Monday, September 6, 2010

From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker

I know I've mentioned it often enough: as a kid, the two competing influences over my science fictional imaginations were Star Trek and Star Wars. And while I think that Star Trek is almost certainly my true love, there's no question that my love for Star Wars runs pretty deep too. I also know that many people don't consider Star Wars to be "science fiction" and I'm sympathetic to that kind of nitpicking (being an inveterate nitpicker myself), but, in this case, I can only say that, as a young man, such precision didn't mean much to me. If it took place in outer space and had starships and laser guns, it was science fiction, no matter how little science was actually involved in its plot.

Looking back on my youth now, I think the time when I enjoyed Star Wars the most was between the release of the original film and The Empire Strikes Back. This was the era before one could really talk about a Star Wars "universe" in any meaningful way, let alone a Star Wars "saga." Beyond what we saw in the film, we mostly had Splinter of the Mind's Eye, the Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, and the Marvel Comics series. These were the days when Star Wars was subtitled "From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker," the implication being that the movie was just the beginning of Luke's adventures as a Jedi in training in big, space operatic universe.

Now, I won't make any claim that, for example, everything in the Marvel comics from that era was pure gold. Like most such things, a lot of it was terrible hackwork of the lowest sort. Even as a kid, I could recognize that a green anthropomorphic rabbit man was pretty stupid. But, even so, there was a sense of reckless abandon, an openness to possibility that was nevertheless quite enthralling. Star Wars, the movie, was just a launching point for all manner of wild and woolly space fantasies, rather than the start of an epic storyline that would, ironically, turn its villain into its protagonist, with Luke, the farm boy turned galactic hero, reduced almost to a footnote in an overwrought tale of a petulant brat's unearned redemption.

Maybe I'm too harsh. There is a lot to recommend about the overall "saga" of Star Wars, but, looking back on it, I won't deny feeling a lot of nostalgia about those heady days between 1977 and 1980 when, literally, anything could have happened to Luke Skywalker and his friends. I suspect it was then that I developed my lifelong love for over-the-top sci-fi, with gigantic spaceships, interplanetary wars, and larger-than-life heroes and villains. Reading those Marvel comics back then, I found myself imagining all sorts of adventures in that galaxy far, far away, adventures that subsequent development of the setting and characters has rendered impossible, in the singular drive to make it all about Anakin Skywalker and his mommy issues.

One of these days someone needs to tap into the same well of great ideas as George Lucas and give us a new space fantasy that doesn't eventually succumb to its own success. A guy can dream, can't he?

37 comments:

  1. I wish I had experienced that time between the first film and the others. I've always liked the first one best, although I saw it much later on video like a lot of people.

    At first, circumstances more-or-less forced the filmmakers to focus on making a "complete" swashbucking adventure movie that could stand on its own.

    The huge success meant an assurance of sequels and it allowed for too much consideration for toy sales and attempts at a Joseph Campbell-esque "saga."

    Lots of people practically worship Empire Strikes Back, but even there these tendencies were manifest enough that my enjoyment of it was always quite limited.

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  2. James Maliszewski said...

    "Star Wars, the movie, was just a launching point for all manner of wild and woolly space fantasies, rather than the start of an epic storyline that would, ironically, turn its villain into its protagonist, with Luke, the farm boy turned galactic hero, reduced almost to a footnote in an overwrought tale of a petulant brat's unearned redemption.

    Maybe I'm too harsh."

    Nope. That sums it up nicely.

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  3. "a new space fantasy that doesn't eventually succumb to its own success."

    This is the sad part: I don't really think this is possible. This is the age of the entertainment franchise. Nothing successful, especially in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, is ever allowed to just simply end. It can't. There are whole careers and fortunes at stake. Captain Kirk and company will always be boldly going somewhere, even if they need to be re-cast periodically. Spiderman and Wolverine will always be coping with relationship problems and saying "bub", respectively. Mickey Mouse's copyright will always, always be extended.

    And somewhere along the line, every once brilliant story is going to go stale, output is going to be more and more obviously cynically (even contemptuously) phoned-in, etc. Still, brand loyalty is second nature to entertainment consumers, and the franchise's Next Thing will still be bought on command, even if there's grumbling and griping about it at the same time.

    The only real way a prospective franchise can stay unspoiled by this process these days is to "fail" right out the gate.

    That's why I feel bad for all those "Firefly" fans agitating for a revival. Poor saps don't even know how good they have it. :)

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  4. I always had a soft spot for the tall green Lepus Carnivorus, myself.

    And a friend of mine has been slowly retelling "Ocean's 11" in the Star Wars Universe as a fond remembrance:

    http://theforce.net/humor/jaxxon/jaxxon-01.asp

    Just had to share. And I agree with you, Mr. Mal; those days between Star Wars and Empire were the best of times. Thanks.

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  5. I'm a bit younger than you James, but this mirrors my own feelings. The original Star Wars is a great jumping off point for one's own imagination, with countless intriguing throw-away lines that can be - could have been - taken in any number of directions, before the dead hand of canon closed in.

    This is why I want a space opera game where I can make my own universe, with the tropes *I* like, just as Lucas did.

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  6. S'mon said...

    "This is why I want a space opera game where I can make my own universe, with the tropes *I* like, just as Lucas did".

    Easy enough, pick the rules system that works for you, ignore all the universe and pre-existing tropes, throw in your own and just add dice.

    I've done it several times. My engine of choice for sci-fi is Fudge, but any engine you like will work just fine, not to mention there are some great retro-clones of game systems of days past that are pretty spiffy.

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  7. I love Fudge. I use it for literally everything that isn't D&D, to include things covered by other RPGs (for Lovecraftian gaming instead of CoC, for example, and Third Imperium games instead of any edition of Traveler).

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  8. When I first saw Star Wars in the summer of 1977, I was 7 years old. Thereafter I imagined countless further adventures of Luke and his friends.

    I didn't read novels in the years between SW and ESB, and while I wanted to like the Star Wars comics, I just didn't care for them. Thus, for me, Star Wars was only the movie and my own imagination.

    I like to keep it that way. As far as I'm concerned, only the 1977 Star Wars film is canonical. Everything else with the "Star Wars" label is apocryphal. ("Wretched apocrypha," said John Lightfoot in 1643.)

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  9. The Marvel Comics Star Wars were great. I sort of liked the ones that were set after Empire better though as they made the characters look more like in the movies. Especially Chewbacca looked weird in the early ones.

    To me the Timothy Zahn Star Wars novels sort of opened up the Star Wars universe again. Of course that was before 200 more novels followed in his path.

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  10. Will Mistretta said...

    "I love Fudge. I use it for literally everything that isn't D&D, to include things covered by other RPGs (for Lovecraftian gaming instead of CoC, for example, and Third Imperium games instead of any edition of Traveler)".

    Same case for me Will. I started as a GURPS man, but got fed up with how complicated GURPS can be, discovered Fudge and have stayed with it. It works great with all those numerous GURPS books that I have.

    I've been thinking much lately of a Fudge Fantasy that combines everything I like about D&D and Tunnels and Trolls.

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  11. @ James: I remember the Marvel comics well. When Splinter of the Minds Eye was published (and my parents bought it) I was not even close to the voracious reader of Allen Dean Foster novels I would become...but I devoured Marvel comics (remember the short-lived Star Trek one? I had an issue where the Trek crew battles evil, magical, bat-riding gnomes on an alien planet!).

    The Star Wars comics, both before and after the Empire film, were great, trying to pick threads of stories from hints and ideas in the first two films. I actually think this post has hit on a vast, untapped potential for space opera RPG. It inspires me anyway...and reminds me of why I love Star Wars and why I found even WEG's vastly detailed and defined "universe" to be a little disappointing.

    Thanks.

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  12. As a huge fan of Star Wars, I lept at the chance to to actually PLAY in the universe when WEG's D6 game first came out in 1987. I didn't really get a campaign going until about 1991, however- but that campaign is still going to this day ;). So.. yeah. Star Wars has been a great part of my life- even if I have the same beefs with the plot of the prequels as everyone else here seems to have.

    As far as what JB said above (the "vastly detailed and defined universe" of WEG), I have to disagree. Yes, all the sourcebooks and adventures that came out for Star Wars WERE detailed and grew to be vast, but as far as I was concerned, that was really just the tip of the iceberg. I had PLENTY of room to insert my own adventures, entire planets, races, plotlines completely unrelated to the movies, all of that. West End games never once made a 'map' of the Star Wars galaxy, or tried to define the exact numbers of planets, armies, fleets, any of that. It was all left to the GM.

    It wasn't until the slew of novels that followed Timothy Zahn's books that things really started to get 'overdefined'. In the RPG sourcebooks, for example, there were a lot of adventure hooks and examples of what you could do. In the novels, however, writers started setting things down 'in stone' as it were. It was in the Vector Prime novel, for example, that the first detailed maps of the Star Wars Galaxy appeared. And ugh. They totally didn't fit my concept of the Galaxy we saw in the movies. WEG went out of the Star Wars business just as this boom of 'expanded universe' was really getting underway. Which... may be a blessing in disguise.

    I'm rambling now. Suffice it to say I love SW, I liked WEG's take on it, and In my own game, I've tossed out about 90-percent of the expanded universe. Otherwise you get into the same unwinnable race as you could with Forgotten Realms, trying to keep up with the 'metaplot' of the latest novels.

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  13. Even as a kid, I could recognize that a green anthropomorphic rabbit man was pretty stupid

    What ? Jax rules, dude. Him and Amaiza - his Las Vegas showgirl bandit queen buddy.

    Is a seven foot tall green carnivorous rabbit any stupider than a six foot tall trout man ? The big devil dude in the cantina ?

    Well, maybe he wasn't the bestest character to introduce, but in all honesty, it was the hallmark of a more fun version of the SW universe; much closer to what we were doing in D&D and traveller at the time. Pretty much the opinion at marvel was that they needed to just get comics out before the fad died -and there wasn;t much need to canonize them, or really supply much editorial oversite like in the mainline comic series ie, less boundries for the sake of definition, rather than story or creativity. Sound familiar ?

    Thing is, lack of boundries means having to see some pretty weird things. I present encounter critical, carcosa and LoTFP as but three recent examples and arduin from olden times. This isn't intended as a snipe at what was probably just a throwaway comment in the middle of a loving retrospective otherwise, but "stupid" is in a lot of ways the first step on the road to being a canon maven: Its the step from, "I don't like this", to "this isn't worthy".

    My 2 cents, but regardless, thanks for the fieldtrip to the pre franchise universe -my son (10) loves them to death in the reprints. And me too, again.

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  14. For sure, we are all in the dream trade...I agree with your assessment of Star Wars and its impact. Which I why speculated that Traveller was very successful, in that it did not ape these comics/movies but remained in their shadow...following them at a respectful distance.

    Had Traveller gone directly, it would have been sued just as TSR had but I wonder still what would have happened if they did consciously follow these memes (is that what these archetypal stories have become...)...

    After all, Alien is merely a good Lovecraftian/MR James Ghost Story, where the Alien does preform the same function as the Ghost.

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  15. I thought the Star Wars comics by Marvel were ok. However, the Nagai episodes (a race of knife wielding dark elves) were fantastic. Particularly the climatic issue where Luke fights the Naga queen (lightsaber against whip).

    Great stuff.

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  16. I love the old Star Wars comics. Yeah, the art was hideous for the first few issues (Chewie looked like some kind of mutant teddy-bear hamster), but these were the stories that kept me interested in Star Wars. Later on, when the art improved, the stories also started to pick it up (case in point: "The Last Jedi - issue #49. Probably my favorite Star Wars story ever... alhough the later "Luke Skywalker: Pariah" arc was a close second).

    Actually, you could do worse than looking at Marvel for sci-fi inspiration in this period. They also had the Battlestar Galactica comic (which, while not great, was nowhere near as bad as Galactica 80), Star Trek, and I *think* they had a short-lived Logan's Run comic as well.

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  17. A little off topic, but I'm going to mention this because others have mentioned the expanded universe and how SW become "over-defined".

    I agree. Too many novels, books, TV shows, comic books, etc... removed a lot of the simplicity and mystery from Star Wars.

    Any how come between the Old Republic and Episode-I (thousands of years) there seems to have been almost nil in terms of technological development. I'm sure there is a novel to explain it. :-/

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  18. Oh, and I would also like to add that Marvel's Micronaut comics (well, the ones AFTER they went back to the Microverse... late first series, and the subsequent second and third series) were pretty good sci-f comics as well... especially when they started putting the Tales of the Microverse backup stories in. Bug is one of my favorite sci-fi characters, behind Han Solo and Boba Fett.

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  19. Science Fiction and Superhero Comics will always be my first loves and in many ways my second and third loves as well. On my top ten list of fandom stuff I think is awesome, Star Trek is #1, DC Comics is #2 and traditional medieval fantasy ranks around 11. Space Fantasy in general and Star Wars in particular are firmly in the #4 slot, right behind Giant Robots.

    I was first introduced to Star Wars via the Marvel comic the day before I went to go see it at the movie theatre my Grandfather managed. I saw it five times on opening day.

    While I do love Star Trek more (as I saw it first and there was more of it at the time), I will always love Star Wars. To me the 'Space Fantasy' of the Star Wars universe eclipses most other forms of fantasy by far.

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  20. green anthropomorphic rabbit man was pretty stupid<

    Dude, the movies were full of stupid, yammering muppets.

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  21. Brunomac said...

    "Dude, the movies were full of stupid, yammering muppets".

    Muppets, other then Ewoks, I can forgive, but Jar-jar? Friffen Jar-jar? What the hell was that?

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  22. I think my favourite Marvel Star Wars comic was Riders in the Void (#38). Excellent pencilwork, and a great story. Which was the very last issue before they started The Empire Strikes Back storyline.

    [When I first played in a Star Wars themed RPG we hadn't even seen the film yet (it was when films opened in OZ about 6 to 12 months after the US premiere), just read the screenplay adaption, which inspired us to modify D&D to cope with Jedi Knights and the like.]

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  23. One thing is that Marvel lucked into getting enormous talent on the Star Wars comic somewhat early in their careers -- Howard Chaykin did the wonderful and idiosyncratic art in the first issues (later collaborated with Michael Moorcock, etc.), with writing by Roy Thomas (who also wrote the Conan comic) and the legendary Archie Goodwin (most reknowned for the Manhunter comic with Chaykin colleague Walt Simonson -- who himself also later worked with Michael Moorcock).

    Kind of a very small world of top pulp comics talent, there.

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  24. James, I'm guessing I'm of the same generation as you, and I remember those days between Star Wars and Empire. I feel a deep sense of nostalgia, and often find myself trying to relay that to my kids who now love the saga with all of its prequels and such.

    One of the things that I remember so well is the lack of instant access to information about the movies and what was coming next. There was no internet, and the best source for info was the fan club news letter or Starlog magazine. You had to wait a month for both of these!

    I think that anticipation generated by the lack of constant updates generated a type of love for the films that can't be experienced by generations of fans who grew up in the digital age. Not a better love, but a different one.

    Great piece...thanks!

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  25. Brian Daley's Han Solo stories are still the best star wars fiction. By setting them in the Corporate Sector Authority instead of the Empire proper, he expanded the star wars universe rather than shrinking it by adding defining canon.

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  26. UGH! Lost my post! Here's a lame attempt to re-create it.

    "Even as a kid, I could recognize that a green anthropomorphic rabbit man was pretty stupid."

    That's VERY well said. I hated that rabbit guy as a kid. That one character alone almost made me stop reading those comics, despite what a huge Star Wars fan I was, trying to devour anything "Star Wars" after the movie came out. I just felt like Marvel somehow didn't "get it" by including a character like that. And, yeah, I get the point about the "fish guys" or whatever in the cantina, but for some reason, those guys didn't bother me because they looked so alien. The rabbit guy looked like a cartoon to me. Fortunately, the comics did get better over time, and I still enjoy digging them out and reading them every 10 years or so.

    On the bigger point of that feeling of "anything goes" that happened after the first movie in 1977 and the release of "Empire" in 1980, I totally agree with you. "Star Wars" was the first movie that I ever saw TWICE in the theater (I was six when it came out in May, and then they re-released it in my town around Christmas time, after I'd turned 7). I was totally hooked from the moment I saw it, and tried to get my hands on anything Star Wars related that I could find: the comics, action figures, collectible cards, magazine and newspaper articles, and so on. I felt like Lucas had somehow developed this movie and these characters just for me. My parents and older sister just didn't get it and didn't seem to like it as much, which only further made me feel like I was somehow "special" - part of a secret club of people who "got" Star Wars.

    That time between "Star Wars" and "Empire" was really magical because, like you said, anything could have happened, and there was this whole universe to play around with. I made up my own stories with my action figures, rather than recreating scenes from the movie (I just never understood why somebody would do that). I made up backgrounds for figures that didn't really have much of a role in the movie (like the guys in the cantina, who I assumed were all evil) and I had figures "team up" with other figures on adventures that never happened in the film.

    Then "Empire" came out, and while I love that movie, something was lost. Even as a kid who didn't even know the meaning of the word "canon", I understood that Empire changed everything. All of those Marvel Comics stories "didn't happen" and weren't "official." My stories I had made up with my action figures didn't make sense because the Star Wars Universe was becoming more defined, and the way I had created things didn't fit. Looking back on it, I think that "Empire" was a real turning point in my life, marking the end of my innocent childhood. I know that sounds kind of corny, but that's how it feels.

    And I say all this as someone who LOVES "Empire" as a film. Part of me just wishes, though, that it had been a separate, stand-alone movie instead of something trying to build upon what is now known as "Episode IV."

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  27. "I think my favourite Marvel Star Wars comic was Riders in the Void (#38). Excellent pencilwork, and a great story. Which was the very last issue before they started The Empire Strikes Back storyline."

    Nice pull! That was hands-down my favorite single-issue of the Marvel Comics Star Wars line as well. I actually stopped reading Star Wars comics after that issue and didn't pick up another one until years later when the Dark Horse "Dark Empire" series came out (sort of a sequel to the Timothy Zahn novels from the early 90's).

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  28. James: The Secret History of Star Wars is well-worth your time to buy and read, if you're interested in the early days of pre-IP dyansty SW (Geoffrey turned me on to this book some time ago, and it's excellent!).

    Allan.

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  29. I have to applaud The Badger King for the reminder about #49, The Last Jedi. What a great story. Really readable and even touching, and a fantastic example of the kind of RPG adventures possible in the universe at that time.

    This is a great post, overall. Come to think of it, the one time I played in a SW RPG it was with a character ripped off from the comic.

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  30. Kilsern:
    "Easy enough, pick the rules system that works for you, ignore all the universe and pre-existing tropes, throw in your own and just add dice.

    I've done it several times. My engine of choice for sci-fi is Fudge, but any engine you like will work just fine, not to mention there are some great retro-clones of game systems of days past that are pretty spiffy. "

    For me I find I need something to riff off, though, that supports the flavour I want. I'm not good at going in cold. I find generic systems too flat, and non-generic systems designed for other genres always fight back - Mutant Future is great for gonzo-mutant-animals, but not for Planetary Romance.

    I think the closest I've seen for what I want is d20 Fading Suns, with its medieval fantasy in space mood. Thinking about getting Starships & Spacemen but I'd like to wait for the D&D-ified version.

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  31. I love the Marvel SW comics, just pure fun! I'm immensely enjoying the most recent omnibus of the classic tales. Great stuff!

    There was even a Star Wars Marvel blog a while back, but it's had some tech issues and I think the guy is having problems getting it back online.

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  32. The green rabbit dude totally killed the SW comic for me as well. Say what you will about some of the bad masks in the cantina, but they did not look like Bugs Bunny.

    I was always one of those kids who only considered what was in the movie as "canon" (though that wasn't the term I used when I was 8). I still live by that philosophy, except I discount everything after the original release of Jedi. ; )

    The era between '77 and '80 was indeed very special. I count myself lucky to have been the age I was then. Its impossible to describe the impact of Star Wars to those who didn't live in that era.

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  33. "I think my favourite Marvel Star Wars comic was Riders in the Void (#38). Excellent pencilwork, and a great story. Which was the very last issue before they started The Empire Strikes Back storyline."

    My favorite too. At by Micronaut artist Mike Gold IIRC. I'm pretty sure it started as Micronauts story and was re-fitted for Star Wars. There was a Gil Kane draw story that happened to too - it was obviously a John Carter story that got rejiggered as Star Wars.

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  34. The whole idea that Star Wars isn't "really" science fiction is stupid beyond belief. It features technology that doesn't exist (or can't), as well as aliens, space travel, robots, etc therefore it's sci-fi.

    Think of how absurd it would be if someone said that Rio Bravo wasn't really a western, even though it had cowboys, horses, six-shooters, saloon fights and everything else you'd expect to see in a western -including Walter Brennan.

    Only sci-fi nerds are so anal retentive.

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  35. E.G.Palmer said...

    Brian Daley's Han Solo stories are still the best star wars fiction. By setting them in the Corporate Sector Authority instead of the Empire proper, he expanded the star wars universe rather than shrinking it by adding defining canon.
    September 6, 2010 11:46 PM


    More importantly, Daley's version of Han Solo is just like the one in the movies. The same cannot be said for the other novels and comic books.

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  36. One of these days someone needs to tap into the same well of great ideas as George Lucas and give us a new space fantasy that doesn't eventually succumb to its own success. A guy can dream, can't he?

    A guy can do more than that. A guy can DO IT.

    I'm up for it. Who's with me?

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  37. I'm up for it. Who's with me?

    I'm sure it'll come as no surprise to learn that I am.

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