The latest chapter of the Star Wars phenomenon is no longer so “far, far away.”
With the impending release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on Dec. 18, everyone from novices to casual fans to hardcore devotees are poised to make it the biggest-grossing movie of the year.
But there are some people in Kansas City who approach Star Wars from a more intimate angle. They are proactive aficionados, not just content with binge watching the six flicks or collecting all the vintage action figures. These are individuals who have discovered a way to shape the Star Wars universe into their own creations.
Comic book writer
Each month, Jason Aaron controls the fate of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader — and millions of followers take notice.
The Kansas City-based comic book writer helms Marvel’s “Star Wars” title. The flourishing series launched in January, and the first issue sold more than a million copies. (It became the first comic to do so since the early 1990s.)
“My day-to-day job is really surreal,” Aaron says. “I’d been doing comics for almost 10 years when I got the Star Wars gig. I’d gotten used to writing dialogue for Spider-Man and Thor. But getting to sit down and write dialog for Han Solo for the first time gave me that same thrill all over again.”
Now on issue 13 of the series, “Star Wars” chronicles what happens to the primary characters of the original 1977 film following the destruction of the Death Star.
“Coming right out of the gate in the first issue we got Luke and Vader face to face,” says the Alabama native, who moved to KC in 2000. “It was a different confrontation than we had seen before. By the end of the first arc we also introduced a mysterious woman who claims to be the ex-wife of Han Solo, which caused quite a stir at first.”
Aaron says everything he writes (and all the art by John Cassaday and Stuart Immonen) must be approved by the Lucasfilm story group. He’s worked closely with their team from day one when he and key Marvel staffers flew to the production company’s offices in San Francisco.
They also scored a tour of the Skywalker Ranch in neighboring Nicasio, Calif.
“We went through the archives and got to see shelves piled high with lightsabers and Yodas and Han Solo frozen in carbonite tucked under a shelf in the back corner,” he says.
“There’s one room that’s filled with all the costumes. We dug through them to find the oldest ones. Then we found the slave girl Leia. It’s a really small bikini. Back then Carrie Fisher must have been a very tiny gal.”
The 42-year-old recalls watching “The Empire Strikes Back” in the theater before any of the other films — an experience that was marred by bringing along a friend who had already seen it and kept spoiling the surprises. Now he’s the one who knows the surprises before anyone else does. But this coveted ability to mold fictional icons for his own purposes is always tempered by how his vision fits within George Lucas’ extended universe.
“There have been things I wanted to do but couldn’t for various reasons,” Aaron says. “There are a lot of moving parts involved with Star Wars now. There are multiple movies in production, cartoons, novels — all sorts of stuff. But I’ve probably been more surprised at the stuff I have been able to do.”
Among his favorite contributions is the creation of a formidable new enemy with a Jedi memento fetish.
“We introduced Grakkus the Hutt, who is a bit different than Jabba. I wanted a Hutt who was more well-toned and could throw a punch — somebody who could mix it up physically,” he says.
The comic book continues to rank in the top five best-sellers with each monthly issue. A trade paperback released in October titled “Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes” sold a quarter of a million copies.
Despite the publishing success, Aaron doesn’t expect any of his ideas to turn up in the new J.J. Abrams sequel.
“All that stuff is set in motion before I started working on any of the books,” he says.
As for “The Force Awakens,” Aaron sounds hopeful regarding how the blockbuster should turn out.
He admits, “I’m just glad I don’t know anything more about the plot than anyone else does.”
Less enamored with the reliability of the cinematic franchise is Tom Giovagnoli.
“George Lucas made this great ride for us, but it’s broken,” Giovagnoli says. “I wanted to re-establish some way to watch the Lucas saga from film 1 to film 6. The prequels were so confusing, so bad, so missing all that ‘true Star Wars element.’ People would watch 4, 5 and 6 and pretend the prequels didn’t exist.”
Rather than concocting another fan edit — a la the one in which the annoying CGI creature Jar Jar Binks is excised entirely — Giovagnoli sought a fresh approach.
The Kansas City native and longtime creative director in the advertising industry considered rewriting all the dialog then dubbing it with soundalike actors. But the time/cost proved too daunting.
Then he came up with a solution: Make it a foreign movie.
Giovagnoli tracked down a Chinese bootleg version of the prequels. (The films were reportedly banned in China because its government believed the Trade Federation subplot made fun of the nation.) This version was dubbed in Mandarin but featured English subtitles. Removable subtitles.
The MU journalism grad then rewrote the dialogue for all seven hours worth of prequels. He swapped out his subtitled text files for the ones on the bootleg and re-rendered his new version of the three opening text crawls using iMovie.
“The goal wasn’t just to make my own version of the movie and add some jokes,” he says. “I remember there being interesting themes. The last two prequels came out in the Bush II era and had the idea of ‘Are we free or really slaves? Is the government working for us or oppressing us?’ Those were strong, resonant, high-minded themes. The only thing getting in the way was the dialogue. You couldn’t watch those movies and get to the thematic bigness of it because Jar Jar was doing his best Jerry Lewis impression.”
An example of how he changed not just the words but the impact comes during a scene in which Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) asks the Gungan humanoid Jar Jar why he got banished from his underwater city. In the picture, he explains it’s because he’s clumsy.
“This makes him impossible to care about,” the 50-year-old says.
His version changes the reason to Jar Jar believing it was OK to be friends with the surface dwellers.
“Now Jar Jar has a noble purpose. He is the ﬁrst one to extend the hand of friendship to anyone. So much so, in fact, that he crossed the line of willful segregation … and is branded an outsider by his own people,” he explains.
Giovagnoli loaded up the three modified movies to Vimeo, a site where he can restrict downloads and embedding. They’re listed under the heading “Star Wars — The Tommy Gee Redux.” The first installment alone has already been viewed 24,000 times.
“People would say, ‘I couldn’t tell what was different, I just knew it didn’t suck.’ A guy from India wrote, ‘You restored my faith that Star Wars can be good,’ ” says Giovagnoli, who currently resides in San Francisco near the Lucasfilm offices.
The new hope is Abrams can achieve the same effect with his $200 million revision of the franchise. Giovagnoli has lofty expectations.
“If it’s merely a good action movie, people will enjoy the ride but feel a kind of hollowness,” he says. “My fear is it won’t have that deeper sense of noble magic and mythos that we yearn for.”
“It’s not that I incorporate Star Wars into my life; my life is incorporated into Star Wars,” William C. Holmes says.
Although he works a day job for Johnson County Park and Recreation, Holmes estimates he spends 20-25 hours a week immersed in the demanding and remarkably regimented world of Star Wars costuming. The practitioners aren’t just fans who dress up for the occasional convention. These folks are serious. And they’ve seriously focused their passion on charity.
Holmes holds high-ranking memberships in all four major costuming groups: the Rebel Legion (“the good guys,” he describes), 501st Legion (Stormtroopers), Mandalorian Mercs (Boba Fett-style bounty hunters) and Dark Empire (the bad boys of the Force).
He appears in costume at more than 100 events a year, most of which occur in Kansas City. Many of these involve visits to children’s hospitals, where he engages in activities ranging from photo sessions to conducting mock Jedi academies. He also collaborates with organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the American Cancer Society.
In fact, the membership statement of the 501st emphasizes the organization strives for “contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work.”
“In a world that’s pretty stale and dogmatic, it’s nice to bring a little magic to things,” says Holmes, who is the worldwide Legion Commanding Officer for the Rebel group. “All the work we put into these screen-quality costumes — the hours, the labor, the thousands of dollars of money — help bring a smile to a kid’s face.”
The outfits are especially challenging to create for the 501st Stormtroopers.
“To not only have it look convincing, but to have it functional is the hard part,” he says of the distinctive black-and-white plastic uniforms. “In those original Star Wars movies, some of the Stormtrooper armor is held together with duct tape or gaffer’s tape. They didn’t have to be 360-degree models. They could do a 10-foot rule for the camera, and it looked good on the screen. Now kids are going to be right next to you taking pictures. And kids are the first ones to point out if the costume doesn’t look right.”
The 43-year-old Holmes stresses the costuming community is comprised of volunteers. They’re not paid actors.
“We donate our own money and time to do these events,” says Holmes, who estimates there are 85 members of the 501st based in KC. (The organization claims 8,000 active members worldwide.)
What was his most memorable costumed appearance?
“I performed a real wedding as the Emperor, surrounded by Darth Vader and Stormtroopers,” he says.
Fellow garrison member Jenni Bennett admits she wasn’t initially smitten with the costuming concept.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was kind of bizarre. Then I saw what they do for charity,” she says.
Bennett holds dual membership in the Rebel Legion and the regional Stormtroopers garrison called the 70th Explorers. But she particularly enjoys donning the bug-eyed helmet and dusty beige cloak of the Tusken Raiders — aka the Sand People.
“Occasionally, I scare kids,” she confesses. “We do a lot at Children’s Mercy Hospital. We come in their room, and their faces light up. Sometimes they cry. I know I’m pretty scary, so usually I hang out in the back.”
The 36-year-old Bennett says the experience of participating in the costuming groups has been profound.
“It’s made me a better person. I feel like I’m doing something for my community. It’s a little weird; a little awkward running around in a Tusken Raider costume. But ultimately, this is cool,” she says.
She concedes it’s taught her other key skills.
“I was a squad leader of the 70th Explorers last year, which also gave me an insight into leadership — something I never knew I had in me. So I can say Star Wars empowered me and gave me confidence to succeed,” she says.
An administrative assistant at KU Med, Bennett estimates a fifth of the participants in her various garrisons are female.
“I’ve noticed a lot more wives coming on board lately,” she says. “They’ve seen how fun it’s been and how involved we are with the community.”
Bennett never actually saw the original “Star Wars” in the theater. A fervent co-worker urged her to check out the film when she was 15. So she dug up a worn copy on VHS.
“I absolutely hated it,” she remembers. “I went back to this co-worker who said, ‘Then you have to watch “Empire Strikes Back!”’ Once I did that, everything changed.”
While she’s somewhat new to the costuming scene, she’s been collecting Star Wars memorabilia for more than 20 years. She currently runs a group on Facebook called Star Wars Vintage Collectors Group that boasts nearly 5,000 members.
Bennett is thrilled to be able to take part in events coinciding with the opening day of “The Force Awakens.” Her garrison is slated to assemble at one of the AMC premieres.
“I haven’t bought tickets yet because they said we’re going to be able to watch the movie, even though they mentioned there are no helmets allowed,” she says. “It’s probably the only movie where you have to tell the audience no helmets are allowed.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”