In a queer galaxy far, far away

The writer behind disaster lesbian Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra, Alyssa Wong is slowly queering the “Star Wars” universe

For the bulk of my lifetime, the Star Wars universe was a very, very heteronormative place. The films were all pretty straight, and even when there was a hinted same-sex romance in the sequel trilogy, it never came to pass. In the “expanded universe” of tie-in books, comics and games, there was a non-reciprocal same-sex attraction in the 2003 video game Knights of the Old Republic, an obliquely-referenced same-sex relationship with the main character of the young adult series The Last of the Jedi from 2005 to 2008 and a reference to a same-sex spouse of a tertiary character in a 2008 novel—and that was about it. 

But when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and the canon of materials outside of the films and television series were reset, a host of new queer characters started popping up—one of whom was Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra.

Aphra is sometimes known as the Star Wars universe’s favourite disaster lesbian. A rogue archaeologist and genius, Aphra was introduced in Marvel’s Darth Vader comic series in 2015 as someone to do Vader’s skullduggery; she became so popular that she was spun off into her own comic series the following year. In May 2020, the series started a new chapter, this time with Alyssa Wong at the helm: a queer woman of colour, writing about a queer woman of colour.

Wong is a Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus award-winning writer for her short stories. She also describes herself as a “recovering game developer,” having worked on the team-based multiplayer first-person shooter game Overwatch before making the jump to comics.

“Games are fun—my favourite thing about them is how collaborative they are as a storytelling medium, which is something that I love from comics, but my heart really lies in comics,” Wong admits.

“When it comes to my storytelling priorities, I’m in it to have fun and to tell a story with really interesting, compelling characters who have problems, usually of their own making,” Wong adds, “so Aphra was perfect.”

The job to write Aphra came about when Marvel approached Wong after she did some work with Grek Pak and his editor, Mark Paniccia, who also edits the Star Wars comics. Wong took over the writing duties for a character she had grown to love already. But when the first volume of the series drew to a close, it was at a fairly bleak place for Aphra.

“She’s so fun and she’s full of mischief and chaos, but it’s very clear that she knows what she wants.”

 

“For volume two, I really wanted to show Aphra at a point in her life, a little bit later, when she’s had a little bit of time to unpack her trauma and maybe not think about it on purpose, but I really wanted to hit on the thing I fell in love with Aphra,” Wong says, citing the first story arc of series originator Kieron Gillen as her inspiration.

“She’s so fun and she’s full of mischief and chaos, but it’s very clear that she knows what she wants and that she’s always going to pick herself,” Wong says.

“That’s the Aphra that I fell in love with,” Wong says. “I wanted to give new readers as well as old readers the chance to fall in love with that again, to be like: here is somebody who has experienced so much shit, who is pushing either through it or past it in some instances. I wanted to give her something fresh so that I could build on the trauma that came before without people feeling really stressed out in the very beginning.”

With the second volume, Wong also gave Aphra a new crew, after the character cut everyone else off from her life at the end of the first volume. 

“Because I love mess, there has to be at least one ex,” Wong says of that crew—sticking true to Aphra’s disaster lesbian nature. Another new member of the crew is Just Lucky, also a queer character with an ex who shows up along the way.

“I really wanted to write somebody who had been backstabbed by Aphra, and who had backstabbed Aphra, and they were just so chill about it,” Wong says of Lucky. “That just felt so fun.”

“Because I love mess, there has to be at least one ex.”

Getting to write queer Star Wars is something Wong considers a huge privilege. “I’ve done original work for myself, I’ve done tie-in work or work with other peoples’ IPs, and I have never felt this kind of freedom to write queer characters and queer stories, and just queer people living their lives, doing cool shit, and it’s not like a weird thing,” Wong says. “It makes my heart feel full to get to write this comic with a queer Asian woman lead, and a supporting cast that is primarily queer.”

Wong says that for a long time, she never felt like Star Wars was a place where she could belong having been repeatedly told that it wasn’t for her.

The Force Awakens and Aphra were the two things where I was like Star Wars has room for people like me,” Wong says. “And getting to write Aphra and create new queer characters for Star Wars is incredible. It has taught me so much not only about myself, but also the fact that we all need to be bolder and just continue to push and ask for more, because as an audience, we deserve to be able to see ourselves in stories, and as creators, we also deserve to be able to tell stories about people who are like us, and people who are like our communities.”

Wong says she is particularly passionate about non-binary representation, and has created one character thus far in the Doctor Aphra series, Lapin. She also has another who will show up in future volumes.

That’s in part, Wong adds, because Marvel and Lucasfilm simply asked her to pitch the stories she wants to tell. “I was like okay, it’s going to be super-gay, and they were cool,” she says. “I have been constantly blown away and gratified by Lucasfilm’s notes for my stories, and it’s always been so supportive, and each time I was like, am I going to get away with this, they were like yeah, give us more,” Wong says. “That just felt really good.”

But as with many fandoms, Star Wars—and science fiction in general—also has its toxic side. As a queer woman of colour, Wong has needed to face that reality—something she says has been “pretty bad,” especially when it comes to social media trolls. To cope, she has developed a few strategies. “I use a couple of apps,” Wong says. “There’s a chain-blocker, so if I’m getting harassed by someone, there are apps where you can go in and block everyone who has liked that tweet. There is an app that I just started using called Block Party, that automatically mutes anyone who @s you that meets certain parameters, which is supposed to trim down on trolls and bots.”

The biggest support for Wong against trolls is her community of other creators and people in her life—people she can see face-to-face—who remind her that this is bad, and that it does damage and they are willing to not only help by reporting people, but who also get her away from the online world.

“The biggest gift of this kind of job is getting to make people care about stuff.”

It’s a lesson Wong learned early in her career: when she was 22 and published her first short story, she became a target of a far-right movement in the sci-fi and fantasy realm. “My name went up on their sites, and people said all kinds of wild, foul things about me,” she recalls. “It’s been almost a decade of being attacked and harassed not because of the work I do, but because people just don’t want me in their space. That’s a very hard thing to come to terms with, but what helps is having people around you to remind you that it is bullshit, it’s not right, and you shouldn’t have to go through it.”

Looking ahead, Wong has also been chosen to write the opening arc of Marvel’s superhero series Iron Fist, where she gets to introduce the new Iron Fist to the world after the long-time character Danny Rand gave up the powers. 

“I’m so excited about Iron Fist,” Wong gushes. “Right now, we are keeping his identity a secret. When I was doing research, and reading so many old Iron Fist comics, I thought about it and I asked: What does it look like to be Iron Fist now, to be a newcomer encountering all of this tradition and looking at the legacy of Iron Fist’s past? What does it mean to be an entirely new kind of Iron Fist, which you have to be because the world continues to change?

“The Iron Fist story that I am looking forward to telling is about that—it’s about somebody who is trying to find their place in the world, and trying to figure out how to navigate it when the way that they came to this place in their life isn’t the same as the people who came before them,” Wong says.

“I’m personally excited to write an Asian Iron Fist,” Wong says. “It means a lot to me personally.

“The biggest gift of this kind of job is getting to make people care about stuff, whether it’s they care because they see a character and say this person is like me and I’ve never seen that before, or care because I hate this person and I love to hate them because it’s fun, and they’re awful, and it’s hilarious.”

Dale Smith

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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