Let’s talk a little bit more about “Better Days”, and some other thoughts I had while reading through it again recently.
I think if there is an overriding theme through the work, from the heist centred first issue, the fantasies of the second and the return to the status quo of the third, it’s that moderate gains from hard work is preferable to easy gains from barely any. The crew come across their fortune largely through an odd happenstance, a by-product of a less bountiful criminal endeavour. That brings a temporary happiness, but the ease of the success attracts the vultures too, both in the form of criminals and the guy they screwed over right at the start. No one in the crew is entirely comfortable with the reality of being flush with cash: they might think happy thoughts about what the future may bring, but these aren’t coreward bluebloods, like Jayne so desperately wants to be, maybe. When it comes right down to it, the decision to give up the money is an easy enough one.
The story only barely talks about Zoe past as a “Dust Devil”, a Browncoat resister who continued fighting a guerrilla war for some time after the end of conventional operations against the Alliance. Indeed, this revelation comes as a bit of a surprise, as other parts of the canon, like deleted scenes from both the TV series and the film, make it clear that Zoe was career military and lacked the kind of strong commitment to the Browncoat cause that would have made her continue to fight after the end of the war. Really, between her and Mal, it’s the Captain you’d finger for a Dust Devil in waiting, were it not for the obvious disillusionment he suffered after Serenity Valley.
And this kind of thing is important, because it speaks to Zoe’s morality in a general sense. The Dust Devils aren’t the heroic browncoated soldiers of the independence movements, they’re shadowy figures planting bombs where they will do the most damage to the Alliance and melting away before they can be apprehended. Zoe never struck me as the kind of person capable of such calculated violence, and I feel like this plot point was badly misjudged, both because of its inherent problems and the way that the story just casually breezes over both it, and Wash’s opinion of his wife’s former activities.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that drew my attention was the way that the comic leaves dangling the possibility of a love triangle featuring Simon, Kaylee and Inara, that subsequent offerings have essentially ignored, maybe because not enough thought was really put into it. Mal see’s Simon leaving after a visit to Inara’s shuttle, and the companion isn’t of a mind to explain the encounter to Mal afterwards. The TV show featured some bare hints of a possible closeness between Simon and Inara, that would have been a pretty natural evolution really: both the most educated, core-like people on the ship, who share similarities that Simon could never share with Kaylee. An attraction would hardly be the craziest thing: whether someone as “proper” as Simon would be willing to do anything about that attraction, when his relationship with Kaylee remains so unresolved, is a different story entirely. A little cliché of a potential plot to be sure, but something that might (and still may) be worth expanding on in the future, should there be the opportunity.
And, connected to that, there’s Jayne, suddenly inquiring of Inara the best way to attract a companion. Jayne’s never really be the kind to be too picky about the women he pays for: could the depiction of him in “Better Days” be evidence of an attraction Inara, that goes beyond a base lust? Maybe I’m reaching.
One of the other things that strikes me about “Better Days” is its depiction of a futuristic world, that went more sci-fi than the TV series was really capable of doing. So much easier to showcase advanced technology when you only have a pen, as opposed to a limited production budget and a camera. “Better Days” features things like military grade drones and fancy hotels replete with the latest advancements: it’s almost a shock, after Firefly and Serenity spent so much time in their wild west setting, putting their characters on horses firing simple repeater rifles, to see the crew involved in a highway chase with a murderous automaton.
But the problem is with much of the artwork, which I actually think is off quite a low standard, especially in comparison to some of the other Serenity comics, especially the once-offs The faces seem too rigid, the action poorly defined: that first issue chase scene especially lacks the kind of oomph and visual energy to really make it leap off the page. Things get a little better as we go along, but I wouldn’t say this was Will Conrad’s best work by any stretch of the imagination.
And in connection to that is the overall feel of “Better Days”, which has that little hint of a fan-fiction scenario that somebody turned into canon. It’s a “What-if” kind of plot: “What if the crew of criminals always on the edge financially suddenly had lots of money?”. And that’s fine, if it is thought through properly, but to me “Better Days” felt like the people behind it were so focused on that scenario and what kind of reactions they could show in the crew – essentially, the second of the three issues – that they didn’t think enough of the beginning and end of the story. So the beginning, with some iffy artwork, comes off like a quick effort to get to that middle section, while the end is a resolution too neat and tidy with the aforementioned character drama of Simon and Inara thrown into the mix as a way of keeping things going. Yes, it’s Joss Whedon at the helm, but that was actually one of his last offerings to the larger canon, and maybe it’s a sign that he no longer wanted to continue with the ‘verse.
“Better Days” is fine, but like all of the comics, it’s trying to be something it really can’t, and some times that is more obvious than at others.