When Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, fans had no idea it would be a trilogy, let alone remain a household name 45 years later. But they knew they had seen something special, and they wanted more. So they created their own extended universe. Fan zines with art, fiction, and discussion of the movie thrived long before any official sequels or spinoffs. Most focused on the heroes — Luke, Han, Leia, and Obi-Wan were all popular. But others were drawn in by the film’s enigmatic villain, Darth Vader.
Nowadays, the Sith Lord is a pop culture icon. But 1977 was three years before “I am your father.” A New Hope (though it wouldn’t be called that until its theatrical rerelease in 1981) gave almost no details about the man in the mask. In fact, Vader only gets a little under 10 minutes of screen time. He strides around the Death Star with ominous music playing and kills rebels, Empire bureaucrats, and Obi-Wan with equal dispassion.
But there was a hint at something deeper. Fans seized on the fact that, according to Obi-Wan, Vader had killed Luke’s father. With the lie now becoming infamous, it’s hard to remember that it was once all fans had to go on when thinking about the history of the Jedi and the Sith.
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For Dyane Kirkland, the hint of in-world history was more than enough. She saw Star Wars during its first run in 1977 with a group of friends, and after the showing, they grabbed some food and then immediately went to watch it again. After that, they formed a group they called the First Terran Enclave of Jedi Knights and got to work. “We had all done fan writing before, but not anything fancy or cohesive,” she says. But the gaps left in Star Wars’ story and characterization spurred them to do more. “It seemed like a caricature, and we could actually make people out of these guys. We all picked our spots, and Darth just happened to be mine.”
The people I spoke to about those early days of Star Wars fever typically use “Darth” as a shorthand, rather than “Vader” — a holdover from a time before there were any other Sith who had been attached to the “Darth” title. With only the first movie to go on, Kirkland envisioned the Sith as a civilization rather than a Force-based order, and cast Darth as the son of its ruler. In her zine-published version, family troubles, difficulty fitting in at the Jedi academy, and disagreements with Obi-Wan about the nature of the Force ultimately led to his corruption. Though the details differed, it coincidentally ended up close to what would become canon years later in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
Kirkland went far back to explore just how Vader might have ended up killing a theoretical Mr. Skywalker, and she wasn’t alone. As zines thrived, shared through mailing lists and conventions, many of them imagined the moment itself. Reviews of one such story published in the zine Pegasus in October 1978 have been saved by the fan wiki Fanlore. Characteristically of the fandom at the time, some were enthusiastic that it portrayed him as totally evil — “[it] makes hating Vader all the more fun,” says a now-anonymous review saved by Fanlore. Others disagreed. “I am never given an understanding of the characters — particularly Darth. WHY does he betray the Jedi?” asked another reader.
This was the same question that Kirkland was trying to explore. The black-and-white morality of Star Wars didn’t interest her. “I’m a great apologist for Darth Vader,” she laughs. “I said, nobody’s all that good or that bad. So what would have caused a person to come into a group that accepted him, welcomed him, and trained him and have him turn on them?”
Many of the people involved in Star Wars fandom at the time had already been part of Star Trek fandom, “which had a totally different viewpoint on things,” says Maggie Nowakowska, a fandom historian who co-edited the book Geek Elders Speak, another member of the First Terran Enclave and the person who first invited Kirkland to see Star Wars
The optimism provided an opportunity to explore Vader’s psychology, as well as imagining the politics, schooling, and religion of the universe. “It wasn’t like a love affair,” says Kirkland. “I wasn’t worried about his metal or non-metal parts or whatever.”
Of course, some fans were worried about that. “There was a lot of discussion about how damaged the body was,” Nowakowska says. “This was a female fandom to a great extent, and a lot of them wanted to punch Vader’s buttons for him.”
Some of it was designed to be humorous. Jokes helped to “create some distance” between fans and the atrocities Vader and the Empire committed, says Nowakowska. Some of it was less so. “He was big and tall and masculine,” she adds. However, Lucasfilm kept a close eye on the fandom’s activities, including buying copies of many popular zines. It had a policy against allowing “X-rated” fanfiction and sent several cease-and-desist letters, discouraging the production of explicit fic overall. Outright Vader fans were outspoken and even defensive of the character. “I did not write Vader as a likable person,” says Nowakowska, “and this one woman really argued with me that I was not being fair to him. He had his point of view and he had his background and I should recognize that. So there were people like that right from the very beginning.”
The fandom defense of Vader only intensified after the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. This was the “golden age” of Star Wars fan zines, says fan contributor Tish Wells, with revelations about almost every character leading to a burst of creativity. With the reveal of Luke’s parentage, for instance, Darth Vader took on a new light. “Suddenly you could write a much more multifaceted characterization of Darth and Luke,” she says. “A lot of the gray areas started with Empire.”
Released after three years of fans interpreting the characters in their own way, The Empire Strikes Back was contentious among some fans. According to one essay in Geek Elders Speak written by longtime fandom member Linda Deneroff, a few argued that the movie ought to be reshot to remove the fatherhood plot point. Some, like Kirkland, felt that their stories had progressed far enough that they could ignore Empire and continue in their own way. Still others took the events of the movie and ran with them.
Vader’s characterization was argued over in letter zines, fan zines that primarily or entirely feature letters of comment and so facilitated discussion and debate among fandoms before the internet. One of these was Jundland Wastes, published between 1981 and 1983. In a 1989 history of the fan publication, Nowakowska pointed to a letter that asked, “Did Vader choose to do evil, was he tricked into supporting the Empire, or was he simply inattentive? Is what he’s doing really evil at all?” Another read, “Who believes that Vader is really Luke’s father; who doesn’t?”
The question of Vader’s evil was, she wrote, “the first big controversy” in the fandom. Wells recalls the more extreme end of the pro-Vader side: “cuddly Darth.” Fans went on to produce stuffed toys of the villain, while a softer characterization appeared in illustrated fan works. Wells, who worked as a journalist at the time, saw too many real-world parallels to personally enjoy the approach. “I know what the real world is like,” she says. “Darth Vader was never cuddly to me.”
Even fan works from the time ribbed the characterization. In a 1981 comic by Rosemary Edghill, a female Empire propagandist tells Vader she’ll make him appear “really cuddly” before becoming deflated by the reminder he tortures rebels. “You go to the next [page] where he’s basically throwing everyone in a cage and roasting them over a fire,” says Wells.
In those early years, there was simply no one approach for dealing with Vader. “[There were] those who made him fully on the Empire’s side and fully in favor of that kind of a government, and going after the ‘nasty terrorists’ that the rebels were,” says Nowakowska. “There was the extremely sympathetic crowd. And then there was the vast middle.”
In a time before the internet and constant releases, that spectrum played out across years of collaborative fan imagination. Whether they loved to hate him, wanted to dig deep into his psyche, or were speculating about what was under his suit, they were asking and enjoying the questions long before the prequels came along to answer them — and even before we knew Vader was a Skywalker.