Updated: Feb 12
Here on the cusp of 2022, I sit on my couch as a man in his early thirties with Tom's name on a small collection of items that populate my bookshelf. Likewise to books there are video games and movies, including my favorite DVD copy of Hunt for Red October (in 4:3 aspect ratio, no less).
If you like works of art that include anything with the contemporary military, it would be pretty difficult to have avoided any material without a Clancy stamp on it. He's been endlessly ghost-written, both in his life and posthumously. Likewise, Ubisoft seems insatiable in the pursuit of making decisions with his IP that would cause him to turn in his grave so often that it would make a gas station hot dog dizzy.
The man's been on the scene since the 80's, and as we enter a fifth decade of releases that bear his mark we have discovered an era in which the "Tom sucks" counterculture is in full swing. In circles that like gun-guy fiction and reading in general, kids that grew up on video games developed well into the man's golden years are returning to the printed material of his prime and coming up with "hot takes" as unique and fresh as... well, a gas station hot dog.
Today, in a landscape where folks 10 years younger than myself are obsessed with Marvel, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, I have become inundated with posts about how tired everyone is of Tom Clancy.
Well, fuck that. And here's why.
Everyone Needs a Gateway
I'm a big huge music fan. I was a guitar tech at a store for a while, played in bands, wrote songs, the whole enchilada. I really, really enjoyed music. But I didn't jump right into my hard bop jazz taste from the first sound of a saxophone. I definitely didn't get my taste for mathcore from the first time I ever heard an odd time signature, either.
It took a lot of three and four chord riffs from radio songs in my bedroom as a teenager in order to get there. Just about everyone who loves Job for a Cowboy today was once a person that called anything with aggressive vocals 'screamo' at some point.
Maybe they don't conceptualize nor realize it, but there are a ton of sludge bands out there that owe a bit of gratitude to bands like Nirvana or Bush for paving the sonic path for folks to dig that sort of music on a wider scale. Even if a band would turn there nose up at post-grunge rock groups that hit the Top 40, it becomes eventually inescapable that most don't arrive at their genre lest they journey through another. People need that gateway.
Tom was not a character builder. He wrote about officers far more than enlisted men. He wrote about stereotype post-WWII people in a Cold War world. And he wrote ubiquitously about your kind of dude with a white, square jaw and cornfield moral principles.
Tom was never going to give you a protagonist that challenged much of what you knew about the world, but that sort of territory also saves one from tussling with the moral ambiguity of waterboarding and torture; something many other very American series novel characters utilize often. Sure, the latter stuff may make for a more compelling book, but also one that's harder to access to your inexperienced reader.
In the midst of writing this article, I'm passing back through a Tom novel for the first time since before I was 21 or so. His stuff is a lot more boring to me now, that's for sure. I do think he's best experienced as a kid, when most of your reading life is what is assigned to you at school. Or maybe later for someone who's just not a big reader, to finally sink their teeth into a genre they may end up falling in love with. There are 2 people at my work office who, in this very week, admitted to me they probably hadn't read a book since they were required to in high school. They're exactly our candidate readers.
That's the kind of person that needs a gateway. Likewise, for someone has never listened to jazz before, I'm not going to hit them with the fastest Wes Montgomery or the most improvised Chick Correa that are on my most-listened lists. Depending on how pedestrian their tastes are, they may even think that Dire Straits is damned jazz. To someone who doesn't read novels but likes shooting, Tom Clancy may be what they need so they can "get" the medium. Yeah, those of us a bit deeper into the pool than where the kiddos with floatie wings play may find it unevocative, but we're free to swim around the deep end without a lifeguard as much as we want. Considering we were all toddlers once, we'd be hypocrites to bemoan those in the kiddie pool. Everyone's got to learn to swim somehow.
Odds are, if you're reading this, you're a male between the ages of 16-40. I don't have any demo numbers on my analytics, but I think that's a safe bet. I doubt many women in their 50's are coming to read my thoughts on shoot-em-up movies.
Odd, then, are that you've played a Tom Clancy video game and enjoyed at least one of them. The dude's responsible to every Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, and Division game out there. If any iteration of any of these games has brought you entertainment... you're welcome, via Tom.
Sure, he probably didn't do much of the writing of any of them past launch, or maybe even at all, but having his name attached to it is a huge reason why the game got funding and why a player-base showed up to play with you. The Division was entirely done after Tom's passing, yet held his namesake. Imagine how much of a flop that game could have been without the Clancy tag, especially considering how different it was from other releases out there. But it wasn't a flop, far from it. It got great writing support and flourished after release in positive reviews that made their way around every major medium not only on its own merits, but because it was a venerated Tom Clancy title.
It's not unlike having John Madden's name on a football game. You've come know what to expect from that franchise, almost to the point where other football games need to "prove themselves" upon release in comparison.
If I were a developer I would love to work on a Clancy game. I'd know for a fact that I was going to have my work played and it was going to get its fair shot to succeed or sink. Not all of Tom's namesake games have been amazing, but there are more good ones than stinkers.
In a way, a Tom Clancy game is like seeing a McDonalds in a foreign land. Yeah, it's just a quarter-pounder with cheese, but you know you can rely on that quarter-pounder with cheese no matter where you're at.
All in all I do have a general distaste for counter-culture and contrarianism expressed just for the sake of it. Shooting games are a young person's arena, by and large, and that's a ripe time for bored and unengaged peeps to start lashing out at things from some vague and general biological urge.
Tom Clancy games are going to come up in the realm of shooter games because they're so ubiquitous. Anyone who's got a pretty good eye for a story will encounter the material and know that it's true airport material if ever there was airport material. And because they hadn't been alive for the prior three decades of Tom releasing books and professional reviewers already giving every thought in the world on Tom, the new kids launch their own perspective. One that's lighter on vocabulary and higher on blanket dismissiveness.
To say Tom's books are derivative and that his characters are uninspired is a 40 year old sentiment. It's just whatever. Yet they persist for a long time because, like McDonalds, everyone finds need for a quarter-pounder with cheese sometime.
Just the same, a vegan can bemoan the health effects of eating fast food. They can tell you about heart disease, about the murder of cows, about the preservatives in your gut. And you know they're right. But also, sometimes you're just in a hurry and you're going to get a fucking cheeseburger. Am I saying that making a specific effort to hate on Tom Clancy is like getting your undies in a bunch about people eating fast food occasionally?
You're not changing the world by telling me that fast food is bad. In fact, you're just being kind of annoying, and it's a brand of annoying we've all heard before.
For guns in fiction, Tom's done a damn lot for us. It may not have been Pulitzer material, but if you wanted to enjoy some media that included MP5's and RPG's, you've got plenty to be happy about seeing the light of day because of Tom's nod.
Yeah, he's popular. So is Metallica. And it may not be what dudes are super duper into the genre may call good, but it's something that newcomers can all sink their teeth into well enough that you'll get them on the path to the better stuff. Likewise, when you're on a road trip and at the mercy of local bumpkin radio; after you flip through all the church radio stations and garbage pop reruns, you'd find yourself plenty content to land on "Enter Sandman" for 3 minutes of that ride, wouldn't you?
As easy as it would be to criticize every last thing about McDonalds and Metallica, there would be a lot less of what you love without them. Tom's no different. Don't be a contrarian hater brat.