I originally published this piece on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog back in August 2019, and with The Book of Boba Fett debuting today on Disney+, I’ve dusted it off and am reprinting it here with some minor edits. Purchases made via Bookshop.org might result in a commission.
In 2019, Disney debuted its first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian, and followed it up with a second season in 2020. The show takes place a couple of years after Return of the Jedi, and follows “long gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy far from the authority of the New Republic.” That lone gunfighter strikes a familiar profile for fans of the franchise: the Mandalorians were famed as warriors and bounty hunters, and have particularly attracted a devoted fan base of readers and costumers.
The Mandalorians have long been a major fixture of the Star Wars universe. In the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, Donald F. Gult described him in the novelization as a figure “dressed in a weapon-covered, armored spacesuit, the kind worn by a group of evil warriors defeated by the Jedi Knights during the Clone Wars.”
Following the introduction of Darth Vader in A New Hope, George Lucas wanted to bring in a new villain for the sequel, and repurposed Vader's original origins as an intergalactic bounty hunter for Fett. “The Boba Fett character is really an early version of Darth Vader,” he told J.W. Rinzler in The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, “He is also very much like the man-with-no-name from the Sergio Leone westerns.”
The character’s design went through a number of changes during the film’s preproduction, according to artist Joe Johnson. “Boba Fett was part of a force we called supertroopers; they were like these high-tech fighting units and they all looked alike. That eventually evolved into a single bounty hunter.” An early version of Fett appeared in 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special, and debuted in his present form two years later, in The Empire Strikes Back, played by actor Jeremy Bulloch. Fett also appeared in The Return of the Jedi, only to quickly face an unceremonious end.
The character, anonymous behind his mask and array of weapons, radiates danger and suspense. He was mysterious, and more importantly, cool. As the Star Wars Expanded Universe grew in the 1990s, various authors found ways to delve into his backstory, spinning out tales of his work as a bounty hunter. He appeared in Steve Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, the novel that bridged The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as in a pair of short stories in Kevin J. Anderson’s Tales of the Bounty Hunters and Tales from Jabba’s Palace anthologies, the latter of which answered a long-simmering question: how did he escape from his apparent death in Return of the Jedi?
When A.C. Crispin explored the origins of Han Solo in her trilogy about the character, Fett was naturally part of the criminal underworld that shaped Han Solo. And in 1997, K.W. Jeter featured the character in his Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, set in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi. As Star Wars costuming grew in popularity, Boba Fett became a popular costume for cosplayers — including Jeremy Bullock, who became a member of the 501st Legion, attending conventions and events dressed as his character.
Along the way, other authors had begun to delve into the culture that Boba Fett emerged from. During Marvel’s run of Star Wars comics in the 1980s, David Michelinie introduced the planet Mandalore and its backstory as a society of warriors who fought during the Clone Wars. Author Kevin J. Anderson later incorporated the planet in his Tales of the Jedi comic series, set thousands of years before the events in the films, where he revealed that the Mandalorians were an early adversary for the Jedi Knights.
While Mandalore had a face and a bit of a backstory, the greatest contribution to the story of the Mandalorians came from author Karen Traviss, who incorporated the culture into her Republic Commando series. A tie-in to the video game, her novels were one of several that bridged the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In the former, Lucas made an interesting revelation: Boba Fett was really a clone of another intergalactic bounty hunter, Jango Fett, who wore a set of Mandalorian armor and who was the originator for a vast Clone Army that was commissioned for the Galactic Republic.
In her novels, Traviss explored the motivations of soldiers that made up the clone army, developing a rich backstory for the Mandalorian culture. Bred for a singular purpose, they later learned about their genetic heritage from the Mandalorian instructors brought in to help train them. Traviss would later explain how she came to incorporate the culture deeply into her novels:
“I decided that Mando fighting skill was so much a part of their culture, language, and philosophy that they’d teach all of that to their lads, especially as the [Republic Commandos] were Jango’s clones; they also saw Mando identity as being a really important spiritual thing to pass on to their trainees. It was one of those accidental inventions born of necessity that gave me one of the best storylines.”
Along the way, she developed an entire language and history for the culture, and incorporated it into her novels. She wrote extensively about the language for StarWars.com, allowing fans to learn the language themselves. In an interesting twist of fate, the culture that Traviss envisioned jumped into the real world: fans, led by Tom Hutchens, created the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club, in which cosplayers created their own, unique costumes that drew inspiration from Traviss’s work. It’s since become one of the largest Star Wars costuming groups in the world.
Traviss would later stop writing Star Wars novels: the launch of the Clone Wars TV series brought with it differences: depicting the Mandalorian culture that had a militarized history, but which was now deeply pacifistic, something she wasn’t able to reconcile with the culture and story she created. During the events of the TV series, militant factions threatened that long peace, and eventually came under the rule of the Empire. The Mandalorians would later be depicted (along with the originally-imagined Imperial Supercommandos) in Star Wars Rebels, which introduced other characters, like Sabine Wren, who joined the growing resistance movement against the Empire. Other traces of the Mandalorians would pop up in other stories: a set of armor (later explained as an artifact from the Old Republic) pops up in the background in Solo: A Star Wars Story in crime lord Dryden Vos’s personal collection.
The intrigue in the Mandalorians might have continued on the big screen. On the eve of the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, word broke that James Mangold (Logan) would write and direct a new standalone film featuring the franchise’s famous bounty hunter, Boba Fett. But as the box office returns for Solo underwhelmed, Disney put future standalone film projects on ice, and as the company began plans for its own streaming service, Lucasfilm decided instead to focus on developing its first standalone TV series, The Mandalorian.
That series has added some depth to the world of the Mandalorians, and has brought more of their numbers to the live-action world. The series follows Din Djarin, a foundling who was brought into a more extreme clan of Mandalorians, one that adheres rigorously to a code. By the second season, he encounters others as he works to find a safe haven for an alien infant, and learns that his worldview doesn't necessarily line up with that of others. Moreover, we learn that the movement is still fighting to regain control of their homeworld, in the form of a couple of characters brought into real life by Katee Sackhoff, Bo-Katan Kryze.
The success of The Mandalorian has brought the characters to newfound popularity, and we'll be seeing plenty more in the years to come. The Book of Boba Fett brings the story back to the most famous Mando of them all, while another spinoff will bring back another animated character, Sabine Wren. And the finale of The Mandalorian's second season teases even greater involvement from the group in the upcoming third season (which is rumored to be bringing in cosplayers for some scenes.
The future for the Mandalorians in the Star Wars universe is a bright one, and as popular as they've been in the past, they'll undoubtably rise to new heights in the coming years.
The Book of Boba Fett premieres today, December 29th on Disney+. I'll be recapping the series weekly for supporting subscribers: sign up here to get those issues.