by Chris Tobias
I have a confession to make. When I sat down to read Watch How I Soar, the latest original Firefly graphic novel from Boom! Studios, I was expecting to be disappointed. The last Firefly OGN from the publisher, 2019’s The Sting, had fallen short on many levels as far as I was concerned, and lately I haven’t been too thrilled with the direction that the most recent story arcs in their ongoing Firefly comics series have gone either (a topic which I may choose to explore here in the near future). On top of that, the company had just announced a new ongoing comics series, Firefly: Brand New ‘Verse (set to debut next month) that appears to have jettisoned all of the original characters with the exception of Zoe, a move so implausible that it borders on blasphemous. There was a time when Joss Whedon would not allow any story about Serenity and her crew to appear anywhere in any medium without his personal approval, but whether it’s because of the recent controversy that has surrounded him or just simply because after nearly 16 years he is finally learning to let go, that is obviously not the case anymore.
That said, if you’re expecting to read a review about a self-fulfilling prophecy, you’ve got another thing coming! Firefly: Watch How I Soar is a collection of tales that properly reflect the character they spotlight– dynamic, at times whimsical, with plenty of quirky and intelligent humor and just a touch of philosophical melancholy– and all in all it is a very fitting tribute to Serenity’s pilot, Hoban “Wash” Washburne.
Cover Art from Firefly: Watch How I Soar (image: Boom! Studios)
My inner Browncoat got his first pleasant surprise on the contents page of the book, which is attractively adorned by a field of stars that gives way to the outline of an apatosaurus, a nod to Wash’s fondness for playing with toy dinosaurs on Serenity’s bridge (a character trait that is treated to its own origin story in one of the book’s six tales). On that page it is revealed that this OGN is not one long story, as The Sting was, but rather an anthology written by five different writers and illustrated by six different artists. (In fact, four of the six of the stories were also illustrated by their writers.)
The opening story, “Windfall” by Jeff Jensen (the only writer who contributes more than one story to this volume) is loaded with Easter eggs and references to the series and the movie. The story’s very premise seems to be a reference to the conversation Wash has with Zoe in the series’ pilot episode, in which he expresses a desire for some time alone with his wife away from Serenity and her crew and tries to sell Zoe on the idea of, “… you with the bathing… me with the watching you bathe.” The story oscillates between humor and morbid foreshadowing, and ties nicely to the final story in the book, which is also penned by Jensen.
The second tale, “The Land,” written and illustrated by Ethan Young, is an endearing tale about a young Wash and his travels with his father, Hoban Washburne, Sr., aboard a beat-up old ship called a “turkey.” When father and son are forced to land for some necessary but uncomfortably expensive repairs, young Wash passes the time exploring the town while his dad scrapes together the credits they need to get their boat fixed. This leads the boy to a place called “Dino World” that is part amusement park, part museum. And of course it is this experience that explains to the reader not only the origin of Wash’s fondness for dinosaurs, but also how the miniature dinos ended up on Serenity’s console and how the concept of “sudden but inevitable betrayal” became part of Wash’s lexicon.
This story segues cleverly into the third installment in the book, “Born for the Stars,” written and illustrated by Jared Cullum. It’s an action-packed tale that involves the Alliance and showcases Wash’s natural talent for flying, making it clear that he was already destined to be a hotshot pilot even before he attended flight school. I was delighted to learn in the author bios that Jared Cullum resides in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for an opportunity to have him autograph my copy of Watch How I Soar at a local convention once this pesky global pandemic is over.
“Take the Sky Away” is unique among the stories in this book in that it’s the only one that features a mustached Wash in his early days as Serenity’s pilot, before he and Zoe were a couple. The fourth tale in the collection, written and illustrated by Jorge Corona, has Wash returning to his homeworld to do a job with Serenity and her crew, although he is none too happy about it. It turns out the cargo he has to smuggle offworld in one of Serenity’s shuttles is actually the three daughters of the man who’s hired them (a fact that Wash discovers in a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of River’s unusual entrance at the end of the first hour of Firefly). With a combination of luck, fancy flying and sacrifice, Wash and his “cargo” are able to break atmo and rendezvous with Serenity, where Wash’s favorite view of the stars awaits.
Most of the stories in the book tend to focus on Wash and Zoe, with the other members of Serenity’s crew barely getting a glance, if they’re involved at all. The one exception is the fifth tale, “Home,” written and illustrated by Giannis Milonogiannis. This story finds Serenity being pursued by crew of bandits who are hellbent on “recruiting” Wash, whom they regard as the best pilot in the ‘verse– and they’ll do it by any means necessary. It’s the only story in which other crew members besides Wash and Zoe play significant roles (in this case Mal and Kaylee share in the adventure), and it also marks the only time in the book when the reader sees the majority of Serenity’s crew (minus Simon and Inara for some reason) together at all at once.
Jeff Jensen’s contributions bookend this volume, and the final story, “The Flight Lesson,” spins out of a comment that Wash made in Jensen’s earlier story that opened the book. It is what DC Comics used to call an “Elseworlds” tale, or one that takes place outside of the canon of the ‘verse. In this story, an older Wash and Zoe have retired and given up their life of crime. Wash is a charter seaplane pilot, and Zoe is a guide for mule treks. Wash decides to give his teenage daughter Emma a spaceflight lesson, and together they fly to Hera and visit the grave of Malcolm Reynolds, who in this version of reality was the one who didn’t survive Serenity’s exploits. Jensen, who covered Firefly when it was on the air for Entertainment Weekly magazine, mentions in his bio that he was actually inside Serenity and even sat in Wash’s chair. Perhaps that would explain, at least in part, why he is so “dialed in” as a writer to the essence of who these characters are. I am not usually a fan of “Elseworlds”-style stories, but I found this one touching nonetheless.
I’ve heard it said more than once since its release that the stories in Watch How I Soar are supposed to represent the final thoughts that fly through Wash’s mind in the moment of his death. (Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the motion picture Serenity— even though you’ve had 16 years to do it!) While that could easily be one interpretation, there is nothing in the OGN that specifically indicates that, and I choose not to assign such a morbid theme to this collection of tales. Instead, I prefer to look at the book as five stories that exist as snapshots in the life of Serenity’s beloved pilot… along with one vision of what could have been.
The volume is attractively bound with some shiny cover art and a backup preview of “Outlaw Ma Reynolds” from the trade paperback Firefly: New Sheriff in the ‘Verse Vol. 1, a collection that originally appeared as individual issues of the Firefly ongoing series.
In truth, there is not a whole lot about this book I didn’t like, but my biggest criticism would have to be the inconsistency of the artwork, which varies drastically in style from story to story and might seem a little rough at times to Browncoats who might have grown accustomed to the gorgeous painted realism of the artwork in Dark Horse Comics’ most recent Serenity comics and graphic novels. Another thing that tends to damage my calm is that much like Boom! Studios’ ongoing Firefly comics, this OGN also features very little Chinese, which will sometimes leave hardcore Browncoats with the feeling that there is something missing from the dialogue and cause it to feel slightly less genuine. It would also have been nice if the other members of Serenity’s crew would have appeared just a bit more often, but I’m willing to concede that this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of book.
Overall, this Browncoat gives Firefly: Watch How I Soar an A-, and I would say without hesitation that it is the best offering in the Firefly ‘verse from Boom! Studios to date. With the notable exception of the recent series of Firefly novels from Titan Books (I’ll be reviewing the latest one here soon), I have not enjoyed a new Firefly story this much in years, and I can only hope that there will be more collections like this one from Boom! Studios in the future.
(Firefly: Watch How I Soar is available from major booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as many local comics shops, which this Browncoat would always recommend you support. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $19.99.)