‘Firefly’ flashback: ‘The Unification War’ (Boom! Studios Issues 1-12, 2018-19) (Comic book review)

W

hen talking about the first arc of Boom! Studios’ “Firefly” comics, we have to address the elephant in the room: Despite being titled “The Unification War,” the arc comprising Issues 1-12 (2018-19) is not about the Unification War, the conflict six years before the events of the TV show that pitted the Alliance against the Independents on the Rim worlds. Thrown off by the title, some online guides place this story at the start of the timeline. But rather, it’s set amid the heart of the TV series’ events, with Unificators tracking down “war criminals” – a.k.a. Browncoat leaders.

Poor title choice aside, “The Unification War” (collected in Volumes One, Two and Three) is a solid yarn once I accepted that it’s nothing like Dark Horse’s generally masterful “Serenity” comics. Those comics, which ran from 2005-17 before 20th Century Fox brought the license in-house to Boom!, feature sweeping Joss Whedon-overseen arcs that impact each crew member.

“The Unification War” focuses on pulpy adventure rather than tight plotting and pacing. It reminds me of the early Marvel “Star Wars” comics – in a good way.

Written by Greg Pak, “The Unification War” focuses on pulpy adventure rather than tight plotting and pacing. It reminds me of the early Marvel “Star Wars” comics – in a good way. There hasn’t been a “Firefly” story quite like this before, and while it doesn’t feel like Whedon has a tight rein on Pak, there’s something to be said about seeing someone else’s take on the saga.

The sense of foreboding is pushed aside in favor of wild action and sometimes broad comedy. Captured by a religious cult at one point, Inara, Jayne, Wash and Book buy time by getting the cult members to argue about the precise order in which to sacrifice their prisoners in order to please their deity. Later, Jayne undergoes pages of frustration after River tells the bad guys that Jayne is Wash, the husband of wanted woman Zoe. “The Unification War” often plays like an absurdist comedy, as Wild West gangs regularly topple each other on the planet Bethlehem, each subsequent bunch getting in the way of the Unificators’ pursuit of Serenity’s crew.

Then Issues 9-12 are an outright romp as Browncoats, Unificators and the Alliance clash in a three-way battle and the members of Serenity’s crew are scattered among the three groups, wanting to escape the whole thing. Pak keeps the tone on the right side of farcical, barely.

The art by Dan McDaid, with colors by Marcelo Costa, is not as perfect as most of the Dark Horse work. Fitting with the storytelling, it’s more free-flowing. All of the likenesses are in the ballpark except for Jayne, although he does look like a version of Jayne, if you will.

Pak knows these characters, so almost everyone behaves like you’d expect, albeit more broadly than in the Dark Horse comics. Simon is forced to confront the idea that he has waited too long to make a move when swashbuckling bandit Leonard comes along and has Kaylee swooning. But there’s no brooding or reflection in these new “Firefly” comics. Decision-making happens at a rapid-fire pace.

Although I think “The Unification War” is a poor title, it’s not totally off point. Boss Moon, an eyepatch wearing female Alliance military veteran, leads the Unificators. They are loosely associated with the Alliance but mainly they are sore over the war and kind of want to continue it under the guise of arresting Browncoats. Indeed, when this conflict widens, it becomes the Second Unification War.

Mal’s characterization is … interesting. He doesn’t bark out confident orders like we’re accustomed to, but then again, we haven’t seen him in the midst of such a quickly developing multi-pronged conflict before. And also, he’s separated from his crew and is instead stuck in an uneasy truce with Boss Moon. Although he was a proud freedom fighter during the original Unification War, Mal has always been adamant about not wanting a second war, preferring to carve out a living in “the black.” But when Zoe does want to engage in war, he is understandably torn.

As we see in red-tinged flashbacks, war was hell for Mal, Zoe and Boss Moon. Atrocities were committed on both sides. Pak taps into ground covered around the time of the first “Firefly” novel, James Lovegrove’s “Big Damn Hero” (November 2018), although in that book Mal is wanted by a ragtag group of former Browncoats for a “war crime” that’s in truth a personal vendetta.

Pak tells us that Mal and Zoe truly did some specific horrible things during the war, such as shooting unarmed Alliance soldiers. Zoe in particular is haunted by this incident, totally shutting down Wash’s attempts to talk about the war with her. Boss Moon is never on the side of good, but she’s not a bland villain; we can understand, from her point of view, why she’d hate Mal.

That leads to a wild romp in Volume Two: Mal and Moon (who, in a humorous touch, gets calls from her mom that Mal can overhear) are forced to work together in order to survive giant killer bugs and other threats on Seven Beta Niner.

Continuing the parental theme, Maude “Ma” Reynolds enters the picture in Volume Three, wanting to refight the Battle of Serenity Valley, much to Mal’s chagrin. It’s surprising to see Mal come off as meek in the shadow of his mother, but I’m willing to acknowledge that he’s exhausted from this ordeal (as I am, as a reader). And I know there’s more to be learned about this relationship in “The Outlaw Ma Reynolds” one-shot.

Perhaps an early concept for “The Unification War” had pages equally split between the present-day story and a thematically parallel story set during the war. But that’s not close to the case in the final version, wherein the sparse flashbacks inform Zoe’s demeanor and Boss Moon’s motivations, but nothing else.

Indeed, those red-tinged flashbacks disappear in Volume Three. If the flashbacks represent the horrors of the first war, the present-day story portrays the chaos of this second war. Through the enthusiasm of the Browncoats, Pak suggests that they aren’t as hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned as I had assumed from watching the TV series. Through Ma Reynolds, the author outlines the Browncoats’ somewhat sensible thoughts: to recapture a few worlds while the Alliance is distracted by Reavers on the other side of the ’Verse.

“The Unification War” is action-oriented, yet it’s fairly easy to follow, and the motivations of every side and every character make sense. This whole thing is smarter than it seems at first blush.

Still, I expect fan response to Boom!’s first big “Firefly” story is mixed. At first glance, it’s a big step down from Dark Horse’s work; at a closer glance, it’s still a step down, but it’s so different in style that I can appreciate it for what it is. “The Unification War” feels like “Firefly,” even if it’s a type of “Firefly” we haven’t seen before.

Click here to visit our “Firefly” Zone.