Insofar as there are annals of Star Wars promotional fiction, the tradition of Hasbro is truly storied.
Granted, some of that legacy is a result of inheritance — or acquisition, as it were. When Hasbro Inc. bought the toy company Kenner Products in 1991, it became heir to not just the legendary line of Star Wars action figures but of the weird and wonderful 1978 Imperial Troop Transporter pamphlet, a small storybook penned and illustrated by unknown creators chronicling the Stormtrooper attack on the Jawa sandcrawler alluded to in A New Hope (and which includes a plethora of unintentionally hilarious symbols, like ™, attached to every nameable Star Wars action figure and playset). Likewise, when Hasbro purchased Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. in 1999, it inherited historical claim to the 1996 mini-comic — written by Ryder Windham, illustrated by Bill Hughes, and published by Dark Horse Comics — packaged with various versions of Galoob’s famous Micro Machines line tying into the Shadows of the Empire multimedia bonanza.
And this side of the new millennium, the year 2000 saw the publication of the Battle for Theed comic book — written by Michael A. Stackpole and illustrated by Daniel Veesenmeyer — contained within the Invasion of Theed Adventure Game boxed set by Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro since 1999). Then, in 2002, came the four Hasbro comics — written by Jason Hall and illustrated alternately by Francis Portela and Manuel Garcia — distributed by Toys“R”Us and published by Dark Horse to promote the action figures tied into Attack of the Clones and Hasbro’s Star Wars: Short Story Collection — with three original Clone Wars tales by Jude Watson, Matthew Stover, and Timothy Zahn — included with various toys in 2003. Most recently, in 2011, the storybook Watch Out for the Wookiee — once again written and illustrated by unnamed parties — sold exclusively with the Jedi Force Millennium Falcon Playskool playset. (Playskool was acquired by Hasbro, as well, in 1984.)
But, when it’s all said and done, the rarest of all Hasbro’s promotional contributions to the Star Wars Expanded Universe may very well be a story that is all but unheard of outside the Mediterranean.
In 1999, Hasbro Italy, based in Milan, collaborated with Cloud City Fan Club Italiano di Guerre Stellari, the largest Italian Star Wars fan club of the era, to publish Star Wars: Il Potere della Forza (Star Wars: The Power of the Force). The eight-page production (6 pages of story, 2 pages of advertising) was scripted by the president of the Cloud City fan club, Fiorenzo Delle Rupi, with illustrations provided by future vice president Filippo Rossi.
The story takes place between the events of The Empires Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and is structured into a pair of symbolism-heavy parts consisting of the alternating recollections and reflections of the galaxy’s two most powerful Force users: Emperor Palpatine and Master Yoda. In the first scene (which also constitutes the “cover”), the cloaked Palpatine stands upon a precipice in his shadowy inner sanctum, meditating on holographic countenances of Obi-Wan (young and old), Anakin (both as a slave boy and as Darth Vader), and, finally, Luke Skywalker, the focal point of the ghostly montage.
The tone of Palpatine’s story drips with unabashed wickedness, as the Dark Lord reflects on his past as a Republic senator, the decades-old relationship of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, and his plans to turn Luke to the dark side of the Force — all the while unleashing a spectacle of blue lightning from his withered hands in a kind of gloriously evil rapture. By contrast, the next three pages of the comic book take place in the green swampy calm of Dagobah. There, Master Yoda uses the Force to conjure an image of himself alongside his old friend Mace Windu as he laments his advancing age and the passage of time. Pulling himself out of this reverie, however, he lauds the longstanding bravery of Artoo-Detoo and Chewbacca before going on to contemplate the similarity between Princess Leia and her heroic mother, Queen Amidala, and his concern that Luke might likewise share such a similarity with his fallen father. Ultimately, however, Yoda puts his trust in the light side of the Force and its champions — including the good man that was once Anakin Skywalker.
The plot, while meager, is admirable in its creativity, given the obvious marketing constraints imposed upon it. The artist responsible for successfully capturing the visual tone of the comic’s powerful dark and light contrast is Filippo Rossi, co-founder and vice president of the current largest Italian Star Wars, fantasy, and science fiction fan club: l’Associazione culturale Yavin 4 (the Yavin 4 Cultural Association).
“Above all, I do professional graphic design,” Rossi says. “That goes for the current Italian Star Wars club, Yavin 4, too, for which I fully manage the member fanzine: Living Force Magazine — which just won, in its tenth year, the Premio Italia for best national science fiction fanzine!”
The Yavin 4 Italian fan club may be ten years old, but it actually supplanted the even older Cloud City club. And it was while Rossi was a member of Cloud City that he got the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Cloud City was the first and most important amateur Star Wars fan club in Italy,” he says, “albeit not officially related to Lucasfilm in any way—and, therefore, more genuine, sanguine and passionate! Fiorenzo was its founder (around the early ’90s), the president and sole person in charge for most of its existence. I was only a simple member, though active and highly motivated.”
The motivation paid off when Rossi ended up collaborating with Rupi on a Star Wars fan project. “He and I already had on our résumé an enormous original project, The Hidden Wars: a complete and ‘alternate’ 130-page story — though inserted with precision into official Star Wars continuity — written by him, illustrated by me, and first published within the Italian club and then throughout the world by way of that important American fansite TheForce.net.”
And that elaborate enterprise attracted the attention of Hasbro’s Italian branch.
“In the summer of 1998, Hasbro Italy contacted the Italian Star Wars club, Cloud City, and its president,” he says. The proposal? To create a comic book that would promote the upcoming return of Star Wars to theaters after 16 years: The Phantom Menace. “Based on our amateur experience, it came relatively easily for us to take on, professionally, a Star Wars ten-pager like Il Potere della Forza.”
Now they were in the big leagues, recruited to produce an official Star Wars story with Hasbro’s stamp of approval. “We received a lot of reference material, back then still secret!” Rossi intimates. “It was an unforgettable and thrilling experience. For Il Potere della Forza I chose a less realistic style, more cartoon-like and concise. It was very difficult to maintain visual consistency while respecting the rules of the Star Wars universe…. But to bring to life my favorite characters, making them perform and ponder, was priceless.”
Indeed, that priceless opportunity had its drawback. The comic was intended to serve a very specific retail purpose for Hasbro, and thus Rossi and Rupi were tied to explicit guidelines.
“The project was a promotional comic book that was attached to the sale of the ‘FlashBack’ action figures line tied to the release of Episode I The Phantom Menace,” Rossi explains. That particular wave of Hasbro’s The Power of the Force action figures (hence the comic’s title) utilized a “FlashBack Photo” gimmick intended to emphasize the parallels between the original Star Wars trilogy and the new prequel The Phantom Menace. “We had to come up with a brief story that would connect the ‘old’ representative Star Wars characters, like Obi-Wan ‘Ben’ Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, with the ‘new’ of Episode I, like Mace Windu and little Anakin.”
The first wave of FlashBack Photo figures featured characters from the original trilogy with a small insert photo card utilizing a simple pull/push mechanism that “flipped” the picture — printed over four Venetian blind-like panels — from a live-action portrait of the action figure in question to his or her prequel incarnation or, barring that, symbolic equivalent. Thus, Princess Leia’s photo flashed back to Queen Amidala; Chewbacca to one of a Wookiee senator; Luke and Darth Vader, both, to nine-year-old Anakin; and Emperor Palpatine, Ben Kenobi, Yoda and Artoo-Detoo to their prequel selves. A two-page advertisement at the end of the comic promotes these toys, as well as the “Episode I Sneak Preview” STAP with Battle Droid and Mace Windu.
Given these rigid restrictions, time has seemingly conspired to flatter the storyline of Il Potere della Forza. Rossi’s is one of the only narrative depictions of Anakin’s “old” ghost — that is, Anakin as he appeared at the end of Return of the Jedi played by actor Sebastien Shaw before being replaced by a spiritual likeness of Hayden Christensen in the 2004 DVD release and all subsequent releases. While not technically part of the “FlashBack Photo” or “Episode I Sneak Preview” lines, an ethereal Anakin figure was released in Hasbro’s Jedi Spirits boxed set, along with ghostly versions of Yoda and Obi-Wan, around the same time, thereby justifying the character’s inclusion in the story.
Furthermore, the ever-growing body of Star Wars Expanded Universe literature, and the prequels themselves, have lent further context to once-bizarre elements of Il Potere della Forza — both, ironically, revolving around Wookiees. In one panel, Palpatine briefly recalls an exchange he had with the Wookiee senator Yarua. This was a plausible interaction, if a somewhat jarring juxtaposition: was Palpatine barking in Shyriiwook or one of the other Wookiee dialects? Furthermore, the Expanded Universe had long-established that the Galactic Empire thrived under an anti-alien prejudice known as “Human High Culture”; it seemed odd that Palpatine, the future ruler of this dictatorship, would deem a Wookiee worth notice (a fact that was highlighted in “Strangers Among Us: The Aliens Who Built the Galactic Empire” in Star Wars Insider #96). The scene came off as gratuitous and forced — a weakness in the story obviously owing to a requisite shoehorning of the Wookiee senator for purposes of the FlashBack Photo marketing. The substance of their exchange, moreover, was a mystery.
However, tales since have shed some light on these strange bedfellows. In the comic series Jedi Council: Acts of War, published a year after Il Potere della Forza (and illustrated by another Italian artist, Davidé Fabbri, and written by Randy Stradley), Senator Yarua is depicted supporting a clamp-down on a warlike species known as the Yinchorri, whom Darth Sidious considered a threat to the Sith. The political thriller Cloak of Deception, published in 2001 and written by James Luceno, lends further insight as to what their interaction might have entailed. In this lead-in to The Phantom Menace, the Wookiee politician supports Palpatine’s suggestion that the taxes collected from the free trade zones should be invested in Kashyyyk, the Wookiee home planet, among others. Given that Palpatine’s senatorial dress in Il Potere della Forza matches his The Phantom Menace garb, it’s highly likely that it is precisely this arrangement that he and Yarua are discussing. But was the Wookiee just a victim of Palpatine’s master manipulations? Or were the two politicos actually in cahoots? That much remains to be fleshed out by another storyteller’s hand.
The other way in which the comic has proved surprisingly prescient is in Yoda’s reminiscences. In one scene, the ancient warrior reflects on the courageous droids and aliens that have served the Rebellion against the Empire, singling out Artoo-Detoo and Chewbacca, specifically. The former is understandable: As the comic takes place after Yoda has interacted significantly with Artoo on Dagobah during Luke’s training, the spunky astromech’s being singled out by the Jedi Master comes as little surprise. But in 1999, Yoda’s admiring reference to Chewbacca seemed completely out of left field. After all, at this point, no one — except perhaps George Lucas — suspected that Yoda even knew or really cared about Chewbacca’s existence. No one — again, except perhaps George Lucas — suspected, as Revenge of the Sith would reveal in 2005, that “good relations with the Wookiees” Yoda had, and that the mighty Chewbacca would be the very last luminous being Yoda would see before exiling himself to Dagobah for the next twenty years.
As for Rossi, his enthusiasm peaks when he speaks about his hopes for the next Star Wars trilogy. “To see Star Wars and so many stellar film projects today delivered into the hands of the all-powerful Disney, and especially the hands of new cinematic writers, directors and storytellers — competent, young, and motivated — fills me with immense hope,” he says. “So many masterpieces are anticipated that this time they’ll need be indisputable. The controversial experience of the new prequel trilogy should have demonstrated just how Star Wars must be treated: Maximize the space-operatic aspects, don’t overdo the verbal exposition but mainly utilize visual exposition, synthesize and don’t belabor, carefully supervise the narrative, and thus craft an epic and out-of-this-world story that will be spiritual yet ironic, ‘bigger than life’ yet entertaining, profound yet fast paced, visionary yet graceful…just like the legendary classic trilogy.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, Filippo.
As with the recently rediscovered Spanish Droids and Ewoks comics, I have once again teamed up with my Star Wars collaborators to make this Italian comic available in English. As before, translation duties for the story fell to me, while author Rich Handley re-lettered the comic, and Star Wars: Empire’s End contributor Mike Beidler produced PDFs of Il Potere della Forza in its original and translated forms available for download at my website and Rich’s site.
For the full interview with artist Filippo Rossi, go here.
Abel G. Peña is the author of dozens of Star Wars fiction and nonfiction articles for Star Wars Insider, Star Wars Gamer, Star Wars Fact Files and StarWars.com, a co-author of Vader: The Ultimate Guide and Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide, and a translator of rare and forgotten Star Wars comics. Abel’s work has also appeared in the anthology Italy From a Backpack, Dungeon/Polyhedron and the Wizards of the Coast official website. Abel can be found at abelgpena.com, Facebook and Twitter.