Most of the Star Wars action figures that Jack Hughes pulled out of his older brothers’ toy box were as worn and weathered as the used-future space opera they were based on. All except for one: Princess Leia Organa.
“She was almost immaculate,” Hughes tells StarWars.com, overlooked by his siblings and rarely conscripted for a play battle. “I loved how beat up and loved they were — scrapes and dents, faded paint. Star Wars always felt really gritty and mature in the constructed realities I’d form in my head as a child.” But in the pristine figure of the rebel princess, Hughes saw potential. Not only did she loom large in the stories he created during those long hours of play, Hughes often put her in the pilot’s seat of the Millennium Falcon, an underdog finally getting her moment to shine. “She was always the captain.”
Both Leia and Carrie Fisher, the actor who portrayed the princess-turned-general, are icons to Hughes. “As a gay man, I’ve always rooted for the underdog and in almost all the media I consumed growing up, the token woman was always the underdog,” Hughes says. “It’s why I loved Leia and cherished her figurine so much.” So when he was approached to create a piece of art for Lucasfilm that would celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month in October, Leia and all the strong women who inspired him from the Star Wars galaxy became the theme for a piece exploring their various identities and journeys.
Leia is shown not just as the young princess ready to lead a rebellion against the fearsome Empire in the face of great personal loss, but the resolute general who would return to the battlefield and form the Resistance years after the rebel victory. Padmé Amidala is both a breathtaking vision as the Queen of Naboo, putting her own needs aside to serve her people, and the formidable senator. And Rey the scavenger becomes Rey the Jedi, thanks to learning to lift some rocks and conquer her fears and inner darkness, raising a yellow lightsaber aloft at the end of her journey. “I couldn’t miss the opportunity to put Rey’s yellow lightsaber in as a shining beacon to her achievements and progression throughout the trilogy.”
Recently StarWars.com sat down with Hughes to discuss his own journey, from childhood fan to professional artist and proud member of the gay community.
“The fight for equality”
From a young age, art was a constant for Hughes, who grew up in south London and went on to study illustration at Kingston University before launching a career as a freelance illustrator, which has sustained him for just over a decade.
For the LGBTQ+ History Month assignment, Hughes focused on the women of the Skywalker saga films and incorporating Jyn Erso from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. “I’ve always gravitated towards female characters,” Hughes notes. “Perhaps I saw more of myself in them than the macho, hyper-masculine characters we were often exposed to (and still are). I wanted to create a piece that celebrated the women of Star Wars, specifically those who gave me goosebumps when on screen and more importantly — a sense of hope for the future.”
The history and message of hope is integral to his experience in the LGBTQ+ community. “Our collective history is taught in school so we can better understand the present in the hope of not repeating the same mistakes we made in the past,” Hughes says. “This is no different for the history of LGBTQ+ people. And if the past and the present are anything to go by — we still have a long way to go for the fight for equality is far from over.”
Including Leia was an obvious choice. “To me, Leia is the OG female character of Star Wars, the godmother, if you will. She set the precedent and opened up a world dominated by male characters, giving a voice to so many female characters that came after her,” Hughes says. “I wanted to represent her beginning and end, creating a striking yet subtle impression within the piece, an homage to both Leia and the late Carrie Fisher.”
Leia’s birth mother, Padmé, was another must for Hughes. “Padmé is represented in a similar fashion,” he notes. “We see another woman of nobility break the shackles of what is expected of her and challenge the stereotype of the quiet, polite young lady.” Hughes didn’t shy away from including a hint at her sad ending. “She is represented in two stages — queen and senator, with the white flowers as a nod to those adorning her hair in her casket.”
Perhaps less obvious were Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebel Alliance and Chancellor of the New Republic, and Amilyn Holdo, Leia’s longtime friend and a vice admiral in the Resistance famous for her sacrifice, a daring attack known as “the Holdo maneuver.” In Hughes’ hands, the two women are shown back to back and ready for battle. “Mothma and Holdo represent powerful and well-respected female characters with a wealth of experience under their belt that have been around for as long as Leia,” he says. “They are two of my favorite characters. I have no choice but to stan.”
Rey, the scavenger-turned-Jedi, is notably the only character to be shown in full, a nod to her importance as the hero of the sequel trilogy. “I see this as more of an homage to the original illustrated posters with Luke and Leia as the focus — she is after all an amalgamation of the two,” he says. The latest films are well represented here, including Rose Tico from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Jannah from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. “It’s difficult to not fall in love with a bow-wielding woman,” Hughes quips. “And, of course, Jyn Erso from Rogue One, possibly my favorite film from the entire Star Wars franchise. She embodies everything I love about female leads — a checkered past, defiant, and with a no nonsense attitude. I’m always a fan of a heroic yet tragic ending. I also like the positioning of her next to Leia, who is next to the Death Star, representing the sequence of their missions.”
One outlier in Hughes’ celebration of heroic women is Captain Phasma, the First Order’s silver-armored enforcer terrorizing Finn and the rest of the Resistance. “I almost didn’t include Phasma since all other characters shown belong to the light side,” Hughes admits. “But she was such an excellent character…a well-written female antagonist, even if her appearances were brief.”
Hughes’ composition goes far beyond paying respect to the characters and poster art of the Star Wars films, imbued with a surrealistic slant and a stereotypically feminine color palette of pinks and purples that plays against the expectations of their femininity. “Getting the right color balance across all the characters was important,” Hughes says. “Color is a huge part of my work and process. I wanted to give the piece a sense of delicate femininity while maintaining the innate feminine strength each character embodies.”
With the Death Star looming above and the cradle of the Skywalker family, Tatooine, forming the base, Hughes took care to include specific elements in the collage while keeping the composition succinct.
The final result is a love letter to the elements of Star Wars that made him a fan all those years ago, when he was just a kid exploring his brothers’ toy chest, and telling his own stories of brave women in charge of their own journeys, underestimated at every turn yet overcoming the odds to be leaders, heroes, and icons, which is exactly what this month is all about. “LGBT+ History Month is vital to ensure we remember what the LGBT+ community have endured,” Hughes says, “and overcome.”
Associate Editor Kristin Baver is the author of the book Skywalker: A Family At War, host of This Week! In Star Wars, and an all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.
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