In honour of the 35th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, below is the prologue to my forthcoming book, A Long Time Ago: Growing Up With And Out Of Star Wars. The book will be published on 21 August 2012. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook to learn more.
PROLOGUE: STARING AT SKYWALKER
I remove a heavy diaper from around my son’s waist. It is the environmentally friendly kind—biodegradable, with a reusable liner and cloth portion, as expensive as it is ineffective. Before our daughter was born my wife and I had strong feelings about the subject. But Beatrice is two and half now, Zachary is ten weeks, and I am well past caring about diapers in landfills. I put on a proper diaper. I will make up the environmental damage elsewhere. I’ll decline plastic cutlery when I buy lunch.
Oblivious of landfills and cutlery, Zachary stares at the picture hanging on the wall above his change table. He has been looking at it for a few weeks now—about as long as he has been physically capable of focusing on anything. Every diaper change, he studies the comicbook colours, the human—or at least humanoid—forms, the joined up lettering that is nothing like handwriting. He does not know what he is seeing, except perhaps that it is what his sister calls Skywalker. Every diaper change, Zach contemplates Skywalker.
He is looking at six Marvel Star Wars comics, arranged three by two on a sky blue matte and framed under glass. I got the idea about ten years ago while watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The man at the art shop offered me museum quality glass but it was more expensive and I had duplicates of these issues. When they faded I would replace them from my collection, or pick up more from the comic book shop. No one seemed to want them anymore anyway.
Not that Star Wars had quit being popular. “Popular” is too mild a word. Star Wars was then and remains now the ubiquitous moneychurning steamrolling blockbuster entertainment phenomenon of modern times. But Marvel Star Wars comics were not that kind of Star Wars. Looking at these comic books, especially the early ones, children who learned about Darth Maul before Darth Vader would not know if they were Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. They are beyond outmoded; they are antiquarian. And that, in part, is why I framed them and hung the resulting piece prominently on one of the only four walls in my bachelor apartment a decade ago. Also because I thought it was funny. Probably also because it was cool in the “retro” way that was becoming fashionable at the time. But what I liked most about my framed Marvel Star Wars comics was the contrast between them and the Star Wars that had come since. At a time when the “prequels” were playing in theatres to packed houses and critical scorn, this was the Star Wars of my childhood.
That is not as naïve as it sounds. I am not suggesting that there was a time when a movie called Star Wars appeared in cinemas unsullied by ad men and marketing campaigns. I know that Star Wars was never free of exuberant commercialization, principally in the form of rampant product tie-ins; as a boy I literally bathed in them. But in retrospect there are differences. The Star Wars of my childhood, from 1977 to about 1985, had at times an awkwardness, even a clumsiness, about it that is now entirely gone. Like its biggest fans, Star Wars then was young and new.
Star Wars—the movie, the sequels, the toys, the books, the trading cards, the comics, the arcade games, the galaxy of myths and merchandise—dominated my youth. In this I am the same as so many other boys I knew then, and so many men I know today. It is a common reference point for my gender and generation. Yet there was a time before Star Wars, and I was born into it. When I first saw the film, at a long-gone drive-in theatre in Penticton, British Columbia, sitting in the back seat of a station wagon my father borrowed from the car dealership he worked at, as I watched the opening words float across the giant screen unable to read them but thrilled by their movement, as the exhilarating score filled the car through clumsy, tinny speakers hanging off the rolled-down front windows, as all this washed over me for the very first time, I had no idea what was coming. I did not know about lightsabers or stormtroopers or jawas or droids. Nobody did.
Watching my son stare at Skywalker while I change his diaper it occurs to me that for him it will be completely different. Whatever attraction it may hold for him, Star Wars will not come with surprise or wonder or astonishment. It will be a part of his cultural horizon before he even sees the films. It will be like the picture on his bedroom wall—a furnishing. Reflecting on this, I think for a moment that I should take the picture down. But it would not help. Star Wars is everywhere.
If you ask its original fans, meaning me and the millions of others around the world, mostly men, who grew up with it, Star Wars has lost its way. I do not know anyone in his late 30s or early 40s who feels much attachment to Star Wars as it re-emerged in 1999 with The Phantom Menace. On the contrary, complaining about the detested prequels has become as much a part of the Star Wars experience for my generation today as raving about the original films was when we were ten-year-olds. But whether Star Wars has gone off the rails or not, it remains a runaway train that shows no signs of stopping. If it does keep going, and maybe even if it does not, some account of the phenomenon should be attempted—not just by critics or industry insiders but by those of us who made Star Wars what it is today. Some description of its appeal—initially as a film but quickly thereafter as a pop culture phenomenon—should be offered to the parents, wives, sisters and now the children of this first Star Wars generation.
I am as qualified to give such an account as anyone, although I do not claim to be the world’s biggest Star Wars fan. I cannot recite any of the films from memory, though I do have quite a few of the lines down. I do not have an especially large or valuable collection of Star Wars memorabilia, but there are six boxes of toys and collectibles, most worn from use, carefully stored away in my basement. I cannot bring myself to part with them. I have never attended any sort of convention or Star-Wars-themed social event. I did dress up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween in 2003, but that was as much laziness as ardour; it makes a pretty easy costume if you have a lightsaber (I did) and a karate jacket (which I borrowed). If I am qualified to give an account of Star Wars’s youth, it is because I shared it with my own. I offer myself not as an expert but as a participant and eyewitness.
The Star Wars phenomenon cannot be explained entirely by the quality of the films. In saying so I am not disparaging the original trilogy. Star Wars regularly appears on film critic lists, often standing out amongst more intellectual or literary entries. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi do not always receive the same treatment, but all three films are nonetheless marvellous instances of cinematic storytelling. But there must be something more to Star Wars. People do not dress up as Citizen Kane characters on Halloween. Children do not ask their parents for Lawrence of Arabia action figures for Christmas. Lego does not sell La Dolce Vita playsets. These comparisons may seem facile but they underscore the extent to which Star Wars has imposed itself upon our culture in a way that other successful or highly regarded films have not. Clearly the massive marketing edifice that grew up in response to the staggering commercial success of Star Wars is part of the explanation for the Star Wars phenomenon. But it can only be part. Dozens of so-called blockbuster movies are released every year, supported by enormous promotional campaigns flooding media outlets, fast food restaurants and toy stores with advertisements and product tie-ins. Yet even those that are considered successful do not come close to penetrating popular culture the way Star Wars has.
So what is it? What is it about Star Wars that left such an imprint on me and my generation, particularly its boys? How did a film become a phenomenon? In the pages that follow I attempt, from time to time, some explanation. But ultimately the only account I can give of Star Wars is a personal one. It starts as a four-year-old. It is inextricably bound up in my particular experiences: my home town, my sister, my grandparents, my best friend, my adolescence and young adulthood. Despite its worldwide notoriety, Star Wars is in many ways a private matter for me.
This book therefore takes the form of a memoir, with personalities and incidents peculiar to my experience. But I am far from being the only person who could tell such a story. Despite the commonplace depiction of Star Wars today as a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ interest—what do those words mean anymore in a world where formerly marginal interests like computing and science fiction have gone entirely mainstream?—the original three films swept up, in varying degrees, children of all kinds, all over the world. While the details are my own, an entire generation of Star-Wars-mad boys, now entering middle age, lived this story’s broad outlines.