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a woman stands holding her gun in purple mandalorian armor Photo: Andrew Liptak

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Star Wars inspired Mandalorian fans, then Mandalorian fans inspired Star Wars

How cosplay cleared the way for Clone Wars and The Mandalorian

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On the final day of the 2019 Star Wars Celebration, Jon Favreau took the stage to present the first-ever footage of the first-ever live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. But before the sizzle reel rolled, the Iron Man director pointed out into the darkened auditorium: “We’ve got the Mandalorian Mercs here.” The crowd was already going wild, but now it was roaring.

Months earlier, the director had revealed the first details of The Mandalorian on Instagram: The series would follow “a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy far from the authority of the New Republic,” he wrote. The reveal was an electrifying one for fans with a long-lasting relationship to Star Wars. The Mandalorians played a pivotal role in the universe from its earliest days, but over the years, dedicated fans, cosplayers, and writers worked to broaden the culture from its origins in the Expanded Universe to a key fixture of the mega-franchise. Without that passion, which prompted the creation of numerous comics and novels, it’s unlikely that Favreau and Dave Filoni, the writer, director, and producer who shepherded most of Lucasfilm’s post-Prequel Trilogy animated series, would have a new direction for Star Wars to go in.

The Mandalorians emerged out of George Lucas’ development process for The Empire Strikes Back. “The Boba Fett character is really an early version of Darth Vader,” Lucas recounted in The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. “He is also very much like the man-with-no-name from the Sergio Leone Westerns.” Designed by art director Joe Johnston (who later went on to direct The Rocketeer), Boba Fett debuted at the 1978 San Anselmo Country Fair parade, just months before he appeared in the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special, and years before The Empire Strikes Back actually hit theaters. The character became a larger part of Star Wars culture in the Empire novelization, in which Donald F. Glut described him as “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.”

Despite Boba Fett’s unceremonious end in The Return of the Jedi, his popularity meant that he didn’t stay dead for long. Authors and artists tinkered with Fett’s backstory and the Mandalorian culture from which he came. In 1982, Marvel Comics brought the franchise’s principal characters to Mandalore in Star Wars #68, and in Tales of the Jedi, Kevin J. Anderson delved into Mandalore’s deeper backstory and culture, establishing the Mandalorians as ancient crusaders and foes of the Jedi. The foundation for a new major culture within the Star Wars universe had been set.

Boba Fett was an immediate hit when he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. Fans in the 1980s immediately wanted to be the mysterious character, buying the Halloween costume put out by manufacturer Ben Cooper, or made their own costumes to make it happen. One such fan, David Rhea, went out and built his own version of the suit after seeing the character in theaters. “I went and bought an old Army helmet from the kid’s store,” he says, adding that he crafted the rest of the headgear out of cardboard and a wind guard from a motorcycle helmet.

David Rhea in costume as Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett
David Rhea in costume as Boba Fett.
Photo courtesy of Brian Sims

Others hustled to make as exact a copy as they could manage. In the mid-1990s, Art Andrews started musing about the character on the Replica Prop Forum, an online gathering place for builders looking to make replicas of props and costumes from their favorite movies and TV shows. His initial discussions quickly overwhelmed the forum, which got him into some trouble with the site’s owners, who had to pay for server space. Andrews convinced them to “help me create my own site for Boba Fett, so they helped me create The Dented Helmet,” he says.

The Dented Helmet became the definitive resource for all things related to Boba Fett costuming. Members exhaustively researched the apparel, tracking down all of the parts that the costume designers reused; shared tips on paint schemes; sold one another parts; and worked to replicate the character’s iconic costume for themselves. “The passion for Boba Fett is so crazy,” Andrews says, noting that, early in the fandom’s internet life span, the bounty hunter was one of the few characters to have entire websites dedicated to his mythology and masked visage.

When Lucasfilm re-released the original trilogy in 1997 (with a couple of extra seconds of Boba Fett footage in A New Hope), and then released the prequel trilogy (introducing Jango Fett and establishing that Boba was his clone), the Star Wars costuming scene exploded. The return of Star Wars brought about renewed interest in the franchise, and led to the rise of major costuming groups. One such group, the 501st Legion, was dedicated to replicating the franchise’s “bad guys,” including not only the various Imperial troopers and Sith Lords, but bounty hunters like Boba Fett.

Where the 501st required strict adherence to a character’s appearance on screen, other fans liked the general appearance of Fett’s armor, but didn’t want to be constrained by the group’s stringent guidelines for entry: Fett’s armor positively screams individuality and customization, and in that spirit, they wanted to make their own characters with their own original color schemes. So cosplayers like Tom Hutchens, a fan from North Carolina, drew on the same design language to create unique characters. Fett had left a lasting impression on Hutchens when he first saw Return of the Jedi in theaters as a 5-year-old. “I tell people I found my first love, but also experienced my first real death within a 10-second time frame,” he says. “It’s probably the part of my childhood that I remember the most vividly.”

Hutchens’ love of Boba Fett stayed with him throughout school and a stint in the U.S. Navy. In 2003, he began playing the MMO Star Wars Galaxies, where he established a guild of Mandalorian bounty hunters. When he and his wife traveled to Atlanta to attend DragonCon, he ran into a handful of custom Mandalorian cosplayers. “You had the 501st Legion table, and the Rebel Legion table, and [the custom cosplayers] didn’t really have a home of their own,” he says. After talking with them about their armor and their mutual love of Mandalorian culture, Hutchens caught the costuming bug: He went out and made his own set of custom armor. A former member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), he designed and built his own suit out of steel, designing it to look “just like my Mandalorian character in Star Wars Galaxies.”

a yellow and black mandalorian armor cosplayer Photo: Andrew Liptak
a furry white snow mandalorian armor cosplayer Photo: Andrew Liptak
A husky red and black mandalorian armor cosplayer Photo: Andrew Liptak
a black and tan desert style mandalorian armor cosplayer Photo: Andrew Liptak

A turning point for Hutchens came when writer Abel G. Peña published “The History of the Mandalorians” in Star Wars Insider magazine. The article, which collected all of the lore throughout the franchise into a cohesive history, had an outsized impact in the fan community, establishing the Mandalorians as a major component of the universe right up there along the Jedi and Sith. A detail about how the ancient warriors turned to mercenary work allowed something to fall into place for Hutchens, who says, “That is actually where the name of the Mandalorian Mercs costume club comes from.”

At the same time, the Mandalorian culture was on the cusp of a major transformation within the franchise’s canon. In 2004, author Karen Traviss published Republic Commando: Hard Contact, about a team of Republic Commandos. In the novel and its sequels, Traviss took a particular interest in Mandalorian culture, reasoning that the clone army introduced in Attack of the Clones had to come from somewhere.

“It was obvious that for a secret project like that, Jango would want to recruit some Mandalorians,” Traviss explained in 2006. “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 [...] they also saw Mando identity as being a really important spiritual thing to pass on to their trainees.”

That world-building, told through a series of other Republic Commando novels and Star Wars Insider articles, further solidified the backstory of the culture, and established elements like the Beskar metal and color schemes the Mandalorians use in their armor. Traviss even expanded on the Mandalorian language that composer Jesse Harlin developed for his score for the 2005 video game Star Wars: Republic Commando.

Inspired by what he had seen at DragonCon, Hutchens set out to create an overarching group for the Mandalorian cosplayers who flocked to conventions. There were some forums for custom characters, he noted, but nothing dedicated exclusively to Mandalorian costuming. “I set up a website, with pictures, an intro page, and a forum,” Hutchens says, explaining that word of mouth from fans brought in new members.

In 2007, he and several other Mandalorian costumers gathered at AdventureCon in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the first official Mandalorian Mercs event. There, they came face to face with the actor responsible for their obsession: Jeremy Bulloch, a guest at the convention, who suited up in his own set of armor. In the years that followed, the Mandalorian Mercs grew to include thousands of members across the world, eventually earning the endorsement of Lucasfilm itself. A movement was underway.

The Mandalorian Mercs “came about during Karen’s time writing for Star Wars,” Hutchens says, noting that the club incorporated the lore and appearance based on what she created. “Our officer titles are all in Mando’a, the system of governance in the Mando Mercs is a sort of a meritocracy like how Mandos are, and of course the variations of the costumes and colors — the colors had meaning when she was writing, and we still kind of hold onto that a bit.”

That respect went both ways. The act of cosplay brings a fictional character into the real world, and the efforts of dedicated builders seem to have had some influence on the franchise’s creators. In a 2007 blog post, Traviss wrote about her admiration for cosplayers, noting that she consulted with a fan about military operations and armor, leading her to name a character after him. The “individualization, the whole sort of mercenary, bounty hunter attitude, and then the tenets that” came from Traviss’ novels were highly influential, Hutchens says. “We worked a little bit of that into how we function as an organization.” Cosplayers provided some ideas and answers, while Traviss helped guide the culture of the group with her work.

The ideas of customization and individuality attracted cosplayers to the Mercs. Thorn Reilly, a Merc member living in Vermont, explains that it was Traviss’ books that got them interested in the armor. “Reading about it and having it in my head ... there are no photos of these characters, but I can visualize them. OK, what can I make? As a person who’s a huge nerd for costume design, it was cool to be able to say I’m not one of three Princess Leias or Luke Skywalker. I can be like, ‘I want racing stripes, and I could do that!’” Reilly says there’s an inherent challenge in replicating something seen on screen, but that extrapolating from Mandalorian culture was a greater thrill.

“Part of the fun of the Mandalorian Mercs is that everyone’s character has a backstory,” they say. “It’s like your own Mando persona. They have the same thing in the Society for Creative Anachronism [SCA], like, who is your character, roughly? Building the character backstory is a whole lot of fun. You don’t have to go in depth with it, but you can go in depth with it.”

A level of customization sets the Mandalorian Mercs apart from other established costuming groups within the sphere of Star Wars cosplay fandom. The 501st Legion is made up of members who replicate the costumes seen on the screen (canon Mandalorians like Boba and Jango Fett, Death Watch commandos, Bo Katan, and others are permissible), and it doesn’t allow for customization or elaborate backstories. For that reason, the Mandalorian Mercs literally wear their creative streak on their bodies, coming up with endless variations on the T-visors and familiar armor plating. That creativity unlocks new possibilities for the culture that go beyond what’s seen in the canon stories and lore.

In 2008, Lucasfilm launched a major new project: The Clone Wars, an animated television series for Cartoon Network. While the series initially focused on the fight between the Republic and the Separatists, Mandalorians became vital to the overarching narrative with “The Mandalore Plot” in season 2 and throughout the rest of the series. From there, the show added new, canon characters for cosplayers to replicate, and new opportunities for Lucasfilm to build on the lore that it had been developing.

The studio has been receptive to fan culture for years. Dave Filoni has noted that he loves the effort of cosplayers, telling an audience at the 2017 Star Wars Celebration that “I give a tremendous amount of thought to the costumes, and it’s something we were able to improve in part, especially on characters like Ahsoka, knowing that so many people were out there wearing that costume,” and that “I want to get it right, because I want you guys to have fun wearing this stuff.”

The Clone Wars amassed a huge following, and while it gave the Mandalorian Mercs and the 501st and Rebel Legions plenty of new characters to replicate, Filoni also became more aware of the groups’ work. Fans posed for pictures with him at conventions and sent him replicas of helmets that he helped create. Hutchens says that whenever the Mercs are at a Star Wars Celebration, Filoni is a standing guest for their club banquet, and that he makes time to attend. “He talks to everybody, he shakes everybody’s hand. The reality of it is that he’s just a huge fan himself. He’s part of our family,” Hutchens says.

That appears to be the case when it comes to The Mandalorian, with the work of the Mercs bleeding over into the design of the series. “I see so much of what we’ve done over the last 13 years woven into the stories of that show, and even when you go back and look at The Clone Wars and Rebels,” Hutchens says. The Clone Wars TV series brought in its Mandalorians in 2009, just as Hutchens’ Mandalorian Mercs were getting established. “But then when you get to seasons 4 and 5,” he notes, “you see the Death Watch looking more customized, and they’re weathered and dirty, and you’re starting to think that over the last few years, maybe we’ve had an impact. Then when you go to Rebels, you see things like the pilot helmets, or helmets that people have had in the Mercs before that show was even thought up. And by the end of Rebels, when you see all the Mandos with all the different colors, and it’s hard for you not to look at that and not think that you had something to do with that somehow. You don’t really see that in past works, and it had to come from somewhere.”

When The Mandalorian debuted on Disney Plus last fall, it brought much of the lore and backstory to the table — even elements that had been established in sources that were no longer canon, like Traviss’ books. Beskar armor, the Mandalore symbol, and Death Watch soldiers were now realized in real life. Some members of the Mandalorian Mercs recognized their basic color schemes and armor styling, saying that while nobody saw themselves replicated in any of the shows, it seems clear that The Mandalorian’s design team drew some influence from the group and its members.

Lucasfilm is notorious for recycling ideas, names, and designs, and even incorporating things from, the fan community. But in 2004, Timothy Zahn took things a step further. After George Lucas granted the 501st Legion a cameo in Revenge of the Sith, playing Anakin Skywalker’s personal legion, Zahn incorporated the group into his novel Survivor’s Quest, formally canonizing the fan costuming group within the Star Wars world.

In The Mandalorian, Lucasfilm tapped Star Wars fans in a more direct way: During the climactic finale, Filoni brought in 50 members of the 501st Legion, wearing their own armor to play stormtroopers. It’s something that has shown up throughout the franchise — especially the animated shows. Speaking to The Star Wars Show in 2016, Filoni noted that his approach to fan service was to be intentional about it. “If we’re going to create something, we should check and see if it existed already to the fans,” he said. “Because it has way more value if we bring that in. Why would I just replace it with something new?”

At the 2019 Star Wars Celebration, Jon Favreau recounted how his friendship with Filoni led to his involvement in the Star Wars franchise: by voicing a Mandalorian character named Pre Vizsla in 2007. He went on to voice pilot Rio Durant in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and pitched his idea to Lucasfilm. “What happens after the celebration of the Empire falling?” Favreau mused on stage. “The idea of the world after Return of the Jedi and what would happen and the type of characters that would survive until the New Republic took over.” The Star Wars underworld was particularly attractive, and the perfect place to bring in a Mandalorian warrior.

“I don’t think [The Mandalorian] would exist without the Mandalorian Mercs,” Hutchens says, “or if it did, it wouldn’t exist as it exists now.” Because of the intense, long-running enthusiasm for Boba Fett, as well as the large fan base for the Mandalorian culture, putting a Mandalorian in the center of the action for the TV series was a good gamble. They’re people of action with a depth of lore behind them, and come with a vocal fan base that has interpreted and contributed to the story, as well as the look and feel of the actual armor itself. “I will almost guarantee that these things, even up to The Mandalorian series, are things that people have seen on Mercs members, and it’s inspired artists to add those things,” Hutchens says. “I think without us, it wouldn’t have been the way it is.”

While looking back over his career at Star Wars Celebration 2019, Filoni pointed to the fan community as a driving force behind the projects that he’s been involved with: “I think the voice of fans has really helped propel what I’ve done.”

Lucasfilm invited members of the Mandalorian Mercs to the red carpet for the premiere of The Mandalorian in November. Members brought their helmets to the screening, and Filoni called them out during the event’s Q&A session. “When we were first starting this, I was telling Jon that there’s a whole group of them out there,” Filoni said. “He’s like, ‘What are they like?’ and I said, ‘Well, they’re pretty much like you’d think: They’re Mandalorians.’ They know the way, and really, we brought something to life on screen that I see every summer at Celebration.”

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