An empire of memories
If Star Wars, which would later be retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was left to be the first and only chapter in Lucas’ space opera, maybe film buffs would regard it the way we discuss beloved standalone sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner.
But according to Johnson, without the superior follow-up film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars would not be the cultural phenomenon nor the expansive, sprawling space epic that it has become for generations of sci-fi nerds.
Johnson: Empire is a masterpiece. Star Wars is a masterpiece in its own way. Had it not been for Empire, there would not have been anything else. Star Wars would have been it and it would have gone away. Empire is the film that created everything that has come since. The relationships and revelations of that film have created the groundwork of everything that has come after and there’s so much to mine from that, and they will and they are in Episode VII.
One person who was especially drawn in by Empire’s tractor beam was Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem. His first connection to Star Wars was through a chance discovery of a Darth Vader action figure he found on the floor of a K-Mart.
Parks: And I pick it up and instantly think it’s the most awesome toy I have ever seen. I just remember begging my parents to buy it for me, So they did. It was my first Star Wars toy, but I had no idea what Star Wars was. I remember playing with it. I played with it in the car, I played with it at home, it was my favorite toy. And then I just remember a little bit of time later, someone says, ‘‘There’s a movie for those toys you like.’
My parents were like, ‘We’ll take you to see the movie,’ but I was scared. I didn’t know what Chewbacca sounded like, but I had the toy and I knew he was a monster. I knew they had guns and they had knives and I didn’t want to go because I was scared.
Now 41, Parks is ashamed to admit that the kid version of himself passed on seeing Star Wars in 1977, as well as during its subsequent re-releases in 1978 and 1979.
Parks: But then 1980 comes around and I’m 6. So I tell my dad I want to see the new Star Wars movie. And he’s like, ‘All right.’
Parks and his dad rolled to the former Reynolda Cinema, then a two-screen theater that later closed in 1996 and is now home to the Reynolda Manor Public Library.
Parks: The tickets were sold out. And we didn’t have Fandango or pre-orders or pre-sales or anything like that. And if you were in that situation, you did one of two things: You went home, or you waited. And my dad actually offered to wait until the next showing. So the whole running time of the movie and the previews, we stood outside and we waited, and that’s how I saw my first Star Wars movie.
The wait, which Parks described as a simple, albeit profound act of fatherly love, became the basis of “Strikes,” an autobiographical mini-comic book that Parks wrote. The book was illustrated by customer and fellow Star Wars fan Towle.
Towle: As a kid, I really latched onto the visual aspects of Star Wars. I remember having, and I still have at my house, the script book. It has all those amazing Ralph McQuarrie concept drawings of stuff. And I remember being really fascinated by those, and I think somewhere in my brain was churning the idea that there’s somebody who draws this stuff before it turns into anything real, and that’s what their job was.
I guess it was sort of the idea that there was such a thing as design and that things get designed.
To add a stylistic flourish to Parks’ story, Towle reimagined the story with Parks and his late father inserted into key scenes in Empire Strikes Back.
Towle: I kind of pitched him on the idea of, there being elements or beats in this story that are very similar to some of the beats in the movie. And I was like, ‘What if we incorporated sort of this fantasy setting where we inserted you and your dad into the world of Star Wars at certain points?’ That was my contribution to it.
Parks green-lighted the idea, and the result is a 19-page comic book that is as beautiful as it is touching.
As for the movie Empire itself, Parks says there’s no better gateway into the Star Wars universe.
Parks: Empire was the best movie as a movie. Take the Star Wars out of it, get critical, and look at the technical aspects of the movie and Empire was the better movie. I think it’s just so exciting.
It’s not how a movie ends. Sure we knew another movie was happening, but it was those strange feelings that you felt like your friends were in trouble and you wanted to help them but you couldn’t do anything for a couple of years. It really stayed with you.
And when Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke Skywalker’s father? Sure, now it’s just such a common fact. But at that time, in the movie theater, when Darth Vader says that, it was mind blowing.
If we had an internet back then, it would have been destroyed!