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Fundamental Comics: ‘Serenity: Leaves on the Wind’ and Developing the ‘Firefly’ Family

“Fundament Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or lesser-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.



Serenity: Leaves on the Wind
Writer: Zack Whedon
Artist: Georges Jeanty
Colorist: Laura Martin (with Lovern Kindzierski for Chapter 6)
Letterer: Michael Heisler
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Publication Date: 2014
No. of Issues: 6


Introduction

First presented in Joss Whedon’s sadly singular season of Firefly (2002-2003), and then followed by the film adaptation, Serenity (2005), and an ongoing run of comic books published by Dark Horse Books (2005 - ), Serenity: Leaves on the Wind is a six-issue series written by Zack Whedon and with art by Georges Jeanty, following the exploits of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his ragtag band of space cowboys aboard the firefly-class transport ship, Serenity.
Earlier comics in the series examined tantalizing backstories from the ‘verse (The Shepherd’s Tale), bridged between events already recollected (Those Left Behind, Better Days), or offered timeless snap-shots of the crew aimin' to misbehave (The Other Half, Downtime).    

Following the lead briefly set by one-shots Float Out and It’s Never Easy, Leaves on the Wind is the first extended look at the fallout from Serenity, a film in which certain beloved characters from the show failed to make the final reel and the Alliance government’s all-encompassing dominance was shaken as galaxy altering science experiments were revealed.

Published in 2014, Leaves on the Wind is a direct sequel to the 2005 movie, where events continue to follow Serenity’s Laws of Commotion, although now, to borrow from Captain Mal himself: “This ain't no wobbly-headed doll caper. This here's history” (episode: "Trash").



The Plot  

The ‘verse of Firefly is also one of the space-western. Here, there are bar fights, heists gone wrong, sudden (but inevitable) betrayals, songs of hardly won heroism, and pretty floral bonnets. There are also men hanging out of spaceships with “really big guns,” jet engines fiery enough to make a man disappear, and the perennial threat of "space monkeys" gumming up the works. Generously smudging that not-so-fine line between sword duels and inter-planetary warfare are the crew of the Serenity. For these folks, navigating the risk-reward balance of suspect jobs on the border worlds often veers their careers towards non-peaceable means, as moral conviction always beats an easy payday.  

For as many weekly hijinks as the Serenity crew have in Firefly, their more principled ambitions are compounded in Serenity as they take action against the Alliance government and the psychotic Reavers, both overwhelming forces that are fought in the best Browncoat fashion: because it’s the right thing to do and, besides, no one else is going to do it. Serenity concluded with the crew transmitting a ‘verse-wide report of how the Alliance experimented on their own citizens to make them more passive, making monsters in the process.

The plot of Leaves on the Wind follows the ramifications of showing the world how ethically corruptible a government can be. Historically and plainly speaking, this is never the safest position to immediately find oneself in.

First, the good news: The broadcast video has incited a mass public uprising by “young civic-minded people” called the New Resistance. One of their brightest young figures is Bea, a blue-fringed idealist who has naively made it her mission to recruit Mal – “the greatest military mind alive” – to their sizable cause. At the other end of the 'versal scale and back on Serenity, Zoe has a baby, the labor of which is induced by the ghost of her husband, Wash. From such Shakespearean shenanigans we can move on to, and pause to enjoy, the fact that Mal and Inara are now a couple, as are Simon and Kaylee.

Tainting this idealistic opening are a few small wrinkles: The media is conflicted over whether the transmission was a “political hoax” created and then perpetuated by terrorists. Mirroring the New Resistance and Bea's enlistment of Jayne to find Mal, Jubal Early has also floated back from the darkest depths of Firefly (specifically episode: "Objects in Space") to help the Alliance with the same mission to find Serenity, but for sinister reasons. The Alliance are led by Kalista, a figure who serves as Bea's evil counterpart until a final act reveal also aligns her against River. All points converge on a group that is trying their damnedest to lay low, only sticking their heads above the parapet when Zoe needs emergency surgery following complications with her delivery.

Approaching the midpoint of the series arc, Zoe has been confined on a desert prison world, Jubal has found his prey (then he’s found by a revengeful Kaylee…), a disillusioned Bea has found she doesn’t have a clue about “shouldn’t’ve believed the legends” Mal, and Mal has a cunning brimmed scheme to recruit The Operator from Serenity in the desperate hope that returning to ground zero and tumbling secrets out of River’s head will give them some kind of leverage to get Zoe released.   

Things don’t shake out square as planned. The New Resistance push back against the Alliance to then find themselves decimated by the foibles of their own bad book-keeping (turns out they were Alliance funded). The crew encounter a facility full of “special” girls like River, where after a sound thrashing they just about manage to rescue one of them. And finally, having given up on Safe Plan A to rescue Zoe, the crew of Serenity furiously descend on Zoe’s prison with Far Less Safe Plan B.

Families are reunited, wounds seem to be patched up, and the plan is “Same as ever. Take to the sky, see where it leads.”     




Reception Upon Release

The first issue received mostly positive scores, as the continued expansion on the Firefly ‘verse was hotly anticipated and thought to be well executed on delivery. Online publications such as IGN, Comic Book Resources, and Bloody Disgusting all found promise in the returning characters, relieved that the adaptation from screen to page was as smooth and as familiar feeling as it had been for Joss Whedon’s other famous franchise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

IGN: 9/10 rating 
“The medium of comic books allows for a wider scope of storytelling, which is a boon to the overall narrative [….] they examine the situation from multiple perspectives.”
“The issue fits like your favorite pair of jeans. It feels like only yesterday that River took the controls of the ship, and Whedon nails each character's voice perfectly, from Mal's lovably grouchiness to Kaylee's unflagging optimism. Likewise, Jeanty captures the claustrophobic feel of life aboard the ship”

Bloody Disgusting: 4.5/5 rating    
“When kin need helping, there’s nothing in this ‘verse that’s going to stop him. And that is what makes this creation from the Whedons, in my humble opinion, one of their best. Danger be damned! Heart is what makes that ship fly even when it shouldn’t. These creators have captured it here.”

Comic Book Resources:  
Serenity: Leaves on the Wind”#1 will leave fans cheering. In its first issue alone, Firefly’s newest installment is clever, poignant, and funny.”

The least positive review came from Den of Geek: 2.5/5 rating 
“What steers this book away from its potential? For starters, these characters both feel and look unfamiliar [….] If you are like me and you feel that Jeanty’s style does not translate well to something where people have a pre-installed view of what these characters look like, then you’re not goona [sic] feel great about the job that he does.”


Critical Analysis

Leaves on the Wind has one central theme that stretches throughout its galactic core and on towards its border planets: Family.

Family defines the crew of the Serenity. They work together as a curiously assembled cohort (think of an Ikea unit built without the instructions and the wrong parts, and it’s on fire, and psychic, and in space). Beyond the job, they also spend their free time in each other’s company, with some of the crew sharing all manner of biological relationships, too. They are the post-nuclear family.  

Firefly has presented this idea numerous times, from Wash wanting to take a holiday with his wife, to Simon wanting to rescue his sister, and most pointedly in exchanges such as this one from episode, "Ariel:"

Jayne: The money was too good. I got stupid. I'm sorry, okay? Be reasonable. What are you taking it so personal for? It ain't like I ratted you out to the Feds.
Mal: Oh, but you did! You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! But since that's a concept you can't seem to wrap your head around, then you got no place here. You did it to me, Jayne, and that's a fact.

In Leaves on the Wind, these crew dynamics are explored further. Jayne has left the Serenity crew to live with his Ma on Cobb Ranch but wants back in. Inara and Mal are in a relationship, as are Kaylee and Simon; two charged undercurrents that the television show held off on consummating because unresolved sexual tension sells. In the comic, on the other hand, it’s now a handy way of getting two orbiting bodies tightly packed in one frame while they have a conversation about something else. It’s also great fan service.

The newest addition to the crew composition is Zoe and Wash’s daughter Emma. In the same way that pregnancy and birth became a unifying factor in Firefly episode, "Heart of Gold," the crew now also has a new rallying point for their non-traditional family relationships in further adventures. (Simon and Kaylee become surrogate parents momentarily in the comic.) A neat reversal in this motherhood journey occurs at the midpoint of Leaves on the Wind, as Zoe has a strong mother figure of her own when she’s incarcerated. Throughout her ordeal, as Zoe strives to get back to her daughter and crew, she also knows that her Serenity "family" will absolutely come to rescue her.     

Unlike the crew of the Serenity who are thrown together by fate - as Shepherd Book might have put it - but kind of get along, the “special” girls introduced in Leaves on the Wind, share an enforced connection as they are conjoined by their physically and mentally superior abilities. More significantly, they are also all victims of the same routine rituals of authoritative abuse. Like Zoe in her desert with no walls, the girls are also trapped in a prison that initially reflects the limitations of the body and mind against the same oversized oppressor. Compared to Zoe, however, the captives no longer expect to be rescued. Kalista calls them her “disciples,” appearing to be fully indoctrinated into their new "family," mirroring the wider, compliant society as a whole. Their status quo only starts to be overturned in a rebirth narrative towards the end of the series, reflecting on a human scale the rioting crowds from the opening of the story, also spearheaded by Mal et al.    

If the planet Miranda could be considered symbolic in Serenity partly because Miranda is the compassionate daughter of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, then Iris – the girl that is rescued by the Serenity crew – shares her name with one of Prospero’s spirits. An interesting twist comes at the end of the narrative in Leaves on the Wind when Alliance lieutenant Kalista reveals herself to be one of the “special” girls, although we perhaps should not be surprised to find another nymph from antiquity as a part of the experiments, only this one was turned into a bear by the gods.

In Firefly and Serenity, River is constantly understood in terms of how different she is to the relatively "normal" members of the crew. Sometimes, she appears to be from an entirely different "family" of the same species. Yet, by mad scientist standards, River is considered not as “complete” as the other girls, not having fully formed within his perverse greenhouse. Through the comparative tensions with Iris and Kalista, this additional layer to River is interesting to watch develop. The seeds are also sown for the inevitable family conflict between Kalista and River, with the final words in the series being Kalista’s: “We’re going to bring you home. We’re going to be a family again. I promise. No power in the ‘verse can stop us.”  



Like two estranged uncles, Jubal Early and The Operative also re-enter the home space of Serenity in Leaves on the Wind to a mixed reaction. Their worlds are all so entwined that Bea even mistakes Early for a member of the crew at one point. These trained killers are figures from backstories of the ‘verse who appeared to be one-shot threats, but now reappear from Firefly and Serenity to enact their revenge or seek forgiveness. While they both share a history of employment with the Alliance, The Operative’s former faith in making himself a useful employee to help create societal order contrasts with Early’s intentions to create order as a side effect of his murderous impulses. Each force is neatly aligned on different sides of the tussle, adding a further ebb and flow to the conflict.  

Similarly, because they echo the characters of River and Mal, Iris and Bea form up to create their own vengeance unit against the Alliance, wanting to both be “out in the world” but also make the Alliance “pay for what they did” in shaping their own worlds into something terrible. To extend the naming conventions further, perhaps Bea is short for Beatrice, the headstrong force from Much Ado About Nothing, which Joss Whedon adapted into his own film in 2012.
Alongside the “disciples,” the other under-trodden figures in the picture are the New Resistance. Bea and The New Resistance are not a new-wave rock band, but rather they represent a resurgence of Mal’s Browncoats of old, with the same naïvely executed ideals of old. There’s something charming about the New Resistance family, with their printed leaflets, door codes, warehouse meetings, and their fannish love of Mal with handed-down accounts of his battles. But, even when they’re engaging in their victorious final battle with their disorganized, pyrrhic LARPing, Kalista and the Alliance (another great band name) manage to easily steamroll them back into history through simply being shrewder, as is explained at their near-demise: “That’s your advantage right there. Disorganization. But you gave it up. Your one strategic advantage and you gave it up.” Compare this with River; she doesn’t defeat her superior counterpart through being better at what she does: physical combat, River beats Iris through the Serenity crew being collectively smarter: Mal throws River an injection to knock Iris out.

There’s also the creative, collective "family" behind Leaves on the Wind who have worked on other Joss Whedon projects before. Leaves on the Wind marks Jeanty’s first work as the series artist for Serenity, but from 2007-2011, he was also the artist for nearly all 25 issues of the Eisner Award-winning (Best New Series: 2008) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight comic run, returning to produce pencils for Buffy seasons 9 & 11 and No Power in the 'Verse for the Serenity series. Zack Whedon has a prior ‘verse history, having cut his teeth on The Shepherd’s Tale and It’s Never Easy, but Zack Whedon is not only also Joss Whedon’s brother, they – along with other brother Jed - co-created and co-wrote the parody musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, in 2008 (staring Nathan Fillion/Mal Reynolds), with Zack also writing the stories for spin-off comic, Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories.

Outside of the Joss connection, there are also other genre influences or textual "families" to consider. I’ve touched upon this recently, but when Jeanty had just been announced as the series artist for the Serenity series, he offered that “Artist Mobius is a big inspiration, along with Geof Darrow. Walt Simonson on Alien is a good thing to keep handy. Also, movies like Blade Runner, Outland, Alien — anything with a rustic, futuristic feel.” (See CBR article by Daniel Glendening dated September 20, 2013 here.) The opening of Leaves on the Wind is comparable to the Occupy Movement and Edward Snowden leak, so Jeanty’s co-creation of 2006 comic series, The American Way, is also worth considering for how it presents and reflects an allegory of the misguided American government and those under its thrall.

Zack’s work is equally noteworthy with him having worked as a television writer on the abruptly ended western perfection that is Deadwood in 2006, and the sci-fi mystery machine of Fringe in 2009. In comics, his work on the Star Wars short, Han Solo, and Chewbacca in “The Art of the Bad Deal” in 2014 brought us Mal by another name, and The Terminator 2029-1984 demonstrates how well Zack can build additional heroic story arcs around the fixed plot points of pre-existing "sacred" material.   

If the crew of Serenity is a dynamic family like leaves on the wind, then Zack and Jeanty’s work is the solid trunk and branch from which they fall in Leaves on the Wind.   





Relevancy Today

Leaves on the Wind is significant primarily because it demonstrates how to adapt and extend properly in a world densely packed by transmedia tie-ins that have been created purely to make profit for one faceless Alliance or another.
It is critical to the Browncoat fanbase that when their beloved characters are presented in another medium that they still feel authentic to how they were originally presented in the meager 14 episodes of Firefly and the follow-up film, Serenity. Unlike Joss Whedon’s Buffy, Serenity does not share the luxury of seven seasons of televisual backstory to build upon. This tension is further compounded with the developing crew dynamics and their shared histories, making it equally vital that the extension of the fictional ‘verse feels natural and tethered, yet still new and of interest.

Given the winding 16-year history in presenting the ‘verse, it is also important that the benefits of the comic medium itself are recognized. Leaves on the Wind would not pass as a television show or film, but it does work perfectly here as a comic mini-series. When compared to the output of Buffy, which has far more regular comic releases, that Whedon and Jeanty play to their strengths and the economies of the source material instead of opting for a straight-up Serenity II or Firefly: The Lost Episodes vibe is a large part of why their work is so successful and culturally relevant.




Other Points of Interest

Inara has been “decommissioned” from her role as a Companion. How she intends to make a new role for herself within the crew isn’t quite clear in Leaves on the Wind, but one would expect she doesn’t follow the trope of a career-woman becoming a house-wife. We saw how well that fantasy worked out for Mal in Firefly episode, "Ariel." 

Zack Whedon on the reason behind naming Emma: "I just remember [the name] feeling appropriate to the world of Firefly and Serenity, [….] I wanted something that just felt sort of lovely and unaffected by all the terrible things that these people have gone through. Something pure" (quoted in a MTV article by Tami Katzoff dated January 29, 2014).  

Zack Whedon on the return of Jubal Early: "I know that Joss wanted to bring that character back" (quoted in MTV’s Tami Katzoff article).

Potential design influences: “Note how the Alliance cruiser of Jeanty’s Serenity: Leaves on the Wind looks very much like the derelict alien ship [from Alien] with a Nostromo-esque quartet of pyramidal spikes atop of it” (see Wilson’s Alien article at Fanbase Press last month). 



Last modified on Wednesday, 27 June 2018 19:48

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