Things get heated back at Bureau headquarters this issue, but the dramatic moments don’t hit as hard as they should.
Written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie
Illustrated by Laurence Campbell
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robins
Exorcist Ashley Strode directs the BPRD toward a deadly cult leader while Fenix pushes for a return to the site of Kate’s death.
Mark Tweedale: I’m going to kick this one off with a spoiler warning right here. We’re going to take a deep dive into the plot elements at work in “B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know” #4.
First up, Brian missed the last review, and he’s the only one of us that isn’t up to speed on the “Abe Sapien” 2013–2016 ongoing series, and the last issue of “B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know” was starting to lean more on set-up from that series. So, Brian, how did you find that element of the last issue?
Brian Salvatore: I wasn’t overly confused by it; it’s not like Scott Allie was writing this dense, convoluted story. I was able to pick up the basic threads rather easily, and didn’t feel like I was missing too much from skipping the back half of that book.
I will say this: I’m pretty surprised, four issues in, that this is the first issue where we are really digging into some of the events of the last series. I know that there, obviously, have been references, but this issue felt like the first time that we, as readers, see the characters actively considering and discussing these gigantic events in their lives.
Mark: Yeah, it was definitely the catch-up issue in a lot of ways. I was concerned though that you may have found Abe frustratingly vague about what he discovered about himself. It’s good to know you didn’t feel like you’d missed too much.
So let’s get to this issue. This one had a few things in it that didn’t sit right with me. Like at the beginning, Carla Giarocco’s kid has a bunch of toys he’s playing with, including action figures of Abe Sapien and Hellboy. That seemed really weird to me, like something pulled out of a Marvel book suddenly appearing in the Hellboy Universe. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t have any action figures of real life government agents when I was a kid—no J. Edgar Hoover, no George Piro… I did have some Ninja Turtles though. Anyway, it was just something that was tonally jarring, reminding me that I was reading a comic book by throwing in a comic book stereotype I’m not a fan of.
Brian: I found that really weird, too. It would be one thing if it was like the doll we see that Rey made in The Force Awakens, but this doesn’t appear to be a handmade, ramshackle doll. It was a really odd touch.
Mark: I’m gonna head-canon them as custom figures made by Peter, the tech guy.
Brian: What I liked about this issue, as a longtime reader, is that is started to connect the dots a bit. As you said, it is a bit of a catch-up issue. But this still feels, to me, like it is really light on just about everything that came from John Arcudi. I love Ashley Strode, so this isn’t a knock on that character, but I think that sort of lines up, too. It’s like Allie has decided to pull from all the sources aside from Arcudi’s for inspiration for where the story is going.
I know that I’ve been critical in the past of Allie’s abilities as a writer, and I’m not trying to pile on the guy unncessarily, but am I alone in thinking that these issues feel a little…slight? Basic? I’m not quite sure the word I’m looking for.
Mark: I’d say muddy. Reading it, I get the sense that Allie knows where everything is going, but his story gets messy when it’s translated to the characters. I had a particular problem with the “Abe Sapien: Dark and Terrible” ongoing series, something that I’d see pop up again and again. I found when there were four or more characters in a scene, the throughline in the sequence would veer all over the place. I remember distinctly in the “Sacred Places” arc there was a line dropped by a single character whose name we didn’t know, in a scene with about seven people talking, then someone responded to that line an issue later and name-dropped the character. There was so much distance between those two pieces, the second part of it almost seemed like a non-sequitur.Continued below
I think what Allie is going for is the messiness of real conversations, where people often talk over each other or go into their own head and return to the conversation later on, still on the same topic that everyone else has since moved on from. And that can be done… but not literally. Translated literally to a comic it’s just messy, full of redundancies, unfinished thoughts, and apparent non-sequiturs. Unless you’re going for a very specific effect, the aim should be to capture the feeling of a messy conversation, while maintaining a careful eye on character motivation throughout. It should be meticulously orchestrated chaos, and that’s a hard thing to pull off.
In “The Devil You Know” #4, that same problem emerges, but compounded because it’s full of characters that all want to talk about what they want to talk about, and they repeatedly disengage when the topic shifts or attempt to wrestle the conversation back to their topic. The result here is the supporting players in the conversation end up having murky motivations or none at all, the primaries come off as one note, and the overall conversation ends up shapeless and forgettable, aside from a few dramatic beats.
During “Abe Sapien” I kind of chalked this shortfall up to Allie being his own editor, so my hope is that the new editor will push him to be a better writer.
Brian: I think part of that might come from being an editor, too. He knows who every character is, what their motivations are, etc, because he’s looking big picture. “Abe Sapien” is an answer to an editorial problem—how do we tell Abe’s story without cutting into the time we need to wrap “Hell on Earth?” The reason I fell off the book was because it never felt like a book that needed to exist, issue by issue. I understand why the story was important, but the issues themselves never conveyed that to me.
There’s a similar feeling I get from reading this book so far. There are interesting ideas and concepts, with characters that I care about, but thus far, it has come off as very perfunctory and without the nuance, heart, or depth that “Hell on Earth” had. Even things that should feel momentous or interesting—like Liz and Howards being a couple—just feels very matter of fact.
Mark: I think that’s what I liked so much about #3. We got to linger with moments a little longer to get more feeling out of them. It’s jarring when some major moments feel rushed through, especially when I look back at #1 with the cricket attack while recovering Abe and the vampire attack in #2—I can’t help but think they would have worked better if they had been condensed into a single sequence with the crickets removed entirely. I mean we’re at issue four of a five-issue arc, and I still don’t have an overall sense of the arc’s shape yet.
That said, I don’t think the moments you’re missing are absent, but rather buried in that shapelessness. It doesn’t help that for the most part this is a colder story with characters mainly being antagonistic towards each other, but that’s still mined for great moments like Liz and Andrew giving each other the single-fingered salute (a moment I wish had found itself in issue #1 though, where Liz was merely irritated and frustrated by Devon instead of here where’s she’s livid and about to boil over).
I want to draw attention to how Ashley Strode was handled this issue. I like the way Cameron Stewart wrote her in “Exorcism” back in 2012, however her portrayal was all over the place in 2016’s “The Exorcist,” especially its final issue. As for this arc, up until now Ash’s been playing the exorcist part of her role in the story, but nothing that said much about who she is as a person, so I appreciated the way her reconnection with the Bureau shone a spotlight on that. This is absolutely the same Ash from “Exorcism” and I’m glad to have her back. That panel after she ends the conversation, with her slumped over her laptop, was pitch perfect.Continued below
Brian: I agree. As a longtime Strode fan, it is nice to see her not only be used in this series, but be used properly. She’s one of the more undeveloped agents in the Bureau at this point, but what we do know about her is that she does not take any shit. Her pushing back here was absolutely perfect, and showed exactly why she is so successful at what she does and why the Bureau needs her.
I want to focus on Laurence Campbell a bit here, as I feel like this series is something entirely new for him. He’s not drawing the epic sequences that his past few arcs have needed. Here, he is drawing the tension coming not from the Ogdru Hem, but rather from interpersonal conflicts and the existential dread of walking through a burned out world with husks of monsters ominously staring you down. It’s a bit of a different itch for him to scratch, and I think he handles it perfectly.
The ‘one finger salute’ between Devon and Liz is the perfect example of this. He draws both characters, more or less, at ease, but with a burning fire behind their eyes that tells you everything you need to know. The layers of that scene—they both have to appear to be in control, yet neither can appear to be aggressive, and yet they must fully convey their hatred, which is mixed with a healthy dose of respect and empathy.
If this arc is working at all, it is due to the heavy lifting by Campbell.
Mark: The big screens in that Bureau observation room certainly play to Campbell’s strengths. I especially liked the way he could turn the intensity of the TV screen images up by filling the panel more and dropping the characters into silhouette. It was a cool way to augment the dialogue or to demonstrate a point without a cutaway panel. For a confrontation between Liz and Devon, it’s pretty much the perfect location, and Dave Stewart pushes the colors for maximum impact.
That and he carefully sets up the scene so that the various colors of the screens orientate the reader within the scene. When you have five people all chatting across from each other, it’s very each to lose character eyelines.
This wasn’t completely harmonious though. The direction did get muddy at times, and there was one instance where I felt like a panel would have worked better flipped considering the word balloon placement, which ended up disrupting the flow.
Brian: I can see that. To be fair to both parties, Arcudi and Campbell did a lot of work together, and Allie and Campbell are relatively new collaborators, in terms of writing a script for / working off a script from. I’m sure those things can/will improve given time, though I don’t think that the problems with this comic are necessarily ones that time will fix.
When thinking about grading this, I’m going to go with a 6.5. Visually, I really enjoyed it, and there were moments that popped, but overall, the issue felt sluggish and awkward, like much of the series has thus far.
Mark: I’m going with a 7. While there were certainly awkward moments, there was some great character moments in there too, especially with Ash. And in terms of pairing a location with subject matter, the Bureau observation room was the right choice (and made for a fantastic cover from Duncan Fegredo).
Final verdict: 6.75 – Despite being the penultimate issue for this arc, “B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know” hasn’t quite found its footing yet.