Monday, December 6, 2010

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale (Comic Book Review)

Disclaimer:  The following review is largely free of spoilers for the comic book, but does have one HUGE spoiler for the movie Serenity if you have not seen it.  (And if you haven't, why the heck not?  Seriously, stop reading this and go watch it.  Chop, chop!  I'll wait.)

Those of you familiar with the television series Firefly and the consequent movie Serenity will be aware that the character of Shepherd Derrial Book (played so excellently by Ron Glass) was perhaps the singularly most mysterious character in that 'verse.

Okay, I know all of you River super-fans are screaming out in protest at this, but I stand behind that statement.  River is baffling, certainly, and often an unknown quantity, but once the movie had aired, there wasn't a whole lot of mystery left to her character.  Questions?  Sure.  Mystery?  Not so much.  We know exactly what happened to make her, well, her.  We even find out what a lot of her super secret skills are as the series and movie unfold.  While we know that we don't know all there is to know about River Tam, at this point I doubt any new revelations will actually be shocking, or even all that surprising.  She was trained to be a psychic super soldier.  Anything new and badass that she ends up doing can likely be traced back to that training.

But Book?  No one in the 'verse knew what was up with him.  We know he's a Shepherd, the equivalent of a priest or a pastor in the 'verse, but that's about it.  Throughout the series and movie he was a stalwart man of faith, exploring the 'verse for the sake of the journey itself.  But throughout there were always hints.  A line here, an action there, a counter-intuitive reaction somewhere else.  As the story unfolds it becomes clearer and clearer that Book was most definitely not always a Shepherd, and while he never reveals what he did before turning to God, the impression is pretty clear that it was rather ungodly work.  Then, Joss Whedon, in typical fashion, up and killed Book in SerenityWithout revealing any of his back story.  Fans have been clamoring for years to find out what Book's deep, dark secrets were, pestering Joss at conventions, speculating about it online, etc., etc.  I myself speculated that perhaps he had at one time been an Operative.  (I'm not gonna tell you whether or not that guess was right.)

Finally, with the help of his brother Zack Whedon and artist Chris Samnee, Joss has deigned to give us that back story in Serenity:  The Shepherd's Tale.  This graphic novel (which comes in a lovely hardcover edition), is a little shorter than your standard trade paperback comic book, but definitely longer than a one-shot comic.  Let me be clear.  This is not the complete, unabridged, full-out origin story of Shepherd Book.  What it is, is a glimpse at the series of events that got our favorite preacher onto the crew of Serenity.

It is a very satisfying set of snapshots that show us not only where Derrial Book came from, but how he got from each stage of his life to the next--leading from his childhood to his death, although not in that order (more on that in a sec).  I don't think it will surprise any of the readers to learn that Book's life before becoming a Shepherd was a difficult one, or that he committed many sins for which he wished to atone.  We only get to see a few of those sins.  Some of them are monumental to shaping the Shepherd, but some are just stepping stones.  What I did find delightfully surprising was the array of allegiances he seems to have gone through in his life. 

My favorite part is that this story is told backwards.  It starts with the attack on Haven (which occurred during the course of the movie Serenity but was not shown onscreen) and works its way back through different points in his life--his days on the ship, leaving the church to go wandering, finding God in a bowl of soup, and so on--all the way to the defining moment of his youth when he took charge of his own life and set out on the path that led him to us in the first place.  If you are familiar with the Wheel of Time series at all, the manner in which this is told struck me as being very much like the trips the prospective clan chiefs and Wise Ones of the Aiel took through the glass columns in Rhuidean.  Not just because it started at the one end of the time line and worked its way backward, but also in the manner in which we see the different lives led by the man who came to be known as Shepherd Book.  It is one life, overall, but it may as well have been many separate lives.

All in all, I give this book a hearty thumbs up.  I, as a fan dying of curiosity to know more about Book, was completely satisfied by the answers this story provides.  Perhaps even more so because it does leave some of the mystery intact.  And who would Book be, without his mystery?

My only nitpick with this at all is the art.  Don't get me wrong, the book is gorgeously drawn and inked, but I didn't see any familiarity in the faces of the characters we knew.  I realize there is a certain freedom with comic book representation of established characters, and they can vary from artist to artist, and I accept that.  I just feel very strongly that in the case of established characters that were, in fact, established on a television or movie screen, rather than first on the written page, the artist should try to remain faithful to the faces of those characters that we know and love.  I read many comic books based on television series and believe me when I say that sometimes a poor representation of a character's appearance can be so jarring as to take a reader right out of the story.  Thankfully, the story in this case is wonderful enough that the incongruity can be overlooked.  But I would be remiss not to warn you of it, all the same.

Other than that though, quality stuff.  Christmas is just around the bend, folks.  If there's a Browncoat on your shopping list, this might make a right shiny gift (or perhaps Santa could bring you a copy, if you ask him nicely).

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