ONE Saturday afternoon in 1977, a nine-year-old boy came home from seeing Star Wars for the first time – and started drawing.
Like children the world over, John White, of Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare in the Republic of Ireland, was desperately trying to preserve that life-changing experience in his memory, aware that it might be years before he saw the movie again.
In the ensuing months, those initial drawings turned into a full comic strip adaptation of the film. The amazing thing is that John finished it.
Today, those 200 pages of comic book are preserved on John’s website, Star Wars Age 9, along with his recollections of drawing them. And they provide a fascinating reminder of what it was like to grow up in the time of Star Wars.
John recalls being a “changed boy” after his visit to the Dara Cinema that December in Naas, Kildare’s county town.
“I got home and I grabbed the pencils and paper and I think Star Wars was accorded this special honour of being rendered in pencil. That’s what proper artists did, they used soft pencils,” he says.
“I got down on the sitting room floor and got my paper and sketched the detention block scene with Han and Luke escorting Chewie through the hexagonal shaped corridor.”
I first came across Star Wars Age 9 when I was planning Episode Nothing, my own blog about the original release of the film. Apart from showing a young talent beginning to flourish, I think the comic is a powerful reminder of how, in the days before home video, we first generation Star Wars fans tried to reassemble the film in our minds, drawing on whatever material we had.
John drew on the UK’s Star Wars Weekly (which came out in February 1978 and contained black-and-white reprints of the American Marvel adaptation), the novelization, the collector cards and “glimpses of the Star Wars Storybook which my friend Niall had, and which I coveted but couldn’t talk him into selling me”.
As the text on John’s site points out, the comic frequently contains details drawn from other versions of the story. Princess Leia spitting on Darth Vader’s battle-hot armour? It’s in the novel. Darth Vader levitating what appears to be a cup of coffee? Straight out of Marvel. These moments are a reminder that each of us surely nurtured our own individual version of Star Wars in our mind – the best amalgam we could create from our own memories and the other versions of the story that were around.
“Lots of people swear blind that they saw the scene with Luke and the Treadwell droid, the scenes with Biggs and all that,” John points out.
“Isn’t it interesting that that scene is as vivid in their imagination as the rest of the film? It’s amazing what the imagination can do.”
Two years after reconstructing Star Wars on paper, John was to try adapting Alien without even seeing the film. Since under-18s were banned from watching Ridley Scott’s movie, he rendered it from Alan Dean Foster’s novelization, with its eight pages of colour pictures, and his memories of a book of H.R. Giger’s artwork. That work is preserved too, as Alien Age 11.
John would eventually go to art college, studying animation and film-making at a time when tax breaks were drawing animation studios to Dublin. He spent five or six weeks as an ‘inbetweener’ on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “I was completely disillusioned within a day or two, doing this dreadful Saturday morning animation stuff,” he says.
When recession hit and the animation industry “went belly-up”, John found some work as an illustrator but retrained as a web designer.
Some time later, his dad returned to him a stack of childhood drawings which John had once told him to throw away. John was inspired to take out the Star Wars comic again.
“I thought, there’s 200 pages here. I actually created this while this phenomenon was taking the world by storm. This is a child’s response to what was going on and I thought it was probably a pretty unusual one as well,” he says.
Putting the comic online in 2009, initially as an act of preservation, was a major project – one he is repeating at the moment after the site was hacked. Along the way, he tried his hand at doing some of the pages again, “trying out comic art for the first time in three decades”. And the experience has inspired him to get back into illustration.
“Rediscovering that comic really made me rethink everything. It was like a message from my young self, as if via a time capsule,” says John, who now has a son of his own who is nearly nine.
“I did feel as if I’d betrayed my younger self because I see that really happy kid who was so enthusiastic about everything and excited about comics and movies and then there’s this person just dragging himself into work every day, faced with a life of staring at a monitor and typing code, seven hours a day, you know?
Recently, John has been working on a new online comic – one that, like Star Wars Age 9, is all about being young in the 1970s.
“I want to do something that’s very light and nice and nostalgic and charming – you know, the kind of thing that hopefully will tap into the shared, geeky experiences that a lot of people of my generation have from the late 70s,” he says. “Flared pants and funny wallpaper and long hair.”