Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Vintage Saga (of Luke’s Changing Hair Color)

Shifting shades: brown, yellow and off-white haired Luke prototypes from Kenner
Ron writes:

What color is Luke Skywalker's hair? If you answered "blonde," well, congratulations! You've evidently seen Star Wars. Did you also notice that Darth Vader wears black? But as guest blogger Ben Sheehan points out below, recognizing a hair tonality known as "blonde" is one thing, and translating into toy terms is quite another. Here's Ben with the details.

Ben writes:

Ever wondered why Luke Skywalker seemed to suffer a follicle related identity crisis at Kenner? You’re not alone.

One question has vexed Star Wars collectors for decades: namely, why did Luke Skywalker’s hair color mysteriously shift from yellow to brown (and every shade in-between), during the vintage Star Wars era?

On 12 backs in 1978, Luke’s noggin was yellow. On ESB 41 cardbacks, it was dark brown. Soon it was orange ­– then light brown; then dark brown, and yellow again. Lukes with different colored hair appeared on the same ROTJ blister card back at retail in 1983 – confusing children, and then baffling adult collectors some 40 years later.

Luke Skywalker Original, Bespin, Jedi and Stormtrooper have all suffered from the same, near rainbow-haired phenomenon. Even prototypes of Luke seem to have been dressed at entirely different salons, with multiple hair colors existing for the 4 versions (X-Wing, Poncho and Hoth all wore head gear) during the pre-production stage.

Ask most Kenner employees why Luke’s hair color kept changing (and about most any other figure variation), and they’ll say that they have no idea, or hadn’t even noticed.

Some will even ask, "why would you care?"

One figure, a galaxy of hair tones (image courtesy of

"People ask me that question all the time," says Jim Swearingen, the designer who had the most influence on the first series of Star Wars figures at Kenner in 1977, "but I don’t know the answer."

Swearingen’s response led me to wonder more and more, how an even-keeled appearance for the key figure in Kenner’s Star Wars line could seemingly be so unimportant that it wasn’t ever noticed?

An answer that made sense slowly revealed itself during research for a fairly comprehensive book I’m writing on vintage Star Wars toys (the project is long overdue – my battle with four years of Kenner interviews and accumulated research materials, along with the quest for pictures, is proving akin to lopping heads off a hydra).

I’m lucky enough to have been embedded in the bones of Kenner’s Star Wars team for 3 or 4 years now, and have 14 years of interactions with former employees to draw on prior to the experience. This includes living in Kenner people’s houses, discussing action figures with them over work projects, doing everything from mowing their lawns to fixing their roofs while talking silicone molds, drafting and sales strategies. I’ve been socializing, planning events, sharing drunken anecdotes and generally enquiring about all aspects of the Star Wars line in more settings than this post allows. As a consequence, I’ve likely asked upwards of 50 people about Luke’s hair color.

As it turns out, different designers at Kenner actually had different ideas of what Luke’s hair color should look like – which led to the different shades of brown, orange and yellow on Luke’s noggin as each new Luke character was created.

But there is even more to it than this simple explanation – the culprit is also paint itself.

Blonde hair is an accumulation of different colors – not a single color that Kenner could achieve using the cell-vinyl paint they applied to the paintmasters, that were sent to the orient as instruction during the 1970s and ‘80s (particularly on a toy lines such as Star Wars, where the number of paint applications was limited to keep the retail price point down).

Painting was such an expense during Kenner’s Star Wars production, that stickers were used on vehicles as a cost cutting measure almost exclusively, right up until later vehicles such as the A and Y-Wing fighters, which incorporated a mixture of paint and stickers to provide detail and decoration.

There were not enough resources to apply multiple colors to Luke’s head, in order to achieve a close to perfect blonde.

The vagaries of manufacturing at factories in the Orient circa 1977-84 further compounded the issue. Kenner would send different versions of Luke’s hair over as designers dictated new shades for different iterations of Luke – and then these versions would sometimes each be altered, and further lost in translation during production.

Sometimes Orient vendors such as Smile and Kadar were less spot on than they should have been, which produced obvious variation in Luke’s hair. No-one really knew where any of them were getting their pigments or paints, so this was ignored, presumably in an effort to ensure that Luke made it to retailers on time.

So what does this ultimately mean to collectors? Very little, but then again, also maybe a lot. While it would be neater to attribute Luke’s chameleon follicles (and so many other details from the Star Wars line) to some deeply technical master plan inside Kenner, chalk it down instead to the small toy company from Ohio growing exponentially, while constantly redefining its manufacturing processes to accommodate and then grow its new 3 ¾" action figure scale (under significant deadline related, time pressure no less).

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