One thing struck me after spending a full day on the convention floor of Star Wars Celebration Europe: Star Wars is desperately in need of new iconography. Everywhere you turned you saw the same ten or so images staring back at you - the same Vader and Stormtrooper helmets, the same R2D2, the same Darth Maul face tattoos. The same schlubby dudes in brown robes holding lightsabers. One of the powerful things about Star Wars is that it has some of the most striking iconography of any modern story, but at the same time that iconography has such a gravitational pull that it ends up being the only things we see. In a universe filled with a diverse array of weird aliens and cool characters, it is this handful of images that keep popping up, whether on merchandise or on cosplayers.
But in this sea of Stormtroopers and Jedi and Vaders were a few shining sparks of colorful excitement. They cut through the sameness with verve, capturing your eye and your imagination. And they're mostly characters from The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels.
Part of what makes them stand out is that because they're cartoon characters they have a brighter palette than many of the movie characters. They just pop, and when you see a Sabine, with her purple Mandalorian helmet, or an Ahsoka, with her bold head tails, walk by you have to pay attention. Sure, both characters are based on movie designs - Sabine apes Boba Fett, while Ahsoka is the same race as Shaak Ti - but they either look different enough to thrill or they're representing races that few fans otherwise cosplay as (all due respect to Hera, but you see a lot of Twi'leks on the show floor).
More than their colorful nature, these characters (and other Rebels and Clone Wars favorites, including the far more interesting looking Clone Troopers) represent something new in the Star Wars universe, a universe that has come to be defined so narrowly. At one time Star Wars was a universe of infinite possibility, but in the wake of The Force Awakens it feels small and diminished. JJ Abrams insisted on retreading old ground, and judging by how many people show up to conventions in samey Star Wars outfits, that's what the fans want. But the cartoons push the envelope while respecting the spirit of what went before.
I'm not a cartoon guy, but in the last two years Star Wars Rebels has become the thing that makes me feel the most alive in Star Wars since the first time I saw Return of the Jedi. While the Prequel films had plenty of invention - we can never pretend that Lucas and his team of designers failed us on the visual front - few of those characters connected beyond the aesthetic. Clone Wars and Rebels have taken many of those characters and breathed life into them, and it has taken many of the designs that were introduced in the Prequels and made them feel immediate and exciting in a way that the stuffy films never could. I'm at the point where I might put Rebels, as a whole, as my third favorite Star Wars thing after the original film and The Empire Strikes Back. That's how good it is, and that's how fundamentally Star Wars it is. Hell, it's so good that as I catch up with the second season - which deals heavily with Clone Wars fallout - I want to go back and watch that earlier cartoon, which I had initially dismissed.
Seeing new designs and new creatures and new races in the Rogue One footage gave me hope, as did the descriptions of the new planets, but it's still Clone Wars and Rebels that are the Star Wars properties pushing everything forward. I think Lucasfilm acknowledged that by putting Clone Wars character Saw Gerrera in Rogue One, and with that animation-to-live action barrier broken, it seems likely that we'll see more characters crossing over. Lucasfilm's great lab of story and characters can begin feeding its results into the 'main' universe, bringing in new blood and new excitement.
Once upon a time all the stuff that wasn't a Star Wars movie was just extraneous junk. Today the cartoons feel like the true beating heart of it all, and I look forward to the day when more Star Wars fans recognize this and we see as many Zebs on the show floor as we see Chewies. Hell, I'd settle for seeing a Chopper next to the BB-8s and R2D2s.