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Dark Horse Slugfest: Serenity: Better Days #1 (of 3)

Posted: Saturday, March 15, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews
Will Conrad, Michelle Madsen (colors)
Dark Horse Comics
Shawn Hill: 3.5 Bullets
Jon Judy: 4.5 Bullets
Christopher Power: 3 Bullets
Ray Tate: 3 Bullets




Shawn Hill 3.5 Bullets

Plot: Mal and the gang are stealing stuff and not getting paid. You know, same old.

Comments: This series has that thing: charming, downtrodden … a dog-eared quality? It’s an odd mix of elements, some of them quite inspired (the cowboys in space thing, the way everyone speaks Chinese without even knowing what China was), others a little loose and sloppy (how big is this solar system? What kind of sun is orbited by hundreds of planets? How do you find a "fringe" territory within this cluster of worlds and familiar human agendas?).

What ties it altogether is that Mal's ship is truly a ship of fools, each with an agenda that is somehow not quite met, or goals so low that survival satisfies most of them. Doc and River are on the run from the blue-handed law. Zoe is loyal to her captain, and Wash is loyal to Zoe. Book has never really found the peace he seems to exude. And Jayne doesn't know anyone else who will tolerate his presence (though he does know a few worshipers of his legend). Kaylee's smart enough to know better, but green enough not to care. And Inara has negotiated a deal that she hopes is working to her advantage.

But we see that she's pining away, too, as in this issue her job leads her to a man who may be hunting Mal, a man whose place in her bed she wishes was taken by Mal, a man who has no disrespect for her profession, but can't bring himself to love a woman who sells her body nonetheless. He's too old-fashioned for that, you see.

You're damned if you do and damned if you don't in the Firefly universe. I mean it's pretty interesting (and confounding) that Mal comes off like a Southern Civil warrior (one who nonetheless has a black lieutenant … ironically?), who'd rather live as an outlaw than kowtow to the winning side. Did we ever really find out what the War that left Mal so emotionally scarred was for?

His is not a life of privilege, but a rough one of illegal freedom, where to survive at all you have to be smarter than everyone else, out-swindling the swindlers time and time again. Which is of course perfect writing fodder for Whedon, who never met a fake-out he didn't like. He's still as capable of loading a tale with surprises as he was back in Buffy Season One.

There are games within games in this issue, clever switches in points of view, and all the soapy frustration you could hope for. As this is set long before the endgame of the movie, things are still relatively hopeful and energetic, too. No closure yet in sight, and Whedon still gets to build the worlds that go with his funky and junky spaceship. Conrad returns as well on art duties, and he has the characters down, plus a degree of storytelling skill that makes Serenity one of the better quality of comic adaptations from another media. An editor's note inside explains the lack of multiple covers for this issue: each issue has a portion of one big poster, which will add up when you've bought all three. As it's by Adam Hughes, that's just one more bargain for your dollar.




Jon Judy: 4.5 Bullets

How to review this… how to review this…

Well it is always best to be as objective as possible whenever possible, so let’s start there.

On its own merits, as just a comic book with no history and no connections to any other media, this is a damn good read.

One weakness in the book is it has such a large cast, and most of them might as well, as Kaylee says in this issue, be invisible, relegated as they are to the background. After all, how does one devote “page time” to nine protagonists?

Whedon and company handle this challenge well. Occasionally these “other” characters are given plot-furthering lines that could have been given to just about anyone, but in those instances the characters speak in distinct, individual voices, making them seem like people instead of props. Further, a few of the characters get a little more development. Mal, Inara and Kaylee are even given their own subplots – although Mal’s is really only hinted at – someone with whom he has history will be causing problems in the future – and in the case of the latter two their subplots are old territory to Serenity fans (but I forgot I was trying to objectively judge this book on its own merits, not as part of some larger, multi-media story).

So the characters are handled well or ignored. How about the story? Well there, on its own merits, the book falters some. The plot is simply anemic – the crew pulls a heist that isn’t quite what it appears to be, and then makes off with some booty. If you didn’t know who these characters were, you just wouldn’t care.

OK, on to the art. Matthews makes each of the characters seem and look unique – a tough task in almost any comic book, let alone one with nine protagonists. Further, his work is “cartoony” enough to usually seem kinetic, to imply movement. On the other hand, some of the action sequences can come off “stiff” at times, and so can the characters’ facial expressions. As an example of the latter, check out the sequence of the truck jumping from one highway to another on page nine – it seems like what it is – a series of static images – rather than an event that is actually occurring visually in front of the readers. As for the occasionally awkward facial expressions, check out Jayne in the third and fifth panels on page eight – he looks stiff and lifeless.

So on the whole, this is a good comic book. I think, even if I had no pre-existing knowledge of and affection for the characters, I’d be intrigued and come back for the second issue. My best objective rating: three-and-a-half bullets.

But what’s the point in even pretending one can be objective here? I doubt anyone is even thinking of picking this comic up unless they were already fans of the TV show and movie, so let’s evaluate this not as a comic book but as a Serenity story.

I’ll admit to having been nervous when I heard the title for this series; I knew it was set before the events in the Serenity film, and those were most certainly not better days for most of the crew. They were constantly on the run for their lives from the Alliance, River was nutso, Simon was driven with worry for his sister, Kaylee’s love for Simon seemed like it would never be requited. After the movie, we can assume their lives took, even if it was briefly, a turn for the better.

So the title struck me as pandering – only to the fans were these better days, because the crew we knew and loved so well was together:one big, dysfunctional family.

But then I realized I didn’t give a damn. I wanted to be pandered to. I wanted a good, old-fashioned Firefly heist story, and I wanted lots of Wash and lots of Book, damn it. I still haven’t forgiven Whedon for killing them.

Well I shouldn’t have been worried to begin with and I shouldn’t have hoped I’d be catered to. This is indeed a good, old-fashioned Firefly story, with characters you know and love. But it also seems like Whedon and company deliberately neglect Book and Wash for other characters, as though they are playing with us. And therein lies one of Whedon’s great gifts as a storyteller: He understands that delayed gratification, or even no gratification, is often a great storytelling technique. By the final episode of Buffy, we fans so missed the simple, fun, relatively-problem-free days of the first few seasons that the longing for those days was almost tangible. Well, similarly, rather than sating any desire for the good-old-days, this book will gnaw into your cortex and refuse to leave, compelling you to dig out those DVDs and watch them all over again.

And what higher praise can you give a comic book other than to say it will leave you wanting more?




Christopher Power: 3 Bullets

A reminder of how good the show based around the ship Serenity was, and how much promise it had, is always welcome. However, this comic does nothing to further any of the aspects of the show that interest me.

It follows much the same formula as the original show, which is not necessarily bad. There is a heist that goes wrong, a villain in the background, and a backdoor deal that leads to promised riches. This leads to another heist where treasure is just what the crew needs to keep going. Much like the fantastic book Gunplay that ComicsBulletin reviewed last week, this book covers off most of the staples of the western saga genre. This was a hallmark of the Serenity series, and it is important that it survives in the comics.

Intermixed in all of this are many of the same relationships that we saw in the show. The crew that has flown with Mal since the war sound like they did in the show, especially Wash and Jayne. Shepard Book plays the part of the mediator when there is a disagreement between the crew and the new passengers on Serenity. Finally, Anara (who is gorgeously rendered) is still struggling to find her place on the ship when her feelings with Mal conflict with her career. Again, all these relationships, characterizations and dialogue structure do a good job grounding the book in the series. The art team does a wonderful job rendering the characters much more accurately than the other Whedonverse titles, and aside from what I thought was a dreadful cover by Adam Hughes, it is one of the better looking sci-fi books I have read recently.

However, that is about all I can say about this book.

I realize that it is important to ground the story in what has come before, especially for new readers, but the book treads no new ground at all. I'm sure that the point of the title, Better Days, is that fans of the series (myself included) can continue to delude ourselves that the story can pick up where it left off and we can see the epic story that was hinted at on the small screen. But we can't. The movie Serenity torched any hope of that happening. It moved us on from the "good old days" on the ship Serenity. Much of the wonder and mystery of the story was revealed in the movie. We know the outcome of the game. The cards have, largely, been shown. If Whedon and Matthews want to explore this universe in a retrospective way, they need to move deeper into that universe. They need to begin to flesh out the villains, the society and, in particular, the history of these really great characters. They need to link up more hooks from the series with threads in the movie, and not introduce one off villains with no concrete connection to the bigger picture revealed in the movie.

Perhaps this book will read better with the other two issues in a trade paperback form. However, if we are going to keep moving television shows, with all of their pacing and framing trappings, into comic form, the industry needs to accept that not everything can be a periodical. It is clear that this book is the first 15-20 min of a 45-50 min episode. There are plot hooks that may eliminate many of my above complaints. I just cannot shake the feeling that I will have the same complaint about this book that I did about a show that I really enjoyed: it moves too slowly. The plot needs to evolve faster, and have less one-off stories. This is especially important now that there are 2-3 years between story installments.

If you are a Serenity fan, this may be for you. However, I actually found the book a little bit off-putting as I think it could be much better.




Ray Tate: 3 Bullets

The truth is that I would have graded Serenity: Better Days higher had I not seen Serenity. In the movie Serenity, the status quo of Firefly is broken drastically, and I'm not even talking about the death of one or more members in Mal's crew. So it's not easy for me to go back to "Better Days."

Mal and his bunch of amiable and infectious thieves open the story with a neatly planned art heist, but it turns out that Mal's actual scheme is far more cunning. The fox turns on the hounds, and the revelation earns Mal and his crew ire from a new enemy.

Meanwhile, Inara fantasizes about Mal while making love to an Alliance man, who has it in for Browncoats such as her dream lover. The scene exhibits the liberal sexual themes in all of Whedon's works. Inara is a licensed high class escort known as a Companion. In the Firefly universe, Companions are treated with the utmost respect. The law demands it.

The skill that allows Whedon to draw upon multi-faceted elements into an economy of actions is also on display during Inara's scene. We learn about Inara's feeling for Mal. We learn about her status. We learn about the Alliance and Mal's opposition to the Alliance. We also learn that while professional in her work, Inara does not tolerate insults aimed at her friends. She punishes subtly, and this gives the reader an inkling to her intellect.

When delivering the goods to a buyer, Mal finds himself short-changed, or so it seems. The buyer tells Mal where he can find abandoned ill-gotten booty that will more than pay for the prize. Mal decides to go for it. He after all has nothing to lose.

Mal discusses his intentions with the crew and assuages troubled consciences to keep the peace. During the execution of the crime, Whedon and Matthews bring out a scenario regarding another of Mal's crew that doesn't work and just feels like dead weight. Because of this feeling, the plot comes to a pause.

The reason behind the inertness will be plain for any fan of the series. These feelings between crewmates discussed in the dialogue have been resolved in Serenity. The dialogue's therefore retreads, and I think had the speakers talked about something else, the story would have run smoothly to the finish.

Will Conrad, who was the artist for the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in series as well as the first Serenity mini-series contributes decent likenesses of the actors and actresses from Firefly while capturing the action that's characteristic of the series. Michelle Madsen's colors mimic the dusty feeling of the Western space frontier.

I'm not truly disappointed in Serenity: Better Days. I just think that Whedon and Matthews should have probably avoided some of the past relationships of the crew that came to a head in the movie. Either that, or the writers should have handled them a little more subtly.



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