Though Buffy has legions of fans and The Avengers is the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, many would argue that Joss Whedon’s greatest contribution to nerd culture is the Serenity universe. A moving sci-fi/western with equal parts darkness, humor, and heart, even cancellation couldn’t kill it. After the Serenity movie finished up the tale that Firefly never got a chance to finish, Dark Horse started sporadically publishing comics to bridge the gap, and loyal Browncoats have been lapping them up ever since. Now a new miniseries will be picking up the story after the movie, the six-issue Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty, and it’s looking like this will be the last Serenity comic with a Whedon in the writer’s credit for quite some time. With that in mind, here’s a look at all the Serenity comics so far, how they fit into the timeline, and the leftover secrets from Firefly that they reveal. Fair warning: if you’ve only seen Firefly and the movie, this article will spoil your face off. And if you’ve never even seen Firefly, a) why are you even bothering with this article and b) for Christ’s sake go watch it right now!
Coinciding with the release of Serenity the movie, Serenity: Those Left Behind bridges the gap between the show and the film, answering at least one big question left over from Fox’s premature cancellation: why was a British black guy chasing the crew instead of those freaks with the blue hands and the boombox-in-a-stick? Whedon and co-writer/scripter Brett Matthews concocted an engaging plot for the three-issue arc, got back into the fun character interactions and conflicts that drove the show, and delved deep into the bottomless well of the darkness within Malcolm Reynolds. Although artist Will Conrad got a little sloppy here and there, he was a great fit, capturing each character’s likeness exactly while showing off his talent for dramatic lighting. But there was something off about the pacing – it seemed like a lot of set-up for a hasty conclusion, with the first two issues taking their time while the third issue raced to wrap everything up, and there just wasn’t enough character development. What ended up being a three-issue series should have been stretched out to five or six, and although there’s quite a bit to like about the first Serenity series, there’s enough wrong that it seems like a missed opportunity. Still, it was what fans wanted: more, and Those Left Behind quickly became one of Dark Horse’s highest-selling titles. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that there would be more Serenity comics in the future.
Three years in the future. Yep. There was a three-year gap between Firefly and Serenity, so of course there was a three-year hiatus before the team from Those Left Behind got around to Better Days. More light-hearted than the first mini, Better Days goes back even earlier in the timeline, somewhere between Those Left Behind and Firefly. In Better Days, the crew of the Serenity end up with quite a bit more cash than they’re used to, but aren’t able to hold onto it for long, which wasn’t that new or interesting since a similar scenario had already been touched on in the TV show; we already knew they’d never be able to sustain success, because that would make them less interesting, it would transform them into winners, and one of the biggest reasons we loved them so much is because they were losers. And considering that a major theme of Better Days is people unable to leave the war behind, it would have made a lot more sense had this series been titled Those Left Behind. Again, the character interaction is fun, and there are a couple of interesting Easter eggs – Shepherd Book’s description of what he’s going to do with all the money, and Simon Tam surreptitiously visiting Inara, which hints at a big plotline that still hasn’t played out in the stories, only been revealed in interviews. The plot of Better Days is more tightly-constructed than Those Left Behind, Conrad's is sharper overall, and there’s at least twice as much action in its pages, but the story lacks the dark edge that colored the Firefly, the movie, and the first comic. Still, good fun, and probably the best entry point for those new to the mythos.
An eight-pager for MySpace Dark Horse Presents, this short by Jim Krueger and Will Conrad takes place between Those Left Behind and the film -- at least that’s where I’m placing it, since Inara and Shepherd Book are nowhere to be seen, and this is the first time that River uses her "reading" abilities as an official member of the crew. There’s not much of a story to speak of, but this short is notable in that it’s the first time Joss Whedon isn’t listed as co-writer, and it appears that Serenity blows up a Reaver vessel without having any guns. She really is a special ship.
So we can all agree that the most heart-wrenching moment in pop fiction of the last decade was Wash’s shocking death in Serenity, right? In Float Out, written by comedian/actor/auto-biographer/curmudgeon Patton Oswalt and illustrated by artists/illustrator/renderer/drawing guy Patric Reynolds, three of Wash’s friends buy a ship together, and tell stories about him at the christening ceremony. This book seemed to get a lot of negative reviews, mostly because it focused on characters who weren’t actually in Firefly, but this is my favorite Serenity comic for three reasons: the dialogue is fantastic, there’s a lot of heart in the story, and…
[GIGANTIC SPOILER WARNING, UNLESS YOU'VE READ ANY OF THE SOLICITATION COPY FOR LEAVES ON THE WIND]
…on the final page, we see that Zoe is pregnant with Wash’s daughter. Undoubtedly the best moment of the Serenity comics.
Perhaps the biggest extant storyline left over from Firefly was the true nature of Shepherd Book’s origins. Though he first came across as a gentle man of peace, there were several hints that he’d had a violent past, and in his short but memorable appearance in Serenity, he was a full-on badass. Fans speculated that he had a background in crime or in the military, and The Shepherd’s Tale, it’s revealed to be both. Written by Joss and Zack Whedon, with art by the incomparable Chris Samnee, The Shepherd’s Tale starts at Shepherd Book’s death in Serenity and goes through his life backwards, tracing his journey from the Abbey to the Alliance to the resistance, and all the way back to his impoverished youth. A good story, but it will make you wonder why the Alliance gave him medical assistance in the Firefly episode “Safe.” But really, whose records are detailed enough to include “responsible for the deaths of four thousand Alliance soldiers?”
A short by Zack Whedon and Chris Samnee, I’m placing this in the timeline right around the time of Better Days, probably not long after it. Not much happens; just your basic slice-of-life story where River kills a handful of folks, says some cold-blooded ****, and drops the mic on the Shepherd. Everyday stuff.
Again written solely by Zack Whedon, with art from Fabio Moon, this short for Dark Horse’s Free Comic Book Day offering sets the table for Leaves on the Wind, with Zoe pregnant, River the in-house pilot/mind-reading ninja, and Mal Reynolds, despite taking down the Alliance a peg or two, still a hardass who only cares about two things – his ship, and the people on it. Even though it’s been years since the TV show and the film, and the comics have been spaced out with mixed results, Serenity is one of the best sci-fi creations of the 21st century, and even if there will no longer be a Whedon’s name under the writer's credits, there will always be an audience of Browncoats eagerly awaiting the next entry in the story.
Serenity: Leaves on the Wind #1 goes on sale Wednesday, January 29, at your local comic shop and digitally via Dark Horse's website.