Ben Blacker on the Inspirations, Surprises, and Future of Star Wars: Join the Resistance

The co-creator of Thrilling Adventure Hour discusses his acclaimed Star Wars book and its sequel.

Ben Blacker and Ben Acker are a creative juggernaut. The two form a writing team that is a genuine force to be reckoned with. They’re perhaps best known as the creators of Thrilling Adventure Hour, a podcast and stage show in the style of old-time radio that ran for more than 10 years and 200 episodes. In addition, they’ve written a veritable library of graphic novels and TV episodes.

They’ve also just broken new ground and written their first book with Star Wars: Join the Resistance. The book, which is the first in a new series of books for young readers, follows a young, rag-tag group of Resistance cadets…and the trouble they inevitably get into.

We sat down with Ben Blacker to talk about how the story developed, some of the Easter eggs he and Acker peppered throughout, and Star Wars law. How did the two of you originally come on board for the Join the Resistance series? Did Disney and Lucasfilm specifically approach you for a young readers’ book, or did you pitch it to them?

Ben Blacker: Yeah, it was sort of a long process. They were talking internally about doing a series about one of the X-wing pilots from The Force Awakens, and the idea was that it would be a flashy character with a big ego who got in a lot of trouble. And they were talking about Sparks Nevada from Thrilling Adventure Hour as a point of reference. So when it came time to have someone to write that, they were like, “Well, do you think those guys would do it?” So Michael Siglain [creative director at Lucasfilm Publishing] called us and pitched us the idea. I remember Acker on the phone said, “Do we have to hang up and pretend to talk about this? Because yes, yes we want to do this. Obviously!”

So [the development process] went on over several months, and we got together with Mike during that time at various conventions and just kind of talked about what would be fun to do. And at some point, the idea of The Goonies in the Star Wars universe came up. And we talked about how to do that. You know, having a bunch of kids in their early-to-mid teens join the Resistance and then get into trouble seemed like a great jumping-off point.

So Mike pitched it to us, and then we took it from there, created the characters, figured out where things would fall, and how the four books would lay out. Even today, in the publicity and marketing, the book is being promoted as Star Wars meets The Goonies. Obviously, that was something you had in mind while you were writing?

Ben Blacker: It was. What we wanted from that was that sense of fun and adventure and one bad thing leading to another that The Goonies has and the Indiana Jones movies have. We didn’t want it to ever get too heavy, although I think our book is kind of heavy at times. It was really about that sense of fun — kids running around and having adventures. And also that feeling…I was at exactly the right age when The Goonies came out, and it was so inspiring at play. Running around in the woods with sticks and hitting things and hiding from each other. That was the feel that we wanted, especially from the first book when we were just getting to know the characters. We wanted to have these great adventure set pieces that we hope will be inspiring to kids at play.

Mattis Banz stands with his arms crossed in front of his squadron as X-wings fly overhead, on the cover of the book Join the Resistance. That’s amazing that you say that because I remember watching The Goonies and desperately wanting to find a tunnel that went down through a fireplace and discover a whole underground world. And reading Join the Resistance, I could see kids thinking “When is the Resistance going to come for me?” and running through the woods and pretending to have all these adventures.

Ben Blacker: Yeah, I hope we did get to capture that. It was a fun thing to write and put ourselves back into that mindset of what it was like to be a kid inspired by this stuff.

The kind of amazing thing about the Star Wars universe right now is all of the material — whether it’s the movies, the comics, the novels — are being created by people who were inspired by Star Wars and really hold it close to their heart and want to give another generation the feeling that we had when we first encountered Star Wars. And I think The Force Awakens does that in an amazing way. And I think the comics also have that sense of excitement and discovery, and I think it is because they’re made by the people who grew up with Star Wars. I think a lot of fans are curious about the decisions that go into these books and the stories that are told. How much oversight was there, and how much freedom do you have to tell your story, your way?

Ben Blacker: Oh, so much freedom. It is absolutely the book that we wanted to write. I would say, there’s not really “oversight,” but there’s guidance, and that’s really an editor’s job. And Jen Heddle [senior editor at Lucasfilm] did a really terrific job with it, especially considering that for me and Acker, this was our first prose work. We had never written a book before. I hadn’t realized that!

Ben Blacker: Yeah, they took a chance on us. They took our word for it that we could do it. I do remember when we first submitted an outline, the note that we got back from Jen was: “There are three books in this outline. You can cut this off 1/3 of the way through, and that is a complete book.” And it was absolutely true.

The book that you have now was actually the first act of what we thought the book would be. But that was quite a long time ago, and as we started digging into it, we realized it was plenty of material. So we wound up saving some of that for the second book.

The big thing that Jen and Story Group (who reads everything) provide is just their knowledge of what’s going on in every corner of the Star Wars universe. They’re really good at looking at an outline of the manuscript and saying, “Well, you can’t use this kind of droid because it’s no longer in use 30 years after Jedi, but what about this kind of droid?” Or, “Instead of using this kind of alien, why don’t you make up a new alien so it doesn’t have ties to anything and you get to own a piece of the Star Wars universe?” That’s been a really cool and surprising thing.

You know, when you get something like this — and Ben and I have written for Marvel comics, and it’s sort of the same feeling — you get this offer, and you think I can’t wait to write all of the characters I know and love. And there is some of that. Writing Admiral Ackbar into the first book was so much fun. It feels like getting to play with the best toy.

But I do a podcast called The Writer’s Panel where I talk to writers about writing, and I talked to Patrick Ness. In addition to being a young adult writer, he also created a Doctor Who spinoff. I asked him how it was playing with those toys, and he said, “It’s great fun playing with the toys, but imagine getting to create new stuff for Doctor Who.” I talked to him as we were starting the first Star Wars book, and that really clicked with me. Oh, not only do I get to play with the toys, but I get to create something that maybe someone else will pick up and get to play with in six months or a year or 20 years! And that’s a really cool, exciting thing. You’re playing in this sandbox, and you create these characters or an entire alien race, and you don’t know the life that it’ll take on after you. That’s got to be thrilling.

Ben Blacker: It really is. It’s such a funny weird thing to look on Wookieepedia and see the stuff that we created there. It’s crazy. And it’s stuff named after our friends, which is really funny. Like, we created a religion named Phirmism after our friend Mike Phirman.

The cover of the book Star Wars: Join the Resistance: Escape from Vodran features the J-Squadron, a group of young Resistance cadets. You mentioned droids and which ones you could use. But in a universe full of memorable droids that are full of personality, how did you approach AG-90 to make him unique?

Ben Blacker: It actually came out of one of our first meetings up at Lucasfilm. About a month before The Force Awakens came out, they brought us up and basically walked us through the movie. They showed us key art and concept designs, and they told us the first 2/3 of The Force Awakens. We thought it would ruin the movie for us, but it made it better. We got so excited.

And they brought in Story Group who said, “We can’t tell you anything, but you can ask us anything you want.” Somehow we got onto this question of droids and the concept came out that if you don’t wipe a droid’s memory or reprogram it, it develops the quirks that give it a personality. So that’s why the astromechs that work with the same X-wing pilots over and over again don’t have their memories erased — because they learn to work best with their pilot.

So this idea of a droid getting glitches that make it both more and less efficient in many ways — like, it’s not just a robot anymore — was really interesting to us. We thought, “What if there were a droid that never had its memory reprogrammed? What would that droid look like?” Well, he would almost be human, so how can we back-create that character so he’s in a situation where he’s never been reprogrammed?

So the idea came that he was built by this kid’s mother to be his brother, basically. So the droid and the human see themselves as brothers. They’re self-aware; they know obviously that they’re not, but they have that relationship. That was the jumping off point for AG. We also thought it would be neat to write a droid that had a voice that was kind of different from other droids we’ve seen in Star Wars. So we used two inspirations.

One was Timothy Olyphant in Justified. That drawl was an interesting choice for a droid, and it’s something we haven’t seen before, as well as that dryness he has. And then the other is, we named the droid after our friend Steve Agee. Steve is a hilarious comedian, great actor, and all-around good guy, so there’s a bit of Steve’s personality in there. He’s just a sort of laid back, very funny character who will interject things — sometimes to shake up a conversation — and can be very blunt, but you don’t mind because he’s such a good guy. There’s part of that in AG-90 also. Did you work with artist Annie Wu at all? Was there any collaboration there?

Ben Blacker: Yeah, Lucasfilm asked who we might want to have do the spot illustrations for the book. Annie was one of three people on the list, and we were amazed that she had time to do it. We had worked with her a little bit, and she had done some art for Thrilling Adventure Hour. So we just sent her character descriptions, and it was right at the beginning of writing the book. But man, she sent us her rough sketches for the illustrations, and it was so inspiring. It was like going to see the movie for the first time. They’re just beautiful pictures that suggest so much world and so much life and such a sense of adventure. And also a cool tone that has some melancholy and danger. Once she sent those, it became even more exciting and fun to dig in to the book. We had to deserve her great illustrations. You guys are not strangers to graphic novels and comics, so you know the feeling, but seeing the art come back of characters and situations you’ve created…like you said, it’s inspiring, but it’s still got to be such a thrill.

Ben Blacker: It really is. We often liken working in comics to working with actors. You have a thing in your mind, and then you hand it off to the artist who brings something else entirely to it. It becomes something greater than you expected or that you even thought it could be. What’s your favorite Star Wars moment in any media?

Ben Blacker: Oh man, that’s a good question. I’ll say this: I think The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars movie. I understand that’s controversial. I still love A New Hope. It is still the Star Wars for which I have nostalgia, and obviously it opened all kinds of imaginative doors to me. But I think The Force Awakens, top to bottom, is the best-made movie. And when Rey grabs the lightsaber in the final third of the movie and turns it on and goes to fight to Kylo Ren, I get…even now, I’m getting goosebumps thinking of it. That is such an emotional moment, and it’s played perfectly by the actors and by the director. It’s everything you want Star Wars to be in one five-second moment.

Rey blocks Kylo Ren's lightsaber, during a duel in The Force Awakens. If you could team up any Star Wars character with Sparks Nevada, who would it be and where would you put them?

Ben Blacker: Ooh, that’s great! Well…gosh, I have several ideas! I think a Han Solo/Sparks Nevada adventure would be amazing because they would annoy each other so much. They both think they’re the coolest one, when in fact Han Solo is clearly the cooler one. I also like the idea of throwing a Force ghost into Beyond Belief and seeing what happens when the ghost of Anakin shows up in Frank and Sadie Doyle’s apartment. All these great storytelling possibilities! I need to hear them now!

Ben Blacker: Oh man, I wish we could do that. How amazing would that be? What are you most looking forward to in the next year or so of Star Wars? Of everything on the horizon, what are you most excited about?

Ben Blacker: Oh man, I’m so psyched for Episode VIII. Ben and I know Rian Johnson a little bit; he directed some episodes of Thrilling Adventure Hour, which was so exciting because we’ve been enormous fans since Brick. That he was given the keys to Star Wars is so exciting. I can’t wait to see what he does with it. I don’t want to know anything beforehand. I want to walk in and just be dazzled. You don’t want any trips out to Lucasfilm to hear about the first 2/3 of this one?

Ben Blacker: I kinda do, but I just want to be surprised. This is a series of books, so what can we look forward to in future books?

Ben Blacker: Book two picks up right after book one. It’s with our editor now, so hopefully she likes what we did. We go a little deeper into who these kids are, and we put them into some tougher circumstances. I will say that the research we did for it was watching things like The Great Escape and The Shawshank Redemption, so it’s a bit different, but it’s the same kind of fun.

Also, it does get dark at times. As The Empire Strikes Back did! With the second in the series, we need to get a little darker. And the third one, obviously, will have Ewoks. So does that mean Episode IX is going to be The Attack of the Ewoks?

Ben Blacker: Yeah, I think you have to do it. Every three movies, you need Ewoks. It’s the law. It’s Star Wars law.

Ben Blacker: Star Wars Law is not on Wookieepedia, but it is a TV show I would watch.

Jamie is a publishing/book nerd who makes a living by wrangling words together into some sense of coherence. He’s also a contributor to GeekDad and runs The Roarbots, where he focuses on awesome geeky stuff that happens to be kid-friendly. On top of that, he cohosts The Great Big Beautiful Podcast, which celebrates geek culture by talking to people who create it. With two little ones and a vast Star Wars collection at home, he’s done the unthinkable: allowed them full access to most of his treasure from the past 30 years, opening and playing with whatever they want (pre-1983 items excluded).

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