The comic creators talk about the impact of one of Star Wars’ most popular queer characters -- as well as their own journeys.
If you’re a fan of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, the names Kieron Gillen and Alyssa Wong should be familiar ones; they’re the comic book writers who, respectively, co-created Doctor Aphra and are currently writing the rogue archaeologist’s ongoing series. After her debut in Star Wars: Darth Vader #3 in 2015, Aphra has quickly risen to prominence as one of the most recognizable characters in Star Wars who doesn’t hail from the films or television shows, drawing fans from all walks of life. She has become particularly notable for 1) somehow surviving multiple encounters with Darth Vader when others might not have and 2) being one of the first and certainly most well-known queer characters in the Star Wars galaxy.
In honor of Pride Month, I spoke with Gillen and Wong to talk about writing Doctor Aphra and our own experiences as queer people, both in the real world and in relation to the galaxy far, far away.
StarWars.com: Thank you both for sitting down with me today. Before we dive too deep into things, I have to ask, because Celebration was just a few weeks ago and the official store had a shirt with Doctor Aphra on it: Did either of you ever think you would see Aphra on official Celebration store merch?
Kieron Gillen: No. I mean, I don't think about anything [in those terms]. It's one of the great joys. I literally don't plan for the future. When it’s not a character you own, when it’s a character you’ve created for somebody else, you send your child forth into the world. And then it’s like, you get photos of them on Instagram and they're doing really well. That's how I kind of feel about the t-shirt. It's like, “Oh good, good. Aphra’s doing well for herself. Good for you, girl!” But that’s still exciting.
Alyssa will talk about this as well, but I think [seeing a] cosplayer is the first moment you get it. You know what I mean? Anything after that first moment is just kind of reiterating that, “Oh, this is weird and interesting and absolutely magical.” But that initial, “Oh, this connected with somebody and they want to use it as a way to express their own individuality,” that’s the magic moment, really.
Alyssa Wong: For me, that's when it's real. Otherwise, I'm just playing pretend with pretend people by myself in a room, usually very late at night. [Laughs.] It was kind of surreal to see an Aphra shirt, but also, coming onto the project much later, I'm like, “Oh, of course people love Aphra.” I've seen pictures of cosplayers, and at Celebration, I got to see a bunch of cosplayers in person. And, obviously, I think you [Bria] were my first Aphra cosplayer, period.
StarWars.com: I feel very special about that.
Alyssa Wong: And that was wild. [Laughs.] Oh, man. It's crazy. So cool.
StarWars.com: Kieron, I know you just said you don't really plan for the future, but when you first started writing Aphra, was the intent always that she was going to be a lesbian or is that something you sort of learned about her along the way as you kept writing?
Kieron Gillen: That's what we learned. All I really knew about [Aphra’s] sexuality was, “She doesn't want to sleep with Vader.” That isn't what her relationship’s like. I know there's a lot of people who like Aphra who may disagree with me, but that was the core thing. No, it's not that kind of relationship. It's just not, and that was the building block for me of her.
It was actually adjacent [to what] Alyssa was saying; it seems more real when someone else does something. I always feel like that about work for hire. When it’s just you writing a character, there’s a sense of unreality to it. It's like, Aphra didn't feel as real as Vader or Luke or Han or anyone else because I was writing them, but then Jason [Aaron] took her over for an arc [in the monthly Star Wars series], “Rebel Jail,” and then she became more real because she had a life outside of me. It was Jason who said, “I want to hint on a past relationship with Sana,” and I said, “Great, go for it!” And then, and from that moment, I know she's a lesbian. That was immediate for me.
Why did I lean a lesbian rather than bisexual? That's partially because I just think I've made more bisexual [characters]. Maybe it was that simple. [Alyssa laughs.] There's a bit in my brain as a creator, like, what have I done more of? [Laughs.] Speaking as somebody [who’s], you know, bisexual himself, obviously I'm very pro bisexual visibility. I’d be very self-defeating if I wasn't, but it just seemed right, I guess. I quite like the fact that immediately means, “Oh, she's not going to go into a romance with Luke or Han or any of those.” Her relationship is, by definition, defined to be different and that felt quite useful to take off the table. That was kind of subconscious and she just always seemed more of a lesbian. I don't want to almost over-intellectualize it. She just seemed like a lesbian to me. That was just it.
StarWars.com: I think the phrase we used the last time we talked was she's a total disaster lesbian.
Kieron Gillen: Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. [Laughs.]
StarWars.com: Nothing else fits her better than that. Alyssa, what did it mean to you on a personal level when you got to be the writer for the team relaunching Aphra in 2020?
Alyssa Wong: Marvel contacted me in 2019. I was still working in games at the time, and they were like, “Hey, do you want do this?” This is my first solo series, which was pretty wild. As a kid, my favorite character was Han, but I’ve always thought, “I like this dude. He's fun, he's a mess, but he's also a little bit too clean for me.”
StarWars.com: [Laughs.] I don't think anyone's ever described Han as too clean before.
Kieron Gillen: He's scruffy. Famously so.
Alyssa Wong: He's scruffy! He's canonically a scruffy nerf herder, but I don't know. I feel like he cleans up nice. Also, my one Star Wars cosplay is a Han cosplay. But I was always like, I’m clearly someone dressed as Han, you know? I don’t look like Han. But I appreciate the bad vibes of Han. [Laughs.]
Getting to write Aphra was great because I was like, “Oh, this gets me everything that I want. I get my disaster queer folks. I get to write an Asian lead, which is dope.” Having Aphra as the main character opened a lot of doors for me because it meant that I didn't have to ask for permission to have queer characters in a story, which has always been the case when I worked in other IPs and I've always hit a “no.” I was like, “Oh, this time I don't have to ask.” Here's my default. I'm building a group around this person and her exes, so this is perfect. When I write that team, everybody's queer. In some ways, kind of by default. I'm just like… why not?
Kieron Gillen: It's one of those things that just, immediately, you get to define like, the mathematics. Alyssa’s describing something slightly different, but the basic mathematics of writing a story are like, okay, I need a love interest. If our lead is a lesbian, it has to be a woman and that means she has to be queer as well, you know? And suddenly you’ve got two queer characters. And just the way everything -- one decision of this is the lead character, everything goes out from that.
When we were doing Aphra and came up with love-interest Tolvan, I wanted to do Out of Sight. The slightly stern marshal with the charismatic criminal, but I want to do it lesbian, you know? And I was slightly jealous of Si [Spurrier], who got to write the kiss, because that was always the plan -- the long, slow burn. But you know what I mean? Like, suddenly, “Oh no, I need a love interest and that means she must be interested in Aphra,” and it kind of [goes from there]. As Alyssa was saying, the second you've got one queer character, you've ultimately answered the question “Can you?” On Young Avengers, the opening scene is a character waking up from a one-night stand and it's not a queer scene, but there's lots of queerness in Young Avengers and it was, I’ll write the scene and if I get told, no, I'll just quit the book and I won't do it. It was explicitly me testing the wall. Can I get away with this? If not, I don't want to do it. And I think occasionally that's worthwhile as a creator.
Alyssa Wong: No, I super agree. I feel like I had a number of those kind of moments, too, where I thought, “This moment or character is really important to me. I'm going to put them in and we’ll see how this goes over. And based on that, I’ll find out how the team is going to treat me as a creator -- and treat me as a person.”
I’m glad that Lucasfilm has been so willing to roll with my crazy ideas. I got to write a handsome, rogueish pansexual dude, which was fantastic, super fun. And he’s Southeast Asian! We just don't really see that very often in mainstream American media. I got to write a trans nonbinary character who, obviously, is very important to me. I keep saying “I can't believe people let me get away with this,” but really, I'm just happy that I've been so supported by everybody on the creative side.
StarWars.com: That's awesome because one of the things I was going to ask, Kieron, is if there was any pushback. Because with my recollections of reading that Vader run, there was a little bit of a hint here, and then there was a more obvious moment, and there were lots of us who were like, “Oh, I see what you’re doing there.” I remember getting pushback about it from other fans and kept saying, “No, that’s an exes moment.” And we kept getting pushback up until we got to the moment where you guys had Papa Aphra being like, “Chelli, you got terrible taste in women.” [Laughs.]
Kieron Gillen: [Laughs.] Obviously, I didn't write the “Rebel Jail” stories. We probably have to ask Jason what he was doing or whether there was any pushback around there, but not really. The bit I remember, particularly that scene, was that, “Oh, we just established they don't really have homophobia in the same way in the Star Wars universe.” That's literally what that scene establishes. Like, it's just not the deal that it is on Earth. Of course, there's so many things which are a deal in the same way in the Star Wars universe. [Laughs.] So that's why conversations around representation always change a little. They become about just being part of the world rather than actually seeing yourself in this world, rather than, actually, an accurate map of your experiences. But at the same time, it's very important that people can see themselves in the world.
Rewinding, no, I didn't. They're always really supportive. I can't think of any time I really got pushed back. At the same time, like Alyssa was saying, a lot of it is trying to write to the boundaries. You don't assume you can't do something. I'd rather write something and be told no. I genuinely can't think of a time I wrote beyond what Lucas[film] was comfortable with, but broadly, when there was a problem, you would be [told] yes, but; as in you can't do this, but you can do that. That's the grown-up, conversational way of doing things.
StarWars.com: You mentioned something I want to go back to, about how there's not really homophobia in the Star Wars universe. And I think it's fair to say in both of our countries right now…
Kieron Gillen: Not true on Earth, is it?
StarWars.com: It seems like there's increased resurgence in hatred, in terms of both what people are saying and laws that are being passed against the LGBTQIA+ community. Is it freeing to be able to write queer people where you're like, “No, they just get to be themselves”?
Alyssa Wong: Yeah, for sure. Writing Aphra feels like a celebration of queer people and our friendships and enmities and relationships of all kinds. It's really refreshing. It's been my happy place in a pretty dark time. When I write an Aphra script, I want to share the immense feelings of love and support that I have for my friends, you know? It always makes me happy because, like I said, I'm working with an amazing team. It's that incredible feeling of getting to create work with people who support you on a very deep level as a person and a creator. It’s a level of affirmation that I just don't think I've ever had before. It just feels very special. I want to give back as much as I can in the stories that I make because I want other people to feel that level of support and affirmation, especially if they're not getting it in other areas of their life. It's a really stressful time.
StarWars.com: Little bit.
Kieron Gillen: There's a difference between a queer story and a story featuring queer characters. In [the Star Wars] universe, it becomes stories about queer characters because you're not really representing the realities of queerness in any way. Instead, it’s a story that speaks to the incredible power of seeing people like you doing cool stuff. Representation, that's the one power.
And the second is actually, I think diversity, in the widest sense, is also powerful for other people than the group being represented. Because I remember growing up in Stafford. England's still a really white country now and was moreso then, and Stafford especially so. Having seen people other than stereotypes in shows was incredibly powerful, and your hero figures being people unlike you, as well. I think it's really important to have hero figures other than the people of the group you're in, as well. Of course, this is what people in minority groups have always had to do. “Oh, I like this character,” because they've got no option. But like, people in other groups who have been more present in culture, it's really good for you to have hero figures unlike yourself. Like, some random, straight boy goes, “I love Aphra!” Great! Your hero is now this Asian lesbian. I felt this with the sequel trilogy in terms of Rey. Forget what adults think -- there’s going to be a generation of five- or six-year-olds who are going to love Rey, and then they grow up with a hero figure being this girl with a lightsaber, and that's powerful. The idea that people other than you can be aspirational in all sorts of ways, both as yourself and as other people. And I've gone down about four holes here.
Alyssa Wong: I also love Rey.
StarWars.com: In a piece for StarWars.com last year, I talked about how I think if there had been a character like Aphra when I was growing up, that maybe something might have helped click my brain a little bit earlier that I am, you know, not straight. What were your experiences when you were growing up? I feel like, for a lot of us, it can take a while to realize we're queer and sometimes that takes getting out of your small town, in my case, or going to college.
Kieron Gillen: What you said, Bria, about the resurgence of laws… I'm also of a generation who, when I was a kid, we were not allowed to be taught -- there was Section 28 in the UK. Section 28 meant that teachers couldn't “promote homosexuality” at school, which translates to them just not telling kids about it at all. They couldn't do it and the fear that they could get in legal trouble over it led to a real chilling in conversation. So we lived in a generation of kids who -- not even including stuff like AIDS -- the amount of information we could get and stuff we were kept from is enormous. If you asked me as a kid whether we would have a monarchy in 2020 or gay marriage in 2020, I would’ve assumed we would've got rid of the monarchy. I thought it was more likely that would happen, so the amount of change in rights in my lifetime has been shocking, in a good way, obviously. So obviously, the back sliding is much scarier in a very different way. You look at that in historical [terms] -- it’s an ebb and flow of rights, not a straight line of progress.
So, yes is the answer. Especially with people who are more liminal. I think if your orientation is like, one core thing, you likely more quickly realize, “Oh, I'm definitely not straight." [Laughs.] However, it's very easy, being bisexual, to think yourself straight if you just ignore everything which isn’t. Like, if I list certain things about myself, “Oh, that's straight. I just have to not mention this stuff over here."
It took me a long time for me, basically, in discussion with myself, to decide how to talk about it. And I still don't really like doing it. I'm married to a woman. “Bisexual invisibility” is a thing for a reason. But the material reality of the oppression I suffer is minimal compared to so many other people. I don’t worry about getting beaten up holding hands with my partner. That's why I don't like talking about it as much, because I'd much rather let people who are experiencing more oppression get centered in conversation. Not that it makes me less bisexual, but the material reality of the oppression is important to bear in mind and basically keep myself in a lane there.
But, the stuff I tend to write about and my characters are about those internal feelings of “What's going on here? And what is this? What's really going on?” Especially with liminal people, with complicated relationships with sexuality and gender. I did this comic DIE recently, and there's a bit where the lead character talks about being jealous of younger people because they've got all these different character classes. It's an RPG comic. The idea that there's better vocabulary to understand and explain yourself. I read stuff that younger people have put online [and I feel like], “Oh, right. Now I get it.” Or “That's what I wish someone told me when I was 15 or 14 or 11,” or whatever. I had to work out a lot for myself. I wouldn’t have to do that now.
That's what I mean. A lot of the stuff is, as you say, Bria, meeting other people and realizing, “Oh, that's the thing. And they feel like this and I feel like this and this may mean this,” but there's lots of things along the way. I remember reading loads of bisexuality research circa 2000 or maybe earlier, and it's like, “Oh, yeah, bi men are gay or lying.” Stuff like that. And you're going, “Oh, I must be this, then.” And I turned myself into knots trying to work out whether I was pretentious or just gay and in denial, even when I looked at the research and knew exactly why it was nonsense. That's why I think it’s important for conversation to exist in the world and to think about it and just normalize all kinds of expressions and decide what matters for them. I mean, I try to be an “experience desire first, put labels on it later” kind of person. I've not always been very good at internalizing that. [Laughs.] But it's definitely something I think is very useful for anyone to consider.
StarWars.com: I think what you're saying about vocabulary and boxes is really important. Because I know it took me a while. I thought you had to fit specifically in certain boxes that went with certain labels. And then as people have been talking about things more and with a broader vocabulary, and even the word “queer” being something that a lot of us now use to identify with, that helped me a ton. And that was definitely not a thing even in like, 2008, when I graduated high school.
Kieron Gillen: Yeah, queer was definitely a slur when I grew up. But I’m fine with it, I’ve internalized it, and I find it a very useful label. I find queer more useful to describe myself than bisexual. I tend to passive-tense myself as in like, “Bisexuality applies to me,” rather than saying, “I am bisexual.” You know what I mean? Like, I know what the definition of bisexual is and so I list these facts about myself and then people say, “So you're bisexual,” and I go, "Apparently so!” [Laughs.]
Alyssa Wong: I know that feeling.
Kieron Gillen: You know what I mean? Queer's a more amorphous label because it includes so much stuff other than just sexuality. So I find it much more comfortable to use that. Cause it's squidgy. [Laughs.]
Alyssa Wong: Yeah, I love that about it. It's my favorite thing about it. Like you said, it encompasses so many things; your sexuality, your gender, and also, I love how fluid it is because I'm non-binary, I'm also gender fluid and I feel like it's… I like it because it feels like it's big enough that it fits me wherever I am on whatever day. It also feels big enough to encompass someone that I'm in a relationship with, and that's just really nice. I also grew up in an environment where it just wasn't safe to be openly queer. I went back and looked at all my old writing and it's all incredibly super queer. It's full of gender feelings, and we're talking stuff I wrote at like, six.
But in terms of openly talking about it or even feeling safe enough to admit it to myself, even though I knew… I was like, “The moment I admit this to me, it becomes real, and the moment it becomes real, it becomes a threat and it can hurt me.” I had this pact with myself. I was like, “I'm going to go to college, I'm going to make sure that I have all my affairs in order, and that I have no financial obligations to anybody else. And then I'm going to come out and I'm gonna dip and that's it.” So no one else can be like, “No, you're not, and here are the things we're holding over your head so you have to be straight, so you have to be quote-unquote normal.” I didn't come out until college. My spouse is actually the first person I told.
I think that writing's always been my way of expressing myself because I could always have that plausible deniability. I'm like, “Oh, it's fiction. It's science fiction. It's fantasy. It's horror. It's fake.” Even though I was writing about these very real things, [that] was the only way that I could express it, because there just wasn't a good avenue of doing that in my real life.
The environment that I come from? It's still like that. I got out. Not everyone did, and it breaks my heart. This is why I feel so strongly about writing queer characters because I used to sneak off to the library and I would read library books, and then I would hide them in the stacks so that no one else could check them out before I got the chance to finish them. Because I knew if they showed up on my library checked-out list I'd get in trouble. But it was the only place I ever saw myself, and being able to make that for other people means a lot to me.
At Celebration, I actually got inducted into Pride Squadron as an honorary member. They gave me a really beautiful plaque and when I saw my pronouns on it, I just… I cried. I cried for like 10 minutes. It was just so sweet. But again, it's that moment where you're like, "This is real," because I always write for me. All my stories were for myself first and something like that reminds me, “Oh, this is real.” This is so real that somebody else made something -- an outfit, a cosplay, a plaque -- to show how much it means to them, and that's mind-blowing.
Kieron Gillen: There’s no way to diminish this because it's startling every time… but I'm aware [that] my work has been part of a significant number of people's coming out story, because they come and tell me. Obviously, that's a huge thing. It's happened enough that I can get through it because I'm used to the idea of it. I get it, and that's why I'm writing it. There's a bit of Young Avengers and America [Chavez] just goes to the camera, “You're not that straight.” She's not talking to Kate; she's talking to the reader. She's talking to the reader, who I'm wanting to feel seen and loved and all the way through. It’s something you put on the page. “This is how I'm feeling. Anyone else with me?” And it makes people realize they’re not alone, but at the same time, it makes me realize I'm not alone, because you put stuff out there and it's really powerful. Like, art is powerful. Who knew?
StarWars.com: I think one of the common, unfortunate tropes that we have to deal with in fiction is the bury-your-gays trope. I feel like even if Aphra does die permanently at some point, I think it's been really interesting how we'll have avoided that with her because she's surrounded by so many other queer characters. I mean, I hope she doesn't die permanently. I think it’s been a joy about the books she’s been in; how she’s been avoiding that. It’s been nice to have that there.
Alyssa Wong: I think it helps, too, that she has this long history and that means she’s an interesting, complicated, complex character, right? She's a full person. So it feels like if she does die at some point, hopefully it would be earned if she bites it. It feels a lot less bad [than] when it's like, “Oh, here’s our one queer character who’s here for like an issue.”
Kieron Gillen: There’s two reasons. To state the obvious, there's the societal reason of queerphobia. That's why they tend to die. There's also the basic story math -- people who die tend to not be the lead character, therefore the supporting cast get chewed up. Both those things combined into the trope. The good thing about more representation means that you can sidestep that, especially if you've got a cast with multiple people of a single group. Because we had this with [my comic Wicked+Divine], and the more people you have of a group or selection of groups, the more you can treat the characters not as representative of the hopes and fears of the entire [group], so they can be more of an individual person. This is what we did with WicDiv. You have all manner people, because it's a majority queer cast and some of them are really awful and some of them are very sweet. And you can kill a lot of them because it's a story about people dying rather than a story about killing queer characters. That’s what you’re aiming for, or hoping that you can get to a point where that’s that. You've got to like, broadcast what kind of story it is, you know what I mean? We warned people WicDiv was a story about death. I think that's quite important. With Aphra, it's always kind of there, isn't it? [Laughs.]
StarWars.com: She could die at any minute.
Kieron Gillen: Yeah.
Alyssa Wong: True. But that's the fun, right? Is it really exciting if there isn't the chance of just beefing it at any second? Like, I don’t know. Live life on the edge. [Laughs.]
Kieron Gillen: It's one of those awful things that everybody dies, you know what I mean? That's the thing about any of these tropes. Eventually, in reality, we all die and no matter who we are, it's a part of life. But that it’s an overrepresented part of life in certain groups in fiction, is the reason why we have these conversations.
I always think about rides. Like, [Gestures.] you must be this tall to ride this. Genre’s a bit like that, as in this is this kind of genre. And Aphra, from the beginning, it's like, “Here's this person who's definitely death-defying and clearly in trouble all the time.” There's a very strong warning this may not necessarily turn out well at any given moment. It’s much worse when it comes out of nowhere. As in, “I thought was reading this story. Oh, it turned out I wasn't!”
Alyssa Wong: So, it's funny. I was thinking about killing characters and I realized I haven't actually killed that many in my Aphra run yet. Hey, stop looking me like that, Bria! [Laughs.] I haven't killed that many. And part of the thing is that I keep running out of space, you know? There’s this character Ariole, who's Just Lucky’s ex and he was supposed to be there for like, four or five pages, and then just vanish back into the ether. And then I ran out of page space to get rid of him and I just couldn't dedicate anymore page space to be like, “Okay, time for you to leave!” It's too tight. So he's just here and he's been hanging out for a good 10 issues or so at this point, and I think he's just here now. They just picked him up, and now he's here.
StarWars.com: I'm not mad about it.
Kieron Gillen: Somebody turns up to the party, refuses to leave. [Laughs.] It's like, can you just ask them to go? No, bless.
Alyssa Wong: I know. [Laughs.] It's like, my house is full of dogs and I didn't mean for it to be [or] to even have one dog, but now I have eight and that's sort of how I feel about writing Aphra.
Kieron Gillen: Wow.
StarWars.com: All of the disasters just find each other and then Sana is there as the one adult in the room.
Alyssa Wong: [Laughs.] Oh, God, of course. I feel so bad for her.
StarWars.com: When it comes to Star Wars, I think it's been pretty safe to say that comics and the novels have been blazing the path as far as queer representation goes, but there's clearly a bit further down that path that Star Wars could go. So where do you hope to see queer representation in Star Wars go from here?
Kieron Gillen: To state the obvious, I’d like the equivalent of a book like Aphra, but a TV show or a movie. I don't overthink it. It's that simple.
Alyssa Wong: Absolutely, like a hundred percent. We need more and I’m tired of being relegated to tertiary roles. I want to see a protagonist who's queer and hopefully in a story that isn't just about how sad it is to be a queer person. I mean that's a joy of Aphra, right? She's queer and her story isn't just a sad gay story. It's about all the bad [stuff] she does and all the consequences of the bad [stuff] she does, and there's something so refreshing about that, you know? I want see it in everything; shows, movies, games, everything. Why not, right? It's a big galaxy.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bria LaVorgna is a writer who doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t love Star Wars. She also really loves Alderaan, Doctor Aphra, and Inferno Squad. You can follow her on Twitter @chaosbria.
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