Doctor Aphra 20: Discussion

by Patrick Ehlers and Mark Mitchell

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

Darth Vader: You are overly fond of talking.
Doctor Aphra: I’m nervous.

-Darth Vader 3

Patrick: Chelli Lona Aphra is a motormouth. She’ll unleash a torrent of words when she’s confident, when she’s nervous, when she’s got something to hide, and when she’s got something to say. It makes it tough to get a read on her, but after 20 issues of her own series and a bunch of appearances in Darth Vader, the reader has the benefit of familiarity. By this point in our journey with her, we sorta know Doctor Aphra. The Imperial chumps trying to probe her for information, on the other hand, don’t stand a chance of untangling the truth. Writer Si Spurrier leverages dramatic irony, both in the form of the reader’s past experiences with Aphra and by contrasting his words with Kev Walker’s art, to dig deeper into the character of Doctor Aphra.

The issue opens opaquely — a band of prisoners following a droid around an artificial asteroid made of derelict spacecraft. Walker doesn’t draw any faces on these characters for the first three pages, intentionally keeping us in the dark about who and what we’re really seeing. We are left at the mercy of the words, which are coming from Aphra’s own diegetic narration. That means that Aphra is actually speaking to someone in the universe of the story: we’re not privy to her private thoughts. Spurrier makes this explicit in the very first sentence:

“So you want me to just… talk? Okay… well… let’s see…”

This implies both an audience and a prompt. She has been told to talk. Someone wants information and Aphra has it. Torture? Confession? Intervention? At this point, it doesn’t really matter. From the first page, we have this tension between the status Aphra has in Walker’s drawings — she’s a prisoner — and the status she has in the narration — she’s an asset. Get used to tension between what we’re seeing and what we’re reading: that’s what this whole issue is about.

When giving the rundown about how this whole prisoner-scavenging operation works, Aphra glosses over one of the more terrifying (and more relevant) facts. If the prisoners stray too far from their hubdroid, an implant in their neck explodes. As she’s being grilled by the guards who support that policy, she twists this into some kind of positive. Walker’s art is incapable of such twists.

In the very next panel, poor Convict 2317 is just another fireball on the surface of a space hulk.

Spurrier and Walker are training the reader to not trust a single set of resources. Don’t trust what you read if it conflicts with what you see. The next step in this journey is “Don’t trust what you see if it conflicts with what you remember” with the introduction of Dek-Nil. Dek-Nil is an oddly poetic probability droid, and former co-conspirator with Doctor Aphra.

Dek-Nil’s metaphor-heavy method of communicating makes him harder to understand than Darmok. But our history with Doctor Aphra (both the character and the series) clues us in to her advantage here — this colorful droid is her friend, and he’s going to help her out.

The issue takes a brief detour to Triple-Zero slaughtering a bunch of people and claiming not to be angry, giving Triple-Zero his own little taste of dramatic irony. But when the story comes back to Aphra, Dek-Nil, and her new friend Lopset Yas, her narration vanishes. It is as though Spurrier doesn’t want to test the strength of this story with multiple simultaneous ironic forces working against each other. We’re about to be introduced to the third form of irony: don’t trust what Doctor Aphra knows if it conflicts with what you see.

It’s one thing to have Aphra lying to her audience — we can sorta deal with her lying. What we can’t deal with, and what Spurrier and Walker withhold from us for the majority of the issue, is Aphra herself losing control. She says “it’d take a charging AT-AT to knock a slave spike into old Dek-Nil,” but two pages later, the restraining bolt in question burrows its way into the droid and hijacks her friend.

It’s disorienting. The one thing we can take from all the previous irony is that Aphra is in charge. But now? Seems like our girl might be in over her head. That means she’s calling in a favor, and the final page of the issue teases a cameo from Sana Starros! Mark, I’m a big fan of Sana from her appearances in the first year of Star Wars comics, particularly the during the “Rebel Jail” story arc. That story hinted at a history between Starros and Aphra, and I can’t wait to see that expanded on here. Are you excited to see Sana return? Oh, and what’d you think of Spurrier’s first solo outing with Aphra? He’d been co-writing the previous arc with series creator Kieron Gillen, but this is the first time he’s written it on his own. Can you express yourself in the form of a Dek-Nil poem?

Mark: Nice try, Patrick, but you know the only channeling of a droid to compose poetry I do is writing letters from C-3PO to his lover R2-D2 for my LiveJournal page. (Make it canon, Kennedy!)

Doctor Aphra 20 is a confident solo debut from Spurrier. The issue reminds me of the season premiere of a returning television show; we’re already familiar with the characters and the world, so Spurrier and Walker can have some fun with the presentation. Aphra captured, under interrogation and lying to her captors about the events that led her to this point, a seemingly impossible escape ahead of her — it’s like the premiere episode of a lost ALIAS season.

And like a good season premiere, the issue works to redefine what we think we know about Aphra without undermining what’s come before. Spurrier reinforces that Aphra is incredibly smart and resourceful, a smooth operator, and usually one step ahead of her enemies, and then systematically removes each one of those advantages.

Yes, Aphra is able to carefully plan out her escape from Accresker Jail — seemingly a feat unto itself given the incredible restrictions on prisoner movement — but one mysteriously glowing restraining bolt later and the whole thing’s gone to pot. Aphra is adept at talking her way out of sticky situations, and for a time it seems like her quick improvisations are going to facilitate an escape, but this time she’s dealing with a truth scanner, and her Imperial captors won’t be fooled so easily.

Knowing that in the end Aphra will use her smarts and scrappy resources to pull out a victory doesn’t undermine the drama of having her advantages stripped away for the time being. This is a more dangerous version of Doctor Aphra, one where readers can no longer trust everything they think they know.

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

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