Patton Oswalt: Making SERENITY's WASH the "Anti-Han Solo"

Fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly have gotten the chance to learn more about their favorite characters in Dark Horse’s Whedon-approved comics.  This June, we’ll get to learn more about Serernity pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne in Serenity: Float Out, a tale where the “leaf on the wind”’s friends come together to recall tales from his storied life.

Float Out’s script is by noted comedian, actor and genre fan Patton Oswalt (the art is by Patric Reynolds).  Oswalt is quickly becoming a ubiquitous presence in film and TV; in addition to his star turn in the black comedy Big Fan,  and his latest album, My Weakness is Strong, this past year has seen him do guest and recurring roles on Caprica, Dollhouse, The United States of Tara, Community, The Sarah Silverman Program, The Venture Brothers, Flight of the Conchords and more.  

He’s also a major fan of comics and film who occasionally writes about his favorite works online, and hosts screenings and panels at such events as Comic-Con.  Oswalt’s talked to Newsarama a few times in the past about his comic and TV work, and when he had a few minutes out of his busy schedule, he took some time to chat Float Out with us.  Along the way, we also discussed his thoughts on comics and TV, and the evolving state of popular culture from someone with a unique perspective as a creator and fan.

Newsarama: Patton, how did this project come about?  Was this the result of talking with Dark Horse about a book, or did it come about directly through Joss?

Patton Oswalt: It was Joss.  I was doing an episode of  Dollhouse, and in between scenes, Joss and I would talk about some projects, and we got to talking about Firefly and Serenity, and I told him how bummed I was that Wash died in Serenity.

So he said, “Hey, if there are any stories in this universe you want to pitch…”  So I pitched three, and he liked the Wash one.

Nrama: Well, now I’m just curious about the other two…any chance you could tell us about them?

Oswalt: One was about the Reavers and one was about River.  That’s all I can say.

Nrama: Hey, everyone loves River.  Now, this was the episode where Alan Tudyk (Wash) guest-starred with you, and did you get to talk about the story…?

Oswalt: No, that was the later episode we did together.  But yeah, we did get to talk a lot, after the book was already done.  It went really well – the book was already done, but he seemed very excited about it, and he talked in interviews about how I was doing this book, which was very gratifying.

Nrama: What was the appeal of the character of Wash for you?

Oswalt: I liked all the characters on that show, but there was something about that character and the way he was brought to life that I just really dug; he was kind of the anti-Han Solo, which I really liked.

Nrama: The structure of the story is different characters telling stories about Wash. Why did you go for that anthology-type structure?

Oswalt: Well, it’s not really an anthology, it’s just three people…well, I guess it is kind of an anthology.  I don’t know; I knew I wanted to do a story about him set after his death, and that just seemed to be the best way to get the most bang for my buck.

Nrama: But you’ve got it set in the Serenity universe after the movie – were there any constraints about what you could or couldn’t depict since the events of the film?

Oswalt: Well, it’s not about the universe, it’s about this character.  So I wasn’t aware of any constraints while doing it.

Nrama: How’d you develop the characters who appear in this story?

Oswalt: I just sort of thought about what might be the different aspects of that universe, and how it would affect someone’s personality.  In other words, if someone was a smuggler, it would affect the way they would interact with someone who was Alliance or Post-Alliance.  It would affect their personality, as opposed to someone who was part of the law or above the law or not really part of any of that.

Nrama: That was one of the interesting things about that universe – it had that sense of class structure in it.  

Oswalt: Right, it’s a very complete universe.  And you know, Joss is very good at looking at class and hierarchy, whether it’s in a high school or an entire futuristic universe, or even the Dollhouse universe.  Like most great writers, that’s something he’s really good at.

Nrama: I remember when he did  Fray for Dark Horse, he said his vision of the future was, “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there are flying cars.”

Oswalt: Well, it’s that idea that social structure will remain intact – just as it has for thousands of years, and as it probably will thousands of years from now.

Nrama: True.  Unnerving, but true.

Now, you have some other comic book projects in the pipeline – can you talk about those at this time?

Oswalt: Unfortunately, no.

Nrama: What’s been interesting about watching your career for the last couple of years has been seeing you branch out in these different directions – not just doing comedy, but writing these different pieces on pop-culture, like the essay on Blast of Silence in Criminal, and seeing you do more dramatic stuff, like Big Fan and the different parts on these shows.

Oswalt: Wow, thanks.  It’s certainly been fun to do.   I’ve always been writing stuff, but it’s finally getting more visibility than it has before, which has been really nice.

Nrama:  Do you see yourself more as an actor or as a performer at this point?

Oswalt: You know, I don’t really look at things that way anymore.  I just kind of do things that interest me in the moment, so I’ve just kind of freed myself from “What should I do --?”  I just do whatever I want!  And I’ve been very lucky that I just get to do what interests me, which is the stuff that’s most important, and has the most longevity.

Nrama:  Would you ever want to do a TV show where you were the lead character, or would you rather be a John Cazale-type character actor, who moves from project to project, but everything has a high level of quality?

Oswalt: I don’t know.  If the writing was good enough, or if I thought of a really good story for myself, or if I could work with a really good writer or show creator…I mean, I’m not against doing anything, as long as it’s fun, if it’s interesting and good.  There’s nothing I’m totally for, nothing I’m totally against, as long as it’s fun.

Newsarama Note: After this interview was conducted, it was announced that Oswalt was cast in the NBC comedy pilot Beach Lance from NewsRadio creator Paul Simms, which is set to star Matthew Broderick.)

Nrama: You’ve collaborated with a pretty diverse group of talents – actors, writers, fellow comedians, etc.  How do these different interactions affect your own work as an actor or a writer?

Oswalt: I couldn’t tell you!  I’ll have to wait and see.  It’s a project to project thing with me – I don’t know any more.

Nrama: Going back to Firefly for a moment:  One of the interesting things about that series, and this ties in with some of the other shows you’ve done recently, is that it was one of the first shows in several years that had that fully-realized science fiction universe as a backdrop – where the society and the setting plays more of a role than, say, “alien of the week.”

Now, we’re seeing shows like – well, Caprica, where you that base SF element of the society has become very important, as opposed to that 1980s premise of “Let’s do The Fugitive with robots!”  Why do you feel a broader audience has become more tolerant of this type of storytelling?

Oswalt: I think that all good SF has been about our society.  Even something as clanky as Star Trek had that kind of world-building – this utopian, “Well, we worked out all our petty problems like race and country, and now we’re exploring the universe.”

I think audiences have always been prepared for that kind of stuff.  It just depends on a good writer and a good creator to do that.  Right now, we’re lucky to be living in a time where people are really doing more and more of that stuff.

Nrama: Something else that’s also interesting is that you can handle more continuity in a TV show than you could in the past -- you touched on this in another interview.

Oswalt: Yeah, I think TV shows are much, much better than movies right now, because you can do this huge, novelistic approach that you can’t do in film.  And even if the show doesn’t do that well, you can buy the whole thing on DVD or on iTunes.  You can watch the entire arc of a season on DVD and see the creator’s intended vision, which I love.

Nrama: Do you see things like comics perhaps overtaking print literature in a similar manner?

Oswalt: I don’t know!  It’s possible.  Certainly, comics have gained a lot more respectability in the last few years, but it’s kind of a mug’s game to call whether it’s going to have more cultural currency in terms of box office and sales.  But there’s definitely been stuff that’s been like that – things like Y: The Last Man and the Luna Brothers stuff, stories that really take their time.

But then again, a really good novel can be that way – like a James Ellroy or a Robert Bolaño book.  So maybe there’s room for both, not a case of one overtaking the other.  Comics and literature are the same thing, so there’s no “versus” there.

Nrama: Fully in agreement that comics and literature are the same in terms of artistic merit, though I do feel comics have their own unique language.

Oswalt: But there’s a unique language to every single novel that’s ever been written, because it’s been filtered through the unique language of the writer.

Nrama: But even now – there’s such a crossover between novels and comics, and even TV to an extent.  Now you’re seeing things like The Wire, which is an original novel for television, and now they’re doing George R.R. Martin’s work as a longform series, doing a season a book.  That’s not something you could have gotten away with even a few years ago.

Oswalt: Well, a lot of novels have been picked up as TV shows, or were adapted from movies that were adapted from novels – Peyton Place and M*A*S*H and all that.  So again, I don’t think we’re seeing anything new.  We’re seeing more of it, and more of it done better.

Nrama: Right, and with a greater sense of maturity and fidelity.  Thirteen hours of George R.R. Martin is different from, say, one of those Judith Krantz miniseries they used to do all the time in the 1980s.

Oswalt: Yeah, but it’s the exact same basis.  People say, “it works for this model, it could work for a deeper, more mature story on this model.”

Nrama: You’re using the tools that are already there.

Oswalt: Exactly.

Nrama: That’s something that’s exciting to see in culture now – the way these tools are being expanded upon.

Oswalt: Sure!  The exciting thing about art and culture is that they’re moving forward, no matter what you do.  It’s an exciting time to be in it.

Nrama: This being a comics site and everything, what are some of your favorite current comics?

Oswalt: Oh my God, I’m sorry – there are just too many to name.  I read so many good titles right now.  There’s so much good stuff from Avatar Press and Oni Press and Dark Horse and Image, and the Big Two – too many things to name.  Which is not a bad problem to have.

Nrama: Well, what are some of the newer books that you’ve enjoyed recently?

Oswalt: Stumptown, Chew, Warren Ellis’ Supergod and Captain Swing; again, way too many to name!

Nrama: Right now, there’s been a lot of discussion of the fact that the price point on comics is going up -- $3.99 is becoming more of the norm for a single issue.  There’s a lot of talk about digital comics – do you see that becoming the more popular medium over print?

Oswalt: (laughs) Dude, I have no idea!  That is so far outside of my area of expertise!   I like print better than digital, but that’s me.  

Nrama: When did you start reading comics?

Oswalt: Senior year of high school, I really got into them. I loved them as a kid, but they didn’t really have a major influence on me until I read things like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Swamp Thing, and got into the storytelling possibilities of the medium.

Nrama: Was this a continuous thing, or did you have a down period where you stopped reading after high school?

Oswalt: Pretty much continuously.  

Nrama: What’s been the most interesting changes you’ve seen the medium?

Oswalt: Well, I follow writers more than specific books, so I probably haven’t seen the overall changes to the industry.  I just look at it as really good literature that comes out every week.  There’s been little changes and big changes here and there, but there are just too many  for me to map them all out.

Nrama: Any gems in your collection?

Oswalt: Nah, I just read ‘em, I don’t collect.  I just love reading the stories.

Nrama: Which is easier than ever these days with all the collections –

Oswalt: But that’ll be for everything at some point.  Eventually, everything will become available all the time, so the idea of collecting or hoarding will just become obsolete.

Nrama: Yeah, and if you need to track something down –

Oswalt: You won’t need to track it down.  It’ll all be available.  All of it. There’s no such thing as “tracking things down” anymore, it’s just all there.  

Nrama: It’s kind of like having a big Library of Alexandria for the modern age.  You talked in Criminal  about how it took you years to track down a print of  Blast of Silence, but now you can just Netflix a copy – that’s something you couldn’t have done even 10 years ago.

Oswalt: Well, everyone wants to see the stuff they’re interested in, and that’s how it’s going to be eventually.  Everything will be available all the time, and you can experience whatever interests you as an individual.  You can pick and choose what you want in your life, and nothing has to be in your life if you don’t want it to be.

Nrama: That’s a nice thought, but there’s something kind of lonely about that.

Oswalt: Well, it doesn’t have to be lonely if you have people in your life that you like, you know what I mean?  You don’t have to customize your life all the time.  It’s like anything else – you hang out with the people you like, and avoid the people you don’t.  

There’s nothing lonely about that – if anything, that’s more proactive.  There’s nothing more lonely than being surrounded by people you don’t want to be with.

Nrama:  …so that’s why people keep writing about high school.

Oswalt: There you go.

Nrama: And a final question on your different TV projects: With United States of Tara back on the air, I must take this chance to ask you a question the critic Alan Sepinwall posed last year after your work there and on Dollhouse: “When did Patton Oswalt become such a smoothy?”

Oswalt: (laughs) Tell him I became a smoothy when Diablo Cody started writing smooth things for me to say.

Serenity: Float Out floats into comic shops this June from Dark Horse.

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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