Thursday, May 4, 2017

Forty Years Of Star Wars

Hey! Heyheyhey! Whaaaaat daaaaaay is iiiiit?!
It's May 4th, and every Star Wars fan knows what day it is. As I write this, the main title for A New Hope is dancing through the air from my computer speakers. I haven't posted lately due to a number of contributing factors united against me under the banner of "Real Life". Needless to say, I've fought my way through them with some help from my friends and family to get here.

Star Wars is one of those few things in life that really make me happy and excited. I was three years old when the first movie came out. I had no idea what it was except that I really liked it for all the flashy, whooshy action that it was. My first action figures were C-3P0 and R2-D2, quickly followed by Luke and the rest of the cast.

Over the years, Star Wars became this idealistic farm kid's escape from the lonely life of an only child. Living on a northwestern Iowa farm with no siblings, unable to engage in any farm work due to allergies and asthma, made things difficult. George Lucas' universe provided me with a place where I could be the hero, first by pretending I was Luke or Han, and later heroes of my own creation, thanks to Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game.

Over the years, I collected the comic books, novels, toys, and any other memorabilia I could. I have vague recollections of seeing the vilified 1978 Christmas Special as a kid and was (and still remain) a fan of the two made-for-TV ewok movies and the Droids cartoon series. By 1987, with no Episode VII on the horizon, the franchise slowed down. Marvel's Star Wars comic series had ended the year before, and so it seemed that Star Wars was in the dusk of its lifespan. I still held the faith and occasionally created dioramas with my figures and vehicles, but other franchises - Star Trek, for example (Hey, don't judge me! I'm an equal opportunity nerd!) were basking in equal portions of my adoration and attention.

Thirty years ago, a starry-eyed 13-year old came across this book in his favorite bookstore...
In the fall of 1987, I was perusing the shelves of my favorite (and first) bookstore (The Bookseller, in Cherokee, IA), hunting down the latest issue of Dragon Magazine, when a familiar title caught my gaze. I had already been inducted into the ranks of tabletop gaming through a second-hand (Moldvay) Basic D&D set and, ironically enough, had tried my hand at designing my own version of Star Wars using the D&D rules.

Ironic, isn't it? This came out 25 years (2011) after I tried unsuccessfully to make my own version.
I was enthralled with each page I flipped in the book. At the time, the satanic panic remained in full swing and gamers were still looked upon through squinty side-glances by peers and adults alike. Not even I was immune. Having pushed away from D&D after reading about the game's addictive qualities in Ian Livingstone's Dicing With Dragons, I was still trying to reconcile my faith and hobby.

The game hit all the right notes with me - it was an RPG without being D&D, it was Star Wars, and it used only the regular six-sided dice found in any board game. I cautiously approached my mom about it, and she said she would think about it. Meanwhile I had to keep my grades up and be on my best behavior. Christmas morning dawned two months later and I found the book under the tree as one of my presents.

Little did I know I had so much to look forward to. With the RPG breathing new life into the franchise, it wasn't until the summer after my junior year of high school when I ran across Timothy Zahn's book Heir to the Empire in a bookstore in Dallas, TX, while on a trip to the Lutheran Youth Gathering. I readily bought it and started in on it immediately upon returning to the hotel with my group. There were a few Star Wars fans among my peers at school, and of course, the big question were whether or not the Jedi Master on the dust jacket was Ben Kenobi (Spoiler Alert: It wasn't.) and who the guy with the blue skin and red eyes was.

Yeah, it definitely wasn't Ben Kenobi on the cover...
Despite Lucas' universe moving into a dimension of conjecture and "what if?", I was satisfied that my itch was being scratched. By this time, I had broadened my geeky horizons to include comic books and was voraciously reading through Marvel's rebooted X-Men series. In February of 1992, as I was looking forward to getting out of high school and into college, I came across yet another surprise - Dark Empire. Zahn had yet to finish his trilogy and already they were looking farther ahead into the future of the universe! Initially awed and confused by the moody artwork, I hungrily devoured the third issue of the series and later got the first two issues for my birthday from my mom.

It just kept getting bigger and better...
More time passed and I was in college. West End Games' line went into a second edition and plunged headlong into the New Republic era, much to my displeasure. It was bad enough the second edition rulebook was a trainwreck, but I wanted more from the Rebellion Era than the New Republic. I even got flamed by one of the WEG folk online after I voiced that displeasure. By 1996, we had Dark Empire II (bleah), Tales of the Jedi, and a budding crop of other new Star Wars titles. Three years later, WEG lost the Star Wars license and Episode I was on the horizon.

I took my love of Star Wars to a whole new level by taking some vacation time from my first job as a reporter and sitting outside an area theater the whole day waiting for the first showing of Episode I. While I wasn't the first in line, I was certainly close enough to the door to guarantee a ticket for the show. It was shortly thereafter that I stumbled across the d20 edition of the Star Wars RPG, again, at my favorite bookstore. Having seen a number of settings and genres shoe-horned to fit the d20 system with introduction of the OGL, I had very mixed feelings. Nostalgia clashed with a desire to be up-to-date, but in the end, nostalgia won and I stuck with the d6 system. It didn't keep me from buying some of the d20 books to use as idea mines, though.

Tempting... but just not quite hitting the target like d6...
When Episode II came out, I was truly the first in line to see it on opening day. The Expanded Universe was growing at a breakneck pace, and with it came unforeseen complexities and complications. Authors found themselves navigating a womp rat trap of plot threads, character backgrounds, and historic events dating back to even before the Clone Wars. More time passed. I changed jobs and got married, but Star Wars remained a staple of my life.

Wizards of the Coast dropped the Star Wars license after the Saga Edition and the franchise continued to plow headlong through hyperspace. Disney bought Lucasfilm after George became fed up with the constant whining of butthurt fans who didn't like the prequels and a variety of other things in the EU. J.J. Abrams got his crack at Star Wars with Episode VII, and while he did earn some kudos from me for going back to practical effects rather than CGI, he still managed to earn a spot in Special Hell right next to R.A. Salvatore (for obvious reasons most fans are aware of).

On the bright side, Dave Filoni and his crew did an amazing job in cleaning up the canon and greatly simplifying the universe by relegating the Expanded Universe to the status of "Legends". While this brought about a new chorus of complaining and crying from some quarters, I myself welcomed it. It is George's (and now Disney's) sandbox, folks. We're allowed to play in and enjoy it by the grace of their generosity. The Clone Wars and Rebels series as well as Rogue One have helped to sustain and reinvent my interest in the franchise without taking away from the nostalgia from my childhood.

This renewed vigor, brought about a new generation of Star Wars tabletop gaming as that aspect of the franchise hit the 30-year mark. While I'm not exactly enamored with the new system and can't see myself spending $180.00 plus for the new books, I'm glad we still have Star Wars tabletop gaming. On the Dark Side, I do confess that I am terribly tempted by the X-Wing and Armada minis...

The next generation of Star Wars roleplaying.
Despite all this nostalgia and celebration of the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, it comes with a sad, terrible price. Authors, fans, and even the cast themselves pass away. Over the years we've lost Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Carrie Fisher, Kenny Baker (and his wife), and a number of others who I can't even begin to name. I would be remiss if I did not bring that up. Still, Star Wars thrives and lives on in each new generation of fans.

To close on a high note, here's some links to the 2017 Celebration panels. These brought me great joy as I began to come out of the fog I was recently in, reminding me there is much good in the wider family of worldwide fandom despite my past experiences on the local level. May the Fourth - and the Force - be with you all.