Serenity: Those Left Behind

by Joss Whedon, et al.

Cover image

Script: Brett Matthews
Artist: Will Conrad
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Michael Heisler
Publisher: Dark Horse
Copyright: January 2006
ISBN: 1-59307-449-2
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 74

Buy at Powell's Books

I'm not quite a Browncoat (I've never been far into organized fandom), but I am one of those people who thought Firefly was sadly overlooked and pathetically mismanaged, an unpretentious character-driven science fiction romp that beats out several better-known series in sheer fun. The followup movie, Serenity, was both good and a disappointment. It has its moments, some of them brilliant, and the more I watched it, the more I liked it. But it's an entire season of plot crammed into a movie, compressing the character banter and delivery that's the heart and soul of Firefly.

All that is prelude to explain that I badly wanted to like this graphic novel. Serenity: Those Left Behind is the collection of a three-issue Dark Horse comic miniseries that supposedly fills in the gaps between the aborted first season and Serenity. My hope, given the title, was that it would focus specifically on Shepherd Book, who plays only a bit role in Serenity. At the least, I was hoping to get some more background and tidbits left out of the series and movie.

Unfortunately, this is instead a short comic-book presentation of about one episode worth of content. Not a good episode, either. I looked over the Firefly episode list to try to find one of about the same quality, but they're all significantly better. There are a couple of flares of action, unoriginal crew bickering that's below the standards of originality of the series, and a plot that goes nowhere and feels distinctly pointless. I suppose if I'd only seen Firefly, the appearance of the blue-gloved men would build suspense for later issues (since they do nothing here except act mysterious). But I've seen Serenity and so has nearly everyone who will bother to pick this up, which leaves their appearance here feeling quaint and vaguely pointless.

The art is lovely, I will grant. It's detailed, expressive, and richly colored in the post-Image modern style. It's also, in my opinion, largely wasted on a story of this sort, for unfortunate reasons that aren't the fault of the artist. The transition from a TV show or movie to comic book form faces the huge challenge of translating a rich visual medium into another that, no matter the skill of the artist, cannot provide the same detail. The human brain is spectacular at facial recognition, dialogue-heavy stories like Firefly involve a lot of faces, and the faces are not going to look exactly like the actors. Will Conrad did about as good as could be expected, but there's still constant low-level cognitive dissonance when Kaylee looks vaguely wrong and Mal talks like Mal but doesn't quite look like him. Unless he drew photorealistic panels, this is unavoidable, and it's a distraction from the high quality of his art.

I was expecting the problem with the art. I got this for the plot and for revelations about the world. And in the revelation department, Serenity: Those Left Behind draws a complete blank. Yes, we see Book and Inara leave, but with not even a crumb more information than the reasonably attentive viewer would have picked up from Firefly and Serenity. There's nothing more about Shepherd Book. No follow-up on his mysterious standing with the Alliance. Not even an interesting reason for leaving or any drama over the event. Inara's story plays out about as one would expect, and there are no substantial River developments (it would be hard to wedge any in, since Serenity puts that topic to rest). If this were an episode, it would have been one of the rare episodes with zero development of ongoing plot arcs.

What's left is the banter, and while I wasn't impressed, it's not bad either. This is the Firefly's crew. They have the right speech patterns, the right reactions, and I liked the touch of inserting the Chinese swear words using Chinese characters in the word balloons. There were a few moments where a line from Zoe, Mal, or River drew a chuckle or a grin, even without the dramatic advantages of TV in delivery, timing, and musical sting. But that's about all there is here. You'll have to decide if that's worth ten dollars to you.

I should repeat again that this is short. Three issues of a comic book isn't much at all, most of that is taken up by two multipage action sequences, and there's a fair bit of pinup and full-page spread padding (occasionally gorgeous padding, but still padding if you're looking for story). If ten dollars sounded cheap for a graphic novel, well, there's a reason for that.

I'd love to see the Firefly universe developed further, although the outlook doesn't look good. But the development needs to have more meat to it than this. It's not a bad experiment, and the graphic novel form isn't completely unsuitable, but it felt like Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews were phoning it in when it came to plot and world development (and I expect Whedon bears most of the responsibility there).

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-08-22

Last modified and spun 2016-11-06