I was born at precisely the right age to throw myself into Star Wars. I became fixated on the Force in the most profound way. But, as George Lucas regularly tries to remind his fans, the celebration of Star Wars is distinctly rose tinted.
Of course, Star Wars was popular when it was first released. But it wasn’t the sudden, galaxy shattering event we like to remember. It was a good kids’ movie that everyone could enjoy; the revolution came much later. In fact, I’d argue Star Wars didn’t really happen until The Empire Strikes Back.
And for me personally, it wasn’t even the sequel that cemented the Jedi mythology in my consciousness. It was the licensing; the merchandising phenomenon that actually paid for the next two movies and recouped the costs of the original. That’s what really spread the Skywalker name across cinematic history and drew me toward the Dark side of Star Wars obsession at such a vulnerable age.
Naturally, I collected all the toys. Any kids shuffling around the gutters at the latter end of the 1970s were obliged to have at least a couple of grubby, well-worn Star Wars figures stuffed in their marble bag. It was schoolyard law. And the Millennium Falcon play set was the only Christmas toy available for a couple of years, so you either switched onto Star Wars or went without festive reward.
Even though we obsessively gathered up the collectables, they were only a small part of the rising storm cloud of viral licensing. It was this facet of the Star Wars universe that really grabbed my attention. Being a whippersnapper with a pretend lightsaber, I had no concept of licensing and merchandising – all I could see was Star Wars on every breakfast cereal, t-shirt and toothbrush. How could one movie be responsible for so many products?
It was genuinely overwhelming. The movie and the toys were only the tip of the iceberg. The real empire was on supermarket shelves, in corner shops and magazines – there was only one movie, only a couple of hundred toys at the most. Sure, these collections were perfectly understandable, but they were just for the plebs and droids. A real Star Wars collection went beyond these playthings, deep into the uncharted realm of extreme superficiality of Star Wars branded consumer products. I knew I had to have it all.
My methods were simple. I simply waited until my parents went shopping, then raided the cupboards and salvaged the valuable Star Wars packaging before they had the chance to ruin my precious ephemera to get at the worthless goods inside. A proper Star Wars collection was coming to me. George Lucas obviously wanted me to keep all this stuff, or he wouldn’t be sending it directly to my house.
Before long I had a burgeoning assortment of prized possessions. Yogurt cups with the foil painstakingly peeled back so as not to tear (but not so far that it detached from the rim); unforgivingly delicate cellophane from a packet of biscuits unglued and gently pressed flat for posterity; bubble bath callously poured down the sink so the bottle could take its place in my trophy cabinet; piles of unworn clothes carefully folded and tucked away so as not to crease the Jedi-based screen printing.
Leaving the house on any kind of errand became an exhausting and disheartening task for my parents. Star Wars was completely unavoidable, so no matter where their family duties took them, there’d be some kind of vital addition to my collection that had to be procured. If only the collection consisted solely of toys, it wouldn’t have been so bad; we were broke, and the toys weren’t cheap, so it would have been a simple matter to deny their purchase. But when your kid stops asking for expensive Dagobah playsets and starts looking pensively at branded toothbrushes instead, it’s difficult for any half-interested parent to fathom a reasonable excuse for not buying one.
It didn’t stop at cheap domestic consumables. There was a galaxy of Star Wars wallpapering the world that wasn’t so much costly as it was inaccessible. Official Star Wars posters might as well have been blank when the local library was sporting a huge literary promotion of Yoda holding a book with the simple slogan “Read” underneath. We had to go all the way to the manager of West Yorkshire libraries to bag that beauty, but it was worth the effort.
Bus stops featured film advertisements as tall as I was, and while I’m reluctant to reveal the extent of my criminal activities, my friends and I managed to procure more than few of these amazing works of promotional art. Cardboard cut-outs were looted from bookshops, and terrible lies told to cinema staff to get first dibs on the point-of-purchase marketing detritus that littered the box office.
I knew how people looked at me and my collection, but I wasn’t concerned. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that it wasn’t so much my own psychological well-being that was called into question by our small circle of society, but my parents’. That this obsession wasn’t curbed or discouraged was a more immediate subject of hushed discussion than an 8-year-old’s obscure fixation with collecting cartons and movie-licensed packaging.
As I grew older, I eventually asked that question of myself, though the obsession gradually subsided. By the time the millennium was drawing to a close, people apparently became nostalgic for the Star Wars merchandising phenomenon. The sudden realization that many of these toys – nay, collectables – had actually increased in value was astounding. That childhood toys would become the modern equivalent of collectable antiques wasn’t something anyone would have predicted when the Saga was still new. If they had, parents wouldn’t have let their kids play with those valuable ornaments in the dirt.
It filled me with mirthful pretention to discover this anomaly. All over the world, people were trolling out their toy collections to bask in their newfound financial significance, but I had a real collection. It went far beyond the limited scope of easily acquired toys (I had those too, but still wasn’t particularly interested in them), and was therefore far more valuable than anyone could possibly imagine.
It’d been a good 15 years since my amazing collection had been carefully packaged and stored in the attic, and adult life had mutated the memories of what those boxes actually contained. Indeed, it didn’t see the light of day until I moved away, and my parents insisted, gleefully, that it was finally someone else’s turn to bear the responsibility of storage. With Episode 1 just around the corner, the timing was perfect to renew my appreciation for the hard-earned Star Wars memorabilia I’d misspent my youth acquiring. Not that I’d be willing to part with any of it, but I could sense the dollar signs through the storage boxes before they were even unwrapped. This was my pension.
I was a Star Wars obsessed kid the last time I’d seen this stuff, and it was unquestionably awesome. Imagine my surprise when, as an (admittedly juvenile) adult, I unpackaged my early life’s work to see a surreal miscellany of empty food cartons and cheaply licensed supermarket shelf debris. What the hell was all this stuff? Through older eyes, the irreplaceable wealth of Star Wars memorabilia I once worshipped now looked like the bizarre plastic trinkets of an unhinged, homeless fool. My pension wasn’t the treasure chest I remembered it as.
For years, I’d scoffed as people told me of their Star Wars collections, as if my own somehow elevated me to George Lucas’ level. I convinced myself that even he couldn’t rival the comprehensiveness of my licensed chattels. In an instant, an acute understanding of what my parents had gone through in helping me to acquire this weight of material became apparent. That uncomfortable, mildly embarrassed grimace they’d worn during my Star Wars quarrying expeditions crossed my own face, and it was all bundled back up and stowed at the furthest corner of my own attic.
The current revivalist scene, however, has once again prompted me to show that cornucopia of licensed consumables the light of day. And although I’ve come to terms with the fact that mine isn’t going to be a particularly valuable heritage, reminiscing on the years spent building my collection has restored much of its personal worth.
It might sound a bit “day time soap opera,” but my memories of extracting the greatness of Star Wars from the most unlikely places carry their own, unquenchable value. I’ve come to realize that the real importance of that collection is the personal heirlooms of which I’m now the proud owner. It’s once again become a hoard of one-man’s-gold and a link to my childhood that could never have been captured by photographs, journals or home videos.
This grand anthology of household waste is, for me alone, a series of archeological finds charting my quest to uncover the secret of Star Wars.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.