Mediascene: Star Wars and the Magazine of Tomorrow's Entertainment
“One of the most exciting and imaginative film productions in years is currently underway…”
Astute words from the introduction to the November-December 1976 issue of Mediascene magazine. Formerly known as Comixscene, this issue began Mediascene’s fifth year of publication and its editor and noted comic book artist Jim Steranko had every reason to be enthusiastic – his magazine had been granted a privileged behind the scenes look into the creation of Star Wars. He explains:
"We were overwhelmed by George Lucas’ Star Wars, by the quality of the design, the scope of the story, the fidelity to the technology, and the money which was being spent on the production.
Coincidentally, Charles Lippincott, an executive of the Star Wars Corporation, viewed Mediascene in much the same kind of terms. Up to this point, only a very limited amount of data on the film has been released for publication to any periodical. Therefore, we are more than pleased to report that Mr. Lippincott has considered Mediascene significant enough to make an exception by granting us an exclusive on the making of Star Wars."
With Ralph McQuarrie’s updated rendition of a TIE Fighter Pilot’s cockpit view on the cover (an earlier version of which was also featured in 20th Century-Fox’s “26 for 76” Campaign Book), the issue centered around a three-part Star Wars preview.
The central piece was an article by Carl Macek which covered the film’s characters, story, special effects, and bios of the cast and crew. Most visually captivating were representations of some of the film’s "rockets, fighters and other technology oriented equipment" that "reveal the lengths to which Lucas has gone in his reach for superior film entertainment.” Macek notes that “Star Wars is so ‘far out’ that neither Earth, Earthmen, or even our entire solar system is ever mentioned during the course of the drama. One gets the eerie feeling after digesting the story that the heroes, villains and characters of the film have never heard of Earth or its inhabitants." Funnily enough, this was a somewhat surreal detail that struck me about Star Wars movies from a young age. I loved that Earth and its realities had nothing to do with them.
Much like most pre-release descriptions of Star Wars concepts and characters, those found in the article are interesting to read in hindsight. Macek describes the Death Star as a "huge, living weapon" which serves as "the Imperial government’s newest berserker" and defines Luke as being "cut along the traditional hero, tall, handsome, relentlessly capable." This seems to be more in line with the Hildebrandt/Jung interpretation of Skywalker than Mark Hamill’s gee-whiz, relatably down-to-earth performance. Capable? Absolutely. Relentlessly so? Not so sure, but he does care…
Revealing plot points for a Star Wars film is a most taboo subject in today’s media, but Mediascene essentially lays it all out. At that point, it was unclear who would really care. Our heroes’ "unique skills...confound the star troopers to such a degree that their ultimate escape is accomplished with relative ease (except for an important casualty during the confrontation with Lord Darth Vader of the Death Star)." Stating that a key character meets their death so matter-of-factly is kind of ludicrous. Less so is affirming that the good guys do indeed prevail at the end, and Macek puts it eloquently: "The ultimate success of the rebels is costly, yet the sweetness of freedom and the dedication to their cause more than makes up for the sacrificed lives. The combat has been won – the war is another matter, possibly to be solved in some future sequel."
Macek goes on to provide coverage of the film’s production and the artists behind its look, namely Ralph McQuarrie and Los Angeles-based artist Ron Cobb, who was "commissioned to visualize a series of aliens which populate Star Wars. His creatures range from an ambulatory plant which sips cocktails to a huge, surly rhinoceros-like beast who appropriately sits bored and alone." How sad.
Closing the article is a preliminary survey of the film’s forthcoming multimedia pre-release buzz, from the comic book adaptation and novelized screenplay to a sequel book, "making of" book, and a volume of illustrations that were all slated for the months ahead. Macek comments that this "manipulation of Star Wars through a variety of medias merely suggests the tremendous interest the producers feel the film will generate." If he only knew. Well, perhaps he did?
"Though there are those who will probably refer to Star Wars as nothing more than ‘popcorn,’ the film easily transcends such a description….who’s to say that sometime in the far future, Star Wars won’t be considered in the same terms as The Three Musketeers, Les Miserables, Tale of Two Cities and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table."
The issue’s second Star Wars feature offers a preview of the film’s opening sequence through a comic strip style assembly of storyboard illustrations by production designer Alex Tavoularis.
Lastly, Marvel’s serialization of the film is highlighted with commentary from prolific comic writer Roy Thomas. Adapting a movie that had yet to hit theaters presented certain challenges. Particularly, it was important for Thomas not to contradict things big and small that may be occurring on screen. For instance, "finding out if there are going to be sound effects in outer space." The feature goes on to say that "...with the initial episodes being released prior to the film’s opening…It is hoped in that way that the public will be made aware of Lucas’ project well in advance, allowing for a build-up of interest and an elimination of an uncertainty about the nature of the film."
As for the potential continuation of the comic series: "the possibility exists for adapting the sequel to Star Wars which has already been written as a novel by Alan Dean Foster." Knowing now that Marvel’s Star Wars series would be a major factor in the company averting financial disaster, the article’s final statement rings ever true: "The entire project will be weighed against the ultimate success of the movie…Whatever happens...the first six issues will prove to be an interesting and highly imaginative barometer of the shape of things to come."
“Several months ago, Jim Treloar of the Detroit News called to interview us regarding the Star Wars phenomenon and our early (Dec 1976) coverage of the film. Though little actual paid promotion and advertising had been seen in the area, he related, the film was playing to sell-out crowds. In attempting to discover the source of their knowledge about the movie, he found numerous individuals in the waiting line with our Star Wars issue tucked under their arms. One of his questions to us was simply, ‘Where is it all going?’” - Jim Steranko
Shortly after the film blasted its way into theaters across the United States, Mediacene’s July-August 1977 issue continued the magazine’s reporting on the "runaway avalanche" that was Star Wars, claiming that though "it would seem that everything that can be said about the film has been said. Don’t you believe it." With a previously unpublished character ensemble painting by Ralph McQuarrie gracing the cover, the issue delved deeper into the "ontogeny Star Wars went through" over the previous five years leading up to its release.
Mediascene had been invited to Charles Lippincott’s offices at Twentieth Century-Fox and exposed to a number of production sketches, poster renderings, and finished artwork. This visit formed the basis for the issue’s two main features. The first of which from Carl Macek, entitled "The Star Wars That Never Was," compares concept art and final photos of the main characters and outlines the different iterations of the film’s script, one of which involving a battle featuring an army of villainous "Wookies” atop "strange, ostrich-like creatures.”
It also details the trials and tribulations of the film’s marketing and publicity campaigns, including the development of various poster designs. More specifically, the article mentions Charlie White’s swashbuckling commissioned poster (which would eventually become the key art for the 1978 Style D re-release) as a forthcoming limited edition print to be released later in 1977.
In terms of sequel talk and unsubstantiated rumors, Macek states that Alan Dean Foster’s follow-up novel (the soon-to-be Splinter of the Mind’s Eye) was ”still being written, but it is not necessarily going to be used as source material or as a script for Star Wars II (or whatever the title may be),” and that despite reiterations to the contrary from Lippincott, fans were "still proclaiming ‘facts’” like “Darth Vader will be killed off in Star Wars II” or that the sequel had already been filmed.
Regardless of reckless speculation, Macek argues that source material from artists like McQuarrie & co. that "attempted to visualize the unknown...will be the backbone of Star Wars’ marketing future.” With the heavy presence of McQuarrie designs that continued through the Prequel Trilogy and remains steady in the Disney era, Macek could not have been more right.
Oversaturation and nefarious exploitation were other early concerns. With bootlegged video tapes allegedly selling for as much as $450 in the Los Angeles underground market at the time, Macek denotes video piracy as the "true Lost Star Wars.” The Super 8 reels from Ken Films were just not enough for an American audience that had "gone Star Wars crazy,” and whose "apparent insanity [could] only destroy the mystique surrounding the film.” Ending on a more positive note, Macek observes that appreciating "these brief glimpses of what was and what could have been” gives "greater recognition to the artists and technicians that helped give birth to a remarkable film. The force is with them. The rest of us are just spectators.”
Star Wars "games, goodies and gimmicks” are at the forefront of the issue’s third feature, “The Star Wars Marketplace,” in which material on Kenner toys and electronic games "Regrettably...could not be released for publication.” Readers needn’t fear, as there was still plenty of merchandise that they were bound to find “wild and wondrous.”
With the flood of inquiries to the Star Wars Corporation regarding rights to "produce everything from beach towels to cute little ‘cling-on’ Wookies,” it was "only thanks to the discriminating taste of Charles Lippincott and his staff that the world [was] not flooded with a barrage of pointless, cheesey Star Wars ephemera.”
One of the more bizarre passages from the article is an alert about contingents of Star Wars Merch Militia narcing on unlicensed products in major cities:
"...one might be forewarned to be on the look out for bands of wandering youths dressed in black outfits marching through stores that sell Star Wars merchandise. Much of the stuff that is currently available...is unauthorized...In the Los Angeles area, and in other select population centers, fans are organizing to stamp out the unlawful sale of Star Wars items. They patrol the local shops and keep tabs on the merchandise. If anything seems shady they call the authorities. [LFL Director of Publications] Carol Wikarska describes it like this: ‘The fans of Star Wars are really dedicated. I got a call the other day from San Jose. An unidentified voice, belonging to a teenager, told me of a carpet store that was using Star Wars theme music over an image of a space ship gliding on top of a carpet. They just wanted us to know about it.’”
As it turns out, "apparent insanity” and Star Wars fans have had long-standing connection. Well, perhaps a unique combination of insanity and devotion.
Tom Chantrell’s Style C poster artwork donned Mediascene’s March-April 1978 issue, whose main Star Wars story, "Star Wars Times Twelve,” dealt with disclosing early details of the first upcoming sequel – which it reported as having a target release date of Christmas 1979 – and the probable propagation of eleven additional chapters. But before then, the original film’s first official re-release was set for the "high-yield school vacation summer season” of 1978, and with the "reputation of the film” having been made, its new key artwork by Charlie White (the Style D “Circus” poster) placed emphasis "on the derring-do of its characters, a natural outgrowth of sequel planning.”
From there, the article digs into early rumors for "Star Wars 2,” such as "an appearance of the Emperor, with Lucas suggesting Patrick McGoohan for the role, and Twentieth Century-Fox voting for Christopher Lee.” Furthermore, the piece attests that “Darth Vader does indeed live, but will probably make a very limited screen appearance, allowing the film to focus on the intricacies of character development, and the wider scope of Rebel/Empire politics. The Solo/Vader/Skywalker triangle all manage to converge for the climactic (and commercially necessary) reunion and conflict.”
On the production side, it’s specified that science fiction writer Leigh Brackett’s October, 1977 reading of Alan Dean Foster’s manuscript for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye formed the basis of her initial screenplay draft for the new film and that Ray Harryhausen had "reportedly been contacted to provide the various beasts and creatures needed for the jungle-planet sequences, and the outlook for his participation is within the realm of probability because his four-picture deal with Columbia [was] not restricted by time limitations.” Though Tauntauns and AT-ATs definitely embody the stop-motion legend’s work, the Lucas-Harryhausen collaboration was never meant to be, as he would go on to work on Columbia's Clash of the Titans beginning in May, 1979.
With Star Wars came a Sci-Fi resurgence and the article closes with a roundup of competition rising to respond, from Dino DeLaurentis’ Flash Gordon remake and Star Trek: The Motion Picture to a purported "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind" on the big screen to Battlestar Galactica and The Martian Chronicles on television, among others. But Star Wars still reigned supreme, having "unleashed cosmic forces upon the universe that dwarf[ed] the efforts of any NASA space project. All the excitement and adventure of science, fiction and fantasy are being realized within our lifetime thanks to Flash Gordon, $9.5 million worth of faith – and a dream.”
By 1980, Mediascene had been renamed Mediascene Prevue and the first issue’s cover under this new banner brandishes a self-described "explosive visual impression” of The Empire Strikes Back by Jim Steranko himself, who declared that "PREVUE will forecast how you’ll spend your time and money a week, a month, a year – and even longer – from now.”
This Empire-focused July-August 1980 publication contains correspondence in the "Letters from Readers” section that feels strikingly relevant given the franchise’s more recent history.
Below is Prevue's official response, which is reasonable if not slightly underhanded (pun intended) with regard to Luke's rumored lost appendage.
Tracy and her sister Nancy’s "Against the Sith" was among the first Star Wars fanzines, and the pair would go on to write and distribute a nine-page "Open Letter to Star Wars Fans” decrying the characterizations and plot of The Empire Strikes Back. They purportedly called for a fan boycott and demanded that George Lucas destroy all copies of the film. Though the Duncans eventually came around on the film in public comments, their initial outrage has a familiar flavor.
Controversies and rumors aside, the issue's main feature was "The Empire File: An Exclusive Report on the Fantastic Sequel to Star Wars,” (or the "E File” for short) which broke down everything fans needed to know about the new film. At the heart of the E-File was an interview with director Irvin Kershner about his filmmaking background and what brought him to Star Wars. Kershner had attended a Saturday morning screening of the original film with his then 10-year-old son at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and beautifully expresses seeing Star Wars vicariously through the lenses of youth:
"I watched him all through the show, and was shocked at his response. His mouth was open; he kept laughing, on the edge of his seat. That’s the way I was as a kid, watching a good western with Buck Jones or Tim McCoy. He was enamored of the film, completely attentive and trying to figure it out. He just went with it. We talked about it afterward, and I thought, if I’d seen the picture alone – just walked into a theater without knowing anything about it – I would really have wondered what all the hoopla was about. But, seeing it with him, I realized what it was. The picture appealed directly to his psyche, to his dream world. It made me think quite a bit, made me analyze what the hell pictures really are.”
Empire’s director would only watch Star Wars one more time (on a Moviola, no less) before beginning work on the sequel, which speaks to how distinct the two films turned out to be.
The E File’s next section consists of character profiles for returning cast members and new players. "Thermo-capsulary dehousing assister” is listed as one of R2-D2’s abilities, while Obi-Wan Kenobi is fittingly designated as a “Jedi Knight in Retirement.” Concerning the mysterious Boba Fett, Prevue participates in some more of the misdirection they mention in their response to the Duncan sisters, pondering, "Is he another one-time student of Ben Kenobi who sides with the victors in the war between the Jedi and the Empire? No one knows – yet.”
Following an interview with Ralph McQuarrie from February 14th, 1980 is an Afterword from George Lucas, who warns readers that Empire is "probably as presold to the movie-going public as any film has ever been, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to love it...I guess I’m the biggest pessimist around here. After all, I said the very same thing about the first one.”
When Return of the Jedi was released, Prevue had shifted completely toward a traditional magazine format and the June-July 1983 issue’s coverage of the film is solely comprised of an interview Jim Steranko conducted with director Richard Marquand during post-production work in Los Angeles. Marquand comes across as both joyous and down-to-business, with enough enthusiasm to make up for a lack of depth present in Mediascene’s previous Star Wars commentary.
Upon learning that he’d landed the directing job, Marquand remembers, "I called my wife, and said, ‘I’ve got it! I’m going out to get drunk!’” His favorite scene from the film was a standout that can easily be overlooked given the scale of the spectacle: Luke and Vader’s private conversation in the causeway on Endor. He had high praise for Mark Hamill, who he considered as “totally imbued with the Star Wars ethic, the mythology. He knows exactly where Chewbacca comes from; he knows where Han is going, and all the others, too. Mark is the expert, next to George. Mark knows it, lives it, breathes it. From that point of view, you can rely on him to say, ‘Luke wouldn’t do that – it’s wrong,’ which is very useful.” Marquand also insightfully envisioned Carrie Fisher having “a tremendous future as a comedienne.”
Having high hopes for a certain bounty hunter, Steranko predicts that "we don’t learn the secret of Boba Fett until the last trilogy... I know that George plants threads that will be utilized later, and I’m certain Boba Fett is one of them.” I wonder how Steranko felt about Attack of the Clones…
A Jedi discussion would not be complete without addressing the array of new monsters and aliens that inhabited the set, and Marquand’s descriptions are fun. One such creature is "a layabout hanger-on, a drinking buddy of Jabba named Bibb Fortuna. He’s taller than Darth Vader with a kind of ghastly slug-like pinkish color, as though he’s never seen the sun.” Admiral Ackbar, a "Calamari man” who “involves the whole Calamari race in the Rebel fight at the climax” is a favorite of his. When asked if there were other Yoda-like characters brought to life with puppetry, he mentions Nien Nunb, a "small Mongolian with huge black eyes; his nose quivers when he’s nervous. He wears a leather flying helmet, and every now and again, he’ll burst out laughing in a sort of Tora Tora Tora way.”
With a sequel trilogy still on his mind, Steranko surmises that "Spielberg will eventually direct one. And John Milius told me he’d like to do the last one, the ninth and final Star Wars film.” In 1983, both circumstances must have seemed quite plausible and are intriguing what-ifs to think about. In any case, directing a Star Wars film certainly requires a level head. And for as big a movie as Return of the Jedi was, Steranko’s assessment of Richard Marquand as being "Disgustingly well adjusted” is a Star Wars director prerequisite that remains suitable to this day.