A few weeks ago I wrote at some length about the recently concluded Star Wars: Darth Vader series. Part of what worked so well for Darth Vader was the utilization of new characters that fit into the Star Wars model: taking classic archetypes and molding them to that universe. The character that struck a chord most with readers was Doctor Aphra, the “evil Indiana Jones” archaeologist that served as Vader’s plucky sidekick. Just a few short months after Darth Vader’s conclusion, Marvel has launched a spinoff series focusing on Aphra and her (mis)adventures. While the first issue at times feels like a traditional opening, the series looks to have a lot of potential.
The series sees writer Kieron Gillen return to the character he helped create as she moves past her alliance with Darth Vader and returns to her “normal” life of stealing artifacts for her own gain. Joining her are murderous droids Triple Zero and Beetee, as well as homicidal wookie Black Krrsantan. When her doctorate comes under suspicion and is revoked, she must work to regain her credentials any and every way she can.
My opinion on spinoffs for fan-favorite characters is that they usually destroy the “mystique” that the character once had. To me, characters like Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Red Lantern Atrocitus from Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern lost something by going from cool supporting figures to focal characters in their own stories. Angel was cool when he just showed up occasionally to act as a guide to Buffy. As a tortured “hero” whose every action viewers saw on Angel, not so much.
Which is why it feels refreshing to see that, at least for the first issue, Aphra hasn’t lost any of what made her so fun in Darth Vader. She still has a whip-smart attitude and an edge to her, showing a little bit of Han Solo in her interaction with a local crime lord, that makes her infectiously enjoyable to read. It helps that Gillen is still writing her character, of course, so hopefully she continues to be as enjoyable in future issues as she is here.
Gillen also shows that he still is having a hell of a good time writing characters in the Star Wars universe. Aphra maintains the focus with her antics and the characters around her shine just as bright. Triple Zero and Beetee return to add comedic relief to situations with their blunt and murderous statements (one scene does portray the pair in a darker light, but Gillen quickly follows it with a well-timed joke about spontaneous combustion). Krrsantan is quietly imposing and isn’t afraid to showcase his brutality when someone threatens his profits (mainly Aphra’s debts to him), even beating two hulking creatures senseless in a great sequence. All of this is to say that Gillen reintroduces the characters for both new and old readers so they can get their bearings before the action really starts.
Which is ultimately why this issue doesn’t live up to the heights that some of the other Star Wars books have gotten off to. This issue works for brand new readers who don’t know anything about the characters – what many people who read this article might be. But there is very little given as to what the overarching story could be. Even if Aphra doesn’t end up being as tightly focused around one conflict as Darth Vader was, there are only tiny indications, saved for the final few pages of the main story, that will tell where the story will go next. This isn’t a huge slight on the issue. It just could have been even better had there been less time spent re-establishing the characters and more time showing what the larger conflict will be.
The art manages to strike a different tone from Salvador Larroca’s style on Vader, ultimately helping the book succeed. Had Larroca come back alongside Gillen to tell this story it would have been living in the shadow of Vader, unable to escape the comparisons. Instead, Gillen works alongside Star Wars newcomer Kev Walker to give Aphra a new feel decidedly different from Vader. Walker’s art takes on a slightly more cartoonish style that relies less on photo-realism and shadows, his world being much more grimy and lived-in than Larroca’s was. Hints of dirt and rust litter the background of his panels and help to make the setting feel more like a real place than something imagined in an artist’s head. Aphra very much feels like a new chapter in this ongoing story instead of a continuation of what has come before.
That being said, Larroca does make an appearance to illustrate the backup story which details how Aphra came to receive her doctorate as a young woman. The style here does match Vader’s much more, and feels like a necessary piece of the issue for both the progression of the narrative and the creation of the book. This is Larroca handing off the baton to Walker, allowing Walker to pick up where he left off. Now that the series has had Larroca illustrate it, the focus can now be on Gillen and Walker’s collaboration.
When push comes to shove I would recommend Darth Vader above all other Star Wars books coming out of Marvel right now. But that series only lasted a brief twenty-five issues (and one annual). For people who tear through Vader and want more to satiate them, Doctor Aphra is a fun continuation to one of the plot threads left dangling from Vader’s tale. While the first issue feels like traditional debut fare, later issues will hopefully pick up steam and reach some of the heights of its predecessor.