A Springboard for the Imagination – Reflections on Women of the Galaxy

WotG-coverThis fall saw the release of Women of the Galaxy by Amy Ratcliffe, an expansive collection of profiles and original art featuring seventy-five different female characters from across the Star Wars franchise—from the original trilogy and the old Ewoks cartoon all the way up to 2018’s Solo. Since Eleven-ThirtyEight is always game for a fashionably late arrival to the party, Abigail and Jay wanted to take a moment to discuss some of their favorite entries from the book and what they meant to them.

As it happens, though, we may be late for the original release but we’re right on time for the digital release—if you’re paper-averse like yours truly but still want to check out Women of the Galaxy for yourself you can pick up a copy on Kindle starting January 8th. For now, though, I yield the floor. — Mike, EIC

Abigail: There are so many entries in this book that I adored and would have liked to discuss, so before I dive into my chosen characters, I’d like to point out what this book reminds me of. And you’re going to have to stay with me for a moment, because this comparison is going to start off sounding horrible.

I had a book about dog breeds as a kid. I loved it and it was critical to my play. My friends and I would flip through the pages and select what we wanted to be during that round of make-believe. Some days I would want to pretend to be majestic and wild, other days small and cute, and so the book was how I would choose my character. It provided a springboard for my imagination, based on the pictures and accompanying description.

This is ultimately what I see with Women of the Galaxy. It’s a book for play. If I had this as a kid, you can bet I’d be lugging it about so my friends and I could flip through and choose who we wanted to be that day. (Also so I wouldn’t have to try to describe what lekku were. Good heavens I got some weird looks on the playground).

Jay: That’s so interesting! I’ve actually had similar thoughts about this book, that Women of the Galaxy is ideal for kids to get a flavor of characters they might not have otherwise known about. The illustrations and short descriptions are just enough to get someone excited about a character, and especially, to highlight just how many girls and women there are in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. It definitely isn’t just Leia and Padmé anymore.

But what I’m fascinated by is that I’d approached it from a story perspective. So for example, you might have a kid page through the book and notice Sabine or Phasma and think “hey this character is really cool, where can I find more stories about this person?” and then launch into the shows/books/comics about that character in order to explore them. So in that way, I see Women of the Galaxy as an entryway, or even a giant Welcome sign, for people who are either already interested in Star Wars or maybe not yet interested in Star Wars to learn about characters. Basically to me the book is what Ahsoka was to many young and old fans in The Clone Wars’ day — a way to get into the story and explore it with someone they relate to.

But I never thought of the opportunities for play and imagination. You’re right, that’s huge — especially in such an imaginative franchise as Star Wars. Which characters would you have liked to play as, if you’d had this book when you were younger?

Abigail: Back then, you can bet my heart would have landed on the larger, action-heavy entries like Ahsoka, Jyn, Rey, and Sabine. In fact, I’d probably have skipped over those I would list as my favorites now. Nevertheless, there’s still a part of me that looks at these illustrations, reads these entries, and starts thinking in terms of make-believe. If my niece was old enough to ask me to play Star Wars with her today, one of the gals on my list would be Larma D’Acy.

In The Last Jedi, Commander D’Acy caught my attention by being unremarkable. Leia is expected, mythical unto herself, and the camera rightly gives her a forceful presence. Holdo is seemingly out of place, a deliberate challenge to our expectations, and the script gives her a meaty role to play. Larma D’Acy is just there. Unremarked-upon either as a legend or a surprise.

D’Acy is not special. She just is.

Her entry in Women of the Galaxy is accompanied by an illustration by Sarah Wilkinson that looks like the sort of painting a high-class family would commission in the days of Jane Austen. This fits with her family’s status on her homeworld but also with her as an individual. Nothing flashy. Just D’Acy.

In the text of her entry, she is described as “gallant”. “Gallant” is a particular brand of brave that implies an air of respect and chivalry. It’s a word rarely used to describe a woman, but no special attention is made to this word. It’s a casual adjective. D’Acy simply is gallant.

In this way, both in The Last Jedi and in Women of the Galaxy, D’Acy normalizes women in authority and gallantry. It’s not just the exceptional women. It’s any woman, no matter how unremarkable, who can gallantly lead.

Jay: Fascinating! That’s really interesting — especially that she caught your attention by being unremarkable. You’re right, she’s just there, and that’s important in itself.

RaeSloane-WotGFor me, I think I couldn’t talk about this book without talking about RAE SLOANE. Grand Admiral RAE SLOANE, that is — and I hope my editor keeps the capitalization here, dangit. (Sigh – Ed.) SLOANE was the first character I ever encountered in the new canon, and she was immediately my favorite. This was when we were still unsure where Star Wars was going to go after the continuity reboot, and what approach would be taken to things that we thought we knew well. In A New Dawn, SLOANE was not only presented as a female Imperial officer in a way that was itself unremarkable (a welcome end to the nonsense of Imperial sexism) but she was very competent, dutiful, and loyal.

At the time, I remember asking John Jackson Miller if we’d see her again — never imagining, of course, that we would see her again and again in the new canon. We’ve seen her across four different authors in three different storytelling media: short stories, comics, and novels written by John Jackson Miller, Jason Fry, Chuck Wendig, and Greg Weisman. We’ve seen her rise from captain to grand admiral. We’ve seen her manage disasters like the Battle of Endor (Fry’s “The Levers of Power” is probably my favorite single SLOANE story) to the chaotic fall of the Galactic Empire (she’s excellent in Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, especially Life Debt). We saw the beginning of her career in JJM’s “Orientation” and the end (or the next stage) in Empire’s End. We’ve also been lucky enough to get visual representations of her in the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Armada books, an excellent set of illustrations at different ages (with correct rank insignia!!) in the Kanan comic, and a superb propaganda poster accompanying some editions of Empire’s End that makes my heart soar.

She always had to struggle, both through circumstances and through her surroundings — and even though the Empire isn’t officially sexist, I remember hearing from women that SLOANE’s frustrations at Imperial colleagues not valuing her contributions rang really true to life. Her ability to succeed in spite of that is great to see, even in a character who is properly a villain.

I could write an article or three on SLOANE. In Women of the Galaxy, Amy Ratcliffe does her justice in just a page. She characterizes her perfectly with a quote, goes through her career and character journey in a couple paragraphs, and ends with a perfect quote from Chuck Wendig which encapsulates why SLOANE is fascinating as a human being despite (or perhaps even because of) her service to the Imperial regime. To top it off, artist Cryssy Cheung completely nails the character in her illustration — capturing both her grandeur and gravitas as Grand Admiral, as well as admirably portraying age and weathering. SLOANE has been through a lot and emerged stronger each time, and both Amy’s narrative and Cryssy’s art communicate this so effectively and clearly.

I honestly could not have asked for a better introduction to my favorite character, and I really hope that SLOANE’s entry inspires more people to read about her story (and that we see more of her in the future!).

Abigail: Y’know, that’s the exact sentiment that struck me about Sugi’s entry. She’s my favorite bounty hunter and her introduction is my favorite standalone episode of The Clone Wars. I was unaware of the fact that she had a niece — Jas Emari — or any information about her outside of The Clone Wars. And it wasn’t just new information for me, but that inspiration to go read more that you mention with Sloane. Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath has long been on my to-read list, but knowing that there’s some tangential tidbits to be learned about Sugi brings that series up in priority.

However, before yielding the floor again, I do want to touch briefly on another character voiced by Anna Graves: Satine Kryze.

SatineKryze-WotGI am stunned by this illustration by Viv Tanner. The colors are soft yet striking and the style reminiscent of one of my favorite comic artists: Darwyn Cooke.

A part of me was concerned that Satine’s entry would be centered around her death, and there is a reflection of that here. The illustration portrays her in grief and in the last outfit and hairstyle she ever wore. With one hand, she holds her neck, a call back to how she was strangled before her death, and with the other, she holds a peace lily, a common flower to give to those mourning a loss. However, there are other interpretations available to us as well.

Satine is on her throne, her seat of power, and the peace lily also represents “the rebirth of the soul, in which the deceased transcends the complexity of life,” and I am convinced of the power of Satine’s legacy. It is one that is active and potent in the Star Wars universe. Even in her death, she has power because she did not yield:

“Remember, my dear Obi-Wan. No matter what, don’t let go of what you believe in. I never did.” [1]Fry, Jason. Darth Maul: Shadow Conspiracy

If the excessive amount of links was not obvious, I have a lot of thoughts about this woman, and her entry and especially her illustration do her justice.

Jay: That’s great to hear! I know that you’re a big Satine fan, and it’s always wonderful to see characters given justice. Especially in a book like this. Speaking of which…the second character I wanted to talk about was Ciena Ree.

I thought long and hard about the second character to talk about here. There were a lot of options. Leia has been my favorite character for a long time, and Amidala was another favorite. I really like Sabine. Everi Chalis is one of my favorite new canon characters. Heck, I could have even talked about my pretend-nemesis, Mon Mothma. (I’m bookmarking this – Ed.) But I wanted to talk about Ciena, for reasons that go beyond my Imperial “brand”.

CienaRee-WotGSLOANE and Ciena Ree are two Imperial women of color who would be played by someone of African ancestry if they were cast in live action TV. But they are not the same characters. They are drastically different, and they make different choices. They were both lifted from their upbringings into Imperial service, but while SLOANE rejected her homeworld and its chaos, Ciena kept her homeworld and its culture with her at all times. While SLOANE’s career was a struggle, Ciena advanced rapidly. While SLOANE reached the highest ranks, Ciena eventually topped out as captain. While SLOANE redoubled her allegiance to the Empire and endeavored to try and solve the problems she found with it, Ciena eventually began to waver (though she, too, never quite quit). While SLOANE stayed single, Ciena was very involved in a love story.

It’s hard to understate how great it is that we have characters that are superficially similar — Imperial dark-skinned women of color — who are allowed to be so different, and can have their own disparate character arcs. I’m reminded of what Abigail said above about how routine and unremarkable D’Acy’s position of authority and competence was in The Last Jedi — it is nice to have character diversity in Star Wars enough that we can start seeing “minority” characters really differentiate themselves and just get to be characters. It’s great that it’s starting to become unremarkable — even as I remark upon it now!

In Women of the Galaxy, Amy Ratcliffe again drills down to the core of why I find Ciena so compelling. Ciena is a character so bound by honor and loyalty that it blinds her to larger issues, and she doesn’t notice until the very end where that path has taken her. This is what makes Ciena so fascinating as a cautionary tale. She never gave up her sense of being a dutiful, good person — but failed to recognize that in so doing, she aided and abetted great evil. Ciena’s a great character because despite her specific honor-bound upbringing, she probably represents the average Imperial who may have no idea that they are working in the name of evil but get ensnared in doing so. Ciena’s illustration, by Geneva Bowers, uses the contrast between light and dark to telling effect — it works perfectly for Ciena.

Lost Stars is a great novel exploring how people become servants of evil, and how they escape it, and I hope that Amy’s description of Ciena in Women of the Galaxy brings more people to read her story, which takes place during the course of a single Star Wars novel.

So those are the two Star Wars characters I wanted to cover from this book. And in reading those entries, as well as all the others, I really got to admire how Amy handled things. Biographies are pretty common in Star Wars reference books, and they give you a bunch of facts in sequence. But Amy didn’t want to do that — and I’m glad she didn’t. Her book does something else. It tries to capture the essence of a character — using Amy’s narrative, a character quote, artistic depictions, and sometimes behind-the-scenes quotes. That’s hard. And she did this with so many characters spanning so many different forms of media.

I think and I hope that Amy’s approach will invite people to get to know these characters themselves. Instead of a cold biography, people are introduced to aspects of characters that make them interesting and get a chance to learn about them themselves. Or, they have a series of characters of very differing personalities to try to find the one that most appeals to them — to read about, to watch, or to play as.

I’m sorry that it took us so long to write about this wonderful book, but I’m glad we could have something out in time for the digital release. I’ve already seen the impact the book has had on people — and being able to see the NYCC soft launch in person was a privilege, because so many people were deeply, viscerally affected by the book. I was also glad to see the female and non-binary artists behind the book, and get to hear their stories. There’s such an interesting and talented group of people behind this and if you pick it up, I’d invite you to read the artist bio section too and check out these great artists’ works. Kudos to Amy and all the artists involved — Women of the Galaxy lived up to and exceeded expectations.

Abigail: I’m jealous you got to see the soft launch! You are completely right about how important this book is to people, especially with who was involved in creating it. Women of the Galaxy is a reaffirming statement of its fans and a very welcoming introduction to anyone coming to the Star Wars franchise for the first time. A comparison I would point to as a fangirl would be Halo; I initially fell in love with that franchise because my introduction to it was filled with a variety of women in major roles. As a result, I felt like I had a place there. I felt welcome.

Amy Ratcliffe’s Women of the Galaxy creates that same atmosphere, and probably does it better. After all, it’s not just about women; it’s created by women and non-binary artists. The content and the creators themselves are a welcoming presence. You could be one of the women listed in the book, or you could be one of the people who made it.

1 Fry, Jason. Darth Maul: Shadow Conspiracy