This week GLAAD handed out their annual Media Awards and among this year’s winners was a character that got a few people scratching their heads. You may know Star Wars, but do you know the queer antihero Doctor Aphra?
A unique creation of Marvel’s official Star Wars comics in 2015, Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is an expert in ancient weapons with a love of Jedi history and a flexible attitude towards the rules. Wise-cracking, selfish and scrappy, Aphra is a unique blend of, well, two Harrison Ford characters. Take the amoral survival instincts of Han Solo, and mix in the daring intellectual hunger of Indiana Jones, with the sexual energy of both combined. And she was an instant hit with readers when she appeared in Marvel’s Darth Vader comic, her debut issue selling out multiple times.
“She has this very fun-loving attitude, she’s very fun to be around, but she’s really bad as a person,” is how co-creator Keiron Gillen described her to Starwars.com. She was “designed to be Darth Vader’s foil…she has to do a lot of the talking when Darth Vader doesn’t. Darth Vader will not make jokes. To be even a fun book to read, you need her to lighten it.”
So who is Doctor Chelli Aphra? She’s a disgraced archeologist (with a dubious doctorate) who is likely to destroy the remains of an ancient civilisation just to steal an artefact if it takes her fancy. While she tries not to kill, you know, it happens sometimes. Her curiosity will often (always) get the best of her and half of her impressive intellect is used up getting herself out of scrapes. Her friends all want to (literally) kill her.
Aphra became the lynchpin of Vader’s “off-the-books” squad, along with murderous versions of C3P0 and R2D2 named 0-0-0 (Triple Zero) and BT-1 (Beetee) and a Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan. Gillen originally planned to have Vader kill her to protect his own secrets, but over the series’ 25 issues the character had developed a strong following of her own, leading to her solo book.
It was here, in her own book with writers Gillen and later Si Spurrier, that Aphra grew. Between trying to make a living, hide from Darth Vader and managing her own dysfunctional relationship with her criminal colleagues, she developed a Killing Eve-esque cat and mouse game with a female Imperial Officer, Magna Tolvan.
In 2019, Star Wars: Doctor Aphra scored its first GLAAD nomination (losing out to the excellent Exit, Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles).
Aphra is an intersectional hit; drawn with an Asian appearance, she is a lesbian genius who is an undeniable expert in her field, juggling an increasingly complex and dangerous relationship. Considering the appalling racism displayed by “fans” towards Kelly Marie Tran when she appeared in The Last Jedi, Aphra stands in sharp contrast (I’d say comic book readers were more enlightened, but that has sadly been proven to be untrue). As a fully-rounded character, Aphra is a new kind of Star Wars protagonist, one who fills all the tropes we’ve come to expect from the franchise and so much more. As slate.com put it “it’s not just white dudes, for once, who get to see themselves in a morally dubious hero.”
The strength of Aphra is also that her sexuality has never been eroticised. Clad in work clothes, Aphra is no galactic vamp. Her flirtation with the uptight Tolvan is built on small moments. Two intergalactic lesbian anti-heros on the wrong side of the moral battle, trying to do their best in a dirty universe. As Gillen said, “She’s a bad person in many ways. At the same time, she’s in a universe with the worst people. It’s a good way of putting it — she does come in between the two. You do see her do good things and bad things.”
Doctor Aphra has already been adapted into an audiobook starring Emily Woo Zeller. It’s no wonder a Disney+ series is rumored to be in development. Start your own queer/Asian dream casting now!
Star Wars: Doctor Aphra stands as a welcome queer space in the frustratingly heteronormative Star Wars universe. Seriously, a small kiss in The Rise of Skywalker, retconning Lando into an omnisexual flirt, and teasing us with Finn/Poe doesn’t count IMO.
For any character to step out from Darth Vader’s sizable shadow is an achievement and Aphra’s success is a testament to good writing and art. At the end of the day, Doctor Aphra does what the recent trilogy never quite managed to do – gives you classic Star Wars with a modern twist, wrapped up in a damn fun story that satisfies.
The collected Volumes 1-7 of Marvel’s Star Wars: Doctor Aphra are available now from your local bookseller. The second volume of the comic has just launched.