Brow Beat

The Best Star Wars Character of This Millennium Is a Lesbian Archaeologist

Doctor Aphra brings some much-needed shades of gray to that galaxy far, far away.

Covers from the Doctor Aphra comics series.
Covers from the Doctor Aphra comics series. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Marvel.

In the Star Wars movies, there are only two sides, light and dark, and star warriors rarely last for long in between. In generation after generation, each character breaks either good or bad, along the lines laid out in the late 1970s by George Lucas. Their paths are set, their hats white or black, even before the characters themselves will admit it.

What a relief, then, to meet Doctor Aphra. Created in 2015 by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca for Marvel’s line of Star Wars comics, this self-identifying “rogue archaeologist” lives to track down the ancient relics of her war-torn galaxy. She adores old Jedi artifacts and anything that kabooms. She’ll sell her lethal finds to the highest bidder—and sell out anyone she happens to be working with, or sleeping with. Like Han Solo, she’s always in over her head, always having to scramble from Plan A to Plan B or even to Plan Q. Also like Solo, she sometimes sports a badass vest any cosplayer could whip up. But unlike that affable goober, she’s never guaranteed to swoop in and save the day, at least not for anyone but herself. If she had a heart of gold, she’d carve it from her chest and hock it.

In short, she’s driven, selfish, decisive, and wildly unpredictable, everything that Star Wars heroes aren’t. And her misadventures—collected in the Doctor Aphra trade paperbacks plus some of Gillen’s Darth Vader comics and a few crossovers with the mainline Star Wars title—constitute the freshest, most surprising stretch of Star Wars storytelling since Lucas sold the franchise. (Currently, her stories take place between the original Star Wars film and The Empire Strikes Back.)

Gillen, Aphra’s creator and most frequent writer, excels at rowdy heist plotting. He likes to pair his amoral hero up with a sneaky mission and an unlikely foil: Darth Vader, who employs her; Luke Skywalker, whom she occasionally kidnaps; the psychopathic protocol droid Triple Zero, who is trained in “etiquette, customs, translation, and torture.” Then, Gillen sets them to scheming against each other in the scummiest corners of the Star Wars universe. The stories, like Death Stars, tend to explode, but unpredictably so, with escalating twists, striking moral quandaries, and only occasionally anything like a truly happy ending. Aphra doesn’t always prevail—she winds up in Imperial and rebel prisons. For all her disarming cheerfulness, Aphra knows that being a rogue means going it alone, and in some truly chilling moments, she faces this.

In her first appearance, in Gillen and Larocca’s 2015 Darth Vader series (collected in the redundantly titled Darth Vader Vol. 1: Vader), Aphra at first seems indebted to another Lucas creation. We meet her on a raid, a lone archaeologist facing a deceptively empty room that she suspects is booby-trapped. Within just a couple panels, the place is collapsing around her, and she’s fleeing a great rolling ball—not a Raiders of the Lost Ark boulder, in this case, but a droideka, one of those pill bug–esque battle bots you might remember from the prequels. The homage edges into parody when Aphra exclaims, about an ancient weapon she’s hunted down, “It belongs in an armory!”

But in her subsequent appearances, Aphra gains a depth that Indiana Jones never quite did. If she doesn’t quite worry over the ethics of releasing forgotten killing machines into the galaxy, she at least sometimes considers them. And, since she’s always on the hunt or on the run, she can’t maintain a healthy romantic relationship, though unlike Indiana Jones, she doesn’t relish this freedom. She aches for two different women who have claims to her heart—two women whom, inevitably, she must betray to survive. (One’s a rebel hero. The other is a—oh, you can guess.) Gillen has said he considers Aphra a lesbian, and the comics, to his credit, have never exploited or exoticized her sexuality. She’s also drawn with a suggestion of Asian heritage, a matter-of-fact choice with resonance in our universe: It’s not just white dudes, for once, who get to see themselves in a morally dubious hero.

Besides the vigorous storytelling and startling twists, the Doctor Aphra comics (currently written by Si Spurrier, with no drop-off in quality) fill in shades of gray that are otherwise missing from Star Wars’ moral spectrum. Here, the perennial war is a backdrop rather than the focus, both a chance for an enterprising spirit like Aphra to profit but also an annoyance—all those blockades and patrols complicate her life—and a tragedy. Gillen wrote a short prose story for the 2017 Star Wars anthology From a Certain Point of View in which he explicates Aphra’s thinking about the war: “Better the Empire when the alternative was that. Weak people died in their billions in that alternative.”

That story, “The Trigger,” takes place on the day that the Empire blows up the planet Alderaan. Aphra learns about this from an Imperial general whose troops have caught her raiding an abandoned rebel hideout. Her reaction to the news is complex: She’s awed, even a little turned on, at the thought of such destructive might. She annoys the Imperials by excitedly gaming out what tech could have possibly achieved it. She wonders aloud whether the Death Star has a “trigger”—whether any one person flipped the switch that murdered billions. She wonders if killing that many from a distance is easier than killing one person in front of you.

Soon, with all that rattling around in her and our heads, she has her gun pointed at the face of the one stormtrooper between her and escape. He’s on his knees. She’s in control. She might not have to execute him, but things would be much easier if she did. The miracle of Gillen’s Doctor Aphra is that you can’t be sure, as you read, whether she’ll do it or not.

Cover of Doctor Aphra