Let’s take a break from the hate to talk about ‘Last Jedi’ & representation

Since “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” hit theaters in December, there’s been a lot of talk about the film.

Now that’s an understatement. I don’t know if there’s ever been a more talked-about Star Wars movie or, at the very least, one that has inspired this level of divisive debate, indignation, and emotional outrage. (I suppose we have social media to thank for that.)

Haters love to hate “The Last Jedi.” That’s one thing we know for certain. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. For many, many reasons.

They’re angry that writer-director Rian Johnson didn’t exactly answer key questions raised in “The Force Awakens,” or answer them in sufficient detail. At the same time, they’re crushed that he abruptly slammed the door on many of those same queries.

They don’t like the film’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker. They don’t like what becomes of villainous Supreme Leader Snoke. They’re upset about the movie’s general lack of lightsaber training montages.

“What’s up with the goofy tone?” they ask.

“Too many porgs,” some say.

“Not enough porgs,” others reply.

The list of reasons for ire goes on. And on. And on.

However, in the midst of this controversy, there’s an important dialogue we should be having that isn’t taking place nearly as much as I think it should.

Can we just talk for a minute about what an impressive feat of representation “The Last Jedi” achieves?

The new Star Wars trilogy’s heartening trend toward diversity, female-driven storylines, and a general openness to cast characters in a way that reflects the world we all live in began, of course, with “The Force Awakens.”

That movie brought us an unusual trio of heroes for a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi flick: Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a woman gifted in the Force; John Boyega’s Finn, a black Stormtrooper turned Rebel; and Oscar Isaac’s Poe, a charming rogue pilot who also happens to be Hispanic.

(And let’s give a shout-out to Gwendoline Christie’s bad-ass lady-baddie, Captain Phasma.)

Of course, this groundbreaking lead cast brought a few nasty, racist trolls out of the woodwork – Boyega bore the brunt of their disapproval – but, by and large, these characters and the actors who play them were received with enthusiasm.

The spin-off film “Rogue One” continued this welcome new Star Wars tradition with another strong female lead, Felicity Jones’ reluctant rebel Jyn, and her partner-in-sabotage, Cassian, a character Diego Luna portrayed using his own Mexican accent, which is strangely rare in Hollywood.

The remainder of the “Rogue One” cast was thrillingly diverse as well, featuring Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, and Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang.

It’s clearly not an accident that Disney’s new incarnation of the Star Wars universe is so wildly and wonderfully diverse. This is something the Lucasfilm team is intentionally and boldly working at, whatever their motives.

“The Last Jedi” takes this approach to soaring new heights. This latest entry in the franchise not only features the return of the Rey/Finn/Poe dream team, but also introduces us to Rose, a mechanic turned unlikely Resistance hero played by comedian Kelly Marie Tran.

Tran is the first Asian-American woman cast in a major Star Wars role in a time in which Asian-American women rarely appear in roles of any significance in Hollywood.

I love the fact that “The Last Jedi” also shows us Rose’s sister (played by Veronica Ngo) in a heartbreaking scene of self-sacrifice and heroism at the beginning of the movie.

Along with continued diversity in casting – Benicio Del Toro joins the ensemble as master thief DJ and there are pilots, Resistance fighters, and First Order henchmen of all genders and ethnicities sprinkled throughout – director Johnson serves up a story that is shockingly female-forward for a big-budget sci-fi spectacle.

Rey and her journey to discover her identity in the Force is, of course, the driving story arc of the film. As she faces her fears, forms a tenuous bond with Kylo Ren, and ultimately comes into her own power, Ridley’s Rey continues to be the complicated, compelling, and refreshingly non-sexualized heroine most of us could only dream of watching as young girls.

(Can we just put this controversy about Rey’s impossible Force powers to bed already? Men have been doing impossible things in action movies for decades and nobody bats an eye. I’m over it.)

Just as astonishing as Rey and her gradual self-realization is the late Carrie Fisher’s elegant, commanding performance as General Leia Organa.

Her relationship with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is a joy to behold – two powerful women who respect each other working alongside each other and confiding in each other in a way we rarely see depicted on film.

And their mutual annoyance with, affection for, and no-nonsense management of the meddling, mansplaining, but irresistibly cute Poe Dameron (we all know that’s the only reason he gets away with this s&*#) is totally unexpected and such a treat. I still can’t get over it.

My friend Kirsten pointed out that not only is “The Last Jedi” the most female-driven film in the Star Wars franchise, it may be the most female-driven action movie we’ve yet to see.

She also wondered whether this could be one of the reasons the film has garnered so much hate. Sadly, I think she may be onto something.

It was recently reported that a disgruntled Star Wars fan sloppily edited together and posted online his own “female-free” version of “The Last Jedi.” I’m not sure how much attention this pathetic act of misogyny deserves, but the fact that someone actually thought to do this is discouraging, to say the least.

On the other hand, the fact that dudes who respond so irrationally to cinematic depictions of female power are feeling this threatened may be cause for optimism. These are the same guys who wanted to boycott “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the female-led “Ghostbusters” reboot, and the newest Doctor, and who groused about female-only screenings of “Wonder Woman.”

These dinosaurs are desperate because they recognize they are headed for extinction.

Despite the strong feelings it has conjured within moviegoers, “The Last Jedi” is an unequivocal box-office hit, grossing more than $1 billion worldwide. The film is on track to ultimately reap less than “The Force Awakens.” However, it would be crazy to consider it anything less than a massive money-maker.

For this reason, the new Star Wars trilogy remains one of the most convincing arguments that more diverse representation in major Hollywood movies is just good business practice.

Some may counter that the Star Wars franchise is simply too big to fail, but it seems fairly obvious audiences have embraced this new direction for Lucasfilm and Disney. Otherwise, why would the studio continue to pursue it?

This brings us to the question: Can Disney and Lucasfilm do more?

Of course they can – and they should!

The recently released video for Jay Z’s “Family Feud,” directed by Ava DuVernay, famously featured footage of “Black Panther” star Michael B. Jordan dressed in black robes suspiciously resembling the traditional garb of the Jedi.

DuVernay said this was no accident and social media instantly blew up with demands that Disney cast Jordan as a badass Jedi in the next Star Wars movie.

That’s a fabulous idea. And there is enough room in the Star Wars universe for more black actors, along with women and performers of varying origins, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.

This isn’t just the way of the Force. It’s the way of the future.

Photos: comicbook.com, Disney, MovieWeb.

Drunk Austen admin applies wicked wit to Regency Era, Star Wars

We’re starting 2018 with a bang and an interview straight off my wishlist.

After Robin Epley started a little Facebook page known as Drunk Austen, she asked her friend, Bianca Hernandez, to join her as co-admin, and the rest is history.

Drunk Austen, the social media community built on a love of novelist Jane Austen, hilarious, Regency Era-themed memes, and pics of hot guys from the Austen film adaptations, with a healthy dollop of pop culture, social commentary, feminism, and inclusiveness, recently celebrated 50,000 likes on Facebook.

The Drunk Austen community hit a fever pitch of Austen-worshipping goofiness over the holidays with clever seasonal memes, Star Wars mashups, and a challenge in which followers were urged to whisper the phrase “What excellent boiled potatoes.” — a la Mr. Collins — in the midst of awkward family gatherings.

Known as “Admin b,” Bianca isn’t just a devoted Janeite with a sly sense of humor, she’s also a self-proclaimed “grade A nerd” with a passion for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, including badass Jedi Mara Jade; a skilled seamstress who crafts everything from cosplay outfits to Regency ballgowns; a bibliophile who includes “everything” on her to-read list; and a connoisseur of Star Wars-themed cocktails.

Let’s follow her to Austenland, shall we?

Bianca Hernandez, in costume as the Drunk Austen logo.

Tell me about the origins of the Drunk Austen social media phenomenon. How did it begin and how did you become involved?

Admin R started Drunk Austen after seeing a viral video. She started with a couple of memes, and then I sent her some of my own since I was deep in escaping adult responsibilities (like reading theory for class, looking for jobs, etc.). She added me as an admin and it’s been a journey ever since.

You’re known as “Admin b,” alongside Robin Epley, who is “Admin R.” Explain your dynamic as co-admins.

We went to j-school together, that’s how we knew each other before Drunk Austen. We’ve just tried to have fun, but learned a lot along the way. As we’ve gotten older and our followers have increased, we’ve learned a lot about how to handle a social media community. We both have our soft spots (Admin R is a “Little Women” fan, while I inundate followers with Star Wars), but in the end it always has an Austen-vibe of some kind.

Do you remember your introduction to the novels of Jane Austen?

A used book at a library book sale. The cover was awful, but it called to me. I read it when I was maybe 12 or 13, but a lot of the sharp wit went over my head. I just didn’t know a lot about the era or literature of her time.

What prompted you to become a full-fledged Janeite?

I read more of her work as I got older, but I think re-reading certain novels at certain times solidified my love. Emma, a painful character, was someone I could really relate to as I was starting college. After college I related more to Fanny at times. I think my love of the novels really peaked beyond casual interest when I was in Los Angeles for grad school and found a local Jane Austen book club. They were welcoming and made the experience of reading her works richer through discussion.

Which of her novels is your favorite and why?

Oh man, it changes. I think right now I’m really intrigued by “Persuasion.” I don’t relate to Anne, but I’m working (slowly) on a modern retelling of it because I think certain themes really translate well to today.

Why do you think her novels have endured and, indeed, flourished to the point that there’s an entire Facebook page devoted to her with thousands of followers?

Again, each time you reread her, you get something new. Besides that? I think the community can be a wonderful experience. So many people bond through this shared love, whether it’s the purists who love her work, the people who adore the hunky men in movie adaptations or the fanfiction writers, they all like a different flavor of Jane and that’s totally ok. I think Drunk Austen has tried to be really welcoming to all flavors, and there are communities that focus on one aspect, which allows people to find micro-communities that suit them.

Drunk Austen is, of course, famous for its Austen-themed memes. I feel like the memes are extremely on point lately. Thanksgiving was epic! And I love your recent Star Wars/Jane mashups. How do you come up with the perfect meme? Where do you draw your meme-spiration from?

I spend a lot of time on the internet (literally, my career involves working on social media). I see a good meme in another place and think, “Add some Darcy or a potato and we’ve got gold,” or something similar. Honestly, all of my memes are made because they make me laugh. If someone along the way is also amused then I’ve done a decent job.

The “boiled potatoes” challenge was the best thing ever. What did you think of the reaction to that?

I was shocked. I mean, I knew we had a great community, but I was so gratified to know there were other people who were down to be as goofy as I am.

Drunk Austen is more than just a social media community. It’s a public service, helping Janeites cope with awkward family gatherings or pepping depressed followers up with threads of hot guys. And there’s a hefty dose of feminism, too. Is this intentional?

Yes. At first it wasn’t, and I know we kind of grappled with stepping anywhere outside of Austen. Jane wrote about awkward families and would definitely have been a feminist. So I think we felt like if it was in the vein of her work it was still good.

I know I posted whole lot of hot man photos on a certain election night because I was in need of something, anything, to make me feel anything other than devastated. The response we got was amazing. Knowing that seeing a man with overgrown sideburns and a wet shirt brought joy to someone across the globe made me feel a little less like everything was crap.

Drunk Austen regularly navigates many Janeite controversies, such as who is the best movie Mr. Darcy or which is the best adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”? How do you handle these hot-button issues?

We tell out followers to keep it civil when we do bring up those topics, but if we didn’t bring it up for discussion we have zero-tolerance for bashing other people’s favorites. We’re all here to love Austen, why divide ourselves over who is a more perfect Darcy?

Aside from your admin duties, you’re also involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America. Tell me about your participation in that group.

I was the Regional Co-Coordinator for my region, but recently stepped into the Secretary role. I volunteer a lot of time in making sure we have meetings that run smoothly and appeal to our members. It’s honestly just a fun way to get the local community socializing and learning together. I also started two Jane Austen book clubs that are still running (without me!) today.

You’re a self-described “book hoarder.” Were you into books as a child? How did your love of reading begin?

I was a late-reader. I was really, really shy and had undiagnosed vision issues in first and second grade, but I was too scared to speak up about not being able to see the whiteboard. My teacher at the time didn’t notice or try to intervene, just kept doling out my bad grades. My grandma was a teacher and finally realized there was something wrong. After I got glasses and a more understanding teacher, it was a love affair. I dominated library summer reading programs and always have a book or two somewhere on my person.

What are some of your all-time favorite books?

I have a book for every mood. If I need to be angry it’s Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a Woman.” If I want to feel the magic of being young I go to Harry Potter or “Sabriel” by Garth Nix. I cannot say enough good things about Gail Carriger’s “Prudence.” Then, of course, there’s Jane Austen’s works, with “Persuasion” whisking me away every time I open it.

What are you reading now?

Tamora Pierce. I’ve put off reading her works and recently took a swordfighting class that reminded me I needed badass ladies to look up to.

What’s on your to-read pile?

Everything. I actually want to reread some classic Star Wars books in 2018, then tackle the Shakespeare plays I never got to.

Bianca in Wonder Woman cosplay.

On your website, you describe yourself as a “grade A nerd” who once made a reference to “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” on your business card. What was the reference?

It’s a phrase I need daily. “Don’t panic.”

Tell me your nerd origin story. When did you embrace the “geek lifestyle”?

Picture this: Junior High. Library. I was in braces AND glasses. I think those were the years where I just knew I wasn’t going to be athletic or really into punk-rock. I was just going to read all the Expanded Universe books I could get my hands on.

Drunk Austen followers can’t help but notice that you are very into Star Wars. What’s your personal Star Wars saga?

My story isn’t worthy of a crawl across the screen. A substitute teacher showed one of the films in class and I was so intrigued I bought the movies as soon as I could. The prequels were my first intro, but it was the original trilogy AND the EU books that got me hooked. I was totally in it for the badass women (lightsaber wielding ones at that!).

Tell me about your discovery of the Star Wars Expanded Universe in junior high.

Another library book sale. I stumbled on the Thrawn trilogy and was excited for more Star Wars in my life. It was the beginning of a beautiful journey into EU.

You once created your own Mara Jade Jedi costume for Star Wars Celebration. It passed approval for both Rebel Legion and Saber Guild. That’s quite an accomplishment. Please elaborate about that experience.

I always like Mara because she was a badass lady with a purple lightsaber. I’d never been to Celebration, so I threw together a cheap costume for the con. I was so thrilled by how many people recognized the character. I got back and decided to make an accurate costume that I could get approved for costume groups. I’m not thrilled with wearing a catsuit, but I do feel kind of like a badass when I wear it.

You’ve sewn many costumes for yourself, including a Hamilton-themed ball gown and other historical outfits. What do you enjoy about that? 

I like sewing for fun and for my Etsy store. It’s fun to learn to make full gowns and teach yourself new skills related to that. It’s a challenge, but in the end I can feel empowered dancing in my newest creation.

Bianca, at right, in a gown she created for a Hamilton-themed costume ball.

What’s challenging about it?

Teaching yourself new skills and being patient about it. I look at the first projects I ever took on and then the ones I have done over the last year and see a huge difference. It takes time to get good at something.

Have you done other geeky cosplays besides Mara Jade?

Ilana from “Broad City.” Prudence from Gail Carriger’s books. Agent Carter. Doctor Aphra. Probably many, many more.

Bianca as Agent Carter.

Is it my imagination or did you attend the “Last Jedi” premiere?

I did!

What are your thoughts about “The Last Jedi”?

It was like an EU book come to the big screen. It’s not my favorite movie, but I really enjoyed it and can admit it was great.

Why do you think fans are having a collective meltdown over the film?

Because tons of folks have made followings based on their theories out of “Force Awakens,” and this movie ties up so many loose ends. What do they have to talk about now? I guess just their annoyance with the movie? I’m pretty tired of the kind of weak arguments for why this movie is bad. It’s just different, and that’s fine.

You recently called out the Star Wars community for its lack of support for women. I applaud you for that. Why did you decide to say something?

When I was first really into Star Wars as a teen I had a gender-neutral screen-name because even back then it was pretty hard to be a lady-fan in that community. Now, though things have gotten a bit better, I’m just really fed up with seeing blatant sexism. The post I called out was trying to act like it wasn’t a sexist argument, but it was, period. I was on the fence about doing anything, but I can’t sit back and watch this keep happening. I can’t let another generation of lady-fans feel like they’re being attacked.

And now for a serious question: Porgs. Yes or no?

Yes. All the porgs. Especially the giant Target exclusive porg that I technically won, but never received!

You seem to be pretty into Star Wars-themed cocktails. What’s your favorite?

There’s a blue milk cocktail made by one bartender in San Francisco. I’ve had others, but his is legit because he garnishes it with peach rings.

Can you draw any parallels between Star Wars and Jane Austen?

I think we’ve done a couple Star Wars/Austen mashups before, and I think it works because Jane Austen wrote about real people and Star Wars has characters that are pretty relatable too. Luke is really naive and gets thrown into adulthood with no guidance, something a lot of Austen heroines have to face. C-3PO bears a striking resemblance to the awkward properness of Mr. Collins.

What other fandoms are you into?

I love Agent Carter, Harry Potter and Doctor Who.

What’s the next big release you’re looking foward to  (movies, books, TV, etc.)?

Oh man, I feel so behind in major media right now. I think the one thing I’m actually stoked for is the new adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” just because I have no idea what they’ll do with it. Besides that I think “Black Panther” and the Han Solo movie are the only things I’ll be dragging myself to the theater to see.

What’s left on your Jane Austen bucket list?

I haven’t visited Chawton or her resting place, so I guess that’s what I’d still need to do.

One of the questions I’ve been pondering lately is why do so many geeks also happen to be anglophiles? If anyone can help me answer this, it must be you. Thoughts?

I think the UK has a rich history, a literary legacy and some powerhouse nerd communities (like Whovians). That helps.

I think a lot of it is exposure too. If you’re raised knowing only English, and there’s a whole country that has content in English, it’s easy to get into. If there’s some cool content in French, but you don’t know French, you aren’t as likely to take time to learn it or find translations if they aren’t readily available. I have a limited understanding of Spanish, so I enjoy some shows and authors, but don’t participate in communities because I’m just not fluent enough.

I think access is also a factor. Masterpiece distributes a lot of UK shows to the US and a lot of people have BBC America now.

Illustrator’s childhood love of manga, anime blossoms into whimsical art

Hello, my name is Lavender Vroman, and I’m a children’s book junkie.

I’ve always loved this genre of literature with its deceptively simple, fantastical stories and whimsical art that plunges you right back into childhood. After my daughter was born, it just gave me more of an excuse to fill my bookshelves with volumes that remind me of those wondrous days of youth and imagination.

One of my favorite children’s book illustrators also happens to be my sister-in-law. Her name is Mai Kemble, and her artwork is some of the sweetest, most smile-inducing you’ll ever see.

For Christmas, she gifted the family with beautifully personal, unbearably cute animal-themed paintings that will soon be framed and adorning the walls of several homes.

Mai’s artistic journey began at a young age as she shared a world of imagination, manga-reading, and hours drawing with her twin sister, Mei. This close-knit bond blossomed into an education in illustration and a vibrant career resulting in several published children’s books and a variety of freelance art projects.

Of course, Mai’s love of childlike playfulness and fantasy has led to many geeky fascinations, from a passion for classic Disney, Japanese, and stop-motion animation to fandoms including Star Wars, Star Trek, SuperWhoLock, and Harry Potter.

And then there are her obsessions with Adam West’s “Batman” and “Magnum, P.I.” …

You’re definitely going to want to hear about that!

You’re a freelance illustrator who specializes in art for children. What are you currently working on, whether professionally or personally?

My current projects were Christmas-themed paintings for friends and family. I tried to choose animals that I knew each person thought was cute and then add little Christmas ornaments or decorations.  Thankfully, these were all finished in time for the holiday.

I am also trying to complete some newer illustrations that are mostly digital, or created in Adobe Photoshop. The last time I was able to create new images for my own portfolio that were not something a client designed was far too long ago.

I decided to take a few images I had sketched for some of these clients and use parts or sketches that were rejected but I still thought would be cute illustrations. I decided to place them on Society6 in hopes some might sell as gifts during the holiday season. I will have to continue to create more illustrations even after the season ends in hopes that I can revive my portfolio.

Twins Mei Stewart, left, and Mai Kemble.

Did you show artistic inclinations as a child? You have a twin, Mei Stewart. Is it true the two of you kind of existed in your own creative world?

Oh boy, did I ever! I always like to say that I drew as soon as I could hold a crayon. All of my family are excellent at drawing, although the interest was fiercest with myself and twin sister, Mei. I am not exaggerating when I say that our entire childhood consisted of drawing as much as we could.

We enjoyed drawing different characters and passing the sheet of paper between us as we staged the next part of the story … creating the story as we went and long into the night when we could. We were immersed in manga and comics, as well as other cartoons we liked to watch. Most of our early creations were like the modern day fan art/fan fiction, where you take an existing character and make up your own storyline. It helped us practice drawing and was a fun way to refine our skills.

Art by Mai Kemble.

When and why did you decide to pursue illustration as a career?

I walked the halls of the art department at my college and saw the illustration work up on the walls. I also began to go back to story that went along with images like the manga I used to read. I was older though and my interests weren’t exactly the same, though I wanted something that still held that imagination and story I used to love.

I decided to take a class on sequential art because I had heard that the assignments were challenging and also were about story. The professor became one of my personal heroes and showed us children’s books as examples for our assignments. It was a defining moment for me when I realized that this was the exact profession that held all aspects of what I loved about art.

My nephew also was born around this time and I became infatuated with him and all things related to children, now including the books. Illustration in general was interesting, but it was specifically children’s illustration that grabbed at my heart.

What was it about children’s art that appealed to you?

Children’s art is fundamentally bursting with imagination and challenge. Children’s minds are so wonderful because they just soak up everything shown to them and they are so delighted by art and story. You can make your art incredibly realistic or the completely opposite route and have stick figures — it doesn’t matter so long as it matches the story being told and makes a point to the child.

The challenge there is really to decide how best to approach each script or story and really make sure it reaches these children the best way possible. I love all the styles and approaches — the classics to the newer books. However, I think that what can only be found in children’s art is a kind of joy that relates specifically to the fact that you know your audience are children. They become a huge influence on how you approach your assignments and in that way it is unique.

A work in progress.

You earned a bachelor of fine arts in illustration at California State University, Long Beach. What was your experience of studying there like?

I have a soft spot in my heart for CSULB.  Although I really only liked the two or three years spent in the illustration department, it was like being surrounded by like-minded, mind-boggling talented people. Totally cool. Nothing beats being able to walk into a room and get instant feedback on your work. Nor being able to hang out with people who also get super excited seeing a well-executed illustration or design.

Mai and her husband, Joshua Kemble, indulge in a Star Wars selfie.

CSULB is also where you met your husband, comic book artist, illustrator, art director, and vlogger Joshua Kemble. What’s it like living with another artist?

Living with another artist is the only way to go if you are an artist. They will understand your deadlines, your weird hang-ups about brushes and paints to the type of lamp bulb you use. Of course, the other side to that is shared space in mostly small spaces is hard … as well as having weird quirky things, like not being able to work if there are certain tunes playing. I also like to have an organized workspace –including the surrounding space — and so seeing a messy desk across from me can make me totally freak out. I’ve learned to cope in that arena, mostly!

Your style is very sweet and whimsical and childlike. How did you develop it?

I believe it cannot help but be a bit manga, no matter how much I try to avoid it. I also had a lot of interest in animation movies, including Disney, so I was taught to make sure everything was very round and full when sketching characters.

I like cute. I like images that are sweet and make people happy. I also really love watercolor and that always invited a kind of brightness to my paintings that I enjoy. Although I am now trying to move away a bit from full and round to invite more flat, shape-based images, as well as other textures with the help of the computer, I still want to stay in the realm of sweet and whimsical.

Who and what are some of your influences?

To narrow it down quite a bit, I would say that Gyo Fujikawa, Mary Blair, Jon Klassen, Maurice Sendak, Tove Jansson, Masashi Kishimoto, Julia Denos, E.B. Goodale, Julie Morstad, and Ezra Jack Keats are the illustrators I spend a lot of time looking at.

Mai and her son, Benjamin, who is dressed as Max from “Where the Wild Things Are.”

For those of us who are unfamiliar with how illustration works, can you describe your process when you sit down to illustrate something?

It really depends on the assignment (book vs. single illustration) and whether it is personal or for a client, but I will try to narrow it down to the things that fall across all situations.

I spend time sketching … almost like brainstorming. I also look at tons and tons of images on the internet if it requires a certain animal or person to make sure I know any details that are important. I might print a sheet with several of these images on one page and pin it over where I draw and paint.

Once I finalize the image, I will transfer the image as best I can, using transfer wax sheets, to watercolor paper. Wax sheets are smooth on one side while the other is just smothered graphite (the stuff pencil lead is made of) so that when you press on the smooth side, it presses graphite onto your watercolor paper. It is hard to use and I feel like I still haven’t nailed down the best way to get my drawings/sketches to my painting sheets.

I spend time cleaning up this drawing and making sure it is perfect in pencil. Then I have to prepare my palette by wetting each color. I will paint all the larger or general spaces before working into the details. This is probably the hardest part as your painting can look pretty crappy during this phase — almost like mid-haircut.

Once all is painted, I might scan it and clean it up in Photoshop before sending the file to whomever or posting it somewhere online.

Mai’s home art studio.

Where do you find inspiration for the images you create?

Books and movies … memories of stories I love. Children that are in my life. I look at and read a lot of children’s books as well and so I sometimes imagine what I might have done if I were asked to illustrate the story instead.

What materials do you typically use?

I love watercolor, but I also like to use a mechanical pencil for any details or line work. I like using colored pencil on top of watercolor for textures, too. I want to get a bit more mixed media and use fabric pattern or paper textures in my work that I will do on the computer.

One of Mai’s children’s book illustrations in process.

You won an illustration contest in 2006 held by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. You were also one of their featured artists in 2008. What did it feel like to be honored in this way?

It was a long time ago now, but I was very surprised mostly. I didn’t see myself actually winning things that soon after graduating. I had a good feeling about the illustration when I submitted it, but I thought there certainly would be another that was better.  It was very flattering and a great push to do more.

You wrote and illustrated your own adorable book, “The Moon and the Night Sweepers,” which was published as part of a program for college students. It features a character modeled after your nephew and is obviously influenced by “Peter Pan,” “Mary Poppins,” and Japanese animation. Tell me more about that.

This book was supposed to be so much more in my mind’s eye. I really wanted a story that took elements of black and white movies — a mix of Buster Keaton meets Fred Astaire. I wanted it to have funny signs like they have in silent movies and have a sing-song feeling.

However, my lack of knowledge with publishing meant that I didn’t know how much the illustrator did and how much the book designer was supposed to add.  I thought that we would be working together on designing these extra elements not just text placement, etc.

However, that being said, it did still capture a lot of what I wanted the story to be about … especially since it did include pages with no text and some dancing and humming. The little boy is, indeed, my nephew at the same age, and the Night Sweeper is actually my Grandpa, who always had an adorable mustache.

I wanted them to come together and dance — tap dance, really — because it was something I loved. Much like the above mentioned “Mary Poppins,” I love musicals, especially ones aimed at children, and I really wanted my story to be that in a new genre. I also saw Maurice Sendak’s “The Night Kitchen” animated and I thought it was brilliant.

You’ve illustrated several other published children’s books, including “I’m So Not Wearing a Dress,” “I Can Speak Bully,” “Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten,” and “Lou Lou.” What do you enjoy about the process of collaborating with an author on these kind of books?

Working with a book editor vs. the author are two different animals.

The first few were with publishers who had experienced book editors who understood story and pacing and how the pages printed, the page count, where text needed to fit, and were the best people. I could send them different sketches and they had good feedback and a good idea for what might sell as well. It was great fun being able to take these notes and revisit sketches before seeing these images in print.

Working with an author on other books was only harder because so many were unfamiliar with the little details that goes along with publishing books. Their stories and ideas were also precious and so often still evolving so there was a lot more editing than creating. I also didn’t feel like I had as much of a say in what worked because I felt I was more hired to do only exactly what they wanted — very few seemed interested in my influence.

That being said, some were incredibly motivated and passionate, which made it well worth it. You wanted to make something that made them happy and really nailed what they wanted their work to pair with.

You also freelance for a company that features your illustrations on fabric and clothing. What’s that like, seeing your creations on something people will wear?

I never really imaged anyone would print watercolor on fabric, so when I finally saw the clothing, I thought it was so cool. I was sent a sweater with one of my paintings and thought it was very unique and looked awesome. People kept asking where I got the sweater from, too, so I was pretty sure that people didn’t often see paintings on clothing.

A few of Mai’s pieces from Fadenrot.

What’s freeing about freelance, and what are the challenges of freelance?

Freelance means you are your own boss and the perks of that are being able to say “yes” and “no” when you want, as well as changing your style as you see fit. You decide everything. The challenges are then you must also manage money, scheduling, and be hunting for work. I think freelance along with a stable job is the best route, although there are some that think this will hinder your drive for work — like a crutch and keep you from getting better work.

If we wanted to purchase some of your art, where could we do that?

For prints or merchandise with my personal work: https://society6.com/maikemble.

For clothing with my paintings printed on them: https://de.dawanda.com/shop/fadenrot (note: not all images on the clothing are mine, as she hires many illustrators).

You’re a fan of animation. I know you like Laika (“Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Kubo and the Two Strings”), Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit,” “Shaun the Sheep”), and of course Disney. What do you like about this genre?

Well, mostly it is unique. Laika’s stop-motion has a tactile feel, much like hand-painting, that you cannot achieve with digital art … probably why I have avoided learning Photoshop for so long. All the characters are lovable and teach lessons that are worthwhile and not sugarcoated. Laika and Aardman didn’t avoid making the movies because it would be hard, but rather enjoyed making it the hard way … because it was the best way for the stories. I can appreciate that the most.

Disney animation is a mix for me only because the best stuff is, of course, the older movies because you see the drawing … and boy are they drawn well! Also, they are exceptional at background and color — just look at “Sleeping Beauty” or “Alice in Wonderland”! Each movie is specially designed and the drawings and backgrounds are untouchable when it comes to classic Disney.

Mai and Mei, dressed as Coraline and Wednesday Addams for Halloween.

You’re also very into Japanese animation. What are some of your favorite series, movies, and franchises?

Because I read manga as I grew up and less so now, my favorites are probably a bit dated. Ghibli anything of course has to make the list — who didn’t love “Spirited Away” or “Ponyo”?

Also Naruto (the manga more than the anime, and more Shippuden era), Deathnote (animated series — it is excellent), Saki Hiwatari’s Please Save My Earth (a romantic science fiction … although the manga is very good and probably better than the anime), Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop, and Akira. I grew up watching Dragon Ball and stuff like Ranma 1/2 long before anyone knew about anime.

How did you become interested in this particular cultural art form? What do you love about it?

My mom is Japanese and we were attending Japanese language school every Saturday until we were sophomores in high school. The school had other students who were into manga and anime as well. We all visited the Japanese shopping center near our home, which had a video rental with recordings of Japanese TV shows, including anime, so we watched tons of these videos. We also had a little book store in the same center where we could buy or order manga.

We were interested because we loved the stories. Mei and I always loved the hero vs. the bad guy and all the corny stories that anime seemed to be steeped in. We liked the great friendships and the triumphs from enduring trials. We were very invested in these themes and cared deeply for every character’s tragedies and victories. We were nerds. We couldn’t help it.

As I mentioned, your husband is a comic artist. Are you into comics or comic books?

My love now is mostly children’s picture books, but I do enjoy reading comic books. I just don’t seem to gravitate toward that genre anymore unless someone else hands it to me.

Baby Benjamin does a little “Doctor Who” cosplay.

You’re into some seriously geeky stuff. For instance, you are a SuperWhoLock fan. What is it about those series that appeals to you?

I love a series that can take the corny messages and keep it cool. I like a show that can laugh at itself and its fans can laugh along with them. I also like that the shows are all intelligent. You have to follow some pretty fast-paced story arcs and know some history to appreciate the character’s situations.

But most of all, I love the friendships. They are totally saturated with the kind of faithful, self-sacrificing, heroic types of people that I grew up adoring when I was a little girl watching anime, where the good guy always wins. These people are always far from perfect, but their friendships are perfect because they make each other whole. Watching this makes me happy and I can’t get enough of it.

Who’s your Doctor?

Matt Smith, all the way.

Mai and husband Joshua Kemble.

You’re also a fan of mysteries in general, including “Columbo” and “Sherlock Holmes.” What do you like about mysteries?

Mysteries are fun because I like to try and solve them before the detective does … I like guessing whodun’it! I also like the quirks of the type of person that has this knack of solving horrible crimes and yet remains lovable and straight-laced. It is fun to watch them deliver their verdicts, see them watch people, and then reveal all that they saw that you didn’t. Fascinating!

Who’s your favorite Holmes?

Jeremy Brett.  It is hard to watch anyone else play Sherlock … although I have reasons for any exceptions. Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” passes my grade because it is modernized and is well written.

Mai, dressed as Magnum P.I. for Halloween.

On another important subject, you are probably the world’s biggest “Magnum, P.I.” fan. What are your memories of watching that show? Why does it hold a special place in your heart?

Oh, Magnum … I fell in love with “Magnum, P.I.” because he uses words like “snacky-poo” while eating hot dogs and chill, but is still very intelligent. I began watching this show when my son was still only about a month old and during night feedings, I would watch Netflix. My husband actually showed me the first episode and I thought it was brilliant.

What an oddball storyline to have some mansion (owned by an author because authors can get this rich!) in Hawaii, of all places, with an ex-Navy officer now private investigator … but it works! The friendships between these characters, the silly personalities on the show are all so foreign to television that I see now.

It didn’t seem to pander to a stereotypical show and yet it had stereotypical things about it — like the busty ladies or the flashy car — because the busty lady would sometimes reveal to be the opposite of what you expect, while the flashy car isn’t even owned by Magnum, much to his chagrin. It is hilarious and lovable for these reasons and so much more.

You love Harry Potter. How did you discover J.K. Rowling’s series?

My sister and dad, oddly enough, were reading it before me when the first movie was going to be released in the theater. I finally decided to read the book after seeing the movie on DVD. Once that was rea. I had to read them all and still wish there were more. I cried when it was all over because I simply never wanted it to end.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Gryffindor!

Art by Mai Kemble.

You’re one of those rare fans of both Star Wars and Star Trek. Tell me your personal Star Wars saga. How did George Lucas’ franchise change your life?

It’s really sad to me that so many choose to be one or the other when both are so awesome!  But, I can talk about Star Wars. My whole family, when I was little, watched the Star Wars trilogy on VHS obsessively.

I loved the idea of the force as well as the defeat of evil. I think that how the Force was described really described the same types of feelings you might feel when contemplating real life. I thought it made a lot of sense and made me want to find out what this world was all about — was there something like the Force in reality?  It sure felt like there was …  I think it made me think about the meaning of life, really. Sounds over the top, but it really did.

Which incarnation of Star Trek is your favorite and why?

The “Next Generation” is my favorite because of the crew! Although Kirk and Spock’s friendship is hard to beat, the other characters didn’t reach me as much. However, all the episodes and characters on “Next Generation” were less cheesy than the original Star Trek and gave screen time to every crew member. There were threats as big as Nero and Khan with the Borg and Q, and it also had the holodeck! It had a mix of female and male, old and young, alien and human that I think made this series the most rich.  And Patrick Stewart.

Benjamin as Batman, then and now.

You also have bonded with your son over the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Tell me about that.

This is so late in the game, but I remembered Josh liked the show … then I bought it as a gift for him. Adam West had also recently passed away when I bought it. We decided it was friendly enough for our 4-year-old and he immediately loved it as well.

It had all the same things I already loved but it was a Batman I never knew, for sure! I had seen Batman portrayed only in dark and serious ways, but this was by far the best. We enjoyed the weird scenarios and gadgets and the straight-faced delivery of “stay in school” type messages to the audience. Good fun. And our son thought Batman was cool because he wore a costume, which made it even more lovable.

Does your family share your love of geek culture? What are some of your shared and individual interests?

Mei and I were the only ones obsessed with anime and all its good-guy heroism. We all seem to like books, as all my family are avid readers of science fiction and fantasy. However, sadly, they do not like to cover their whole house in any merchandise related to these. My husband and my twin are the only other collectors and have statues and posters and clothing related to all our geeky interests.

Mai’s mantle at home reflects her family’s geekier interests.

What are some of your other personal fandoms?

I really like “Anne of Green Gables.” I have read the book many times, watched the series featuring Megan Follows, drawn Anne many times, and fantasize about wearing her clothes. I have a fascination for Victorian houses and love to look at pictures of them. I used to have a folder on my desktop of different ones I had collected off the internet, but sadly had to delete to make room for other things. I also really love looking at doll houses in this style. It probably stems from “Anne of Green Gables,” somewhere down the line, too.

Would you say that being an artist affects the way you consume or view geeky entertainment?

I am not sure if it affects my views because I’m not a snob (an art snob). I like a well-made movie or anytime design is thought-out and used well, but I can like things simply because it made me feel good.

As a woman, is there anything you’d like to see change in the world of fandoms and geek culture?

I would like women to be able to be funny, gross, silly, demanding, and weird as much as possible. I adore a character that doesn’t seem to notice if she’s pretty. I would also like there to be more movies and stories that have the story be totally unrelated to love and have women main characters. I would like there to be card game swindlers, gun toting bad-asses that are solving crimes, etc., and have them all be women that don’t have to be face beautiful. Probably why I love “Bridesmaids” so much.

A portrait of Mai, in the style of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, painted by her husband, Joshua.

What’s the next big release (books, movies, TV, etc.) you’re looking forward to?

Maurice Sendak is having a new book out, post-death.

What’s your absolute favorite “Magnum, P.I.” episode?

The Christmas episode when they are stranded on an island that is used for test bombing … the ending is them flying away in TC’s helicopter singing carols while bombs are going off behind them. It’s the best. On a more serious note, there is an episode where Magnum is stuck miles out at sea, treading water, while his friends desperately try to find him.

Art by Mai Kemble.

 

‘The Last Jedi’: A Conversation (SPOILER ALERT!)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” steer clear of this review!

Two years ago, in a galaxy not so far away … two lifelong Star Wars fans — Lavender, of nomansland.blog, and Shawna, of earthtoshawna.com — decided to search their feelings and work out their issues after seeing “The Force Awakens.” It was so much fun, we decided to do it again with “The Last Jedi,” the second installment of Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy. 

Here’s the conversation …

SPOILER ALERT: Seriously. If you’re planning to see “The Last Jedi” at all, do not read any further. We’ll be discussing the movie in full. Do yourself a favor and go watch porg videos instead.

Lavender: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has a 93% “fresh” rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but only scored a 56% approval rating with audiences. Do you side more with critics or moviegoers?

Shawna of earthtoshawna.com

Shawna: What? Really? That’s pretty shocking! I didn’t know that. I’m with the critics – I loved it! What about you, did you love it?

Lavender: I’m going to have to say I agree with the critics here. I think “The Last Jedi” is fantastic, with a few caveats. It’s a weirder, wilier beast than “The Force Awakens,” but while it generally follows the formula of “The Empire Strikes Back” in terms of plot and tone — in the same way “Force Awakens” follows the formula of “A New Hope” — writer-director Rian Johnson is very comfortable telling a more original, more surprising story here than the first chapter of this new trilogy.

There are so many breathtaking moments here for die-hard Star Wars fans. There’s a childlike playfulness at work (almost too much at times), but also a darker, deeper exploration of the balance of the Force that is extremely satisfying to a longtime fan like me.

Shawna: I totally agree with everything you just said. I found some of it a little bit cartoony and contrived, but overall I loved the unpredictability and suspense, and I enjoyed the nods to “Empire” too. The on-the-edge-of-my-seat moments and the goosebump moments more than made up for the give-me-a-break stuff.

Lavender of nomansland.blog

Lavender: For me, the heart of the film was the connection and counterpoint between Daisy Ridley, as Resistance fighter and maybe the most bad-ass Jedi ever, Rey, and Adam Driver, as conflicted and angsty wayward son Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren.

I had forgotten how good Driver is as Kylo Ren, all pent-up fury and raging teenage hormones. (Is he a teenager? Well, he acts like one, anyway.) It’s astonishing how much sympathy you feel for this character and yet he’s just so vile at the same time. And, of course, Ridley is perfect once again as the lonely, pure-hearted Rey, who journeys to the secluded island hideaway of Luke Skywalker seeking guidance in the ways of the Force and, for the first time, feels a pull to the Dark Side. Her vulnerability is heartbreaking.

Johnson has cooked up this mysterious connection between Rey and Kylo, who communicate throughout the film in these electrifying psychic dialogues that are intimate, chilling, and melancholy all at once. And, of course, there’s the scene in which they together confront Snoke. I would like to rewatch that scene about 50 times. I had goosebumps all over!

Shawna: I loved the scenes in which Rey and Kylo connected through the Force. I wanted more of Kylo’s character after seeing “The Force Awakens,” and I wasn’t disappointed. How awesome was it when Kylo killed Snoke and they fought the guards together? It was so powerful, and then how fitting for him to say “join me.”

Lavender: Yes! That was epic. And there were many, many epic moments, from that opening with Poe Dameron taking out the cannons on the New Order star destroyer with his aerial acrobatics to that final face-off between Kylo and Luke Skywalker. What else did you love about the film?

Shawna: The porgs! You predicted the lovable-ness of these little critters the same way you knew BB-8 was going to steal the show in “The Force Awakens.”

I loved the crystal foxes and the space horses too. When they set the herd free – that was my favorite Rose and Finn scene. And we got a little of Rose’s back story there, which was interesting. Mostly though, I felt there was untapped potential with their storyline.

I also loved Luke’s astral projection – that moment when you see he is still on the island, how cool was that? In hindsight I guess that was foreshadowed with Kylo appearing to Rey without really being there, but I didn’t see it coming at all.

I was really happy to see Luke in general, considering he was virtually absent from “Force Awakens.” But I’m still sorting out my feelings for how his character has developed. It seemed so out of character for him to consider murdering his nephew in his sleep. And I don’t think I can ever look at him the same way after watching him drink that milk.

Lavender: The milking scene. Ewww. So weird. I’m still not sure what that was about. One of several goofy, but perplexing moments in “The Last Jedi.” Johnson seemed to be trying to bring back some of the eccentricity of George Lucas’ original trilogy. Maybe? I’m not quite sure?

Otherwise, I loved most of the scenes with Luke. Hamill is a bit weathered, but that suits the character, a perfect blend of crotchety hermit and disillusioned Jedi master. Yes, that unexpected reveal in the finale is something! Wow!

I’m glad you brought up the porgs because I’ve just been waiting this whole time to talk about them. It’s a relief that they are not the next Jar Jar Binks, but are featured in many adorable and funny moments and sparingly so they don’t become unwelcome pests.

You mention the scene with Finn and Rose — who I think are a great team — and the horse-like Farthiers. I think that was actually my least favorite scene. It was just so over-the-top and full of CGI. Actually, the entire sequence on Canto Bight — the Monte Carlo of the Star Wars galaxy — reminded me too much of Lucas’ prequels, and I don’t like to be reminded of those.

What were some of your complaints about this film?

Shawna: I guess it’s the animal lover in me that likes any scene where animals are set free! And as a bookworm, I didn’t like the book burning. Really, Yoda? You’re going to destroy these ancient books and laugh about it? Not cool.

I don’t like that Luke died. I’m sad that this likely means the next film won’t have any of the three original characters.

Lavender: It was kinda funny that Yoda was like, “Ancient Jedi texts, whatever.” I’m so glad Yoda made an appearance though. That was quite a treat.

I think the filmmakers are phasing out the trifecta of the original trilogy so they can focus on the younger heroes of this trilogy, although it seems they may have had more plans for Carrie Fisher in the next and final film, prior to her death.

Speaking of Carrie Fisher, “The Last Jedi” is dedicated to her. What did you think of her role in this film?

I found it to be a lovely and emotional tribute. I love that we got to see Leia in action as a general, her strategizing and camaraderie with her troops, her sorrow over Resistance losses, and we also caught a huge and unexpected glimpse of her Force power. That was insane. I still don’t know what to make of it. She looked so beautiful and all her lines were clever and sassy and completely Carrie. The eventual and long-awaited reunion between Leia and Luke was so touching and fitting. I was bawling. For me, this was probably the highlight of the movie.

Shawna: Almost every Carrie scene was emotionally wrenching, knowing she’s gone. It was hard for me to be objective. I love her.  I need to watch again and try not to think of her being gone so I can actually absorb what she’s saying! And you’re right of course, about the filmmakers focusing on the younger heroes. I know it’s time for them to pass the torch, but I’m not ready to let go yet!

Lavender: It will be interesting to see how the next film does without the heavy lifting of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. I remember when I was skeptical about the three of them returning to the franchise, but it has paid off in rewarding ways for fans and resulted in some excellent storytelling.

While I think “The Last Jedi” has its flaws — there’s an unevenness to it, especially in the first half of the film, that’s a bit disorienting — I’m pleased with where it takes the trilogy. Hopefully, the final chapter will take everything full circle and bring balance to the Force.

Shawna: “The Last Jedi” did take a while to hit its stride, but once it did, it was a great ride! I want to see what happens with Kylo Ren. Will he get to be a good guy at the last minute, like Darth Vader? And is Rey really a “nobody,” as in not related to any of the original characters? Is that what Luke was trying to tell her, that the Force is in all of us? That sort of flies in the face of the genetic component of the Force, but the Midichlorian thing was sort of stupid anyway.

I am excited for the next film!

JPL’s PlanetaryKeri finds the droid she was looking for

I hereby mandate that, from now on, the role of the cool female scientist in every science-fiction movie be played by Keri Bean.

Keri, aka Twitter’s @PlanetaryKeri, has more nerd cred than anyone I’ve met.

I can’t even begin to describe the awesomeness of her educational background (studying the weather on Mars),  job (at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and hobbies, which involve everyone’s favorite droid, R2-D2, and everyone’s new favorite Star Wars heroine, Rey.

At JPL in Pasadena, Keri works on Mars rovers; the Dawn, which is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres; and other fascinating space missions. She’s also part of the lab’s outreach team, making the science accessible to the general public.

In her downtime, Keri has quite the obsession with a certain sassy, blue-and-white Astromech droid. As a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club, she and her husband built their own functioning R2 unit, which goes well with Keri’s other hobby, cosplaying as Resistance Rey with the Rebel Legion club. 

And though we didn’t discuss it because it occurred after this interview, Keri was recently at the premiere of “The Last Jedi,” where she met Daisy Ridley, who signed Keri’s Porg.

Perfection!

You work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It sounds like the best job ever. What do you most enjoy about it?

It absolutely is the best job ever! From the moment I was exposed to what JPL does when in high school, I knew I wanted to work there. I’ve now been working at JPL for over four years, and I still get excited to come into work every morning. I often can’t believe I work here. I think my favorite aspect is that I get to work with some of the best, brightest, and most passionate people in the world. Where else can you work on Mars rovers??

For the sake of laypeople like me, I’m going to ask you to explain some things — or maybe everything — about what you do. You’re a missions operations engineer. What does that entail?

My job is to operate spacecraft and tell them what to do. Since I have a scientific background, I focus a lot more on what’s called science operations. That means I spend a lot of time making sure as much data is taken as possible so scientists can use it to make amazing discoveries.

Currently, you’re working as a science planning and sequencing engineer for the Dawn mission. The Dawn is orbiting and exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. Could you explain your role in the mission?

So we use bits of code we call sequences to control each spacecraft. On Dawn, my prime responsibility was to work with the instrument teams to develop the sequences that would fulfill the science objectives safely. I am part of a small, four-people team that designs and executes all of the science data acquisition.

What information about Ceres has the mission yielded so far?

So, so much! Before Dawn arrived, all we had were these small fuzzy pictures of a round object. We found a large amount of evidence towards water ice, organic molecules on the surface, a transient atmosphere, and so much more! You can find out more at https://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov.

You are the tactical uplink lead and mobility/instrument deployment device engineer for the Mars Explorer Rovers. What do those titles mean? 

The Tactical Uplink Lead means you are in charge of the team planning the activities on Mars that particular shift. It’s a very mentally intense job because you have to remember a lot, make tough decisions, and more under a time crunch. I find it really satisfying. I get to tell a Mars rover what to do!

The latter role (we often shorten to Mob/IDD) is a downlink analysis role. After the rover drives or uses its arm, I’m one of the people that looks at the data and figures out what actually happened, did the activities complete safely, etc. It’s one of the first steps towards becoming a Mars rover driver!

That must be an exciting mission to work on! Tell me about that experience.

Opportunity, and her past twin, Spirit, were actually the first missions I worked on when I was an undergrad. I’ve been on and off the team since 2007! Both my undergrad and master’s thesis were based on data from Spirit. And now I’m a part of the Integrated Sequencing Team, and one of my responsibilities is also training people new to the mission on how to operate it. It’s a dream!

Keri Bean, dressed as Rey from “The Force Awakens,” with the Opportunity rover.

I read that you were interested in weather as a child and watched the Weather Channel a lot. What was it about the weather that fascinated you?

I wish I knew! It was an innate draw.

I also read it was the 2003 Columbia disaster that sparked your interest in space exploration. Tell me about that. 

I remember being at a Texas statewide academic competition called UIL, and they brought all the students into the auditorium. They announced the space shuttle had broken up over Texas and we had a minute of silence. I remember being angry. Not at what had happened, but why didn’t I know we had a space shuttle around Earth at the moment? I knew of the ISS, but what were they doing up there?

As soon as I got home I started reading as much as I could about space. My interested really got locked in a few years later when I got to witness in person the STS-114 launch, the return to flight mission post-Columbia. I went to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, the following two years. Between all of that, I got the space bug hard.

You attended Texas A&M University because it enabled you to combine your love of weather and space. You studied with Dr. Mark Lemmon whose focus is weather on Mars. Please tells us, are all the movies about Mars terribly accurate?

Mostly not. But you know, they’re movies and for entertainment! I’m willing to separate fact from fiction. “The Martian” is the closest I’ve seen to accurate, although even that has flaws.

If you could tell us only one fact about the weather on Mars, what would it be?

It snows!!!

You were able to work on several NASA missions as a student. What did you discover about yourself during this experience?

I found a couple of things. One thing was that I enjoyed astronomy as a hobby and not as a profession. I also found that I really like working with a team. A lot of my school experience was sitting in a cubicle by myself coding, and I just didn’t like the social isolation. I’m glad I got to experience spacecraft operations, as that was the balance between having a cool technical job while requiring social skills and interacting with people on a daily basis.

Are there many women working in your field?

A lot, actually! On Dawn, my manager, in the Science Operations Support Team, is a woman. Our deputy principal investigator and project scientist are women. On my JPL management side, almost all the managers up the chain are women. On MER, women rule! Up until very recently, all Tactical Uplink Leads were women for many, many years.

Right now, our lead systems engineer, lead Rover Planner (aka Mars rover driver/arm operators), and lead Mobility/IDD are all women as well. We also have more women Rover Planners than men. It’s quite often that mostly women staff the tactical team on Opportunity. I’ve seen quite a few shifts where there has only been one guy! But I also know that my experience is an anomaly, and I know many other women who tell me they’re the only women working on the team or in their job type. So while things aren’t perfect, I think there’s tremendous progress at JPL.

You’re a member of JPL’s Advisory Council for Women. How did you become involved with that? What does the council do?

So I try and help out with events that the Advisory Council for Women puts on. They have a yearly banquet (and this past year I nominated my best friend and STEM outreach extraordinaire Dr. Nicole Sharp to be the guest of honor, and she was!) and also do other events on lab.

Keri does some outreach for JPL.

You also do a lot of public speaking and outreach. And you’re an Internet celebrity with a big Twitter following @PlanetaryKeri. How did you get started in outreach? Why does it appeal to you?

I like people! A lot of my job is “translating” between the scientists and engineers, and that skill allows me to translate for the general public as well. I know there are so many people that want to do what I do, so I feel being public about it on social media is the best way to get people to experience what I do.

I could probably ask you about your job all day long, but I’d like to move on to another very important topic: Star Wars. You’re a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club. For those who are unfamiliar with the group, what is the purpose of the club?

The club is for those who want to build their very own Astromech!

How did you become involved with the group? Are there many female members?

I met a member who had built his own R2. I don’t know what it was, but when I saw R2 in person, I just knew I had to have my own. Luckily my husband was immediately on board, saying it looked like a fun engineering project. I wanted to wait a bit until I had a house, but then I saw all the droids in the droid builder’s room at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim and I just couldn’t wait anymore. I went home and ordered my first part that night. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many women in the club, but there are some! There’s now a group called Stardust Builders Initiative that spans over all the builder clubs (so BB-8, Mouse droids, etc.) and there’s close to 100 women or female-identifying people in the group.

Keri works on the dome of her R2 unit.

You built your own R2 unit. Tell me about that process. 

Oh gosh, where to begin?

It’s a long process. Most people take two to three years to build their droid. Mine was two years and a month. I had joined the forum and been reading for a good six months before I bought my first part, and that time isn’t included in that two years and one month duration.

My husband’s skills and mine complemented each other well. I took care of figuring out ordering parts, making sure they were cut/sanded/painted appropriately, etc. My husband has a background in electrical and computer engineering, so he did pretty much all of that. We still had a lot of help from friends! In fact, I have been having anyone that contributed sign the back panel of my droid.

It took a lot of nights and weekends to build. Honestly, over a year of that time was just waiting to get enough parts to actually assemble the droid. The first part we got was the dome, so we actually had our dome nearly complete in the first month of our building process. Then we had to wait a long time to get a frame, legs, and feet so we could actually assemble and stand R2 up. Once we could stand R2 up, things went pretty quickly. The last three months or so of building were pretty constant.

Once the droid is built, what do you do with him? Does the club do events? I’ve seen them at conventions and the droids are always a big hit.

I’ve only had my droid done for about six months now, so he hasn’t done a lot. We actually had a big, big push to finish because I had signed us up to troop at Legoland for their Star Wars weekend!

So we finished very late on Monday night on Memorial Day weekend, did a “soft opening” troop that Friday at a local school, then on Sunday was Legoland! It was super stressful but absolutely worth it since I got to troop as Rey with my droid there. I’ve brought my droid to JPL a few times and he is well-loved there. My husband and I want to make some more refinements before we really take him out and about more. Droids are never really done!

Tell me your personal Star Wars saga. How did you become a fan?

My first memory of watching Star Wars was in a car on a tiny 8-inch TV screen with an attached VHS tape player as my mother drove me across the country. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was in elementary school. The copies I watched were ones my parents had recorded from on air in the ‘80s, so commercials and everything.

So I liked Star Wars, but it wasn’t my main obsession until recently. I mean, I always gravitated towards the droids and had a small collection of R2-D2 things and I went to the midnight premiere of the prequels. But it wasn’t until I met the R2 builder that my love really expanded. “The Force Awakens” compounded that. I connected with Rey long before the movie came out. Now I’m hooked!

You’re a member of Rebel Legion, specifically the SoCal Sunrider Base. How did you discover the Legion?

I don’t remember exactly, but I have been going to comic cons for quite some time and probably first heard of them at one. I knew about them for years, but never had a strong desire to join since I didn’t have costumes that were up to requirements. I had a lot more fun costumes, like a feminine Han Solo, R2-D2 themed Jedi outfit, etc., that aren’t what the Rebel Legion is for. I finally decided that I would get a Rey costume up to snuff and join not only to enjoy being Rey, but also to find events to take R2-D2 to as well. The R2 builders aren’t organized in that regard like the Rebel Legion and 501st are.

What requirements did you have to meet to join the group?

Since I knew I wanted to be Rey, I had to pick which Rey costume to focus on. I really like her Resistance Rey (gray vest outfit), so I focused on that one first. I read the requirements listed on the Rebel Legion website and went from there.

Resistance Rey is an amazing character. Why did you choose her?

I just really connected with Rey in a way I have never connected with a fictional character before. She has so much of my personality and we share a lot of common traits. I eventually want all of Rey’s costumes, but I started with Resistance Rey because I loved the vest!

Was it a challenge to put the costume together?

Yes, especially since I don’t sew! I’ve tried to learn many times but I just can’t seem to do it. So I had to wait for the movie to come out then find someone willing to make it to RL standards on Etsy. I picked pieces from a few different vendors, and luckily it all worked out.

A large part of Rebel Legion’s mission centers around charity and volunteer work. What are some of the events you’ve participated in? 

I joined in January of this year and I’ve already done 18 events! I tried to pick more STEM-focused events since that’s what I’m passionate about. The highest profile events I’ve done were Legoland and Star Wars night at Angel Stadium. My first two troops were back to back for a STEM workshop for Girl Scouts. Another fun one was the El Centro Airshow since there were a lot of fun planes to take pictures in.

What kind of reactions do you get when you show up as Rey?

Rey is so popular, so I get a big response! I was a little worried that since this version of Rey is in so little footage in “The Force Awakens,” I wouldn’t be recognized. Luckily, I haven’t had that issue. Maybe it’s her distinctive hair that helps. Either way, I’m well received! It’s especially fun if I get to troop with a Kylo Ren and we play off of each other.

The little kids always think I actually am Rey, so I get to act a little bit and act like Rey for these kids. At my first troop, a young girl approached me asking me what my favorite food was. I said I had only ever eaten Unkar Plott’s portions, so I asked what her favorite food is. She said spaghetti. I said I had never heard of it, so what was it like? She said it was a plate of noodles. I asked what noodles were since I had never heard of them. At that point I could see the gears turning in her eyes and her blanking out so I said, “Ok, ok, I’ll look it up in the Resistance database. So cute!

When I was at Angel Stadium, I locked eyes from a distance with a small boy, maybe 3 years old? Anyway, he started sobbing and I had no idea what to do. His parents comforted him, and after a minute he bolted straight to me and wrapped himself tightly around my leg and through his sobs I heard something like, “Don’t let Kylo hurt you. I love you too much,” so I comforted him and told him the Force is strong with me and I’ll be ok. It was super touching.

Are there other characters you’d like to portray in the future?

I’m working on a few other costumes, but no other named characters besides Rey yet. I’ve got a Jedi and a Rebel Fleet Trooper costume in the works. I might do one of Jyn Erso’s because I really like her style.

Are you excited about “The Last Jedi”? It’s almost here!

I’m super excited! I’m excited to see where Rian Johnson takes us, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where Rey goes on her journey.

You once gave a talk about the Dawn mission to Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. Please tell me about that!

Through the R2 builders, I ended up meeting someone who works at ILM and he invited me for a tour any time I was in San Francisco. So, of course, I had to go visit as soon as possible! My husband and I took a mini vacation up there. When coordinating my visit, I asked if he thought there would be any interest in me giving a talk about Dawn while I was there, and the rest is history! I’ve now visited a couple of times and it’s really fun every time. Once I even visited Skywalker Ranch … and when checking out at their store I met Dave Filoni!

What other fandoms are you interested in?

I think it’s obvious Star Wars is my main thing now, but I also like Star Trek, “Doctor Who,” “Battlestar Galactica,” Harry Potter, “Lord of the Rings,” and probably more I can’t remember right now. I’m not a huge comic book person, but I did like the Christian Bale “Batman” trilogy and the “Wonder Woman” movie. I used to really be into anime in high school but that faded when I went to college.

As a kid you were into Disney movies. Are you still a Disney nerd?

I’d say so. I go to Disneyland once or twice a year. I have watched a lot of the recent movies (for example, I just saw “Moana” over Thanksgiving break).

You once gave talks about Star Wars science and Dawn at Gallifrey One, the Doctor Who convention. Are you a Whovian?

A little bit! One of the things my husband and I want to do is have our R2 cosplay as a Dalek at the next Gallifrey One. Last year, I attended as Jakku/Scavenger Rey but used 4th Doctor scarf-patterned arm sleeves. That was well received.

I have to point out that there is a YouTube video in which you talk to Morgan Freeman about science. Morgan Freeman! How did that happen? Did you ever recover from it or do you still hear that magnificent voice in your head?

So the JPL media office contacted me that he would be doing an event at JPL and I had been picked to ask him a question in advance, since he wanted all questions pre-screened. So I asked him about how to do more casual outreach to reach the general audience without formal events like talks. It led to a bit of an interesting discussion. It was pretty neat. And the voice in person is just as awesome as you’d expect!

You’ve done so much professionally and personally. What is still on your career bucket list?

Well one thing I never expected to get to do is become a Rover Planner, as I thought that was mostly for robotics/computer science people. But I’ve now begun down that path, and over the next few years I’m working towards becoming one for Opportunity. So I guess there’s only crazy things left. Director of JPL? Astronaut? I don’t know! All I know is whatever I do, I’m going to have fun along the way.

What is on your geek bucket list?

I want to head to Ireland and hike Skellig Michael in my Resistance Rey outfit!

Let’s close with a few key Star Wars questions:

Is R2 the droid you were looking for?

Absolutely!

Besides R2, obviously, who is your favorite droid?

I think next I’d pick Chopper. I love the snark. K-2SO is almost tied on that front.

If you could visit any Star Wars planet, which would it be?

Definitely Ach-To. So pretty! And Porgs!

The Han Solo spin-off. Terrible idea or should we give it a chance?

I think we should give it a chance. I trust the people working on it to make it great!

And finally … Porgs. Yes or no?

Yes!!!!

 

In memory of Carrie, the princess who became a general

On Dec. 18, 2015, Carrie Fisher made a glorious comeback in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” reprising her role as the ultimate self-rescuing princess, Leia Organa.

A year and nine days later, she left this Earth after what the newspapers called a “cardiac event” or “incident” on a flight from London to Los Angeles.

Her mother, Hollywood icon Debbie Reynolds, followed her a day later, as if she could not bear the separation.

I was just as saddened as anybody by the abrupt loss of Fisher. A friend reminded me that, a few months earlier, she had suggested we attend a signing in L.A. for the writer’s new book, “The Princess Diarist.” I had shrugged off this idea, but now regretted it.

I guess I assumed I would have other opportunities to meet her. I was preoccupied with other things. I now stand corrected. Always take the chance to meet your heroes when you can. This is my new mantra. When it comes to amazing people who can never be replaced, carpe diem.

I think we’d all agree that last year, especially the end parts and on into early 2017, were pretty rough, politically, socially, globally. Maybe that’s why I mostly put Carrie out of my thoughts and moved on.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself thinking about her a lot.

This is probably because Ms. Fisher is about to make her final appearance in the Star Wars franchise as “The Last Jedi” officially debuts Friday. Trailers feature images of her, stoic and regally clad in diplomatic robes. The cast and makers of the film payed loving homage to their absent co-star this weekend at the film’s premiere.

I’m sure I’m not the only who has suddenly found myself revisiting the memory of Carrie, and the cinnamon-bun-haired princess she so famously brought to life.

Leia Organa’s first appearance in “A New Hope” is the stuff of fairy tale tropes. She’s the enigmatic damsel in distress, peering furtively from behind her hooded cloak, the beautiful princess who triggers the hero’s quest and all the ensuing action of George Lucas’ original space opera.

We first see Leia literally as a hologram, an ephemeral figment of fantasy. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

But when we finally meet the real Leia — in the scenes that most riveted me, a girl of 12, when I saw “A New Hope” — she is so much more than a tired, old stereotype.

Lifting her chin up to look Darth Vader square in the eye … er, mask.

Spitting rebukes at the Dark Lord himself.

Leia is terrified, but she bravely endures torture and, most devastatingly, the sight of her home planet and everyone she loves blasted into oblivion by the Death Star.

When Luke Skywalker and Han Solo finally show up to save her, she is deliciously unimpressed by them. Her sarcasm is unparalleled.

“Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

Sure, Lucas can’t resist romanticized nonsense, like that kiss on the cheek before Luke swings her across that chasm, but Leia spends a good deal of her time rolling her eyes at the ineptitude of her so-called saviors. She never hesitates to pick up a blaster and charge into the fray herself. She knows it’s up to her.

Fisher imbues Leia with qualities that might be stereotypically classified as “difficult.” She is a leader. She’s the boss. She’s convinced she is smarter and more capable than Luke and Han. She has no patience for male bravado or recklessness. She clearly doesn’t care that anyone might be intimidated by her competence and strength.

Later in the trilogy, we learn more about Leia. She’s a rescuer, masterminding the carbonite-frozen Han’s escape in the guise of a bounty hunter, and a total frickin’ bad-ass — strangling Jabba the Hutt with her bare hands while clad in that demeaning gold bikini is one giant F-U to the creep who tried to enslave her.

We also witness Leia’s vulnerability in her interactions with Luke. The scene in the Ewok village, in which she shares her memories of her mother, only gets more poignant as the franchise progresses. The fact that she is the one who remembers Padme is fraught with significance.

Let’s face it. It was always inevitable Leia’s romance with Han wouldn’t last. She was far too grounded, too honest, too sensible to put up with a restless rascal like Solo, however good he might look in those striped pants.

When I was younger, one of my biggest frustrations concerning Leia was that she was never allowed to pursue the path of the Jedi like her brother.

Yoda and Luke speak of her power – “My sister has it” — and we catch glimpses of her gifts in her psychic connection to Luke.

For a long time, I was enamored by an imagined alternate reality in which Leia would train, face trials, and embrace her Force power, wield a lightsaber and fight the Dark Side alongside her brother.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see the Leia of “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” as someone who has actually embraced her perfect destiny, sacrificing the sacred path of the Jedi to lead the Resistance against the reemergence of the Dark Side in the form of the First Order.

Leia chooses the path where she is most needed and steps into the role she was born to fill, becoming General Organa. She never wields the lightsaber, but plays a more vital role in the battle for Light.

She is also the one who doesn’t turn tail and run after the devastation of Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren. While Han and Luke are too weak to face their failures as, respectively, father and Jedi master, Leia holds the line as leader of the Resistance. She is the only one who holds out hope for her son’s redemption.

“You think I want to forget him? I want him back,” she tells a wavering Han, imploring him to bring Ben home.

Leia is the true hero of the Star Wars saga because she is courageous enough to sacrifice personal ambition and overcome her fears to serve the greater good of the galaxy.

Much like Leia, Fisher was sometimes labeled as “difficult.” The progeny of Hollywood royalty, she survived a turbulent childhood, but struggled with addiction and mental illness her entire life.

She chaffed at and called out the hypocrisy of an industry that didn’t quite know what to do with her. She was a brilliant, scathing, eccentric author of books and screenplays and was refreshingly frank and irreverent when it came to her flaws and personal failings.

Most of all, she was always, unapologetically herself.

“She was purposefully open in all of her work about the social stigmas surrounding (addiction and mental illness),” Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd said, shortly after her mother’s passing.

“I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles.”

Thanks to “The Last Jedi,” we’ll enjoy Carrie’s talent a little while longer and be inspired by her once more.

She deserves this final moment in the spotlight.

Photos: comicbook.com, MovieWeb.

Stuff comic book reader’s stocking with season’s best

So, maybe you’re looking to impress the comic book reader in your life this Christmas, but don’t know where to start.

Or, you’d like to spark a love of comics in that friend who geeks out over every superhero movie.

Or, you’re thinking a Star Wars comic book might be the perfect gift for that co-worker who can’t wait for Friday’s release of “The Last Jedi.”

Well, have no fear, holiday shopper. Our friend Roger May, of Horizon Comics in Lancaster, Calif., is here to save the day with professional advice on what to get the comic book fiends on your Christmas list.

According to May, there are two hot properties this season that comic book fans will hope to see sticking out of their stockings.

The first is “Doomsday Clock No. 1,” one of a 12-issue maxiseries from writer Geoff Johns, artist Gary Frank, and colorist Brad Anderson.

“It’s basically DC merging the ‘Watchmen’ universe into the DC universe,” May said.

No. 1, a single, 40-page comic with no advertisements, would be essential gift giving “if there’s a ‘Watchman’ fan in the family.”

The second issue in the “Doomsday Clock” series will be released the Wednesday after Christmas, but first prints of “No. 1” are “already getting really scarce,” according to May.

“We sold 250 copies of the comic in one day, just to show you the level of excitement surrounding that book.”

If you’re buying for someone who’s interested in “Doomsday Clock,” but has never read the original “Watchmen” graphic novel, consider treating them to Alan Moore’s hugely influential comic masterpiece.

You could also gift them with director Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of “Watchmen,” which May said is “really close to the graphic novel.”

The other surefire comic book gift option this season is DC’s “Dark Nights: Metal,” written by Scott Snyder.

The concept of the series is “the DC universe being invaded by characters from their own ‘upside down,’ to borrow a ‘Stranger Things’ reference,” May said.

Indeed, “Dark Nights: Metal” even goes so far as to reference “Stranger Things” itself.

“It’s like a Justice League made up all of Bruce Waynes, Bruce Waynes that made really bad decisions that led to an unstable world,” May said.

The series is set in a “Dark Multiverse where all untenable universes go to die.”

“Dark Nights: Metal” is about halfway through its run, May said. “It’s been a really insanely popular series.”

Early issues may be difficult to find, at least first prints, but Horizon Comics should have in stock second or third prints of issues 1, 2, and 3, as well as a mix of first print and second print tie-in companion pieces to the main series.

Those tie-in books feature Bruce Wayne versions of various DC characters, including Flash, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern.

“They’re all dark, twisted versions of that character,” May said. The books tell their origin stories and detail the “decision Bruce Wayne made to end up where he is.”

In the “Red Death” issue, for instance, “Batman decides he’s been thinking too small and needs to save the world instead of Gotham,” May said, so he kidnaps The Flash and straps him to the hood of the Batmobile.

If you’ve got a Marvel fan on your list, however, the recent release of the “Avengers: Infinity War” trailer has sparked sales of a certain graphic novel, which would make for good gift giving.

The “Infinity War” movie borrows from Marvel’s “Infinity Gauntlet Trilogy,” in which “Thanos fashions a gauntlet that will hold all of the infinity gems,” May said.

The gauntlet “gives him almost complete and total dominance over all of reality, makes him basically a god. In the movie he’s assembling these gems. The comic is gonna be a little different but it will definitely give you a basis for what is going to be going on in the movie.”

If you’re wondering what to get the Star Wars fan on your list, May suggests two ongoing comic book story arcs: the current “Darth Vader” series and a main “Star Wars” series.

May has two personal favorite story arcs: “Star Wars: Vader Down,” which revolves around Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, and “Star Wars: The Screaming Citadel,” which he describes as a “really good story arc, too.”

According to May, you could also opt to buy your Star Wars fan one or more of several short Star Wars miniseries, which center around characters from the universe, including Darth Maul, Lando Calrissian, Poe Dameron, Princess Leia, and Captain Phasma.

As far as other gift options go, May said you can’t go wrong with “anything Batman, Superman, Harley Quinn, or Thor.”

For that very special comic book nerd, the one you don’t mind shelling out a lot of cash for, there are also luxe omnibuses and “absolute editions”, featuring favorite characters or stories, to consider.

As an example, May cites his favorite series, “Batman: Hush,” which can be purchased in a large format, hardcover absolute edition.

These editions typically retail for around $75 to $100, but “they’re beautiful,” May said.

“It’s kind of like reading comics in IMAX.”

Still totally confused about what to get the comic book reader on your list?

Drop by Horizon Comics, if you happen to live in the Antelope Valley, or your closest local comic book shop.

“Come see me,” May said.

“I’m a firm believer that there’s a comic for everyone, whether they’re into superheroes, or horror, or action adventure, or comedy.”

Photos: Comics Alliance, DC Comics, Rotten Tomatoes, Heroes Assemble. 

‘Tis the Season for Geeky Gifting: A Holiday Guide

Most of the geeks I know are easy to shop for.

Almost too easy, in fact. The sheer amount of merchandise tied to any one fandom these days can be mindbogglingly disorienting. And when it comes to fandoms, most geeks are into more than one.

Would she like a Tardis backpack or Matt Smith socks? “Game of Thrones” coasters or a Hogwarts house mug? BB-8 cookie jar or R2-D2 cardigan? Wonder Woman cellphone case or “Nightmare Before Christmas” throw?

In this post, we endeavor to simplify the geek gift-buying process with a lively curated list of items that should appeal to nerds of all varieties and fandoms. Best of all, you can get started with your shopping immediately by clicking the links accompanying each entry.

Perhaps you’re wondering where all the porgs are? Just you wait, my friend! The 12 Porgs of Christmas are coming. There’s also a Ghost of Christmas Future lurking with an upcoming Comic Book Gift Guide post.

Happy gifting! Your geek of choice will thank you for it.

There’s a Pop! for everyone.

Funko, maker of those cute little, dead-eyed vinyl pop-culture licensed figures, quite literally has something that will please everyone, from the obvious franchises, like Disney, Star Wars, and Marvel, to characters from more obscure properties.

For the old-school “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan, there’s bad girl Faith from the Pop! Television collection:

For the Disney Princess dreamer, how about this adorable Ariel?

And for the friend who already has more Pops than she has room for, there’s a collection of too-cute mugs, including the Sally Pop! Ceramic Mug. (Other options include Kylo Ren, Snoopy, Hulk, Batman, Chewbacca, and Captain America.)

The year’s geekiest movies.

Give the gift of the year’s fangirliest flicks by choosing one or more of the following.

For your friend who cried during the No Man’s Land scene:

Wonder Woman [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD]

For the anglophile in your life (available Dec. 12):

Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle [Blu-ray]

For the indie movie fan:

Colossal [Blu-ray]

For the Marvel fan who likes it goofy:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 [Blu-ray]

For the moviegoer whose Spidey senses are tingling:

Spider-Man: Homecoming [Blu-ray]

For the emo X-Men enthusiast:

Logan [Blu-ray]

For your friend who went crazy over “Justice League”:

Exclusive DC 4K Collection: Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice 4K Ultra HD (4K Blu-ray+Blu-ray+Digital)

For the feminist action movie buff:

Atomic Blonde [Blu-ray]

For the “GoT” fan in mourning until Season 8 (Season 7 is available Dec. 12):

Game of Thrones: The Complete Seventh Season

Socks, they’re not just from your Aunt Betsy anymore.

Here’s a comfy foot-pampering twist on the traditional Christmas countdown. Keep their feet fashionable with “12 Days of Socks” featuring colorful pop culture-themed patterns, like this set:

Other patterns include Harry Potter, Disney Princess, Minecraft, DC Comics, and The Nightmare Before Christmas in varying sizes for men, women, girls, and boys.

For the Lego lover who has everything. 

This year’s Lego must-have is the Women of NASA set, which is, sadly, temporarily out of stock on the official Lego website.

Image result for women of nasa lego set

If you can manage to snag one somewhere, your Lego-obsessed loved one will surely thank you. The set features minifigures of four pioneering women of NASA: astronomer and educator Nancy Grace Roman, computer scientist and entrepreneur Margaret Hamilton, astronaut, physicist and entrepreneur Sally Ride and astronaut, physician and engineer Mae Jemison.

Fortunately, there are lots of other Lego sets available for the brick-inclined, featuring such franchises as Star Wars, DC, Disney, Ghostbusters, Marvel, Minecraft, and NINJAGO.

Deck your geek in tacky sweaters. 

The Ugly Christmas Sweater is back in a big — and, frankly, kinda disturbing way — but what the heck? Why not embrace the trend by picking out a hideously festive top that perfectly expresses your favorite geek’s fandom?

ThinkGeek has an array of eye-straining sweaters to choose from, including:

Star Wars Darth Vader Lack of Cheer Holiday Sweater

The Star Wars Darth Vader I Find Your Lack of Cheer Disturbing Sweater.

Firefly Holiday Sweater

Firefly Holiday Sweater.

Super Mario Bros. Holiday Sweater

Super Mario Bros. Holiday Sweater.

Wonder Woman Silhouette Sweater

Wonder Woman Silhouette Sweater.

And speaking of Wonder Woman …

You can’t go wrong with movie merchandise for anyone whose world was rocked by Patty Jenkins’ record-breaking comic book flick.

Image result for wonder woman bomber jacket

Keep her toasty with the Wonder Woman Movie Ladies Bomber Jacket.

Image result for wonder woman amazon princess handbag

For nights when she leaves the sword of Themyscira at home, there’s the Wonder Woman Movie Amazon Princess Handbag.

Image result for wonder woman the art and making of the film

For reliving the wonder of Jenkins’ epic, give her “Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film” (Hardcover).

On a side note, DC’s official store also has great gifts for fans of  Superman, Batman, Arrow, The Flash, and Harley Quinn.

For seekers of magical creatures.

Harry Potter-philes can possess their very own fantastic beasts — as Hagrid and Newt Scamander will testify, this can be a risky endeavor — with the “Harry Potter Magical Creatures” collection.

Their are many wizardy critters to choose from, including:

Harry Potter Magical Creatures #1 Hedwig

Harry Potter Magical Creatures No. 1 Hedwig.

Harry Potter Magical Creatures No. 2 Dobby.

Niffler Magical Creature No. 1.

Gifting made easy and tropical breezy.

Nerd site extraordinaire ThinkGeek has basically turned your Christmas shopping into a vacation with its irresistibly cute Geeki Tikis collection. Take the guess work out of what to get the thirsty nerd on your list by simply selecting the appropriately themed set.

Among the many available fandoms:

Star Wars Geeki Tikis - Series 1

Star Wars Geeki Tikis — Series 1. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Geeki Tikis - Exclusive

Guardians of the Galaxy Geeki Tikis — Exclusive.

Star Trek: The Original Series Geeki Tikis

Star Trek: The Original Series Geeki Tikis. 

Inspire them to throw away that ratty T-shirt.

If you know geeks, you know they love their nerd shirts. A little too much perhaps. Especially that holey one that’s been in their closet since San Diego Comic-Con 2010.

Maybe it’s time to get them a new shirt to love. Fortunately, TeeTurtle offers a variety of officially licensed, cute and cuddly, original designs from popular fandoms.

For the Disney fan:

Double-Edged Sword T-Shirt Mulan TeeTurtle

For the Star Wars fan:

It's a Trap! T-Shirt Star Wars TeeTurtle

For the Marvel (or Hiddles) fan:

Chaos and Destruction T-Shirt Marvel TeeTurtle

For the geek in need of Demotivation.

If you know one of those people who rolls their eyes at trite, inspirational sayings and cheesy motivational posters, ThinkGeek has just the cynical thing for them.

The website’s annual Despair Wall Calendar features 12 months of demotivating designs and geeky dates — like Talk Like a Pirate Day! — as well as “holidays” submitted by ThinkGeek customers.

2018 ThinkGeek Despair Wall Calendar - Exclusive

And while you’re shopping at ThinkGeek, here’s another items to consider. It might just be the perfect addition to Nana’s cozy miniature Christmas village.

Star Wars Wampa Cave Snow Globe

For the friend who’s looking for something to cuddle. 

I give you … the Funko Stranger Things Supercute Demigorgon Plush.

Dustin would love it.

Funko Stranger Things SuperCute Demogorgon Plush

Too scary? How about Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro Dust Bunny Slippers?

The droids your kid is looking for. 

With the littleBits Droid Inventor Kit, kids create their own droid and bring it to life using littleBits electronic blocks. Using the Droid Inventor app, they can give it new abilities and take it on 16-plus missions.

For the fashionista who’s one with The Force.

Her Universe recently unveiled its new Star Wars collection, which features whimsical, Lucasfilm-inspired designs, including this amazing Star Wars BB-8 Retro Skirt.

The best “Stranger Things” shirt ever?

No Christmas list would be compete without this awesome “Stranger Things”-inspired tee.

The Babysitters Club - Steve's Scary Situation Classic T-Shirt Front

And no T-shirt sums up the way we’re feeling about 2017 better than this one:

Star Trek Picard Facepalm T-Shirt

Boba Fett fan, Orthodox Jew finds fun, acceptance as Mandalorian Merc

Boba Fett fans, you’re going to love this week’s edition of the Geek Goddess interviews.

Corinne Finkelstein was practically raised on Star Wars and, like many fans of the franchise, she was fascinated by a certain enigmatic bounty hunter.

One fateful day at WonderCon, she met members of the Mandalorian Mercs, a club that celebrates Star Wars through the creation and display of costumes representing Mandalorian characters and culture from George Lucas’ many sagas.

As an Orthodox Jew who abides by a strict set of religious rules, she worried she might not be able to meet the club’s costume requirements or be accepted by the other members. She quickly learned she had nothing to worry about as her fellow Mercs warmly embraced her, helping her create a unique costume and character that honored her religious beliefs.

Corinne went on to be accepted into one of the club’s elite brigades and now troops with her clan at charity and volunteer events around Southern California. She’s also become something of an expert on Mandalorian history and culture. (She really digs “Star Wars Rebels,” by the way.)

Her story suggests the ways of the Force can be a path to religious tolerance, even in our troubled galaxy.

How did you first learn about the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club?

I first found out about them at WonderCon in Anaheim this year.

When did you join and why did you want to be part of the group?

I started asking questions right away to see if the religious requirements I had would be OK. I wanted to join because one, Boba Fett is my favorite, but also they were really nice when I chatted with them at the con. They were friendly, engaging, and seemed really fun and accepting. I joined the forum right away, became official about 2 1/2 months later, and became a brigade member six months later.

Tell me your personal Star Wars saga. How were you introduced to the films? What role have they played in your life?

I was taken to see “A New Hope” when I was only 6 months old. It was the first movie my parents took me to. Truthfully, I was so young, I don’t ever remember a time without Star Wars. I have always loved Star Wars. I even had the old Atari game, so as far as I can remember, I have been obsessed.

So you’re a huge Boba Fett fan?

I am. I love everything Boba Fett, but as I have learned more about Mandalorian history, I have really come to admire Ursa Wren and Bo-Katan Kryze (of “Star Wars Rebels”).

For those who aren’t as familiar with Star Wars, what is a Mandalorian?

Mandalorians are predominantly human (and) originated on the planet Mandalorian. They have their own culture and language that is different than the basic spoken in much of the Star Wars galaxy. There are, however, other races that chose to join the Mandalorian culture, as one major saying is, “Family is more than blood.”

They have a very civilized culture and a very strong legacy. They can be found on a few different planets throughout history and primarily are a civilization that puts family and honor first. They were widely regarded to be the most feared warriors in the galaxy and had a love for single combat. The most precious item a Mandalorian owned was their armor.

What requirements must potential members meet in order to join the Mandalorian Mercs?

The requirements to join the mercs: basically be over 18 (though we have a junior group that the kiddos can join once their parents are official members), be a member on the forum, and pass the costuming requirements set out by the approval team. This includes Mandalorian armor, other requirements like weapons, and soft goods (textiles).

Before you joined, you were concerned because you are an Orthodox Jew. What were some of your specific concerns?

My biggest concerns were the modesty standards. I am not allowed to touch gentlemen other than my husband or immediate family, and since I am married, I am required to cover my hair in mixed company. I also must keep anything above my elbows and knees, as well as my collarbone, covered and must wear female clothing. I am not allowed to wear pants, only skirts.

I also can’t troop or do events during Shabbat (Friday night around sundown to Saturday night an hour past sundown) so I was worried I wouldn’t get to do anything. Plus, I keep strict kosher (religious dietary laws) and I thought they would find that strange and maybe not accept me.

You said the members of the Mercs were “really accepting,” and that you were able to create a “kit,” or costume, that worked for them and you. Tell me how you arrived at that happy compromise.

I was so lucky. They were! First off, they were all really respectful of my restrictions. I explained to them and, truthfully, the whole clan and members of the approval team had suggestions to help. I also had to have females from the clan help me with placement of my armor since that needs to be done on the body.

The club was a concern since one of the requirements was knee armor. And a flight suit. Since flight suits are pants, I was able to wear leggings, make a skirt that looked like two pieces — loincloth for the front and Kama (command skirt) for the back — and made “shnees” — knee and shin pads — together. That way, I would have the knee requirements covered, but since I can’t show my knees, the approval team could see they were one piece attached to the shins. Also my loincloth and Kama are much longer than normal to cover up my knees.

Mandalorian Mercs encourage a fair amount of creativity and individualism when designing one’s kit. Tell me about the process of creating your armor.

I looked at pictures of the current female mercs. Looked at what I liked and what I didn’t. Picked a color scheme I loved and drew some inspiration sketches. I also wanted to keep it very feminine, so I added some pieces on top of the chest plate that add to the femininity. From there, it was a lot of work to get the weathering right, the color scheme right and to make sure it also wasn’t too flashy where it became immodest and drew attention to certain areas.

Did you have to research or learn about Mandalorian culture and history during this process?

I really learned a lot! Before, I was a fan, but I had no idea of the details in the culture, from the language, to the value system, to the belief system. I was able to do a great deal of research and was continually surprised with the beautiful culture that was very similar to my own.

Does your character have a name and/or backstory?

My character does have a name. It’s S’keara Charev. It’s inspired by the Hebrew words for “Hired Sword.” In my brigade profession, I am an acquisition operative. It’s my job to steal things for the highest bidder, be that Imperial plans, Kyber Crystals, relics, or anything else that needs to be liberated from its current owner.

My character lost her parents young, and was pretty much a loner until she found love. After this, she and her love were accepted by a clan and now, she makes a lucrative living. (It’s also nice when she can throw a wrench in the wheels of the Empire from time to time.)

After you were approved for official membership in the Mercs, you applied for a brigade membership. Tell me more about that.

Fortunately, my armor was designed with the brigade specs in mind (It’s different for each profession.), but I did have to add a lot of tools to my kit. I had to upgrade all my weapons, and everything had to be top quality.

I worked with my brigade marshal to make sure things were going in the right direction. It was a bit of a challenge as all my tools really had to look amazing and being a brigade member is a big honor. After about three months of working on my upgrades, I became a member of the Special Operations Brigade.

The Mercs are grouped into clans. Where is your clan based and what is its name? Is it a large group?

My clan’s name is Manda’galaar. It kind of translates to “Heaven Hawk.” Mandalorians don’t really have a word for heaven so this word is used for soul or spirit. We consider ourselves the “guardians of all things Mandalorian.” We have  68 (I think) members currently and our range is Los Angeles, Orange, San
Bernadino, Riverside, and Ventura counties.

Corinne Finkelstein plays water balloon toss at a picnic with children from a pediatric burn unit at a local hospital.

Charity and volunteer work is a big part of the Mercs’ mission. What are some of the events your clan has participated in?

This is the best part of being a merc! The charity work! I have been able to participate in Star Wars days for a special needs children’s camp, science night at elementary schools, our clan does reading days at the library and children’s events at the zoos. They have even gone to visit sick children in hospitals.

Have you attended any conventions?

I have. Comic Con Palm Springs, Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con, Comic Con Revolution, Ontario. So a few.

How do people tend to react when you guys show up in your armor?

They really like it. The kids go crazy and think it’s the coolest thing. The adults really like it as well and we get a lot of compliments. Sometimes, we look intimidating but we try, especially for the kiddos, to show them we’re nice.

Are there many female members in the Mandalorian Mercs?

There are a lot of females. Being Mandalorian and being a merc are not gender specific. There are a lot of really amazing female kits out there, and I have made some amazing friends from this.

Corinne poses with a group of kids, troopers from the 501st Legion and Rebel Legion, and the Mandalorian Mercs at an event for children with special needs.

As far as you know, you’re the only Orthodox Jewish woman in the mercs and the only Orthodox Jew in the brigades. What is that like for you?

I think it’s a really cool privilege. There are some times that events will pop up on Shabbat and I would really love to go, but can’t. So sometimes, I wish more things were on Sunday, but the whole clan really includes me!

They even gave me a nickname. I was looking for something in one of the baskets of food we were given and I found a granola bar that was kosher. I got really excited and said, “Yes, it’s kosher!” And one of my clanmates said, “That’s it … we will call you the Kosherlorian!”

I love it and it was so cool that they accepted me like that. They ask questions about my religion and culture and now they get super excited when they find something kosher. I have had a couple of them come up and say, “Look, I found the mark, its kosher, you can eat this,” and they are really excited. It’s a truly special group of people.

Corinne does a craft with Princess Leia (Jennifer Joan) at a camp for special needs children.

Do you draw any parallels between Judaism and the ways of the Force?

I do, actually. There is a philosophy in Judaism called “tikkun olam,” which means, “repair the world.” It’s the idea that as a Jewish person, you bear the responsibility not only for you and your family’s wellbeing but for society’s welfare too. I think that the Jedi especially try to do this. You see things in a broader perspective, there is a mystical side to this as well. So I think a lot of ideas parallel.

What does your Rabbi think of your involvement in the Mandalorian Mercs?

I have full support! It’s a chance to do great charity work and acts of kindness for strangers, which is a major tenant of our faith. And it also allows other people to get to know me and maybe learn about my faith since most people don’t really know any Orthodox Jews. As long as I observe what our faith prescribes, then it’s a great thing.

With all the spin-offs Disney is planning for the Star Wars franchise, would you like to see one about Boba Fett and the Mandalorians?

100%, yes!

The animated “Star Wars Rebels” series has delved a bit into Mandalorian culture. Are you a fan of that series?

I love “Rebels” and really like their showing of Mandalorian culture.

You are also a “Lord of the Rings” fan. How were you drawn to J.R.R. Tolkien’s series? How does your love of “LOTR” manifest itself in your life?

“The Silmarillion” is my favorite book ever, but I reread all the books at least once a year. I also love the movies and watch them every chance I can. I also do other sewing projects where I make costumes for horseback, and a lot of my designs could be considered Elvish inspired.

What about Harry Potter? How did you first discover J.K. Rowling’s series?

I discovered the movies first, and as hard as it was, tried to read the books after the movies to avoid spoilers.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Gryffindor.

You also mentioned you love “anything vampire.” What are some of your favorite series/franchises/stories in this genre?

I love Bram Stoker’s original. We also have a vintage-inspired “Nosferatu” poster in our bedroom. I loved “Interview with a Vampire” and “Van Helsing,” as well as a couple others.

What is it about vampire mythology that fascinates you?

I really think it’s fascinating that most cultures have a legend of the vampire in some form. Everyone has a myth of the undead. It’s very interesting.

As a woman, is there anything you would like to see change in the world of fandoms and geek culture?

I think I would really love to see a bit more modesty and respect. What I mean is, women can be awesome regardless of how much skin they show or don’t show. Not everyone has to have this ideal body style with plunging necklines. I would like women to be just as valued (if not more so) for their minds and abilities rather than their looks.

Is there anything else we should know about you in terms of fandoms, personal interests, work, or life?

As far as work, I just started a custom sewing business. I love to ride horses, and if you see someone who has a different religion, ask them about it. I have felt so loved with my clan and others I have trooped with respectfully asking me about my religion. It has been an honor to have them learn about mine while I learned about theirs. I think it promotes tolerance and acceptance, which is desperately needed, especially now.

What’s the next upcoming release you’re looking forward to (books, movies, TV, etc.)?

“The Last Jedi”!

Photos courtesy of Chief Geek Photography, Brent Rudmann, Kristina Gunderson-Rudmann.

About the Geek Goddess Interviews:

No Man’s Land chats weekly with a “Geek Goddess” whose devotion to her fandoms manifests itself in unique and inspiring ways. We’re always looking for interview subjects, so if you know someone who would be ideal, please respond via the comments, private message, or email lavendervroman@gmail.com.

Custom Mickey ear craze ignites fans’ creativity

Jessica Danker, RecyclEARS

Last weekend, we explored the burgeoning fashion trend known as DisneyBounding, in which fans put together outfits based on their favorite Disney characters or attractions.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t delve into another fascinating fashion trend gaining popularity with fans of the theme park.

It’s the custom Mickey ear craze, characterized by Disney enthusiasts who ditch the official mouse ear-shaped headbands and hats that can be purchased at the parks in favor of handmade creations they fashion themselves or buy from savvy crafters.

If you’ve visited a Disney theme park lately, you’ve probably spotted people sporting these custom-made pieces, which range from elegant floral arrangements to elaborate headdresses themed after favorite rides, characters, movies, or even sports teams and non-Disney properties.

You may have even wondered, “Where can I get those?”

Susan Mitchell in Dole Whip ears, purchased from Etsy. Gwenyth Rooney in Marie ears, and Christy Rooney in Perdita ears, custom-made by Susan.

An Etsy search for the phrase “Mickey ears” yields 46,018 results, so you can see this trend isn’t just a blip on the Disney fashion radar. (If you happen to be looking for official, Disney-made ears, you can find them here.)

I interviewed five makers of custom Mickey ears, ranging from passionate amateurs to seasoned professionals. You can read about their motivations and methods below, as well as gawk at tons of stunning photos of their clever and colorful creations.

You may even be inspired to tackle the challenge of crafting some ears for yourself, family, or friends.

According to these ear makers, it’s an excellent way to express your love of Disney, tap into your creative side, bask in the attention to detail Walt’s company is celebrated for, save a little money, or simply provide yourself with headwear that better matches your DisneyBound ensemble.

Jessica Danker, RecyclEARS

Jessica Danker, RecyclEARS

Jessica Danker, of online shop RecyclEARS, has elevated custom ear-making into an art form with elaborate creations she crafts from recycled Mickey Mouse ears.

The Nampa, Idaho, resident’s “ear hat” business was sparked by headwear she designed for a family trip to one of Disney’s Star Wars Weekends.

“I wanted something unique for characters to sign on our vacation,” Jessica said.

One of her very first designs was a Darth Maul hat, which she blocked in felt herself, instead of her current approach of using recycled ear hat blanks.

“I’ve always loved to create, and had so many ideas, but what could I personally do with all those ear hats?” she said. “Creating for others gave me an outlet for my passions, and a reason to create.”

Four and a half years and more than 400 unique designs later, Jessica’s business is booming to the point that there’s no more room to grow unless she hires an assistant and raises prices, which she is loath to do.

Jessica’s handmade ear hats can take anywhere from eight to 40 hours to fashion. The process begins with a chat with the client, followed by a design and a sketch. Jessica then preps the ear hat blanks, “removing embroidery and the binding,” or constructs the headband.

“Once they’re ready, I break down the sketch into individual pieces and cut them out in felt. Those are then painted and applied, and the binding is reattached.”

The final step is cleaning and packaging the ears for shipping. Jessica primarily works with felt, acrylic paints, and fabric adhesives.

“I go through more fine-tipped paint brushes than I can count,” she said.

Though she never formally studied art, Jessica inherited her creative inclinations from a “wildly creative and talented” aunt who taught her to sew.

“That led to a passion for creating elaborate and detailed costumes and props. I have a chronic case of ‘I-bet-I-could-do-that-itis,’ which has led to lots of trial and error experimentation.”

Jessica said her favorite designs tend to be themed after Disney attractions. These have included the Haunted Mansion, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Space Mountain, and It’s a Small World.

“I also really enjoy working with some of the Disney classic films. My favorites quite often include modifications to the overall shape of the ear hats as well.”

A lover of all things Disney since childhood, Jessica often visited Disneyland with her parents, who had fond memories of honeymooning at the park. She now shares “the magic” with her husband and two daughters.

According to Jessica, the “driving force” behind the custom Mickey ear trend is fans’ desire to “choose and create something unique and meaningful.”

The fad has produced a demand so broad even Disney cannot possibly fill it.

“The breadth and the scope of characters created over the decades by Disney is so vast that it would be impossible for them to anticipate and create ears to satisfy the desires of all the guests at their parks,” she said.

In the future, Jessica aspires to “divide her time” between custom orders and creating stock to feature at events such as WonderCon, the D23 Expo, and Dapper Day Expo. She’d also like to branch out into Disney-themed fascinators and flat caps.

“It brings me so much joy to create something that means something special to someone.”

Spider ears by Susan Mitchell.

Susan Mitchell, ear-making matriarch

A longtime Disney fan and annual passholder, Susan Mitchell didn’t actually own a pair of Mickey Mouse ears until 2016.

After her first official ear purchase at the parks, the Palmdale, Calif., resident quickly became bored with wearing the same pair on every visit. So she bought another pair, thinking two options would be enough.

“I was wrong,” she said.

In search of a pair of ears to complement a favorite Belle shirt she planned to wear for a special lunch at Ariel’s Grotto, Susan discovered the world of custom ears sold on Etsy.

“After that trip, I had the ear-making bug,” she said. “I love themes and have found this new avenue for theme-related creativity so inspiring and satisfying.”

Ears by Susan Mitchell, modeled by her granddaughter Gwenyth Rooney.

Indeed, Susan has become the designated ear maker for both immediate and extended family.

Her creations include a pair of Tsum Tsum ears for her granddaughter; an array of fall-themed ears featuring sunflowers, sparkly acrylic leaves, florals, and pumpkins; spider and web ears for Halloween; and custom creations for a recent family DisneyBound, featuring characters such as Marie from “The Aristocats,” Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Tinkerbell, Peter Pan, and Perdita from “101 Dalmations.”

Susan said she finds inspiration for her designs on Pinterest and Etsy, “but I also love to come up with new ideas. Now, when my husband and I shop, ear-shaped items seem to leap into our bags.”

When it comes to materials, she’s used felt, flannel, cotton fabric, glitter foam sheets, tulle, lace, faux fur, ribbons, leather, flowers, wire, trinkets, foam board, batting, stuffing, feathers, holiday decorations, pom poms, wooden skewers (to make a Pan flute), cup hooks (for Captain Hook’s hook), and “other things I can’t remember.”

Among the attractions of making her own ears is the “satisfaction” she derives from “attention to detail (one of the main reasons I love Disney).”

“My fingers tingle, my brain whirls, and my iPad opens when I’m inspired by the season change or an outfit that a family member has.”

Gwenyth and Gavin Rooney model grandmother Susan’s custom Halloween ears.

For those who may be interested in following in Susan’s ear-making footsteps, she advises watching a lot of how-to videos “to ascertain the different types of ears and the different levels of perfection achieved.”

The reaction of those she creates for is payment enough for her creative labors, she said.

“I love how excited and happy my family members get about designing and wearing the ears.”

Christmas ears designed by Rebecca Mettler.

Rebecca Mettler, @earsbybecka

Inspired by a couple pairs of custom Mickey ears she purchased for her sister and herself, Rebecca Mettler transformed a hobby she indulged in during her infant son’s naps into a business.

“I loved seeing everyone’s custom ears at Disneyland and on social media so I was inspired,” she said. “I knew people sold them on shops so that’s how I decided I would sell mine.”

Rebecca specializes in simple yet elegant floral ears based on Disney characters, sports teams, and cute color combinations.

She started her shop on Mercari two months ago and has already sold about 25 pairs of ears with more orders in the pipeline. You can view her designs on her Instagram, @earsbybecka.

A lifelong Disney fan, Rebecca said her father would save money all year to treat her family to an annual Christmastime trip.

“It was our family tradition that I am now continuing to carry out with them and my own little family.”

When she began making ears, Rebecca found inspiration on Pinterest, but now dreams up her own design ideas or chats with customers to “toss ideas back and forth.”

She purchases premade headbands, then adds different colors and styles of flowers and ribbons using hot glue.

Rebecca said her ears are more affordable than the official theme park offerings, “and mine are unique.”

“I love seeing how the end result turns out. Turning a blank pair of ears into something cool!”

Dawn Branch models a pair of her own Gaston ears.

Dawn Branch, the “crafty one”

It may be hard to believe, but Dawn Branch never set foot inside Disneyland until she was 24.

Around the time of her first trip, she purchased her first official set of Mickey ears and also noticed and coveted the custom ears worn by other park-goers.

Dawn’s first ear creations were born out of a need to save money and to coordinate with outfits for whatever DisneyBound theme she and her friends had selected.

“Sometimes friends would ask about ears for their cosplays,” she said. “I get asked as ‘the crafty one.’”

After worrying over whether her inaugural pair of Cinderella ears would stand up to wear and tear, Dawn began purchasing packs of “generic ears” online to eliminate further structural anxiety.

Her typical materials are glue, fabric paint, and felt. She searches Pinterest and Google for ideas, “but really the stories lend themselves to design inspirations. If I’m making ears, I usually know exactly what I want already.”

Dawn said her headgear has elicited comments from Disney cast members who “like seeing the creativity other people bring” to a variation on the licensed theme park merchandise.

The beauty of fan-created ears is that they offer a more varied park experience, she said.

“I generally don’t like the park ears quite as much.”

Without custom options, “everyone will have the same ears!”

Jennifer Mitchell and daughter Emma model Haunted Mansion and “Doctor Who” ears while posing with Minnie Mouse.

Jennifer Mitchell, “complete Disney fanatic”

Jennifer Mitchell was on one of her annual Disneyland trips when she spotted a woman exiting the security line wearing “the cutest pink and yellow mini roses on some ‘ears’ on a headband.”

Jennifer (who is no relation to Susan Mitchell) inquired about them and discovered the woman with the pink and yellow rose ears had made them herself.

“I thought, ‘Heck, I could do that,’” Jennifer said.

The Henderson, Nev., resident is a “complete Disney fanatic” who grew up in Southern California and enjoyed annual trips to Disneyland.

After her family moved to Northern California, her mother kept the tradition alive, packing her five kids into a station wagon for an annual pilgrimage that offered an escape from a stressful situation at home.

When she was 12, Jennifer began channeling her sewing skills into the creation of matching T-shirts for her family to wear to the theme park. She now visits Disneyland with her husband and their five children.

A couple of years after she spotted the woman with the custom floral ears, Jennifer decided to try her hand at making a couple pairs for herself and her daughter to wear on a special Disneyland trip they’d worked hard to save up for.

Some online research and a couple of trial attempts yielded three fine sets of ears themed after “Doctor Who,” the Haunted Mansion, and Minnie Mouse.

Jennifer began making more ears for family members and as gifts for friends.

“I’ve made Star Wars and Wall-E and Marvel themed ones. I’ve done really simple and plain, and big and sparkly!” she said.

“I even made some for a ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan with the ‘ring’ on the ears in a woodsy Hobbit-type style. People just love them!”

Eventually, Jennifer began earning money from her ear-making endeavors, which included a custom Princess Tiana-themed order for a customer across the country.

Jennifer and her daughter, Emma, even made a batch of about a dozen ears to give away to strangers on a Disneyland trip.

“It was an amazing, fun bonding trip for us and it was even better because we were able to make people happy with the ears we’d made for them,” Jennifer said. “It was like being part of the magic, just a little bit.”

Jennifer favors a ¼-inch metal ear-shaped headband, which she typically wraps in black ribbon. The center of the ears are made of foam, covered in fabric, and stuffed with batting to make them “a little poofy.”

She embellishes her ears in satin, cotton, fur, lace, sparkly fabric cut from clothing found at thrift stores, ribbons, beads, pearls, buttons, pieces of broken jewelry, and fabric flowers she makes herself.

Her inspiration comes mostly from “the park itself, the rides and characters, but also in whatever people like. The ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ ears were sure not Disney, but it’s fun to mix the two and show the wearers’ personality by creating a hybrid of two of their loves.”

Jennifer urges fans who are new to making ears to “make a practice pair first.”

“They’re quite inexpensive to make, so if the first ones don’t turn out just right, just try again!”

For Jennifer, the appeal of custom Mickey ears comes in the connection it creates with the theme park and other Disney fans.

“I just love Disneyland and when I make a pair for someone and they wear them in the park, it’s like a tiny piece of me gets to go! So I guess it’s selfish, too. … It’s a great and easy way to interact with other Disney fans — and I’ve even talked with folks who have made (their own ears). We share our DIY experiences and a little about ourselves. It makes a day at the park even better.”

But wait … there are more amazing custom ears below. Enjoy this gallery of gorgeous creations by the ear makers featured in this post.

By Jessica Danker, RecyclEARS:

By Rebecca Mettler, @earsbybecka:

By Susan Mitchell: