Monday, August 8, 2011

Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale Fills In The Gaps On One Of Firefly’s Most Vital Characters (In A Mediocre Fashion).

The Good: Excellent character development, Great storyline/narrative technique
The Bad: ARTWORK is abysmal! Somewhat predictable in parts.
The Basics: An otherwise exciting and intriguing Serenity graphic novel, Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale is presented with such bad artwork as to distract from the quality of the story being told.

I have a lot of respect for the graphic novel medium now. Indeed, in the last few years, I have gotten more and more excited about the medium because so many movies have graphic novel tie-ins and so many canceled projects live on in the graphic novel medium. The doomed television series Firefly (reviewed here!) by Joss Whedon used the strength of the boxed set DVD sales to get fans Serenity (reviewed here!). But when it looked like there would be no sequel forthcoming to the big screen, Joss Whedon kept the franchise alive using the graphic novel medium. Right before Christmas 2010, fans of the Serenity franchise were “treated” to a new graphic novel:.

I write “treated” in quotes above because the book is an unfortunate mixed bag. Fans of Firefly who were shocked by the events of Serenity realized there was a huge narrative hole waiting to be filled. I'm writing this review with respect to those readers who might have seen the television show, but not yet (for one inconceivable reason or another) caught the film. The hole in the story, the mysterious backstory of Shepherd Book, the resident religious figure on Serenity, is finally filled in with Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale. While this should have been a huge treat – Book was my favorite character in the franchise – the artwork in the hardcover graphic novel is so sloppy that it guts the power and strength of the story being told. In other words, just when I have attained a real respect for the graphic novel medium, I run into one where the artwork drags the story down to such an extent that it exemplifies much of the worst of the medium.

Shepherd Book's life is told backwards in The Shepherd’s Tale. From his part in Serenity, Book recalls his life leaping backward through relativistic memories. Book remembers leaving Serenity, talking with Jayne and walking in on Mal and Zoe during a deal that went wrong, even back to his arrival at the foot of the Serenity from the series premiere of Firefly. From there, his exploration of divinity is relayed and then the events that drove him to the monastery ten years before are shown. Book is brutally beaten by the police and he has a bowl of chicken soup over which he has a spiritual awakening.

The allusion to the IKV Alexander is quickly followed up with the story of Book in command of the IKV Cortez during the war. As a battle goes south for Book, he orders the Alliance surrender in a key battle, for which he is dishonorably discharged from the military. How Book reached such a lofty position is explained by his training as a torture specialist in the next flashback. From there, the reader learns how he ended up working for the military and the childhood events that shaped Book's life.

First, Zachary Whedon – who wrote the book based upon the backstory Joss Whedon had plotted out – does an excellent job with the story in Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale. Whedon takes a character who was frequently marginalized and makes him a viable protagonist who is able to carry the entire book. The narrative technique of having episodes journey backward through time to illustrate how Book became the man he was when he first appeared on Firefly - and explain why he had left the ship by Serenity - works extraordinarily well. It might seem like a gimmick academically, but Whedon’s execution makes it feel like a remarkably clever retrospective script. It actually reminded me of one of Peter David’s Star Trek Annuals back in the 1980s where he crafted a love story for Scotty that went back in time the same way. What allows me to heap some praise on Whedon is that it never felt derivative of the story I had read years before and enjoyed quite a bit.

Beyond that, Whedon’s version of Book is enough to make one want to go back and rewatch Firefly. How convincing Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale is might well be measured in being able to go back through the series and pick out details in Ron Glass's character on the television show and in the film. Viewers who recall the show might well remember how Book managed to get the crew of Serenity out of a scrape or two by flashing his credentials at government officials. This book explains why they would treat him with such power and deference, but for fans to believe it, there must have been clues that were sprinkled throughout the series. The book is powerful enough to make one want to go do that.

Unfortunately, the presentation of Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale is where the graphic novel falls down. The artwork looks like paintings, but the presentation is so sloppy that the lines and sense of movement are blurred almost beyond recognition. In many of the panels, Book does not look like Ron Glass and one might only know the subject of the pages because he is the only black person on the page. This guts the emotional resonance of the book because readers spend far too much time trying to discern what is actually happening on the page as opposed to the flow of the story. In other words, the “effect” completely undermines the message. Chris Samnee does not do anyone a service with his presentation of the story.

That said, Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale is just on the underside of average and most fans of the Serenity franchise will enjoy the book, assuming they can overlook the style instead of the substance. This was one of the rare instances where I could not.

For other graphic novels that tie-in with contemporary films, please check out my reviews of:
Serenity: Those Left Behind
Serenity: Better Days
Star Trek: Spock - Reflections


For other book reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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