Star Wars fans are a tactile breed. We are not content simply to watch the movies. We want to own a piece of the universe. Hold a light-saber in our hands, hang TIE-Fighters from the ceiling and pose action figures on our shelves.
Tonight I will see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a film that we’ve been promised is by the fans for the fans. The strongest indication that this is true is the fact that the film itself appears to have a strong motif of collecting. Three of the most popular Star Wars toys are Millennium Falcon models, Darth Vader’s mask and of course lightsabers. In the trailer for the new film, we see three young characters literally collecting these items. Villain Kylo Ren has collected his hero Darth Vader’s original mask, and displays it in a case that looks like something Sideshow Collectibles would sell. We see Finn collecting what appears to be the Skywalker family lightsaber, a literal and figurative passing of the torch to the new generation. And finally we see Rey taking command of the Millennium Falcon a ship that may or may not run in her family. Rey asks about the “stories” of what happened during the original trilogy. Han Solo tells her that it’s all true. The meta-message is clear. Star Wars is real, and it’s back in a big way.
I was born in the dark times between Return of the Jedi and the Special Edition, when the Star Wars saga was very much like the Jedi Order — a revered tradition that had gone nearly extinct. A once-proud cultural touchstone that had become a mysterious whisper among those who still honored it. Like the conversation between Rey and Han hints at, the story of the Star Wars saga was shrouded in mystery.
Sure, the films remained popular on home video, but it was nothing like the frenzy of late seventies and early eighties, the mega-hype leading up to Episode I or the insanity we are now experiencing in advance of Episode VII. Believe it or not, you couldn’t just walk into a store and buy Star Wars toys. They were relics, fading, broken, dirtied and hidden in the closets and garages of once-enthusiastic Gen-Xrs who had gone off to college.
By the late eighties, most of my friends were collecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joes, Transformers and all of the popular toys of my childhood. But my parents were too cheap to buy me the new stuff and instead my mom and I trolled garage sales on summer afternoons, picking up old Star Wars junk. By the early nineties, the rarity of Star Wars toys made them sought-after items that I could literally only find in antique stores. Boy was my grandmother delighted about how enthusiastic I was to spend whole weekends wandering through small towns in Northern California looking for antique furniture and action figures. I’ll never forget the day that my Grandma Jean bought me my first Han Solo action figure, a battered and paint-chipped little figure sitting alone on a shelf. I’ll certainly never forget the time I was on vacation with my family and spotted a vintage Darth Vader in an antique store. Luckily I had some of my Channukah money left over and I was able to buy it. My first Star Wars purchase. He and Han sit on my shelf to this day, some twenty-odd years later.
The rarest item, the one I could never find, was Boba Fett. Fett figures are a dime a dozen these days but back then he was near-impossible to hunt one down. My cousin Rusty however had TWO of them. One was in real bad shape, with mostly faded paint and pieces broken off of it. He promised he’d give me that shitty one for my birthday. And then when my birthday rolled around, he did the damnedest thing. He gave me the GOOD ONE. To this day, I think it’s the most generous thing anyone has ever done for me.
So from the earliest days of my fandom, Star Wars collecting was about family, generosity, gifts and sharing. The tradition lives on. When I first met my brother-in-law, he gave me a Star Wars action figure as something of a peace offering and sign of familial respect. It worked. On the third night of Channukah, my sister texted me that he had bought her a Darth Vader action figure. I texted back a picture of my fiancee clutching the stormtrooper plush toy I’d given her. When the entire family gathered last summer for my sister’s wedding, I pulled my Darth Vader head filled with action figures out of storage. The family took all of the figures out, placed them on the table and took a walk down memory lane, remembering how we acquired them all.
I’m reminded of the scene between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars film. Kenobi passes on a very special collector’s item to his new protegee, his father Anakin’s lightsaber. Of course, the toy version is leaning against my desk. I hope someday I’ll be able to pass this down to my son or daughter, when they’re old enough.