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FireflyMike Russel, Serenitytales.typepad.com Webmaster - Nervepop.com Interview
Thursday 29 March 2007, by Webmaster
As it does every year of late, Atom Films, in alliance with LucasFilm, just announced its 2007 Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge - with the (horribly named) fan-fic catagory new to this year’s contest. I’m sure LucasFilm and Co. will receive numerous inventive entries. But less well-known - if only perhaps because it is more recent and awards no prizes - is Serenity Tales, the Firefly fan-comics site.
This is a website that gathers together comic strips inspired by (and that take off from narrative and personality implications in) the short lived, 14-episode Joss Whedon series on Fox, and its subsequent movie. The site is co-founded and edited by Mike Russell, a cartoonist in his own right and a colleague of mine in the Portland, Oregon area, where he writes film reviews for The Oregonian and also publishes a periodic non-fiction cartoon in the paper’s entertainment supplement called Culture Pulp. which is an excellent example of that new genre, cartoon journalism.
Russell is, uncharacteristically so among the common run of reviewers, a happy-go-lucky fellow who proudly wears his nerd cred on his sleeve (though not on his face: he bears a slight resemblance to Tom Cruise, to the envy of his more bedraggled and weight-challenged brethren). He is also an example of that recent Internet phenomenon, someone who is both a good writer and a good artist, the sort of person who could only have blossomed in a forum such as the world wide web, where such dual talents can be simultaneously employed.
Recently, he and I sat down over a warm iChat window and discussed the site.
I think the very first thing that I ever looked up on Wikipedia was its entry on Firefly, in order to get a good summary of just what the hell it was. Serenity Tales links to fan-made comics set in and around Joss Whedon’s Firefly/ Serenity universe. Why Firefly? What is it about this show that creates such devoted fans?
It’s kind of hard to explain in pithy sentences, frankly. But I’d say the appeal can be summed up in three parts:
1. First, and most pithily, I’d say the big appeal of Firefly was simply this: It was actually as good as you remembered shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers being when you were like eight years old. It was funny and thrilling and cool-looking and full of great pulp adventures, but not in the slightest bit stupid.
(The rest of my answer is a lot more granular. Feel free to skip ahead.)
2. Second, there’s the universe of the show. Firefly was one of those rare programs where you could enjoy the simple, funny, well-told genre story at the center of each episode, but you could also delight in the larger world that was creeping in from the edges of the frame. Whedon had read his frontier history, and then projected it onto another solar system that mankind was colonizing - so you had these outlaws and hard-scrabblers living on the fringes of a wealthy, advanced Alliance of terraformed planets, an Alliance that had recently kicked the scrabblers’ butts in a Civil War. And then, on top of that, Whedon created this East-West mashup vibe where people spoke a mix of Chinese and cowboy-patois English - the logical result of a society sprung from a bunch of people from different countries who flew to the new solar system in the same spaceship. It’s this weirdly rich world-building exercise - one in which you just want to see stories told.
3. And third, and most important, there were the characters. Whedon took nine representative characters from each corner of his solar system - doctor, preacher, brute, hooker, warrior, cowboy, and genetically modified crazy girl, among others - and basically had them all living in cramped quarters on his own version of the Millenium Falcon. A bit like Stagecoach in space, it was. Some of the best scenes were just the crew sitting around a dinner table, talking. The way they bickered and loved and hated each other was the heart of the show, and it’s why Firefly has such an unusually rabid fan base.
You’ve got a great-looking site. In fact, comics on the internet in general, or maybe it’s just the computer screen, look marvelous. Is that the place perhaps they were always meant to be viewed?
Webcomics do glow rather nicely from underneath, don’t they? I think the Internet has been very, very good for comics - not least because that great American art form, the comics strip, has finally been freed from the postage-stamp-sized constraints of the daily newspaper. But of course, Nerve.com just did that tremendous comics issue - even commissioning a strip from my favorite working comics pro, Paul Pope - so I’m preaching to the converted.
It is here that I will recommend a handful of great webcomics, and if any of them push your geek buttons, you will never, ever be able to enjoy Sally Forth again, ever: Scary Go Round, Achewood, Dinosaur Comics, Overcompensating, Questionable Content, Bite Me!, Cat and Girl, Lackadaisy, and xkcd.
If I read the site right, there are about eight contributions so far. How much did you expect to get when you started this; and how much do you still expect?
Well, Serenity Tales came out of a conversation cartoonist Bill Mudron and I were having at a party in early 2006. Serenity, which we both loved, had done mediocre business in theaters, and we were noting that comic-book creators constituted a rather alarming percentage of the fan base, and hey, wouldn’t it be cool if, down the line, Dark Horse and Whedon put out an anthology book called Serenity Tales where different artists filled in different corners of Whedon’s universe?
I went home and noted that SerenityTales.com was an available URL. I always take the availability of good URLs as signs from God, so I bought it on a lark. And then we realized that, hey, maybe if we get a bunch of our friends to do short little Firefly-themed comic vignettes and post them online, it will give Whedon and Dark Horse ideas. It was very much in the spirit of those LiveJournal memes you see from time to time, where every cartoonist on the Internet agrees to draw Batgirl, you know?
So I asked every fan I knew who could write or draw (and a bunch of prominent writer-artists I didn’t know, in one instance with personally humiliating results that still chill my blood to this day) to contribute something. You know, this was like 50-odd people, probably. And we’ve ended up with eight so far, with more on the way soon - which is actually not too shabby, given that comics are really hard to make and no one is getting paid.
To keep things sane, I put a cap of eight pages on the stories. Most people ignored this edict completely. For example: Neal Skorpen’s extraordinarily clever "Dropout" is this 15-page epic. And Bill’s submission, "The Black," which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, ended up being 28 pages long - a full comic book, in full color, online for free. Bill’s story alone has had over 170,000 page views at this writing. Isn’t that insane?
So you commission work yourself. Did you just "find" any of it on the internet?
"The Black," "Dropout," "Job Interview," "What It Means," "Beginner’s Luck," and "Diversionary Tactics" were all commissioned, written, and drawn specifically for the ST site, most of them months in advance. We also maintain an ever-growing list of Firefly and Serenity references in other webcomics, just because that seemed like an incredibly obsessive and interesting thing to do. And we’ve re-posted (with permission) fan art that was already floating around out there in our pin-up gallery; I’m a huge Jessica Plummer fan. After the site debuted, we posted submission guidelines just to see what would happen, and a few additional artists approached us with material, which has been incredible and sometimes poignant. For example: Wydraz’s "Serenity Park" actually picks up on an idea started by Lux Lucre, who died in 2004.
We were also approached completely out of the blue by a fellow who asked if he could translate "Beginner’s Luck" into Czech. (By the way, this is probably a good place for me to mention that we have a couple of terrific scripts that still need artists - most notably this one.)
Some of the fan fiction is really clever, such as the refrigerator note. What is it about Firefly, or perhaps Whedon, that inspires such creativity, do you think?
Yeah, isn’t "Notes on a Fridge [on a spaceship]" unbelievable? It’s like the Griffin & Sabine of the Firefly universe! That came to us from out of the blue: Arwen Bijker was posting them on her own fanfic site , and just e-mailed us one day and said, "Hey, you can re-post these if you want." What a delight. As soon as I work out some formatting issues, I’m hoping to re-post the other "Notes" she’s crafted since then. But to answer your question: As I mentioned earlier, Whedon created a universe you want to play in, and with. And there haven’t been any new official stories, so we’re hungry. It’s really that simple.
Firefly and its companion film are finite, just the 14 shows and the movie. Is there hope of having the show revived? If not, isn’t there something just a little sad about its curtailed existence?
I personally doubt the story will return in live-action. Whedon obviously knew he might only get the one shot - because he wisely scripted Serenity so it plays like a Firefly series finale. But I wouldn’t rule out animation, and I absolutely wouldn’t rule out comics, because Dark Horse’s Serenity trade was the fourth-biggest-selling graphic novel of 2006. In fact, I know they’re working on another official Serenity miniseries called "Better Days" as we speak.
As a professional movie critic, aren’t you straying into odd territory by making your love of the film so explicit?
Are people who write about movies not allowed to love explicitly? Are sex columnists not allowed to wear leather? Is the man who writes for Model Railroader Monthly forbidden from wearing striped coveralls and a conductor’s cap while leering intently at N-gauge track? I never reviewed Serenity in print, by design, and it would have been frankly inappropriate if I had - unless the first sentence of my review had been, "Warning: I have friends who have knitted their own Jayne hats." But I tend to embrace the subjectivity of this job: When I became a film writer, I didn’t hand in my geek card, or my cartoonist card, or my love of participating in genre communities.
In fact, I really see nothing wrong with making fan cultures my "beat." We both know there’s a long, happy history of film writers who nursed their fan niches while still being able to speak English when the job requires it. Also, Serenity Tales ultimately has very little to do with me personally; I’m just one tiny voice in a larger expression of fan-joy. ST was an idea Bill Mudron and I had at a party one night, and at least one of us was probably tipsy, and the relevant URL just happened to be available, and we just happened to actually see it through to completion - mostly because we wanted to see what would happen if we actually did it.
Have you heard from Whedon or any of the production staff about the site?
No. And I expect that even if they had seen it, they would be legally bound not to acknowledge the fact. Which is fine. This was never designed to "show up" the creators and official licensers of the property. We just wanted to let them know that, hey, we’re so hungry for new canonical stories, we’ll just be over here making apocryphal nonsense until you get around to it.
How does one make money off a site like this? What is the business model? Or is it truly, deeply an act of love?
One cannot make a dime off this sort of thing. (And when one tries, the results tend to be nothing short of hilarious.) The "business model" is that I found the most low-maintenance webcomics-hosting service I could find, and pay $9.95 a month to ensure that (a) Serenity Tales keeps existing there, and (b) no ads run on the site anywhere.
As a budding web mogul, do you feel at all competitive with the Star Wars fan fiction contest from the Skywalker Ranch?
Have I mentioned that I also write a comic called "Jaxxon’s 11"?