Looking back on 20 years of LEGO Star Wars and the LEGO fan community [Editorial]

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?

Swooshing the UCS Slave IAndrew swooshes the UCS Slave I at its unveiling in 2014.

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!

7 comments on “Looking back on 20 years of LEGO Star Wars and the LEGO fan community [Editorial]

  1. JayCal

    Wow, the old FBTB days sure bring back memories! Tim Saupe was great and I sure have fond memories of the forums (I think my nick was malastarianmadness or something like that). Bruce Lowell was also a frequent member there. Loved reading this post! Greetz, JayCal

  2. Purple Dave

    LUGNET’s “paywall” didn’t really exist at that time. Sure, if you wanted full access, like the ability to log in to an account, you needed to make a one-time payment for membership. But you could post as a non-member if you didn’t mind constantly having to verify your posts by clicking links in e-mails (something I find myself doing with TBB now, to set up reply notifications).

    And I think it was 2002 when I bumped into Tim from FBTB at LEGO Direct. I was just finishing up a tour of their tiny office when he arrived for his own. Loved the site, but I was decidedly less impressed with the man himself. It felt like as soon as he found out that I was a fan of Bionicle, he blew me off and couldn’t disengage fast enough. That single experience resulted in me having rather mixed emotions when he decided to quit his own site and hand it off to people who, at least at them time, appeared more welcoming of different flavors of AFOLdom.

  3. Alldarker

    Ohh I’ve been a long time member of FBTB, but I most definitely remember the ‘holier than thou’ mentality, the fact that you could even DISCUSS leakes or rumours and the annoying moderation of some of the moderators that drove me away from that site. They used to be pretty in touch with Lego, and I remember that they were granted the scoop for the 10144 Sandcrawler, but they totally lost the connection.

  4. warhawk

    Thank you for this feature, it is a flashback to many good memories for me.

    LEGO Star Wars, and especially set 7181 UCS TIE Interceptor in a battered box at TRU (7191 X-Wing was too expensive for student-me, but I got two later on :-))brought me back to LEGO after my dark ages.

    Then I searched the internet and saw that other people – particularly Gareth Bowler – had build far superior UCS models and I decided that I wanted to try this, too. I joined FBTB and started building UCS models. I spent some great years on those forums and on some conventions around Europe.

    Nowadays they look antiquated to me as building techniques (not all of which I would consider legal ;-)) and of course aprts and colour variety has improved over the last 20 years.

    Unfortunately real life has taken its toll and I cannot keep up with modern builders anymore. But it is still great to follow. So: thank you TBB (for my daily LEGO fix), FBTB (for an early digital home), Gareth (for inspiration and great communication), TLG (for the bricks).

    Reto “warhawk” Geiger

  5. Tupperfan

    Star Wars has always been relatively peripheral in my Lego interests, but I bought a few SW sets over the years, including a bunch from the very first wave, with many still sealed in their boxes. It’s hard to imagine now, with Star Wars and other licensed themes being such a staple of the Lego offering, but the (special edition) shockwave made by these original sets hit Lego fans extremely hard back in 1999!

    Thanks for the review and memories!

  6. Brian Tobin

    Great article! I’m actually celebrating my own 40th anniversary of Star Wars Lego building this year! I made an R2-D2 in 1979 (even have a photo of it) and then in the ’80s I built quite a few different ships from scratch, most of which survive to this day in either original or rebuilt, albeit heavily evolved, form. I actually remember FBTB fondly (I was errbt there – Hi Reto!) and miss it. As Reto mentioned, Gareth’s work was excellent, as were other top builders there, and it’s fun to see how advanced some of the modern builders have become! I do indeed miss the old FBTB, but fortunately there are some good facebook Star Wars Lego groups. I do still occasionally build my own customs from scratch, but mostly just I mod, sometimes a bit and sometimes heavily, official sets to make them more accurate…and yes, for anyone who remembers me from FBTB, my 35 year old Millennium Falcon is still together and still evolving! It’s currently undergoing another complete interior rework/recolorization.

    Brian “errbt” Tobin

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