“The Screaming Citadel” Screams Star Wars at its Scariest — Issues 1 & 2

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Dr. Aphra – The Screaming Citadel

It’s finally happened: I’m writing about Star Wars on my horror blog.  Given the alarmingly high degree of my boyfriend’s nerdiness, this installment was inevitable for some time, but the possibility has finally come to fruition two and a half years after I first met Michael.  Now, don’t get me wrong: Michael has given Star Wars a horror twist on this blog before with his examination of horror tropes in the popular animated series The Clone WarsBut I guess because I prefer to be nestled safely in the typical renditions of my favorite genre, I’ve never branched out the same way.  And then, it happened, one fateful night (which was really last night).  Michael mentioned that a comic series bent toward the horror genre had been released. The Screaming Citadel series is a five-issue exploration of what happens when you merge Star Wars with the disturbing and the macabre.  Michael generously purchased the first two series installments for me earlier this evening, which I have proceeded to read with considerable enjoyment. 

Now, first of all, I’ll admit that while I’m trying to get a PhD in literature, reading comic books for me is kind of like wearing a new pair of pants that fit stiffly for the first time.  I’m very used to prose writing, but when it comes to piecing together a sequence of vivid pictures and figuring out what order to read those damned voice bubbles in, I’m admittedly a novice.  This is only the second or third time I’ve read comic books, but once I got into a rhythm, I found the practice incredibly relaxing, especially in the midst of reading a barrage of classical literature for my imminent candidacy exam.  Which is to say that if I can find more comic books that experiment with the horror genre, a more frequent examination of graphic novels might appear on this blog.  There is something bizarrely captivating and oddly noncommittal about following a string of voice bubbles and looking at pictures for 15 minutes; it’s like reading that requires less focus, and for my ADD prone brain, this is a definite plus.

Of course, the real point of this post is to write about the actual comic books that I read.  Once I found my rhythm and was enveloped in the galaxy far, far away, I was notably impressed with a variety of elements in both issues.     The first comic in the series is written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Marco Checchetto.  The second comic in the series is written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Salvador Larroca.  I’ll probably discuss the issues in tandem, since I plopped myself down on a comfy couch and read them back to back.  Suffice it to say, while Star Wars has always dealt with some pressing issues and bleak themes, these two comic book issues offer a slightly more twisted examination of villainy and vice than I’m used to with Star Wars (and I’ve seen all the films, including The Force Awakens and Rogue One).  Of course, Darth Vader is insidious, but he’s also the quintessential bad guy who operates out of a lust for power and will stop at nothing to dominate.  Dr. Aphra and The Queen, in The Screaming Citadel, show all sorts of degrees of self-centeredness and depravity without seeking greater dominion per se, a truth which makes for some intriguing villains and excellent horror fodder.

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Luke Skywalker in The Screaming Citadel

The comics take place in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, after Luke has destroyed the Death Star but before he learns that Darth Vader is his father.  The beautiful but conniving Dr. Aphra approaches the young Luke in a bar for non-humans on the outskirts of the galaxy and tells him that she has the sentient psyche of a former Jedi ensconced in stone, and she just needs the help of a powerful, mystical queen to release it.  The queen whose help she seeks is the queen of the Citadel of Ktath’Atn, but this queen only appears once a year to grant favors to those who introduce her to remarkable, lesser-known specimen across the galaxy.  Dr. Aphra knows that Luke is a “farm boy” (her words) who – though not yet a Jedi – has an extraordinary amount of the Force in him and is developing his strength.  She tells Luke that introducing him to the Queen will persuade the Queen to grant her request.  Predicting that Luke would be hesitant to make such a move, she convinces Luke by suggesting that releasing the Jedi consciousness she possesses will help him with his Jedi training.

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Dr. Aphra explains how she can tell Luke is unusually strong with the Force.

And…we’re going to pause right here.  This particular story line was kind of a slap in the face to someone who’s never read the Disney Canon comic books but has seen all the Star Wars films.  Luke mentions in the comic that he knows Dr. Aphra has done work for the Empire.  He even goes so far as to call her “evil,” although she argues that such a description is too severe.  Based on my film knowledge of Luke, his decision didn’t, at all, ring true to me.  His quick choice to accompany Dr. Aphra without knowing what he was walking into made him seem a little short-sighted and naïve.  Couple that with the fact that his rebel friends have to band together to find the citadel and save him, and it’s like the Luke in this comic book requires a group of more mature adults to rescue him when he gets himself into trouble and makes bad decisions.  This fact didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, but it was a point I pondered after reading the first two issues.  Michael’s context provided a little help, too.  In Marvel’s new Disney Canon comic books, Luke – unlike the Luke in the films – is avaricious to learn everything he can about the Jedi before he officially trains to be one.  Given this knowledge, it makes more sense that he would follow a purportedly evil woman to a haunted Citadel just to unleash a preserved Jedi psyche, but his decision was an apt indicator, to me, that the Luke we’re dealing with in the comic books is not the same Luke Skywalker we meet in Lucas’s Original Trilogy.

Still, Dr. Aphra and Luke’s arrival at the Citadel is captivating, and the development of Dr. Aphra as a somewhat depraved, incredibly self-centered character was craftily contrived.  The lands outside the Citadel are populated with emaciated, frightened bodies who differ starkly from the multiple creatively constructed creatures I’m used to seeing populate the Star Wars Universe.  Though we don’t get a lot of face time with these wan, fading beings, we do get an intricate, fascinating look at the Citadel’s interior.  I wrote about Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” for one of my early posts on this blog.  Poe’s “Masque” details the elaborate, dark interior of a sprawling castle intricately barricaded to keep out the bubonic plague.  The dark interior of the Screaming Citadel in the first series installment was remarkably similar to my mental image of the bleak interior of Poe’s fictional castle.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I surmise that the author or illustrator were influenced by Poe (although this is certainly a possibility) I’d underline that Chechetto’s ability to pull the reader into something that looks like Poe’s imagination is undoubtedly impressive, and such artwork is an element of this Sci-Fi/Action Comic book that definitely gives it a horror vibe.

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The terrifying Citadel Queen appears to have a taste for souls.

On the illustration note, in the first comic, when the Queen appears in front of an assembly of bizarre, hostile creatures (for her once a year appearance) she stands erect, cloaked in red, with dead, blank eyes.  (Does that remind you of any blog logos you’re familiar with…?)  The queen’s eyes look a lot like the eyes of my logo, except they’re all white instead of all black.  Have you ever heard the saying that our eyes are the windows to our souls?  Well, rest assured that the queen’s eyes in the first issue indicate she has no soul.  When she sits down to breakfast with Luke and Dr. Aphra in the second issue, we do see the pupils of her eyes (perhaps because the characters are in a more personal setting) but the Queen’s actions prove undeniably insidious, nonetheless.

What we learn when Luke and Dr. Aphra have breakfast with the Queen is that, when the Queen does a favor because someone brings her an interesting specimen, she intends to keep the specimen for herself.  The fact that Dr. Aphra’s known this all along and hasn’t told Luke solidifies her selfishness and potential evil while highlighting Luke’s naivety (I mean, what did he expect when he entered that weird, convoluted place?).  The comic book, in this respect, is also an interesting commentary on our historical practice of treating human beings as spectacles.  Freak shows and the like are more or less things of the past, but it wasn’t at all uncommon, at one point in our history, to cage people who looked unusual as zoo animals for money and public consumption.  The Queen’s practice of collecting odd, living specimens into sort of a museum of galactic freaks makes her an intriguingly perverse, demonic character and at least subtly makes the reader consider all the ways, as humans, that we have dehumanized one another and continue to do so.  She reminded me of the wax museum owner in Penny Dreadful who tries to keep John Clare (a.k.a. Victor Frankenstein’s very human monster) in a cage so people will pay to see him.  I’m also reading Frederick Douglass’s famous narrative right now, which depicts another, more troubling sort of dehumanization all together.  In the comic, the Queen unleashes restricted, highly dangerous species that devour and take over human brains to try to enslave Luke – a practice not all that uncommon to our history.  In doing so, she repeats the perversely selfish, malicious actions of a sequence of human beings, past and present.

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The Queen on her Citadel balcony

What Aphra didn’t plan on, however, was the Queen’s attempt to entrap her as well.  The Queen, significantly, also has a penchant to eat, or to consume, but that element of her character hasn’t been significantly developed by the end of the second comic.  When Aphra realizes her life is at stake with Luke’s, they work together to try to escape.  We leave off with Dr. Aphra and Luke trying to leave the hungry, blank-eyed Queen.  Though Leia and the rebel gang arrive at the Citadel and we’re pretty sure things will work out, Aphra and Luke have not officially escaped, so their fate hangs in abeyance by the end of the second comic.

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And one last shot of the Queen, because she’s super creepy…

The world of the citadel contains the fixings of sci-fi and horror and presents a dismal outlook on the darker parts of the Star Wars Universe.  The two comics were, on the whole, comics that reflected elements of the horror genre and made the prospect of reading more comics appealing to me, a neophyte comic reader.  And since I’ve been making fun of Michael’s comic book and Star Wars nerdiness for two and a half year, that is definitely saying something.

 

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“The Screaming Citadel” Screams Star Wars at its Scariest — Issues 1 & 2

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