By Kieron Gillen, Kev Walker, Antonio Fabela, Salvador Larroca and Edgar Delgado
After debuting in the recently concluded Marvel series Darth Vader, Doctor Aphra — an original character created by series writer Kieron Gillen — not only managed to survive the Sith Lord, but has also come by her own series! It is ironic, that by surviving Vader’s own book, the character essentially survives the experience of being in service to the villain. Can we credit readers with turning the unknown Doctor Aphra into a fan-favorite, which in turn saved her life? Certainly that’s why she got her own title. But, whether it was a precarious set of circumstances that opened a path for her good fortune, or praise from fans and critics alike, scribe Kieron Gillen is ultimately responsible for the intriguing character Aphra has become. Surely Gillen would never have heard the end of it had she perished. And there’s good reason for why she should not have lasted beyond Darth Vader’s final issue #25, but you’ll have to circle back and read that story to see what it was all about.
For now let’s discuss issue #1 of Doctor Aphra, the newest series from Marvel’s line of Star Wars books, which arrives just in time for Rogue One, the next Star Wars movie. You might think it’s a sure bet that any book with Star Wars in the title will do well in sales, but this is an all new character competing with other film-based successes like Han Solo and Poe Dameron. So, it’s still a gamble on Marvel’s part, although this time it feels like a smart move and only time will tell if readers are willing to budget for yet another new comic. Anyone who’s been reading along knows that Doctor Aphra is a good pick for the first comic series not based on an existing, well known Star Wars character. However, good characters or not, the series will have to earn success like all other comics do, with good writing, great artwork and a ton of fun. It’s challenging enough to make a compelling Star Wars story, but it’s even more challenging to develop a comic book that fits into that universe without alienating the generations of purists already out there. At any rate, this is the new Extended Universe.
Aphra is an archeologist who now lives in fear of the Empire despite her former allegiance to the Empire. She brings a lot of baggage over from Darth Vader that allows her own series to hit the ground running. Aphra is in debt and facing a degree of necessary reinvention as she goes into hiding. This series seems to be a character study, showing us what informs the decisions of someone who was raised in the Empire, a place where lunatics are literally running the asylum. She made it work, found her place amongst them and now she hides from them, along with her are two “homicidal” droids and the warrior Wookiee Black Krrastan. These companions are designed to be as original as they are familiar. It’s the universe you know so well with a twist that may keep longtime Star Wars fans interested. For the purists, you’ll need to suspend your disbelief a bit more than usual in order to embrace what immediately feels like an evil alternate version of the standard Star Wars band of misfits.
The first issue works well. The story is fun enough and it’s told with terrific pacing that flows nicely. The dialogue, and copy in general, come across as efficient compared to some first issues that rely on heavy exposition. Gillen has his characters down, although it’s clearly the same formula as usual. Droids debate with banter exactly like C-3PO and R2-D2. Krrastan the Wookiee interjects responses with growls and grunts, which creates conversations exactly like ones between, for example, Chewbacca and Han Solo. As well written as Darth Vader was, and as fun as Doctor Aphra sets out to be, the series may suffer if it doesn’t take more original twists with less conventional situations and character interactions.
Exceptional artwork by artist Kev Walker and colorist Antonio Fabela certainly take the book to another level. Besides a combined professionalism, which makes for a highly legible book, these guys have a knack for character design. Not only is this comic a sign of quality expertise, it has also met the challenge of keeping this new story grounded in the Star Wars universe. The ships and buildings are well designed with elements that harken back to the original trilogy as well as the prequels. Nothing seems to be pristine, and the colors help render and imperfect, slightly decayed feel. Somehow the art is all together vibrant and subdued. The palette frequently uses grays and browns without sacrificing the intensity worthy of a Marvel comic. Even though equipment, blasters and other mechanical things may seem old and weathered, they still glow with power and you can almost feel the enegry humming.
However, recognizable species, settings and costumes, while done well, may not be enough. Like the storyline, the artwork may need more opportunity to shine. So here’s hoping Gillen has some neat stuff in store for us to see via these artists who are more than qualified for the job. Overall Doctor Aphra may be a title worth reading, but after issue #1 it remains to be seen if it’s worth holding out for the complete trade instead of individual issues.
That said there is one major bonus for your money. There’s a back up story, which continues to flesh out Aphra’s background, that’s as good just as good as the main story. We gain insight into her past while learning a bit about why Aphra is willing to set aside ethics and morals for her code as an archeologist. Backstory is just what we’ve always wanted with the Star Wars characters we already love, and so kudos to Gillen for taking us there so quickly. It seems Doctor Aphra is equally fun to read about presently as she was in her youth. And with artwork provided by illustrator Salvador Larroca and colorist Edgar Delgado you can’t go wrong. Here we actually get more well-rounded settings and backgrounds that open up the possibilities for the artists, which they do not hesitate to capitalize on. The tech is more advanced, complete with holographic charts and maps as well as more droids and creatures. This material allows the images to really shine, and between Larroca’s drawing and Delgado’s colors the world feels fully and impressively realized. Larraco is on par with the main story’s art, adding details and expressions worthy of the book overall. He doesn’t skip a beat and is capable of drawing people and machines with the same level of expertise. Delgado’s work is bright and saturated, and although the story doesn’t call for too many emotional cues, he still creates a world with a sense of brilliant wonder.
Just goes to show that, with a property like Star Wars, it isn’t tough to have a good time, though the challenge is in making it feel new withought undoing all of the elements that already work so well to make it a distinctly unmistakable universe. Doctor Aphra just may be up to that challenge.