This post will be the first entry of an ongoing series I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. Whenever I talk to people about Star Wars, I get passionate. What fan doesn’t, right? Star Wars is personal to those of us who get caught up in the whirlwind of adventure. It’s why it’s consistently the most scrutinized movie on the planet. It’s why it’s the number one topic on search engines, and why websites consistently use it as link bait. It’s why… well, as Master Yoda would say, “There is no why.” Star Wars is a cultural juggernaut. To that end, virtually everything that can be told about the Saga has been told by people who are just as passionate or more so than I am, and often smarter. You want to know about the history of the Saga? The hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell? The scores of John Williams? Ring theory? Anything you can possibly want to know, it’s out there for the asking. I may touch upon some of it here and there, but ultimately I can add nothing to any of that. All I can add is my own personal journey and perspective. As Star Wars heads into its 40th anniversary, I can look back to the very beginning and say with pride, “I was there.”
I tell anyone who’ll listen that seeing Star Wars on opening day was my first memory of life. That’s not entirely true. It’s my first clear memory of life. There are snippets of memory before that. Grasping at them is like trying to grasp a last bit of evanescence while you’re alarm clock screams in your ear. I have some recall of things like Sock ‘Em Boppers, Bozo the Clown, and Geoffrey the Toys R Us giraffe. I have clear memories of other toys I’d had after Star Wars that I know held sentimental value before that movie opened, such as a Winnie the Pooh plushy that was missing its shirt and all but one corner of its mouth. I could tell you about Captain Lazer or the Micronauts or the Mickey Mouse Club. But these things are only so much vapor at this point in the story. I can’t really tell you if I actually remember these things from before Star Wars, or if I re-remembered them after the fact because they were still there when my imagination was fired into high gear. The mind is a bit tricky like that sometimes. All I know for certain is that at three years old, my memory was hardcoded with a sense of awe that harnessed sight, sound, and every capacity for wonder and fear I possessed. At three years old, this was my first defined memory…
As Darth Vader strode onto the screen and into the collective consciousness of pop culture, I took my first steps into a larger world. I could have no idea that the Galaxy Far, Far Away would propel me on a journey of discovery that would continue to this day and beyond, through every subject, discipline, and interest I’ve encountered since.
I’m not entirely sure where or how I got this idea in my head, but I practically browbeat my parents as only a three-year-old can that I wanted a Darth Vader action figure. I lived and breathed for this idea. It was my first obsession. For as little screen time as the Dark Lord actually has in that first film, his presence looms over the whole of it, and we all know the impact he made. To this day I’m at a loss to explain why he had that effect on me. What I do know is that it began this crazy love I have for movie monsters and for classic heroes and villains, without really understanding any of what that meant.
Christmas 1977 rolled around. This is the one time of the year when you were virtually guaranteed to get that little thing you wanted most. Every kid knows this. You may not get everything, but that one little thing is in reach. You visit Santa, you tell him what you want, and it’s there for you on the big day. Not this year. No Vader action figure was forthcoming. I was disappointed, but since my birthday is a mere eight days later, I considered that there was opportunity for it to still happen. It didn’t.
What I couldn’t know at the time is that Kenner was ill-equipped to keep up with the demand because nobody expected it to be this giant thing, and the toys weren’t yet ready. Kenner released an “early bird” promotion, which was basically an empty box showcasing those original twelve figures and a promise.
Today, this thing is a collector’s white whale. No, I didn’t have it. I didn’t even see one until well after Return of the Jedi had come and gone. One of my Dad’s co-workers had one and showed it to me. Suffice it to say, disappointment turned to anger, and anger became determination. Somehow, one way or another, I was going to have a Darth Vader action figure.
My parents opted in for next-level geekery. At the time, Lucasfilm was keeping the spirit of the film alive so they could sell those toys when they were finally released. To keep the fires warm, they hired locals and rented out licensed costumes so that the Star Wars characters could make public appearances at shopping malls or toy stores or wherever. My parents, desperate to give me anything that would finally shut me up, took me to the local Wal-Mart. I didn’t know what was going on. It was just another trip to the store for me. My assumption was to once more frantically search those shelves for Darth Vader. Little did I know…
When we got there, there was a line wrapped around the store. I had no idea what was going on, but there were people filing out of the store and circling around to find the end of the line. And we got in it. Have you ever been in a line so long that it would test the patience of a Buddhist monk? I think we all have at one time or another. Ever tried to get a toddler to stand still that long? Surprisingly, the line moved rather quickly, and eventually we made it to the front door. I remember the following. The line inside the door snaked throughout the store. It ended in the center of the store with the electronics department. The electronics department was cordoned off with floor to ceiling dark blue curtains. And there was a familiar sound emanating from the store’s loud speaker system. I remember this like it was yesterday. I looked at Dad, and he was trying to contain a big grin, then I looked at Mom, and she smiled and confirmed that, yes indeed, Darth Vader was in the building. I was going to meet him. Me.
Perception of time distorts, and I don’t remember a thing about the line after that. I’m sure it felt like days at the time. All I know is they had the reveal on this perfectly done. From any point in the store, you couldn’t see Vader at all, not until it was your turn to meet him. Or maybe that’s just because I was too short to see anything. When we made it to electronics, it was a sharp right turn up some stairs to a platform that was as high as my Dad’s head. He’s a hair under six feet, so put that into perspective from a four year old. I was awkward as can be, so I had to look at the stairs to climb them, but I remember taking only one step up before I dared to look. The Dark Lord of the Sith towered at the top of the stairs with his back turned to me. Then he turned and loomed over me. His cape billowed out just so, and my eyes fixated on the lightsaber at his belt. I knew what that thing could do. I knew what the guy who owned it could do. Instinct took over. I turned to run and immediately ran face first into Dad.
What happened next is clouded by sheer terror. I remember the sound of that breath mask echoing in my ear and becoming really loud. I remember a gloved hand clasping my shoulder. And I remember being lifted. I don’t know to this day if Dad picked me up or if I was Force pulled or what. All I know is I found myself on that platform, on my knees before Darth Vader, screaming as only a toddler can do. “Please don’t kill me like you did Obi-Wan!” The concept of death had been imprinted into me, and the Grim Reaper had been replaced by the newer, scarier model who stood before me.
I don’t recall anything that happened after that. My next memory is sitting in the backseat of the car, hyperventilating. Mom asked me what was in my hand. I came back to my senses and realized I had a rolled-up piece of paper. She asked again, and I unrolled it.
My first autograph. My first Star Wars collectible. I still have it.
This escalated things. I’d met Darth Vader and lived to tell the tale. That could mean only one thing. He wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought! My quest for a Darth Vader action figure continued, and somewhere along the lines it went from “Darth Vader is my favorite character” to “Darth Vader is my hero.”
Grandma got involved after that, and while she meant well, she didn’t quite hit the mark. I wanted this:
She got me this:
My little mind expanded some that day. This most certainly wasn’t Darth Vader. Kind of similar, but no. I had no idea at the time who Ralph McQuarrie was, so I couldn’t know he was the guy who designed both Darth Vader and the Cylon centurion. I’d learn that later on. More importantly at the time, I had no idea what this was… but I wanted to find out. And that’s how I was introduced to Battlestar Galactica and a whole world of Star Wars knock-offs.
The obsession with Vader continued. By this point, the Star Wars figures had become quite prominent in stores. You could walk into Toys R Us, and they would have three full aisles from the front of the store to the back dedicated to Star Wars. One aisle would be for the figures, one aisle for the ships, and one aisle for pretty much anything else that didn’t fit into those two categories. It was a glorious sea of black and silver that dominated the toyscape until the mid-80s. Mom was determined to find me a new hero. Looking to keep the peace and find middle ground, Dad brought me my first Kenner figure. It wasn’t Vader.
The parental plan to redeem my soul before the Dark Side forever consumed my destiny was off to a good start. I was overjoyed to have this figure. It would become the first of many. It also meant Vader was needed. After all, who was Luke going to fight? After all, a hero’s worth is defined by the villain he faces, or so the storytelling axiom would tell me in later years. It wasn’t long after that before I did finally get Vader and a few others from that original line. It wasn’t enough for Mom, though. She paid attention to the fact that Vader seemed to win every encounter. Obi-Wan got beheaded in a duel. I didn’t plan this at all, but I remember being somewhat happy about it. Dad glued the head back on, so the figure had this weird plastic neck brace. And then the head fell off again, but the glue support was still there, so I could balance it. Vader could behead him again and again. (Side note: to this day, I have no idea whatever happened to Kenobi’s head, but that leftover glue on his neck is still there.)
This was when Mom decided I absolutely needed a new hero, one who could compete with presence and power of Vader. The local papers were advertising the new Superman movie, and Mom decided if it could work once, it could work again. So she painted the Man of Steel on my bedroom wall in a not-so-subtle attempt to brainwash me.
It had the desired effect. It didn’t decrease my love of Star Wars or my obsession with Darth Vader, but it did have the lasting effect Mom hoped it would. Superman became my new hero, and over time I’d eventually mark Christopher Reeve as a personal influence on my life. But 1980 rolled around, and The Empire Strikes Back just kicked things back into high gear on the Star Wars front. It wasn’t that I was fickle. It was more that I was coming home. As influential as the Man of Steel and many of his fellow heroes would become, even his might was as nothing next to the power of the Force. The Empire Strikes Back pulled me back in and held me there, even after the Dark Times set in, in that era between trilogies when there was no new Star Wars to be had. Something fundamental had taken hold of me because it was the right thing at the right time, and I was the right age to absorb it all.
It wasn’t just the movie that did it. The thing about Star Wars for my generation specifically is that we didn’t have the movies to watch on-demand for a long time. You saw them in the theater, as often as you could, and then they were gone until you were lucky enough for a theater here or there to show a re-release. I think this is why I’ve developed so many diverse interests, through my desire to relive the story of Star Wars as many ways as I could, through a variety of different means. The toys were but one touchstone, probably the most important one. Christmas 1981 and birthday 1982 saw the mother lode of Star Wars toys for me. I’ve still got most of those, including my most prized vehicle, the AT-AT walker. I know you’re surprised by that. But the point is, we didn’t have the entire Saga to memorize yet, or the means to do so, so we made up new stories with those figures. There were new adventures happening all the time, and at some point the heroes even started winning more of them. There were picture storybooks, stories on cassette, ViewMaster reels, filmstrip projectors, a handful of novels, comics, soundtrack albums… This last one is the one that ultimately stuck with me the most. A friend of mine had this album on record. I never did. By the time I could afford it, I learned a name that would define my love of music: John Williams. I found the soundtrack album to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while it wasn’t Star Wars, it was my in-road to music, to film scores, and to the work of the maestro. I managed to get a compilation of Star Wars music on cassette a bit later on, and eventually I acquired all of the Star Wars scores on CD.
There was one other important outlet in that time that had a profound influence on me. Every Sunday at 5 pm, I tuned into our local NPR station on AM radio.
To this day, I absolutely love full cast radio dramas. As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest medium ever. There is not a visual special effect out there that can compete with the power of the imagination. With the popularity of the radio version of The Empire Strikes Back, our local NPR later replayed the original Star Wars radio drama, which I didn’t know existed until that point. Years later, I’d get them on cassette when they finally released those alongside a version for Return of the Jedi, and years after that, I own them through Audible. Thanks to Star Wars, I tuned into radio more often and gained an introduction and appreciation for the golden age dramas and comedies from the 30s and 40s. In addition, once we finally had access to the original movies on videotape in the mid-80s, after the Trilogy ended and before we could afford to buy them (which I eventually did), I sat in the living room floor with a cassette recorder and recorded the audio off those movies. I remember it being a chore to stop things like the dog’s tags from rattling or pausing so Mom could run the vacuum cleaner or whatever. It’s insane to think about how often I played those tapes, learning every subtlety of sound. The specific timber and cadence of voices, the sound effects, the music… all of it. Total sonic immersion.
After Empire, I became a proud member of the official Star Wars Fan Club, which of course gave me a membership card, posters, stickers, some collector’s patches, etc. The thing I looked forward to most? Their newsletter, Bantha Tracks.
This two-sided tri-fold broadened my horizons so much. I got to know the actors behind the characters. I learned about modelmaking, stop-motion animation, blue-screen, matte painting, production design, storyboarding, sound design, costuming, and all manner of technical special effects. This is where I became part of the fandom anticipating and getting sneak peeks for the next Star Wars movie, in this case, Return of the Jedi… or as it was called at the time, Revenge of the Jedi. The name change would come a bit later; I’d discover that in the newsletter as well. And it wasn’t just Star Wars. Anything Lucasfilm or ILM touched, Bantha Tracks covered.
That’s how it all unfolded for me. With Star Wars came the love and the obsession with character. With The Empire Strikes Back came the onslaught of toys that would power my collecting habits. That film would draw me to the idea of storytelling, turn me on to the concept of reading for fun, introduce me to the concept of radio, and ignite my love of music, albeit tangentially through Indiana Jones because I had learned the name of the composer. With Return of the Jedi came the rush of fandom, the peek behind the curtain that would introduce me to special effects, sound, creature effects, and my desire to learn new things. All of these things are a part of who I am today. I am an original generation fan, quite literally raised on Star Wars. All of the things that inspired George Lucas and his team have in turn inspired me. My interests in history, mythology, monsters, sci-fi, fantasy, art, science, literature, music, spirituality, swordfighting… all of it finds its roots in Star Wars.
I see this same inspiration take hold in different ways with each successive generation. It bothers me to say it this way, but a vocal portion of my generation gave in to fear and hatred. Some were afraid to let it grow and evolve, preferring to somehow preserve it in amber. I was hooked on the prequels from the beginning, excited to finally see the Clone Wars era and the tale I’d always wanted to see — the rise of Darth Vader — not as we played it out with action figures, but as the Maker envisioned. The more that’s been added to the story, the more it adds to the original trilogy, making it stronger. I’ve always appreciated that. It’s my hope that this will always be the case. I’ve since been privileged to sit in a movie theater with young kids who were growing up on The Clone Wars at the time for a screening of The Empire Strikes Back. These kids didn’t know much about Darth Vader, but they absolutely knew about Anakin Skywalker. Say what you will, there is something surreal and satisfying about watching little kids freak out about “I am your father!” in the exact same way we did in 1980, but for an entirely different reason. That’s the kind of thing that allows older fans like myself reassess what we think we know and promotes the idea of younger fans looking back at things that have come from before their time. In that kind of moment, the love of Star Wars is the same.
In this new era where Disney owns Lucasfilm, we’re living in a time where Star Wars no longer has a foreseeable end point. It sounds dumb at first, but think about it. After Return of the Jedi, there were a couple of Ewoks movies and a couple of short-lived cartoon series, and then it pretty much dried up. No new content of any kind for years. In the 90s, we got a resurgence in the form of novels and comic books, but it wasn’t until the Special Editions and the prequels that Star Wars had really come back to us. Even then, there was end point. We all knew from the moment the prequels were announced that it would be over with Episode III. And then what? Nothing. Except that’s when The Clone Wars kicked into gear. That couldn’t last forever, and there were always nebulous rumors of a live action series that would take place during the Dark Times. Nothing really ever came of that though, beyond 50 some odd hours worth of script. Today, the story is going forward. We have Saga films after Jedi, we have anthology films that can jump around to anywhere, anytime, to be released between the Saga films. We have animation in the form of Rebels, with a series set in the new era on the horizon. We’ve got comics, books, video games, merchandise in all shapes and forms and price points. There are more people engaged with the story and characters than ever before. There are arguments and debates, certainly, but it all comes from a deep-seated love that ultimately brings more fans together, opening the way for hope to flourish. We discuss with anticipation the next projects on the horizon and the possibilities of what might lay beyond them. That energy penetrates us to our cores and binds us together as part of a greater whole. With each new chapter, we learn something new about the story, about its themes, and about ourselves. There are as many ways to learn about it and express our love of it as there are fans. That’s the power of Star Wars. That’s the power of the Force.