Writer: David Pepose
Artist: Alex Cormack
Mad Cave, October 2023
David Pepose, we suppose, is best known to American comic book readers from his entertaining superhero time travelling adventure on Savage Avengers for Marvel Comics, the first issue of which we reviewed back in May 2022: Savage Avengers #1 (Review) – World Comic Book Review. Here at the World Comic Book Review, we must be that sort of groupie who likes to say that they know a celebrity from before he was famous, and indeed we reviewed Mr Pepose’s independent dystopian tale Scout’s Honor in April 2021: Scouts’ Honor #1-4 (review) – World Comic Book Review. Mr Pepose has not forgotten his indie roots, and is back with a new operatic title, The Devil That Wears My Face. Here is the promotional copy from publisher Mad Cave:
The year is 1740, and the Vatican is in turmoil. Grappling with a profound crisis of faith, outcast exorcist Father Franco Vieri is dispatched on a mission of grave importance — to rescue a Spanish nobleman from the clutches of the sadistic demon known as Legion. But when the exorcism goes tragically wrong, Vieri finds himself trapped in a stranger’s body… and learns what horrors lie ahead when the Devil wears his face. Equal parts Face/Off and The Exorcist, Ringo Award-winning writer David Pepose (Moon Knight: City of the Dead, Savage Avengers) and Bram Stoker Award-nominated artist Alex Cormack (Sea of Sorrows, The Crimson Cage) conjure a harrowing tale of terror, action, and body-swap intrigue that will leave comic readers at the edge of their seats.
Before we turn the spotlight to Mr Pepose’s script, let’s first applaud artist Alex Cormack’s rich art. Post-Renaissance Italy was baroque in art and architecture, and Mr Cormach’s style is, we expect with studied choice, velvety and brooding. Shadows, stonework, robes and gore are all visceral images. “Feed me more priests,” commands the chained villain of the piece in the overture, and the pool of blood surrounding his latest victim seems wet to touch. The repeated use of floating clusters of unfocussed eyeballs as a motif for demonic presence is designed to repel the reader, assisted by the fact that they glisten. The art is perfect for this story. Mr Cormack seems possessed by the ghost of Pierre Subleyras.
Mr Pepose’s hero is Father Franco Vieri, who is not adept at navigating the intrigues of the Vatican. Other characters within the Vatican include the inquisitor Cardinal Mancini, Vieri’s mentor Cardinal Pentecost, the Vatican Minister of State Fortunato. (We checked, and regrettably none of these characters apparently existed in Rome in 1740.) Father Vieri is despised by Mancini in particular, for being the son of a prostitute and adopted. Yet it seems that even within the rigid hierarchy of the Vatican in 1740 there is room for promotion on merit, for Father Vieri is a young and skilled exorcist.
Father Vieri is sent on a clandestine mission to Spain to free a wealthy merchant named Santiago from possession by Legion. Legion, it idly occurred to us, who would not have been very out of place amongst the cohort of devils called the Goetia in Alan Moore’s Promethea (with J.H. Williams III, America’s Best Comics, 1999-2005) But let’s examine that idle thought: why Promethea? It is because Legion’s ranting reminds us of Mr Moore’s dialogue for his devils. “I’ve been torturing you chittering apes since the dawn of time, Vieri”, says Legion, surely a line on par with the vow of the demon Andras in Promethea: “I’ll make sure I carve that in foot deep letters on the diamond gateposts of hell”. Mr Pepose shares Mr Moore’s ear for a grand throwaway line.
Vieri is saved from death at the hands of Legion by Santiago’s sister Maria. Openly disappointed by his failure, Vieri travels back to Rome. But is he saved? Sadly, no. Legion has managed a body switch. This reminds us very much of the cadenza of Grant Morrison’s break-out work, Kid Eternity (with Duncan Fegredo, Vertigo Comics, 1991), in which after a quest through a septic vision of hell, the soul of dying comedian Jerry Sullivan is swapped with that of a psychotic preacher.
The Devil That Wears My Face has its pedigree in a myriad of stories about demonic possession and mind-swapping. But the story is more than just “Face/Off meets The Exorcist” as the promotional copy exhorts. This engaging title is just as much a historical thriller as it is a tale of gory deception. Mr Pepose has set his tale at a time of extraordinary internal unrest within the Catholic Church. 1740 was the year of a six-month papal conclave, during which the College of Cardinals drawn from all over Europe repeatedly endeavoured to vote for a new pope upon the death of Pope Clement XII. It is a wonderfully-chosen time period within which to introduce the chaos of a murderous demon, disguised with the face of an exorcist.