It was December 1998 and the 501st Squad was growing. Fast.
Following the blunders at DragonCon in Atlanta, Georgia, I was puzzling over the destiny of the group that gathered on the website Detention Block 2551. It made quite a show, all those pictures of Stormtroopers on the web. But where was all this headed? Would a grassroots fan club catch on with fans worldwide?
Membership applications poured in. Maybe it was the photos posted from DragonCon that got the word out? There we were, holding up the banner of the 501st, looking proud. No one needed to know what a fiasco it had been. The photos quietly spoke of victory, a tenuous beach head secured by the first wave of troopers.
Just one year after its launch, Vader’s Fist was up to a whopping 61 members. Even this early, all six of the original trooper types from the movies were represented: Classic Stormtroopers, Desert or Sand Troopers, Snowtroopers, Biker Scouts, TIE pilots, and Royal Guards. The members appeared as trooper helmets on a makeshift map of America, dotting the country from coast-to-coast: the Midwest, California, New York, Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. Even Hawaii! Outside the US, they appeared as far away as Canada, Switzerland, Okinawa, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.
By 1999, we were at 147 troopers in 11 countries. Outside the US were the UK, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, and Sweden. Something was happening.
To try and tell the story from one man’s perspective would be an injustice. Pioneers of Star Wars fandom around the world were taking it upon themselves to reconnect with the beloved movies, and doing so in the most outlandish way possible. Imagine the myriad of cultures around the world, the tapestry of different sensibilities and tastes, and in each of them some brave soul doing the exact same thing I was doing. Each of them taking up armor and imagining an Empire connected. Each of them finding the 501st and finding a home. It was too good to believe.
So to tell the story adequately, it has to be told in parts. Each part, its own adventure.
In 1997 a fan in the United Kingdom named Graham Campbell took a leap of faith and plunked down the equivalent of $800 for a Stormtrooper costume. Bought from a stranger on the all-new Internet, it was a huge gamble. Dealers didn’t come with references or assurances back then. But it paid off. Just like some guy was doing in the States at the same time, Graham set up a website and posted pics of his armor and offered help to others doing the same. It was called Troopers R Us and it got 20-30 hits a week. It was a slow start, but a seed found purchase in English soil.
Graham went on the offensive. A crew of mates were knocking about in armor on a website called the Fan Garrison. They were Simon Prince, Darren Horley, and John May. Graham made the pitch that there was a better way to serve the Empire.
“I have seen just how much you each enjoy the buzz of this thing we call ‘trooping,’” he later recounted in a written testimonial. “You are the men of the Imperial Army, Let’s go to work…”
Like a modern-day Henry V he launched into his own St. Crispin’s Day speech. The “happy few” joined eagerly.
The website underwent an overhaul to attract more members. By 1998 they were joined by Phil Clarke, Steve Carter, and Richard Stratford. Each of them had Imperial blood and each had heard of the new group forming.
By 1999 word of the 501st Squad had already reached Graham’s ears. Seeing what was happening, he was ready to plant an Imperial flag for the UK. A quick review of the rules showed he was just three troopers short of the required ten members to be recognized as a unit of Vader’s Fist. Undaunted, he threw himself into building an all-new website in advance of being approved, complete with unit logos and signage. By February 2000 he found his last three troopers. On March 23, he unfurled the UK Garrison banner and a formal unit was born.
In a written testimonial from Graham, we learn a bit of what was going on in his enterprising mind:
“…we started something totally original and new in the UK. I spoke at length with ‘key’ members as to my goals for the group, Richard, Phil & John discussed these issues, I did state at the time that I had a vision, where we would attend the biggest, most professional events in the UK. I also remember saying that we would be on TV, press etc. Richard also at the time agreed with me that if we really wanted it, we could achieve great things, we knew at the time that this was dreaming, but…”
Those who knew Graham at this time describe a man with ceaseless energy to launch something great and with the charisma to lead his lads to do great things. This wasn’t just about dressing in armor. This was about being every bit the part of Stormtroopers and rocking the fan scene as formal ambassadors of Star Wars!
The next year saw incredible things for the UK Garrison. VaderMaker.com was launched, a sub-site heralded as the premier Vader costuming source. A program of heavy promotion by XO Phil Clarke made inroads into the world of event organizers and exhibitors. Web traffic and inquiries began to pour in at a steady rate of growth. The UKG hit events like a freight train: Autographica – Memorabilia, Art of Star Wars (London), Jedi-con, the RIM Advertising Conferences, Art of Star Wars (Bradford).
It was only 2002 and the UKG was already one of the leaders of the 501st Legion on a global scale.
Then tragedy struck. On May 9, 2004, Graham Campbell was killed in an automobile accident. The news struck the 501st, and more deeply the UKG, like a stunning blow. To see such an amazing leader and visionary lost in the prime of his group’s success was just heartbreaking.
I regret never getting to meet the man: my peer in the UK, someone who had the same vision of fans uniting in greatness. My work with him had been so fleeting, so mundane, working out procedures for his new group to join the world group. I never got to see him in action and feel the excitement he generated in helping fans become a part of a great engine of imagination.
The only real interaction I had with Graham lasted less than a minute and was one-sided. We had been working out details of how the 501st brand would be represented as a part of this new unit in the UK. There were concerns from my staff that it was becoming more and more “UKG” and no mention of the 501st. There were discussions addressed to his staff of how important it was to get the 501st brand out there, so all the world units could share in the good work each was doing, so that a single worldwide entity could make a change.
The answer came in a phone call to my house. I remember stepping in the front door just as it went to the message machine. There was a voice on the other end.
“Albin, this is Graham. Just calling to let you know everything will be okay. The UKG and the 501st will be fine. Let me work it out on my end. Cheers.”
By the time I got inside Graham had hung up. I went to call him back, but wondered if it best to try later. He sounded resolute and I didn’t want to endanger what sounded like a peace offering.
The next week I got the news of his accident. There would never be a time I could talk with him. The thought haunts me to this day. He and I were kindred souls, sensing a time of urgency to do the things others hesitated to do, imagining what people could accomplish if they took a crazy leap together, and knowing what to say to get them to do it. Star Wars fandom owes the man a great debt for helping it see how magical it could be when put into action.
Graham’s words from his testimonial, dated March 21, 2001:
“I am a proud man, to see what we have achieved is truly awesome, it started so small and so simple and it has become a monster, it is growing faster that I could ever have imagined. I wanted to share my thoughts with each of you, when we think of our Garrison, let’s be immensely proud of what we are a part of, I hope you will all be a part of our ever-increasing success!”
You are the men of the Imperial Army, Let’s go to work…”
— Graham Campbell
UK Garrison Commanding Officer – Captain / TK150-7 / VaderMaker