Castlevania is a Work of Beauty

I hate vampires.

But for Netflix’s Castlevania, I’ll make an exception.

Spoiler warning for the show, by the way.

The story of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades and Alucard on a private crusade to topple Dracula, Lord of Vampires is grim and overly gory at times, but it manages to do what many shows about dark topics attempt but rarely succeed at – show troubled, almost unsavory people working towards a worthy and noble goal in a way that makes us like people we might otherwise not. While not without flaws, it is an excellent piece of entertainment.

Probably the strongest aspect of Castlevania is it’s villain. Dracula is brooding and dark, but he manages to come off as sympathetic rather than tiresome, a rare achievement. He has a deep seated hatred of humanity but he comes by it honestly. Too honestly, to be frank. It’s hard not to take his side of things, given what we see of the world around him. If there’s one misstep Castlevania makes in spinning it’s tale it’s that the world it presents seems to deserve Dracula far more than it deserves Trevor, Sypha and Alucard to save it. For that matter, with the way those three have been treated by the world at large, it’s a wonder they don’t join forces with Dracula and help destroy it.

This creates the biggest problem with Castlevania as a story. There’s no discernable reason for Dracula to be the way he is. Which is not to say there’s no reason for him to be a vengeful monster, but rather there’s no reason for him to possess so much humanity in the face of the world he lives in. It’s hard to tell where he got it from, or perhaps more accurately, where his wife, who he learned it from, got it from. Concepts like compassion and the value of human life are not natural, but rather truths that must be taught and preserved, yet the world of Castlevania gives only hints as to where such truths might be kept.

Now we could get more development of that in the promised season 3, but with Dracula now dead I’m not sure the show can keep up its high quality going forward.

Because, again, Dracula was what made Castlevania so great. His air of menace, his authority, his casual cruelty and his deep insight into the people around him propels him into the ranks of the best villains in the modern canon. His suicidal desire to destroy what sustains him is also easily understood after watching the tenderness between him and his wife and the brutality of the people who took her from him.

Sadly, the weakest point for Castlevania is the rest of its villains. Carmilla and Godbrand are terrible secondary villains, more one note caricatures of villainy than anything, and Carmilla (the one who survives) lacks the personal charisma and intellectual skill necessary to step into Dracula’s shoes and serve as the primary villain going forward. Isaac poses a human alternative, but while his sorcerers powers are impressive he lacks the vision and scope that made Dracula so terrifying – the very fact that he never set out to wipe out humanity without Dracula to push him along suggests he’s just not the villain the series needs. At least the story brought good heroes to bear.

The antipathy between Belmont, last of the monster hunters, and Alucard, son of the greatest monster, is fun to watch. Neither one of these men likes the other, they probably never will, but in a common cause they find that bizarre masculine bond that only other men who find themselves in the same boat truly grasp. Sypha is a more understated character, at once peacemaker between them and dragging them along towards worthy goals, coming up with plans and then trying not to die when they prove to be more dangerous than she anticipated. She’s a figure of balance in the narrative of the first two seasons, and that keeps her from standing out too much most of the time, but her presence is still welcome and necessary to keep the flavor of the series from turning too hard towards apathy or angst.

Fortunately all three heroes fully come in to their own in time for the final battle with Dracula, a jaw dropping ten minutes of pulse pounding action that takes our heroes and their nemesis from the top of Dracula’s castle to its deepest reaches as they pit their wits, weapons and teamwork against the inhuman might of the lord of vampires. The fight is jawdropping in its visuals and inventiveness, and the Castle in Castlevania is a place of wonder and beauty in its own right, but it’s the ending of the fight that really puts a capstone on all of it. Villains are destroyed by their contradictions – and Dracula could not love a woman of compassion and mercy while seeking to destroy all she loved in turn. For all the titanic physical battles that led to that point, Dracula is defeated when he realizes that truth, and not a moment before.

In the end Castlevania is a terribly mundane, straightforward story of the evils that men do, and how sometimes just aspiring to set them right can be enough to make a difference. And that can be a beautiful thing indeed.

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Fiction Writers Should Write (and Read!) History

For among mortal powers, only imagination can bring back the dead.

-Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn

People, real people, are very complex. At the same time, if you can get to know them well enough you can get in their head and anticipate what they’ll do.  An interesting aspect of history is how much of it is trying to do just that. The more you study history the more you come to realize that the facts on record are only a part of the historian’s responsibility. Getting in the heads of historical figures and trying to make sense of what was happening there and extrapolate it to the broader context of history is a big part of what drives the understanding of history forward, giving new routes of inquiry to pursue and new context to existing facts.

It’s also part of what makes history so dangerous – surmises of what historical figures thought cannot be confirmed, only supported or doubted based on available evidence. The best historians run down sources, carefully weigh them against each other and come to well reason conclusions. Two excellent examples of this are Evan Thomas’ Sea of Thunder and Tom Carhart’s Lost Triumph.

Lost Triumph is an excellent example of both sides of this kind of historical work. Carhart begins with a thesis concerning Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plans for winning the Battle of Gettysburg. While not exactly a new thesis it is one that is disputed – in particular by others with differing opinions on the usefulness of the units in question or the lay of the terrain. Carhart then goes back to Lee’s early career, including his time as Commandant of West Point and the kinds of curriculum he encouraged, and traces forward the kinds of strategy he taught and later employed, then ends with conclusions, based on what we do know happened at Gettysburg, as to what Lee’s strategy was.

While the evidence Carhart presents is strong and well documented the shortcomings of the book are pretty noteworthy, too. Lee wrote very little about the Civil War after the fact (and what little he did say is all brought up in the course of the book) and none of it supports or disproves Carhart’s thesis. Further, many of Carhart’s suppositions are either unsupported by anything said or written by those present, contradict some of Lee’s other behaviors or don’t match the prevailing understanding of units and tactics of the day. It’s a sound work of historical supposition as it stands but it also can’t be proven one way or the other.

Sea of Thunder is a bit more reserved. As a study in leadership it’s a very careful book, examining the commanders in question mostly through what they’d written and what others had written or said about them. In particular, the book’s handling of the question of why Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita turned away from Leyte Gulf is exemplary. Thomas examines every possible explanation – he was tired, he was scared, he didn’t want to doom his ships and men uselessly, he felt there wasn’t enough information to press on, he believed saving the fleet was more important than his objectives – and weighs them in order from what seems least likely to what seems most likely. He cites the evidence that supports each supposition. But he never definitively says why Kurita left the battle. Kurita took that secret to the grave, and Thomas respected that fact.

Why is this important to fiction writers? The answer is simple. The methods historical scholars use to understand historical figures are the same methods you should use to understand your fictional characters. Well researched, thought out and written historical studies dig deep into the psychology, decision making and circumstances of the people they examine and the approaches they take can really help you dig into the minds of your own characters. Of course, you are making up the many factors that contribute to your character’s decisions and that can make things more difficult.

Too many authors warp circumstance or a character’s thoughts to fit their desires for a story’s plot, making for awkward and unsatisfying stories. Carefully analyzing your characters in the same way historical authors analyze historical figures can help you avoid these unsatisfying moments and write your characters more realistically and vividly. It may require you think over your stories and characters more. A lot more. But in the end the better outcomes will be worth it.

The heart of great fiction is verisimilitude. The more realistic your characters are in their emotions and decisions, the greater their sense of realism, and the more you can ground even the most fantastic story in your reader’s minds. Avail yourself of the fantastic resource that is well written history, and maybe even try your hand at writing some yourself. You can only grow from the effort.

The Dragon Prince’s Good Intentions Misfired

Obligatory spoiler warning for The Dragon Prince. In case you haven’t watched it yet.

I like Netflix’s The Dragon Prince. However, like so many shows aimed at young people, the show has a heart, a moral message it’s trying to convey. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. And I even mostly agree with the points Dragon Prince is trying to get across. However, the trick to telling a moral story is making sure the story you tell conveys the message you intend. Good intentions don’t mean much if they don’t get through to your audience. And unfortunately, The Dragon Prince falls down on this count not once, but twice. These aren’t central to the story or its primary moral message, but they do stand out in contrast to an otherwise well done narrative and wholesome morals, so it bears mentioning.

Let me address a bit of an elephant in the room first. Both of these points revolve around characters who are disabled. In our world disabilities are hindrances that can be overcome with some work and understanding from the people around you. That’s good, and I am glad whenever I see people succeeding in spite of their disabilities. But unfortunately disabilities are just that – a lack of certain abilities. Those shortcomings are real, and need to be made up for. To pretend they don’t is to insult all those in the world who suffer from them and the work they must put in to overcome them.

I am aware that The Dragon Prince exists in a world of magic and the supernatural, and these factors could somehow make up for these physical disabilities. However, not only would that undercut the point of putting these characters in as an example of how disabilities do not prevent full and satisfying lives, the fact is one of these characters is clearly not compensating via magic and the other is using magic that explicitly does not compensate for her disability.

Now I’m not making the point that you can’t put disabled characters in your stories, even in swashbuckling adventure stories. But you can’t simply write those characters like their disabilities don’t exist some or all of the time. And I’m afraid that’s what The Dragon Prince does.

Let’s start with Amaya.

Amaya is the maternal aunt of Callum and Ezran, princes of a human kingdom on the border between humans and the magical races of Xadia. She spends most of her time at a fortress guarding a pass between the kingdom and Xadia. Amaya is also deaf.

Now immediately one might think that Amaya is never written like she’s not deaf. After all, she communicates in sign language and has an interpreter who has to pass on most of what she says, right?

Yes, she conforms to the most basic stereotypes of a deaf person in a world of hearing people. However, it’s the way that she relates to her job that is the sticking point here. Amaya is presented as a formidable fighter, and I suppose in some contexts that’s entirely possible for deaf people. But here’s a secret – hearing is the only human sense that allows us to assess a situation in all directions at once and through obstacles. For a soldier who expects to be in a melee on the battlefield going without hearing is almost worse than going without sight.

In fact, there’s one fight where Amaya is facing an enemy in front of her and a door bursts open behind her and she reacts to the sound. That’s a horrible breach in the established rules of the story, but Amaya can’t be presented as a formidable warrior without it – meaning the writers made a mistake somewhere along the line.

Worse than that is just how useless a battlefield leader who can’t hear is. In medieval times, which The Dragon Prince is clearly modeled on, almost all battlefield communication revolved around loud noises, beginning with yelling and moving up the line rapidly to horns and drums. Without her hearing Amaya cannot hear spoken updates from her troops or pick up on long distance signals via trumpet or drum. And sign language doesn’t seem to be universally understood in Xadia so there’s always the risk she’ll get stuck with soldiers who can’t understand her. Yes, she can read lips and understand reports from anyone that way, assuming they aren’t coming from someone in a full, face covering helmet. Yes, she has an aide who interprets for her and who can hear signals from other parts of the army that aren’t in line of sight. But the fact is, that still leaves her effectiveness dependent of the safety and health of a single soldier, or perhaps a small group of them, that can understand her.

Amaya commands the most important defensive structure in the kingdom. It makes no sense to have the entire chain of command there entirely dependent on a small handful of soldiers who can understand her, and who have to relay any signals from a distance to her. There are a lot of work arounds you could implement for this. Signal flags, for example. But they are all fragile (what if the fortress is attacked at night?) and this is the most important point in the kingdom. You don’t leave weak points in its defense.

I have a lot of thoughts on how the character of Amaya could have been tweaked to leave the essentials in place – deaf woman, aunt to the two children, fearsome fighter – without these problems in play. But that’s not the point I’m getting at. The point is, disabled people sometimes have to face the fact that, while they could do a thing they want to do, they may not fit that role as well as someone who does not have their particular disability. Or the work arounds necessary for them to fill that role will leave them inherently less suited to it than someone else. The Dragon Prince presents all possible considerations that would rightfully present obstacles to Amaya being a general as magically being ignored by the world around her, and that’s a very stupid expectation to offer.

However, while Amaya might set a disabled viewer up for a disappointment that pales in comparison to Ava.

Ava is a wolf who lost a leg to a bear trap. Ava was rescued by a young girl named Ellis who was told by her parents they couldn’t afford keep the animal and if returned to the wild the wolves would shun Ava because she couldn’t keep up with them. Ellis ran away with Ava and climbed the nearby mountain, braving many strange and frightening things to stumble across a “miracle healer” who returned Ava’s leg to normal. Only it turns out the miracle healer did no such thing.

In truth the “healer” was an illusionist who made it appear that Ava had a healthy leg, so people would be more “accepting”. Ava always had only three legs, she just needed the people around her to be comfortable with her in order to get by, so the illusionist obliged her.

This is colossally stupid. It doesn’t make any sense for Ellis’ parents to keep a healthy wolf but not a sickly one – if they couldn’t afford one they certainly couldn’t afford the other. It’s stupid, and worse, destructive, to create the illusion that when a child’s parents say “no” to something because the family cannot afford it it’s actually because the parents are uncomfortable with it. Children negotiate with this premise all the time (I know I did) but it only leads to tension in the family as parents get frustrated with their children’s pestering and the child builds distrust of parents. Not a good message.

Further, Ava carries two people on her back at times, as well as scrambling up rocks and ledges, as if she had two functioning front legs. Let me stress, the illusion created for Ava only looked and felt real – it wasn’t actually there. In which case, Ava acting like a normal wolf is stupid.

But the worst part of this is, it gives disabled children the impression that all they have to do to fit in is act like they aren’t disabled. No matter how much stress and pain this might cause them. Bottle it up. Pretend it’s not there.

Congratulations, Dragon Prince. You’ve contradicted your own point.

Again, disabled people are not less than healthy people, any more than someone with the flu is less than a healthy person. But their disabilities do have fundamental impacts on how they interact with the world. If you’re going to write fiction that includes these people you must. Must. Must. Be true to life in how these shortcomings will impact them, or you’re doing more harm than good. The Dragon Prince tried, but I’m not sure it managed. This time. Hopefully the writers can recover and do better in the future.

The Tragedy of Kanye West

Wait! Wait! Come back! This is about writing, I promise!

We’re going to talk about writing in the context of Kanye West.

Come back! Please!

Okay, joking aside, I do want to talk about writing and it’s going to be that rarest of posts ’round these parts, the topical post. Those who pay some scant attention to politics may be aware that the popular rapper Kanye West has taken to the political arena in the last few months, an interesting and unusual direction for him. My purpose is not to break down the content of his political commentary, which primarily consisted of encouraging free thought and questioning of accepted beliefs (fairly benign messages), but rather the error he made in his approach.

Kanye’s biggest mistake proved to be his failure to analyze his audience. This resulted in his message getting lost in signal noise and ultimately jumbled with the statements of people around him, whether he agreed with them or not.

Mandatory disclaimer time. I don’t know much about Kanye West – not a fan of rap in general, don’t watch reality TV, not really in to celebrities. Before his entry in to the political arena, which does interest me, I only knew that he cut Taylor Swift off at the Grammys that one time. People who have followed West’s career for a while agree that diving head first in to a new realm of discussion with strong opinions already in place is not unusual behavior for the man, so I’m going to assume Kanye approached making commentary on politics the way he’s approached every other piece of commentary he’s made in his life.

Most musicians start building hype through a press release and reaching out to one or two trusted media venues, then follow up any further press interest they get as they continue to try and network to better and better platforms. They rely on the press as their primary audience, building hype and enthusiasm via straight forward discussion of their newest work and the artistic process and their excitement at the outcomes. This is a pattern Kanye lives in quite well, from what I’ve seen he’s a charismatic man and speaks with great force and passion, and he rolls with punches splendidly, even turning hostile questioning to his own advantage.

The problem is that, in the early stages of this process Kanye has probably grown used to working with the music press. Musicians and music press have a mutually beneficial interest in making sure the public at large is enthusiastic about a musician’s upcoming work. This can take many forms but the press is rarely interested in dampening down what the artist is trying to say – the art is at the center of that kind of press after all.

Political press is a much, much different beast. Political press is always spinning, and rarely with any concern for how what was originally said was intended. It’s instructive how much of what President Trump has said to the public has come through venues he has complete control over – Twitter, the Press Secretary, rallies – and how much what he has said in those venues has still been spun all over the place on both sides. Very noncommittal statements on the subject of, say, North Korea have been spun as everything from threats of war to declarations of a new age of peace.

While Donald Trump is not as charismatic as Kanye, he has a station on popular culture that is older and more pervasive and he has shrewdly used that to trumpet his messages directly to the public as often as possible, bypassing the spin machine as much as possible. He knew the media was an audience hostile to him and, while he couldn’t remove their power he could dilute it by asking people who they would rather believe – the press or Trump. That’s not a great strategy for cultural cohesion but it is an excellent strategy for getting your message through clearly.

Kanye was used to being a straight shooter with people who had no need to spin. He didn’t know this new audience as well as Trump and so he thought he could simply get up and talk about how enthused he was to see long time rap icon Donald Trump as president and how proud and excited that made him feel about his country. He made some statements on Twitter, a few public appearances, and finally an interview on TMZ. But by that point the spin was in full effect.

Kanye was a traitor who was becoming a Republican! Kanye was a full MAGA guy and that was great! Kanye wanted all black people to vote Trump! Kanye didn’t know anything about being black! From celebrated writers like Ta Naeisi Coats at the Atlantic to staff contributors at The Gateway Pundit, everyone had a spin and no one really cared what the crafted message of Kanye West was. They just needed his name to boost their own messages.

After months of this it’s not surprising that Kanye doing a personal favor for a friend on the opposite side of the political aisle would be misconstrued as endorsement for a political movement he had no interest in. The “Blexit” movement, about black people stepping away from the Democratic party in favor of the Republicans, is naturally a poor fit for a man who wants to question everything and wants others to do the same. It’s not surprising Kanye would throw up his hands and walk away from politics after being pushed into yet another box by the political press.

But at this point he really should have expected it. The sad fact is, people who will listen to art and get hyped for its message frequently don’t want to listen to political messages or question them to see if they’re really what they claim to be. Most political press outlets have a vested interest in catering to that desire by spinning the news, or at least their opinion pieces on the news. And almost any reporting on someone like Kanye is bound to be 99% opinion. It’s a very different environment from an industry press like Kanye would be used to.

For all his personal charisma, powerful personality and worthwhile message, Kanye approached his foray into politics as a musician with something to say, rather than as a politician with an agenda to push. That mistake in technique, that failure to understand his audience, let him loose control of his messaging and become a political figurehead for anyone who wanted him for a short period of time. Now he’s turned back to creative work, where his skills will doubtless show much more return. And, if he’s shrewd, he can still put his message forward if he wants.

It’s very tempting to think that just because you’ve become good communicating in one medium or to one audience that you can communicate in any medium or to any audience. This is naïve. That audience is not this audience, it’s not yours until you understand it well enough to make it yours. Each medium, each audience, must be carefully examined, all preconceived notions questioned, all trusted approaches doubted, until they are thoroughly understood. Do it and hopefully you won’t come up short in the final reckoning. Take that to heart and maybe a little of Kanye’s message will have gotten through in the end.

Politics and Publishing

We live in a world where politics seems to have invaded everything. It’s not healthy to have contentious debates about the direction we want our society to take dominate everything from sports and entertainment to religion and philosophy. There needs to be venues where people can come together and appreciate the common human experience without refighting the political battles of the day. At the same time, the places best suited to providing these neutral forums also has the greatest potential to impact the political arena.

Entertainment and religion can powerfully shape the way we view the world, especially with undiscerning audiences, and that makes them a big target for people who want to gain political power beginning in arenas outside the political. Most people’s political beliefs are shaped by their sense of what’s moral or beneficial after all. And, particularly in the case of religion or philosophy, one almost expects political beliefs to be influenced by other parts of life.

Thus entertainment has most commonly been regarded as the appropriate apolitical arena. Sports teams gave people a cause to rally around and a forum for camaraderie which had nothing to do with the intricacies of public policy, novels and movies created a shared mythos where politics could play a part but were often kept as distant metaphors or subtle themes by the best writers. Unfortunately, beginning sometime in the 1950s, ideology began to gain traction in entertainment as well. For the purposes of this forum, the influence of politics on publishing is what interests us most.

Some political publishing was inevitable, but most of it focused on news and commentary, not entertainment. And, until recently, there was still a wide offering of apolitical entertainment if you desired it. But that offering has grown slimmer and less accessible for some time, until we’ve reached a point where it’s almost nonexistent in some mediums or genres.

Enter Comicsgate.

Like most mediums, American comics had enjoyed a low political presence for a long time. But the thumbscrews were building through the early 2000s and apolitical content got pushed out. Soon any contributors who disagreed with the prevailing political ideology in comics was under pressure to keep quiet or conform. By about 2015 artists and writers were starting to loose work just because of their views. Come 2017 Comicsgate, a strange backlash against political purity testing and storytelling in the comics industry, had arisen and was enraging the old guard with their irreverence towards the people running the mainstream and their willingness to throw down shibboleths.

Comicsgate spends most of their time condemning political maneuvering in the industry and tsking over subpar product that has resulted from what they view as an overemphasis on political correctness and an underemphasis on good storytelling and art. The mainstream accuses them of bigotry and envy.

The conflict between old guard and rebels came to a head in May of 2018 when one of the figureheads of Comicsgate, one Richard C. Meyer, wrapped up an Indegogo campaign to create his own independent comic and announced that it would be published through a company called Antarctic Press. Upset, comic book veteran Mark Waid announced his disappointment on his public social media platforms and contacted Antarctic Press directly. What followed were a couple of harrowing days for the owners of Antarctic Press as they state they were contacted repeatedly, not just via the Antarctic offices but at their day jobs, by people angry at their collaboration with Meyer. Eventually Antarctic canceled their contract with Meyer and forced him to find his own methods of printing and distributing the book.

Now Meyer is suing Waid for tortuous interference with his contract.

Full disclosure. I’ve praised the work of Mark Waid on this blog in several places, including here, here and here. I think he can be a great writer, capable of writing great stories that bring people together with the power of the shared human experience. I also rather like Richard Meyer’s work as a comic book critic and I backed one of his Indegogo projects (although not the one that was through Antarctic Press). I also find Waid’s behavior in this case thuggish and egotistical. So what now?

There was an interesting article by another independent comic creator, Jon del Arroz, who addressed this exact question on his own blog. You can read it here. He makes several great points in this. Both sides are appealing to their fans to raise money for their legal defense funds. The money spent in this way isn’t really helping anyone but the lawyers, and it’s certainly not helping the comic industry, which is struggling. (And before you bring up the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s important to point out that the Marvel film studio and comic line are administratively and – more importantly – financially independent.) And Comicsgate has spent a lot of time talking about this lawsuit like it’s a great victory, which it clearly isn’t.

At the same time, Arroz make’s one major mistake in his analysis of this situation.

See, he seems to think that this lawsuit has somehow made Comicsgate political, and ruined its ability to say it’s a movement about apolitical entertainment. I disagree.

First, Comicsgate does have a majority of what Americans would consider moderate to far right wing figures in it, including Meyer himself, as well as figures like Ethan Van Sciver, Doug Ernst and Doug TenNapel. However, it has a lot of moderate left wingers as well, like Nasser Rabadi and Donal DeLay. But all these people are committed to apolitical storytelling. That lets them put their differences aside and help each other with the craft of comics while still enjoying their policy disagreements.

At the same time, getting a comic published is a business. Business is not entertainment, it is very political and it has to be. If Waid is, in fact, guilty of interfering in business in an illegal fashion then it is not only appropriate but, from the business perspective, necessary to respond in a legal fashion. Any good business lawyer will tell you that every time you pass on your business rights your ability to stand up for them in the future is diminished. Further, if Comicsgate or some part thereof does intend to transform from a loose collection of critics to a new part of their industry they have to make it clear to the old guard that they cannot be harassed out of the business. Meyer seems to understand this, as he made clearish in his long but rambling explanation of why he sued Waid in the first place (at the time of this writing the video where Meyer explains his reasoning is no longer available, perhaps because he has removed it at the advice of his legal team). For Meyer’s business ambitions to play out, he has to take part in the legal/political side of business or basically admit he’s been run out of the industry.

All this being true… I’m not enamored of the idea of this suit being funded by the fans of an industry – on either side – much less the amount of haymaking and fundraising that’s gone on around it. (For this reason I’m not linking to the fundraising pages for either side of the suit.) It only fuels the kind of division that entertainment was originally supposed to help us bridge.

Long time readers of this blog know I like to examine the publishing industry from time to time and try and draw lessons for myself and other aspiring writers from it. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can glean from this other than the obvious: Straighten up and prepare for a long slog. Even if you have a good product others want, it seems that might not be enough. There’s a lot of opportunities out there for us, but in changing times the old guard might not give way easily.