Graphic Novel Review: “Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale” by Zack Whedon

Title: Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale
Author: Joss Whedon, Zack WhedonAdmit, the man IS cool.
Artist: Chris Samnee
Format: Graphic Novel
Pages: 56
Published: November 3, 2010
Reason for Beginning: It’s Serenity! It’s Shepherd Book! Book is a character that I both loved and was a little disappointed with in the show, and I’ve been waiting to learn his backstory so as to better understand him. I couldn’t not read it, really.
Reason for Finishing: Uh…ditto? Plus it’s so short, and has cool pictures.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Wherein we learn which moments have defined Book’s life from childhood, and how he came to be a roaming preacher with the mind/combat skills of a spy on the good ship Serenity. Through a flashback in a flashback in a flashback in a flashback in a…
Story Re-readability: Moderate: it’s so short and generally pleasing enough that you could reread it quickly on a whim. On the other hand, because the story skips like a stone on water through his life, there’s simply not much substance to return to. No character but Book appears in multiple scenes, which means no one else is given any development at all. So I don’t feel any real need to reread it very soon, because the story is so short and simple that it’s all in my head. But I might want to look at it again from time to time.
Author Re-readability: Zack and Joss are easy and fun to read, and I enjoyed the other Serenity graphic novels. They seem to have some difficulty with the graphic novel format, though, in that they always seem to be telling quick little vignettes rather than full, satisfying stories.
Artist Re-viewability: The artwork is less detailed and realistic than in the previous installments, Better Days and Those Left Behind, but carries the feel of the same world. There’s less attempt to make things and people look exactly like in the show. Book mostly looks right, and I liked seeing how he changed physically throughout his life. The crew of Serenity look a little weird in the early scenes: Jayne comes out the best, looking like his typical brutish self, Zoe and River look okay, as is Kaylee, Simon doesn’t show up at all, I think, but Mal…man, Mal looks terrible! The artist just couldn’t figure out how to draw Nathan Fillion’s sculpted face, I guess. In one panel his face looks like that of a wrinkled old man! None of them have more than two or three panels, though.
Recommendation:
For Firefly fans, the book about Book is a definite must. It fills in vital character details that neither the show nor the movie had time for, and it is pretty good. It’s too short, though. All the Serenity graphic novels are, in my opinion. It’s like a summary of a Cliff Notes of his life: “This one thing happened, which was caused by this other thing two years earlier, which was caused by this other thing ten years earlier, which was…etc.” The trajectory of his life is good and fascinating, I just wanted more! You don’t have to have read the other graphic novels to read this one. But if you haven’t seen the entire series AND the movie Serenity, then avoid all SPOILERS.

Key Thoughts

YES! Finally we get to learn what Book is all about. Or…sort of. I mean, like I said above, the book covers a lot of ground so quickly that you don’t learn nearly as much as you want. But I think the Whedons did manage to hit the most important parts of Book’s life and personal development. Much of his story is loosely what I (and I think many fans) had speculated about, but there are a couple neat twists in there. I won’t mention details except below the SPOILERS label.

I read the book about Book during my lunch breaks at the bookstore where I work. Adding my time together, it probably lasted me about an hour. A good hour, though. I was hearing Ron Glass’ soothing, intelligent voice speak all the narration and dialogue, and it was nice to join his company again. It was a little hard to imagine Glass as the younger Book, though, as the younger Book really is quite different from the shepherd we know and love. Makes me sorta wish I could’ve seen those flashbacks acted out by Glass himself, perhaps made-up to look a bit younger, just to help the transition. Ah well.

There’s not a lot of humor in his story, though I guess that’s to be expected. There’s a lot of drama, and I liked seeing how Book matured over time. He really went through more than even I quite expected.

SPOILERS

The book uses a flashback mechanic that mostly works well. It’s all sequential, but backwards. It begins with the scene of his death from Serenity, then a good scene or two that we recognize from the actual episodes, and then each couple pages takes us back years at a time, following him as he gets younger and younger. Some of these scenes end in suspense, which is dispelled already because we know how his life turns out, having just read it before. On the other hand, there remains some mystery as the path of his life slowly unravels; in the case of his being a double-agent for the Independents placed in the Alliance, the story keeps the secret from us much better than it could if it were told in proper sequential order.

END SPOILERS

I guess the flashback mechanic was the right choice – it just felt weird that all the flashbacks were so short.

[Commence discussion of philosophy, religion, and in-depth character development.]

Now for some thematic stuff that includes the whole span of all the stories. One thing about Book that had left me a little disappointed in the series was what I perceived as a severe weakness in his religious beliefs that 1) sometimes felt at odds with what was hinted of his lifestyle, and 2) occasionally became a fairly heavy-handed tool for Joss Whedon’s existentialism to reduce the penetrating reality of Christianity (yes, I am a Christian) to mere impotent platitudes. His last words, spoken to Mal in the movie Serenity, are something along the lines of “I don’t care what you believe, just believe it.” Anything? Just believe anything you like, that “feels” good for you? Stick with that belief even if it’s wrong? Base the entirety of your life, actions, and relationships with others on whatever philosophy can be drawn out of your own personal desires and habits, without regard to truth? Frankly, that’s not much of a faith to have. Certainly not one that could get you through the trials of life in the ‘Verse, whether Whedon’s or ours. In fact, it doesn’t seem like any of the characters would honestly believe something like that, because their lives are so hard that they all need a piece of reality, of Truth, to hold on to. Not some undefined “belief” in “goodness” or “right” or whatever. For example, in the otherwise-classic episode “Jaynestown,” Book’s faith is sharply challenged by River tearing up his Bible because “It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.” What does he do? He calmly explains that “It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something and letting that belief be real enough to change your life.” Thing is, that’s self-deception. Not faith. Not Christian faith. Christian faith is about believing not just that Jesus Christ can change your life, but that He already has. It is a belief in what we can know to be real through experience even though there are many things we cannot fully understand, but that are revealed to us by a God whom we have met in person. Book doesn’t seem to know that God. The Christianity that Joss Whedon gives him always felt closer in its substance to the quiet nonconfrontation of Inara’s Buddhism, just slightly more defined (and thus more attacked).

Now before I explain more of this discrepancy I’ve seen in the spoiler section below, let me say a few positives. I have really liked Book a lot as a character, even, despite these failings, as a Christian character. He seems to have really held fast to the second greatest commandment, which, according to Jesus, is “love your neighbor as yourself.” He also is a well of forgiveness and steady-thinking, not letting himself be provoked by the crude taunts of Jayne or the often-brash dismissals of Mal. His desire truly is to help others.

I also found his relationship with Inara interesting. I’ve never liked Inara’s role as a Companion, finding it rather a stretch for prostitutes/courtesans to be held in such high esteem in that kind of a society and simply not liking the excuses it gave Joss to throw in a few unnecessary sex scenes. Sweet as she is in personality (most of the time), I always quietly cheer when Mal expresses his disgust at her profession (though he is too rude about it). When Book came on the ship, Inara was initially sarcastic and disdainful, expecting him to preach fire and brimstone to her and storm off in a self-righteous huff, or something or other. He surprised her by showing how he always cared for people for themselves, regardless of their profession. It was clear he disapproved of the Companions (I think he did, at least) and thought that prostitution was wrong, but he wasn’t going to just go about bashing people for their actions when they aren’t professing to live in what he sees as the moral right. He understood that Inara, and all members of the ship, had personal, emotional needs, and he set out to do his part to help them. Mostly by being a reliable, honest, and caring friend to all, without prejudice. That, I believe, is truly Christian behavior. Behavior that usually stems from a belief that Jesus Christ and what he said are eternally true.

SPOILERS

But from what I learned about Book in The Shepherd’s Tale, I just don’t believe that he would have genuinely had his life turned around by a faith so vague and shallow. I understand how faith in Jesus Christ can radically change any person’s life around, because I have seen it and experienced it. Book’s life arc is portrayed similarly, from his violent street days, to his job as a brutal but irresponsible Browncoat, to his career as a double-agent rising through Alliance ranks as a brutal officer/general, his eventual dishonorable discharge and being left for dead, and his despair and reaching the lowest lows, and finally his seeking salvation in a church. The surety which his life at the monastery gives him seems to suggest that he believes his faith is truly Real, not just something that “works for him.” He’s simply gone through too much to have found a truly satisfying answer in anything so vague as the faith he displays throughout the series. The down-and-beaten Derrial of the streets needed something to make sense. He needed the whole crazy tangle of his life to have a purpose based in reality. I just don’t see him going on to pursue a faith that doesn’t have to make sense. Faith has to make sense, or else it is just daydreams.

As an aside, I wonder how Mal and Zoe would have reacted if they found out that Derrial Book had been a double-agent for the Independents planted in the Alliance upper ranks. Ah, what could have been, what could have been! Curses on what foul wind caused Firefly to be cancelled!!!

Two questions I still have, though. Remember the scene in “Safe” where Book is badly wounded, Mal finally tells Wash to dock with an Alliance ship to get him proper care, and as soon as the Alliance guards run Book’s ID card they instantly treat him as a high priority patient and let the crew go, no questions asked? Well, Shepherd’s Tale tells us this was because he had once been one of the most brilliant and high-ranking Alliance generals. But because of his sabotage of the Alliance campaign, which the Alliance thought was simple hubris-inspired mistakes instead of the covert double-crossing it really was, he was stripped of his rank and unceremoniously jettisoned from his warship in an escape pod that is, by his replacement’s own smug admission, a “death trap.” The Alliance makes no attempt to contact or care for him after that point, letting him steadily drink himself into oblivion.

The first thing is, since he was a dedicated double-agent for the Independents for all this time, why didn’t he seek them out again, since his mission was over? The second thing is, going back to “Safe,” if the Alliance is so embarrassed by him that they are willing to let him be mistreated or possibly die, and just don’t want to have anything to do with him at all, then why does his ID card get him preferential treatment? There was another scene in Shepherd’s Tale where a lower-ranking Alliance officer recognized the drunken, down-on-his-luck Book on the streets, by sight, merely by his reputation. So it’s not like the Alliance crew that IDed and treated him didn’t know he was super-disgraced. Yet none of them give any indication that his health is anything but their highest concern at the moment. It’s not a plot hole, necessarily, just something I didn’t feel was adequately dealt with.

END SPOILERS

End Thoughts

For all the time we’ve waited to learn about Book, it’d be nice to have something more substantial. Still, what there is of his story I like, and Shepherd Derrial Book remains an interesting and likable character.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

7 thoughts on “Graphic Novel Review: “Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale” by Zack Whedon”

  1. [late-night blog haunting] I want this book. I spent two hours in the library reading Lucky Luke comics today to quiet the craving for a Western neither polished to theme park standards nor with so much grit thrown at it it starts getting Silly in the other extreme. [toes muse, which may actually be trying to hibernate]

    Book’s faith isn’t vague or shallow to me at all, especially in those scenes…that said, the impression might be down to personal experience: possibly the most devout and spiritually strong Christian I know has said things very similar to me. Her reasoning was that if faith in an idea/l made someone spiritually strong (and therefore live a good/non-destructive life as the spiritually insecure/lacking in personal integrity cannot), that was God’s help/purpose shown even to those who don’t believe he is in all things (including those things believed in). This annoyed me greatly, of course, but I understand the idea that if the infinite were conscious and/or cared for the universe, being a force against harm would be to be in concord with it, whether one accepted this or not. From that perspective, Book’s words to Mal are just a reaffirmance that he sees a strong potential for good in Mal and trusts absoloutely in God and His Will being done.

    As for the Bible – believing/seeing God even if the props are faulty (and the Bible is the work of men, even if one believes God dictated the first draft of each section directly in language plain enough for a mortal intellect) and knowing there have been a great weight of fellows in such true-seeing belief is what Christianity’s all about. Compare Roman religion, where only the priests communicated directly with the deities, and then only if said deities were absoloutely satisfied with the rituals…understanding that the Holy Book is important in its implications but the Word of God is what one hears in one’s own heart (if He dwells there) – that, I think, is a true and connected faith. River could tear up a dozen Bibles and not only would the fellowship still care enough after X-thousand years to print and read more, but Book’s faith would barely shiver, being deep-rooted in his soul rather than tied to the paper and limitations of mortal words.

    …so says the outside perspective. ^_^ He’s always seemed a little bit Quaker to me (if ever the phrase ‘pacifist awesome’ was used, I would apply it to Quakers, particularly in the 18th-19th century…not even Ghandi). I do think Inara’s Buddhisim seems weak, especially with the courtesanship that makes a nonsense of Buddhist views on the sanctity of sex, but since it’s more a worldview than a religion per se, not coming with a deity attached, things might’ve changed a lot between now and Firefly-future. Apparently the worse for women (dang.).

    Thank you for making my braincells do something intellectual – I’ve been a bit starved of such conversation of late. I’ll have to attack the big bookshops whilst visiting London or Aberdeen and get me a copy of this’un – Book never did get to show off the promise he had in Firefly/Serenity.

    1. There’s truth in that, for the Bible does teach that all good in existence comes directly from God, by virtue of Him being the builder of everything and the literal embodiment of the concept of “good.” I understand how that would be annoying to a non-believer, of course. However, I also understand the concept as that of God’s ultimate love for all mankind, that he allows goodness to exist and flourish even in humans who choose to reject Him. Gandhi wasn’t perfect and didn’t have a saving belief in Christ, but his dedication to helping others puts most of us Christians to shame…and God knows that. The Christian life described in the New Testament is not an easy one for us to live – it’s wild, radical, bold, and even forceful. It’s passionate; in all respects, that is, in spreading the gospel, in self-control, but also in love and compassion for, as the old hymn says, “all creatures of our God and King.” And I guess it’s that passion that I find lacking in Book. He’s got compassion for others, but seems to lack passion for God. In the Christian experience described in the Bible, having the latter leads to the former. And I felt that the events of The Shepherd’s Tale would have led him to view passion for God as more important than he ended up displaying. But I certainly won’t complain about any respect you have for him, nor can I gainsay it (nor would I want to).

      In a sense, yes, a real faith is based on the very personal relationship a believer has with God in his soul, and that can exist quite strongly in someone who is illiterate or who has only heard the gospel from others and never been able to read it themselves. But it’s vital to understand that Christianity is based on a Book for a reason – God chose sacred writings as the primary way He would communicate His message. The Bible establishes the absolute, objective framework within which we each encounter God personally. As to the Bible being written, it’s not so simple as humans getting a “first draft” from God which they can then write and contaminate according to their own faults and nuances. If you assume God’s existence and any act of inspiration on His part, then you are dealing with an omnipotent being who has it within His power to make His will and intention transcribed perfectly, even through imperfect humans-as-writing-tools. Each book of the Bible is in the style and personal words of the human author, yes, but only as inspired by God. Often the author probably wasn’t aware that he was writing Scripture – take the Psalms or Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs, which are emotional outpourings from the depths of the authors’ hearts. The writings are personal, but God, as the originator of Persons and Emotions, is so in-tune with His creation that he can direct even that to reflect His perfect will. So then, why would He allow anything faulty into the only Book which contains His revealed will? The assumption is that He is perfectly good. But humans are not perfect in any way anymore (we must always remember The Fall of Man; human nature was originally perfect), and so perceived flaws in the Bible reflect only our own inability to fully comprehend it. Which actually does make a lot of sense: how could an infinite God be truly comprehensible to finite creatures anyway? But He has the power to make His essential nature known to us.

      Quakers are interesting, and I should study them a bit more. No doubt I’d disagree with them on certain theological points, but I’m always pleased when they are portrayed positively in fiction. The phrase “pacifist awesome” would probably fit them. Do you know the story of Sergeant York, the American WWI soldier-hero? He was a pacifist Christian, a conscientious objector to the war who was drafted anyway, and while in Europe decided it was important for him to fight this particular war. He became one of the most decorated soldiers in our history, even got a famous movie made about him starring Gary Cooper. While he didn’t remain pacifist, he refused to profit from his fame and reportedly remained equally honorable and humble both as a pacifist and as a soldier. Anyway, the term “pacifist awesome” made me think of him.

      You’re welcome; I really do appreciate the insightful comments. Poor blog has been starved for outside activity and greatly appreciates your visits. Once you get to read The Shepherd’s Tale, let me know if you think, as I’ve pondered, if they could make a good spinoff series just about Book’s life. (looking for any way to resuscitate Firefly, I am!)

  2. Before I get started on Shepherd Book and faith I’d like to put in a comment about Sgt. York, one of my heroes: There are two excellent biographies of Alvin York (unfortunately have not read all of both of them yet): one is “Sergeant York, An American Hero,” by David E. Lee, the other is entitled “Sgt. York, His Life, Legend, and Legacy,” by John Perry. The reason I mention them is that in the movie Gary Cooper (and a commentator on AMC said that Alvin York was heavily involved in making the movie in 1942) says the reason he came to be such a hero while formerly an ardent pacifist is that “Sometimes you have to kill in order to stop the killing.” Thus we see the ultimate question for the pacifist: Does legitimate self-defense include taking another person’s life? Most pacifists I’ve known or read fail to give any meaningful answer to this question…

    I wanted to verify that Alvin York actually said & believed this since I found out that the movie version of his earlier (prior to WW I) conversion to faith in Christ (which led to his pacifism) was highly fictionalized. The lightening striking his rifle and knocking the horseshoes off his mule, destroying the gun and knocking him to the ground depicted in the movie is pure fiction! According to one chapter in one of the aforementioned biographies it was his mother’s prayers over many years that was primarily responsible for his heart-conversion.

    Now on to Shepherd Book and his “tale:” I think you hit the nail on the head with, “He’s simply gone through too much to have found a truly satisfying answer in anything so vague as the faith he displays throughout the series. … Faith has to make sense, or else it is just daydreams.” The Book of James in the New Testament of the Bible tells us that “faith” without (good) works is a dead (worthless) faith, confirming what you write here.

    Now there is more to good works than just helping those in need, our “neighbors” as the Bible refers to them. Jesus Christ our Lord taught us that the “two great commandments” of God are to love Him (God) with all our hearts and minds and soul and strength, and the 2nd like it, to love our “neighbor” as our self. This passionate love for God is described as the completely “sold-out” commitment we read about in the Gospel of Luke, the latter part of chapter 14.

    I partially disagree with your writing “…God chose sacred writings as the primary way He would communicate His message. The Bible establishes the absolute, objective framework within which we each encounter God personally.” It’s safer to say, IMHO, that God has revealed Himself (Cf. Romans 1:18-23 and 3:1, 2 where “oracles of God” means the Word of God) both in His creation and in His written Word. But His Word, especially in history up until Gutenberg in the 16th century, was communicated primarily through preaching & teaching. And “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” (Rom 8:16). Of course in our modern age the written Word is the absolute “gold standard” for the revelation of Who God is and what He has done. Just as it was in the centuries and millenia B.C.; the Jewish (oracles of God) Torah was the written documented revelation of God and history of His dealings with His chosen people. Though very few could read it, yet it was preached and taught to the Jewish people by the priests, especially on feast days.

    This is why the Apostle Paul said in 1Cor 1:23ff, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;…” That is preaching Christ and Him crucified (and resurrected and ascended in to heaven) even though it is misunderstood and often rejected but is that which is most important.

    The Shepherd Book character does NOT “preach Christ and Him crucified” so I would conclude that this character was NOT intended to portray a “true” Christian character like those we read about in the New Testament of the Bible. I think it would be fair to compare and contrast the Shepherd Book character with the character of Pilgrim in “Pilgrim’s Progress” that you reviewed elsewhere in your blog. I would question whether Joss Whedon even knows or understands the nature of the “true” believing Christian.

    Our Lord knows that we, His children, struggle with the concept all our lives; that’s why He gave us the Book of James to address these struggles. As if Luke 14 was not hard enough by itself!

    OK, I admit that I’m being too hard on a fictional character and my only excuse is the incredibly high standard set by John Bunyan for fictional characters portrayed as Christians. BTW, aside from C.S. Lewis’ “The Case for Christianity” possibly the best book on the “true” meaning of being & living as a follower of Jesus Christ is Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It certainly illustrates our lives and the issues we struggle with very completely. ’nuff said…

  3. Book is one of my favorite characters in the Firefly series. I appreciate the fact that, despite being “Christian,” he is well-portrayed. He is interesting, compassionate, moral, patient, thoughtful and human without being weak. “Pacifist awesome” fits him well. It’s not often I find such characters in television or film, and I especially did not expect to find such in sci-fi.
    However, he comes across, to me, as a character conceived by someone who has respect and appreciation for Christianity, but who lacks any comprehension of the underlying transformative power of Jesus. Either that, or he is a creation intended to be “palatable” to the general public. Or perhaps he is something in-between. In short, I do not have issues with Book, but issues with his writers. He feels like he should be passionately rooted in Jesus, he doesn’t quite make sense otherwise, and yet I do not see those roots. I am left wondering if his faith with break (as mine did) under certain circumstances.
    Despite these failings, though, he is a wonderful character.

    1. Aye, that’s a good way of putting it. Joss, as far as I’ve seen, has absolutely no concept of what spiritual faith actually is, nor of what Christ actually did at the Resurrection and still does now. I acknowledge that he does try hard to give respect to Christianity. But in Book he had a golden opportunity to really explore a character who is a sincere believer, and he didn’t make the most of it. But who knows how the character and his writing would’ve developed in future seasons? *sigh*

      1. Alas for a foolish cancellation. >_<

        I hope you had a good holiday! I know I did. So, so much to be thankful for! Though I have learned that my brother and his wife won't be able to join my parents and me for Christmas. 8_8

        1. Aw, that’s too bad. But I’m glad you had a great Thanksgiving! Mine was excellent also. My sister and her family did come over, and I had a great time playing “Clue” with my nephews and tickling my 5 year-old niece. She fell asleep against me while we watched Kung-Fu Panda later on (a real Thanksgiving movie, haha. Well, we also watched “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” so that makes up for it). Lots of good food and friendly company. I hope Christmas will be even nicer. (And that my other sister won’t mess up on the pie next time by adding twice as much pumpkin as she was supposed to! We doused it in caramel sauce, which helped, but it was still a bit…strong.)

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