Monday, May 16, 2011

The Star Wars Insider Had Its Day...That Has Passed.

The Good: Good photography, Formerly good articles
The Bad: Overpriced shopping section, Less probing now.
The Basics: Once a source of indispensable Alpha Geek information for Star Wars fans, the Star Wars Insider is now trumped by less addy websites that serve the same function.

I used to subscribe to the Star Wars Insider and I did so at the best possible times. I was a member of the Star Wars fanclub - which the Insider is the magazine to - leading up to The Phantom Menace and during the growing hype of Star Wars Episode II. While the franchise was being rebooted in the mid-1990s, I was in college and my one splurge each year was to subscribe (somehow I am allowing my amassing a collection of Star Wars figures during college to not be considered a "splurge") to the Star Wars Insider and I think I got in and out at the right time.

The reason for this is simple: as I sit perusing the old issues on my shelf and look at the last issue I could find at Barnes & Noble, it seems the magazine has either gone downhill or headed into territory I no longer care about. While the magazine used to be part of the hype for the increasingly intriguing Star Wars film franchise, now it reads as a desperate attempt to keep interest in the Cartoon Network's Clone Wars program. Almost entirely absent from the pages are the obscure interviews and diligent hunts for uncredited actors. Even the shopping section in the middle, which was always overpriced, seems to have lost its charm.

The Star Wars Insider is a glossy magazine that arrives every two months and features eighty pages of information on Star Wars and now Clone Wars. There is little in the way of a regular format and the articles are written in very simple, direct ways that allow fans of all ages to keep up on the latest news in the Star Wars universe. If it seems odd that a film franchise would have an ongoing magazine, consider the magnitude of Star Wars in geek culture. The franchise is huge and the merchandising associated with it remains a billion dollar a year industry. This magazine will be around for quite some time.

Unfortunately, now it feels like the Star Wars Insider is propping up a dying empire. Originally, or back when I used to subscribe to it, the Star Wars Insider followed a pretty basic format. There was news about the current Star Wars project, from the remastering of the original Trilogy to work on the Prequels, followed by a page or two of "What They Are Doing Now" and then articles. Articles included interviews with authors, producers on the past and current projects and upcoming events in the Star Wars culture (conventions). But what was most impressive is how virtually every issue managed to uncover an actor who performed a part in the original Star Wars Trilogy and did not get credit. They were interviewed and their character was detailed and that was remarkably cool. They even took characters like Aurra Sing, a bounty hunter who appeared in only a few frames of The Phantom Menace and did a full feature on her, including the actress on-set and her make-up and all that went into creating the background character.

For fans of this franchise, this was gold. People who have only Star Wars acting credits were given pretty full articles and the obscure elements of the Star Wars costumes, sets and characters were fleshed out remarkably well.

Now, though, the magazine has become far less engrossing. Used to support the Clone Wars television series, the magazine devotes most of its space to teasing that and the rumored live-action television project that has yet to materialize. The Star Wars Insider still has great contacts within the production staff of the Star Wars franchise and they have regular messages from George Lucas and Steve Sansweet (essentially the franchise's fan liaison).

But the "Where Are They Now" section has become bloated and mixing the primary and obscure secondary casts of the two Trilogies and the Clone Wars programs has made for five to six pages each issue that are simple lists plugging the stars of Star Wars and their current projects. And when I say "stars," I mean "anyone who ever appeared in." The Star Wars Insider is pretty vigilant about keeping fans abreast of what John Ratzenberger is up to. The Cheers star had a line in The Empire Strikes Back where he was virtually unrecognizable, yet every two months if he has done anything, it is featured in the pages of the Star Wars Insider!

Each issue features an interview with one of the main cast of one of the Star Wars films, but these alternate between mining exceptionally overdone sources (what does Anthony Daniels have to say about Star Wars that he has not already done? Not much, it turns out) to newer sources that seem happier the more distance they put between the franchise (mostly prequel actors who have had other jobs since). These interviews tend to ask pretty softball questions (i.e. "What was the best part of working on Star Wars?") while avoiding major and probing questions (i.e. "Isn't it true your character was supposed to have much more to do in Revenge Of The Sith, but on-set conflicts with George Lucas led him to cut your plotlines down?").

The magazine still has an extensive catalog in the middle where the fan club raises money by selling the latest Clone Wars action figures as well as trading cards, towels, and laminated passes (a niche collectible that seems to have sprung up as a result of Star Wars conventions). These are vastly overpriced and in recent years, the Star Wars Insider has offered fewer and fewer exclusives that can only be bought through the catalog.

The magazine also makes a lot more space for the authors of the Star Wars novels as that portion of the franchise becomes more important to keeping the industry of Star Wars alive and flourishing (and as it looks like none of the original actors from the Star Wars Trilogy might return for Episodes seven through nine). For those who do not so much care whether or not the novels ought to be considered canon or not, these pages basically have the authors of the current Star Wars novels rehashing their pitches of their book as well as implying how readers ought to take the events in their book. These are pretty monotonous and often readers do better to simply read the books (or not) and enjoy them for what they are.

Ultimately, as my budget became tighter, the Star Wars Insider became very easy to be an expense that could be cut out, even as an Alpha Geek. The news on the current (and rumored) program is easily available on-line as part of authorized websites and the print version is usually out-of-date by the time it is printed for the latest Star Wars geek gossip. Because it doesn't seem to probe as deep as it once did in the ways that once intrigued me, it is easy to rely less on this and save a tree.

For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
Lost Magazine
The Bark
Comic Values Annual


For other book or magazine reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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