In 1991, Kevin J Anderson began a prologue – a “prequel”, if you will – to the established Star Wars universe. What happened would change the world forever – but for better, or worse?
Tales of the Jedi: Ulic Qel-Droma and the Beastriders of Onderon, shares a special place in my heart with Heir to the Empire and A New Hope. I experienced all of these in my youth, and they engendered a deep love of Star Wars in me, as well as an idea of just how expansive the idea of Star Wars was. Each was the start of a grand saga, and in the case of two of them (you can guess which two), it would be years until I got my hands on the end of the saga. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the two that I didn’t watch in theatres.
I’ve talked a bit about Tales of the Jedi already, but Tom Veitch’s Beastriders of Onderon is the story that started it all. This simple story, designed to do nothing more than explore the universe of the Jedi before they started going extinct, spanned five issues and two story arcs (the combined version was called Knights of the Old Republic before Bioware decided they liked the title and things got a bit awkward. It wasn’t until another five issue arc, Dark Lords of the Sith, was announced that a two-issue bridging story was added and Tales of the Jedi was transformed overnight from a five issue series with two stories into a twelve issue one with four. Now, of course, Tales of the Jedi spans two Omnibi, with seven stories to its name.
The first issue opens with familiar imagery: starships above a planet, a Jedi apprentice training with his lightsaber, a droid, two men and a Twi’lek. Jedi Master Arca – an Arkanian, although the race looks human enough to the distant observer – is running his three apprentices Ulic, Cade and Tott through a lightsaber training drill. So far, the biggest difference a fan can see from what they know is that there are more than two Jedi – and to be fair, that doesn’t become explicit until after Arca explains all manner of new things to our characters and the audience.
Nowadays, you could probably say the story is commonplace, but it was definitely groundbreaking for the franchise at the time. The Jedi have been sent to bolster the government on Onderon as a token of cooperation with the new entries to the Republic. They’ve been led to believe that the second faction on the planet – the titular Beastriders – are formed of criminals who escaped and tamed the beasts. This may be true, but criminals on Onderon are kind of like criminals in Palpatine’s Empire – anybody not interested in being ruled by the teachings of the Sith is one. The Jedi themselves figure it out after confronting the leaders of the Beastriders, and go on to confront Queen Amanoa and the source of her powers.
As I mentioned in Golden Age of the Sith, the art style here isn’t the best for conventional comics, but I like it for something that’s intended to feel like it’s set thousands of years before the modern era. The colors make it look like a historical tapestry, and it’s clear that you’re reading a piece of history.
The characters aren’t the greatest, but they are distinct. Master Arca is the wise mentor, modeled after Obi-Wan or Yoda but not as eccentric. Twi’lek Tott Doneeta is the wisest of the three students, while Ulic is the rash hero. Ulic’s brother Cade has the least characterization, essentially the halfway point between Ulic and Tott.
The first arc of Tales of the Jedi isn’t remarkable so much for an amazing story or characters, or extraordinary force powers, but it is remarkable for opening a whole new chapter of the Expanded Universe. For years this was the only look at the galaxy before the Empire rose to power, and even when that changed with The Phantom Menace, this remained the earliest series in the Star Wars universe until Dawn of the Jedi. Here is where it all started, and while not extraordinary in and of itself, it’s competent, and in the world of fiction, that’s extraordinary on its own.