Where Doctor Aphra goes, trouble seems to follow. Or does she just seem to have a nose for finding trouble? Maybe it’s both. (It’s definitely both.)
After a year and a half, the Doctor Aphra series is 19 issues in with no end in sight, which is surprising given that even one of her creators didn’t originally think she’d make it out of the Darth Vader series alive. Since then, she’s encountered an ancient Jedi AI, taken a trip to the Screaming Citadel, tried to sell the AI, and just barely avoided running into a certain Sith Lord again. Most recently, she’s found herself unwillingly employed by Triple Zero and flirting a lot with an Imperial officer. (One of those is way more fun than the other.)
StarWars.com recently chatted with both Kieron Gillen (Aphra’s creator and series co-writer) and Si Spurrier (co-writer) to discuss the ongoing comic series, Aphra herself, and the chord she’s struck with fans everywhere.
StarWars.com: This is both the start and the end of an era when it comes to Doctor Aphra, who is probably one of the coolest characters in Star Wars right now. Kieron, I want to start by asking how it feels to be handing Aphra off [to Si Spurrier]?
Kieron Gillen: I was just literally looking at the sales of Aphra this morning; it was the number two trade in February. A completely new character selling that well is shocking in comics. That kind of response is enormously impressive, as it doesn’t happen often. It feels sometimes like she’s mine. Salva[dor Larroca] and I cooked her up but enough people have written her now to make [her] bigger than me. She definitely feels like she’s outgrown me, essentially. [Laughs] So I quite like giving her away to other people who’ll get to play with her. My little girl is all grown up.
StarWars.com: Si, did you know how popular Aphra was before you started working on this project?
Si Spurrier: Nope, never heard of her before. No, I jest. I was aware and was delighted and honored to be asked to get involved. The particular beauty and the particular attraction of something like Aphra is that it, at one and the same time, hits all those recognizable IP-shared universe beats, in that we all grew up with Star Wars and we all love that world and we recognize it and we respond to its particular aesthetic and its particular vibe. But at the same time, Aphra is very much in her own funny little niche and off doing her own thing and, yes, occasionally overlapping with stuff in the wider universe in a way that always feels like a cute Easter egg rather than a continuity obstacle. But on the whole, she’s very much the rogue, believe it or not. She’s the rogue element. She’s the thing that allows us as comic creators, especially in a shared universe, to tell very different, very unique stories that you just couldn’t necessarily get away with with any of the more mainstream characters and groups.
Kieron Gillen: The thing about Aphra for me, I don’t know about you, but for me Aphra is always: what will she do and what won’t she do? You can never be quite sure what she will or won’t do. It’s these moments of horror when she’s going to do that awful thing and there’s also moments when oh no, she’s chosen not to do that thing.
Si Spurrier: That’s lovely and let’s not be reductive, but there’s an expectation when you look at the big expensive movie stuff we’re so familiar associating Star Wars with, that characters will always do the right thing, that they’ll always hit the right beats, and, not that they’re necessarily predictable, but characters will behave in a way that a character suggests. But one of the many beauties of Aphra is that she does get it wrong. She [messes] up. As Kieron says, she’ll be put in a position where it’s either A or B and, you know, because she’s Aphra, that she’s going to choose A. And then she chooses B.
Si Spurrier: There’s quite a big sort of question mark about Aphra’s specific sexuality…do we have to tread carefully around specific sexual terminology?
Kieron Gillen: I normally say Aphra’s a lesbian. I’ve never written her with any romantic interest in men. There’s definitely some people who think Vader and Aphra were flirting but I’m not going to get into that.
Si Spurrier: Literally flirting with disaster.
Kieron Gillen: I’ve written her primarily romantically interested in women. I think that would be fair to say. Star Wars doesn’t really have the terminology that we do either. One of the things we wrote inside the first arc was that homophobia as we know it doesn’t really exist in the Star Wars universe. No one raises their eyebrow, no one seems surprised when it happens. It’s kind of just something that’s there, so the way that they process sexuality has got to be different anyway, and how they choose to identify, as well.
StarWars.com: I wanted to go back to the start for Aphra because you’ve talked about how she started as like the dark, mirror version of Indiana Jones. So is Aphra now pretty much how you always envisioned her or did she take on a life of her own at some point, especially given that she survived Vader?
Kieron Gillen: That Aphra kinda gave birth to her own future. I was pretty sure that I was going to have to kill Aphra, you know? Vader is very good at what he does.
StarWars.com: Yeah. We expected that you were going to kill Aphra.
Kieron Gillen: When I looked at that and went, “Wait. Aphra has completely left a way that she can do this.” I completely buy that Vader would fall for that because Vader gets angry. You know what I mean? It’s almost like Aphra planned her own escape for me. That was one moment that she kind of escaped, which is such an Aphra thing to do. The rest of it has always been a process of discovery. Inverse Indiana Jones was kind of the initial call and it always grows because you put it in Star Wars and it changes. What does that even mean in Star Wars? And then you kind of get to the point where she’s very pro people having weapons. Why the hell is she — what’s her take on the Empire? And you start thinking on why she’s adamantly pro-Empire. She completely does not obey the rules of the Empire but she still thinks the Empire is probably a good thing. And at the end of it, there are complexities to her. The more you sit and think and write a character, the more it comes out.
StarWars.com: Was there anything in particular that surprised you about her?
Kieron Gillen: I wrote the short story for From a Certain Point of View. That’s kind of when I got to write mostly Aphra’s interiority but working out a fairly logical reason, why with her background, she thinks the Empire is bad to the alternative. If you grew up in a galactic civil war, I think peace by any means might be better than war. That’s kind of Aphra’s take. Aphra can handle everything. She lies to herself. But normal people? Normal people would probably like to live under a fascist regime rather than actually people just killing each other in a war. And that’s a really dark hole to think about but I can buy someone believing that with Aphra’s background. That’s the kind of stuff that surprises you.
Si Spurrier: Especially since Aphra being Aphra, she has that wonderful little blind spot for herself. She’s like, as you say, “This is absolutely the right thing for the herd but I’m absolutely not part of the herd, so I get to have my own funny little moral code that doesn’t apply to any of this stuff.”
Kieron Gillen: Yeah, exactly. I’m trying to think about any — there’s always a small beat where something happens and you go, “Yeah, that surprised me.”
Si Spurrier: There’s actually a bit coming down the pipe in, I think it’s #19, where, without spoiling any of it, somebody basically puts her on the spot about this and there’s some rather lovely stuff she says, which kind of spells out her relationship to conventional morality in as much as she’s aware of it. And it has influence on her, but she doesn’t necessarily go along with it.
StarWars.com: Why do you think Aphra has resonated with so many people? Obviously I have my own answer for this, but I wanted to hear your take on it.
Kieron Gillen: Will you say your take after we say ours?
StarWars.com: Okay, yeah, sure.
Kieron Gillen: I honestly have no idea. Of all the characters I’ve created for other people’s universes, she’s by far the most successful one. What is it? [Laughs] My thinking with Star Wars is always, “Okay, I’m trying to work out an archetype that I have not seen in Star Wars and give a spin on it.” Dropping an archaeologist in Star Wars makes sense and that she’s morally unpredictable, that makes sense, as well. She’s kind of fun but at the same time, there’s a really dark heart to her. Those kinds of things. All those weird kind of contradictions to her, I think they’re quite appealing. At the same time, she’s got a very core thing people can get. She’s quite complicated and not complicated at all. With Luke or Leia, they’ve got that core archetype you get, you get what they’re like. You get that with Aphra but at the same time, there’s an underlying…all this weird, twisted stuff in there that kind of gets under people’s skin. I think.
Si Spurrier: I would say for me that there’s this funny thing when you look at Star Wars as a big, overarching [intellectual property] that as consumers, as geeks, we find ourselves uncomfortably drawn for a multitude of reasons to the wrong characters. There’s a reason that Vader is amazingly popular, and it’s probably because he’s such an incredible design, an incredible icon. There’s a reason that people love to cosplay as stormtroopers and maybe it’s the same. Maybe it’s because it’s such a great costume, it’s a sense of partaking in this incredible, visual world. But these are space fascists. And then you get Aphra and she’s all of those things that are problematic, but there’s also just this tiny, probably doomed, forlorn glimmer of redemption precisely because she’s smart enough that she understands conventional morality. She knows that Vader is probably not a nice person. She’s aware that space fascism is not necessarily a good thing but it may be the right thing for a chaotic universe, and so she’s sort of able to navigate all of these… The better way of putting it is that most of what we’ve seen so far in Star Wars is goodies versus baddies. And Aphra ain’t that. And I would suggest that the reason people respond — I’m generalizing, but the reason people respond more to Han Solo than they respond to Luke Skywalker is because he’s not just playing the goodie. He’s a little more complicated than that. And Aphra is 100% the same but from the other direction, if that makes sense. That’s my feeling anyway.
Kieron Gillen: In my head, I’ve got a list of ethical grayness in the Star Wars universe. You’ve got Han Solo who’s here, and slightly more gray, you’ve got Sana, and even more gray, you have Aphra. I’ve got this graph of rogueness.
Si Spurrier: Rogueosity?
Kieron Gillen: Rogueosity. The one thing we should mention is design. If Salva hadn’t given Aphra the design, I don’t think it would have worked. It’s a visual medium. If I think, “Oh, they look like an interesting person…” You know what I mean?
Si Spurrier: This feels like a really good segue into us asking Bria why she’s so fond of Aphra.
Kieron Gillen: Yes!
StarWars.com: [Laughs] This gets turned around. Well, funny you mention Salva’s design because I know for me that as a half-Asian woman, Aphra was probably the first time I looked at a Star Wars comic and went, “Oh. I can see myself in there.” And plus, everything you guys said before about how she has that sass to her, she doesn’t always do the right thing. Like exploding tookas: probably not the right thing to do.
Kieron Gillen: That was Si’s idea.
StarWars.com: It was fantastic. It’s been very cool for me to see a character who kind of looks like me, who I can costume as, who I can run around and sass Darth Vader as, and she’s been fun and she’s been someone I latched onto as soon as I saw the cover of Vader #3.
Kieron Gillen: You can’t overstate the importance of representation. That’s one of the many things that makes her a modern kind of Star Wars character. It’s great to have representation and at the same time, she’s not exactly a role model, I guess? In that people can be anything in the Star Wars universe. We’ve got this — Yes, Bria, I agree with you entirely.
StarWars.com: Good, I’m glad to hear that. So shifting a little bit… Aphra’s beach vacation, which lasted for all of like two panels. How did she end up finding herself in this particular predicament with Triple Zero? Is that something we’re probably going to find out a little later down the line or…?
Si Spurrier: The way that we chose to play it is that when Aphra ended up on the beach, the one loose end was the secret of her continued existence and Triple Zero knows it. Triple Zero being Triple Zero, he’s going to use whatever leverage he can to get whatever he wants, so we kind of assumed in as much as — and by the way, there’s a whole bunch of these loose ends being tied up, or at least revisited, a little bit later down the line. And so a lot of these questions are, if not underlined and answered, at least sort of massaged, frankly. But yes, I think that it was assumed that we didn’t need to lean into this whole moment Triple Zero shows up and goes, “Ah! I know your dark secret!” because that’s obviously what he would do if he knew your dark secret.
Kieron Gillen: I just imagine Aphra in bed one day and waking up with Triple Zero and BT in the room. And Triple Zero’s like, “You’ll come with me now.”
StarWars.com: That’s horrifying.
Kieron Gillen: As Si said, it doesn’t seem as interesting. He would have turned up, applied leverage, and she crumbles. That’s basically what would have happened and doing it would have felt like dead space.
StarWars.com: Well, I guess the question has to be: Does Aphra think it was worth it to free the murder droids? Is that something she would do again?
Si Spurrier: I have to be… It’s one of these careful of spoilers things. I guess what I can say is that in issue 19, which is the end of the “Remastered” arc, there’s a page where the whole thing is re-contextualized. It shows that everything that you — all the reasons you think things are happening are not necessarily the reasons things are happening. That will give you a far better sense of Triple Zero in particular, and to answer your question, would probably leave Aphra very much in the “no oh god never again never again oh god no” sort of mold. Except, the caveat, as we were saying in the beginning of this interview, she’s very good at [messing] up so you never know. She might very well make the same mistake twice.
Kieron Gillen: Her back was against the wall. What was her option except doing it? She was on a base with Darth Vader and Triple Zero would have told him. She didn’t really have much room and Triple Zero definitely kind of manipulated her. But would you rather not do it? The thing is, where I would go is if you could go all the way back to “Why on earth did I break the Triple Zero matrix out anyway?” It’d literally been quarantined. I think that’s the mistake she would end up regretting, but then part of it’s like she knows she’d make exactly the same mistake again as well.
StarWars.com: The current arc “Remastered” has been co-written by both of you. What has that collaboration process been like?
Kieron Gillen: It’s been good. When Si was still living in my neck of the woods, we went to the pub and co-plotted it. I had the idea of what the second year would be about, which is Triple Zero is Aphra’s master and we deal with that. We cooked up the structure and that kind of thing. We didn’t exactly break it down into episodes, I think? Or maybe we did but broadly. I wrote the first episode and Si was going to be writing the other ones. We thought about alternating issues so I would do the last one, but Si’s been scripting like this frenzied maniac and it’s like no, I can’t write this last episode because it felt like Si had to do the ending, you know what I mean? Me stepping in, doing my area, it was like, “No, I think Si needs to script it,” and at the same time, I’m looking at scripts and tweaking stuff. That’s kind of the co-writing. We co-plotted it together, I wrote an episode, Si’s kinda the main script writer, and I offer help where I can. That’s kinda how it works, isn’t it, Si?
Si Spurrier: Yeah very much so. We made a bit of a road for him back because the “Remastered” arc is so plotty. And there’s so much — and that needn’t always be a bad thing but it does create difficulties in as much as all the threads have to be tied together in a very specific way so, as Kieron says, by the time we got to that last issue, I was kind of holding a big bundle of threads and it didn’t feel quite right to be passing them back off again.
Kieron Gillen: Basically, I thought it was too hard. [Laughs]
Si Spurrier: [Laughs] That’s what we’re edging around.
Kieron Gillen: It’s true. There’s really emotional scenes at the end of that arc and I think that kind of pay off? That’s the dessert, that kind of fun stuff, and Si gets to eat the dessert as well.
Si Spurrier: Very tasty dessert it is, too.
StarWars.com: Tolvan’s obviously back in a very big way. When she first appeared in the first Doctor Aphra arc, was it always the plan for her to return and… I don’t know how else to phrase this, so… Are she and Aphra for real?
Kieron Gillen: When I invented Tolvan, I was explicitly thinking… This hard-bitten, kind of very serious kind of person chasing down this more whimsical person and the sexual tension. That was the thing. I wanted to have this sexual tension between the person being pursued and the person who is doing the pursing. And, of course, the flip of it is, Aphra’s the person who’s also pursuing Tolvan. Kind of like, I want to arrest you but also I’m crushing on the person trying to arrest me. That struck me as a really cool dynamic. When I was thinking it up, that was definitely a plot I’d like to do. So I’m glad it’s working.
StarWars.com: Speaking of strong woman, we talked earlier about the little Easter eggs and connections that come in, so I’d say that Hera Syndulla is one of those. She was in #17 and #18. Where did the idea to bring her in come from?
Si Spurrier: This is one of those unforeseen, fortuitous moments. We knew that for the purposes of the plot that we needed a high-ranking rebel general and we were quite happy to just invent one, but every time you submit a Star Wars script to Marvel it not only goes to the Marvel editors who are extremely helpful, but it then gets passed on to the Story Group over at Lucas[film]. They’re very good at not only saying, “You can’t do this,” but also, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if you did this?” They pointed out that the [Star Wars] Rebels show was coming to an end and they reminded us that there is a clever little name drop in Rogue One where you just hear General Syndulla’s name mentioned in a loud speaker announcement in the background, which is a sort of wonderful thing that Star Wars can do. It’s all these Easter eggs, but they’re never hurdles. So the fans knew that Syndulla survived beyond the end of Rebels. They knew that she was around at this rough time period that Aphra’s set in, so it all kind of meshed together and we got Space Mummy as the flight instructor at the rebel flight school and Aphra comes along. It’s the sort of wonderful thing you can do with a desperately screwed up and unpredictable woman character bashing into a beloved Space Mummy. You get two very, very different female archetypes striking sparks off of one another. It’s been really cool.
Kieron Gillen: The story gets really good like that. Si’s newer to writing Star Wars than I am but you’re right about the hand with which they give back, and there’s definitely points when I hand in a script — and I do the research, obviously — but I ask if there’s anyone available who might be fun to use if it’s a role that doesn’t need to be someone. Is there anything useful I can use here, like a tiny nod? I knew that I needed a rival for Vader who was running the military in my Vader run and they suggested, “Well, Tagge could have survived the Death Star.” He’s available as a kind of light villain. He was basically like one of the backbones of the Vader book. I’m doing a nod towards — in the latest issue of Star Wars, they mention training rebel pilots so I’m sort of crossing over with Aphra, as well. All of this stuff feeds back into itself as well.
Si Spurrier: It’s funny you say that. I’ve just been writing the latest Aphra Annual and I too have received a bunch of strange notes from the Story Group, many of them which add a great deal of stuff to the story, but there’s these funny moments when they’ll say, “Oh, you can’t do that.” And there’s no explanation for why you can’t do something, which seems very, very innocent, except that you’re immediately thinking, “Aha! Something like that is coming down the pipe in the next movie,” so you’ve always got this sort of half-prediction going on about what’s coming up next.
Kieron Gillen: It’s like playing Battleships. You work out what the plot of the movie is by the stuff you’ve been told no.
Si Spurrier: What you can’t do, not what you can do.
Kieron Gillen: It makes watching the movies a weird experience. Like when I was watching Rogue One, there were a couple bits I just laughed at and I was the only person in the cinema who laughed, because of course I knew what I’d been told no for something like two years ago. I initially suggested having [Voidgazer] in the Death Star gunner outfit because it’s a great outfit and using that would be really cool, and I was basically told, “No, you can’t do that. Hard no.” And of course you get to the bit when Jyn uses it as a disguise. It’s this very very minor no, but “Ohhhh, now it makes sense.”
StarWars.com: Shifting topics a little bit, how does it feel for both of you to see the ever-growing legion of Aphra cosplayers out there?
Kieron Gillen: It’s delightful. I mean, it’s good, isn’t it? Any time anyone dresses as any of your characters is great because it means they — obviously, the amount of craft that people put into it. I think someone actually has the Aphra tattoo. Now that’s amazing.
Si Spurrier: That’s something coming down the pipe as well… An actual use of the electric tattoos serving some function. Yeah, to answer your question, it’s always astonishing. I think it was Wil Wheaton who said cosplay is the purest expression of fandom that one can conceive of because you’re literally borrowing a character’s skin. I think that’s wonderful. There’s nothing better than seeing a character you created, so Kieron gets the biggest smile for that, but the character you are working with coming to life in front of you, that’s a hell of a moment.
StarWars.com: Are there any of the Aphra outfits that you particularly want to see brought to life? I ask this of course with no ulterior motive.
Kieron Gillen: Some of the stuff that Kevin [Walker]’s doing in the next arc. I love all the suits. The character should change according to their environment. Kevin’s very big on that.
Si Spurrier: The next arc is set in an Imperial prison but it’s a very unique one that’s… without going too far into it, it’s kind of open to space and so it’s bloody cold, and so all of the prisoners are wearing quite heavy kind of spacey gear. So, presumably, Aphra’s still got her usual duds on under there somewhere, but she’s wearing a lot of padding and a few bits and bobs of scavenged Imperial gear. So, yeah, as Kieron says, Kevin has really leaned in to designing the functionality of the look and it looks cracking as a result. That’ll be exciting if anybody tries to do that, because it’s a big outfit.
StarWars.com: Oh boy. I was going to ask if you’d specifically asked any of the amazing artists, like Kevin, working on the book to routinely give us new challenges for costuming.
Si Spurrier: I think we’ll start to see a lot more Tolvans, as well, because that’s a very cool look. We now live in an age of comics where comic artists and characters designers are increasingly thinking about cosplay when they create a character because it’s sort of lovely to see something come to life.
Kieron Gillen: Jamie [McKelvie] says, “I’d like to see them try and do this one!” The level of skill in the community is astounding. When people come up — it’s an incredibly pure expression of fandom but at the same time, it’s an art.
StarWars.com: I can say as one of the Aphra cosplayers — I think I was one of the first half dozen or so — it’s been a fun challenge at times specially with the tattoos. So we sort of have an idea, but what’s next for the not-so-good doctor?
Si Spurrier: Next arc is called “Broken Inside.” Aphra is in a particularly unique Imperial prison where she’s being forced to fight on behalf of the Empire along with her fellow prisoners. I won’t spoil where the story goes, as it goes in slightly unusual directions, but the kind of opening crisis for her is that she should be able to escape. She’s got lots of means and loose threads, which should allow her to escape. It rather involves her leaning on an awful lot of favors that she’s got floating around outside the prison. Every time she thinks she’s found a way to escape, either something — or more commonly, she causes it to go wrong because stuff is going on in the prison, too. It’s a sort of far darker, not quite so slapstick arc, which nonetheless has a lot of dark comedy beating around it. There’s one very, very big secret lurking at the center of this prison, which hopefully should really impress the crowd.
Kieron Gillen: When we were doing the plan, the thing that kind of draws the characters together is one of those… Aphra surprises you. It’s one of those beats where that’s a cold and weird move Aphra’s just done.
Si Spurrier: The start of #21, I think…
Kieron Gillen: Si’s writing the script again, but that’s one of those scenes I would’ve loved to write. It’s really meaty and awful.
Si Spurrier: To give you a little sort of unfair teaser, the end of issue #20, in the midst of this hellish prison environment, Aphra gets the chance to make a phone call or a Star Wars equivalent of a phone call. And the question is, if you had one call for somebody out there, given who you are Doctor Aphra, somebody who doesn’t tend to inspire loyalty in the people around you — if you had one call and it was to try and get somebody to come and get you, to come and help you, to get you out of there, who would you call? The first part of the arc kicks off from there.
StarWars.com: I have a theory.
Kieron Gillen: Who do you think, Bria?
StarWars.com: It’s Sana. It has to be.
Kieron Gillen and Si Spurrier: Mm, yeah…
Si Spurrier: We’ll see.
Bria LaVorgna is a writer who doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t love Star Wars. She also really loves Alderaan, Doctor Aphra, and Inferno Squad. You can follow her on Twitter @chaosbria.