Three years in the making, Dark Horse announced today that “Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale” will dock in stores this November. An original hardcover graphic novel co-written by series creator Joss Whedon and his brother, “Terminator” and “Dr. Horrible” writer Zack Whedon, and illustrated by Chris Samnee, “The Shepherd’s Tale” will reveal the intricate backstory of Derrial “Shepherd” Book, the soft-spoken preacher with a dark past. The publisher has also announced a “Serenity” one-shot by Patton Oswalt and Patric Reynolds, which is expected to ship in June.
Shepherd Book, played by Ron Glass on both the television series “Firefly” and the subsequent film “Serenity/” was presented to fans as a man of faith who frequently clashed with Mal Reynolds, captain of the Serenity space vessel upon which Book found himself a resident. The Shepherd, though – in the series, a synonym for preacher or priest – displayed formidable martial arts training unbecoming of his profession and appeared to hold some authority with the Alliance, the galactic government against which the Serenity’s crew once fought a losing war.
CBR News spoke with Chris Samnee, artist of “The Shepherd’s Tale,” and editor Scott Allie about the graphic novel and the future of “Serenity.”
As editor of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8,” fans might imagine that this new “Serenity” project originated in the course of Allie’s ongoing discussions with Joss Whedon, either with Whedon pitching or Allie asking when he might have another “Serenity” story ready. As it turns out, such was not the case. “This is a weird one,” Allie told CBR. “Ron Glass [who played Shepherd Book] was going on some ‘Serenity’ fundraiser cruise. He knew that, as usual, they were gonna be asking him the whole damn time about Book’s back story, how he came to be who he is – one of the big mysteries of the show and the film. So he emailed Joss, said, ‘What the hell, gimme something to tell them.’ Joss wrote back, and copied me, saying that we were gonna do a graphic novel answering all the questions. That is literally how I found out.”
The email included several enigmatic hints as to Book’s past, which fans of “Firefly” know the holy man was none too eager to divulge. “When Joss replied to Ron and me, he did tell Ron four things that he could spill on the cruise. This was some time ago, so these little teases have long been out there,” Allie said. “And here’s what he told Ron: Book killed a man, and took his name. So we don’t know his real name. He’s best known for his greatest failure. That’s the one I always forget when I’m on the spot. One part of him is artificial. And he found God in a bowl of soup. That’s all I’ve got for you right now…”
The most recent “Serenity” miniseries, “Better Days,” saw print in 2008, while “Those Left Behind” launched in 2005. Given this somewhat infrequent publishing schedule, CBR asked Allie what led Dark Horse and the Whedon crew to return to “Serenity” now, with two new projects fairly close together. “It’s funny. These two coming out this year – Patton’s in June – is a coincidence. ‘Shepherd’s Tale’ has been in the works for years,” Allie said. Three years after Ron Glass’ cruise, “Joss had written a detailed, scene by scene outline, but we needed a writer, and were having a hard time finding the right guy. In the meantime, his brother Zack had been writing for TV and ‘Dr. Horrible.’ ‘Dr. Horrible’ led to comics, which led to more comics, with ‘Terminator,’ which comes out this month. And is really good.
“It was Joss’ idea, late last year, to bring Zack on for this, and we jumped at it, because by then I think he’d already written his first issue of ‘Terminator.'” Allie continued. “So we knew he could nail this. There’s a scene, early on in ‘Shepherd’s Tale,’ where you see most the cast of ‘Serenity’ back together, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like the show’s back. Sometimes with just one line – Wash – Zack perfectly recreates these characters. I can’t wait for people to read it.”
Rounding back to the subject of having two “Serenity” books released in a short period of time, Allie said that that’s just how things fell into place. “The timing with Zack and Chris placed the book in this year. Then, back about a year ago when Patton was doing his first appearance on ‘Dollhouse,’ he told Joss he wanted to write a ‘Serenity’ comic,” Allie said. “We all assumed that wasn’t gonna actually happen. Patton was heading into a real busy year, with ‘Big Fan,’ the album, the cable special. He’s really gonna have time to write a comic based on a canceled TV show? But then he sent Joss a handful of pitches. Joss picked one, and eventually there was a first draft, and a second. As with ‘Buffy Season 8,’ Joss was hands on with the script. Patric Reynolds was wrapping up an ‘Abe Sapien’ one-shot, I had him audition for this, Patton and Joss liked what they saw and we threw it on the schedule to fill a gap in ‘Season 8.’ And that’s how we wound up with two books in one year. And now that we have this momentum, I hope to keep it going.”
Should that momentum, in fact, continue, there is a wealth of story possibilities remaining for Captain Mal Reynolds and crew. “Firefly”/”Serenity” has a bit of an interesting structure, in that the film tied off many of the television series’ major conflicts and mysteries quite conclusively while killing a few of our heroes, including Shepherd Book and Wash. Dark Horse’s two comic book series so far have taken place before the movie, and “Shepherd’s Tale” would seem to go back even further with an origin story. As to whether any future miniseries or graphic novels would explore the “Serenity” universe in the era following the events of the movie, Allie said that readers will catch a glimpse of the aftermath sooner rather than later. “The Patton/Patric oneshot includes bits set after the movie,” Allie said. “We’ll probably go there again next.”
For a project like “Serenity,” which is something akin to a Western in space, CBR asked Allie whether there were any specific needs of Book’s story that led to him tapping Chris Samnee for the job. “We wanted to shift the style of the series with this and the Wash one-shot by Patton Oswalt and Patric Reynolds. We did great stuff with Will Conrad on the first two miniseries, but we wanted to take ‘Serenity’ in a bit of a more stylized direction, make a different kind of artistic statement with the styles,” Allie said. “When Patton turned in the ‘Serenity’ script, it was so much about three guys standing still, subtle interactions – I wanted really subtle expression and body language. Patric Reynolds might first be recognized for the moodiness of his work, but that wasn’t what I needed from him here. I wanted the characters to feel very real. With Shepherd’s Tale, Chris brings very distinctive characterization to it, a great range of emotion and mood. I don’t want to say too much about the story, but it requires him to portray Shepherd Book in a variety of situations, and there’s something bold about Chris’ work that will help the character stay strong and distinctive through the whole book.”
Samnee, for his part, is enthusiastic about the chance to work on a properly unique property like “Serenity.” “I love that it’s sort of a mish-mash of sci-fi, western, and Asian influences, populated by all of these wonderfully well-rounded characters,” Samnee said. “It’s like Sergio Leone meets ‘Blade Runner’ with Joss Whedon’s voice. There’s nothing in that formula that doesn’t appeal to me!
“I’m a huge fan of ‘Buffy,’ ‘Angel,’ ‘Dr. Horrible,’ ‘Dollhouse,’ ‘Firefly,’ and ‘Serenity.’ I can’t imagine not enjoying something that Joss Whedon does,” Samnee continued. “Getting the opportunity to help flesh out a bit of back story on one of Joss’ characters, and one of my favorite characters from the show, has been a real treat.
“Zack’s script has managed to really tap in to everything that made the show work – so much so that I can actually hear the actor’s voices in my head as I read through the dialogue.”
Given that the graphic novel is looking at the early, pre-Serenity days of Shepherd Book, CBR asked Samnee whether he had the chance to design any new characters or settings, or present familiar characters with slightly different appearances and circumstances. “There will be some new characters and locations that I have designed from the ground up sprinkled throughout the book,Â as well as a number of tweaks to alreadyÂ existingÂ ‘Serenity’/’Firefly’ material, due to flashbacks,” Samnee said. “I’ll also be taking my stab at a number of people and things from both the series and the movie that will be very familiar to fans. Could I be any more vague?!Â Ha!”
While details are being held fairly close to the vest, Samnee did say that, “I really liked being able to give a glimpse into moments that led up to scenes in the film and theÂ show. It’s sort of silly now that I think about it, I guess, but knowing exactly what comes next made me feel even moreÂ connected to the scenes that I was illustrating.
“I don’t want to reveal too much about particular scenes or set pieces, so I’ll tell you that the most challenging aspect of the book in general has been in deciding how to draw the characters,” Samnee continued. “I’ve been toeing a fine line between likeness and caricature. I want to draw these characters so they’re easily recognizable as the actors we know, but I also want them to look and behave like comic book characters, instead of just traced photographs.”
Samnee, who is coming off a number of recent super hero projects including “Siege: Embedded,” “Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps,” “Marvel Adventures Spider-Man,” and “X-Men vs. Agents of Atlas,” told CBR that the drastic change of venue to “Serenity’s” space-western sci-fi is less of a departure from his usual fare than one might think, but nevertheless offers him some new artistic opportunities. “My job is always to tell the best story possible, whether that takes place in a space-western sci-fi series or in a super hero series. So in that sense, there is very little difference between the two types of books. I do, however, enjoy the opportunity to draw a new set of characters and settings, and to adapt my style to the sci-fi western world of ‘Serenity’ which has already been defined by the movie, TV series, and comics up to this point,” Samnee said. “I love the challenge of both designing some new elements in this world and attempting my take on elements that already existed.”
Returning to editor Scott Allie to wrap up our discussion, CBR asked, with two new “Serenity” books coming up and “Buffy Season 8” speeding toward its conclusion, could readers expect any further comic-book surprises from Joss Whedon on the horizon? “Yes. More. We’ve been talking about what that’ll be, and how to make it less crazy for all involved,” Allie said. “But expect more.”