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Thomas Spanos' passion for making costumes must have been obvious from the start. As a young boy in suburban Bloomingdale, Spanos went trick-or-treating one year donning a homemade robot costume — complete with a porthole helmet, blue plastic raygun and shoulder bandoleer — that would have made the designers from Lost in Space jealous.
"My parents were always very supportive," said Spanos. "We never had store-bought costumes; everything was handmade."
These days, Spanos, an Oak Park resident, plies his creative skills as a technical illustrator for Encyclopedia Britannica, a job that feels "a lot like being in college every day."
But when he's not rendering 3D animations or conducting research for an entry, he can often be found striking a markedly more sinister pose.
Spanos, 40, is a member of the 501st Legion, a volunteer-led organization of Star Wars fans who manifest their love of the films by dressing up as characters from that galaxy "far, far away."
To be specific, the group, known familiarly as "Vader's Fist," is comprised exclusively of villains who have appeared in Star Wars movies and the various other media (including novels, video games and animated films) that followed.
"The darker, evil characters seem to strike a chord with other individuals," said Spanos, referring to his malevolent brethren.
In addition to peacocking at sci-fi conventions and Star Wars-related events, the group's active membership spends time volunteering at hospitals and with charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Spanos joined the legion about 10 years ago after he entered a contest at a Star Wars convention dressed as the vile Clone Emperor.
The character seemed to be a natural fit; like Spanos, the Emperor — an antagonist from the mid-'90s comic book series Dark Empire — was a tall, pale and stoic figure who bore a shock of long red hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"He wasn't a wizened old man; he was in his youth … and I thought that would be a character that I could make a costume for," he said.
Spanos had spent a few months developing the Emperor's attire, which included an aluminum-casted light saber and a cube-shaped device known as a "holocron" which could be likened to an otherworldly iPod.
His costume took first place in the villain category, and shortly after, Spanos applied for membership with the 501st.
But enlisting with the Fist would prove harder than expected. Membership officials from the group initially turned Spanos away — on the grounds that the lesser known Clone Emperor had not appeared in the original films.
"They said, 'Take a hike with your crazy costume,'" he recalled.
Unfazed, Spanos continued to press for admission, and after arguing his case before the organization's founders, he was eventually admitted into the legion.
Since then, Spanos has created numerous other costumes and props and has appeared as the Emperor and as other characters at countless conventions, charity events and Star Wars-related happenings around the world.
He now serves as the legion's membership officer, responsible for approving new costumes and characters and networking with the group's 5,000 active members.
"I count him as one of the pillars of the 501st and a reason why the club has risen to its current height," said the group's founder, Albin Johnson.
The Emperor's toils have not gone unnoticed
Drawing inspiration from comic book images and film stills, the process of creating a Star Wars costume from scratch can sometimes be an exercise in interpretation, Spanos said.
He admitted some of his costumes have taken as much as six years to finish — but the creative process, he said, is key.
"You can buy components of a costume," he said. "If you want to do a storm trooper costume, you could possibly put one together for under $600. My costumes probably don't cost that much at all in materials — the cost is really in the years spent building."
With no better sources to work from, artists developing Star Wars products in the past few years have used Spanos' designs for the Clone Emperor as reference material in toy packaging, comics and other merchandise distributed by Lucas Films, the company behind the franchise.
The up-and-coming costumer became officially embedded in the Star Wars universe when, in 2006, authors of the comic book series Star Wars: Legacy used Spanos' likeness as the basis for Ganner Krieg, a heroic character who has since been memorialized in action figure form.
That honor, said Spanos, has made his experience a unique one in the world of costuming.
"It's a very nice thing," he said.
Spanos said the greatest reward that has come from his life as a Star Wars costumer has been the sense of camaraderie experienced among fellow enthusiasts, as well as the recognition he has received from the artistic community that surrounds the Star Wars industry.
"I've learned from them, and we've influenced each other," he said. "I think it's beautiful, like a chain reaction."
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