A Long Time Ago in a Family Room Far, Far Away …

I remember the first time I watched “Star Wars.” Sitting among the rows of white, plastic-shelled Disney movies and sing-a-long tapes that no doubt drove my parents slightly insane was the black-bound VHS boxed set of the original trilogy: “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” They were an alluring alternative compared to the brightly illustrated cartoons that I regularly watched. Summoning the courage, I asked my mom if I could watch one of them.

“Only if you watch them with Dad,” Mom said, still fighting to preserve my wide-eyed innocence.

So I waited impatiently until my dad came home from work. I asked him to watch it with me, and thankfully he agreed.

Oddly enough, I watched “Return of the Jedi” first. Sure, plot details were lost in my young mind, but I was enthralled as a small band of heroes triumphed over an intimidating Empire, two black-caped villains and a giant slug. There were laser guns, spaceships and the iconic lightsabers — everything my young heart could desire.

Over several viewings, I learned the names of these heroes and villains. I’ve watched the growth of Luke Skywalker from farm boy to Jedi, the romance between Princess Leia and Han Solo and the final redemption of Darth Vader more times than I can remember. The creator, George Lucas, became an idol along with his collaborators, including University alum Lawrence Kasdan, the writer of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”

The series remains a timeless, cultural landmark, even as it must withstand aging and a disappointing prequel trilogy. Now with Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, a new wave of “Star Wars” films approaches, beginning with the upcoming release of the seventh installment, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

An industry perspective

“The big thing everybody points to in ‘Star Wars’ is that it’s modern myth,” said Oliver Thornton, a Screen Arts and Cultures lecturer. “It’s a story, even when we teach screenwriting here at the University, that’s the universal point of reference that everybody knows. If you want to talk about the ‘Hero’s Journey,’ we can always say at the end of the day, 30-some years later that most students have that frame of reference of Luke Skywalker and that first basic journey he goes through.” 

Sitting down for an interview with the Daily, Thornton elaborated on the appeal of “Hero’s Journey,” outlined by Joseph Campbell.

“I think there’s just something about that story, about that basic hero of somebody who’s a nobody who ends up being a somebody and ends up heeding the call of adventure,” Thornton explained. “It’s universal and that’s why kids love it and why we continue to go to it.” 

On the sixth floor of North Quad — a few feet from Thornton’s room — is the office of fellow lecturer Dan Shere, who echoed Thornton’s statement in a separate interview.

“I think that George Lucas, in the originals especially, tapped into something very deep in the human psyche,” Shere said. “He created stories that are enduring precisely because they sort of follow this mythic structure. It follows the same story template you see from the Bible to Greek mythology and he put a new twist on it and infused that age-old template with this brilliant creativity of his.”

That creativity, according to Shere, spawns from the marrying of the fantastic future with the ancient past into something oddly recognizable.

“They gave us a vision,” Shere said. “Even though it’s a galaxy that’s far, far away, we’re dealing with futuristic technology, which is this incredible fantasy world. We as kids, and even adults, want to be able to get in a spaceship and zoom into a galaxy far away and yet the spaceship itself is really like an old, beat-up Chevy. The Millennium Falcon is both futuristic and cool, but also completely familiar because it’s always breaking down and Han Solo and Chewbacca always have their tools and are always working on it. So it’s at once forward looking and also completely familiar as this archetype, and I think that’s overall what the films did well.”

Shere’s career is closely intertwined with “Star Wars,” thanks to a short film made early in his career.

“The year, I believe, was 1999 and I was just freshly graduated from the University of Michigan,” Shere said. “I moved out to Los Angeles and lived with my good friend Joe Nussbaum, who had just graduated from USC film school, and he was an aspiring director and looking to get his start in the industry by making a short film, and he had a little bit of money saved away and was looking for an idea for a short film. So he and another friend came up with this idea, ‘George Lucas in Love.’ At the time in ’99 we were all anxiously awaiting the first of the prequels and then also ‘Shakespeare in Love’ had just won some awards, it was popular at the time. It just all kind of clicked and once he brought me that title, we sat together and kind of brainstormed a six, seven minute short film that would describe a young George Lucas in 1967 as a film student at USC trying to write his thesis screenplay and he’s got terrible writer’s block.”

Over the course of the film, a young Lucas draws inspiration from around his college campus, including a girl who “leads the student rebellion,” a pot-smoking roommate who rants about a mystical force and a guy who’s always trying to fix his Chevy with the help of his incredibly hairy friend, all of whom serve as predecessors to Lucas’ classic characters.

“We really crammed as many little ‘Star Wars’ references into seven minutes as we could and I think we did a pretty good job at it,” Shere said. "And definitely ‘Star Wars’ fans have appreciated it throughout the years.” 

Moving into his professional career, Shere drew inspiration from the series that captivated him at a young age, especially when working on the 2013 film “Epic.”

“I had this scene where the good guys steal the uniforms of the bad guys in order to infiltrate their evil lair,” Shere said. “And I was reminded really quickly by my friend, ‘Oh you mean just like how Han Solo and Luke dress up in Stormtrooper uniforms on the Death Star.’ Even something like that which I knew wasn’t directly thinking of ‘Star Wars,’ it’s always sort of hovering there in the back of my mind, influencing on a very subliminal level a lot of my creative instincts.”

“I can’t say everybody, but most people from my generation, I feel like when you say, ‘Why did you go into film or TV or anything media related,’ points to ‘Star Wars’ when they were little and just wanting to do that,” Thornton said, reflecting on the widespread influence of the series, an experienced shared from one generation to another.

"It’s still a good story, but it was also this shared cultural experience from when my generation was kids, and now sharing that with another generation is a way of keeping that experience that we had alive. It’s something you pass down. ‘Star Wars’ still evokes this remembering what it was like to be a kid and to go to the movies and have this fun and innocence. I want my kids to have the same thing.”

Entering the vault

“Star Wars” hasn’t just endured — it has thrived. With the upcoming release date of “The Force Awakens” comes numerous pieces of additional merchandise — comics, books, toys and any number of future collectibles.

Few places in Ann Arbor are as acquainted with these forms of storytelling as Vault of Midnight. Located on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor, the award-winning store is a local centerpiece for geek culture.

Entering the store on a snowy Sunday morning, I randomly browsed the rows of comic books, graphic novels, action figures and clothing. Though wide open in space, the Vault is chock full of the latest entertainment and issues from a wide variety of publishers.

I walked to the register and the assistant manager, Marcus Schwimmer, gave me a more guided walk through the store. After showing me the all-ages material, including cartoonist Jeffrey Brown’s popular series, “Jedi Academy,” Schwimmer brought me over to Marvel’s latest offering of “Star Wars” material. Circling the multi-tiered display, Schwimmer gave a brief rundown of every series and book in sight, the knowledge coming effortlessly. A comic grabs his attention, “Star Wars: Chewbacca.” He grabs the comic and carefully opens the plastic bag that encases it. He mentions the artist, Phil Noto.

“The guy was put on this planet to draw Chewbacca,” Schwimmer said as he showed off the artwork. One image shows Chewbacca, Han Solo’s Wookiee companion, all by himself, lying in a field of light pink flowers. The character, usually seen in pitched battles or letting out his distinctive roar, is at peace in the field. It’s hard to argue with Schwimmer about Noto’s beautiful artwork.

My attention was then brought to Curtis Sullivan, owner and operator of Vault of Midnight. Guiding me down into the basement-level game room of the Vault, Sullivan, another long-time fan who claimed to receive “Star Wars” toys every birthday and Christmas for years after seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” for the first time in theaters, sat down for an interview.

“Comics and ‘Star Wars’ have a long, awesome history and most recently Disney bought Lucasfilm,” Sullivan said. “Disney also owns Marvel Comics, the original publisher of ‘Star Wars’ comics way back when it started. Marvel now has the ‘Star Wars’ license again for comics and it’s a really great homecoming. They have ran with it and made the best ‘Star Wars’ comics in my time of reading ‘Star Wars’ comics, which is 30-plus years. It’s the best time to be a reader of ‘Star Wars’ comics.”

In explaining the “Star Wars” universe to me, Sullivan clarified the somewhat complicated nature of the “Star Wars” canon, which already had an expansive set of stories and histories known as the Expanded Universe.

“This Expanded Universe is now referred to as Legends, it’s not canon proper," Sullivan explained. "But, everything we have now from Marvel, ‘Star Wars’ and the new novels is now canon proper. Until who knows when they reboot it. Most of our readers in our store are just looking for a good ‘Star Wars’ story. I know you got some die-hard fans who will talk about every stitch and every piece of clothing, but a lot of people we talk to or sell comics to are cool with a good ‘Star Wars’ story and aren’t worried that it fits every nook and cranny that they think is established canon.”

And now is the perfect time to find those “Star Wars” stories, according to Sullivan, who reiterated the consistent strength of Marvel’s latest series of comics that fill in the gaps between the original trilogy films.

“They expand, they go in between the movies and they are also leading us into ‘Force Awakens,’ ” Sullivan said. “So there’s a great book (‘Shattered Empires’) right now, that just wrapped up that takes us to the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’ right into ‘Force Awakens.’ So it fills in all these great gaps and they’ve hired the top talents in the industry to do this, they spared no expense creatively. So the writers and the art teams on these books are the best in the business.”

From Phil Noto to other artists like Salvador Larroca, who illustrates the “Darth Vader” series, Marvel has enlisted some of the most exciting comic book talents, including writers like Mark Waid and Charles Soule who wrote series about Princess Leia and Lando Calrissian, respectively. Sullivan also mentioned Jason Aaron, an author he claims is, “one of the best writers of all of comics,” and also helms the comic series known simply as “Star Wars,” a personal favorite of Sullivan’s.

“Every book they’ve put out has been a world-class writer and a world-class artist and just the best in the biz, not cheap, page-rate employees,” Sullivan said. “They seem like considered editorial decisions like, ‘Who is the good writer to do this book?’ they’re not just grabbing a big name for the sake of ‘Oh this, is a popular writer.’ It feels like they’ve selected the right people for each project.”

Speculating on the popularity of these series, Sullivan could only see growth in the future.

“ ‘Star Wars’ fever is kooky right now, it’s very high," Sullivan said. "But I don’t think we’ve begun to see the beginning of ‘Star Wars’ fever. Let’s talk about this again the week after the movie releases. I think it will be inescapable.”

In the meantime, Sullivan will keep selling comics and waiting for the release of the next film in a series that has touched so many.

“The last trailer for ‘Force Awakens,’ like many people, I was damn near crying watching the trailer,” Sullivan said. “I just thought that it invoked all the feelings that are bigger than ‘Star Wars.’ It’s bigger than lightsabers and spaceships. It’s a feeling you get when you hear the music and the sound effects and the characters. I just can’t wait.”

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