Creator Tim Leong talks to StarWars.com about his new book, which uses infographics to measure variations of "I've got a bad feeling about this" and much more.
Star Wars is a visual experience through and through, with so many characters, ships, locations, and scenes that immediately scream “This is Star Wars!” to the world. The visual style of Star Wars started on film, but has grown to include other visual storytelling media including television, comics, videogames, art, and even emojis. Now Star Wars goes boldly into a new visual realm -- infographics -- with Star Wars Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to a Galaxy Far, Far Away by Tim Leong, coming out from Chronicle Books on July 25. What can a bunch of graphs, charts, and other data visualizations tell us about Star Wars that we didn’t know before? A lot, it turns out. StarWars.com chatted on the phone with creator Leong about Star Wars Super Graphic and how it appeals to both the new and casual fans as well as the lifelong fans.
What is Star Wars Super Graphic?
Star Wars Super Graphic is a visual guide, but unlike any other. It doesn’t have photos of characters or blasters or schematics of ships or lightsabers – it’s a collection of all kinds of infographics all in one book and it focuses on all sorts of concepts from single quotes, graphically illustrated, to saga-spanning visualizations that help show how it all fits together, from film to film, and beyond. Each one-page or two-page spread shares its own part of the Star Wars story, interpreting some information in an easily-understood and fun format.
What inspired Leong to take on this approach? Leong explains, “I had done a book previously with Chronicle in 2013, called Super Graphic, which is the same idea in that I tried to distill the details, intricacies and complicated world of comic books into an understandable and fun and funny infographics. It was very detail-driven and very design-driven and, also, hopefully [had] a layer of comedic touch to make it into something people would like. The thing with the first book, and it applies here, too, comic books seemed like a hard thing for people to jump into. It’s a little scary with 75 years of history and 10 different versions of characters. You need a guide to walk you through. That’s the aim for Star Wars Super Graphic: to be a visual guide, and there a lot of visual guides…”
But instead of being an image-based guide focusing on the galaxy’s who and what, Leong strove for a deeper focus. “One of my main jobs with this was to connect all of the different Star Wars stories,” continues Leong. “Most people have only seen the films and don’t realize that there is a much bigger universe and it all connects together. Quite frankly, I didn’t have as full an appreciation for that until I started on this. I am a big Star Wars fan and had read some of the comics but not all of them, but this allowed me to go through all the books and everything. When you get the eagle-eye view of everything, you realize, ‘Wow! This is all interconnected. Everything matters...’ … There are lots of different details and connections that most people don’t see and I wanted to help guide people through those connections and make sense of it in a fun way.”
Designing successful Star Wars infographics
“The process of the book starts as ideas from just being a huge fan and being familiar with Star Wars,” Leong describes. “I came up with a list of ideas for charts. For things like ‘The circle is now complete’ – I think, ‘It has the word ‘circle’ in it, I can make this into some sort of circular visualization.’ That’s easy. For things that involve color like lightsaber blades or blaster bolts, I realized I could do charts about these.”
“Everything just started with an idea and went through multiple steps. First, I start with an idea, and then I go through the research -- let me go through all the data to see if my idea is true, ‘Does the data hold up?’ After the data-collection stage, I would do a quick design of it and make sure it would look good. If it wasn’t a good chart, why would we be doing it? It was a multi-stage process to see if something was even viable. It took a lot of work in that regard, with a lot of trial and error. For a [Star Wars] Rebels chart, I was going to do a count of Zeb saying ‘Karabast!’ across all episodes, and then after I counted them up, it wasn’t as much as I thought it was going to be and the data didn’t look that great. It has to be a good idea and it has to have good data and then has to be a good design. If it’s not all three of those things, then it’s not worth doing.”
Collecting data isn’t just looking at existing resources, but can involve going back to the source material. Leong explains getting the information for a graphic that depicts the number of missed shots fired by stormtroopers aboard the Death Star: “For that one, I had a researcher help me, but it was basically clicking through frame-by-frame at that super-slow speed on the DVD and trying to count every single one… You know, it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.”
At other times in the design process, the desired data might not have even officially existed yet. One of the best examples of an infographics that combines cool idea, cool data, and a really, really cool design is the droid personality matrix, measuring several different personality traits across two scales. When asked where he got the idea and how he found the data for comparing which droid is more snarky than another, Leong answers, “There really isn’t hard data for that type of thing. I knew I wanted to have some sort of matrix in the book, and I was trying to figure out what would fit in that space. I think I had different ideas -- maybe it was Jedi, or other things, but finally settled on droids because there were so many, and from so many types. Lucasfilm was very helpful in providing info, like ‘BB-8 is a little more snarky than this other droid, but less than that one.’ … I would do a round of pages and send them in, and they would make corrections on them. They were incredibly helpful and very supportive. I wanted to make sure everything was right and they were on board, and they were fantastic partners.”
The infographics in the book span from covering the entire saga, like tracking who has rescued whom, or a Venn diagram of Daddy issues, to smaller segments of the story, such as following the distance between Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree in Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars, or the histories of the characters in Rogue One to small comparisons, like visualizing in portions how much BB-8 is worth to Unkar Plutt in relation to Rey’s normal scavenging hauls.
The book begins with several pages that help give a sense of what Star Wars is and what the scope is for the whole Star Wars galaxy. Here’s Leong talking with StarWars.com on this section:
Tim Leong: I think some of the more serviceable elements are the first spreads of the book. To help someone who wants to know how to consume everything in a linear chronological order, there’s the "Wait, where do I start?" spread. There’s also a spread called "Where in the world is Boba Fett?" that basically shows a breakdown of the main characters and what properties they show up in. So that a new fan can see that this character didn’t just come out of the blue, but has been around.
StarWars.com: It shows that you can follow this person through the main part of the story, or follow another character that might have their story end partway through the saga but get referenced back to later on in the saga. These first several spreads definitely introduce how big the universe is. I love how you threw in a little box about the number of periods in the ellipsis at the end of each opening crawls.
Tim Leong: I was like, “Why are there four here? What’s up with that?” That is one of the things that always stuck out to me.
StarWars.com: You also do some really cool timelines, going through the key points of the Star Wars saga.
Tim Leong: That was hard. “Let me boil down eight movies and nine seasons of television shows and books into one timeline!” It was a little bit difficult but I think it might be helpful to people. And that’s the whole point: covering the most important stuff. It’s not an encyclopedia. The point is not to be an encyclopedia. This isn’t every detail ever. This is a friendly guide. It’s approachable and fun and not intimidating. You shouldn’t ever reach a page and think, “Ugh, this is too tough to figure out.” Instead, you’ll think, “Okay, I get it, here are the key points that I need to understand what’s going on.”
StarWars.com: And I love that you go from that to the next page, which tracks when people have a bad feeling about something and then you measure how bad that situation really is.
Tim Leong: [Laughs] That was a fun one. You have to do something about those often-repeated lines when you’re making a list of ideas.
Some of StarWars.com's favorite spreads
In preparation for our interview with Leong, StarWars.com flagged some of the coolest infographic spreads through the book.
The Boonta Eve Classic infographic is one of those deeper-dive pieces focusing on the outcome of the podrace from The Phantom Menace. “The Boonta Eve Classic podrace started pretty early as a general idea,” says Leong. “I had written everything down and re-watched that scene a lot, but realized there were still a bunch of holes there on where different podracers finished. This was one where Lucasfilm was definitely very helpful in providing the right information, as well as with the podracer speeds.”
Using a Venn diagram, Leung has charted out trends in the nicknames Star Wars characters use for each other. “That was a really fun one!” Leong enthuses. “While I had been watching Rebels, The Clone Wars was a bit of a blind spot for me, but this became a good excuse to do a deep binge into it after missing it while it aired. I loved it so much, and there were so many great nicknames in The Clone Wars, so that’s a big part of where that graphic came from. I kept hearing so many and realized there was more than enough material here. Then it was determining what to do -- you start off with the whole list, and ask, ‘How is it possible to group these?’ Some nicknames are mean ones while others are affectionate, and some are based on looks, like Goldenrod, and there’s ones that have to do with age, like Gramps or calling someone kid, and then try to figure out how they all overlap.”
Using a diagram similar to a family tree, Leong has mapped out a network of Master and apprentice relationships on both sides of the Force, complete with stylized drawings of each Jedi or Sith. Leong explains the origins of this chart, “With this chart in particular, that was something I tried to look up and thought, ‘Clearly, this must be online somewhere,’ but found that it didn’t really exist anywhere. So I thought, ‘How about we just make one?’ So I went thought every Jedi and Sith I could think of. That’s exactly the thing: trying to find those connections between everything. As I did this deep dive into Star Wars as I was researching this book, my wife was worried that I would end up hating Star Wars after being in it for so long. Instead, it had the opposite effect: I have a much deeper appreciation for it, just because I was able to see a much bigger picture and see how everything does connect. Things like ‘This is their motivation for this, and it connects back to this book and that one.’ I will admit that I had some help – James Kim did the little illustrations for me. I did some of the illustrations in the book, but I certainly did not do all of them.”
The final chart, "Time and Space" shows how long it would take to binge everything -- movies, TV shows, novels, comic books. When asked if these were based on his actual times, Leong responds, “The movies and TV shows are just the running times added up, and the book stuff was a little bit harder. I did research into average reading times per page for people -- comics are a little bit trickier, but we wanted to include everything on there -- didn’t want to leave anything out.”
You don’t know the power of infographic!
Charts and graphs may seem as mundane as the taxation of trade routes, but are more powerful that you might realize. As the creative director for Entertainment Weekly, Leong is akin to a Jedi Master when it comes to the impact of a well-designed infographic. What might readers might discover through Star Wars Super Graphic about sharing knowledge using visual representations? “Hopefully, it can be fun and even kids can do it, too! I think charts get a bad rap sometimes and in the last couple of years, they’ve certainly been on the upswing. But, like a lot of this content, they don’t have to be scary or intimidating. There are fun ways to do charts and that charts are absolutely a useful way to share information. They can help you tell the story better.”
As a book looking at new ways to interpret the saga, Star Wars Super Graphic brings about a balance to the Force. “I wanted the book to be something that newer fans can appreciate, but also something that lifelong fans can appreciate," Leong says. "Ideally there is something for everyone here, whether new fan or hardcore fan. Since these films have been around for quite a while, the hardest part was finding fresh takes on things. Finding a Star Wars joke that hadn’t been made already was one of the harder things.”
Readers can flip to any page and learn something new, whether the graphic is something simple or something super detail oriented. Leong’s style makes it really easy to understand while being colorful and fun. Star Wars Super Graphic goes on sale everywhere on July 25, but at San Diego Comic-Con (July 19-23, 2017), Chronicle Books will be having an exclusive pre-sale and signings with Tim Leong at their booth #1506.
James Floyd is a writer, photographer, and organizer of puzzle adventures. He’s a bit tall for a Jawa. His current project is Wear Star Wars Every Day, a fundraising effort for a refugee aid organization. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamesjawa or check out his articles on Club Jade and Big Shiny Robot.