INTERVIEW: Kieron Gillen Returns to Star Wars with 'Ethically Broken' Doctor Aphra

One of the intriguing elements of the Star Wars Universe is its rich history both in terms of the time period of what's been seen on screen, and the ancient periods of history that span thousands of years before the films and television shows. Games and comic books have mined that time period for stories in the past, but now there's a Marvel Comics series about a character who mines that time period for her wallet.

Of course, that would be "Doctor Aphra," the new ongoing series by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Kev Walker, which started with two issues last month. The book starring the titular ethically challenged archeologist who made her debut in the Gillen-written "Darth Vader" series.

In December's "Doctor Aphra" #1, Gillen reintroduced readers to Aphra's crew: the homicidal droids Triple Zero and Bee Tee; the Wookiee bounty hunter she owes a huge monetary debt to, Black Krrsantan; as well as a surprise character from her past. CBR spoke with Gillen about Aphra, her relationships with these characters, the initial archeological adventure they'll embark on and the ancient mystery that will drive much of the book's action.

CBR: How does it feel to have the debut issue of a Star Wars title featuring characters you created out in the world? It looks like the opening scene of “Doctor Aphra” #1 is very much a twisted homage to a Lucasfilm character and movie that inspired her creation: Indiana Jones and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Kieron Gillen: I've been working on this since before the end of “Darth Vader.” So finally having it out there is just fun.

The thing about the “Aphra” book is it's quite confident. You get the big hook at the end of what the story is going to be about and we build. So for me it was like, "Let me introduce these characters. I know most of you may have met them through 'Darth Vader,' but here they are. This is Doctor Aphra." Then we figured out a way to best delineate Doctor Aphra.

We did that with, as you pointed out, the sort of homage to Indiana Jones. There's the quiet presumption in that scene that she's the one in the mask, but it turns out no! She's Belloq! [Laughs] There's a part of me that wanted to run that for like 15 pages and have these incredible action sequences with this random person that just gets killed at the end.

That speaks to the black comedy of the book. It's darkly funny, but this isn't a gray character. She's the most ethically troubled Star Wars lead apart from Darth Vader.

The cast of the book are really bad people, but they are fun people to be around. [Laughs] We know Aphra is awful, but the question is how awful? That’s one of the things we'll look at in the book. We'll examine what she'll do and what she won't do. The first thing she won't do happens in the second issue. There's a sense from her of, "No! That's too bad even for me!" Plus, she occasionally does good things. And, due to the seedy corner of the galaxy she operates in, she mostly stabs people who are bad in the back. [Laughs]

There's a British TV show called "Fleabag." Aphra is a bit like "Fleabag," but in the Star Wars Universe. "Fleabag" is about this woman in her 20s who is just this moral monster. The stuff she does is utterly unforgivable, but also very funny to watch. [Laughs]

"Doctor Aphra" #3 cover by Karmome Shirahama.

What's it like bouncing the Wookiee bounty hunter Black Krrsantan off of Doctor Aphra? What made you want to bring him into the book?

Black Krrsantan was a character I wanted to do more with in "Darth Vader.” There wasn't really a whole lot of room to get into his subplots though because, as the title suggests, it was Darth Vader's book. Towards the end of “Vader” there was a shootout with Doctor Cylo's troops involving Black Krrsantan and Aphra where she goes, “Wait! Why are you with me?”

I’m pretty sure the readers wouldn't have questioned it, but Black Krrsantan had no explained motivation to help her. So the writer part of my brain went, "I have to stop and explain this. Guys -- he's just here because he wants to be paid." He wants the money Doctor Aphra owes him and he considers Aphra an investment.

So that’s why she has a relationship with him, but he's not exactly helpful. They don't have a Chewbacca and Han-style relationship. A guy who she owes a lot to in both money and personal favors is keeping her alive. She's like a bank and Aphra is almost too big to fail now for him.

So that was part of it, and we'll definitely get more with him. He gets to do some really cool action stuff in issue #3. That's a lot of fun. There's one panel Kev does which I basically want to marry.

So like Han and Chewie there is a life debt between Aphra and Black Krrsantan it's just the other way around? It's something that she owes him and it's constantly accruing?

Exactly. It's a complete inversion, and that's kind of a lot of what we do. We go through the big themes that way and I'm really looking forward into getting into his past and the gladiators that trained him. That will be entertaining when we get there.

EXCLUSIVE: Interior art from "Doctor Aphra" #3 by Kev Walker.

Another fun element of “Doctor Aphra” has got to be the title character's droids, Triple Zero and Bee Tee.

They are and it's interesting. In a way the fun has changed because Aphra was basically the comic relief in "Darth Vader." She was the good guy because as bad as she was, she still wasn't as bad as Vader.

The second you make her the lead that certainly changes the dynamic. Triple Zero is still really funny in a black comedy way, but he's clearly a growing problem. [Laughs] And Aphra doesn't quite realize how big a problem Triple Zero is.

In some ways he's the ticking time bomb of the comic. In issue #1 he's already going off and killing people without her permission. That’s not going to end well is it? And as funny as he is, we go pretty dark with him.

Aphra is now our lead and all the people around her who were comic relief when they were in Vader's book now become more threats. Everything around her becomes rearranged and a little more frightening. Not so much though that they'll lose their intrinsic humor. They're just more of a threat now that Vader is not around. Vader is like the absolute zero of threats.

So none of your cast members are really trustworthy individuals. It seems like it's only a matter of time then until this group self destructs.

Oh yeah. This can't end well. [Laughs] The way I put it in the pitch was that from Aphra's point of view with Darth Vader she had a tiger by the tail. How can I let go of this tiger and survive? I don't think Aphra realizes how many tigers she was holding by the tail. In some ways as our story proceeds there is a lot of that, and events following naturally from the interplay of this cast's poor decision-making skills.

I suddenly find myself thinking that you could do an Aphra playset for the excellent freeform RPG "Fiasco," and it'd work very well. I digress.

EXCLUSIVE: Interior art from "Doctor Aphra" #3 by Kev Walker.

Another interesting development in “Doctor Aphra” #1 was that on the final page we got to meet the title character's father, and it looks like he's part of a religious order.

Yes! We talked a bit about Aphra's mother and father in the original "Darth Vader." So there is a background there and I knew if I was to a do story about Aphra's past, I would have to bring her surviving parent in.

I had the idea that her mother and father were both idealistic in completely different ways. So very, very rapidly we get her father's interests in an ancient Jedi splinter group called The Ordu Aspectu. He's basically blackmailing Aphra to help him out. While we'll see it's not like that, the obvious comparison is an ethically broken "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." [Laughs]

The stuff with Aphra and her father is great and really meaty. They're people who obviously have kind of a strange relationship. By the end of the arc you kind of know Aphra a lot better, which is the main reason I wanted to do the book.

What else can you tell us about the mission Aphra and her father embark on in this first arc? Will you be visiting some familiar Star Wars locales?

In our first arc there are no familiar Star Wars characters from the movies. Part of that was because we wanted to define the book by itself, but at the same time we did want to touch on a few interesting locales. There was one big iconic locale I wanted to use in particular. So you'll get some great action set pieces at a place you know, but you don't know like this. That's part of the fun of it.

The book's fundamental Indiana Jones quality come from the fact that it's about an archeologist in the Star Wars universe. The thing about the Star Wars universe is it's really, really old. That's kind of the thrill of it for me -- taking a Star Wars thing and doing something you have not seen before with it.

Right, some of the ancient elements of the Star Wars universe were explored in stories that are no longer considered canon, but you can bring back some of those elements, correct?

What I've been told about the previous stuff is that it doesn't exist until you bring it back in. There is one thing in this story that is based on a very obscure bit of Legends material that I suspect people won't spot. It's so obscure that even long term Star Wars fans might not spot it and even then they probably won't notice it until the end, because it's a complete reimagining of a concept. I mean, to stress, it's so obscure that I 100 percent don't expect people to get what I'm building on. It's just a good idea we're giving a 21st century spin on. I expect readers to experience it just as this excellent thing that happens.

A possible comparison to what we're doing with past canon is what Marvel did with its Ultimate Universe. All the toys are there, but they don't really exist until we reintroduce them. And when we reintroduce them we can do that in a way that makes it all kind of fit together.

That's very much how I look at it. It's, "What cool stuff can we give a new spin too?"

EXCLUSIVE: Interior art from "Doctor Aphra" #3 by Kev Walker.

What kinds of obstacles and adversaries will Aphra and her father run afoul of in this initial story?

Well, Imperials to start! [Laughs] There are a number of Imperials in the story including an officer I introduce named Captain Tolvan, and she's great. I like her a lot. She's like the complete opposite of Aphra. She's clipped and very collected. She's also very angry all the time. For those who read "Journey Into Mystery," she's Leah to Aphra's Loki, but actually antagonistic.

Then one of the other threats stems from the Indiana Jones-style archeological adventures. So there's weird stuff from the ancient past. It’s not Sith stuff, though. The Jedi history is very long. So this is a completely different Jedi splinter group.

I've gone through all of "The History of Rome" podcast as part of the research for my new "The Wicked + The Divine" special. Part of that is all the Christian heresies and the different groups. What I'm doing with the Ordu Aspectu is kind of like that. In terms of this is a really ancient Jedi splinter group, which had a very specific reading of the Force. We kind of get into that. It's also partly that they don't really know who the Ordu Aspectu were because it was so long ago.

We flash back to their time long, long ago and what I'm trying to get to is what happened to the Ordu Aspectu is as mythical to the people of the Star Wars Universe as Star Wars is to us.

Are they sort of comparable to the Night Sisters of Dathomir?

Good comparison! I was thinking about the Night Sisters really recently, actually. I'd rather people not know exactly what the Ordu are though. That's why I'm happy the first two issues are coming out so close together; you get a lot about the Ordu Aspectu. Aphra Senior and Aphra Junior have kind of different takes on them. The mystery of what the Ordu are and what they're trying to do is open all the way through the series.

You're working with artist Kev Walker on "Doctor Aphra," who's always great, and his work here feels like "2000 A.D." meets the "Star Wars" concept art of Ralph McQuarrie.

Yeah, "Star Wars" is an enormous influence on Kev's stuff. You get him talking about that you'll be there all day, and it will be amazing. "Star Wars" and Ralph's art is one of the reasons why he became an artist.

There's also a Moebius influence in there, and you definitely get "2000 A.D." in the velocity. I'm doing an action book, though, so what Kev is doing is a master class in action-science fiction storytelling. Kev is always great, but I think what he's doing with Star Wars is above and beyond that. As we go through, I leave more space for Kev to do his thing.

Apart from Jaimie [McKelvie] I can't think of an artist I've worked with who we reworked the script to make it work better for them. In terms of, "OK, let's do the action sequence like this." Then we'll move it and certain beats around. I even like the storytelling on the slow bits. The storytelling is just beautiful, clear, funny and human. I couldn't be happier with this.

EXCLUSIVE: Interior art from "Doctor Aphra" #3 by Kev Walker.

You're known for telling long-form ongoing stories with a beginning, middle and end. "Darth Vader" was one of those stories -- is "Doctor Aphra" one as well?

What attracted me most to this job was I got to define Aphra as a functioning character in the Star Wars Universe. So the first year is one story. That will be about 15 issues, and it's kind of, "Here's Aphra, here's why she's a great character, and here is how she impacts the Star Wars universe." It's a complete story in and of itself.

I've got an idea for a second year, which I also know the ending of. So we'll see. There's a possibility of 15-30 issues, and then depending on who's alive at the end I may do even more. I guess a way of looking it as I see each of the “years” as a movie in and of itself. Modular, but building.

Star Wars books are the only new things I'm doing right now that are not creator-owned. That tells you how much fun I'm having. I may not own everything I'm doing right now, but all the books I’m working on feature characters I've created, which tells you where my head is at the moment. I went through the renovation phase of my career and now I'm much more into doing things that I've built from the ground up.

In some ways, “Aphra” is two-fisted archeological adventures in the Star Wars Universe. We're having a lot of fun and we're bringing in so much different stuff. The fact that it's Star Wars adds a lot. I'm thinking up a lot of stuff, but I'm also part of a story group which means I can go, "Oh I can use this. Something from 'Rogue One' might be useful here." Very small things in the comic tie into "Rogue One," which means when people come out of the movie and read the comic they can be like, "Oh! I see that this person was in this place." The thing that I love about this is it's connected to the brightest thing in pop culture, and it's just great to be a part of that.

"Doctor Aphra" #3 is scheduled for release from Marvel on Jan. 18.

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