Title: Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale
Author: Joss Whedon, Zack Whedon
Artist: Chris Samnee
Format: Graphic Novel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.