On Wednesday, I shared my thoughts on how the Star Wars Propaganda book made wonderful use of the medium of an art book to tell a worldbuilding story about the Star Wars galaxy that was grounded in a sense of familiarity for the audience. I discussed how the in-universe method of storytelling worked well to discuss the subject of propaganda, and noted that the book was just plain fun. Since I liked the book so much, I wanted to talk to the author about how the book came together and what ideas went into putting the book in its final form.
Here’s Part One of my interview with Star Wars Propaganda author Pablo Hidalgo; join us Monday for Part Two. My questions are in bold, and his responses are in plaintext (except for anything inside brackets).
How did propaganda become one of the first subjects for a reference book in the new Star Wars canon? The book contains art and propaganda, but also narrative – in what ways is this a better (or just different) starting point than a more traditional Essential Guide type of book?
The idea of a propaganda book crossed my desk as a fully-formed idea. I’m not sure who originated it, but I first heard of it from my editor Delia Greve, who’s at Becker & Mayer (the company that packaged the book). Before she was able to talk about [it], she just kind of dropped me a line: ‘I’ve got something that I’d really love for you to work on. I can’t tell you what it is yet, but I hope you’re available.’ But when she had a fully-formed pitch that was approved by Lucasfilm, she basically gave me a run-down on what a propaganda book could be, and I was all for it. As to what this format offers in comparison to the old Essential Guide format…the Essential Guide format in the late nineties and early 2000s when it was thought that most of our spaces of time in the timeline as far as storytelling goes were already filled up. But now that we’re telling new stories on TV, in movie theaters, and in books and comics, we can’t take it for granted that there are big spaces in the timeline yet to be filled by stories. That makes it difficult to do an Essential Guide where you’re trying to fill in all these blanks. So instead we’re able to focus on very focused works like a Visual Dictionary or this book that takes a different conceit by being focused on a specific subject like propaganda and telling it from a specific point of view, like an in-universe author.
With the Visual Dictionaries and the like, you’ve mentioned that you’ve gotten some of the art and pictures in advance. Was it similar with the Propaganda book, or did you have a role commissioning some of those in advance? How did the pre-existing art from past publications come into this as well?
Propaganda is a mix of original art and work that already existed. The way it worked is that I created an outline that would span history from right before the events of Episode I through to Episode VII. With that as a framework, I made some suggestions of the types of topics that would be covered in a book like this, taking into account what pre-existing art there was (so that I knew I would have a place for those pieces in the outline). I personally didn’t commission any of the art, but I made suggestions as to the types of topics and subjects that could be addressed, and then the art directors over at Becker & Mayer basically hired the artists and directed the pieces from there.
Great. That segues into a question I had for a little later on – can you tell us a little bit about some of the real life artists who worked on the art in this book? The book has fictionalized artists for these pieces and you wrote bios for them, but I wanted to get a sense of the real people behind these works. Were there any interesting stories behind getting the art or elaboration for the artists, anything like that?
Honestly my relationship with the artists in this book was primarily working through the art director at Becker & Mayer. There are some artists that you’ll recognize their names because we’ve used their names on other projects, so Chris Trevas and Russel Walks are in there, they’ve gone to Celebration many times and they’ve had their art on display. Same with Brian Rood. We have some folks from animation, because we have art from Rebels in this – so Amy Beth Christenson, Killian Plunkett, and Pat Presley are featured, for example. And we’ve got folks like Mark McHaley, and Scott Biel from Random House Books is in here, Rosanna Brockley. While I was really happy to see the art come in and was excited by all of these pieces, in a very real way I was looking at what the readers were going to get because I got it more or less as it was largely done. It was really the art director of the book project who owned those relationships, and I didn’t have a lot of interaction – or any interaction – with the artists in this case. [N.B. While googling these names to ensure correct spelling as I transcribed this interview, I checked the book again and realized that the very last printed page of the book does contain credits naming every single artist and the page numbers their art appeared on. Check it out, because these artists definitely deserve credit for their awesome work! – Jay]
So you essentially extrapolated to do your job once you got the finished art and figured out how to interpret, or how to write about the art – much in the same way a reader engaging the art directly might have?
Once we got all the art collected and because we had the conceit that a character was writing this book, I started trying to figure out what would be this character’s point of view about this art. At the same time, we tried to sketch a little bit of a narrative. Not a major one, but just something that reflects what the history of the galaxy was undergoing at the time. There are a number of artists who are essentially playing the role of fictional characters in the Star Wars universe – real world artists are playing the role of fictional Star Wars artists. With a few of these characters you can actually follow the progression of their careers through the art as it appears through history.
I noticed we had a few recurring characters, including the title character. We even saw Palo, mentioned in Attack of the Clones, et cetera. When you were going through the different eras of the story – and I recall from the introduction of the book that one of the things the fictional art historian mentioned was that propaganda describes changes in politics and history over time – how did you approach the shift of time between the Republic/prequel era, the original trilogy, the sequel era and that whole timeline you described? Because we hear a lot of talk from fans sometimes about people preferring this or that era for whatever reason, did you approach it as discrete eras or more as an evolving story over time?
The delineation into eras was really more for Table of Contents purposes, really more for outlining the content. But to be honest, I almost never look at Star Wars history as era-defined. I try to look at it holistically, as more of a living, breathing space so that it never enters into my mind when I pull something from the past to give it a label like a “prequel era thing” or a “classic trilogy era thing.” To me, it’s “is it relevant to that moment in time that I’m trying to capture right then and there?”
Makes sense. And of course to a certain extent there are some changes that you document in the book, such as art style and politics, but those are just part and parcel of the storytelling as opposed to being an “original trilogy thing.”
Exactly. To me it’s more about “who is the art representing?” and “who’s making the message?” There’s a greater ability, or a greater likelihood, to run into subversive/street art during the time of the Empire, because they are much more in control of channels of communication. Whereas during the Clone Wars, we had some fairly civilized worlds that were in open opposition to the Republic and they were able to command more sophisticated means of messaging and communication.
And even the peacetime or early tourism or economics-related advertising, like the Trade Federation stuff at the beginning of the book, has a whole different feel from Imperial propaganda or even the New Republic stuff.
Yeah, the Republic – it’s hard to deny the fact that the Republic is an institution that’s centuries old. It can’t help but present legacy in any messaging they put forward. So a lot of that early Chapter One material that talks about that “height of the Republic era” can’t help but look back and talk about this proud history that may be continuing.
With regard to the history and all the different references put into the book, one thing I noticed was that there was a lot of winks and nods to early lore, references to the Imperial Sourcebook, or to HoloNet News, which I thought were pretty funny. The “Baby Ludi” sticker especially. But the book is also very accessible, or trying to be accessible, to newer readers or to a general audience (propaganda being a pretty accessible theme) and the narrative being easy to read. How do you approach, when writing a coffee table book, doing the winks and nods to past lore but also trying to tell a coherent and accessible story?
Well, there’s a great advantage in the art [doing] so much of the heavy lifting in terms of getting a passer-by to look at this book and to flip through the pages whether or not he or she wants to buy it. So in a real way I’m having fun in the margins, without having to worry too much as to how deep I may be going in terms of Star Wars references and history. To me that feels like extra icing. If you stuck around to read these captions – first of all, I think if you bought the book you’ve already outed yourself as a Star Wars fan to a certain degree. So making the commitment to purchase a book like this, I have no fear of scaring someone off with my getting too deep into the weeds with some of the stuff I invoke in my captions.
Some of the stuff is even straight to the point – like you have the Art Group of COMPNOR and censorship of art, which flows straight into the narrative as opposed to some of the other references.
There’s a good amount of worldbuilding that’s already been done through past projects that extrapolates what it’s like to live in the Star Wars universe, and what are the communication channels that an average person uses, and thankfully all that work that was done back in the Legends space – we don’t have a huge desire to upset that stuff because it was always material that was meant to be in support of a story, not the story itself. So institutions like COMPNOR and COMPOR and the various cultural institutions described in sourcebooks aren’t likely to undergo major change because it’s unlikely that a story will contradict them.
Join us Monday for part two of this interview.