DR #39: Firefly, Airbender, and Dark Horse Comics

Dear Reader,

I realized two things, looking back through our correspondence—which isn’t, strictly speaking correspondence, because you never write back to me. That’s not co-respondence, that’s not even respondance. That’s just spondance.

But the two things I realized are these: I don’t often talk about comics that aren’t good, and I mention Dark Horse a lot more than I actually read their stuff.

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That isn’t to say that I don’t read their stuff: Blacksad, Usagi Yojimbo, and Hellboy are among my favorite titles. This is possibly because they all kinda have the same premise: a gruff but lovable renegade wanders the earth having adventures that they wish they weren’t involved in. Just change the setting and character from Rabbit Samurai to Cat Detective to H.P. Lovecraft-esque Devil Guy.

But what I haven’t talked about is two of their disappointing titles.

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Geek Treason, right here. Not only did I just badmouth Avatar: The Last Airbender, I badmouthed Firefly.

I don’t know if there is more severe Geek Heresy than that. Maybe implying that Patrick Stewart is not delightful?

Here’s the thing about Dark Horse. When Marvel or DC puts out a book, they own the character. The company owns the story, so the company holds all the respective copyrights. Whoever actually wrote it is only doing work for hire, which is one of the reasons legal battles between former comic book writers and the companies they wrote for are both depressingly common and really, really bitter. You thought Alan Moore was carrying a grudge against DC? Look up Bill Finger some time. He was only ever officially given credit for co-creating Batman last year.

Dark Horse doesn’t work that way. They’re a publisher, and a publisher only. When Dark Horse puts out a book, the author retains full ownership over the character. Stan Sakai owns Usagi Yojimbo. Mike Mignola owns Hellboy. They have publishing deals with Dark Horse, but Dark Horse can’t and doesn’t publish something with character X that isn’t written/approved by the guy who came up with character X.

You can see how that would make people a little more comfortable about doing passion projects through them than through either of the Big Two, which if that isn’t a phrase used to collectively describe Marvel and DC, it should be.

Passion project isn’t necessarily a synonym for good, though. Just ask Tommy Wisseau.

So, when you’re an animator or a filmmaker, and your unexpectedly popular cartoon or sci-fi series has ended but left a fanbase wanting more, then “Hi, we’re a comics company that will let you publish your own stories without making any claim to ownership of your characters” looks like a good option. And in many cases it is. For these exact people, even.

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The Promise, the first volume of Avatar, the Last Airbender comics (and curse you, James Cameron, for making it necessary to use the full, fully clunky, phrasing of that name) is very good. It fits the tone of the series, has genuine tension between character loyalty and a legitimate ethical problem, and doesn’t forget to have some comic relief throughout that doesn’t damage the emotional weight.

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Joss Whedon, meanwhile, has had just about the best luck any one person can have with Dark Horse. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog both got excellent comics published through Dark Horse, the latter featuring an actual dark horse as a character. Not to mention that previous Serenity comics were also good. Better Days, I’m sure, started life as an idea for an episode of the show that didn’t get a chance to be made.

But both The Search and Leaves on the Wind, later volumes of these series, feel like fan fiction. Passable fan fic, but fan fic nonetheless. And I can put the same finger on the same problem in both of them:

Resolving character questions that shouldn’t have been resolved.

Zuko, in A the LA, was all about being defined by the hardships he’s had to go through—so much so that he explicitly said as much in the show, to the title character. And as we got to see his past, we learned that the capstone of those hardships was his mother who disappeared mysteriously, in a way that implied she had something to do with the death of the previous Firelord because Child Zuko was going to be killed if she didn’t. But we don’t ever find out what really happened to her, and while it’s implied that Zuko won’t ever stop looking, it’s also implied that he’s probably not ever going to find her.

So in The Search, he goes to her old hometown, finds out that a magic spirit magically gave her a new identity, and then it reverses the magic so now she’s able to come home and he hasn’t lost anything after all. It gives the character a happy end, sure, but only by undoing the very thing about the character that made us like him in the first place.

Over in Leaves on the Wind—which, perhaps tellingly, is the only volume of Serenity comics not written by Joss Whedon (but he still okay’d it, so I don’t think that counts as a pass)—we have the story of River Tam, the mysterious Kung-Fu waif with the dark and shadowy past thanks to a secret government lab, methodically showing the audience exactly what went down in that dark and shadowy past. The government lab turns out to be a lot less secret and a lot less monolithic than we had been led to assume. I mean, there’s good stuff in this book—I liked the idea of River using her psychic talents to ‘inherit’ piloting skill from Wash—but the main conflict of the story was all about lifting up the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. There’s a reason that after Dorothy did that, the story was over.

And there’s a part of me—a cynical part, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong—that can’t help but think that a publisher who owned these characters might have exercised some restraint on their authors and prevented this kind of mistake.

I’m still glad Dark Horse does things the way they do, I just wonder if stuff like this isn’t maybe an unavoidable side effect.

Anyway, The Search Is Nowhere Near The Worst Version Of Last Airbender,

-The Guy Who Wrote This.

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