#276 Doctor Aphra by Kieron Gillen

There are two ways one can look at Star Wars: as a world or as a franchise. Cynics and businesspeople will only see it as the latter, while dreamers and readers tend to see it as the former. But it is undeniably both. There is no escaping the financial empire (heh) built up around and indeed dependant on it. And it’s all too easy to see everything done in its name being driven by the mighty Imperial credit.

But this is also a universe that has long escaped the confines of its origins and creators. Roleplayers, cosplayers, and fanfic writers have been expanding this universe for decades. Heck, roleplaying is partly responsible for its continued survival as the WEG Star Wars sourcebooks were influential in Timothy Zhan’s revival of the Star Wars universe in his Thrawn trilogy.

The point I’m trying to make is this: Star Wars is a realm whose boundaries extend beyond the lives of the main protagonists. There are rooms for all kinds of stories to be told, such as John Favreau’s homage to the spaghetti western via The Mandalorian. And if The Mandalorian is Star Wars as spaghetti western, then Doctor Aphra is its Indiana Jones.

It’s more complicated than that, of course. For one thing, it’s hard to call Aphra moral. She’s a self-serving anti-hero with pangs of conscience. I’d describe her as Indiana Jones with the moral compass of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Kieron Gillen, principal writer of this series, describes her as falling somewhere between hero and villain. “She’s a bad person in many ways. At the same time, she’s in a universe with the worst people.”

This moral complexity is not something you normally see in Star Wars, and it does make you watch her adventures the same way one might gasp at a runaway train. She’s smart, she’s witty, she always has a plan, and she thinks fast on her feet when those plans invariably fall apart.

The first Doctor Aphra graphic novel includes 12 comics covering two large story arcs tied together by a single artifact. We start with Aphra finding her academic credentials revoked, effectively killing her career, and learns that her estranged father is responsible for it. He wants her to help him discover the final fate of the legendary Jedi known as the Ordu Aspectu.

The second storyline has Aphra taking the fruits of that first adventure and trying to unlock its secrets by enlisting Luke Skywalker’s help. She needs to parlay with a powerful but mysterious queen who only holds court once a year to accept strange tribute in exchange for her favor.

Joining her on these adventures are a pair of homicidal droids, 0-0-0 (a protocol droid specializing in etiquette, customs, translation, and torture) and BT-1 (an astromech droid carrying concealed heavy weaponry). Just as Aphra provides a dark reflection of the Indiana Jones archetype, these two are the evil twins of C-3PO and R2-D2.

Rounding out her team here is the Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan, who Aphra increasingly finds herself in debt to for the services he provides, but who is ultimately looking out only for himself.

There is a lot I like about Doctor Aphra, but she is far more than a series of ticked boxes of subverted tropes and expectations. However, I do have some quibbles about this collection. The pacing of the panels in some issues feels hurried at times. During the more chaotic moments, you have to spend time to piece together what happened between one panel and the next. Or mentally slow things down for the scene to feel right. It hurts the cinematic flow.

The art quality is always high, but I must admit that a few of the issues reminded me that just because you can use highly realistic artwork, doesn’t always mean you should. Comics are best served when the artwork looks like comics and not like poster art.

The problem is simple—far too often, the realistic characters’ expressions look blank. Comics are a condensed medium by design. You need to convey a lot in every panel, and a more cartoony and exaggerated style can convey far more than a stiff but realistic one. I think Kev Walker’s art in the first six issues hits the mark exactly right.

Of the two story arcs in this book, I liked the first one the most. It had a real sense of exploration and mythology woven into it, providing enough backstory to not only understand what they were searching for, but to see alternate interpretations of events before discovering the truth. Also, seeing the dynamic between Aphra and her father gives you a chance to understand her better.

The second adventure, however, was more akin to a horror movie, and in my opinion not as strong. The fact it was a crossover with their regular Star Wars series didn’t exactly help matters, because it added several more characters to focus our attention on. This is also where the photo-realism issue mentioned earlier comes in.

However, I do recommend this series for fans of Star Wars who are looking for something off the beaten path, and wanting to stray into the messier parts of a galaxy far, far away…

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