Memphis artists, fans join Star Wars universe.
Memphis artists, fans join star Wars universe
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.”
Luke Skywalker, as drawn by Memphis comic-book artist Dean Zachary.
Darth Vader strikes an elvis pose in this airbrushed painting by Memphis artist Lin Workman.
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.”
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.