Star Wars Propaganda: Worldbuilding Through Art and Story

Star_Wars_Propaganda_New_Cover[1](Programming note: this piece is the first of three about Star Wars Propaganda. On Friday and next Monday, I’ll be posting a two-part interview with the author, Pablo Hidalgo.)

Like a lot of people, I’ve been looking forward to the Star Wars Propaganda book ever since it was announced. WWII-esque propaganda posters for the Empire and Rebellion have been a part of Star Wars merchandise (and fan creation) for a long time, because they just fit into the old-timey milieu of Star Wars. There’s a certain sense of familiarity to the Star Wars setting – that despite the space opera dressing, the galaxy far far away actually feels rather like ours. Star Wars echoes our history, myth, and fairy tales. And while fairy tales and myth may seem different from familiar history, it’s the myth-making of propaganda that makes the World Wars (or the nostalgic ad campaigns of the 1950s) seem like cultural touchstones as familiar to us as the stories we grew up with.

Star Wars Propaganda is written by Pablo Hidalgo, and is illustrated through the efforts of artists gathered by Becker & Mayer, and is published by Harper Design. But after the publishing pages, everything about the book treats it as if it’s an art history treatise written inside the Star Wars galaxy. See, the central conceit of the book is that it’s written in-universe and all the propaganda posters seen within it are actual pieces composed by actual in-universe artists (even the captions for the pictures refer only to these fictitious propagandists and/or sponsors). The book’s notional author, Janyor of Bith, is a propagandist whose career saw him through an era of patriotic Republic and Imperial paintings to protest paintings on behalf of the Rebel Alliance and the Resistance (it’s worth pointing out that Janyor was mentioned as an artistic inspiration for Star Wars Rebels’ artist-provocateur Sabine Wren in the episode “Idiot’s Array”). The in-universe storytelling is my favorite conceit of this book, because it allows Star Wars Propaganda to weave together the body text and art into a work of storytelling in its own right: telling the story of propaganda, galactic politics, and even of Janyor’s own personal journey in a way that’s more fun and compelling than out of universe narration might have been.

The book begins with an introduction by Janyor, where he states that propaganda is a true form of art, and that art and war are tied together in the same way that politics are tied with war. He’s discussing a fictitious universe, but the observations he makes ring true to life. The book’s about Star Wars propaganda, and the history is the history of that galaxy – but it echoes our own history and myth. The artwork illustrates that story in a literal sense, but it tells its own story through the evolving art styles and subject matter. Someone could get the whole story of the book focusing on the art alone or the text alone, should any such reader be inclined. The art and text help make the setting feel more genuine and lived in; it’s a verisimilitude that the films and television shows have which helps the world the characters inhabit feel more real.

Building a Familiar Setting

Worldbuilding is sometimes a dirty word – or at least, a controversial one. That debate’s a little out of scope for this article, but I want to observe that worldbuilding through story, as part of story, and in service of story is the right kind of worldbuilding and that’s the kind of worldbuilding we get in Star Wars Propaganda. It’s characterization – helping to define the era of wars that constitute the Star Wars saga, and helping to make the sets of trilogies feel like one cohesive whole in a way that after-the-fact retcons never could.

I could see this political slogan working in a campaign from today…. or from 1930.
The book starts us off with the late Galactic Republic, describing the corruption of a once great democracy by powerful commercial interests and a wealthy Core World élite which causes the Republic to ignore the basic functions of serving its citizens. We know this history, right? Isn’t it the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, or the European Union? Or wait – wasn’t the Phantom Menace the waning years of the Clinton Administration, to be replaced by George W. Bush? Or maybe the rise of Chancellor Palpatine is the rise of Richard Nixon, or Adolf Hitler, or Julius Caesar. It’s all of those and none of those, and the early chapters about the fall of the Republic reflect the anxieties of many an age which feels as if the golden age was somehow in the past and decadence lies ahead. The illustrations in the early Republic feel both contemporary and retro: especially in this nostalgia-appreciating era. Advertisements for settling Outer Rim worlds and attack ads decrying corruption in the Senate (or attacking the nefarious influence of the Trade Federation) feel like they could fit anywhere from the 1920s to the 2010s, and they communicate their message very clearly as a result.

Then there’s familiarity in subject matter. Once the book reaches the film era, from the Clone Wars to the Galactic Civil War, the audience becomes very familiar with the overall setting. The posters and text both reflect and augment what the reader already knows. For instance, clone troopers feature heavily in Republic propaganda because Jedi aren’t too comfortable with being the subject of propaganda glorifying war. We remember Yoda’s admonition from The Empire Strikes Back (“Wars not make one great,”), and we realize that in staying away from Republic propaganda the Jedi let the clones become the heroes of the war and the bringers of peace. Suddenly, we realize just how it was possible for the Empire to wipe out the Jedi without the public protesting, and to erase them from galactic memory. They willingly took themselves out of the popular consciousness. This is one of my favorite insights from the book, and it’s an example of how the book provides a larger canvas for existing Star Wars storytelling.

There’s a third type of familiarity I’d like to highlight: the employment of familiar names and concepts from other Star Wars products. Padmé’s old flame Palo is one of the artists whose works feature in the book, the Imperial Security Bureau’s Art Group (more on that later) from West End Games has a role, and there’s even an identification of pseudo-Latin in an Imperial propaganda poster as “Atrisian Basic.” Continuity winking is sometimes controversial – it can alienate people as much as it can delight people, but it’s often continuity for its own sake that’s the biggest problem. You don’t need to recognize Atrisia as a world which was the philosophical forebear for the Galactic Empire from the Imperial Sourcebook to understand that the caption is describing a fascistic slogan on a propaganda poster, just as you don’t need to recognize Sabine Wren as the artistic Mandalorian from Star Wars Rebels to understand the role her protest paintings play. But if you do recognize these nods, it helps illustrate the story the book’s telling all the more.

Telling the story inside the universe

Aside from the propaganda posters themselves, the next biggest reason I was interested in this book was because of the in-universe storytelling. What’s the attraction of in-universe storytelling? There are several. First, the storytellers themselves become part of the story. What they say or don’t say, their biases or lack of knowledge, all become aspects of the storytelling. It’s rather like reading history – you can learn a lot from the perspective of the writer, whether it’s an explicitly ideological narration (a feminist or Marxist reading of the French Revolution) or an inherently partial narration (most traditional history, with an upper-class or male perspective). Even if one disagrees with the perspective offered, that perspective is instructive – and indeed, it can be particularly interesting to learn what someone on the ”other side” of an issue thinks of your own point of view.

A few people online have expressed admiration for this poster — clearly Sabine’s style works when repurposed for Imperial propaganda.
As Janyor’s narrative progresses, he goes from the Clone Wars to the rise of the Empire. Here, we learn how his perspective shifted just as the popular perception of the Empire shifted. But just as Janyor gave voice to the Separatists, he gives voice to the Imperials he begins to disagree with. He doesn’t express sympathy for their point of view as much as he would have admitted the Republic wasn’t perfect in the lead up to the Clone Wars, but he talks about the Empire’s perfection of the engine of propaganda. We see the change from the wartime Republican propaganda to the stark, conformist Imperial propaganda which is intended to increase recruitment for the new, non-clone Imperial war machine. The Empire doesn’t like variety in its art though, and we learn about the Imperial Security Bureau’s Art Group and how it censors non-approved artistic expression. It gets to the point where an artist, seeking to adapt the inspirational urban art style of Sabine Wren for Imperial purposes, actually gets arrested for subversion instead.

The work spans the saga, covering the story after the fall of the Empire and going through the events of The Force Awakens. But because it’s an in-universe narration about propaganda, the book can elaborate on periods we only know a bit about – the immediate aftermath of Endor (pun intended) to the lead-in to TFA. There are some new insights on the events of the Aftermath books, Lost Stars, and Bloodline but Propaganda avoids the book problem of “occupying the field” of storytelling that should be primarily told outside of reference books. Because the author is a propagandist by trade, he’s a character who retires after the galactic peace but emerges when he’s woken up to the threat posed by the First Order. In that way, his story leaves off and returns exactly where the story as we know it does. It makes perfect sense within the conceit of an in-universe art history of propaganda.

It’s just fun

All this analysis aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that this book is just super fun. The illustrations are varied and clever. Some of them are hilarious, some are creepy, and some are really cool. Some of them have been seen before (Rebels propaganda posters, the Bloodline “Vote Leia” poster, etc.) while most of them are brand new. There are some very striking ones, from “Remember Alderaan” to “Endor is a Lie.” And there’s a “Remember Baby Ludi” sticker that just cracks me up, especially since I used to use Baby Ludi as my cause célèbre in my early 2000s message-board-style Imperial propaganda posts. There’s also a poster featuring The Clone Wars 3D animation-style Count Dooku, ridiculously pointed CGI beard and all, as anti-Separtist propaganda. It’s hilarious (and also I’ve long thought that TCW makes sense as a propaganda product – I mean, you basically have Yularen, future ISB, reading out war reel style narration each episode). Clearly Pablo and the artists had a lot of fun putting this together, and it helps the reader have fun with it too.

I don’t want to spoil the book’s caption for this pro-Republic image — but it’s both hilarious and true to life.
The name-drops are great too. Sorry, but there’s something hilarious about Padmé’s flame Palo being arrested by Imperials. It’s not even implied or hinted in the book, but I can just imagine Darth Vader doing a space google search for his name and ensuring he goes to jail. Palo’s not the only artist with a history – we see several names recur throughout the poster captions, and there’s even an artist bio section at the end of the book. We learn that some of the artists are idealists, intellectuals, party figures, aristocrats, or corporate sponsors. I like that each of the people behind these pieces are made a bit more real that way, and it helps looking at the artistic style or representation of a piece to know who was behind it and what their circumstances were.

Some of the narrative has tiny plot tidbits for future Star Wars products, though I’m not going to spoil that by so much as hinting at what it is (no, it’s nothing that would warrant a clickbait headline and it’s nothing about future movies). There’s new information in this book, but again, it’s not primary storytelling but elaboration. For instance, we learn that the Republic was refounded just shy of a thousand years before the Naboo blockade because the Sith had taken over Coruscant and the Republic had to drive them off it. This is both exciting new information (breathtaking, even – such a thing didn’t happen through the whole course of the EU’s Old Republic) but it also tells us something we already knew in one respect (Palpatine does say “once more the Sith shall rule the galaxy,” after all).

Great medium for future storytelling

I could go on and on about this book for pages, maybe writing an article this length for each chapter of the book. It’s clearly a lot of fun, and it’s a book I’ve been waiting forever to both get and to talk about. The subject is perfect: it’s about war, culture, politics, and Star Wars, through the medium of art and history. It’s in-universe, filled with great jokes and references. It’s accessible to practically any Star Wars fan, from someone who’s just seen the movies to someone who’s read and consumed everything. It looks great on a shelf, and it’s great to curl up with and read. It comes with posters. It’d be weird calling it my favorite Star Wars product in a long time, because to be honest we’re in a golden age and I’m just over the moon with the movies, books, and TV we’re getting. But I love this thing and it is a favorite, it’s exactly the kind of Star Wars book I’d always wanted and never expected to get. I’m grateful that this book was put together.

But I’ll conclude with this: I’d love more of this kind of storytelling. Propaganda isn’t the only subject that’s suited for a combined text-and-art style of story telling. I’d love to see an in-universe book in this style about Star Wars tourism, doing for planets what this book did for war and history. Old-timey tourism posters are another thing that’s become Star Warsified in merchandise before and has been very popular – my Twitter header is a Star Tours poster for visiting Coruscant, after all! And who knows, perhaps a whole range of subjects that might’ve been put in an Essential Guide might work in a Propaganda-style in-universe book instead. There are a ton of reasons for doing so, and I think I’ve articulated just a few of the advantages of this storytelling format over a comprehensive out-of-universe guidebook. I think it’ll be fun and rewarding for audiences and creators alike and I hope we do see more books like this, because I can’t praise this book and this concept enough.

I’d like to thank Harper Design for providing me with an advance review copy of this book that I blazed through in a single evening.

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