Feature: Castle Full of Blackbirds #4 Reviews 

Mignolaversity: “Castle Full of Blackbirds” #4

By and | March 2nd, 2023
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

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Mike Mignola, Angela Slatter, and Valeria Burzo’s “Castle Full of Blackbirds” comes to a close and we’re digging in with a spoiler heavy review.

Cover by Wylie Beckert
Written by Mike Mignola and Angela Slatter
Illustrated by Valeria Burzo
Colored by Michelle Madsen
Lettered by Clem Robins

As Sara May approaches the end of her first year at the Linton School for Girls, the truth of Miss Brook, the headmaster, and the disappearances of her fellow students seems even more mysterious and frightening than before! But when Sara begins to pull at new threads to uncover the real story, the fate of the school could end up hanging in the balance.

Mike Mignola and Angela Slatter team up with artist Valeria Burzo for deliver the chilling finale to Sara May Blackburn’s adventure.

Mark Tweedale: Before we get started, I should point out that while Chris has read this story issue by issue, I stopped after issue #1 and then read the whole thing when I got issue #4. Reading an arc all at once is my preferred way to read, but it is a distinctly different experience from Chris’s. For him, there’s been a three-month gap between issues #3 and #4, and for a story where there are many characters whose motivations we aren’t directly privy to, I have to wonder how it felt to puzzle them out and put them together.

Christopher Egan: I have become fairly accustomed to keeping at least the major details in my head when it comes to awaiting the next issue of a Mignolaverse series, but should I feel like I’ve lost something during the wait I will pull out the previous issues and either do a full reread or skim over them to make sure I’m not forgetting a key plot point. I didn’t do that with this issue, but as my reading stack frequently piles up, I did read issues #1 and #2 back to back.

Because I reviewed issues #2 and #3, a lot more of it stuck with me than if there had just been two more issues pulled from my stack during a weekend reading binge. So I’ll say that a lot of the character motivations and the puzzling nature of the miniseries as a whole was fresh in my mind, whether or not I understood some of the choices made has more to do with the way the story ultimately unfolded rather than trying to recall what happened three months ago. I believe any confusion or lack of connection while reading issue #4 was due to a lack of cohesion between the final script and pages.

Mark: Yeah, I’ll have to touch on that too, but first, I have to call out Wylie Beckert’s cover work here, because each and every cover for “Castle Full of Blackbirds” is not only gorgeous, but it draws the reader’s attention towards the things they should be paying attention to on the pages within. This isn’t just a bit of eye-catching marketing; it’s helping the storytelling. Plus, I like the ascendant quality it has when contrasted against the covers for the previous three issues where she is at the bottom of the compositions and firmly grounded or even weighed down. (Also, I just have to say the way Beckert drew Sara May’s feet on this cover is so perfect.)

Chris: As someone who is incredibly particular about cover art, I rarely speak about them in my writing unless it has been used in such a way that it is either a ham-fisted spoiler or, is egregiously misleading. Beckert’s work across this series is stunning. She completely captures the menace and true horror tied to the dark magic on every cover, and her work on issue #4 is my personal favorite.

It borders on pure beauty and gut-swirling discomfort, as if it is part of something not meant for us to see. It is absolutely brilliant. The work on the covers in contrast with the work on the pages is one of my bigger obstacles when it comes to connecting with this issue, and ultimately, the completed story.

Continued below

Mark: I’ve had trouble engaging in this story too, and I think page two of this issue illustrates one of the reasons why. It’s a page constructed around a single moment of change, when Sara May discovers a picture of her that was never taken. This moment comes in the fourth panel and she reacts to it in the fifth.

However, without the context of the dialogue, panel four is just barely more dramatic than panel two. More importantly, because of the dramatically changing point of view, it makes the changes within the paintings less obvious, we need to pause at each panel longer to notice the diminishing number of students and finally Sara May’s arrival. The most important part of the scene becomes muted. Everything we need to understand the scene is still there, but it’s unfocused and the revelatory moment lacks immediacy. And it should be immediate, because that’s how Sara May reacts to it. She sees it straight away, the panel’s angle even suggesting she’s feeling her stomach plunge. However, we need more processing time, and this disconnect puts us out of sync with the point-of-view character.

This sort of thing is going on throughout the comic with varying degrees. It’s a subtle thing, but as motivations and actions and reactions get more complex, the lack of focus slows down readability.

Chris: It is the lack of connection between the writing and the artwork that made me lose focus while reading this issue in particular. The writing has been tightened up even more than in previous issues and this puts a lot on Valeria Burzo’s shoulders. Angela Slatter is moving this story forward in such a way that you need to hang on for fear of getting trampled and a lot of the storytelling must be told through the panels rather than simply writing everything out.

Mark: I feel Slatter’s script gives a lot to the artist, trusting the art to tell the story though. And that’s what I want from a comics script. But, yes, this issue has a lot to cover in limited space. It demands a lot from all creators.

Chris: I want to be clear that I am a fan of Burzo’s style and previous work, and praised it in previous reviews, while still noting that it may not have been the perfect fit for this particular story. When this series leans more into the quirky, spooky, teen drama with a more text forward script, the art really works well, especially in a young adult literature way. However, when the series has dabbled in the darker details and horror aspects of the Hellboy Universe, it has a hard time capturing the true terror that is necessary to fully get the point across.

Reading this the other night, I put away all distractions (My phone was charging across the room, I stopped thinking about work, and my wife and daughter were asleep for the night) and I still had a hard time keeping track of what exactly was happening and why. The entire time I read and reread it, I was following these hollow forms that had no real bearing on what had come before. The emotion was either gone or out of sync. The imbalance of the story this was and what it became was jarring to say the least. Both we, the reader, and Sara May have lost a lot by the end. Sara May has lost everything that felt like a connection. She left her old life behind to enter this one; one that should have been rewarding in all the ways that matter. I still haven’t decided if I should be mourning Sara May’s losses for her or if this is a “Good For Her” ending. I can’t help but think it’s the former.

The enjoyment and intrigue that I felt while reading the first three issues was all but gone. There was probably never going to be a happy ending to this story, but I did think there would be some light at the end of the tunnel. I was hoping to love this miniseries overall, but it didn’t add up to what it could have been. The plotting felt rushed, with too many moving parts, and at the same time something was missing. It was all too airy. I don’t know if this needed to be longer by an issue or two, or if some of the extra factors needed to be trimmed, but what to cut? Unfortunately issue #4 is probably one of my least favorite in this universe. But it’s still pretty good. Maybe my feelings will change when I eventually reread the series, or when we see Sara May next, but for now I’m disappointed.

Continued below

Mark: I never had any trouble following the plot, but I did have problems with character performance. You mentioned “Castle Full of Blackbirds” handled the young adult material well, but I read quite a bit of young adult comics, and this is where the art fell short for me.

If you look at the earth trial sequence in issue #3, there are five panels that could be described as “Sara May gasped in surprise/shock,” which makes the scene feel repetitive. More importantly though, it removes a sense of progression and it doesn’t get us to engage with Sara May’s mental processes. When does her determination set in? When does she start thinking about how to solve the problem? Does the fear make her angry? Does it make it difficult to move? Each of these moments of shock are also opportunities to dig into a secondary emotion. If a character is thrown into a life or death situation, I should be able to see her emotions and her strength of character through her actions, I should see her mind working through the problem. I need more than surface level shock.

On top of that, look at how Miss Brook expresses shock and surprise. It’s almost exactly the same as Sara May. These are two very different characters—the way they express big emotions should feel tailored to them.

Chris: I agree with that completely. I think what I latched onto was the overall vibe of the art rather than picking at the minutiae that actually doesn’t work. Because I love this universe so much I typically hold it to a higher standard than other series, but at the same time I have been known to let things slide and until this point I was along for the ride, even if every detail didn’t fully connect.

Mark: I don’t like comparing artists, but in this case “Castle Full of Blackbirds” is a sequel to ‘The Return of Effie Kolb,’ which introduced both Sara May and Miss Brook, so there’s an issue of performance continuity I have to address. This is one of those things that when it is done right, it’s utterly invisible and we simply see the same character on the page despite being drawn by different artists.

So let’s look at how Sara May was introduced…

Sarah May Blackburn in “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Return of Effie Kolb”
Written by Mike Mignola; illustrated by Zach Howard; colors by Dave Stewart

Even if we remove the dialogue, look at what her body language is saying about who she is. The hands in her pockets, laid back, her weight on one leg. Then consider how this sort of body language could’ve been used to play off of a character like Eliza, who was raised as a princess, especially since these two become friends and then that friendship falls apart. Contrasting body language is such a useful and economical way to develop characters, but its use in “Castle Full of Blackbirds” is limited.

Body language is especially important in the portrayal of a character like Miss Brook’s dog, Rava. He doesn’t speak, so body language (along with panel composition and color) has to speak for him. In ‘The Return of Effie Kolb’ he’s drawn in such a way that we still know how he feels about every other character in the scene. Even when the scene isn’t about Rava, we get enough to get a sense of his interior life. It means that he’s not just in a panel, but he has stage presence.

Miss Brook and Rava in “Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: The Return of Effie Kolb”

Considering the role Rava plays in “Castle Full of Blackbirds,” to lose this aspect of his performance actually hampers an aspect of the story, that he’s an extension of Miss Brook’s will and he’s watching out for Sara May. This aspect is still present, but in a rudimentary way and expressed with limited attitude towards other characters. As a result, he reads like a plot point more than a character.

I needed more detailed character work in “Castle Full of Blackbirds.” This is a story about a disowned girl that thought she had found her people, that was suddenly thriving instead of just getting by, that had friends, and an adult figure she could both look up to and seemingly rely on to have her bests interests at heart—and then all of that is ripped away from her or revealed to be a lie. In concept, it is an emotionally charged story, but in execution these elements are muted.

Continued below

Chris: I would like to talk about some of the positives for me, because while our criticisms are warranted, I don’t want this to feel like a bashing session. Spending more time with Sara May was enjoyable and I welcome any future stories with her. The further exploration of the school and those inhabiting it was something I found thoroughly fascinating. The questions and each test that Sara May had to be put through were the main points that had me excited for each issue. Perhaps it was my desire for more story and more time with these characters that made issue #4 feel like it somehow had too much and not enough.

Mark: In terms of plot, I very much enjoyed “Castle Full of Blackbirds.” I enjoyed discovering the different motivations of Mr. Blue / Alloces, Miss Brook, Morgan le Fay, and Queen Mab. In particular, I liked seeing how Miss Brook, a character who is on Mr. Blue’s hook and knows she can never escape, still finds ways to work around his purposes through Rava.

In terms of structure, the way each issue is constructed around one of Sara May’s four tests (air, water, earth, and fire) gives each chapter both a strong and unique identity, while also having clear purpose in the whole. I’ve spoken before about how lately the four-issue format has made some stories feel boxed in, but here I think the structure worked with the format rather elegantly. While a lot happens in this issue, it never felt rushed for me. Certainly there were denser pages, but they felt suitably dense, and when space was needed to slow things down, the creators carved out space for those moments.

So, what’s your final grade?

Chris: 5.It was enjoyable enough in the moment, but it doesn’t stick together like I hoped it would.

Mark: For me, this was a 5.5. I wasn’t feeling the connection to the characters I need to fully engage me. Despite that, there’s a good foundation here. I’m excited by the promise for the future and I really want to dig in further into this corner of the Hellboy Universe.

Final Verdict: 5.25 – This didn’t quite come together for us, unfortunately. The plot and structure is solid, but for a story with such a strong emotional component, the emotions felt strangely muted.

//TAGS | Mignolaversity

Christopher Egan

Chris lives in New Jersey with his wife, daughter, two cats, and ever-growing comic book and film collection. He is an occasional guest on various podcasts, writes movie reviews on his own time, and enjoys trying new foods. He can be found on Instagram. if you want to see pictures of all that and more!


Mark Tweedale

Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on Twitter @MarkTweedale.


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