Stormtroopers standing still during the parade
Waiting in line for the ATM at Fan Expo inside Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, I took a minute to breathe and survey the madness erupting everywhere around me. It was my first Fan Expo experience and felt utterly overwhelmed. Here I was in draped normal streetwear, surrounded by sci-fi and comic book monomaniacs, and ready to interview fully-grown men dressed as stormtroopers.
The expo is anything but normal. To my left, hoards of superheros gathered at the bottom of one of the many escalators and were taking stock of their comic book purchases, talking in superhero code. And under the escalators, a group of warlocks were chanting lines that weren’t familiar to me, but seemed to attract the attention of almost everyone walking by them.
Fan Expo has been growing rapidly since 1995 when it was first held at Roy Thomson Hall and shows no signs of backpedaling. Last year, the event rocked 80,000 partisans; this year the expectation was more than 100,000. When I left the ATM line, I was on a mission: to find Roy Mitchell, the commander of the 501st Canadian Garrison.
For those not in the know (It’s ok, I wasn’t either — thanks Google!) the 501st Canadian Garrison is a Toronto-based costume club that specializes in Star Wars replicas. And don’t call them a club either. They are a legion. They have 6,000 members worldwide spanning 47 countries; the Canadian Legion boasts more than 140 members. The costumes are all fan-made and they do everything from Vader, stormtroopers, Sith lords, R2D2, bounty hunters, and royal guards.The official stormtrooper pose
When I caught up with Roy Mitchell, the commanding officer of the 501st Legion’s Canadian Garrison, he just returned from “kids’ hour” where he was gunned down with copious amounts of Nerf bullets.
“It seems to get bigger and better each year,” he says. “These costumes are that good now, they are basically exact replicas of what you see in the Star Wars films. It’s incredible.” Momentarily, Mitchell’s attention lured away by the announcement of the prize of the day: a signed X-box from Darth Vader himself. “We have lots of cool prizes here too — who wouldn’t want a Vader-signed X-box?”
Mitchell, who has been a member since 2000, explains that the 501 Canadian Garrison is endorsed by George Lucas himself and how they donate to charity organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Last year, members worldwide raised $12 million and Canada contributed $25,000 to that stockpile. After spending a good hour or two with the Canadian Garrison, which formed in 1999, it was clear that the stormtroopers were the main draw. Kids flocked to them in awe and adults posed like kids with them. And they were spread out through the Expo: going up and down escalators and elevators, standing in line in the food court, signing autographs, and parading in groups of four to six.
After observing the stormtroopers for an entire afternoon on Saturday I came to one conclusion: it ain’t an easy shtick. So, if you ever want to take the plunge and join the dark side, here’s a set of rules you’ll need to swear and die by.
1. Never point your guns at kids. It’ll freak them out. Only adults. And only when posing for photos.
2. Never break character. Not even in the bathroom.
3. If you need to talk — on rare occasions — use stormtrooper lingo like “affirmative”, “droids”,”pod”, “move along,move along” and “can I see your identification?”. Otherwise, zip it and look cool.
4. Never hit on good-looking fans. Just don’t.
5. Leave the mask on at all times. If fans see your real face, you’ll lose your invincibility and will be beaten to a pulp.
6. Must have the ability to absorb hundreds of Nerf bullets pummelling you from kids wanting to kill you.
7. Remember, you are the bad guy. Do some “bad-guy” stuff every now and then within reason: accidentally spill some coffee on someone’s lap, push someone gently out of line, tap someone’s comic book out of their hands and continue walking. It’s all part of the gig.
8. Never arrive for a Stormtrooper gig half in-the-bag. In that helmet, you’ll regret it.
9. If you end up searching for droids at the expo and come back to camp and are told this by your superior, “these are not the droids we are looking for,” it means you are fired. (NOTE: If searching for droids, must find right droids.)
10. No dancing or Zumba moves. Period. Slight shimmying and gentle head-nodding (to music) is allowed.
11. When entertaining the crowd, never let R2-D2 steal your glory. Solution: create a diversion. Pay a small child to hit you with 50 Nerf bullets, then fake dead. Or tell the crowd Darth Vader will arrive in 30 seconds.
12. Union speak. Don’t do it. Chances are the guy in the Darth Vader suit will force choke you to death. Seriously.
13. Never shake hands. No high-fives. And no Patrick Ewing chest bumps while on duty. When did you ever see a Stormtrooper do such things? Never. Too much fun can be seen as breaking character.
14. Never underestimate the power of a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture: no one can see you smile and or cry under the helmet.
15. And, it’s OK to cry under the helmet if the kids break your spirit (see above).
16. When patrolling the expo, never fly solo. Go in large numbers in case you are tackled from behind by an over zealous kid. That way you have back-up and can deal with it.
17. Always use a straw when drinking. Always use a straw for eating too. (see Rule#5)
18. Play the odd staring game with fans just to get a reaction. They’ll then want to get a picture taken with you because you “wowed” them with your phenomenal stormtrooper stare. Win-win really.
19. When marching in the Stormtrooper parade never stop for autographs. Even if the superfan is holding onto your leg. Stay focused.
20. Always acknowledge Darth Vader. Always! Otherwise there will be grave consequences.
Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist from Toronto. His work has appeared in The Walrus, National Post and Toronto Standard. Follow Justin on Twitter @justinjourno