The Empire Strikes Back: The Illustrated Edition
I am watching the Disney+ documentary Light and Magic, about the formation and early years of visual-effects powerhouse ILM, and loving it!
I’m halfway through so I’ll comment when I’ve finished it.
But revisiting that initial Star Wars era, and the genius VFX artists who brought it to life, reminded me of my favorite book when I was a kid: the novelization by Donald F. Glut of The Empire Strikes Back.
But not just any edition—specifically, the slightly oversized edition illustrated by Ralph McQuarrie concept-art sketches.
This book was the best! I discovered it during “silent reading,” the period after lunch where our third/fourth grade hybrid class (it was a small school, West Tisbury) would go to the school library to read.
This was the fall of 1982, and I was in public elementary school—third grade—for the first time. I had gone to a Montessori preschool, and stayed in it (with a small group of older students) for the equivalent of kindergarten, first and second grade.
We had our “big kids” class at Montessori in the upstairs of the house at what is today Arrowhead Farm; downstairs was the pre-school. It was good in that I got individual attention and could learn as fast as I wanted.
By the spring of 1982, however, I was quarreling with teachers at Montessori and had pretty much outgrown it, so my parents realized it was time to put me in public school.
This was a traumatic experience because on the one hand I was academically advanced—but on the other, I was socially far, far behind. I was brainy, small, awkward, Jewish, lonely...
Would you believe I became fascinated by science fiction?
My brother and I loved Star Wars from the Kenner toys, photo-illustrated Storybooks and NPR radio show, though we actually hadn’t seen the films yet. (This is pre-VCR for us.)
By the fall of 1982, Star Wars mania was at fever-pitch, to find out if Darth Vader really was Luke’s father. And this illustrated book was just the most amazing adventure—even though I was terrified by the “body horror” of frozen Han Solo.
Plus, I was something of a junior artist. I loved drawing—first birds, then landscapes, then the island ferry boats.
When I saw McQuarrie’s sketches, they were rough enough that I imagined, hey, I could do that! Specifically, this picture of a snowspeeder attached to a power generator inspired me to pick up an artist’s pencil and try myself:
The first two movies offered so many awesome ships to draw. Then, when Return of the Jedi came out in May 1983 (at the end of the school year), there was a whole new toy–line worth of vehicles, my favorite being the Imperial shuttle.
I don’t have any of “junior art” on hand to show, but it is all safe and sound in my mom’s basement.
After Empire, I moved on to read other novelizations: of Star Wars, the early Star Trek movies, the James Blish Star Trek television adaptations (plus Spock Must Die!), and Battlestar Galactica.
I really adored the novelizations for how deeply they brought you into the sci-fi worlds. You know, like novels.
The books belonged to the school library, so I bought my own copies to re-read at home, but when I special-ordered (or somehow acquired) the Empire adaptation, it was the regular edition, without art. What a bummer!
It wasn’t until I as grown up that I sought out and ordered my own copy of the Illustrated Edition.
In recent years, I bought the huge coffee table book, The Art of Ralph McQuarrie, which I absolutely love.
It came in a plastic wrapping, which I’ve kept it inside for safekeeping. Within the past few months, my daughter Madeline saw it on the bookcase, and asked, “Dada, why is that book in plastic?”
I said, “Because it’s special!”