It was pretty clear from issue #1 that Marvel’s Darth Vader, written by Kieron Gillen, was going to be something special. The tone just felt right. The plot, in which Vader looks to regain his standing in the Empire and ascend higher, was beyond compelling and true to the character. It was the former Anakin Skywalker discovering secrets of his past, battling cyborg rancors and slaughtering Sand People, and fully embracing hate to save himself. It was sad, powerful, and…fun.
Actually, it was very fun — a quality that really came courtesy of Doctor Aphra, a (mostly) morally bankrupt, in-over-her-head archaeologist created by Gillen, and her merry band of droid and Wookiee psychopaths. Aphra, helping Vader in his under-the-Emperor’s-radar schemes, became not just a fan favorite, but a breakout star of the series. And when fans and critics talk about why Darth Vader — which ends with today’s issue #25 — is special, Aphra factors into the equation heavily.
So, spoiler warning if you haven’t read Darth Vader #25: Doctor Aphra survives the series, and StarWars.com is excited to announce that she’s getting her own ongoing series, Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, penned by Gillen and illustrated by Kevin Walker. The first issue lands December 7, and StarWars.com called Gillen to talk about how he figured out Aphra could live, why we like her so much, and what the new series is all about.
StarWars.com: I just read Vader #25. I loved it, I loved the whole series.
Kieron Gillen: Awesome. It was a lot of fun to do.
StarWars.com: The first thing I wanted to ask about was Aphra’s survival. I’m wondering if fans’ embrace of her changed your plans. Did you ever intend for her to die at the end of the series?
Kieron Gillen: For a longer time than I think people would realize, I was pretty sure she was going to die. It wasn’t actually anything to do with the fans’ response, it was just kind of the fundamental Darth Vader of it. You know what I mean? The biggest problem with the book was, I had all these characters I genuinely liked, and I made the mistake of putting them in the room with Darth Vader and they tended to not survive that experience. Aphra’s [in a] push and pull and whatever, and there was a point where I just kind of literally clicked, and I realized, “Oh my God, she could survive.” [Laughs] As in, I know how she can get out of it. That was, of course, the ending we did. For quite awhile, I thought it was just going to be Vader throwing her into space. I had literally the whole thing played exactly the same until the after-credits reveal. That was how I thought it was going to end.
You know, there’s all sorts of interesting things between the two of them, like she sells him out, but she doesn’t completely sell him out [when she goes to the Emperor]. [Laughs] What she actually ends up doing in terms of cementing his reputation, even.
The moment I realized, “Wait wait wait, all the way back in issue #8, we’ve done this blowing-someone-into-space routine. That’s how she’s going to save herself,” [was great]. When I actually wrote that scene, I’m 100 percent sure I didn’t know I was going to use that to save her at the end. But at the same time, I think at some subconscious level, I must have been aware of it. It set up far too well, otherwise. [Laughs] But yeah, that was a moment of joy when I realized Aphra was going to live.
StarWars.com: I think you’re probably also saving yourself a lot of hate on the Internet by making that choice.
Kieron Gillen: [Laughs] My reputation, outside of Star Wars, is I don’t have much worry about killing characters. I think people will be more surprised that she does live. There’s corpses everywhere I go, basically. [Laughs] And tears and heartbreak. So I think it will be a surprise that Aphra actually lives, which is a great joy to me.
StarWars.com: At what point did you realize that she was having this impact and getting this following among the fans?
Kieron Gillen: It’s weird, because it’s almost like straight from the outset, actually. Because there have been like four, five printings or something of issue 3, where we introduced her. There was kind of a lot of people buying that issue. Not that I have any real access to the sales figures, but there was a bit where, “Oh yeah, it’s definitely selling better than what I think people thought it would.” They knew it was going to be a big hit, because it’s Star Wars. But it was a bigger hit than the secondary Star Wars book. It was a much bigger hit than I think anybody thought. And a big part of that has to do with Aphra, I think.
StarWars.com: And why do you think she connects that way?
Kieron Gillen: She’s fun! [Laughs] When I was sort of thinking about Aphra, the core of it was, Star Wars is about these archetypes. Archetypes, if you write them very badly, they become cliched. These very powerful, direct characters. You know, you’re not writing Proust. That’s not the point. The point is to be these big figures. A lot of my work was, “Okay, in terms of Star Wars, what sorts of characters fit well into that universe?” And it was, “Oh! The Indiana Jones archaeologist archetype. That’s fun, that makes perfect sense in Star Wars. Let’s do that.” Later, we do the genius detective archetype with Thanoth.
And of course, what makes it interesting in that is the ethical part of it. She has this very fun-loving attitude, she’s very fun to be around, but she’s really bad as a person. [Laughs] My description originally was, “Imagine Indiana Jones, how he goes about problems in that ramshackle kind of [way], but with his ethics inverted.” She became much more than that as she went through, and the push and pull between her and Vader, and she very much became an original person. But that was kind of the core of it, I think. And she’s kind of fun to be around.
The most interesting thing about what we’re doing with Aphra next is, she was designed to be Darth Vader’s foil. You know, she has to do a lot of the talking when Darth Vader doesn’t. Darth Vader will not make jokes. [Laughs] To be even a fun book to read, you need her to lighten it. But when you introduce her as a lead, that kind of changes the dynamic entirely. A) she becomes slightly more serious, and B) everyone else around her becomes a lot more deadly, as well.
StarWars.com: The other big news — the first being that she actually lived — is that Aphra is getting her own series. I think people are going to be really excited about the prospects of an Aphra title. As her creator, how do you feel?
Kieron Gillen: Enormously excited. It’s Marvel’s first ongoing starring an original character not from the movies. There’s so much to like about Star Wars, I sort of sit back and say, “Oh, I should be more freaked out than I am.” [Laughs] The story I always tell is, Empire Strikes Back was the first movie I saw in the cinema. So essentially, me writing the lead-in to my own entry into pop culture [with Darth Vader], that should be some existential crisis. In actual fact, it’s been joyous and freeing and actually, incredibly good fun. In the same way as this, but with a weird level of pressure upon it as a character who’s been a big part of this story. But you know, she’s not like, somebody in the movies. She’s not somebody with a built-in fanbase. The idea of doing something like that, oh yeah, that’s certainly intimidating…but I like intimidating. It keeps it fun.
Kevin Walker is an enormous Star Wars head, as everybody is. But what Kevin is doing with the pages, it feels immediately its own book. It’s not like Darth Vader Part 2. How we integrate the Star Wars, it doesn’t feel just like a random science-fiction book. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this makes perfect sense for Star Wars.”
StarWars.com: What can you tell us about the story?
Kieron Gillen: [Laughs] Um… Basically, it picks up kind of where, if Darth Vader ever finds out Aphra survived, she’s dead again. So she’s living in hiding. She’s trying to get back to her life of archaeology and she’s dealing with the fact that she has enormous debts. She owes Black Krrsantan, the Wookiee, enormous amounts of money, so she has to try to pay him off, but the bigger problem is that she promised to help locate the people who trained and tortured him. She is trying to deal with the droids [Triple Zero and Beetee], and the droids are a ticking-time bomb, shall we say. In the last series, Vader obviously was the big threat you were meant to be scared of, and the droids become increasingly serious. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: The thing about the droids is, you’re kind of waiting for them to figure out a way to kill everyone around them.
Kieron Gillen: It can only be [a matter of] time. But that’s the dynamics. She’s trying to get work, and the inciting incident is, she’s found this cool old artifact. This artifact, which is great, maybe she can sell it, she can pay off her debts, and she’ll be fine. At which point she realizes her actual doctorate has been revoked, or is being investigated. She’s no longer going to be Doctor Aphra. And that means, due to the complicated situation in the universe, she can’t actually sell this artifact. She can sell it through the black market, but that’s going to be a tiny amount of the actual money she would have got if she’d sold it legitimately. So that’s the kind of initial problem, and this is because her dad enters the story, is the best way of putting it. And of course, she’s being investigated because, obviously, she cheated on her doctorate. [Laughs] We make no bones about that.
StarWars.com: How do you view her, or how will she be portrayed, at this point in her life? Do you think she skews more villain, more hero? Is she somewhere in between?
Kieron Gillen: I’ve just come off Darth Vader, where I somehow made people root for like, basically, one of the greatest villains of all time. [Laughs] You know? So it’s a bit like that. She’s a bad person in many ways. At the same time, she’s in a universe with the worst people. It’s a good way of putting it — she does come in between the two. You do see her do good things and bad things.
One of my favorite things about Aphra was when she went off into Star Wars and Jason [Aaron] wrote her, and seeing her interact with the main Star Wars cast and how interesting that was. It’s a bit like that. She’s not Boba Fett, but she’s also not Chewbacca. She’s from that part of the world, and her main interests are this weird obsession she has with uncovering old stuff. The book is a lot about what makes her tick and why she’s doing what she’s doing. It’s about her relationship with her dad. As you can imagine, there’s a level of tension there, because her parents split up and her mum moved away to the Outer Rim, and that’s why her mum got killed. The mum’s idealism kind of got her killed, and Aphra holds a grudge for that.
This is the main reason I wanted to do the book. What I wanted to do was, okay, let’s really show what makes Aphra tick. That’s the work I feel I’ve got to do with the character, and that kind of push and pull she has between the stuff she does which are good [and bad]. She believes in the Empire in a weird way, she just doesn’t really want to obey them. [Laughs] She kind of thinks the Empire is probably, on the larger scale of things, good. She’s a child who grew up in war, and war has killed many more people than a fascist regime. At the same time, she’s not going to obey the fascist regime. [Laughs]
She has these moments where she realizes she’s gone in over her head, and then she tries to get out of them. That final scene in Darth Vader #25, the thing is, she’s just managed to squirm away from Darth Vader. She’s free. “That was fun. Let’s never do it again,” is the last line in Darth Vader, and you don’t believe for a second. You think that’s all she’s doing? “No, you’re going to get in some awful situation.” And that’s kind of the fun of it. That’s the fundamental fun of the character, and you can root [for her], because she makes really bad life decisions and sort of rolls with them. In the universe, most people are worse than her. She doesn’t like killing people. She’s not like a random murderer. She just has her needs.
StarWars.com: The funny thing about learning that she was really inspired by Indiana Jones is that she does get in over her head like he does, but personality-wise, she’s not much like him. She’s like a darker version of him. In terms of the tone of the series, are we going to get something like a darker Indiana Jones meets Star Wars?
Kieron Gillen: Yeah, that might be a good way of looking at it. Both Indiana Jones and Star Wars came from a much earlier period of cinema, and so I’m kind of playing with those two things together. My favorite thing is the archaeology aspect in Star Wars, because Star Wars is a very old universe. That’s kind of the point of it. So she can get to into these really weird, old cave systems and have weird stuff happen to her. It’s so much about the high adventure of it; she almost immediately gets into a quest. And it’s always a mixture of new stuff and old stuff. It’s enough to make people feel it’s Star Wars and also, “you’ve never seen something like this before.” That’s what the book kind of runs off. It’s like a high adventure book. It’s the adventure archaeology book, running around the Star Wars universe, and getting into trouble. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: Just to wrap it up — in your career, you’ve written tons of villains and you just wrote the Vader series. Do you feel like it’s going to be good for your sanity to write someone not so evil?
Kieron Gillen: [Laughs] Any writer who writes bad people normally says, “I don’t like villains.” Everyone does stuff for a reason, and in Darth Vader you had a philosophy. I’m pretty safe in describing Aphra as a bad person, but at least half the stuff she does ends up hurting herself more. She’s a complete mess up. [Laughs] And I quite like writing that stuff, too. That’s my basic interest. The joke is like, Aphra now is with Black Krrsantan, Triple Zero, and Beetee — three who are much more homicidal than she is, and she’s more like the well-balanced, reasonable member of the group. [Laughs]
Head to Marvel.com tomorrow for an interview with Doctor Aphra artist Kevin Walker!
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer and editor of the StarWars.com blog. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.