Back in April 1999, it would have been hard to imagine what LEGO Star Wars sets might look like in twenty years, but it would have been even harder to predict how the LEGO fan community would evolve over the next two decades. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the LEGO Star Wars theme, I also wanted to take a moment to reflect on how LEGO Star Wars has affected my life, along with the lives of countless other LEGO fans all over the world.
The early days of LEGO Star Wars and the LEGO fan community online
Although I never experienced a “dark age” like so many other adolescent LEGO fans in the ’80s and ’90s, there was certainly a long period when I didn’t actively purchase LEGO sets or receive them as gifts — I just built with the LEGO I had. But when I graduated from university in the mid-’90s and landed my first job, the release of the Adventurers and Ninjas themes (two childhood dreams) drew me back to toy store shelves. I had also begun lurking on the early LEGO web, reading news and discussions on LUGNET, though I never could get over the paywall so I never joined and added my own voice to the conversations there.
I came to Star Wars late — growing up in Japan, Star Wars just wasn’t the big deal that it was in the ’80s in the United States, and I never saw the movies during their original run in the theater. It wasn’t until my wife and I went to see the re-releases in 1997 that I truly fell into Star Wars fandom. But right away, we were both hooked, quickly discovering the enormously varied Expanded Universe novels like the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn and the Dark Forces PC game from LucasArts. We caught up with the rest of geekdom pretty quickly! So when we learned that George Lucas was going to begin completing his grand vision of a 9-movie cycle with a new prequel trilogy, we were both incredibly excited.
It wasn’t too long after the announcement of the Prequel Trilogy that rumors began circulating online that LEGO had landed one of its earliest licensing deals, to produce a full range of LEGO sets based on both the new Prequel Trilogy and the Classic Trilogy. On April 9, 1999, months before the release of The Phantom Menace, I left work early in Framingham, Massachusetts and went to the Toys R Us just around the corner, worried that all the other LEGO and Star Wars fans in the area would have beat me to the shelves. I was in luck, and managed to fill my cart with a copy each of all the new sets — now-nostalgic classics like the original LEGO Star Wars X-wing, Anakin’s podracer, and more.
My wife was much less impressed with my sizeable haul of toys labeled Ages 6-12, but nevertheless did a remarkably tolerant job of appreciating all my exclamations of joy and surprise as I worked my way through every single LEGO Star Wars set over the next few evenings. Thinking back today, I can’t really remember clearly the specific thoughts that went through my head as I built each set — I hadn’t seen The Phantom Menace yet, but I certainly thought the podracers were cool, and I loved the fact that I finally owned an official LEGO X-wing, Y-wing, and Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced. All I can remember is sheer joy.
But what I loved most about that first wave of LEGO Star Wars sets was the minifigures. For years, I’d been building my own X-wings and TIE fighters, but they just weren’t quite as good as having a “real” Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader at the controls of their iconic starfighters. Now, not only did my LEGO X-wing have all the right markings, it was piloted by a grim-faced Luke in a gorgeous orange flight suit, accompanied by a chunky R2-D2 and Luke’s childhood friend from Tatooine, Biggs Darklighter.
What I wanted more than anything right then was to share my excitement with other LEGO builders. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone, and a LEGO fan named Tim Saupe had created a website called From Bricks to Bothans, with a free discussion forum. I had found my tribe.
The Prequel Trilogy, the color change controversy, and a second “dark age” for many older LEGO Star Wars fans
I spent the next four or five years discussing the latest LEGO Star Wars sets with people who had screen names like “Ace” and “Chief” and “Porschecm2”. Even though some of us were ultimately disappointed by the first two Prequel Trilogy movies themselves, many of us still had a passion for LEGO and for Star Wars more generally, and the community continued to thrive. I got my first digital camera and began sharing photos on Brickshelf.com of custom LEGO models like a K-wing starfighter from the expanded universe and dozens of LEGO Star Wars minifigures that LEGO hadn’t made official versions of yet.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Star Wars fans had begun to join the ranks of the online LEGO Star Wars fan community. Unencumbered with the baggage we older Star Wars fans carried, these youngsters blissfully enjoyed the high melodrama of the Prequel Trilogy. They used crafting supplies lying around their home to mark up Clone Trooper minifigures. They borrowed their moms’ flip-phones to take grainy photos of their custom Rexes and Fives and Codys and whatever. Their worst offense? They had the temerity to invade our sacred Internet spaces with ridiculous screen names like “Elite Clone Commando Tristan” and “Clone Captain Jeremy”. We couldn’t quite understand their unbridled enthusiasm. Where was the detached irony? Where was the aloof disinterest? Where was the unquestionable truth that everything older was inherently better?
In 2004, LEGO made one of its most controversial decisions. The company changed the color palette for grays and browns (along with a few rare colors), with a particularly noticeable difference in “old dark gray” and “dark bluish gray.” Older LEGO builders began calling the new grays “bley,” with connotations of “meh” and “blech.” (With many years of hindsight, the old colors look dingy while the new ones are much brighter and cleaner…) The same year, LEGO began producing minifigures for licensed themes like Star Wars and Harry Potter using more realistic skin tones. For those of us with LEGO collections stretching back to our childhoods in the 70’s or earlier, these changes represented a fundamental incompatibility with the bricks and minifigs in our existing collections — an existential threat to the viability of our lives as adult LEGO hobbyists.
Finally, George Lucas released the last movie in the Prequel Trilogy, and the cynicism and disappointment flowed freely from across the web.
For some of us, it was all just too much, so we took our toys with us and abandoned LEGO Star Wars communities like FBTB to the infinite hordes of Elite Clone Commandos and Clone Captains.
A new awakening
Over the next 10 years, I continued building with LEGO, attending my first in-person LEGO club meeting and LEGO convention in 2006, where I met many of the people I’d been chatting with online since 1999. I also started The Brothers Brick in 2005, and after a continued dalliance with minifigs we began featuring more and more larger creations, including fantastic LEGO Star Wars creations — many of them built from (gasp!) the new colors. Our intransigence had begun to erode.
In 2015, everything changed (again). Disney released its first Star Wars movie in a new trilogy, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, with the promise of new spin-offs in the Star Wars universe. The next year, they released what has become my all-time favorite Star Wars movie — yes, even surpassing the Original Trilogy — Rogue One. It wasn’t just okay to love Star Wars again, it was actually cool. In reality, many of us had never stopped buying LEGO Star Wars sets — how could we miss amazing releases between 2004 and 2015 like the original UCS Millennium Falcon in 2007 or Boba Fett’s UCS Slave I earlier in 2015?
The LEGO fan community had also come a long way in the intervening decade, shifting from forum websites like FBTB to a myriad of blogs and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, and most recently to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. This evolution did indeed fracture the LEGO fan community as many of us feared back in the earliest days of blogs and social media. But in doing so, they supported enormous growth and much greater diversity — everyone had a voice, and couldn’t be shouted down quite so easily by those of us who wanted Clone Captain Jeremy to get off our lawn (or green baseplate, as the case may be).
In those supposedly “dark” years between 2004 and 2015, something wonderful had actually transpired — the LEGO fan community had become much more open and inclusive (though we certainly still have a very long way to go). Those youngsters we looked down on had also grown into talented adult builders who began joining us at LEGO club meetings and conventions, outshining us all with their talent, honed through years of critiques and collaboration among themselves on the web. Similarly, thanks to new generations of LEGO designers, LEGO Star Wars sets themselves have improved exponentially, leaving behind those basic, flimsy vehicles that so many of us have remained nostalgic for, to be replaced with fantastically detailed, wonderfully sturdy models often indistinguishable from their “real-life” counterparts — and yet still intrinsically LEGO with studs exposed in key places, all built from bricks you can reuse for your own custom creations.
When I think back to the attitudes I shared with many of those old-timers back in the early days of the LEGO fan community online — the possessiveness, the defensiveness, the sense of superiority and exclusivity — I’m frankly ashamed. LEGO fandom shares many traits with geeky fandoms more generally, including a certain toxicity born of our own insecurities — what if that thing we love so much isn’t as great as we all insist it is? What if new people have new ideas about that favorite thing? What if I’m actually too old for all of this kid stuff? I’m just glad that many of us are still around to prove that we’ve grown up a bit ourselves, becoming more open and inclusive along the way. All of the people I named as members of FBTB back in the early days are still active LEGO builders today — and two of them are even members of the TBB team right now. “Porschecm2” is Chris Malloy and “Chief” is Ryan Wood.
Chris and Andrew give a presentation on their book Ultimate LEGO Star Wars at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.
There’s a lot to love about LEGO fandom and LEGO Star Wars fandom more specifically, not least the passion and creativity, so it’s great that we can share it with a new generation of builders.
And so, the LEGO Star Wars fan community has evolved in many of the same ways that the Star Wars movies have, if not the more noxious corners of Star Wars fandom — reflecting the true diversity of the real fandom, not just the self-selected few of us (mostly men, mostly white, mostly now over 40) who were “there at the beginning.”
To everyone who never saw the Classic Trilogy in a movie theater, to all those who weren’t there in a Toys R Us LEGO aisle on April 9, 1999, to everyone who’s ever sharpied a Clone Trooper, welcome — we’re glad to have you with us today. And to LEGO, thanks for a wonderful 20 years of LEGO Star Wars — here’s to another 200 more!