When it comes to hoarding Star Wars toys, you gotta catch ‘em all!
Was there life before Star Wars? Not for me. From the way my parents tell it, I stepped right out of my mom and into the theater to see The Empire Strikes Back. Like most stunted man-children my age, I spent the first twenty years of my life obsessing over the Skywalker Saga, and it was a love affair that could not simply be contained within the runtime of the films themselves. We’re still craving that galaxy far, far away because 20th Century Fox was not initially convinced on Star Wars’ success, and allowed George Lucas to pass up his $500,000 in directing fees for the licensing and merchandising rights of the franchise. In 1977, Kenner Toys was not quite prepared for our hunger, but by the release of the sequel, the company would have us swimming in merchandise.
On the back of the individually packed action figures screamed the bold command, “Collect All 45!” It was a tantalizing dare to us kids to mow ALL the neighborhood lawns, damn the piggy bank savings, and incessantly prod our parents for regular field trips to Toys R Us. What started as a pathetic early bird package offer in 1977 quickly grew from a 12-figure toy line to 45 unique character designs ready just in time for the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back. While the 1978 12-figure line sold over 40 million units equaling over $100 million, the next wave revolutionized the market-dominating every birthday, parental bribery, and holiday well into my teenage years.
Some kids learned to read through bedtime renditions of The Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss, I found my education through nightly renditions of the Star Wars card stock. I have no idea how my folks put up with it, and I’m sure my dad had to stuff personal bafflement at the glee I’d let loose over these nearly unpronounceable names. “16. Lando Calrissian 17. Ugnaught 18. FX-7 (Medical Droid) 19. Han Solo (Hoth Outfit).” And damn it if Dad skipped over one, “Hey! You missed number 23, the Bespin Security Guard!” Immediate raging tantrum
Everyone loves Luke, Han, and Leia but the genius of the Kenner line was reveling in the background players. Properly recreating Obi-Wan Kenobi’s duel with Walrus Man (aka Ponda Baba as eventually named in the glorified fan-fic known as the visual dictionary) in Mos Eisley’s Cantina requires more than that whiney farm-brat wingman. You need Greedo, Hammerhead, and Snaggletooth for sure. To do it up proper you’ll need a few Stormtroopers at the ready as well. Convincing Mom and Dad of the Imperial double dip was a little tricky at first, but freeze-framing our VHS tape to demonstrate the alien tableau underscored my insatiable appetite for galactic authenticity. It was a need, not a want. Kenner made addicts of us all.
The very concept of the extended universe was born from the Star Wars toy line. Characters that got only seconds of screen time became deeply important during playtime. Their names weren’t even mentioned in the movies, but from the packaging I would imagine epic backstories for those hopeless dopes doomed to board Jabba’s sail barge. Who was the three-eyed Ree Yees? More than just a Muppet, from my chest of toys he would grow into a major player of the Star Wars universe. The lowly need not be condemned to the fringes of the frame. Kenner allowed us the ability to promote those with the coolest aesthetics to the highest ranks of the Rebel Alliance.
Why do we love Boba Fett? It’s certainly not for anything that he accomplished within the Star Wars Holiday Special, Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. He looked cool. We dig the that Ralph McQuarrie T-visor helmet, the Mandalorian emblems, the Wookie pelts, the weaponized gauntlets, and that totally rad rocket pack. He’s not just style over substance, his style is the substance. He looks absolutely baller in plastic, and it was the adventures we concocted on our bedroom floors that rose that bounty hunter into legend. We decided that he simply looked too cool for him to be the victim of Han Solo’s bumbling lucky swing. The toys got him to crawl out of the sarlacc pit and into the pages Dark Horse Comics.
When Return of the Jedi came and went, we exhausted the now expanded line of 92 figures. Our enthusiasm for George Lucas’ creation had a momentary lull in fandom. During the early 90s the only items to feed our passion were the Timothy Zahn Thrawn trilogy and those wretched Bend-Ems. Ugh. Those gross, malformed sculpts were an embarrassment to our never-ending collection. They were made from sloppy molds, painted with the cheapest chemicals, and were impossible to display on the shelf.
As chore money eventually gave way to hard-earned cash ripped from the hells of retail, I found that I could not keep my money in my pocket let alone a bank account. I continued to feed the beast with Bend-Ems and the even more devilish income-suck that was Collectible Resale. Only the 90s could sustain a network of local comic book shops that specialized in acquiring and reselling the classic 77-85 toy line. It was in those dark dungeons that I would finally attain Yak Face (the Canadian exclusive) and my ultimate desire, Han Solo in Carbonite. Plus, the rest of the missing 92.
In 1995, a few years after Hasbro swallowed Kenner under its dominion, The Power of the Force line was reawakened with a series of extra beefy action figures. Luke, Han, and Chewie looked like they had spent their absent years juicing with Sly Stallone. Seeing the seemingly bizarro success of the Bend-Ems, the toy company wanted back in on those franchise dollars. They started small like before, Wave 1 consisted of only 9 characters and nary a Snaggletooth in sight. However, that chum in the water ignited a frenzy that still hasn’t let up.
The first Phantom Menace figure I snagged was a mail away offer for Mace Windu that shipped nearly a year before the film was released. You had to send in six proofs-of-purchase to verify your own worthiness of such a treat, but in reality, it was a clever method to sell out the remaining stock of their older line. Mace Windu did not arrive on the usual cardback and bubble pack, but a nifty window box that signaled a bold new chapter in Star Wars collecting. In November of 98, we got our first look at The Phantom Menace trailer. Some purchased tickets to Meet Joe Black to see the return of Darth Vader on the big screen, but I elected to stay at home wasting two-hours of dial-up energy to download the two-minute and six-second trailer. I’m not sure I’ve ever been, or ever will be, more excited to watch a teaser. Granted, that first glimpse only allowed Jar Jar Binks to speak/squeal twice.
On May 3rd 1999, a few weeks before Episode I premiered, my friend Jeff and I entered the Fairfax, Virginia Toys R Us with a shopping cart and an absurd amount of cash. Here I was, this supposedly mature college sophomore, and I was emptying whole rows of Darth Mauls, Jar Jars, and Qui-Gon Jinns. Had the early 90s comic boom of polybags and foil covers taught me nothing? I filled my basket beyond the brim, and to this day I have those damned mint-in-box figures absorbing mildew in the basement. It eventually took me six watches of The Phantom Menace in the theater before I could accept that it was complete and utter bollocks.
I was pretty much cured of collecting Star Wars. When the teaser for The Force Awakens eventually revealed itself, and it looked like the franchise was about to have its redemption, I found that I no longer had a hankering for molded plastic. Was this adulthood? No, it was fear. Fear that we were about to experience another disaster like we did in ’99. Also, I was free from a compulsion that had consumed almost my entire lifespan. What if I let BB-8 roll up on my bookcase? How long until I was sacrificing food for plastic resin again? I kept it cool for most of the buildup to Episode VII’s release. However, a few hours before I caught my first screening, I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Toys R Us. I went to the Star Wars aisle and scored a Black Series Captain Phasma. I guess there’s no stopping my fascination for ineffectual Boba Fett characters. I am a weak geek.
I’ve come to terms with my problem. At the end of the day, it’s impossible for me to separate the films from their merchandise. It’s a package. Yes, it’s capitalism run amuck and I’m here to pledge allegiance. And the best part is that I know I’m not alone. The internet is busting with stunted children like myself willing to drain their retirement for Gentle Giant and Sideshow Collectibles. Accumulating toys, books, and comics is just a way to keep the love going after the lights come up. If Kramer vs. Kramer spawned a cinematic universe I probably would shell out for that too. Well, maybe the Mandalorian variants anyway.