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The women of Star Wars comics

By Sara Century
doctor aphra

The Star Wars comics universe has given us so much. It's introduced such beloved concepts as the Wheel (aka Space Vegas), Skippy the Droid, and, yes, even our sweet Jaxxon, an aggressive, green, carnivorous, bipedal smuggler/rabbit. Yet, despite its fanciful notions, not many prominent or deftly depicted female characters were introduced to the series.

At least, not until recently.

After the comics entered canonical Star Wars continuity as of 2014, there has been an explosion of new creators doing interesting things with characters both pre-existing and new. Many of the franchise’s most fascinating female characters are from the comics. While it is true we still have far to go to achieve true diversity in Star Wars comics (or anywhere), some pretty impressive strides have been made along the way.

In the Beginning ...

The early days of Star Wars comics portrayed the cast without much in the way of character evolution. Even Leia Organa was mostly a watered-down version of her cinematic self. Though it is true that Luke, Lando, and Han enjoyed new adventures and closer bonds, Leia was generally reduced to being the concerned girlfriend. In recent years, Leia has been given her own series and a more complex role overall, but it took a few hits and misses to get there. This is because the original Star Wars comic series was focused more on zany one-off extended universe adventures and less on deeply felt character beats. Its debut came before anyone had even the slightest idea that Star Wars was going to turn into the epic, galaxy-spanning, sequel-spawning universe that we know it as today. Thus, for an extended universe story, there weren’t that many new characters introduced to the mythos beyond one-dimensional villains and supporting cast.

One exception came in the form of Shira Brie. Introduced in Star Wars #56, she is a fellow pilot who begins a relationship with Luke Skywalker, but it is quickly revealed that she has been a spy for Vader all along. Luke crashes her ship, and she returns later to battle Leia as a cyborg. Also known as Lumiya, Brie is a fascinating and deeply malicious villain, far too good as a character to slip into the ether. She went on to be the main antagonist for the Legacy of the Force novel series.

Slowly Introducing More Female Protagonists

Meanwhile, in Star Wars #70, a Zeltron named Dani was introduced by writer Jo Duffy at the outset of her now-legendary run on the series. At first, Dani was so infatuated with Luke Skywalker that it was her primary defining characteristic. This annoyed the other characters, particularly Leia, who felt Luke was shirking his responsibilities. Though Dani was first played as a superficial “sexy lady,” she evolved into a much more complicated figure as time went on. She suffered through the brutality of war and torture, and we began to see a more somber, skill-oriented side to her character. Indeed, not only did Dani continue to surprise us, but some of Leia’s most interesting character growth throughout the series was in the process of confronting her own impatience and dismissal of Dani. For her part, Dani was helpful toward Leia, and even surprisingly forgiving of her passive hostility. Their dynamic ran through a lot of tropes in pitting two women against each other, but it made the eventual uneasy friendship between them feel like growth.

In the next era of Star Wars comics, then under the Dark Horse banner, there was a slow gain in momentum in terms of adding more intriguing female characters to the Star Wars mythos. In The Hunt for Aurra Sing, we were introduced to Xiaan Amersu, the Twi’lek Padawan of Jedi Master J’Mikel. While on a seemingly routine exploration, the assassin Aurra Sing comes seemingly out of nowhere and slaughters several Jedi in front of Xiaan. When Aurra gets to Xiaan, she realizes that she is only a Padawan, and assures her that she’ll kill her later when she finally becomes a Jedi. This never comes to be, as Aurra is eventually taken out, but it is a great story and Xiaan’s presence during the hunt is truly fascinating. Xiaan and fellow Twi’lek Aayla Secura shared a friendship in their youth, so when Sing falls, Aayla brings Xiaan J’Mikel’s lightsaber, which Aurra had taken as a trophy. Star Wars: Republic was a captivating series that focused on the politics of Jedi Knights. Aayla and Xiaan were the most compelling characters, laying the groundwork for future commentary on the sexual exploitation of the Twi’lek that is now being more fully developed through characters like Eldra Kaitis — not to mention Aurra is a genuinely terrifying villain, and makes for one of the most interesting stories in what was an already excellent book.

The Modern Age

While it might seem a bit sparse so far, entering into the modern era of now-in-continuity books, there are more prominent female characters in the Star Wars books than ever before. The new direction Marvel took the line in has done wonders for the diversity of the cast, and we’re seeing a lot of compelling concepts and characters. This hasn’t been without its missteps, considering the comparatively low number of women working behind the scenes and the occasional outcry against treatment of some female characters, but there has been progress.

There have always been female creators behind some of the best Star Wars stories, from Jo Duffy's work on the original series to Jan Duursema on the Republic books, but introducing more women to the pages has done nothing but enhance the quality of the line. Kelly Thompson's Captain Phasma series added a fascinating backstory, personality, and new motivation for a two-bit villain that most people might never have thought twice about.

There have also been a lot of great new additions. The character Zarro was introduced in the Chewbacca miniseries to serve as a far more vocal counterpart to everyone’s favorite Wookiee. Zarro is a child, but she takes on an intergalactic slave-trading ring and frees her people. One of the most genuinely fun-to-read characters to be introduced to Star Wars comics in a long while, Zarro immediately became a fan favorite.

Female pilots have also begun to populate the Star Wars universe via the comics with characters like Evaan Verlaine and Sharra Bey, both of whom proved extremely useful for the resistance in series like Shattered Empire and Princess Leia. Meanwhile, Queen Trios was introduced as Leia’s foil in the Darth Vader series, giving us a glimpse of who Leia might have become if Vader had been more prominent in her life. Han Solo's ex-wife, Sanna Starros, gave us a glimpse of some of Han's past while stepping up as a great character in her own right who took no guff from either Han or the much more intimidating Leia.

Star Wars comics have consistently added more depth to seemingly minor female villains, from the aforementioned Lumiya and Aurra Sing to more modern characters with added complexities, not often seen in any franchise. Characters like Mirith Sinn, Captain Phasma, and Ktath’atn are given backstory and perspective that make them more believable than your typical mustache-twirling baddies. As there is such a shortage of high-quality, equally dangerous female villains in sci-fi and fantasy overall, these ruthless women have been helping redefine the status quo for what makes a person truly monstrous.

Complicated female antiheroes have been making a home of the Star Wars universe as of late. Chanath Cha showed up in the Lando series and provided a fascinating alternative to the standard stoic bounty hunter trope. Meanwhile, canonically taking place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Doctor Aphra exists alongside our classic set of Star Wars characters. She made her first appearance in the 2015 Star Wars: Darth Vader series, but was soon given her own ongoing book. She wasn't just one of the only female characters ever to receive a series; Doctor Aphra was the first solo ongoing Marvel series granted to any character that was invented outside of the film franchise. Aphra gives not just Star Wars but Marvel comics on a whole much-needed queer representation as one of the only lesbian characters to be featured as the protagonist.

Besides all of those things, Aphra exists in the complex, even antiheroic realm so often reserved only for men. She’s a space archaeologist who makes constant, selfish mistakes, which places her in a morally gray realm that we seldom see in Star Wars. Rather than being at the forefront of her existence, the ongoing war is a backdrop to her own more personally driven goals. In these ways, Aphra changes the game of Star Wars to focus in on a different kind of narrative, subverting much of the franchise’s plainly stated morality in a low-key and an almost imperceptible way that will very likely continue to have ripple effects throughout the franchise.

Star Wars comics have been through a lot of changes to get to where they are today, but it’s important to remember that there’s been a lot of great stuff in there along the way. For increased representation of women in the franchise, there’s been no better place to look than the extended universe, reaching far beyond the core movies. The novels and comics surrounding those iconic films have given us a lot of interesting and unique ideas to play around with, and much to our delight, they did it with a lot of female creators and characters at the forefront.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.