A new Supernatural book, The Men Of Letters Bestiary is out next week. Check out our review and our exclusive debut of three entries from the Winchesters’ history of monster-hunting.
Supernatural: The Men of Letters Bestiary, an upcoming release from Insight Editions, is the newest and shiniest piece of WB-authorized merchandise dished up for Supernatural die-hards. This illustrated volume is presented as an in-universe resource for other hunters, penned and sketched out by the Winchesters themselves.
Inspired by their father’s hunting journal (a much-loved Supernatural world-building prop) and the records kept by their predecessors in the Men of Letters bunker, Sam and Dean have set themselves the task of presenting their own information about various supernatural creatures and beings based on their past experiences, and I’m about to get about seventy five times weirder and more intense about this entire concept than any human probably needs to be.
After 12 seasons under the watchful gaze of one of the most dedicated audiences around, Sam and Dean Winchester have got to be two of the most thoroughly analyzed characters in television history. Supernatural: The Men of Letters Bestiary: Winchester Family Edition (hereafter referred to as The Men of Letters Bestiary, because, mouthful) provides plenty of referential information about what kind of knife kills what kind of monster, sure, but more importantly, it provides a close first-person look at how Sam and Dean have responded to and remembered the events of their life, what they’ve chosen to share — and what, interestingly, they’ve chosen to omit. If you choose to accept this book as a canonical resource – something that actually exists in the world of the Winchesters — then there’s a wealth of character-based insights to mine within.
Firstly, it must be stated that the value of any such side-canon is difficult to measure. In big franchises, bits of “extended universe” tie-in media in any format outside of the main production are usually considered an extremely quasi-canon source at best, to be enjoyed or ignored, and in general to be taken with several dozen rounds of rock salt. However, I, for one, kind of wish that wasn’t the case. I’m a completest, and I’m pretty black and white about such matters. I generally stick to the Word of God — I want to know if something is actually true or not. My own personal interpretation isn’t generally good enough for me — if I’d been in the Star Wars fandom when they wiped the slate of their previously official extended universe, I’d have had a nervous breakdown. I like official things to be official, so finding the right take on a piece like this one is tough.
Supernatural, like many a genre show before it, has published a series of season companions, guidebooks and tie-in novels over the years — fewer than expected, actually, compared to say, the 60 or so Buffy the Vampire Slayer side-canon tie-in novels. (Not to be confused with the actually-canonical Buffy comics… see how messy this gets?) These kind of books are basically authorized fanfiction presented as merchandise, a chance for fans to spend time devouring alternative stories about Sam and Dean that don’t affect the outcome of what’s happening on screen.
You know what, for a show that literally incorporates a fictionalized version of itself in the form of a series of books about the characters inside its own canon, it’s a little surprising that they haven’t leaned more into the opportunities that the Carver Edlund brand opens up… Anyway. They’ve done comics, they’ve done coffee table books, they even produced, very early on in the series, a similar monster guide. However, the noticeable anticipation for The Men of Letters Bestiary vibes like kind of a big deal. There is a distinct interest regarding what the first-person perspective of this book could further enrich or build upon, in fandom’s dedicated study of Sam and Dean Winchester, and upon reading an advance copy, I understand why.
What I’m going to do now is to suspend my own disbelief, and ask for a suspension of your own. From here on out, I’m going to be talking about the contents of The Men of Letters Bestiary as if the book is as canonical as the show (it’s not, but the times, they are a changin’ in terms of multimedia storytelling) and in doing that, thinking about what it means in the context of Sam and Dean Winchester actually writing it.
Real props, of course, go to author Tim Waggoner (who actually also penned some of those tie-in novels) for his thoroughly researched compilation — the book really takes the reader on a walk back through the show’s history, evoking memories of monsters from the pilot’s Woman in White all the way through to the season-12-created mylings — and to Kyle Holtz for the beautiful pen and ink illustrations. The finished product, in this real non-fictional world that we unfortunately live in, is a gorgeous thing for a fan to own, and the book was certainly signed off by the network as realistic enough to be authorized and published.
But just for kicks, I want to talk about this book the way we’d talk about an episode, to address the in-world fiction with the fourth wall firmly up. Whatever plot structure, production issue or behind-the-scenes reasoning may have caused a moment on screen to occur, it ceases to matter in the context of character analysis — if it happens in an episode, it becomes true and becomes fodder for discussion about a character’s journey. So: with that self-mandated mindset firmly in place, what can we learn about Sam and Dean Winchester from The Men of Letters Bestiary?
Firstly, to give The Men of Letters Bestiary context in the Supernatural timeline, we can estimate that it was being written by Sam and Dean over the course of season 12, completed somewhere after “The Raid” — the incident in which Sam killed the Alpha Vampire is referenced, but Eileen Leahy is also mentioned in a way that doesn’t sound like she’s dead, and the British Men of Letters are an irritation, but not an outright threat.
This is a double-edged sword – to the reader, the book’s information is already out of date, particularly in regards to major players Crowley, Rowena, Lucifer and Castiel, but on the other hand, do we really think this is a project that the boys would casually undertake with Cas dead, Mary lost to another world, and a loose-canon nephilim man-baby on the lam?
If you can hold the book’s moment of creation in your head while reading, the timing actually really fits — for much of season 12, the boys were relatively safe, based at home in the bunker, going out on standard hunts while waiting on Lucifer news from Cas and working with the Men of Letters. They actually — dare I say — may have had some downtime, and I guess this is like their version of scrapbooking.
The book has a simple structure — within a series of chapters (monsters, ghosts, angels and divine beings, and so on) Sam and Dean’s entries, ranging from the generic (crocotta, under monsters) to the wildly personal (Bobby Singer, under ghosts) are arranged alphabetically. As you may expect, Sam does the bulk of the heavy lifting — he’s been shown to take his duty as a Men of Letters legacy very seriously — and while he tries to be clinical and informative, Dean adds personal flavor, adding handwritten annotations to some of Sam’s typewritten entries as well as taking the lead on others, particularly those that he was deeply immersed in. (For example, Dean’s first entry is for the buruburu, which gave him ghost sickness in season 4’s “Yellow Fever.”)
Two very distinct voices are rather well demonstrated: Sam’s scholarly, philosophical, academic yet inescapably earnest tone, and Dean’s casual bravado imbibed with a character-accurate dose of melodrama, even if his humor is a little too stupid for my liking at times. (Milage on Dean’s dumb-jock-ness has varied wildly during the twelve seasons of the show, and I read him right up the other end of the bell curve, but there’s certainly some precedent here.) However, when recounting some of the monsters and demons that have affected them the most deeply, both brothers write with a practicality that surely belies their true feelings.
Sam’s entries on Lucifer and Azazel, particularly, demonstrate a level of pragmatic detachment that’s unusual even for him, but it works – you can just about imagine him taking a deep breath, shaking it off, and writing it down because it needs to be done. Dean, always more volatile, lets a bit more slip through — in his entry about the Styne family, the monstrous miracles of medicine who murdered Charlie Bradbury, Dean closes with “If I knew how they worked their Frankenstein voodoo, I’d bring them back to life so i could kill them all over again” – but there are also plenty of entries by him which are surprisingly calm explanations of things that he did not handle well at the time.
Rather than reading this as out of character, I rationalize that on-screen, we see a side of Sam and Dean that they don’t know we’re seeing, their private, personal reactions that they’d never knowingly show to a stranger. The contents of The Men of Letter Bestiary are the opposite — it’s the face Sam and Dean are willing to show to the world. With that in mind, this approach works quite well, and my biggest pleasure becomes the reading between the lines to interpret the characters’ choices. (My biggest gripe, for the record, is the inconsistency in their attitude about monsters being redeemable or not, which at one point unfortunately has Dean contradict himself in two paragraphs on the same page.)
There are plenty of entries written by one brother where it’s all too easy to imagine the other having tapped out, not wanting to recount or remember his own personal experiences, practicing the time-honored Winchester tradition of burying his baggage. Case in point: Dean does not do the entry for reapers, and Sam’s description of the beings is one of the more sympathetic in the book, describing how hard and horrible their lives must be, lending us the idea that Dean’s experience in “Appointment with Samarra” left deep cuts, the nature of which Sam has been privy to.
Similarly, Dean, who’s been the victim of djinn and hellhounds, does not write about those experiences first-hand. Sam’s always been able to steel himself better, so he tackles a lot more of his trauma — including the death of Bobby Singer, the truth about Mary’s deal with Azazel, and his killing of the werewolf Madison in “Heart,” head on, but completely absent is any reference to his own experience with supernatural powers, his demon blood addiction, or his time without his soul. These makes sense as intentional exclusions – these are things that a) he likely doesn’t wish to revisit and b) that he probably doesn’t want other hunters to know.
The Men of Letters Bestiary is a fantastic example of characters attempting to control their own narrative — little do they know, we know more about Sam and Dean than they’d ever want us to. This means that one of the most curious and brain-foddery aspects of this book is actually thinking about what’s been left out. Yes, there are probably real-world reasons for this – length, fallibility — but nevertheless, if we handwave that and keep pretending that Sam and Dean are real and that we’ve been spying on them for over a decade, there are some really interesting things implied here through lies of omission. For starters, as you can read on one of our first-look pages, nowhere in the entry about their encounter with a siren does either brother reveal that it seduced Dean in the form of a man — in fact, the opposite is implied, and while Dean does write a little about his experience as a demon, nowhere in his long multi-page entry on vampires does he mention that he also became a vampire and was cured.
Sam’s write-up of Crowley is fascinatingly unforgiving, which opens up another Pandora’s Box of meta — is he covering their asses in order to not let the hunter community who may find this book in on just how chummy they are with the King of Hell, or does he actually have a deep-seated delusion about Crowley? Remember, this is post-“Rock Never Dies,” post-“Stuck In The Middle (With You)” — Crowley at this point had proven himself to them and was already on a path that, to the audience at least, had no plausible room for another downtick, a path which ultimately resulted in his self-sacrifice to save the boys from Lucifer. It brings up a bunch of questions for me – how much does Sam actually know about Dean’s relationship with Crowley? How differently may have this entry read if Dean had written it — and written it honestly? Is that why he didn’t? Go to town on this one, fandom.
On a sweeter note, there are several beings who don’t appear at all where it’s all too easy to read this as a protective move on the Winchesters’ part. Sure, maybe author Tim Waggoner just didn’t rate “Just My Imagination” all that highly, but isn’t it more fun to imagine that Sam and Dean intentionally left out any mention of Sully and the Zanna in order to hide their existence from those who would indiscriminately hunt anything non-human? The same concept could be applied to the exclusion of Aaron Bass’s Golem, or the not-particularly-evil Pishtacos. Witches, though still deemed human, are included (an utter highlight and a fulfilment of Supernatural #lifegoals for me was Sam’s admission that he’s technically a witch himself, which you can read on another one of our exclusive pages) but psychics — powered, but generally innocent – are not.
Then there are the moments where the heart prevails, where one of them feels so strongly about a certain being or experience that it cracks the facade of professionalism and repression and their entry reflects this. We see this particularly in Dean’s coverage of Cain, Death, the Stynes, Rowena (including some musings that she may be mellowing into an ally) and surprisingly, Amara — that one must have been tough for him. And then, of course, there’s Castiel, who’s page was released in the initial press kit from the publisher.
The simple admission that Dean requested to write about Castiel alone seems like an open acknowledgement that the relationship dynamic between Dean and Cas and Sam and Cas is not equal or interchangeable – that this is much more personal for him than it is for Sam. While this is a fact recognized by most viewers, and often factored into the show’s narrative itself, it seems an uncharacteristically intimate thing for him to admit in writing when he knows he has an audience. He could have just written the entry and we would have understood why it meant something to him, and yet he still specified, still wanted people to know about his request for privacy. Dean’s choice to express himself in this way, for all to see, is both extremely heart-warming and possibly the book’s most out-of-character moment — but if this is what WB has okayed Dean Winchester wanting us to know? What can I say, I’ll take it.
Returning to reality, The Men of Letters Bestiary is extremely easy to appreciate. My exercise in character analysis is merely an example of why the book inspires new things to think and talk about. It offers plenty to extrapolate on a variety of levels, or it can be enjoyed at face value — something for hardcore and casual fans alike to treasure.
Whether you choose to see this book as actual canon, fodder for valid headcanons, or simply a fanwork — which, at its heart, it is – the effort that has gone into producing it on a very tight deadline is impressive. Waggoner, who spoke with me via email about the book, has been dedicated to the show since the pilot aired, and his number one priority while writing was getting the character voice right. However, he’s of the camp that anything outside the final product we see on screen – even if it’s network-approved — isn’t truly canon, so how you interpret this book and fit it into your Supernatural experience is really up to you.
“Fans can enjoy tie-ins like novels and comic books for what they are: extra material that’s fun and can provide a different perspective on the characters, almost like the deleted scenes or alternate endings on DVDs,” he writes. “Fans can include any of this material in their headcanons if they want, or they can simply enjoy the material and not worry about issues like canon. Whatever works best for them. I’m comfortable having multiple versions of characters and stories in my head without worrying about which version is “right.” How many interpretations of superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man? But any time I write about Sam and Dean, I do my best to stick as closely to canon as I can.”
Given my immersive experience in reviewing this book from the perspective that it is real, there’s one more question I wanted to clarify with the author. The drawings. In-universe, someone had to have done them, and we know it sure as hell wasn’t Sam. Can we assume, in that case, that it was Dean? John Winchester illustrated his own journal back in the day – do we now get to imagine Dean inheriting that talent?
Waggoner has a different — but equally valid, that’s the whole point of all this – idea: “Maybe Cass [sic] did the drawings. He’s an angel – a powerful being whose existed since the beginning of creation. There’s a good chance he’s learned to draw somewhere along the line. Or maybe he used his angelic powers to make the illustrations simply appear on the page!”
Supernatural: The Men of Letters Bestiary is available worldwide from September 12, exactly one month before Supernatural itself returns.
Full-sized pages courtesy of Insight Editions