Friday, August 5, 2011

Plot Heavy And Largely Pointless, Better Days Adds Little To The Story Of Serenity!

The Good: One or two panels of artwork, Moments of character
The Bad: Plot intensive, A lot of poor artwork, Adds little to character, Very "science fictiony"
The Basics: Light on character development and populated by poor artwork, Serenity: Better Days is not the best Joss Whedon endeavor to date.

I have recently - within the past three weeks - re-watched the entire television series Firefly (reviewed here!) and one of the things that continues to impress me about it is how truly different it was from everything else that was on the air at the time or since. One of the children of Joss Whedon, Firefly is one of the most impressive franchises in the last ten years as the television series was quickly canceled, fans rallied with the DVD boxed set sales, funded a movie and now the stories continue on in the comic books. In fact, to bridge the gap between the television series and the cinematic endeavor, Joss Whedon penned a series of Serenity comics that were anthologized in Those Left Behind (reviewed here!).

Now, Whedon and Brett Matthews have returned with another anthology of Serenity comics, a trade paperback entitled Better Days. When I first saw this tiny trade paperback, I was excited. After all, I appear to have become one of those people who is asking the question (from the t-shirt) "How much Serenity crap do I need to buy before they'll make another movie?" I was eager for something new in the Firefly/Serenity universe. Unfortunately, with Better Days, there is the feeling that Whedon on some level knows this and he is just churning out . . . well, crap. Better Days is - overtly - a poor endeavor and fans of the series (even those of us desperate for something new in the Whedonverse) are much more likely to be disappointed than thrilled by this outing.

As part of Serenity's regular activities of thieving, the ship funds itself on a core planet where a new weapon's system is being tested, as they steal some artwork. The weapon is a drone with impressive killing power, though it doesn't seem to be able to hit Mal or any of his team as they flee it. In fact, they are able to incapacitate it and in the process, discover they might have an even more valuable item than the stolen artwork. Despite it missing its logic core, Mal is able to sell the drone to a buyer for the contents of a second heist, a Buddha filled with Alliance credits . . . millions of them.

Of course, things are never quite that easy for the crew of Serenity. Inara's latest customer, Sanda, turns out to be an Operative who is hunting down browncoats who kept fighting after the end of the war. Dust Devils, as they are known, are wanted fugitives and Sanda is hunting Mal while the drone builder hunts Mal and his drone. And the rest of the crew, faced with being absolutely rich, takes to vacationing on Pelorum, where they fantasize about what they will do with their money.

And, to be fair, there is something amusing about River's fantasy about marrying a whale, but the one panel certainly does not justify the rest of the book. Most of the characters - including River - are overlooked largely in Better Days. Indeed, there is little in this book that works on its own. Most of Better Days is preoccupied with setting up character elements for Serenity (reviewed here!) that were never even implied in the film. In fact, much of Better Days is a big jerking around of the fans.

First, because the book is set before Serenity all nine of the principle characters are alive, well and where they were before Those Left Behind. The moment Mal strikes it rich and realizes they have more money than they will ever be able to use, the reader finds themselves just waiting to see how they will lose it. After all, the ship is falling apart in the opening frames of Serenity. The wealth cannot last.

But the best two aspects of Better Days are both character elements that were never even implied in either Firefly or Serenity. Inara has a liaison that puts some strain on her and Mal and it is implied would be the source of Dr. Tam's discord with Mal present at the opening of Serenity. And Zoey is given a bit of backstory, in regards to the Dust Devils that enhances her character.

Only, the problem is, that Zoey's sudden missing chapter being filled in makes no real sense. Zoey and Wash have marital problems from the outset, largely to do with how Zoey has followed Mal during and after the war where the Browncoats were defeated. Wash feels like there is another person in his marriage and he struggles with that. As well, in the flashback sequences shown in Firefly, Zoey is always with Mal. The idea that Zoey had a great bit of independence where she might have been a terrorist following the war, then gone back to Mal makes no real sense. It is a good idea, but it falls apart in light of several of the other (canon) elements that were presented well before this.

As well, the artwork is not all the best, with many of the panels being less detailed or less precisely colored than in many other comic books or graphic novels I have read. Characters like Simon Tam suffer in this incarnation as there are many panels where he looks nothing like the doctor.

The other big element for me was the artwork for the chase scenes. Whedon seems to have hit a creative wall here. Fans of Firefly and Serenity are well-acquainted with chase scenes. Firefly had many and Serenity opens with two chase scenes. In the films it is easy to create tension and movement and make a chase scene interesting. As Mal and the heist team flee the automated drone, Better Days plods along in a visually uninteresting way that might have worked in an episode, but flops completely on the page. The artwork is not compelling and there is no real sense of pace or danger to the chase, making it more blase than exciting.

Ultimately, Better Days does not add anything vital to the story of the crew of Serenity. Mal makes explicit one character element that viewers and readers will already know about him, but mostly the character elements are somewhat forced and make little sense in the larger narrative. Given that there are nine characters in the series, most of them are neglected in this story, though all of them appear.

In the trade paperback omnibus edition (I refuse to call these compilations of previously released comic books graphic novels anymore!) there is an introduction by Adam Baldwin, who played Jayne and that conveys virtually the same sentiment that Nathan Fillion presented in his foreword to Those Left Behind. So for those who bought the original Better Days comic books, there is little incentive to buy this again.

Then again, it's hard to muster up the enthusiasm, even if one only wants this compilation book. Serenity fans: hold out for the next (hopefully better!) thing.

For other graphic novels tied to films, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Star Trek - Nero
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra Official Movie Prequel
Heroes Volume 2


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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