The Best Kind of Bad Guys: The 501st Legion
Iconography fills the Star Wars universe. The silhouettes of starships. The glow of a lightsaber. Han’s holster. Chewie's bandolier. Leia's metal bikini. Defuse R2D2 and BB-8 down to strips of color, and you’d recognize them. And as recognizable as the shapes and colors of the Rebel Alliance are, perhaps nothing is as iconic to Star Wars as the visages of The Empire. The helmets of Darth Vader and his grandson, Kylo Ren. The menace of Darth Maul in profile. The looming threats of The Death Star or a Star Destroyer. And most of all, the gleaming white dome, pitch black visors and integrated support systems of a Stormtrooper helmet. While the images of Star Wars can be seen everywhere from t-shirts to lunchboxes, the Stormtrooper armor is one of those pop culture fragments that has escaped the screen and can be seen at comic-conventions, fan gatherings, and charity events around the world.
In this move from film to the real world, a group of fans have risen their game above costuming and cosplay to full blown replication. Creating screen par replicas based on original armor molds, authentic parts, and specifically calibrated and approved hardware, their dedication to authenticity has lead to recognition by Disney and Lucasfilm as their prefered Imperial costuming organization, often representing the companies at various events. This group is called the 501st Legion, a name that nods to real world military detachment naming conventions and accepted by Lucasfilm's creative teams as a canonical group of Stormtroopers fiercely loyal to Darth Vader, before the recent ret-con of extended universe canon.
I first became familiar with the 501st through a co-worker, who simply CRUSHED Halloween with an amazing TIE Fighter pilot costume. He followed that up with a full replica Stormtrooper for our Kids At Work day, A little naive at the time, I assumed he’d simply purchased or assembled the armor and I asked him where he found it. He gave me a little bit of the background of his involvement at that time, and this lead to a lot of research on my part on the 501st and local cosplayers. I always wanted to know more about one person’s journey to the helmeted lifestyle of a Stormtrooper, especially one in the southwestern deserts of Phoenix, Arizona.
Upon first glancing at Isaac Irvine, you’d think his preferred helmet would be for motorcycles instead of hoverbikes. If concentrating, he can seem physically intimidating; a focused look on his face, a fit, stout body, and covered from neck to knuckles with tattoos. Though as soon as you engage him, he becomes animated and expressive about what he knows and loves, or if you bring a topic to him that you’re passionate about, he taps into your enthusiasm and listens intensely and provides a great conversation learning from you. Irvine is a California native transposed to Arizona, and his love for his family, his wife Breen and their 3 kids, is something that drives his world. Irvine has been with GoDaddy for close to 10 years, and is currently a Social and Community Manager.
His first exposure to Star Wars came at a young age, when his mom took him to a showing of A New Hope during its initial theatrical release. "We are sitting in this room, and all these people are looking forward, the curtain opens up, the logo and the sound goes," he reflects on that first viewing. It’s his first real memory of movies other than TV, and the experience couldn’t be anymore different from what you’ll likely encounter this weekend with the release of Rogue One. "You know, we didn’t see any previews for it, and people were smoking in the theater - it was just different then."
Irvine’s love for the franchise grew in the much more organic way that childhood allows. "I would play with the girl across the street, and my mom would cut up an old shirt for me to make Luke’s tunic, and we would pretend older kids were the bad guys and run away from them (without ever involving them in the playtime)," he recalls. "You didn’t have all the toys, so everyone would bring their one Stormtrooper with you to make an army together and you’d use your imagination to run wild." He did own a few lost artifacts collectors would clamor for today. "I had the Tie Fighter that you would push the button and the wings would fly off, and the the big Millennium Falcon that you could run around the house and swoop and ‘PEW PEW PEW’ with." Growing up outside of today’s constant connected social media era, missing opening weekend didn’t mean that he was spoiled to The Empire Strikes Back's big twist.
He’s stayed a fan throughout his life, and when he had children, he took them to a special re-release of the prequel trilogy. This was his first encounter with the 501st, and what struck him the most was the professionalism and attention to detail. "You had Darth Maul, and we got the kids to go stand with him for a picture, and he’s got the teeth and horns and eyes and really grimaces," he says with a exaggerated look. "And then when the kids turn around he tones it back some for them so they know he’s scary but aren’t scared and it was great!" Amongst a crowd of Clone Troopers, Stormtroopers, Mandalorian Bounty Hunters and even a remote control R2-D2, Irvine fell in love with the faithful recreations, and in the car ride home broached the idea of owning his own armor to his wife. Expecting some pushback, he was slightly stunned by her admission to having an uncle who owned armor, and her general supportiveness to his new intended hobby.
Isaac took to the internet and started researching groups, and signed up and registered for the local Arizona chapter, the Dune Sea Garrison. "The first thing you do, is choose what character you want to be", he tells me. Excited at the possibilities, he set forth to build a TIE Fighter Pilot. "What no one tells you is, the equipment that you end up using isn’t mass produced or one size fit all" he explains. The 501st and similar fan recreation groups exist in a gray area of Intellectual Property usage. Because the 501st is so committed to authenticity, they use original designs and ‘found parts’, including a lot of European products based on the original fabrication locations. Irvine shares with me an example of a part that used to be junk and sold for dollars, and is now so vital to certain costumes it routinely fetches $200 plus. Because of the length of the building and approval process, Irvine’s first approved costume wasn’t his intended TIE Fighter Pilot, but a Storm Trooper. "I went to work on plastic molding and learning the skills, and buying and trading pieces with someone that could sew the black suit and someone else that could build my helmet," he tells me. The craftsmanship and working with your hands creates a real pride in his accomplishments, but it’s not what gives him the most joy about what he does.
"We do a lot of different events - we do official events like Star Wars night for the NBA, or MLB that are requests from Lucasfilm," he explains, even telling me about a friend who got to do extra work for a car commercial in advance of The Force Awakens. However, the PR and brand work isn’t what Irvine loves. Civic events like libraries and schools and awareness fundraisers like those for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation or Race For A Cure are frequently on their calendar. The toy drives that stockpile for Children’s Hospital visits are what make him feel most accomplished. "For the kids that can have visitors, we get to visit and see them get so excited, and inspired, and when they tell you ‘I’m going to use The Force to beat this!’, it’s like, they are stronger than I have ever been on any day of my life." I think about how it’s hard not to be affected by that kind of experience, but before I can ask about it, he says "We have a joke that’s not really a joke, that ‘I’m glad I got to leave my helmet on today’, so the kids can’t see you tearing up." The hard work the 501st does as a non-profit organization is a great example of the good that fandoms and passionate people can bring to others with their love of the source material.
Irvine is now up to three uniforms in his collection; Stormtrooper, TIE Fighter Pilot, and a Scout Trooper. He dreams of owning Boba Fett armor some day, and has worked with his kids on his repairs and new uniforms over the years. Star Wars has always been a family affair for him, from his kids' enjoyment of the films to his mother’s introducing him to them. "Leia is my favorite character. I was raised by a single mom, so I always appreciated a strong female role model. I always loved how she was so unimpressed by being rescued, and when it’s obvious they are trapped, she takes the lead to get them out of there." He points out that the Rebellion is run by two women, Leia and Mon Mottha, and he’s excited to have a strong woman character for his daughter to maybe one day take up the armor as with Captain Phasma.
His kids, however, are slightly less ecstatic about Star Wars than he is. His twin boys have never really reacted to it with awe and wonder, and his participation in The 501st has added some real world complications to viewing the movie. "We watch it, and they point at Darth Vader and say ‘That’s Steve!’" he says, with a little sadness behind his voice. They were more receptive to The Force Awakens than they had been the previous movies, so he’s seeing signs that they might be open to appreciating it more in the future. He’s also thankful of the hope Star Wars can give especially with how the world has been lately. "When my blonde haired blue eyed boys say ‘I want to be Finn!’ for Halloween, for me it’s ‘Absolutely!,' the ugliness I see in the world is bypassed for me and my family in Star Wars." He just has to get past his kids perceptions about the heros and the villains - "They like good guys, but they like bad stuff."
But there is another. His three year old daughter isn’t quite at the age to understand a full fantasy epic yet, but Isaac hopes to keep the movie viewing experience as pure for her as it was for him. And he’s found the perfect way to sum up his work in the 501st for his daughter and to give her perspective about what she’ll see on the screen. "My daughter asks me, ‘Dad are you good or bad?’ and I say ‘Today, I’m a bad guy, but I’m doing good stuff’."
Author Notes: Photos Courtesy of Isaac Irvine’s Facebook, The Dune Sea Garrison Facebook and Mark Susan Photography.
Isaac Irvine can be followed on Twitter @TheIsaac
Additional information about the 501st and The Dune Sea Garrison can be found at the following locations:
The 501st - http://www.501st.com/
The Dune Sea Garrison - Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DuneSeaGarrison/?fref=ts