How Gary Gerani Made 'Star Wars' Topps Trading Cards Into an Unexpected Force
In an galaxy far, far away, everything was collectible.
Today, Abrams Books releases Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, the second volume in a gorgeous book set that compiles reprints of the original trading cards from the original trilogy of Star Wars movies. The collection is carefully curated to include the fronts and backs of all 352 cards and 88 stickers from Topps’ The Empire Strikes Back series, which tells the visual story of George Lucas’s groundbreaking film. Also included in each collection is an introduction and commentary by screenwriter and author Gary Gerani, the original editor of the complete Star Wars Topps series.
Inverse spoke to Gerani about creating the Star Wars trading cards, making due with redundant images, and looking back on pop Americana.
What makes a good trading card image and what makes a bad one?
A movie like Star Wars is usually just filled with so many exciting images, creatures, and environments. It’s really hard to do a bad Star Wars set, even in the early days when the special effects weren’t easy to show — or when we were just using unit photography that they would shoot on the set, as it almost didn’t matter.
With these sets are you essentially trying to tell a visual story? The story of the motion picture without the motion and just the pictures….
Without the soundtrack, too. You’re forced to use your imagination. You’re generally following the storyline, and what you try to do is put things in the order of the story’s sequence.
With Star Wars we tried that initially, but before long it was just any shot that they had that we hadn’t printed. In many cases that got a little redundant, but the fans back then didn’t seem to mind because they were so hungry for anything Star Wars. That’s how we got through five series of the original movie.
How much access to the actual production or script to The Empire Strikes Back did you have while compiling each series?
On Empire I was given a script to read, which is usually the case because I have to have some sense of the story. The trading card sets are put together before the movie is finished, so you’re generally not going to see the entire finished movie. What’s interesting then is that after you’ve read the script, and you’re hit with all these different static images from the film, you have to put it all together again based on your memory and your notes.
That must be tough.
Going in there’s usually a moment of fear where I ask myself, “How am I going to figure everything out?” But after you read the script it sinks in and starts to make sense against the images. It’s making order out of chaos.
What was the most striking image for you in Empire?
The thing that really hit me initially was Yoda. Yoda was clearly a very significant new character, and with this little gnome guy it was almost like, how are they going to pull that off?
Initially they were going to keep Yoda secret and be the one thing we couldn’t use. But at some point they decided to give us Yoda because he’s too important to the story. Thank god because it would have been very hard to portray Luke’s training on Dagobah without having Yoda around. Eventually the real secret became Vader as Luke’s father, and I had no idea as I was doing work on the film that that was going to be the case.
You were actually permitted to write original dialogue for the cards as well. Was that just a matter of matching what you thought of the image?
It was just things like, “Destroy Me, Luke!” It was in keeping with “Give In To the Dark Side,” and that sort of thing.
Did you have to run each of your own lines of dialogue past Lucasfilm?
The captions and back copy were submitted at the same time, so Lucasfilm was just hit with an avalanche of the copy blocks we gave them. They were a little more open to that by Empire, and licensing hadn’t gotten quite as severe as it became later. Some filmmakers are very protective, and I’d never be able to makeup original dialogue for a movie now.
What are some of the challenges of coming up with good editorial copy for trading cards? Is it just a matter of saying something simple and direct to compliment the image?
It’s a headline, basically. There just needs to be a few words to grab your attention. “No Escape For Luke,” or something that you could picture on a newspaper but still be a little melodramatic. Life and death kind of stakes are always perfect for that.
Some of the best cards are when you get playful with the copy, like Empire, Series 1 #89 with Chewie holding Threepio’s head with the caption “Alas, Poor Threepio.”
I’ve gotta believe that everybody involved knew that Hamlet gag was there. It’s there visually, and it’s the first thing that most people think of when they see someone holding a head. The scene itself is handled in a playful way too, so we wanted to keep it in the tone of the movie and the obvious flavor of what that image suggested.
The parallels between the first movie and the sequel and the corresponding Topps series is fascinating because there must have been pressure to match the success of the first group of cards just like the movies. Was that the case with your work on Empire?
There were certain pressures in having to top the success of our Star Wars series much like Empire the movie itself had that pressure to be a worthy sequel, but overall not really. Lucasfilm had a much smoother operation at that point. They were ready for me when I went down. They had the pictures themselves in a rough order, almost like storyboards. Particularly it made the first Empire series much easier, and made the job fresh and exciting.
A lot of the iconic shots from the cards sort of defined those characters, making them ingrained in the popular consciousness for kids growing up. Why do you think Topps trading cards have been a consistent part of the Star Wars mythos?
Back then, it was the age before VHS or any kind of home entertainment. So the way you could get a little piece of the movie was our trading cards. They were almost like film frames, so the more pictures you got the more you sort of owned the movie.
The things that really hit you about Star Wars were the comic books, the trading cards, and the action figures. All of those things were perfect. It’s like a comic book serial with almost superheroes in it, so it’s ideal for that format. It’s fine for cards because they appeal to that same audience, and the action figures represented the characters. They’re all a match made in merchandising heaven.
What’s it been like revisiting your work on the movies to put these collections together?
Looking back and doing these books is putting it in perspective. It makes it seem like they’re part of pop Americana. It’s just that somehow in book form it takes on an additional validity. It’s nostalgic, but it makes me feel like I contributed something.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume Two and Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume One are available now wherever books are sold. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume Three will be released on August 16, 2016.