Although its shelf-life was relatively short in the grand scheme of things, creator Joss Whedon’s Serenity franchise, which included the television series Firefly and its subsequent eponymous big screen feature film, has found a continuing home in the comic book world thanks to Dark Horse.
The latest chapter, landing on comic shelves on June 3 is a look back in both solemnity and satire at the life of pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne. In the one-shot Serenity: Float Out, Wash’s friends remember their friend in three separate stories, scripted by comedian/actor Patton Oswalt.
For Oswalt it’s a chance to show a more serious side in this sort of extended eulogy of a comic book. For artist Patric Reynolds, it’s a chance to take to the spaceways in only his second full-length comic story ever after last fall’s Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy. Newsarama recently spoke to Reynolds to get his thoughts on working with Oswalt and ironically illustrating more stories about the life of a character in the wake of this death than was ever told why he was alive.
Newsarama: This is probably the most detailed and definitive take on the character of Wash – more than the TV show, movie, or previous comics. What’s it like to be able to take an ensemble character and draw him in the spotlight like this, Patric?
Patric Reynolds: Well, we're not so much getting a portrait of him was much as we're getting a collage of memories that sort of reassemble familiar parts of him into this great character mosaic. The friends that share these memories in the story all add their own "brushstrokes," so to speak. But in this story and in real life, this is the only way we can make them live on when they pass away. It’s closest anyone ever gets to immortality.
In both the Firefly TV series and film Wash doesn't get a whole lot of spotlight time. Hell, even Jayne got a nice little bit of history in the TV episode "Jaynestown," but we never seemed to know a whole lot about Wash. He had this effortless sarcasm and humanity that made him more than just a caricature, but it seemed I was always waiting to get to know him better. He's this amazing pilot, who somehow makes things work with Zoe... how could anyone not want to know how all he accomplished those improbable things?
Because he's an ensemble character, there's a lot of room for invention both from a writing and artistic standpoint. That's a great thing for both Patton and I. Patton gets to invent these past events, and I get to figure out how it all looked. I get to figure out how Wash looked when he piloting his first stolen ship, how he handled the wrath of crazed. unhinged smugglers, and so on. It’s fantastic being able to construct a foundation for a well-loved character. I get to take part in creating him, in a way.
Nrama: Patton has described Wash as a “kind of anti-Han Solo”. What’s your take on the Wash character?
Reynolds: With Wash, I never understand how he does it. I mean, he's the best pilot in the 'verse, and he managed to snag Zoe the ultimate warrior woman and keep their relationship together to boot. Yet he's this Magnum P.I. shirt-wearing nerd who plays with plastic dinosaurs and constantly induces eye-rolling with his relentless sarcasm. How does he do it? I think that there's just so much going on in his brain at any given time that he has to release all the leftovers in some weird ways.
People always understood why Han Solo was an intergalactic badass: he had a keen sense of self-preservation and swagger that he could back up, most of the time. Wash doesn't have that sense of self-preservation or swagger per se, but he definitely has a confidence that draws people to him...maybe that's how he snagged Zoe. We never know too much about him because he's constantly using his wit as a weapon. That's what makes understated scenes with him and Zoe so riveting is because he can't use his humor as leverage or to deflect anyone- it won't work on her. I think in these scenes we get to see Wash as incredibly sensitive and more than a little insecure. He's a pretty realistically rendered guy, actually.
Nrama: Not to spoil the book, but from what I can tell this is a sort of elegy or time of recollection for his crew as they break in a new ship after the movie. How would you describe the story, and the elements of it?
Reynolds: It’s a eulogy, I think. Three of Wash's friends, who all flew with him at one time or another, are about to christen a new ship but find themselves at a loss for words when they try to dedicate it to him. After each story is shared, one common theme materializes - that Wash took care of his friends. No matter how much he grated on them or how much danger he had to put them through, he always put them above anything else.
Even though these friends don't seem to like each other all that much, they put their differences aside for the memory of Wash. In this way, he becomes a spirit, even a myth. It becomes a story about the devastation that a heavy loss can cause, but ultimately reminds us how we can try to piece things back together when we allow ourselves to have a little hope.
Nrama: You come to comics with a degree from SCAD and years teaching art in Las Vegas under your belt. So let’s get technical – can you tell us about your research and study to get the hang of the book?
Reynolds: Before this one-shot, I had never done sci-fi before...or anything that involved rulers, really. In addition, I had never seen the Firefly series or film before. So the first order of business was to remedy that. After I got a sense of the technology, the characters and the 'look" of the Firefly universe through nonstop Googling, I set upon trying to see if I could actually draw the ships and the characters.
One of the things I taught my students in Las Vegas was that if you know the basics of perspective, you can realistically draw any object you see or even imagine in any space. All you have to do is reduce everything down to a cube, sphere, cylinder, or cone, and be incredibly patient. Even with something so complicated as the Serenity spacecraft, its really just an elaborate combination of cubes, spheres and cylinders.
Even after I got the hang of drawing these things multiple times, I still had to put them in situations where they were zipping across the panels at weird, dynamic angles. But anyone can master how to draw multiple stationary views of a cool-looking spaceships, but few can really "activate" them. That was the real challenge. I took me a few pages to realize that everything in a scene does not have to be bound to one actual horizon line... there can be multiple "false" horizon lines. Its kind of like drawing a scene on a hill, only this hill is in space surrounded by seven Reaver ships bearing down on you.
It probably would have been a terrific idea to ink this story with a technical pen, but.... me and my infinite wisdom decided to stick with an old-school crow quill pen. Even though I was drawing things that demanded a certain technical accuracy and sleekness, I thought it would be more important just to tighten up a little bit with the tools that I already used and give it a slight organic bounce.
As far as rendering the characters went, I had to not only draw the actors but I had to draw them projecting the characters. I tried to focus on a few key features that make Wash stand out, and not worry so much about other details.
For Wash, it’s his eyes, nose, the shape of his face, and his wild hair. I figured if I got those right, maybe exaggerated them just a little bit, then I'd be alright. But I knew I had to get more than just a likeness of the actor. I had to make the character live. I would watch the film or TV series on my laptop and look for a scene where I thought Alan Tudyk epitomized the character of Wash.
For instance, there's a scene in "War Stories" where Wash and Zoe are having a fight about Mal's presence in their relationship. Alan really projects a lot of Wash's character through his eyes. When I found a shot where Alan was really emoting through them, I'd use that for the reference in the panel, exaggerate it just a little bit (a little cartoonist’s trick) and go from there.
Nrama: Patton Oswalt is known as a comedian; and while Firefly and Serenityhas had some comic moments, it’s not a comedy. From reading what he wrote and making it into comics, how do you think he did in capturing the tone of Serenity while still being Patton?
Reynolds: Joss Whedon is very good at establishing relationships between characters and developing them through tension and the choices that they make. He never seems to let any character have more than a moment's satisfaction or happiness without some conflict or surprise derailing it. Joss is also pretty good at writing memorable one-liners for each character (particularly Mal and Wash) that makes light of situations but remind us that there are still threats.
I've found that in Patton's stand-up routines, he's very good at telling stories and embellishing his punchlines and monologues with great characterizations of people in tense situations (For, example, check out his riff on the painters Bob Ross and William Alexander... or his rant on marriage when he talks about Stella d'oro Breakfast treats). He's a very lyrical comedian who creates very clear visuals in your head when you listen to him.
So right off the bat, Patton was a good fit for the Firefly universe. In his comedy and comic book writing, Patton knows how to establish character relationships economically and quickly. In Float Out we get a sense that these are actually a bunch of guys that have a long history together, almost like brothers who've been competing with each other all their lives. That gives him more time to throw in a Patton-esque surprise or punchline that makes the reading experience much richer and believable.
Nrama: And finally, how’d you get involved with doing this one-shot, Patric?
Reynolds: After I finished Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy in September of 2009, I needed another job. I kept pestering [Dark Horse editor] Scott Allie about giving me more work, but nothing significant was on the horizon. After a few weeks Scott told me that he a script, in his hands right then, for a one-shot based upon the Firefly universe that focused on Wash's character.
He straight up told me that he wasn't sure if I was right for the gig, but if I did some research and cranked out a good sample page then he'd definitely consider me. So I watched the film, drew some concept sketches of some of the characters and ships, and spent the next 24 hours (literally, it about killed me) composing this one page.
At the end of it, I sent it to Scott and he replied "Great... I'll just send this off to Joss and see what he thinks." I was like "wait, Joss.... WHEDON??!?!?!" Scott said "yeah, its pretty much up to him." I had no idea this audition page was going to him, and it’s probably a good thing because I probably would have had some kind of nuclear meltdown. But, a few weeks later Scott contacted me again and told me that I was "on for the Serenity one shot." He told I really had to put out my best work. Well, I definitely worked harder on this than I've ever worked (12 hour days weren't uncommon), and hopefully it’s paid off.