Pull List: Queering Canon with Doctor Aphra

Hey you! Yeah, you! Do you love Star Wars? Are you eager to explore the non-Skywalker part of the EU? Do you wanna read stories starring a badass queer woman of color? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then it’s time you picked up Doctor Aphra. She’s cool, she’s tough, and she can out maneuver anyone at anytime. Aphra will flirt until you swoon, then pick your pocket. Oh yes, my friend, you’re gonna love this comic.

Doctor Aphra was first introduced in the Star Wars canon with issue #25 of Darth Vader. The series is set about two years after the Battle of Yavin during the three-year gap between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. The rogue archaeologist’s first solo story arc has a strong Indiana Jones vibe. In hiding from Vader, who thinks she’s dead, Aphra sets her sights on retrieving ancient relics by whatever means necessary. With her homicidal droids 0-0-0 and BT-1 and the vengeance-obsessed Wookie Black Krrsantan, she of course runs into trouble. Aphra enjoys her rapscallion lifestyle and amoral escapades, but the disappointment of her father puts a damper on things.

Turns out that the artifact Aphra stole is actually the spirit of a murderous, and very pissed off immortal Jedi. In the second arc, Aphra holds an auction attended by some of the skeeziest scammers in the galaxy. Vader turns up to battle the ancient Jedi, the psychotic droids are on the loose, and Black Krrsantan gets a backstory. By the third arc, Triple Zero has Aphra under his black metal heel. Now running a vast criminal syndicate, the sadistic droid forces Aphra to do his sinister bidding. But she has a few tricks left up her sleeve and manages to screw the droids, the rebels, and the very appealing Empire officer Tolvan. She and Aphra—or, as she knows her, Joystick Chevron—definitely have a thing going and it’s adorable.

The most recent arc has only just begun, but it’s already a kicker. Aphra is in Imperial custody, but has roped Tolvan into trying to break her out. But the Rebels are also after Aphra. General Hera Syndulla contracts with Sana Starros, a mercenary who also happens to be Aphra’s grumpy ex, to spring her from the joint.

There’s also the five-issue Screaming Citadel crossover involving Luke, Han, and symbiotes. I chose to just read the Aphra issues and was able to keep up just fine. Frankly, the whole thing could be skipped entirely. I’m reading Aphra precisely because it’s not about the Skywalker goings-on of the original trilogy, but YMMV.

As with any series as long-running as Aphra, the quality fluctuates. Luckily, it’s mostly good on all fronts. Artist Kev Walker does a lovely job highlighting the characters expressions and portraying the emotional tone set by writers Kieron Gillen and Si Spurrier. He picks interesting angles to highlight, and the detail work is fab. The lettering, handled by Joe Caramagna, is solid. I also loved the distinctions between characters like Rur and Black Krrsantan. Antonio Fabela and Rachelle Rosenberg’s sharp, bright colors are probably my favorite of the bunch. The colors are as playful and daring as Aphra is, and are the perfect fit for a universe as vivid as Star Wars.

As interesting as the stories are, it’s really the interactions between the characters that make the whole thing work. Carving complex relationships out of wacky SFF premises is one of Gillen’s greatest talents, one that’s on full display in Doctor Aphra. Through her rocky relationship with her father, we better understand her behavior. Dealing with Triple Zero and BeeTee push her amorality to its limits. Her tempestuous flirtation with Tolvan reveal her need for recognition and companionship. Aphra is about as antihero as it gets. Despite ample opportunities to redeem herself and side with the good guys, she repeatedly and willingly chooses herself. She isn’t evil, but any good she does is coincidental to the scheme she’s concocted to get herself out of whatever pickle she’s currently in. This is Aphra’s universe, we all just live in it.

Spurrier joined as co-writer starting with issue #15 and officially took over with the start of the new arc at #20. The shift in tone is noticeable, and not always in a positive way. Fortunately, the foundation laid by Gillen is sturdy. Even though Spurrier isn’t as nuanced or sparky as Gillen, the story is still entertaining.

Contemporary Star Wars exists in this weird liminal space of both reaffirming and resisting diversity. On camera the canon is getting better at depicting people of color and women (although frustratingly not women of color), and in print media queerness is also finally getting some rep as well. Yet the creatives writing these stories has long been and continues to be largely cishet white people. Of course behind the scenes is not exclusively white, but at this point it feels like authors like Daniel José Older and Saladin Ahmed are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Same is true of Doctor Aphra. As diverse as the series is in terms of characters, there are no Asians/Asian Americans involved in the creative process. Other than Rosenberg, the creative team is all white/white passing men. For the first (and, let’s face it, probably only) Star Wars property helmed by an Asian lesbian, having nearly the entire creative team be white dudes is dispiriting to say the least. Disney/Marvel needs to do better.

Doctor Aphra is a refreshing rebuttal to all those fanboys spewing their toxic rhetoric in the Star Wars fandom. With a strong creative team, decent sales, and an inventive twist on familiar territory, the series proves once again that diversity sells. And really, if Disney is looking for an action-packed stand-alone movie starring a kick-ass fan-favorite, Aphra is a fantastic choice.

Writer: Kieron Gillen, Si Spurrier; art: Kev Walker, Andrea Broccardo, Emilio Laiso; colors: Antonio Fabela, Rachelle Rosenberg, Java Tartaglia; pencils: Kev Walker; inks: Marc Deering; letters: Joe Caramagna. First published by Marvel Comics in 2016. The most recent issue, #21, released June 27, 2018.

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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