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Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume One (Review)

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra Volume One:  Aphra
Written by Kieron Gillen
Publisher:  Marvel Comics
Trade Paperback, 2017

The purchase of both the LucasFilm production company and American comic book publisher Marvel Comics by entertainment conglomerate Disney has allowed for some cross-pollination of creative work.  From 2015, Marvel Comics have  commenced publishing various series and mini-series related to the popular LucasFilm characters from the Star Wars film franchise (this last occurred by way of a licnensing arrangement from 1977 to 1986).  Many characters from these films have appeared in works from Marvel. But what makes the Doctor Aphra series interesting is that  the title lead is a character that was created and to date exists only in the comic book medium .  First appearing in a series featuring prominent Star Wars villain Darth Vader as the protagonist, Doctor Aphra has since graduated to a series on its own, as written by Aphra’s creator Kieron Gillen. (We have previously reviewed Star Wars: Doctor Aphra #1.)

That would seem to be a smart move on the part of Marvel Comics.  At first glance, a comic book series starring Darth Vader does not seem to make much sense.  In the  context of the motion pictures, Darth Vadar tends to say little and  is mostly used in an iconic way,   an unstoppable force for evil.  It is only in the final moments of the last film of the original Star Wars trilogy, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Twentieth Century Fox, 1983) that Darth Vader shows any sort of vulnerability at all.  How could Mr. Gillen then take such a character and make it work in a series comic book? Worse, in circumstances where the character  was  the nominal villain destined to lose, and in a storyline sandwiched between two films, namely Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)?  Part of the solution, which made the Darth Vader comic book series fun, was to give Darth Vader a supporting cast that acted as dark mirror images of Star Wars’ protagonist Luke Skywalker’s own friends and allies.  Instead of fussy protocol droid C-3PO, there was sociopathic torture droid Triple Zero.  Instead of all-purpose helper droid R2-D2, there was psychopathic murder droid BeeTee.  Instead of loyal sidekick Chewbacca the alien Wookiee, there was vicious Wookiee bounty hunter Black Krrsantan.  And, instead of dashing rogue smuggler Han Solo, as portrayed in the Star Wars films by American actor Harrison Ford, there was Doctor Aphra.

It is Aphra who came across as the most three-dimensional of the characters.  The two droids exist only to murder organic beings, limiting any character development or extension, while the equally superficial Black Krrsantan is brutal in a fight but mostly just wants his paycheck.  But Aphra was fast-talking, morally slippery, and most interested in her own survival – or, barring that, a quick death.   Aphra turned on Vader by the end of the original Darth Vader comic book series and faked her own death, leading to the current Doctor Aphra series.  Much of this was discussed in our previous review for the first issue.  Reading the first trade paperback released by Marvel Comics and covering the first six issues, it should become even more clear that Doctor Aphra not only stood in as a mirror image for the Han Solo character, but she also bears a strong, twisted resemblance to another LucasFilm character portrayed in film by actor Harrison Ford:  archeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones.

Indeed, the opening pages of Doctor Aphra greatly resemble the famous opening sequence of the first Indiana Jones motion picture, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Paramount Pictures, 1981).  In that film, Indiana Jones braves various death traps, most famously a rolling, giant boulder, to retrieve a precious artifact, only to reach the end and have it stolen by an armed rival.  That sequence repeats itself in Doctor Aphra where a masked treasure hunter retrieves an artifact of some kind only to have the artifact stolen by an armed rival.  The difference is, in Doctor Aphra, Doctor Aphra herself is the armed rival, and the man who managed to escape the death traps ends up shot in the back. It is a wry shrug directed to LucasFilm aficionados. The inversion of Indiana Jones in the form of Dr Aphra has been expressly identified by Mr Gillen.

There is another resemblance to Indiana Jones, which serves as the springboard  of the main plot of the volume.  Aphra finds trouble when the character’s doctorate is revoked.  Flashbacks reveal Aphra came by the degree in fraudulent ways to avenge a dishonest academic advisor. But without a doctorate, not only can Aphra not be referred to as “Doctor Aphra,” but Aphra cannot sell the treasures she finds and, as a result, cannot pay off the debt she owes to Black Krrsantan (the relationship is not built upon friendship, unlike Han Solo and Chewbacca, but instead is entirely transactional).  Who managed to revoke Aphra’s doctorate?  The answer is her own father.    Aphra’s father wants Aphra’s help on his own quest to look into an ancient sect called the Ordu Aspectu, a splinter group from the Jedi Knights, the mystical warriors of the Star Wars universe.

This obsession with  the Ordu Aspectu  with few if any solid facts about a  them should also remind the reader of another facet of the Indiana Jones character:.  Jones’ father, Henry Jones Sr. (played in the third Indian Jones motion picture, entitled Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989),  by Scottish actor Sean Connery), was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail, a mythical artifact associated with the Christian religion. There is little if any definitive proof of its existence.  In the third film Henry Jones Sr’s obsession with the Holy Grail cost the character a family as it searched for a cup that could grant the drinker immortality.  In Doctor Aphra, Aphra’s father obsesses with the Ordu Aspectu at the cost of a family. Aphra’s father perceives the Aspectu as a benevolent group wiped out by the Jedi before the Aspectu could complete their experiments to grant peace and eternal life to the galaxy one thousand years earlier. (The quest for immortality is also a nod to the third Indian Jones motion picture.)  Aphra, on the other hand, knows the legends are suspicious at best. She retells the same story about the Aspectu but by framing the Aspectu as the vicious evil-doers and the Jedi as the heroes of the tale.  Aphra’s point is a simple one:  the legends and historical record say so little about the Ordu Aspectu that either version of the story could be the true one.

Immortality in the context of the character’s longevity is a concept which we suspect will be explored. The character will never appear in the motion pictures. Given Dr Aphra’s predilection for trouble, and the bleak personalities of her peers, it is almost certain that in the long run, Dr Aphra will be killed. Major character Luke Skywalker will not die, at least not in a comic book format. But Dr Aphra has not such assurance of perpetuation.  Perhaps part of the attraction of the character’s adventures is the genuine uncertainty by the reader about the outcome of any particular Aphra tale. Any one of them might led to Aphra’s death. Aphra will be cheated of immortality in the long run. (Although, perhaps, the true test of immortality in our consumerist age for anyone, fictional or otherwise,  is conversion into a Hasbro figurine – and Aphra recently won a vote on that.)

With the promise of her father restoring the doctorate Aphra needs so badly to continue working, Aphra agrees to assist the old man in tracking down the location of the last stand of the Ordu Aspectu and to learn the truth behind the sect’s  search for immortality.  It should come as no surprise to the reader that Aphra’s reading of events regarding what the Aspectu really were was closer to the truth. But Mr. Gillen has crafted a fun adventure here He continues to play around the storyline established by the Star Wars film franchise, and expands that universe with new and colorful characters that have roguish charms of their own.  Doctor Aphra’s scheming ways show great potential for long term fun as Aphra continues to look for lost treasures to earn herself a large payment on the black market. But she is careful to e avoid any and all encounters with the Empire that rules the galaxy lest she find herself back in the crosshairs of Darth Vader yet again.  Standing as dark counterpoints to both the heroic characters of the Star Wars films and the archeologist Indiana Jones, Doctor Aphra and her crew should provide great fun for fans of Star Wars.  Mr. Gillen has done something that would be very difficult to do given the age of that science fiction franchise:  he has created a new character that can stand on its own alongside the more established and recognizable icons.