Mem­phis artists, fans join Star Wars uni­verse.

Mem­phis artists, fans join star Wars uni­verse

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - FRONT PAGE - By John Bei­fuss

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is closer to home than you think.

Al­though they cer­tainly don’t wield the in­flu­ence of Ge­orge Lu­cas or J.J. Abrams, artists, writ­ers, ac­tors and en­thu­si­asts with con­nec­tions to Mem­phis and the Mid-South have added their own in­no­va­tions to the “Star Wars” uni­verse, which ex­pands big time Fri­day when “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens” opens in 4,000-plus the­aters in the U.S. and Canada (a to­tal that in­cludes more than 40 screens in Mem­phis and the Mid-South).

“It’s kind of cool be­cause I can draw ‘Star Wars’ char­ac­ters and get paid for it, and it’s all le­git,” says Mem­phis artist Lin Work­man, who has con­trib­uted sets to sev­eral Topps “Star Wars” trad­ing card col­lec­tions.

I first saw ‘Star Wars’ when I was 9 years old at the old White­haven theater on Elvis Pres­ley Boule­vard. It was dif­fi­cult get­ting into the movie be­cause it was only in a few lo­ca­tions, and I des­per­ately wanted to see it, and when we’d show up, it was sold out. I had to keep go­ing to movies I didn’t want to see. That’s when I de­vel­oped a ha­tred of He­len Reddy, be­cause I had to see ‘Pete’s Dragon.’”

Au­thor and for­mer Mem­phian John Jackson Miller

“The ‘ Em­pire Strikes Back’ set helped pay for my wed­ding,” adds Work­man, 49, who met his wife, Nicki, dur­ing a “gam­ing night” for lo­cal mem­bers of Fan­Force, the in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion of Jedi junkies. “Our first kiss was at a friend’s house who’s a big ‘Star Wars’ col­lec­tor.”

“Bot­tom line, I’m as­so­ci­ated with ‘Star Wars’ for­ever,” says Mem­phis comic-book artist Dean Zachary, 52, proud that “Wook­ieepe­dia” — the Wikipedia for “Star Wars” — con­tains an en­try for Toki Tol­li­var, the furry “Force-stran­gling se­rial killer” drawn by Zachary for the “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Repub­lic” comic book se­ries.

And then there’s na­tive Mem­phian Clare Grant, a voice ac­tor on the an­i­mated se­ries “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” who is per­haps more prized by some fans for her non­vo­cal con­tri­bu­tions to “geek cul­ture” as a min­i­mally wardrobed Wook­iee-washer and “sexy Darth Vader” in a se­ries of mu­sic video spoofs pro­duced by her mul­ti­me­dia pro­duc­tion-and-per­for­mance

troupe, Team Uni­corn.

Grant and her hus­band, ac­tor-w riter-pro­ducer Seth Green (“Robot Chicken”), at­tended Mon­day night’s red-car­pet pre­miere of “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens” at the his­toric TCL Chi­nese The­atre on Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard. “It was a mad­house,” says Grant, who said she loved the movie, and posed for pic­tures with di­rec­tor J.J. Abrams. “It was definitely the largest pre­miere I’ve been to, even larger than the Os­cars. ... All the li­mos were sniffed by bomb dogs; that was a first.”

The sev­enth live-ac­tion film in the science-fan­tasy ad­ven­ture se­ries and the first since “Star Wars Episode III: Re­venge of the Sith” in 2005, “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens” has re­booted the en­thu­si­asm of fans still smart­ing from the rel­a­tive dis­ap­point­ment of the pre­quel tril­ogy films, which in­tro­duced such di­vi­sive char­ac­ters as the slap­sticky Jar Jar Binks (de­scribed by The Wall Street Jour­nal as “a Rasta­far­ian Stepin Fetchit”) and the “midi-chlo­rian”en­hanced mop­pet version of the fu­ture Darth Vader (played by tow­head Jake Lloyd as a sort of space­opera Den­nis the Men­ace).

Olive Branch Wal-Mart sup­port man­ager Justin Bryant, 26, who de­scribes him­self as “maybe one of the big­gest ‘Star Wars’ fans in the area,” said he plans to be at an open­ing­night lo­cal screen­ing of the new movie, but he won’t be out­fit­ted in his sig­na­ture spe­cially made stormtrooper cos­tume be­cause the­aters aren’t al­low­ing pa­trons to wear masks or face paint or to carry blasters, lightsabers and other weapons. Bryant hasn’t con­trib­uted to any Luca sf i l m-sa nct ioned “Star Wars” ad­ven­tures, but he’s an in­flu­en­tial lo­cal fan as CO (com­mand­ing of­fi­cer) of the Ran­cor Raiders, the Mis­sis­sippi “gar­ri­son” of the 501st Le­gion (nick­named “Vader’s Fist”), de­scribed as “the world’s de­fin­i­tive Im­pe­rial cos­tum­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

The 501st Le­gion is for fans who enjoy cre­at­ing and wear­ing cos­tumes in­spired by what Bryant calls “the bad guys of the ‘Star Wars’ uni­verse.” Th­ese en­thu­si­asts dress as stormtroop­ers, Sith lords, Im­pe­rial of­fi­cers, TIE fighter pi­lots, bounty hun­ters and other dan­ger­ous types, while ad­her­ing to “canon” — the of­fi­cial looks of the char­ac­ters, as de­ter­mined by Lu­cas­film. Those who pre­fer an­gelic to dev­il­ish “cos­play” (cos­tume play) can join the Corel­lian Base, an area “base” of the Rebel Le­gion, de­voted to Jedi, rebel pi­lots, droids, princesses, Wook­iees and other “good guys.”

“We have what we call ‘ar­mor par­ties’ at the Olive Branch pub­lic li­brary,” said Bryant, a 501st Le­gion mem­ber for six years. “We’ll work on our cos­tumes and props.” He said cos­tumes must be made “from scratch,” but mem­bers can farm out var­i­ous el­e­ments. For ex­am­ple, the pieces of his stormtrooper ar­mor are made from vac­uum-formed plas­tic, which he cuts and trims and then con­nects with “Vel­cro, elas­tic, ny­lon, glue — lots and lots of glue.”

Other lo­cal “Star Wars” pro­fes­sion­als in­clude Jim Hall, who has drawn story arcs for such Dark Horse comic book se­ries as “Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron,” and artist Martheus Wade, who, like Work­man, has cre­ated “Star Wars” cards for Topps. But Mem­phis-born, Wis­con­sin-based au­thor John Jackson Miller, 47, is the best-con­nected of area “Star Wars” cre­ators, hav­ing been ap­proved by Lu­cas­film to write not just comic books and short sto­ries but such nov­els as “Kenobi” (2013, a New York Times best-seller) and “A New Dawn” (2014).

“I first saw ‘Star Wars’ when I was 9 years old at the old White­haven theater on Elvis Pres­ley Boule­vard,” said Jackson, 47. “It was dif­fi­cult get­ting into the movie be­cause it was only in a few lo­ca­tions, and I des­per­ately wanted to see it, and when we’d show up, it was sold out. I had to keep go­ing to movies I didn’t want to see. That’s when I de­vel­oped a ha­tred of He­len Reddy, be­cause I had to see ‘Pete’s Dragon.’”

For Miller, “Star Wars” her­alded the emer­gence of an upbeat cin­e­matic science-fic­tion to re­place the dystopian vi­sions of the 1970s. “‘Soy­lent Green,’ ‘Silent Run­ning,’ the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies — they re­flected the loss of prom­ise, the fail­ure of the prom­ise of the 1960s. ‘Lo­gan’s Run’ — what more did you need to know other than life ends at 30? ‘Star Wars’ turned it around, and for some­body like me, a kid, who didn’t really know what was go­ing on in the cul­ture, I thought, ‘This is what movies are — high ad­ven­ture.’ And be­cause Lu­cas made the bar­gain that he did to get the mer­chan­dis­ing rights, it be­came pos­si­ble for ‘Star Wars’ to oc­cupy all parts of a kid’s or a fan’s life. I had the ac­tion fig­ures, which I was buy­ing at Gold­smith’s, and the comic books, which I started buy­ing at con­ve­nience stores. ... It could really be a part of your life in all ar­eas. I’m sure if you’re a fish­er­man, there’s a way to get ‘Star Wars’ fish­ing equip­ment.”

Maybe it’s the pos­i­tive en­ergy of “Star Wars” that at­tracted the se­ries’ most fa­mous lo­cal fan (or is he?), Mem­phis mayor-elect Jim Strick­land.

Strick­land, 51, earned a great deal of so­cial-me­dia buzz for his par­tic­i­pa­tion in “Mem­phis: The City Awak­ens,” a hu­mor­ous 3-minute video cre­ated by the Run­ning Pony pro­duc­tion com­pany and posted by the Greater Mem­phis Cham­ber. Aping the style of the TV com­edy se­ries “The Of­fice,” the video de­picts Strick­land ob­sess­ing over “Star Wars” trivia, geek­ing out over the new movie and oth­er­wise re­veal­ing him­self to be a space case, in a good way (“The Force be with you — wanna get some bar­be­cue?”).

In fact, the mayor-elect is only a luke­warm Lu­cas­phile. “Many of the names and terms I was us­ing, I did not know, and I had to prac­tice the pro­nun­ci­a­tion,” he says.

“When this whole thing was pitched to me, they ac­tu­ally said, ‘What do you like?’ My fa­vorite TV show of all time is ‘The Rockford Files,’ and they did not feel that was too timely.”

Cour­teSy of DeAn ZAChAry

Luke Sky­walker, as drawn by Mem­phis comic-book artist Dean Zachary.

Cour­teSy of Lin Work­MAn

Darth Vader strikes an elvis pose in this air­brushed paint­ing by Mem­phis artist Lin Work­man.

COUR­TESY OF LU­CASBOOKS

A young Obi-Wan is the hero of the best-sell­ing 2013 novel ‘Kenobi,’ writ­ten by for­mer Mem­phian John Jackson Miller.

Mem­phis’ Clare Grant (right) and Team Uni­corn as­so­ciate Rileah Van­der­bilt bathe a lucky Wook­iee in the video par­ody “Saber 2: Re­turn of the Body Wash.”

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY LU­CAS­FILM/TNS

Fans who want to dress like Adam Driver (top) and John Boyega (bot­tom) when they at­tend “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens,” will have to leave lightsabers and other weapons at home.

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