Art by Chris Samnee
“Well, if you look at your life as a chain of events, each responsible for the next and caused by the last, where does any story begin? Could take you all the way back to my birth, and before that the meeting of my parents or the meeting of theirs…”
After a recent re-watch of a large part of Firefly and Serenity with my brother over Canadian Thanksgiving, I was reminded that I’d never read The Shepherd’s Tale, the 2010 comic which reveals the mysterious back story of Shepherd Book, which was wasn’t covered in the cancelled TV series or the feature film that helped wrap up the story. This review necessarily contains some spoilers for Firefly and Serenity, but will not contain spoilers for Book’s back story, in case you decide you would rather not know.
The Shepherd’s Tale opens on Haven Mining Colony, shortly before the scene in Serenity in which Mal and his crew arrive to find that the Operative has begun slaughter their allies in an effort to flush them out of hiding. The set up is somewhat heavy handed, as the boy Terrors asks Book “when’s the Captain and them comin’ round again,” and an unidentified woman asks “how did you fall in with those folks, Shepherd?” Their conversation is interrupted by the drone of the Alliance gunship that Book shoots down in the film, though not before it slaughter the inhabitants of Haven. Fatally injured, Book recounts his story in a series of flashbacks, moving through time in reverse, all the way back to his childhood.
I was initially a bit confused by the timeline of The Shepherd’s Tale, as I read each of the “x years earlier” captions as being dated from the time of the frame narrative. It wasn’t until the scenes aboard the I.A.V. Cortez—about halfway through the book, though the pages are unnumbered—that it became clear to me that the timeline as I was reading it didn’t make sense, since Book looked younger in a scene captioned “six years earlier” than he did in a scene captioned “ten years earlier.” I started over from the beginning, and the story made a lot more sense once I started reading the timeline captions as telling you how long before the preceding scene they occurred, rather than referring back to the frame narrative. Perhaps this mistake wrong footed me, because I had a hard time getting into this story even once I got the timeline sorted out. If you’re confused, I found the Firefly Wikia timeline with dates pretty helpful.
Chris Samnee’s dark and gritty artwork is well suited to depicting Book’s troubled past, but it occasionally leaves something to be desired in terms of distinguishing characters from one another at a glance because his faces are sometimes insufficiently detailed. Except where the faces lacked detail—usually characters in the mid-distance or background—his depictions of the crew of Serenity are quite good, including a lovely frame of River doing a one-handed handstand.
The Shepherd’s Tale had a number of key points to cover in order to tie up the loose threads of Book’s story, and I found it unsatisfactory in this regard. The back story revealed here specifically did not jibe with the events in Safe, where Book’s identity card gains him immediate medical treatment aboard an Alliance ship. The story clears up most of the mystery surrounding Book’s background, but in a volume so short that it seems like a gloss on the character, rather than a completion. The explanations it offers are insufficient if not contradictory, and it doesn’t add much to the depth of Book’s character. If you’ve imagined an interesting or satisfactory back story for Book—as I had before reading The Shepherd’s Tale—I’d recommend skipping this one.