Kelly Thompson unmasks a Star Wars fan favorite

September 4, 2018 Danny Munso

Since her first moments onscreen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Captain Phasma instantly was beloved by the fans. Not only was she a woman in a position of authority—albeit in the evil First Order—but as a leader with the Stormtroopers, she had similar looking armor yet in a silver chrome polish that had never before been seen in the universe. Her popularity made a crucial decision she makes late in the film puzzling to a large segment of fans. She allows her base’s shields to be lowered at gunpoint rather than declining and accepting a worse fate. On the surface, it felt like an odd moment, but it also highlighted another fact: We don’t know much about her. In the lead-up to the next film in the series, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm and Marvel comics sought to change that. That’s where Kelly Thompson comes in. The prolific comic writer had been a veteran of many Marvel series—including her current incredible run in Hawkeye and the highly anticipated 2018 series Rogue & Gambit—and penned the story for Star Wars Annual #2 in 2016. And she was at the top of Lucasfilm’s list to head up a planned four-issue miniseries about the titular captain. “I loved doing Annual, and I would have been pretty happy if that’s all I ever got to do,” Thompson says. “I got to write for Leia, and that was amazing. I guess they were happy with it because I got the call about Phasma a few months later, and they asked if I would be interested. As if they had to ask!”


Before crafting her official pitch to Lucasfilm, Thompson was given certain parameters to which the story had to stay within. Most notably, the timeline had to come immediately after the events of The Force Awakens and lead into The Last Jedi. She was given some backstory on a character who frankly didn’t have a lot of screen time, including an early draft of Delilah S. Dawson’s Phasma novel (which came out in October) and knowledge of other information about the captain that would be revealed later. This helped her get in the head of a player who had yet to fully reveal herself to Star Wars fans. “She’s still a mystery to a lot of people,” Thompson says. “So they gave us these directives and guidelines but there was a lot of room to play within that confinement in terms of what I could do.” She and Lucasfilm decided to address Phasma’s decision in Force Awakens as head on as possible, making it the crux of the plot for the miniseries. While her decision is never 100 percent explained, we get a deeper insight into her decision making as she chases a First Order officer who knows of her transgression to an odd planet to eliminate him and cover up her betrayal.
Generally, Thompson works from an outline, though not a regimented beat-by-beat document, and Phasma was no different. “It’s more of what you call a summary,” she says of her process. “I did a four-issue summary with a paragraph or two detailing each issue. As usual, the first two are more detailed and the tail end gets a little sketchier, in part just to keep you flexible. Sometimes things come up in the writing and you want to be able to pivot to it.” She has been a believer in outlines since a bad experience she had penning her first novel, The Girl Who Would Be King. She knew what the story was about as well as the ultimate ending, but she struggled with writing the middle parts due to what she now sees as a lack of planning. “I got lost in the woods with that novel, and I’ll never go into the woods without an outline again. Regardless of how much you end up using it or not, it’s your best possible roadmap. Not doing one is just punishing future me.”

One of the many hallmarks of Thompson’s characters is their wit even in the face of danger. So you couldn’t choose a character further from that archetype than Captain Phasma. Complicating matters was the fact that Lucasfilm did not want Phasma’s face to be revealed, meaning she had to be wearing some sort of helmet throughout the series, limiting the emotion that could be shown on the page. There’s an actress underneath the chrome, of course—the great Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones)—but she never removed her helmet in The Force Awakens, and if she is ever going to, that moment will be saved for the movies, not the pages, a decision with which Thompson wholeheartedly agrees. “I think that belongs onscreen,” she says. “I would never want to take that away from Gwendoline Christie and the films. As fun as it would be to write, it would be a horrible shame to have that in the comics. But the problem is expression and emotion are everything, so we knew we were never going to be able to see her face, which was a huge challenge.” That’s not to say Phasma leaves her helmet on for the entire four-issue run. Before she investigates the planet she has landed on, she removes her helmet in dramatic fashion…only to reveal a different kind of helmet that helps her breathe on the planet’s surface. The way Thompson and artist Marco Checchetto set up the moment, it feels like something major is about to happen. When it doesn’t, you can’t help but chuckle. It’s a rare moment of levity in an otherwise serious book. “I thought it was funny, too, but I’m sure there are people who felt trolled.”

Often in comics, when a character is on the page by him or herself, writers will use a narrative caption to explain their inner thoughts, much like a voiceover in a film. So while Thompson thought she would at least have that to fall back on in terms of letting the reader in on Phasma’s emotions, Lucasfilm decided they didn’t want that in the series either. “The writer in me said, Oh my God, how will I even do this now?” she says. “But the more I thought about it, I knew it was right for the character. It made complete sense that we should not be in her head. It actually ended up helping drive the narrative. A lot of times restrictions can be your friend, and I think that happened here. We say from page one that Phasma is a ruthless character, that she’s a woman of action and not words. We had to follow that through. I was excited to be outside my comfort zone and try something different.”

That ruthlessness reaches a peak in the final issue, when Phasma finally tracks down the man who knows of her betrayal—First Order Lieutenant Sol Rivas—and brutally executes him. But she doesn’t stop there. She had brought a pilot with her to the planet, a friendly woman only known as TN-3465 whom Phasma refers to as Pilot for much of the series. For a few issues, it appears their bond is deepening, but when Phasma learns Pilot overheard her incriminating conversation with Rivas, she must go as well. It’s a twist of sorts but one that keeps in line with what we have learned about the character over the four issues. “That moment was definitely something we were hinging a lot of emotional real estate on,” Thompson says. “Sometimes you can be too close to it, and it’s hard to know if your turn is working. To me, it’s obvious from page one where we’re going, but I need my readers to not feel that way. They need to feel that tension. It’s always upsetting to kill a character for me, but it was really great to know it worked for people and solidified Phasma’s character and what she’s about.”

The cool new planet Thompson created has never been in the Star Wars canon: a mostly water planet known as Luprora. But it was not the initial choice for the setting of the story. “I love water, and I always want to do more stuff with it,” she says. “I love to play with that in any kind of fiction. Maybe the only thing I love more are snow stories. So I originally wanted it to be an ice planet, but Lucasfilm vetoed that.” The company’s reasoning was that snow had recently been featured in one of the climactic scenes of Force Awakens and, before that of course, to great effect in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. So while she had to change the surroundings to water, she was indeed given free rein to create a new planet for Star Wars, complete with giant tentacled water beasts. It wound up summarizing the entire process, which she says was one of the best of her career. Thompson has a busy 2018 lined up, with her Marvel series among the industry’s most anticipated and several projects she was not at liberty to discuss. She hopes to get back into the world of creator-owned comics, where she can do another story like her 2015 masterpiece of a graphic novel, Heart in a Box, which this writer recommends any fan of the medium purchase. And with the success of Captain Phasma, hopefully a return to the world of Star Wars is on the horizon as well. “This ended up being one of the easier books I’ve ever done. Lucasfilm has so many things to juggle, but they were just really great to work with and really supportive.”