The Year That Merchandise Saved The Star Wars Franchise

By  · Published on September 4th, 2015

Today, at retailers across the world, new Star Wars merchandise will go on sale. Stores will be crammed with a mix of children looking to act out the Force Awakens trailer and adults hoping to catch a glimpse of the franchise’s newest characters. For some, this is a cause for celebration; for others, it’s another nail in the coffin of adult cinema. For an entire generation, though, Star Wars merchandise was the only connection we had to the franchise. Kids who grew up in the early nineties – in George Lucas’s fatigue period between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace — can remember a time when new Star Wars merchandise meant new Star Wars, period. And, in a very big way, merchandise is what brought Star Wars back from the dead.

It’s difficult to overstate the influence that the extended universe had on young Star Wars fans such as myself. While Star Wars was never going to disappear from public consciousness entirely – even in the early nineties, Lucas was discussing his plans to write a new trilogy – it would be fair to say that faith in the marketability of the franchise had waned by the end of the decade. Del Rey Books, the publishing imprint that produced the novelizations of the original trilogy and the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian spin-offs, published its final Star Wars novels in 1983 before losing the rights to Bantam Spectra. Marvel’s expanded universe Star Wars comic books were also declining in popularity. Jim Shooter, the former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, once described the Star Wars license as being what kept the company afloat during the late seventies and early eighties, but dwindling sales caused Marvel to end its Star Wars run in 1986. Star Wars products continued to exist in various odds and ends – the dedicated fans at Wookieepedia have compiled a timeline of products released by month and by year – but Star Wars as a commercial juggernaut had run out of steam.

And then 1991 happened. That year, Bantam Spectra released the first in a trilogy of Star Wars novels set years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Written by Hugo Award–winning author Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire introduced new characters and planets to the Star Wars universe and was an immediate hit with fans. The first run of 60,000 copies sold out the first week of the book’s release; Heir to the Empire stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-nine consecutive weeks. That same year, Dark Horse Comics began a twenty-three-year run of Star Wars comics that established the franchise within its second medium. In 1993, Howard Roffman, Lucasfilm’s vice president of licensing, described this increase in popularity as the point where the company got serious about Star Wars again. “We started putting things out on a kind of piecemeal basis,” Roffman said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “and then we saw this tremendous response.” Before long, fans were treated to new books, new action figures, trading cards, and, of course, video games.

TIE Fighter, Courtesy of LucasArts
It certainly goes without saying that part of the resurgence in Star Wars’s popularity had a lot to do with the availability of the films on VHS. That still undersells the effect that this new wave of merchandise had on the market. In the middle part of the nineties, when Return of the Jedi was a decade in the rearview mirror and the prequels had yet to be announced, fans who were too young to watch the original trilogy in theaters connected with Star Wars through every outlet available to them. I should know: I was one of these fans. As a kid, I spent every bus ride reading through the newest installment of Zahn’s Heir to the Empire sequels and every evening alternating computer time with my dad for another crack at LucasArt’s TIE Fighter. Each of my weekends in middle school was spent at Collector’s Hideaway, a local card shop that held weekly tournaments of the Star Wars Customizable Card Game. The movies – which I strongly believe belonged to my father’s generation – were amazing, but they were also backstory, the Star Wars Old Testament that influenced the parts of the franchise that I connected with the most.

And that is a kind of connection that is unlikely to reoccur with new fans. We may never go sixteen years without a Star Wars movie; if you believe the production schedule that Disney has put into place, we may never even go another year without a Star Wars entry. Fans like myself, who spent more time reading books like Shadows of the Empire, or playing with action figures from Shadows of the Empire, or playing video game adaptations of Shadows of the Empire, the merchandise was more than just the secondary market. It was a thriving marketplace of writers, artists, and game developers who found themselves in a position to actually create the Star Wars universe that they grew up admiring. If you had told a thirteen-year-old me that one of the biggest problems of the new films was their lack of imagination, I would have laughed in your face. If anything, the hardest part was going to be how Lucas managed to weave all his approved storylines together!

And maybe that’s why I can’t get worked up over a blatant commercial construct like Force Friday. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few articles today about the unease of an adult collector or the way that our nostalgia makes us victims of Hollywood marketing; at the close of the day, we may even be treated to a few forecasts of Force Friday and whether it was the big success that Disney and retailers had in mind. I certainly have no plans to wade into the Toys “R” Us in Times Square to pick up the limited edition Force Awakens merchandise they have for sale. But I will admit: I have a day at the beach coming up and I need something to read. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll go dig up a copy of Heir to the Empire and remember a time in my life where Star Wars merchandise felt more like the beginning of something beautiful than just the status quo.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)