This week Marvel Comics debuted the newest ongoing series in its Star Wars line of comics: Doctor Aphra.
That’s a name that will only provoke a reaction from fans of the recently concluded Darth Vader series. From even longtime fans of the films, it will probably incur no more than a “Huh” or “Whosat”. That’s all because Doctor Aphra has existed only in comics for just under two years. She’s the smallest of the small fry in a big universe that’s far, far away.
That sort of introduction may not seem like a ringing endorsement, but it is actually the exact reason that Doctor Aphra not only needs her own comics series, but should be establishing a model for Star Wars comics going forward. Whether or not you know her name or have read about her exploits yet, you’re probably scratching your head, so let’s explain...
Who is Doctor Aphra?
Doctor Aphra first appeared in Darth Vader #3 where she was created by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca. She was introduced as part of Vader’s “recruitment drive” for agents to face down new rivals also serving Emperor Palpatine. Her role in the team was a multifaceted one. While she is an archaeologist, she quickly reveals a knack both as a droid technician and detective. Right away she helps with the introduction of assassin droids Triple Zero (0-0-0) and BeeTee (BT-1), devilish reflections of C-3PO and R2-D2, respectively. In Vader’s hunt for spies and Luke Skywalker, she plays a key role discovering new connections and managing to keep pace with the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.
The fact that she was able to play such an integral role in Vader’s machinations and stay alive for as long as she did is impressive enough. The rest of her resume, accompanied by a devil may care attitude, ensured her cool factor was never in doubt. But like every character introduced in Darth Vader, it was clear from the start that she was expendable. She will never be part of the film series and even Doctor Aphra states that she will be killed when her purpose is served. So it came as a surprise when she narrowly avoided death at the end of the series after Vader ejected her into space. All of which begs the question: Why keep her around?
Why Star Wars Needs Her?
All of the reasons why Doctor Aphra is expendable also make clear why Marvel Comics and Disney need her to stick around. Within the context of the movies there’s a limited runway for stories. No matter how busy Han, Luke, and Leia remain, there are still only so many hours in a day and a limited timetable between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Unlike superhero comics which sprawl infinitely towards a conclusion that almost never comes, there is a clear history to the story of Star Wars. There are endings and historical events, all of which form the mold these comics are filling up like cement to create a permanent structure.
So on one hand Marvel Comics has struck gold with their incredibly popular Star Wars line of comics. But on the other hand they have a limited set of characters and amount of time to fill with stories before they stretch any sense of believability. How do you keep telling great Star Wars stories without risking the coherency of the universe itself? You expand the universe.
Doctor Aphra and her supporting cast like BeeTee and Triple Zero represent the next logical step. They are creations that fit within the tone, style, and history of the Star Wars universe, but have no clear ending in sight. There’s potential for Doctor Aphra to find a happy ending and live to see the rise of the First Order, or she could perish in a truly tragic climax that nobody could have seen coming. That unpredictability is valuable too in that it is set in a character who fans like. You could do the same thing with a random alien from the Mos Eisley Cantina or Mon Mothma, but without a personality and story that makes people care, there’s no reason to read. For anyone who read Darth Vader, there’s no way you can ignore what might come next for Doctor Aphra.
It’s not like any of this is a new concept either. For the decades that Dark Horse Comics held the rights to Star Wars, they expanded the universe in just about every conceivable direction. They told stories that were ancient lore, fleshed out characters who appeared in only a single shot, and still added to the stories of the main heroes from the films. Doctor Aphra represents, perhaps, the best possible way to expand the universe though. As a supporting cast member she was able to both connect herself to the central narrative of Star Wars and develop a fandom of her own. This sort of expansion is the best of both worlds where a newcomer can see how everything fits together, but the stories are fresh and almost entirely unbound by film canon.
What Comes Next?
If there was any doubt, Doctor Aphra is a series to get excited about. Not only does it have a ne’er-do-well version of Indiana Jones in space as its lead, but the supporting cast of killer robots and Wookie bounty hunters guarantees a great adventure. But it’s just one series in a big galaxy. The key to this new launch is that it should establish a pattern, not exist as one great idea.
As Star Wars and its various spin-offs continue, it’ll be up to Marvel Comics to highlight their best new character finds. In the pages of Star Wars there’s Sana Starros who was initially introduced as Han Solo’s wife (which isn’t entirely true), but has shown herself to be a rogue every bit his equal. If the comics featuring the leads of these great films can discover one great new character each year, there’s no telling how many new series we’ll be reading down the road.
Doctor Aphra was an expendable nobody when she arrived at the start of 2015. Now she’s a character who can carry her own comics series and could even believably make a cameo in the Han Solo film. Marvel Comics has a seemingly unlimited amount of potential on its hands in that it can create new characters that connect directly to the original Star Wars films. Not only can they continue their own line of comics, but they can expand a universe we all love.
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