‘Firefly’ flashback: ‘The Sting’ (2019) (Comic book review)

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irefly: The Sting” (November 2019) is an ambitious hardcover graphic novel centered on Saffron, from writer Delilah S. Dawson and a team of artists. But it’s a step down in characterization from the double-length one-shot “Bad Company” from earlier in the year, and it arguably contradicts Saffron’s moral growth. The more generous interpretation is that “The Sting” shows her manipulative side, the one we know from “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (1.6) and “Trash” (1.11).

Unbeknownst to the male members of the Serenity crew, Saffron recruits (via threats and blackmail) Zoe, Inara, Kaylee and — by association — River for an “Ocean’s 11”-style diamond heist on the planet Carolan that she claims requires all of their specific skills. The POV stories of the four Serenity women are told, with different artists on each chapter.

The concept and initial setup is intriguing, but Dawson’s execution is hit-and-miss. No one is wildly out of character, but they wobble in their orbits. Particularly strange is the one-track worried mind of Zoe.

The concept and initial setup is intriguing, but Dawson’s execution is hit-and-miss. No one is wildly out of character, but they wobble in their orbits. Particularly strange is the one-track worried mind of Zoe – undercover at a lavish party as a serving girl — as she mulls whether she should have a baby with Wash, who wants one. I suppose it could be argued that Zoe is tough on the outside, soft on the inside, but it’s her focus on this single issue (and lack of focus on the mission) that rings false.

The Inara story is just plain dull, as she’s trapped in a room with a rich suitor. She spells out her situation: She’s not really participating in the convent’s one last night of debauchery for girls who will swear fealty when the sun comes up; she’s undercover as a partygoer. And he is a perfect gentlemen about it. They talk about his marriage problems (which loosely parallel her situation with Mal), and we see the almost therapeutic conversational aspect of Inara’s Companion skills. As a reader, I’m as frustrated as Inara that she can’t escape from this room and has to wait to be rescued (as does Zoe, who is trapped in a kitchen pantry – so if nothing else, Dawson shows these nuns aren’t to be messed with).

“The Sting’s” back half is stronger. On the diamond heist proper, Kaylee – likewise undercover as a serving girl — comes through even while sweating over Saffron’s threats to remotely blow up Serenity. Whenever Serenity’s mechanic is in a tough spot, I think of Jubal Early threatening to rape her in “Objects in Space” (1.14) and the terror portrayed by Jewel Staite. Kaylee’s inner lack of confidence contrasts with her ability to figure out technological puzzles, and she gains a measure of self-confidence when her partners later compliment her for saving their hides. Even the villainous Saffron sees Kaylee’s innate abilities better than Kaylee herself does.

River’s chapter is by far the best-written, even though you’d think it’d be the hardest to write. Dawson stays true to River’s messed-up mind while letting us into it in humorous and poignant ways. My favorite thought panel is when River is randomly thinking of a complex math equation. But those Alliance-programmed fighting skills kick in against Saffron – who, as telegraphed, totally overlooks River – and the day is saved.

The art in the first two chapters – the setup and Zoe’s section – by Pius Bak and Serg Acuna is appealing in a throwback fashion, reminding me of the old “Star Wars” Marvel comics. The rest is acceptable inasmuch as we know who’s who and can follow the action, but Richard Ortiz has a particularly thankless task of drawing panel after panel of Inara sitting on a bed talking to the rich baron. Unfortunately, the well-written River story doesn’t feature good likenesses of River by Rodrigo Lorenzo and Ortiz (although we know who she is because of clothing continuity).

All told, “The Sting” isn’t a waste of time for “Firefly” fans, and it achieves a measure of surprise in that Kaylee and River play a bigger role in outsmarting and outfighting Saffron than Zoe and Inara do. But it reaches the end point in meandering and too often clunky fashion. This book lacks the consistent energy that’s needed for a heist yarn to really deliver the goods.

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