Over the last 10 years of collecting vintage Star Wars, one thing that is now firmly rooted in my mind is that if I had it as a kid, then everyone must have had it. I can recall most of the collection I used to own, but every now and again I spot an item that brings back memories. I also know for certain that I never saw items such as Marvel UK’s Star Wars weekly comics but I vividly recall using a pencil or coin on Letraset sheets as I firmly rubbed over a character such as Luke or a Stormtrooper to proudly peel back a figure minus a head, hand or blaster. Placing the sheet back down again I tried, usually unsuccessfully, to complete the scene. I’d then get bad tempered and destroy the scene with a very sharpened pencil point!
Recently I was enthralled when interviewing Craig Spivey on Letraset items and it got me wondering as to where did I get them from and surely they’d be easy to acquire today to complete another run?
To answer this question I have leaned heavily on fellow ‘Beyond the Toys’ vintage collector Craig who has provided much of this information and most of the images in this article.
Letraset started life in London in 1959 before quickly moving to Ashford in Kent with a purchase of a new style printing press allowing for printing of dry-rub down lettering typefaces for media publications.
In conducting research for this article I found many of these similar images which brought back memories of Art classes in primary school. I’d completely forgotten about these sheets. Very clever of them to include multiples of certain letters to prevent angry customers!
Around 1964 Letraset began to expand into the children’s educational market by creating many products to help children to learn their ABC’s. Check out this website for more information on this.
It was in 1968, however, when the first Action Transfers were created and these were clearly aimed at collectors. I can understand wanting to recreate scenes such as “The Battle of Britain” but the 1968 Winter Olympics was surely a stretch too far?
No, they are not ski-ing Stormtroopers.
During the 1970’s Letraset acquired the license to popular characters including DC, Marvel and Disney began their first cereal tie-in promotion with Kellogg’s. The advert proudly states that “The author has finished all the words, but the artist has left some pictures incomplete…” Quality Control has gotten a lot better since then.
Star Wars was released in late 1977 in the UK, but the hype was already here. Letraset was a cheap, yet quality, product that could be quickly brought to the market. They had already met the demand with comparable licensees so it was a no-brainer. The first introduction was three key scenes from the original Star Wars with a lot of spoilers included both in text and graphic format.
As expected sales of these sets of 3 rocketed and Letraset found it difficult to keep up. They had purchased a company based in Italy that used a different type of printing and production was switched to Europe. This has led to some variants to hunt down if you are so inclined!
These were printed in England using a technique known as rotary gravure and the most obvious difference is the GK247 marking on the sheets. Rotary gravure printing was a relatively new technique at the time which allowed for mass production of printing on a thin, glossy type paper.
Although these state they were printed in England, they were in fact re-printed in Italy using a new technique called litho printing. This was a cheaper manufacturing process which used a matt type finish. They are marked as L46 and have a slightly different layout.
These Action Transfer sets were also released in France, Germany and Italy and had their own versions of the counter display box. You will notice from the images below that large stickers had to be applied to cover the English text of Star Wars.
I have no memory of these kits in stores so I am going to say with 100% certainty this is not how I acquired mine as a kid. It certainly wasn’t in one of the Star Wars weekly promotions as there were no comic book stores near me, which came next from issue 9 of the vintage Star Wars weekly comic dated 5th April 1978.
To win one of the 50 Letraset scenes given away all you had to do was complete the missing words and send in the form. The first 50 correct entries would have received a kit. It would have been tougher ensuring you got it there for the closing date of April 19th! How many would have struggled with question 4: Luke Skywalker’s friend on Tatooine was called ….?”
Here is an advert for the competition
An interesting side note is that the three scenes from the backdrops were reused on these Argentinian bootleg pencil cases.
In keeping with food themes, Letraset joined forces with Wall’s who were known for their famous sausages and cheesey TV adverts! By sending in wrappers of sausages children could receive a small strip of 12 different transfers. There are 4 of these transfers to collect as variants and these were mailed out with details advertising a new competition. These are a combination of being printed in England and Italy with differing techniques as mentioned above.
It is now 2 years since this extraordinary photograph appeared on the Beyond the Toys Facebook group. This is a store in Southampton that were running a Wall’s promotion. The large C-3PO standees in the background were unknown and appear sadly lost to time. You can see a row of shelf talkers featuring the promotion. These are also incredibly rare.
The star prize was a ten day holiday in Florida for a family of four or a £2500 cash alternative.
2nd prize was one of fifty special Star Wars digital watches.
3rd prize was one of 1000 Star Wars posters.
So, what is it with Letraset and food companies? Wimpy, a now mostly non-existent UK fast food chain ran a promotion with a give away with some of their meal deals.
Anything to do with the Wimpy promotion is very tough to track down. The transfer sheets are not too difficult to find and have the Wimpy logo on them.
Could Wimpy be the source of my transfers? Well, I do remember going to a Star Wars birthday party at a Wimpy in Newcastle around 1984. Lucky kid, but that is my only recollection of visiting any fast food chains. I would have had to be under 3 years old when these were out and I had already turned vegetarian by 1980, so there’s no way I’d qualify for any kind of ‘meal deal’ so I’d have to say no on this one too.
According to action-transfers.com these transfers were often stapled as pairs and were then taped inside the magazine. This prevented those thieving schoolkids from collecting transfers when visiting the paper shop!
Similar to Marvel I have no memory of any kind of magazine as a kid, other than The Beano annual.
This image from Rob Lipparelli in the same Beyond the Toys facebook group connected the dots for some collectors as to the availability of transfers abroad. This is a single transfer which was included in Moranga candy boxes. Moranga had included small Star Wars toys in some of their boxes but Letraset inclusions were not well known. You can just see the red Japanese kanjis script on the wrapper.
It is noted that these are printed in England. It is known that Letraset did have a base in Japan and imported product over there which makes perfect sense as to the existence of these premiums. It’s another possibility that I can strike from my list though.
Another food premium! Shreddies united with Letraset to include free transfers inside the bags. On the reverse of the boxes were 4 different scenes for kids to apply their transfers to. As Shreddies were relatively healthy, minimal salt and sugar but probably lead paint chippings back then, I am very certain that we would have had these as a kid. My mother would never buy cereal that either had too much sugar (Frosties were out) or too expensive so Shreddies ticked both boxes. There are two different box sizes (10 and 15 oz) but finding these are incredibly difficult.
Gus Lopes has a rare treat in that he owns one still sealed! 4 different action transfers to collect and 4 different scenes printed on the boxes – very reminiscent of the earlier large Action Figure Transfer sets. For me, this is mystery over and I would have had many of these assuming I got there before my sister did.
And the four scenes available.
Scene Two: Escape from Mos Eisley
Scene Three: Breakout at Prison Block
Scene Four: Escape from the Death Star
Despite having no access to comics and other printed materials, I was absolutely devastated to learn years later that Letraset produced a lot of stationery items – and I had plenty of other ranges as a kid but none of these.
My favourite from this range has to be the X-Wing folder and I will try to track one down to keep my Topps trading cards safe. From top left we have a writing pad; R2-D2’s memory bank containing times tables on the reverse; a scrapbook; a space writing kit containing envelopes, a writing pad, a stormtrooper manual and some letraset transfers; a stormtrooper manual; a Rebel Jotter; an exercise book containing intergalactic space translations on the reverse (well, European languages if we’re honest); envelopes and a blank book for space notes. Basically, a lot of blank pages with amazing covers!
Craig managed to pick up a promo notebook from the recent propstore auction which I know he’s been hunting for a long time. This was given away to vendors back in 1977 and is a real surprise that it has survived this length of time.
The final items from the Star Wars branded Letraset range are smaller versions of the original larger Action Transfers. These are 10 smaller panorama sets which were rushed to meet the huge demand, but if anything the quality is even better. They give a pretty good overview to the whole story and were also available in French, German and Italian translations.
Here is my favourite scene. You can’t tell me that Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni were not inspired by this when directing Chapter 2 of The Mandalorian, just look at all those Jawas!
Finally, the bootleggers once again borrowed the art from Letraset to create these three badges. That’s now an awful lot from one licensee to keep you busy hunting.
Hope you enjoyed this article, huge thanks to Craig Spivey and Part Two on The Empire Strikes Back will be available soon.
Photos (c) Craig Spivey, Action Transfers.com, theswca.com, Rob Liparelli, Andy Preston, propstore auctions, Gus Lopez, Craig Stevens