by Chris Tobias
It’s been almost fourteen years since we last saw the crew of Serenity on-screen in the Universal motion picture of the same name. Since that time, Browncoats who yearn for more stories of the exploits of the crew of their favorite Firefly-class transport ship have had to look to another medium to get their fix– comics.
Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews wrote the first comics set in the Firefly universe back in 2005– a three-issue limited series entitled Serenity: Those Left Behind. The series was designed to bridge the gap between the Firefly television series and the motion picture Serenity, and revealed the fate of the two Alliance agents with “hands of blue” while also featuring the return of Lawrence Dobson, the antagonist from the series’ pilot episode.
The three-issue series would be the first of no less than ten original stories set in the Firefly universe that were published by Dark Horse Comics over the next twelve years, some set before the events of the movie Serenity, others picking up the story where the film left off. The comics, which included four limited series, four “one-shot” stories and one original graphic novel, all appeared under the name Serenity (in part because of property rights issues between Fox and Universal), and many of them were written either by Firefly creator Joss Whedon himself or by his brother Zack. They are all available now in various trade paperback collections in both hard- and softcover editions from large book retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, as well as at your local comics shop.
This past year, however, the rights to the Firefly comics license changed hands from Dark Horse Comics to Los Angeles-based publisher Boom! Studios, which almost immediately began publication of a new ongoing series about Serenity and her crew that is simply called Firefly. The inaugural issue of this ongoing series, the first ongoing comics series set in the Firefly universe, made its debut in November of 2018. It is written by veteran comics writer Greg Pak (whose credits include Action Comics, Hulk, and Battlestar Galactica), with art by Dan McDaid, colors by Marcelo Costa and lettering by Jim Campbell. The story is set between the events of the final episode of the television series and those of the movie (and also, presumably, before the events of Serenity: Those Left Behind), so all nine members of Serenity’s crew are featured in the story (something that is no doubt welcome news to Browncoats who are big fans of Wash and Shepherd Book). So far three issues of the series have gone to print, with the fourth (the conclusion to the series’ first story arc) scheduled to hit shelves in late February.
At this point you might be wondering: after three issues, is the new Firefly comics series from Boom! Studios a tale that’s going for hard burn, or is it kind of on the drift? Well, if you’d like the honest, relatively spoiler-free opinion of a hardcore Browncoat, who also just happens to be an avid reader and collector of comics with a personal collection numbering in the thousands, then I’m your huckleberry. Read on, my fellow Browncoats, read on!
The Firefly ongoing series opens in issue #1 with the crew working an in-flight mechanical issue with one of Serenity’s engines, which naturally puts them in imminent peril and forces them to take drastic measures in order to avoid what Elon Musk would no doubt refer to as “rapid unplanned disassembly.” Wash and Kaylee manage to save the day, but only by employing a solution of the “cure will kill you” variety that leaves Serenity all but crippled and forces them to land on the nearest border moon. With the ship needing repairs that will require expensive parts, Mal, Zoe and Jayne head to a nearby settlement looking for a job that might provide the platinum to purchase the parts they need. A chance meeting in a dry bar (yes, you read that correctly) leads to an opportunity for the crew to pull armed escort duty for a group of pilgrims who want to reach their holy site without running afoul of bandits, and the adventure is off and running.
Greg Pak is a skilled and experienced writer, and I have enjoyed reading his work for DC and Marvel in the past. On this series, he does a gorram fine job of capturing the spirit and essence of each of the individual members of Serenity’s crew, especially Shepherd Book. The new characters he introduces, both pilgrims and Alliance antagonists, are interesting and in line with what one would expect in the Firefly ‘verse, and the action is worthy of a space-western of Firefly’s calibre. While I sometimes found myself questioning particular decisions and reactions of individual crew members, I never once found myself saying, “That’s just not so-and-so.” He does a good job of placing the crew in ever-increasing peril, and the story has the same “they just can’t win for losing” vibe that many of the plots of the original series’ episodes (and much of the plot of the movie) had. It is going to be interesting to see how they work themselves out of their current predicament, which I assume we’ll learn in issue #4, as it is being solicited as the conclusion to the series’ first story arc.
While I was reading the first three issues, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something felt odd about the dialogue. I knew there wasn’t a problem with the unique “Whedonesque” western slang that we’ve come to associate with Firefly, because that was definitely present, and there wasn’t anything unnatural about the way the characters were speaking, so I could not quite understand why I had the notion that something was off. And then it dawned on me…
No one was speaking Chinese.
It’s not that the lack of an occasional Chinese phrase or obscenity has any measurable effect on the story. It doesn’t. But as Browncoats, we’ve become conditioned to the idea that a mix of English and Chinese is the norm in the ‘verse, and its absence was something that I subconsciously missed throughout the story as I was reading the dialogue. I’m not sure why Greg Pak decided to leave it out, and now that he’s three quarters of the way through the first story arc, I suppose it’d be a little late to start adding it now. But when the series kicks off its second arc I hope it’s included, as it makes the ‘verse seem all that much more real and familiar.
The series seems intent on exploring Mal’s and Zoe’s past in the Unification War, which is something that I think could prove tricky over the long haul. Whenever a group of passionate fans such as the Browncoats is given nearly fifteen years to dream up their own backstories for beloved characters based on the original stories they’ve come to know and love, for them to be told all of a sudden “here’s how it really was” can sometimes be a little bit of a letdown. (I am convinced that is what has happened to an extent with every Star Wars movie that has been released since George Lucas’ original groundbreaking trilogy.) As a Browncoat though, I’m willing to go along for the ride and trust that Pak knows what he’s doing and has the chops to pull it off.
What hasn’t really impressed me about the series so far, to be honest, is the artwork. It’s not that Dan McDaid’s art is bad. It’s not. But it doesn’t very often look like the characters as we’ve come to know them. Now, I’ve encountered this debate before in various fandoms: should artists renderings of characters who were popularized by particular actors necessarily have to look like those actors? My own feeling is that the likeness does not have to be exact, but it should at least look close enough that I can recognize the character without the help of specific dialogue or iconic clothing (like Mal’s browncoat or Wash’s Hawaiian shirt). At times McDaid’s art has failed that test, and I’ve found myself double checking to make sure that a character was who I thought he or she was in certain panels. At one point I was confused as to whether I was looking at River or Inara until the dialogue confirmed it was the former. In my opinion, that shouldn’t happen, and I don’t recall it ever being an issue with the Dark Horse books.
For the most part, the cover art has been better than the interior art in that regard, though the inclusion of a Serenity keychain clipped to Mal’s holster on the cover of issue #2 seemed like gratuitous product placement to me, since it bore more than a passing resemblance to the one that is available for purchase from Quantum Mechanix. I had to question why the artist and Boom! Studios decided to do that, as it certainly had the effect of pulling me out of the narrative even before I opened the book.
I’ve found that comics readers and collectors tend to fall into one of two categories: those for whom the story is the most important element, and those who really care about the artwork more. Since I’m very solidly in the former category, I can live with artwork I don’t love as long as I’m getting a story that I find compelling. Right now that’s where I am with this new ongoing Firefly series from Boom! Studios. If Greg Pak continues to deliver a story that has the feel of a Firefly episode and offers me entertaining adventures involving my favorite sci-fi characters, I’ll be willing to forgive the fact that the artwork isn’t always at the same level as most Marvel or DC books or the Serenity books that were published by Dark Horse Comics.
So, what’s my final verdict on the series so far? Well, I’d give the story a B grade and the artwork a C grade, which averages out to an overall grade of B-. Would I recommend it, you ask? Well, if you’re a comics collector and a diehard Browncoat like me, then you’ll probably want to collect the individual issues, especially if you like collecting variant covers. But if you’re a Browncoat who’s just a casual reader of comics and wants to experience some fresh Firefly stories, you may want to wait until the entire first arc is collected in trade paperback form. The trade paperback, which will be called Firefly: The Unification War Vol. 1, has already been solicited for an April 30, 2019 hardcover release on Amazon. It will include issues 1-4 in one shiny hardcover volume, and is available for pre-order now at a cost of $17.99, which is only slightly more than the roughly $16.00 you’ll pay for the issues separately and would be more at home on your bookshelf than the individual “floppy” books would. Either way though, if your coat is sort of a brownish color, I reckon you’ll want to give these stories a try.
So, there you have it. The bottom line is that this Browncoat is thrilled to have fresh stories set in the Firefly ‘verse, and just like some of Joss Whedon’s stories can be a slow burn that might need a while to really hit full stride, I think the potential exists for this ongoing series to get better as it goes along. And what’s more, if this series inspires some readers to check out the original television series for the first time, I conjure that’d be sauce for the goose.
That’s all for now, ladies and menfolk. Next time I’ll review Firefly: Big Damn Hero, the first of the three original Firefly novels that are being published by Titan Books. Until then, peace, love and rockets…