THE SHEPHERD, Andrea Lorenzo Molinari, Roberto Xavier
The Shepherd was the hardest review I've covered from any scene whether
music or film, I cannot stress how many times I re-drafted, re-worded, and re-wrote the blog, in-order to avoid causing offence to those of a particular religious disposition. I tried to approach The Shepherd with an open mind, and throughout the review attempted to reel myself in, as it's very obvious why the book was wrote, which made me feel incredibly guilty to be too scathing. I'm sure there are a number of reviewers that probably wouldn't care, and go for the jugular, but at times, we need to show respect and restraint, especially if it is very personal to the author, and deals with a sensitive subject. In this instance, it was exactly the case concerning The Shepherd.
Please be aware of spoilers if you haven't read the book.
The Shepherd is a noble and honorable book dealing with grief, loss, salvation, hope, and love. The motivation behind the comic is one to be admired and respected, the author Andrea, is a man who loves his wife and family very deeply, indicating the kind of person he is. The inspiration for The Shepherd came from a dream Andrea had surrounding his son Roberto.
Sadly, the further I read the comic, it quickly became a long arduous chore, very depressing, and never seemed to end. I still hold a deep sense of guilt, I can see why the comic was created, but in all honesty, The Shepherd may not be well received outside of the target audience it was aiming for.
But, what did I like? Well, I'll outline below, and hopefully discuss some positive aspects, avoiding a damning review if we can.
The opening page describes the main figure in The Shepherd, Lawrence, husband and father, and theology professor. There is a great break of the fourth wall, which was an interesting start, grabbing my attention. At this point I was looking forward to reading more, and thought 'ok this is different to what I usually read, but I'm curious'.
Chapter 1, and early parts of chapter 2, display a nice dose of dry humor, which makes you smile, and keeps the reader hooked, wanting to see what would come next. I liked this a lot, warm, funny, and well grounded opening to the story.
I could guess The Shepherd is based on the author's RL family relationships, which are also a central theme to the comic. There are several amusing exchanges between the family members displaying the wry humor, and warm interactions they all share with each other.
From chapter 1, The Shepherd succeeds in drawing you into Lawrence's world, you will feel very sad learning the fate of his son, care for the characters, and it parallels the grief the author must have felt upon losing his own father, further demonstrating the bond with family, and the essence of a loving man.
So far so good, I liked what I was reading, chapter 2 started well, in the same vein with breaking the 4th wall, good humor, story starting to develop, but I did feel a sense that the comic may not be accessible for everyone, as it's very emotionally written and extremely personal. The positive flip side though, fans of this kind of writing, will lap it up, and thirst for more. Lawrence is a strong spirited, noble man, and has no hesitation in sacrificing himself to save his family, even if it costs his soul.
To avoid giving too much away, Lawrence journeys into the afterlife, to find his deceased son Val, who lost his life to a drug overdose. Upon arrival there is a reunion with his own father, and he acquires a staff, enabling him to wield divine power, akin to the staff of Moses I guess. Lawrence becomes trapped in purgatory, and meets a companion called Legio, a wolf/dog, which at first I thought was a Hellhound ready to take him to the underworld for defying some cosmic law. I was starting to become a little bored before the introduction of Legio, but it was nice giving the creature an identity with something to offer.
Sadly, this is where my enjoyment of The Shepherd ended, hopefully I can describe delicately without causing too much offence why my fun with the comic came to a premature end.
When we reach Chapter 3, Lawrence goes back to deal with the guy who supplied his son with drugs, which led to Val losing his life, and the coming of The Shepherd (Lawrence). Lawrence is accompanied by his new companion, the wolf Legio, and the pair then proceed to confront the drug dealer in his home. The villain is driven insane by the encounter, with Lawrence in danger of becoming the very thing he despises.
Honestly, I just feel bad, I can see why The Shepherd was written, but it's very boring, leaving me not really caring about the story, and such a stark contrast compared to how I felt during chapter 1.
The scene where Lawrence confronts Ted's (drug dealer) suppliers is a little more interesting, an improvement, and flowed much better with a mix of action, and a hint of the vengeful figure The Shepherd is becoming. The artwork on pg 81 is a good illustration of this change, and The Shepherd is not someone purely bad, but I guess the bogey man for thugs, and you wouldn't like to accidentally meet him.
After the skirmish with the drug suppliers in Chapter 3, Lawrence and Legio learn of the corrupt businessman behind the local drug trade, which had cost Val his life. The duo confront him, and this should be an exciting chapter, and here comes by big gripe with The Shepherd. The wording and heavy religious behaviour to put it delicately, was turning me off the comic, but perhaps a darker looking character or maybe better language would've been more appropriate?
The whole scene is a problem for me, considering the tone in which William's (businessman & drug baron) wife is addressed by The Shepherd. Ok the guy is a theologian and religiously minded guy, but I do feel it should be scaled back in a comic to avoid turning the audience away, and I'm not sure people will warm to the way a woman is spoken to with “silence woman, you are to be a witness to the just retribution that is William due”. It's the 21st century, and I found this very dated, primitive, and a sure turn off. The impression it conveyed was of a fire and brimstone religious dude walking around calling everyone sinners, which yes goes with who The Shepherd is becoming to a point, but I question how successful it would be translated to a general audience.
Lawrence (The Shepherd) does in fairness say to the lady in question, 'come take my hand you have nothing to fear', words to that effect. But, when I read lines such as “come woman, hear the sinister litany of your husband's sins”, I tend too find this a severe turn off, and thought of an avenging arch angel who had been sent by God to punish the wicked. I wasn't comfortable with the scene, in all honesty, I hated the tone from The Shepherd during this particular setting. The main problem I found as a comic book reader, was the lack of fun and escapism, also leaning too much to a religious audience, and is a very heavy read.
The next scene has William's (drug baron) son, giving Lawrence a teddy bear, which he then says makes him feel better, a touching scene, setting up the familiar theme with good turning into evil.
Arriving at chapter 5, the final part to review, I'm still filled with a sense of guilt concerning my opinion, but in truth, it was a struggle to read and discuss. Sad, because as previously mentioned in earlier sections, the motivation and reasons why the comic were created are clear, but it is not a fun read or a title I want to visit again.
I guess to steer away from too many negatives, chapter 5 does offer a few enduring scenes based around the concepts of forgiveness, re-birth, salvation for the damned, and forgive those who trespass against us. For example, Lawrence frees Ted (drug dealer that supplied drugs to Lawrence's son Val) from the asylum and forgives him.
Another meaningful part sees Lawrence's Dad, Val, and Lawrence reunited together, a fitting, loving, and special tribute to the author's own family. Legio is revealed to be Val, which I kinda guessed at the start, and he chooses to stay with Lawrence fighting for the innocent. I feel if we could have got to this much earlier, it would make a better read.
It is personal preference depending on the reader, but the story arc revolving around Lawrence's family, is somewhat depressing, I just cannot relate to it. The Shepherd is indeed a substantial piece of work, but not a fun read, or offers escapism. When I read comics it is for excitement, a break from reality, and to lose myself in fantastical worlds. I'm displaying my Marvel/DC bias, but The Shepherd only succeeded into making me feel very depressed.
The key component to The Shepherd is the on-going father/son relationship between Lawrence and Val, which I would guess parallels the author's real life family bond, but it made it too heavy and quite boring.
There is a constant theme of regret, loss, and guilt, but it became a drag offering no respite from an issue, which is clearly personal to the writer, and probably would work better as a book rather than a comic. In my opinion The Shepherd will appeal to a niche audience due to the heavy religious overtones, resulting in a sadly, boring, and hard read. I would like to add that The Shepherd is a very special loving piece of work created for the author's real life family, but it doesn't quite work as an exciting read.