by Chris Tobias
If you are a fan of Joss Whedon who has been starved for more tales of the thrilling heroics of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew, then the past few years have been a good time to be a Browncoat. Fans have seen a whole passel of print hit the shelves– initially in several volumes of Serenity comics and graphic novels published by Dark Horse Comics, and more recently in the form of Firefly prose novels and reference works published by Titan Books and Insight Editions as well as a new ongoing Firefly comics series (and its accompanying one-shot stories and graphic novels) published by Boom! Studios.
The ongoing Firefly comics series from Boom! Studios made its debut in November of 2018, and is set between the events of the Firefly TV series and the motion picture Serenity. It has introduced a number of interesting new characters and landed the crew in more than a few exciting situations in the 15 issues that have been published so far. Despite some minor shortcomings (like the fact that it took no less than 13 issues for any of the characters to utter even a single syllable of Chinese), for the most part the plots have been entertaining and have managed to maintain the spirit of Joss Whedon’s original stories and characters– even though the creator of the Firefly ‘verse has had very minimal personal involvement in the project. (Whedon is officially listed as a “story consultant” for the series.) The same can be said of Boom! Studios’ Firefly spin-off comics… with one notable exception.
In November of last year, Boom! Studios released Firefly: The Sting, an original graphic novel (OGN) written by New York Times bestselling writer Delilah S. Dawson, whose numerous writing credits include several books set in the Star Wars universe. (Dawson collaborated with no less than five different illustrators on this project, one for each of the book’s chapters, though it’s worth noting that the illustrators have similar pencilling styles and the book’s artwork is visually seamless from one chapter to the next.) The book was announced in June of 2019 with a solicitation that included the following synopsis (as reported on newsarama.com):
“Saffron and the women of Firefly pull the ultimate heist! Saffron– the enigmatic rogue who captured the hearts of Firefly fans worldwide– returns to Serenity. But this time, she’s got no time for Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, as she’s there to recruit the women of the ship to join her on a heist that has personal stakes for all involved.”
It’d be hard for any dyed-in-the-wool Browncoat not to be intrigued by a story involving Saffron, the criminal-minded opportunist played so deftly by Christina Hendricks in the Firefly episodes “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Trash.” But a heist for which she only recruits the women of Serenity? Sure, she and her “kinda husband” Malcolm Reynolds share a somewhat adversarial past, but if she’s desperate enough to include any members of Serenity’s crew in a scheme she’s conjuring (especially after her last attempt ended with Inara locking her in an automated trash bin), then what reason could she possibly have not to want a skilled pilot like Wash, or someone like Jayne who’d obviously be useful if things turned violent? And if things did go sideways and her gang ended up various degrees of bruised and bloodied, wouldn’t a man like Dr. Simon Tam be just the sort of person she’d want to have around?
This Browncoat was already skeptical, but I still ordered the book. After all, for the past ten years, no single pop culture brand has meant more to me than the Firefly/Serenity ‘verse. I have devoted countless hours to the Browncoats fandom, both as a local event coordinator for Can’t Stop the Serenity charity screenings and as co-founder of Take Back the Sky’s ongoing campaign to convince Elon Musk to name SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon space capsule after Serenity. I count myself among the most passionate of Browncoats who, nearly two decades after Firefly’s debut on Fox, will greet each new official story or officially licensed Firefly or Serenity product with enthusiasm. Besides, Boom! Studios’ Firefly books had a solid track record of good stories up to this point, and the writer was a best-selling author.
My copy arrived in time for me to take it along on a cross-country flight to the West Coast in mid-December 2019. Our family was headed to Southern California so my son could play lacrosse in the Legends National Cup, which afforded me the opportunity to read the OGN in one sitting on a nearly five-hour flight from Chicago to San Diego. I assumed that reading the story uninterrupted from cover to cover would allow me to appreciate the overall narrative better than if I read the chapters as installments. Ultimately though, I’m not sure it mattered, because from the very onset, this Firefly tale just felt… off.
From the first few pages of the story, it is already apparent that Dawson does not have a true grasp of the essence of Whedon’s characters. She establishes that the female characters’ willingness to participate in Saffron’s caper is based at least in part on their aggravation with their male counterparts in the crew, yet the reasons for their aggravation are not consistent with the characters as we’ve come to know them in Firefly. Mal and Inara get into what seems like one of their typical arguments that results in Mal insulting Inara’s profession, just as we’ve seen and heard them do at least a half dozen times before. Yet for some reason, this time Inara takes extreme umbrage with Mal’s comments, and both Wash and Jayne react as if Mal has said something that would justify her killing him in his sleep. Zoe is sour with Wash because he’s pushing for the two of them to settle down and start a family, which she interprets as having to leave the life she loves with Serenity and the crew. That isn’t very logical, of course, considering it’s practically the exact opposite of the disagreement the two of them had during the Firefly episode “Heart of Gold,” which is supposed to have taken place not long before this story. We read excerpts that supposedly come from Kaylee’s diary, implying that she feels that Mal takes her work as the ship’s mechanic for granted and stating that Simon “hollers and stomps” because of River’s behavior, none of which is consistent with anything we’ve seen in the TV series. And then there’s this exchange just three pages into the story, in which the women of the crew refer to the men:
KAYLEE: “You think they’ll be okay without us?”
ZOE: “They should be able to last at least a few days.”
RIVER: “As long as someone left out food and water.”
Kaylee’s concern for others is certainly in character, as is Zoe’s sarcasm, but when have we ever known River talk like that? What reason would she have to be so condescending toward other members of the crew? In those moments when River antagonizes other crew members in the series, it always has a playful tone to it, and even in what is arguably her most hostile moment, when she attacks Jayne with a knife in the episode “Ariel,” her comment afterwards (“He looks better in red.”) still had a certain humor about it and may have been meant to imply that she had actually been attacking the Blue Sun corporation (whose logo was on Jayne’s shirt) rather than Jayne himself.
And if that’s not bad enough, Inara vocalizes the most out-of-character revelation a Browncoat could ever hear about halfway through the story, when she comes to the sudden realization that “It’s not Mal that keeps (her) on Serenity,” but rather “It’s everyone else.” Now, keep in mind that this sudden epiphany happens shortly after Inara would have made the decision to leave the ship for good, which she would have already vocalized to Mal at the end of “Heart of Gold.” But even without the obvious contradiction of Firefly continuity, when Inara comes to the sudden realization that Mal is less important to her than any other member of Serenity’s crew (“Well, everyone but Jayne.”), it lays waste to what is arguably one of the most romantic relationships in all of science-fiction, a relationship that– despite being loaded with sexual tension– was based from the onset on a very deep-rooted mutual affection and willingness to sacrifice that obviously transcended mere sexual desire. (This is also completely inconsistent with the way we see Inara act towards Mal in the motion picture Serenity, the events of which take place after this graphic novel.)
Dawson seems to go out of her way in this story to establish the male characters as one-dimensional, slow on the uptake, lacking compassion and even downright incompetent. It is probably no coincidence that the character of Shepherd Book is left out of this tale entirely. I guess we’re supposed to assume that by the time these events transpire, he has already left Serenity and taken up residence on Haven, though I suspect his absence is more likely because that particular character would be the one male character who would be most difficult to paint in anything even remotely resembling a negative light.
Having established that the men are going to be next to useless in this tale and that if we want this caper to be done right, we’re going to have to rely on the women to do it, Dawson proceeds to spin us a yarn of a heist that involves robbing the owner of a diamond mine (technically not a sting at all) at an annual shindig held at the convent house of an all-female cult, the nuns of which wear red and white garb reminiscent of the attire that has come to be associated with the online series The Handmaid’s Tale (a similarity that I suspect was intentional) and subject their young female acolytes to what amounts to a life of slavery. Naturally there are complications, and both Inara and Zoe end up captives in the convent house, where local law says they will have to remain forever if the others can’t help them escape by sunrise.
Firefly: The Sting is by design a tale of sisterhood and a showcase of feminine strength and ingenuity, but all too often Dawson takes this to unnecessary extremes. By far the best example is the moment when Zoe refuses to cooperate with the abbess and the latter responds with, “Nevertheless, she persists,” an obvious reference to the modern feminist battle cry “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I was immediately pulled out of the story when I read that expression, which in the Firefly ‘verse would already be over five centuries old! One would be hard pressed to find another point in the narrative more lacking in nuance.
It is by no means surprising that Boom! Studios would want to capitalize on the wave of popularity that female-led stories are enjoying in contemporary pop culture, but what is a bit of a head-scratcher is why the publisher would choose a Firefly book as the vehicle for a story with such blatant feminist overtones. Joss Whedon is already famous for stories that champion women and feature strong, independent female protagonist characters, and Firefly is no exception. In every episode of Firefly, as well as the motion picture Serenity, one sees women who are neither defined by nor dependent upon the men in their lives. Zoe is arguably the best fighter among the crew, and she both literally and figuratively wears the pants in her marriage. Kaylee is a brilliant mechanic, and in more than one episode of the series we see her do things with Serenity’s engine that none of the men are capable of doing. Inara is an intelligent, versatile and cultured businesswoman who is respected throughout the ‘verse, and despite the fact that sex is one of the commodities she offers, she is always in complete control over how, why and with whom she chooses to do business. Even River, a young girl who has been victimized in the past, emerges from that period of exploitation with remarkable insight and intelligence, not to mention physical dexterity and skills that make her one of the deadliest characters in the ‘verse. (One could even make the argument that Firefly/Serenity is really the story of River’s journey from damaged teenage fugitive to valued member of Serenity’s crew– and eventually the ship’s new pilot– as told through Mal’s eyes. We’ll save that for another day though.)
The key to Whedon’s brilliance is that in all of his TV series– be it Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse or Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD– feminine strength is an intrinsic and organic part of the story rather than something that has to be held high and waved around for the viewer to see. That is one of the things that makes Whedon’s work so effective, and it is unfortunately also why Dawson’s story falls flat. If one tells a good Firefly story in true Whedon style, then the strength and formidability of the female characters speaks for itself. However, if one tries too hard to force that aspect of the story to the forefront, it actually has the opposite effect and practically profanes the iconic female characters of the Firefly ‘verse.
This Browncoat would give Firefly: The Sting a C- at best, and that passing grade is based mainly on the strength of the artwork and the overall layout of the graphic novel. I wouldn’t really recommend it to fellow Browncoats though. If you’re looking to read an OGN that features the characters from the Firefly ‘verse, you’re much better off with Dark Horse Comics’ Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, and if you want new stories that aren’t as closely tied to the series or the movie, then you’d do well to check out Boom! Studios’ ongoing Firefly comic series. If you’re like me though, and find it hard to resist the temptation of a new Firefly/Serenity book, then consider yourself warned. If you purchase this particular original graphic novel, the real sting you experience might be one of disappointment.
Peace, love and rockets…