A few weeks ago, hundreds of small leaflets were taped on seemingly every other public phone, lamppost and kiosk in Paris. They advertised the personal appearance of Peter Mayhew, the man who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi at the Arkham comic book store near the Sorbonne. Mayhew would be signing autographs and sundry Star Wars-related paraphernalia in celebration of the stores fifth anniversary. A Star Wars enthusiast or not, I didnt see how anyone couldnt be curious about the man behind the wookiee. More mythology than simply movies since the beginning, the continuing Star Wars phenomenon invites fans to a crossroads between obsessive devotion and pop culture curiosity.
The leaflets accompanying photo of Mayhew alone was enough to pique my interest; I suppose I hadnt consciously realized a human being was underneath makeup to play Chewbacca. Though this is certainly evident now, I had brought with me from my childhood the idea of Chewbacca as an actor yes, but, a wookiee actor who performed only for Mr. Lucas. Mayhews tacky Chewbacca print shirt, more county fair velvet rug art than a Lucasfilm, ltd.-sanctioned image, along with his Harry Shearer-like droopy eyes and long frizzy hair implored me to see the man face to face. For me and most people in Paris, save for the regular sci-fi convention attendees, this was undoubtedly our first glimpse of the man. And so, on a surprisingly cold Saturday afternoon, I headed over to Arkham.
As expected, a half hour before the official start time, there was already a line out the door of some 75 people or so, shoulders hunched, trying to keep warm. It turned out that this was just the line to have Mayhew autographs. Those not interested in a personal encounter with him were free to browse. The store is not unlike those in the United States except that there are many more of them here and they have more of an expanded role in French culture.
Comic books, called Bande Dessinée, or BDs in French, are a much more respected and common part of reading and art for people of all ages. In addition to the specialty stores, major bookstores around Europe, the equivalent of Borders and Barnes and Noble, have huge BD sections. Likewise, BDs are not just science fictions or tales of superheroes; they are represented in every genre of storytelling, from coming of age stories to humor to history to erotica. Yes, this exists in the U.S., but it still does not reach the public at large, as it does in Europe. Therefore, while real-life counterparts to The Comic Book Store Guy on The Simpsons do exist here, the humor of that characters manner, of that kind of parochial geekdom is diluted and transcended by the fact that in any given BD store, there is a crowd of well-rounded men and women of all ages.
Here at Arkham though, the majority of people were between 18 and 30, and mostly male. As I entered the store, the signing was already underway. There was Mayhew, long black hair with grey starting to snake around, a black Star Wars Polo-style shirt and thick reading glasses. The next person in line would step forward say hello and he would sign their original 1983 poster for Return of the Jedi. He posed for photos with those who requested it, the camera work being done by the 20-something French assistant that was at his side at all times, there in case some diplomacy, extra pens or a fresh glass of water was needed.
The first thing one notices upon approach is the size of Mayhews hands. They are like those of Michelangelos David, with long palms, and thick extended digits. This is the first hint of the wookiee that one can see, though on one hand is a wedding ring and on the other a gawdy Chewbacca head ring. He smiled and spoke softly to those who addressed him, and would continue this for another four and half hours. Though I spent a good deal of time not more than five feet away, I was never really able to hear his words. It is possible that his silence had more to do with the language barrier. I talked to a man in his early thirties, Stephane, who had just gotten Mayhews autograph and told me that since he didnt really speak English, he could only say hello and thank you to Mayhew, who responded in kind. Many in the line did not speak to him at all and just smiledor in some cases, beamed.
Mayhews table, in addition to extra pens, also had a pile of 8x10 glossies of him both un-masked (the photo that was featured on the leaflet) and one as Chewbacca, from a foggy scene in Empire Strikes Back, when the Millenium Falcon mistakenly lands inside that huge creature that was inside the crater of the meteor. Though I did not see the cost of buying these photos, the autographs alone cost 150 Francs, which is about $20. Certainly some may object to this, but like all conventioneers, Mayhew is obviously not here out of the goodness of his heart or because he likes signing his name for half a day in a comic book store, but because this is part of how he makes his living.
Despite the thrill that goes along with seeing someone like this in the flesh, there is a dreariness to it all, a sense of awkward barrel-bottom consumerismthe last resort of the non-Harrison Fords of the Star Wars behemoth to have incomes derived from the source of their original fame. The actors who played Darth Vader, C3PO and R2-D2 know this well enough. Their signed (and paid for) photos adorn the walls of Arkham as well.
There was a Peter Mayhew before Chewbacca. Though he lives in Texas now, he is actually from Barnes, England and in the mid-1970s he was living in London and working as an orderly at Kings College Hospital. According to the bio on Petermayhew.com (which also informed me that wookiee is spelled with two es, not one, a mistake I have made since I was old enough to write), he was featured in a newspaper article about men with large feet, where by chance his photo was noticed by a producer who cast him as a minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. This eventually led to Star Wars. Even after the success of the film, Mayhew continued to work at a hospital, this time Mayday Hospital in a suburb of London, where he remained for years, taking leave only during the productions of Empire and Jedi. Recently, he returned to filmmaking, starring in the film Bigfoot, as Bigfoot. Often now he is on the Star Wars convention tour circuit, making him no stranger to signing his name hundreds of times in a row.
As the day wore on, more Star Wars characters arrived. There seemed to be a steady stream of 200 people there, with those in the store and those waiting in the line outside. Stormtroopers joked with each other rapidly in French. There was an Obi-Wan, looking not unlike Ewan Mcgregor, who had his own pre-teen Anakin constantly fidgeting with his costume. There were several Darth Mauls decked out with meticulous black and red face paint that must have taken hours to apply. All of this was such an interesting spectacle that each time I took a photo, there was a better photo op seconds later, each better than the last. A Darth Vader laughing with a Queen Amidala (diplomatically and politically unlikely, if it werent already temporarily impossible, but a joy to see nonethless), a Royal Guard in full regalia actually guarding the Emperor as his highness returned from the toilet. One would think they were hired to add to the festivities, but no, these were just simple Star Wars fans like Americansthough here Anakin grows up to become, as he is called in France, Dark Vador.
Despite Amidala and Obi-Wans, where were the Lukes, Leias and Han Solos? It was interesting to see that for this appearance of Chewbacca, one of the good guys, of those who came dressed up, perhaps 30 or so, there were mostly villains. Only one person came as Chewbacca, and he looked more like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf.
I returned later in the evening, hoping to do a short interview with Mayhew. He was in the bathroom, and people just milled about, awaiting his return. Many attendees were the same people I had seen at the beginning of the signing. After a few minutes, Mayhew passed by me returning to the desk. It was only at this time that I saw the man standing, all 7 feet and 3 inches. Over the years, it is clear, this height has become too much for him. He had a bit of a stoop and a slight limp. All too human. He is just dead, so tired. No interviews, the store owner told me apologetically. He had agreed to do some, but has changed his mind. I looked over at the gaunt man taking his seat again behind the desk, a man whose actual face we did not see and voice we did not hear. When I had talked to Stephane earlier in the day, he proudly showed me the glossy of Chewy, autographed, and the one of Mayhew himself. Stephane compared the blue eyes, showing me how they are the same, that the look, the regard of Mayhew shines through. He seemed to see this as something magical, a proof of some sort, as when George W. Bush announced upon meeting Vladimir Putin, that he had seen into the mans soul.
As I left I thought about whether the Star Wars kid in me was happy to have seen Mayhew or not. It is like learning the tooth fairy or Santa Claus is not real. Part of me wanted to live in the fantasy, with Chewbacca as the lovable wookiee dedicated to the rebel alliancenot a gawky, stooped, middle-aged former English hospital orderly who signs autographs for cash and probably would rather be home in Texas watching TV. Still, all those in attendance here prove that there is a desire to peek around the facade, to see the man. It is a combination of curiosity and a form of expressing gratitude, with a little collector pride thrown in. To see the person in reality shows us that yes, he is that big, that it wasnt special effects, that he is real, explained Stephane. In that sense, it isnt so much about seeing reality; it is precisely that the fantasy, the myth of the saga, is being confirmed as reality, and maybe, just a little, entering it ourselves.