Review: Supernatural: John Winchester’s Journal

Review by Paula R. Stiles

Irvine, Alex. Supernatural: John Winchester’s Journal. Dan Panosian and Alex Irvine, illus. New York: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (William Morrow), 2009. 218pp. US $21.99 (hardbound). ISBN: 978-0-06-170662-2.

I didn’t expect to like Supernatural: John Winchester’s Journal, even though I enjoyed Irvine’s previous tie-in, The Supernatural Book of Monsters, Spirits, Demons, and Ghouls. Despite his being played by an excellent actor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Winchester patriarch John was not my favorite Supernatural character by any stretch. He was prideful, petty, vindictive, manipulative, often mean-spirited, abusive to and neglectful of his children, and willing to use them as pawns in his war against Azazel, the demon who murdered his wife, Mary. Ironically, John was an awful lot like Azazel, which isn’t the most flattering comparison, I know.

So, the idea of spending 218 pages with a monomaniac narrating one of the show’s primary MOTW macguffins didn’t exactly appeal. To my surprise, though, I found the book to be a sympathetic portrait of John that made him understandable without letting him off the hook. There is also a lot more about folklore, myths and urban legends, with some overlap (such as the Rituale Romanum again) with Irvine’s first Supernatural book. In that sense, it’s sort of a sequel.

Though the book is arranged chronologically to make it more accessible (John’s journal, on the show, is repeatedly said to have no apparent order at all), there are attempts to make it resemble the actual journal. Unlike Irvine’s first book, the three novels and the season companions, John Winchester’s Journal is hardbound (which, naturally, jacks up the price). The front cover has an image of a clasp on it. Inside, the pages are speckled and punctuated with illustrations and images of newspaper clippings, as if they were photocopies of a weathered old journal that’s been dragged around for 22 years. The book itself, however, is about half the thickness of what we see on the show, and it doesn’t much resemble the teaser of John’s journal on the show’s Warner Bros. site.

As I said, the best part of the book is its portrait of John Winchester, a man trying to raise two kids and hunt supernatural creatures while slowly unraveling into a paranoid-survivalist mess. One of the most poignant (and disturbing) things is John’s obsessive and dysfunctional view of his sons and his relationship with them. He never fails to record their birthdays, or the anniversary of his wife’s death. Irvine’s take on John is that John and Sam didn’t get along because John blamed Sam for Mary’s death, even though Sam was only a baby when she died. So, John spends a great deal of time in the journal pushing poor Sam away and then rationalizing to himself that it’s Sam pushing him away. Sam becomes John’s scapegoat. In this context, his flight to Stanford makes perfect sense. Even if he’d stayed, he’d never have been able to satisfy his father.

On Dean’s side, John convinces himself that Dean is just like him even though the show (and book) confirms that John and Sam are more alike than either one of them is like Dean. John’s clinginess with Dean is…creepy. If John were Dean’s mother instead of his father, I’d be thinking, “Oh! God! Mother!!” from Psycho. John is willing to let Sam go, but losing Dean would kill him (in the show, he does choose to die rather than let Dean die first). Even when Dean is all grown up and thousands of miles away (on a hunt John sent him on, no less), John obsesses over his eldest. This is leavened by a simultaneous and unpleasant tendency to infantilize Dean and portray him as stupid, all the better to justify not letting him go, I guess. No wonder Dean is so screwed up.

The book, unfortunately, suffers from some serious anachronisms and inaccuracies, mostly brought in by Irvine’s decision to use the comics as canon. Two things are most glaring. One is the date of Bill, Jo Harvelle’s father’s, death. In the Journal , Bill dies in 1986. This isn’t possible. Jo says that she was old enough when her father died to remember him very clearly and have a good relationship with him. Irvine fudges this by saying that Jo is four in 1986. That would require that she be a year older than Sam and born in 1982.

However, Jo’s Journal (neither confirmed nor denied by show canon) on the show’s Warner Bros. site puts her birth in 1985. The actress who plays her, Alona Tal, was born in 1983. The way Jo is presented in the show, she acts a lot more as if she’s a year younger than Sam than a year older. But all of this is beside the point – the show clearly states early in season two (“Everybody Loves a Clown”) that the brothers had no idea that the Roadhouse (the hunter’s bar owned by Jo and her mother, Ellen) even existed until that episode. Since they had John’s journal for over a year at that point, there is no way John could have discussed Jo in his journal. One could argue that John tore the pages out the way he appears to have torn out any related to Adam, their third brother (“Jump the Shark”). But there’s no good reason why he would, and Supernatural: John Winchester’s Journal doesn’t include any missing Adam pages, though this is most likely because the book came out before that episode.

A second thing involves character. In the Journal (and the comics), John is portrayed as teaching Dean how to hunt deer and other animals before putting him on supernatural hunts. And Dean is portrayed as enjoying this activity. Yet, very early in the series (“Wendigo”), Dean mocks Roy, a hunter, for shooting animals Dean feels are unable to fight back, and later declares that he hates camping. So, how does this jibe with Dean loving to hunt Bambi?

That said, there are some nice references to canon, especially the first line of the book, “I went to Missouri, and learned the truth.” This comes directly from the show. Personally, I think using the comics as canon when they clearly contradict the show itself was a mistake. On the other hand, Irvine may not have had much choice in the matter. At any rate, it’s a problem that eases up later in the book (the comics only go so far) and doesn’t detract from the Journal‘s readability or its sharp insights into John’s psyche. This is a fast, sometimes brutal, often very sad, read. Definitely the best of the tie-in novels so far.

Next week, I’ll review In the Hunt: Unauthorized Essays on Supernatural.

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