As part of this week’s series on fandom, Vulture will profile a number of passionate, influential fans.
ORIGIN STORY: As is the case with most Star Wars fans, Roberts — who, age-wise, describes himself as “part of the original Star Wars generation” — has been obsessed with the films since childhood. “We had all the toys, and we’d go outside and pretend we were Jedis and run around the woods,” he reminisces. With the theatrical release of the special editions in 1997 (and the accompanying merchandise onslaught), Roberts, then in his early-20s, was inspired to return to his toy collection. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll pick up a few figures here and there,’ and before I knew it, I was just sucked into it again,” he says. “And at that same time, the Internet was just starting to boom. I started networking with people all over the country to trade toys; this guy needed that action figure, I needed one that he’d found, we’d do a swap. That’s how this started to build and evolve into an online family.”
As his connection to his fellow fans grew stronger, so did his obsession with George Lucas’s trilogy. “My love of Star Wars lies within the community itself,” explains Roberts, who works as a Systems Technician for Cincinnati Bell Technology Services. “I’ve made so many wonderful friends over the years: actors, directors, members of the 501st Legion [a fan group that dresses as Storm Troopers and appears at charity events]. We were all brought together because of our love for Star Wars.” Through the collecting community, Roberts met Philip Wise, who was in the process of converting his personal site into what would become RebelScum.com, the No. 1 Star Wars toy news site. Roberts began volunteering for Wise’s site in 2000. Soon afterward, Wise brought him into the fold of TheForce.Net, the mother of all Star Wars fan sites (famously launched in 1996 from the dorms of Texas A&M). In 2003, Roberts debuted his own Star Wars news site, R2D2 Central, dedicated to the beeping droid he calls “the true hero of the Star Wars saga.” Other Star Wars fan sites he’s associated with include Yakface.com and the official film website, where he briefly moderated the collecting forum.
ÜBER-FAN DUTIES: A minimum of twenty hours a week researching and writing content for all three sites; replying to e-mails; updating images; vetting rumors and news stories directly with Lucasfilm; co-producing the official TheForce.Net podcast “The ForceCast”; networking with various fan organizations; and finally, finding additional volunteers to post news and maintain the website. (Dustin says that there are many unpaid Jedi who put in at least as many hours on the websites as he does.) “I only do it on a volunteer basis,” he says. “I’m just a fan, and I’m passionate about it, and I just happen to know some people who own websites and let me basically run them.”
DROID DEVOTION: In his spare time, Dustin curates a unique Star Wars collection, consisting entirely of R2D2-related memorabilia. His reasons are surprisingly pragmatic. “I used to try to collect all the Star Wars stuff I could find, but I met some people who have just about everything, and it’s just barns full of stuff, and I realized that I cannot match that,” he says. “So I narrowed my focus down over the years.” His wife indulges his habit and gave him his most treasured collectible as a wedding present: a pair of R2D2 cufflinks. “She knows it’s part of me and it’s not going anywhere, and she never tries to threaten me by saying, ‘Get rid of that stuff!’ or anything like that,” he says appreciatively. “I’ve got my own little room in the house where I display stuff. Some people come over and they’re like,What the hell? but most of the reaction I get is, Wow! This is cool! You know, because it’s rare that you see a room really full of R2D2 collectables from the seventies up to present time.”
JOINING THE EMPIRE: At its beginnings, the online Star Wars fan community was truly a rebel alliance — which created some issues for George Lucas and his prequel publicity machine. “When TheForce.net began in the nineties, it was just a real band of fan boys who would post anything and everything that they could get, and many times they were threatened with legal action by Lucasfilm to remove their content,” Dustin remembers. “Back then, you were just excited to be a Star Wars fan because you knew something new was coming, and you were just anxious to get any bit of information that you could. Any kind of image that came along, or the name of a new toy — there were guys buying stuff out of China off of a toy line for $300 a figure, just to get pictures of it and to be the first on the Internet.”
To protect themselves from individual litigation, the webmasters registered TheForce.net as a limited-liability company. When Philip Wise, a licensee for Lucasfilm through his company Official Pix, came onboard, it opened the door for a working relationship with Lucas. “With Wise doing Official Pix and also owning half of TheForce.net, Lucasfilm kind of gave him some leeway, and he started working with them,” says Dustin. “If something was inappropriate, they’d e-mail him, he’d e-mail me, we could move it, [that] kind of thing. We played their game. We weren’t the rogue fan boys that we once were. And that turned some people off. But at the same time, it’s helped us build a relationship with Lucasfilm, and that gives us access to more content, more connections.” The website still prominently features the disclaimer that TheForce.Net is not endorsed by Lucasfilm.
INTERFAN WARFARE: As soon as The Phantom Menace reached theaters, the Star Wars fan community experienced something new: polarization. “Once everybody saw the movie, you immediately had a decision to make. You had people who loved it and couldn’t see enough of it and had to go back and see multiple viewings. And then you had the other side, who said, ‘This isn’t for me. This isn’t how I remember Star Wars.’” Rather than creating a permanent rift, however, the prequels provided a new bone for fans to gnaw on, resulting in energetic debates that have lasted for more than a decade. (One active forum topic on TheForce.Net discussion boards is “What would you add/subtract to make the prequels better?”) By the time the Clone Wars animated series premiered in 2008, the Star Wars community was ready to embrace all comers. As Dustin sees it, “you can love the original trilogy, or maybe you just like The Clone Wars animated series, but you’re still a fan. There’s so much about Star Wars to love and so many different directions you can go with it.”
PROOF OF DEVOTION: In May of 1999, Dustin attended Celebration One, the first Star Wars fan convention since 1987. Twenty thousand devotees flocked to Denver, Colorado, but only the most fervid stood out in tents in the middle of a rainstorm to watch an exclusive clip from The Phantom Menace. “It was like the Woodstock of Star Wars fans,” says Dustin. “We didn’t care what we had to stand in. It was muddy, it was wet, it was horribly miserable, but we were going to see some Star Wars stuff.”