fun and memorable in the first place. Oddly enough, I find myself much more excited about nostalgiac-yet-original shows like Stranger Things that don’t hide their influences but at least attempt to tell a new story or put a new spin on the old tropes…

    1. Le Messor

      “I remember a review of the recent Ghostbusters reboot that criticized it for taking what we loved about the original, chopped it up in a blender, and then expected us to just accept it”

      That’s one of the few reboots I actually saw, because it looked like it’d actually be kinda fun.
      It was (though mostly ‘meh’), but that’s a fair criticism.

      “Oddly enough, I find myself much more excited about nostalgiac-yet-original shows like Stranger Things…”

      Nothing odd about that at all!
      Being original is part of what we loved about the original originals; that’s what we want matched.
      (Next week on ‘how many times can Mik use the word ‘original’ in a sentence?’…)

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