Calling all pop culture fans: Our latest book, Live Like a Vulcan, Love Like a Wookiee, Laugh Like a Hobbit: Life Lessons from Pop Culture, is out now! It’s a perfect read in the wake of New York Comic Con, whether you were enjoying the con in-person or wishing you could be there. To celebrate the book’s release, we’re sharing a brief except into this never-before-seen and slightly skewed look at the most memorable moments in films, shows, books, comic books, graphic novels, and video games. Happy reading!
“An unexpected pleasure.”
—The Wizard of Oz
I pushed against the tavern’s massive oak door, but it would not yield. I shook off the disappointment and pushed again. Harder. Stiffening my arms, leaning over, and pressing both hands firmly against the door’s splintering, worn facade. Nothing.
I was as frustrated as I was exhausted. It had been a long day, and as much as I wanted to sleep, I knew I wouldn’t rest—couldn’t rest—until I was able to rid myself of the hunger that had walked with me these last few hours. The dim, gaslit corridor was just bright enough for me to find a placard written in English, Spanish, and grammatically incorrect Elvish, indicating that the pub would be open all night to accommodate weary travelers.
I looked around the doorway for a latch or lock that would reveal the source of the blockade. Finding none, I peered through the square of glass at the top of the door and saw no one but an Elder, his head bowed in quiet contemplation, sitting at a small table, which, like nearly every table in the room, was piled high with glasses, plates, and soiled napkins. I spotted a bar beyond the Elder and the tables where I could quickly eat before making my way to my room for a much-needed rest.
I took a step back, a deep breath, and threw my shoulder into the door. Again, I failed to move the door an inch, but the thudding sound was loud enough to garner the Elder’s attention. I watched him look up. I held my breath, steeling myself for whatever the consequences would be for disturbing the old man’s meditation.
“PULL!” he shouted.
I stepped back again and followed his instructions. The door swung toward me and brought the faint sounds of John Williams’s Superman score and the overpowering aroma of fried foods with it. I stepped over the threshold. The physical exertion of trying to open the door, the heavy load I’d been carrying all day, my hunger, and the surprisingly harsh overhead fluorescent lighting all conspired to make me feel even more off-balance and awkward than I usually did. How would I make my way through the labyrinth of chairs and tables, around the Elder, and to the bar without knocking into anything and everything?
As usual, I was traveling solo, with only a book for company. It was neither the kind of book I would particularly recommend to anyone, nor was it bad enough to warrant a one-star review, but it was small and lightweight, and sufficiently interesting to keep me occupied while I sat alone. In fact, I’d traveled with this particular book—a novelization of a film I’d seen as a child—for years. Its spine was broken enough for me to fold over and hold in one hand while I ate with the other, and its pages stained enough that the ketchup I would inevitably spill on it wouldn’t warrant too much gnashing of teeth. Like an old friend who kept repeating the same stories, it was comfortingly familiar and pleasant, reliable company.
As expected, I bumped my way through the tavern’s closely set tables and chairs. As I approached the Elder—still the one human impediment between me and the bar—I couldn’t help but admire the degree to which he was able to regain his composure and restart his meditation after being disturbed by my door-banging. I didn’t want to trouble him again, but my fear of offending people overrides my fear of engaging with them, so I was compelled to acknowledge his kindness.
“Thanks for your help with the door. I would have been out there all night,” I said. I noticed that his head was bowed not in silent contemplation, but to better see the game of Tetris playing on the phone he held in his lap.
“I couldn’t let you suffer out there,” the Elder said without looking up. “But now that you’re inside, prepare for a bit of a wait. The waiter’s in the back, either crying or drinking. Probably both.” I wasn’t offended by the Elder’s lack of eye contact—I could see that he was a microsecond away from maneuvering a long green rectangle between two blocks. “The poor fellow’s been the only person working this whole place. I’m surprised he didn’t lock the door hours ago.” The Elder paused his game and finally looked at me. His eyes were bright blue and kinder than I’d imagined they would be. “You might as well take a seat here and wait for him.” The old man pocketed his phone into a hidden fold of his flowing gray-and-white robes. He leaned over and pulled up a chair from a nearby table. He patted the seat, inviting me to join him.
“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt,” I said, pointing to the three empty seats already surrounding the table.
“It’s no bother at all. My friends and I were just talking about . . . well, all manner of things. Big things and small things. There’s always room for one more.” The Elder seemed to sense my hesitancy. Had the tavern been crowded, I could have easily let myself get lost, alone, in the crowd; but emptiness offered no camouflage. I felt ripples of social anxiety lapping against my chest.
“I insist,” he said. I mumbled thanks and sat in the chair. As I let my backpack slip off my shoulders and drop to the floor behind me, I flinched at the thought of having accidentally bent the autographed poster I’d bought earlier in the day. I inspected the poster tube and, finding it still in pristine condition, turned my attention toward a special menu posted on the wall. The tavern’s offerings were limited to burgers, pizza, and nachos—the kinds of things a kitchen could get out quickly and in large enough quantities to accommodate the larger-than-normal crowds in town for the event.
I could feel the ripples of my anxiety growing into waves. I forced a smile on my face and braced myself for what I knew would be a terribly awkward meal. I would have to eat quickly if I wanted to escape the uncomfortable silences and retreat into the comfortable silence of my hotel room without embarrassing myself. But in the meantime, I vowed to keep that smile on my face for as long as I could.
“Ah, here they are now,” said the Elder, directing his gaze across the room.
My feigned smile became genuine. For it was then that I saw, emerging from the gender-neutral, pan-species, and all-fandom restroom on the opposite side of the tavern, a Vulcan, a Wookiee, and a Hobbit.
“No choice, huh?”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said sheepishly as the Vulcan, the Wookiee, and the Hobbit took their seats around the table. “Are you sure I’m not intruding?” I secretly hoped one of them would give me an easy out, but they all talked over one other, enthusiastically insisting that I remain seated at the table.
The Hobbit threw his legs over the side of his chair and held his empty pint glass aloft. “Did the waiter stop crying yet? I need a refill.”
“Not yet,” said the Elder. “I think he expected you to be gone longer.” Judging by the way they were dressed, I would have agreed with the waiter. The quality of their costumes was truly remarkable. I imagined it would be especially difficult for the Wookiee to maneuver around a public restroom without getting layers of “con crud” matted in their fur. I tried to casually scan the entirety of the Wookiee’s fur-lined body to find a seam or zipper showing just how it was put together, but there was simply too much to take in. The color of the Vulcan’s pointy ears matched his skin tone perfectly, and his arched brows and haircut seemed as natural and on point as the crease in his uniform’s pants and the shine on his boots. And though I saw, because he was still hanging them over the chair and directly facing me, that the Hobbit was wearing stick-on protective soles on the bottoms of his feet, they really did seem sturdy and hairy enough to make a journey across Middle-earth.
“Your cosplays all look so great,” I said. “But I wouldn’t have thought you’d all be together.”
The Vulcan raised an eyebrow. The Hobbit smiled and raised his empty mug a bit higher in hopes the waiter would come back. The Wookiee cocked their head. The Elder stroked his beard thoughtfully and asked, “Why is that?”
“Well, it’s sort of a blending of franchises here. The ultimate mash-up. I mean, I get it, I’m into it all, but it’s a bit surprising to see all of you together.”
“Add this to the list,” the Hobbit said with a giggle.
“He means the list of things that pop culture has taught us,” explained the Elder. “That’s what we were talking about before you joined our little party.”
“He’s been doing most of the talking,” the Hobbit stage-whispered in my direction, gesturing toward the Elder with a theatrical flourish. How much longer would he keep his arm up?
“Well, that’s just because you’ve all been kind enough to let me prattle on,” the Elder said.
“Each of our . . . species . . . was taught to respect our elders,” said the Vulcan with a raise of his eyebrow.
“Pop culture taught you that?” I asked.
“Yes,” the Vulcan replied.
“He’s like Gandalf,” the Hobbit grinned.
“Or Obi-Wan,” offered the Wookiee.
“Or Spock,” said the Vulcan, casually tossing a fry into his mouth.
“Spock?” I asked incredulously. “I’m not sure about that.”
“In Star Trek, there’s no direct analogue to the old, wizened man. No offense,” the Vulcan added quickly, glancing toward the oldest among them. The Elder brushed off the slight. The Vulcan continued, “Guinan? Maybe. Mr. Atoz? Only seen once. Picard? Close, but he doesn’t quite fit the bill of aiding the hero on his epic journey, as he’s arguably the hero of TNG. The closest is Spock.”
I considered this for a moment. “Spock grew old for sure—very old for a half human, in fact. And he became a diplomat, worked with Picard on Romulus, but he wasn’t necessarily a mentor who advised the protagonist throughout his journey. Maybe Sarek . . . maybe. But Spock?”
The Vulcan raised a perfectly arched eyebrow again and said, “If you look at The Animated Series, which is canon by the way, Spock goes back in time to help his younger self. And then, in the 2009 movie, Spock Prime helps the Kelvin Timeline Spock. And if you want to get meta, it looks like Leonard Nimoy did the same for Zachary Quinto in real life when he took over the role of Spock, offering guidance and support. It is the perfect example of how pop culture can be applied to real life!”
“Ugh, don’t get me started on the JJ-verse,” I groaned. “All of those lens flares! It just wasn’t my Enterprise.”
“But it’s someone’s Enterprise,” remarked the Wookiee. “Some people like the stuff they grew up with. Others like the things they were introduced to by someone they trust. Some people just like stuff because it speaks to them in a way that nothing else does. There’s nothing wrong with letting people like what they like and love what they love.”
“And whether or not I like something really has no bearing on what you think of it,” the Vulcan interjected. “As much as we fans want to claim our favorite pop culture properties for ourselves, they’re not our creations. Sure, we can write fanfic and play with action figures, and make up characters and stories in RPGs and MMORPGs, but we can’t dictate the stories others tell us. Just think: if Gene Roddenberry had listened to fans’ outrage, The Next Generation never would have made it onto the air—and that became lots of people’s introduction to Star Trek. That was their Star Trek. And though lots of people have lots of issues with the Abrams-produced Trek trilogy, his Star Wars sequel trilogy, or even George Lucas’s own Star Wars prequel trilogy—”
“I’ve got some issues,” interrupted the Wookiee.
“And that’s fine!” the Vulcan continued. “It’s healthy to have opinions, to acknowledge imperfections, to let our imaginations run wild with ‘what could have been,’ or ‘what if,’ but we must also accept the fact that these were the stories the storytellers wanted to tell. No fan has the authority to tell storytellers what their own stories are, and they don’t have the right to tell other fans what they should or shouldn’t like.”
“Or even who is and isn’t a fan,” remarked the Elder.
I thought for a moment. “But . . . but . . .” My thoughts became as cloudy as a nebula as I looked for a reason, some small justification, to prove that I was right, but the black-and-white views of pop culture I’d proudly espoused until now suddenly felt as outdated as a TV with a 4:3 aspect ratio. I came up empty. “You’re right,” I admitted. “I guess I never really thought about it all that much. I mean, I love Star Wars and Star Trek . . .”
“And The Lord of the Rings?” asked the Hobbit eagerly.
“Yep, that, too, but I can’t say that I like every single thing in all of it,” I replied.
“So you already appreciate how liking one thing doesn’t mean you have to automatically dislike something else. And if something isn’t for you, then that’s okay, too. It may be for someone else. You can still appreciate it all. The only binaries that should matter are the suns above Tatooine and the stars at the start of the Federation-Klingon War. So few things in life have to be an ‘either/or.’ There’s room for Marvel and DC on any shelf. Your screens can play both Star Wars and Star Trek. You can play Mass Effect as much as Halo.”
“But what if it’s something nobody likes?” I asked.
“Then you’ll lose a fortune trying to resell its tie-in action figures on eBay,” said the Elder.
“But if you keep them mint-in-box and wait fifteen years for it to become a camp classic, you’ll make a fortune!” added the Wookiee.
Excerpt from Live Like a Vulcan, Love Like a Wookiee, Laugh Like a Hobbit © 2021 by BenBella Books