Monday, February 09, 2015


Yes: I remember Star Wars Trading Cards. They were very much a thing.

A very American thing. Tiny little Bazooka Joe bubblegums with tiny little cartoon strips, which weren't funny and were full of references to "principals" and "coaches" and "baseball" and "kids" who formed "gangs" in "alleys" near "fire hydrants". I suppose that an American child would have been just as puzzled by the Beano. If you collected 10,000 or 100,000 strips you could trade them in for a gift. I don't know if anyone ever did. I don't know if the offer even worked in the UK, although I did get a club membership goody bag, with a plastic ring which was already too small for my fingers. It was meant to whistle. You were meant to communicate with other members of the gang using morse code.  

American comics still had tiny small ads for novelties inside the front covers and I believed in every single one of them: the disc that would allow you to hypnotize people; the giant robot that obeyed your commands. Plans for a giant robot, I think it was. In the long decade between Turnabout Intruder and V'Ger, Star Trek was such a small thing that memorabilia was being flogged alongside sea monkeys and live (guaranteed) sea horses: a replica Tricorder (I suppose the Aurora snap together kit); cuddly Tribbles; rubber Spock ears. The tenth anniversary of the original series conveniently fell in 1976 and could therefore be referred to as the Tennial. (The US Bicentennial was very nearly as big as the Queen's Silver Jubilee.) There was a silver plated medallion to commemorate it. It must, I suppose, have been very very easy to commission silver plated medallions. One of the first pieces of merchandize I ever saw advertised was a silver plated Spider-Man medallion. If I had bought it, then by now it would be worth very little.

I could conceive of saving up a pound and somehow turning it into two dollars and somehow sending it to America and getting a life size model of the Star Ship Enterprise (with real warp drive) months later via boat-mail. There were mythical aunts with American bank accounts, and legendary documents called International Reply Coupons. (This was before Paypal.) But collecting a thousand pieces of bubble gum was too far fetched even for me.

Bubble gum was almost as prohibited as tobacco at school. Cigarettes killed you, but bubble gum made a mess under the desk, stuck to people's shows, and spread diseases. You could be slapped for possessing either, although no-one ever was. Chewing gum was somewhat different. Grown ups chewed chewing gum. It was and is sold in serious little packets as if it was headache tablets or condoms. Bubblegum came in colorful "hey-kids!" packaging. It would kill you if you swallowed it; choke you to death; stay in your stomach for the rest of your life. And there was something not quite nice about a sweet that you put in your mouth in order to spit it out again. No-one minded about the Great British Gobstopper.

I suppose that at one time, cards had been given away free with gum; and as time went by the gum got less and less important and the cards got more and more important and you ended with five picture cards that came with a small flat strip of bubblegum that turned to powder in your mouth. Football cards were different. No gum in football cards, so far as I remember, although possibly if you collected enough you could trade them in for a toasted sandwich. (*) I remember sheets of stickers as well. Dozens of tiny stamp sized stickers one, not on any particular theme, just things that might come in useful to a ten year old boy: "Top Secret"; "We Hate School";  "No Girls Allowed". Like gum, it felt thrillingly naughty even to handle one because a friend of a friend in a different class had definitely been slapped for putting one on text book.

Just before there were Star Wars cards, there were Marvel Comics cards. It sort of bothered me that people who were not Marvel Comics fans were allowed to collect them. There was one golden play time when a cool kid with a big collection challenged me to name all the characters, which I could do easily, and everyone was (for about an hour) un-ironically impressed. But then Star Wars happened. No-one had seen Star Wars, because it wasn't out yet, although I had read both the book and the comic, which put me at some advantage. I had a few cards; some of the cool kids with more money had complete sets. Someone had his collection stolen and for two days all the grown ups went completely insane. Our form teacher inspected everyone's desk and our year head -- can I be making this up? -- cancelled lessons to question everyone one at a time about the location of the cards. "It doesn't make any difference to me if it's twenty picture cards or 20 blocks of gold that had been stolen, I will not have a thief in my form." I suppose they had agreed in advance to massively over-react to the first instance of stealing so as to put across the impression that they took stealing very seriously indeed. I don't remember if the cards were found or if anyone got slapped.

Did one of those cards really have a photo of Biggs on it? But there would have been nothing very surprising about seeing a photo of Biggs on a card in 1977. He is not in the film. But "not being in the film" and "not being in Star Wars" were still two different things. Star Wars was a comic first; and then a book; and then a series of picture cards; and possibly a set of free gifts in cereal packets; and certainly a series of action figures. The Force Blade has a much greater claim to being the real lightsaber than any replica or schematic or freeze frame still from the movie. Because that's what we knew about and that's what cool kids with money owned. The film is now all we have left, which is why it hurts so much when Lucas messes with it. But Star Wars is quite unrecoverable. And Star Wars was never a movie. The picture cards and action figures are where these characters lived.


Mr Abrams decided to reveal the names of the character in the Star Wars VII trailer in the form of retro style picture cards which no one aged under 50 will really understand. This is a good thing, in that Abrams wants to play with nostalgia; and a bad thing, in the sense that he sees Star Wars as a collection of dead relics to be venerated, not a living tradition to be continued.

These are our First Glimpses of characters who please George please please we will grow to know and love like Luke and Leia and Jar-Jar and Pooh and Piglet and all of the others.

* It might have been that the robot was just a bit of hardware. But in fact she is "BB-8". (Does that mean that she is not an R2 unit, or just that her name is Artoo Beebee?)

* It have been that the face in the X-Wing was just Red 9, standing by. But in fact he is someone called Poe Dameron.

* The girl on the speeder bike is Rey.

* The scared Stormtrooper is Finn.

"Rey" and "Finn". Don't have last names. If we had been told that they were called Rey Skywalker or Finn Solo, that would give us massive, massive hints about the plot. Which is why I am going to bet that that is indeed what they are called. Poe Dameron would be an odd name for Skyalker or Solo descendant. And the guy with the funny lightsaber is Kylo Renn, which is just a name: not Darth Renn or Darth Kylo or Kylo Renn Skywalker.

Obviously, none of this tells us anything whatsoever. But we can enjoy chewing on a bit of sickly-sweet retro-nostalgia.

(*) Think about it.