The Complexity of Magna Tolva in Doctor Aphra 15

by Taylor Anderson

Star Wars Doctor Aphra 15

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

A lot of the time when I think about what makes Star Wars so much fun I think about the memorable characters. Darth Vader is the perfect villain, Han is the archetypical anti-hero, and Leia is the strong willed leader who won’t let herself or others fail. While all these characters are great, I have to admit that in many ways they’re pretty flat characters. Sure, you can argue that Leia, Han, and Vader all undergo a journey and gradually change, but none of them undergo a transformation that literally changes who they are. What I’m getting at here, is that Star Wars is sorely lacking in complex characters. It is for this reason, however, that Magna Tolva is such a welcome addition to the universe. 

When last I wrote about Dr. Aprha, I complained about the lack of development of this same character, so it would appear I owe Kieron Gillen and Si Spurrier an apology. The reason I say this is because Tolva’s just so damn enigmatic. As she awaits her execution for earning three demerits, Tolva is understandably bummed out. When she is granted a surprise reprieve just in the nick of time, this doesn’t stop her from exacting revenge on those who would have been her killers.

By issuing a demerit to this luckless Imperial officer, Tolva is effectively signing his death warrant. Whereas it was easy to feel sorry for her just a page before this, here she once again shows that she is someone to fear. More than that, it shows that despite the softer side of her we see in her romantic interest for Aphra, Tolva is still cold blooded at heart and not exactly an object of sympathy.

This makes Tolva hard to pin down, and that complexity is wonderful. While Aphra herself has a lot of conflicting interests, I still get the sense that I know how she’ll react to any given situation. Maybe that’s simply because I know her better through past issues, but I think a lot of that is because she’s an easier character to interpret. Tolva, on the other hand, is unique in her unpredictability, and this makes her (and all of the Star Wars Universe) more interesting.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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2 comments on “The Complexity of Magna Tolva in Doctor Aphra 15

  1. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that the Original Trilogy movie characters don’t undergo changes that fundamentally change who they are. Notably, you ignored Luke, the character who is incredibly different in all four movies that he is in. But to say that Vader doesn’t transform is a very poor reading of Return of the Jedi – the whole point of seeing the Force Ghost of Anakin at the end is to make clear that Vader had truly transformed from the face of all evil to a Jedi. And while Han’s arc from Empire Strikes Back onward is gradual (does he even have an arc in Return of the Jedi?), Han transforms greatly in a New Hope, made clearer by Han’s location in Empire Strikes Back. The Han in the Mos Eisley Cantina is not the Han who saves Luke at the Death Star. And he certainly isn’t the Han of Empire Strikes Back, a loyal rebel committed to the cause. As much as the past comes back to haunt Han in Empire, it is clearly the past (you could make the case that Han transforms again in The Force Awakens, into a broken shell of a man. A tragic shell of what he used to be back in ANH)

    I actually had the chance to read this issue again, and I think I have some slight disagreements on how you interpret Tolvan. Most notably, I think you are ignoring the role of the Empire rules. Tolvan has no idea that she is signing is death warrant, and more importantly, she has to. That’s the rules. The officer made a demeritable offence.
    To me, Tolvan feels like a person who believes in the Rule of Law, and has slaved herself to the Empire’s rule of law because that’s the rules. If Aphra is the ultimate Chaotic Neutral, Tolvan is Lawful Neutral. She hates the situation, but can’t bring herself to break the broken system that has imprisoned her (which is why getting involved with Vader, a character who has the ability to rewrite the system at will, is interesting).
    Honestly, I think a big part of this issue was how Gillen and Spurrier depict the Empire’s bureaucracy as a dark comedy. An execution being briefly postponed to give the target a promotion. The humorous turn around when Tolvan sends the officer in charge of executing her to his death. It reminds me of a Sci Fi version of Armando Iannucci’s work. I can just imagine that nearby, Moff Malcolm Tucker is comparing someone to a marzipan dildo (I would so watch Rise of the Nutters: A Star Wars Story). The Empire as an authoritorian government whose bureaucratic inefficiency leads to the extermination of its own people merely because they couldn’t sort things out. It is almost kafkaesque.

    Also, reading this, I really want to read a series of critiques from Gillen on the Star Wars movies, as I feel it would be cheeky, heretical and fascinating. One of the most interesting parts of Gillen’s work is the Star Wars movies he primarily uses as part of his stories. He seems to have a lot of affection for the prequels, frequently referencing them and using their ideas, and it seems like Rogue One has really appealed to the side of him that writes books like Uber. He seems to be getting a lot of mileage out of both the plot points of Rogue One and, more importantly, the ideas of Rogue One. Things like the Death Star as nukes and the Empire as an organisation made up of bureaucracy are both key to Gillen’s current work and truly Rogue One (in fact, the character Tolvan reminds me the most of isn’t Tarkin, Piett or any other classic Imperial. It is Director Krennic, the careerist who commits great evil because that’s his job and his biggest problem is that his boss wants to take credit for his Death Star. Tolvan is Krennic without power. Just replace Tarkin out to steal Krennic’s credit with an Imperial system coldly screwing over Tolvan).
    Honestly, looking at Gillen’s work, I think he’ll have an interesting redemptive reading of the prequels (even if he admits they aren’t good), a cheeky wish to play the troll on the Originals (even if he will never beat Phil Sandifer saying Attack of the CLones is better than EMpire Strikes Back) and a real attachment to Rogue One and a real love of Last Jedi. Regardless of what his actual opinions are, though, I think it would really make you think and challenge conventional wisdom in the best possible way

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