Like millions of kids growing up in the 1980s, I spent many happy hours imagining what it would be like in the rosy future when George Lucas made new Star Wars movies. It was almost as difficult and delicious to imagine as adulthood.
Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, but many, many years would pass before we had new stories. In the meantime, we created our own stories with fan art, fan fiction and epic action figure play sessions.
But the real change came in 1991, when science fiction novelist Timothy Zahn published Heir to the Empire, the first in a trilogy of books telling the story of what happened to the Star Wars heroes after the events of the original movie series. Those books steadily climbed bestseller lists, giving fans like me the new Star Wars stories we craved.
This trilogy was one of the first bricks in a mighty mythology that became known as the Star Wars “Expanded Universe” (or EU, as abbreviated by many fans). The EU filled gaps in the Star Wars story for millions of fans like me—a huge bookshelf of novels, comics and fan art. You can see examples in every corner of DeviantArt.
DeviantArt creator and illustrator Grant Gould (grantgoboom) has worked on Star Wars kid’s books, trading cards and web comics.
At the recent Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim, California, he created an exclusive licensed tribute to these classic Star Wars novels.
Grant told me about the moment he discovered those books:
I remember the excitement. We hadn’t had Star Wars in a long time, and all of a sudden, there’s this great book and the adventures continue. I just fell in love with the series.”
I devoured the trilogy as well back in the 1990s, but I forgot the stories as I grew older. Then I re-explored the Expanded Universe while preparing for the Anaheim Star Wars convention. Once again, I was captivated by one character in particular: Mara Jade.
Mara is one of the most beloved characters from this trilogy. Early in her life, she worked as the “Emperor’s Hand,” a trained killer serving the most loathsome villain from the original trilogy. She entered the Expanded Universe by trying to kill Luke Skywalker, but she would finish her epic character arc by falling in love with the great Jedi.
My first DeviantArt search turned up more than 2,000 results for Mara Jade fan art. Author Chris Taylor described Jade in his excellent history, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. He wrote:
She would inspire the first online mailing group (and later the first blog) to cover the Expanded Universe, Club Jade … she offers all of the feisty, fiery personality that Leia should have developed, but ultimately lacked.”
You can still visit Club Jade online, a busy site with a pointed mission: “Club Jade is a group of (mostly) female fans who love Star Wars - particularly the Expanded Universe novels - and other things of that nature.”
When Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise and created a new slate of films, the media company praised this epic collection of novels, role-playing games, comic books and fan art:
For over 35 years, the Expanded Universe has enriched the Star Wars experience for fans seeking to continue the adventure beyond what is seen on the screen. When he created Star Wars, George Lucas built a universe that sparked the imagination, and inspired others to create. He opened up that universe to be a creative space for other people to tell their own tales.”
Despite all of the excitement online about the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser released last month (47 million YouTube views and counting), thousands of fans were heartbroken at what they did not see in these new stories about a galaxy far, far away: Mara Jade and the rest of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
In fact, Disney nearly destroyed this imaginary universe in a single press release. The Expanded Universe characters were exiled in a single sentence:
In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe.”
At the Star Wars Celebration, I spoke with a 17-year-old fan dressed as Mara Jade. She had a passionate response to Disney’s Expanded Universe decision:
I found out about that in school, I actually screamed ‘WHAT THE ACTUAL F***!?!’ Then I started getting louder and louder and my teacher said that we need to either stop this conversation or take it into the hall because people weren’t able to work with me screaming about this. Then I went home and cried a lot.”
While the Star Wars universe is changing, the EU is not being discarded. Disney has dubbed the Expanded Universe “legends,” but also noted: “Creators of new Star Wars entertainment have full access to the rich content of the Expanded Universe.”
So there is always the possibility that these great characters will return in some form, someday. But judging by the most recent trailer, none of the Heir to the Empire characters made the cut this time.
Illustrator Grant Gould dreams that Star Wars storytellers will bring back Grand Admiral Thrawn.
I’m hoping Disney will realize what a great character he is and maybe bring him back in a similar capacity somehow. That would be awesome.”
Thrawn was a brilliant and blue-skinned villain who brought back the Empire after its defeat at the end of The Return of the Jedi. He has inspired many pages of DeviantArt creations as well.
“I don’t think this will stop artists from making more EU art,” Gould concluded when I asked him about Disney’s Expanded Universe policy.
“When we were submitting ideas for our prints, I emailed my contact at Lucas Film and I was like, ‘would I be allowed to draw Thrawn?’ And they were like, ‘why not?’ So even though they’ve declared that it’s ‘legends,’ they are still all about letting us draw the characters. So who knows? As of now, my Thrawn print is the only official Thrawn Celebration print ever, but who knows? Maybe there will be more in the future? I hope so, because I love it.”
Beyond books, comic books and art, cosplay has played a major role in the evolving legacy of the Expanded Universe. After spending a full day on the convention floor at Star Wars Celebration, I reached the unscientific conclusion that Mara Jade is the most popular EU character for cosplayers.
Freelance illustrator Annie McBeth used her Mara Jade costume to show me the essential elements of Mara Jade cosplay: red hair, a sleeveless black shirt, leather shoulder harness, a belt, goggles and a scarf.
You can see how hundreds of cosplayers interpreted the famous character on DeviantArt:
Annie told me that Disney’s decision will never influence her cosplay adventures:
I’ll still dress up like Mara Jade. Because she’s fun. I look at it the same way as dressing up like mash-up Disney characters. It’s fun to come to conventions and see the die-hard fans. You can definitely tell the difference between film fans and expanded universe fans. They give you a look up and down, you can tell that they immediately recognize the character.”
Indeed, the convention was packed with cosplay fans wearing lovingly hand-crafted costume tributes to beloved character(s).
One group mashed up Stormtrooper suits with the white jumpsuits of Clockwork Orange hooligans; another crew combined Darth Vader and Santa Claus suits; or the stunning Snow White and Boba Fett costume that charmed my four-year-old daughter so much she ran across the courtyard shouting "Snow White! Snow White!”
Star Wars fans will never play by Disney rules. You can't control Star Wars mythology any more than you can refill a bottle of uncorked champagne. Mara Jade charmed millions of fans, and they will never be able to un-imagine her.
Watching my daughter run around with her Jedi robe and blue lightsaber, I vowed to teach her about the WHOLE Star Wars story—Mara Jade and the Expanded Universe are counting on these kids.
- Should massive media companies like Disney be able to re-write or erase massive parts of a beloved franchise? Should media companies do more to support fan art and fanfiction?
- What are your favorite Star Wars mash-ups on DeviantArt? What mash-ups would you like to see an artist create?
- How do you feel about the new Star wars trailer? Can it ever live up to your expectations?
- Who is your favorite Star Wars character? Have you ever created fan art or fan fiction about that character?
- Would you be open to allow other community members to write and create stories around your original Characters? If yes, what rules would you set in place for doing so?