when Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, fans had no idea it would be a trilogy, let alone remain a household name 45 years later. But they knew they had seen something special and wanted more. So they created their own extended universe. Fan zines featuring art, fiction, and discussion of the film thrived long before any official sequel or spinoff. Most focused on the heroes – Luke, Han, Leia and Obi-Wan were all popular. But others were drawn to the film’s enigmatic villain, Darth Vader.
Today, the Sith Lord is a pop culture icon. But 1977 was three years before I Am Your Father. A new HOPE (though it wouldn’t be called that until its theatrical re-release in 1981) gave almost no details about the masked man. In fact, Vader only gets a little less than 10 minutes of screen time. He marches around the death star to ominous music and kills rebels, Imperial bureaucrats and Obi-Wan with equal apathy.
But there was a hint of something deeper. Fans picked up on the fact that, according to Obi-Wan, Vader had killed Luke’s father. With the lie now becoming notorious, it’s hard to remember what all fans once had to go on when thinking about Jedi and Sith history.
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For Dyane Kirkland, the hint of world history was more than enough. She saw Star Wars during its first performance in 1977 with a group of friends, and after the screening, they grabbed some food and immediately went to see it again. After that, they formed a group they called the First Terran Enclave of Jedi Knights and got to work. “We’ve all written fanfiction before, but nothing fancy or cohesive,” he says. But the gaps that remained Star WarsThe story and characterization pushed them to do more. “It looked like a caricature and we could make people out of these guys. We all picked our seats and Darth happened to be mine.”
People I spoke to in those early days of Star Wars fever usually used “Darth” as an abbreviation, rather than “Vader” – a holdover from a time before there were other Sith associated with the title “Darth” . With only the first film to go on, Kirkland envisioned the Sith as a civilization rather than a Force-based order and designated Darth as the son of its ruler. In her zine version, family problems, difficulty adjusting to the Jedi academy, and disagreements with Obi-Wan about the nature of the Force eventually led to his corruption. Although the details differed, it coincidentally ended up close to what would become canon years later in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
Kirkland went way back to explore how Vader could have ended up killing a theoretical Mr. Skywalker, and she wasn’t alone. As zines flourished, they were shared through mailing lists and conventions, many of them imagined at the same time. Reviews of one such story published in Pegasus magazine in October 1978 have been salvaged from the Fanlore wiki. Typical of the fandom at the time, some were thrilled that it portrayed him as completely evil – “[it] makes hating Vader even more fun,” says a now-anonymous review salvaged from Fanlore. Others disagreed. “I’m never given an understanding of the characters – especially Darth. WHY is he betraying the Jedi?’ asked another reader.
This was the same question Kirkland was trying to explore. His black and white morality Star Wars she didn’t care. “I’m very sorry about Darth Vader,” he laughs. “I said, nobody is that good or that bad. So what would a person do to join a group that accepted him, welcomed him and trained him and made him turn to them?’
Many of the people involved in the Star Wars fandom at the time were already involved in the Star Trek fandom, “which had a completely different view of things,” says Maggie Nowakowska, a fandom historian who co-edited the book. Geek Elders Speakanother member of the First Terran Enclave and the person who first invited Kirkland to see Star Wars. “All of us who came [from Trek fandom] brought a Star Trek attitude towards the bad guys. Nobody is bad.”
Optimism allowed us to explore Vader’s psychology, as well as imagine the universe’s politics, schooling, and religion. “It wasn’t like a love affair,” says Kirkland. “I wasn’t worried about its metal or non-metal parts or anything.”
Of course, some fans were worried about this. “There was a lot of discussion about how damaged the body was,” says Nowakowska. “This was largely a female fandom, and a lot of them wanted to push Vader’s buttons for him.”
Some of them were designed to be humorous. The jokes helped “create some distance” between fans and the atrocities committed by Vader and the Empire, Nowakowska says. Some of it was less. “He was big and tall and masculine,” she adds. However, Lucasfilm kept a close eye on fandom activities, including buying copies of many popular magazines. It had an “X rated” anti-permissive fiction policy and sent out numerous cease and desist letters, altogether discouraging the production of clear fiction. Outright Vader fans were outspoken and even defended the character. “I didn’t write Vader as a likable person,” Nowakowska says, “and this woman was really scolding me for not being fair to him. He had his point of view and he had his background and I should acknowledge that. So there were such people from the beginning.”
Fandom advocacy of Vader only intensified after its release The empire strikes back in 1980. This was the “golden age” of Star Wars fan zines, says fan contributor Tish Wells, with revelations about nearly every character leading to a burst of creativity. With the revelation of Luke’s parentage, for example, Darth Vader took on new light. “Suddenly you could write a much more multifaceted characterization of Darth and Luke,” he says. “Many of the gray areas started with Empire.”
Released after three years of fans interpreting the characters in their own way, The empire strikes back was a dispute among some fans. According to an essay in Geek Elders Speak written by longtime fan member Linda Deneroff, some argued that the film should be remade to remove the paternity plot. Some, like Kirkland, felt their stories had progressed far enough to ignore Empire and continue in their own way. Still others took the events of the film and ran with them.
Vader’s characterization was debated in letter zines, fan zines consisting mostly or entirely of comment letters and thus facilitated discussion and debate among fans before the Internet. One of these was Jundland Wastes, published between 1981 and 1983. In a 1989 story of the fan publication, Nowakowska showed a letter asking: “Vader chose to do evil, was he tricked into supporting the Empire or just careless? Is what he’s doing really bad?’ Another wrote: “Who thinks Vader is really Luke’s father? who doesn’t?”
The question of Vader’s villainy was, he wrote, “the first great controversy” in fandom. Wells recalls the extreme end of the pro-Vader side: “Darth cuddly.” Fans continued to produce stuffed toys of the villain, while a milder characterization appeared in illustrated fan works. Wells, who was working as a journalist at the time, saw too many real-world parallels to personally enjoy the approach. “I know what the real world is like,” he says. “Darth Vader was never friendly with me.”
Even fan works from when the characterization was streaked. In a 1981 comic by Rosemary Edgill, a female Empire propagandist tells Vader that she’ll make him look “really cute” before deflating at the reminder that he’s torturing rebels. “Go to the next one [page] where he basically throws everybody in a cage and roasts them over a fire,” Wells says.
In those early years, there wasn’t just one approach to dealing with Vader. “[There were] those that made him fully on the side of the Empire and fully in favor of this kind of government, and going after the ‘evil terrorists’ who were the rebels,” says Nowakowska. “There was the extremely nice crowd. And then there was the huge waist.”
In an era before the internet and constant releases, this spectrum played out over many years of collaborative fan fiction. Whether they loved to hate him, wanted to dig deep into his soul, or speculated about what was under his suit, they were asking and enjoying the questions long before the prequels came along to answer them – and even before we knew that Vader was a Skywalker.