Let’s move on from the world of role playing games for a while and go back towards Firefly/Serenity’s more mainstream media efforts post-film, in the form of more comic books. Today, I’d like to take a look at some of the “one-shots”, the smaller one-off Serenity comics that have popped up at different times over the past few years, in-between the bigger arcs.
First, there is The Other Half, written by Jim Kreuger, with art by Will Conrad and Julia Ohta. This is just an eight page piece, easily summed up: the crew flee from Reaver pursuit on the way to a rendezvous with some smugglers. On board their commandeered transport is a wounded man who has apparently paid Mal half an an agreed fee upfront in return for the transportation to this meeting, but is now critically wounded. While Simon tries to save his life and the rest of the crew stave off the Reaver assault, River’s mind-reading abilities get to the truth of the matter: that the passenger is an Alliance agent on an undercover mission to bust up smuggling rings, by any means necessary. When he realises who River is, there is a double implication: that River kills him, covering up the shot as a random Reaver bullet, and that Mal is both aware and approving of this, the story ending with Mal telling River “Welcome to the crew”.
There’s only so much you can do with stories this short, and The Other Half isn’t a tale that ever really impressed all that much. Maybe it’s just that it’s taking so much from territory already well travelled: the entire set-up is taken from the Reaver skiff chase in the film, right down to the hover transport rushing to meet an in-flight Serenity piloted by Wash. River seeing through a duplicitous scheme to hand her and her brother in was a key point of “Ariel”. And Mal’s declaration that River is now part of the crew was something presented better in “Objects In Space”, and to a different extent in the film: while it is unclear where in the timeline The Other Half takes place, it seems likely to be in that gap between series and movie, so the depiction here is caught between the acceptance indicated by Mal after the adventure with Jubal Early, and his distance from the Tam siblings at the beginning of Serenity.
At least the art is quite good though, the designs of the Reavers – between the skinned faces and the weapons with altogether unnecessary spike attachments – being a special treat. River’s “reading” of the passenger is shown in a nicely fragmented way, and there’s something quite effectively eerie about having his thought process depicted in the way that it is, as he realises the opportunity that lies before him just before he realises that River can understand everything that he is thinking.
The story’s darkness is apparent: Mal’s happiness with River comes after she is implied to have committed a calculated murder after all, but perhaps this is offset by the rather chilling vision of what might have occurred if the Alliance agent had succeeded: a panel of the Serenity crew lying motionless in pools of blood. The Other Half seems intended to shock and disturb, maybe to too much of an extent, a short story without the necessary longevity to make its point in more nuanced fashion. River’s killing of the agent also seems to occur without any thought for consequences. We might remember Zoe’s line in the pilot: “Killing a fed? Can you think of a stupider thing to do?”
The Other Half was later released in line with another short, Downtime, written by Zach Whedon with artwork by Chris Samnee and David Stewart. This one is both similar to The Other Half and different at the same time. Despite the art style being a little more basic and, if I may be so critical, rather crude, I actually prefer it a bit better, as I think that it does more with the same number of pages at The Other Half. The plot is simple: Serenity is briefly grounded due to a snowstorm, and the crew has to find ways to kill the time. Mal whines about the delay, Zoe and Wash have some conjugal relations, Jayne goes to Simon with an awkward medical problem and River has an encounter with some locals.
Downtime is great because every crew member, bar maybe Inara, has a moment in the panels to themselves, to showcase their character and get to breathe just a little. We see Mal as the put upon captain, distressed by the snow and butting heads with Wash, with Zoe again in the middle. We see Wash’s sarcastic wit (love that “Mal! Malcolm. My dear old pal Malcolm…”) and his unending efforts to have alone time with Zoe. We see Zoe stray that careful line between captain and husband (as well as the careful line between friend to the crew and first officer, in her interaction with Kaylee). We see Jayne dealing, once again, with the aftermath of his own carelessness. We see Simon being both the competent medical professional and, later, someone a bit more at ease with the crew (and happy to get one over on Jayne). We see Kaylee longing for proper food. We get hints at Book’s dark past (Downtime pre-dating The Shepherd’s Tale). And we see River being River.
Where Downtime loses something is in that depiction of River. Guess what? Two years after The Other Half, River is once again secretly killing threats to the crew. There’s a certain laziness in this: the character is capable of being more than just a weird, crazy assassin, but that’s the well that both short writers went to independent of each other. Here, she kills a bunch of people, and then sort of boasts about it to Book: it’s a strange and unnerving ending really, a dark conclusion to an otherwise mostly light-hearted glimpse of Serenity and its crew.
Next time, I’ll look at another of the longer comic stories.