“One Foot in Hell”

Written by: Brian Keene
Art by: Chris Samnee
Published by: Marvel Max

There are three Garth Ennis-es. The bad (like when he wrote Goddess), the mediocre (you know when he’s walking through a book, like with Ghost Rider or Midnighter), and the great (Preacher, Hitman, or the fun he’s having on The Boys) And he was truly at home writing war comics, like with Enemy Ace, Unknown Soldier, and War Story. And it was Garth Ennis in his war story mode (with a hint of Preacher) that I thought of when I started reading Devil Slayer.

I didn’t know what to expect of Devil Slayer given the cover and my unfamiliarity with the character. I also suspect that it wouldn’t matter: this seems to be the re-working of a B-list character so revamped that he barely resembles the original (so beware both of you Devil Slayer purists). As its writer Brian Keene (The Rising, Terminal, Kill Whitey) explained in his IGN interview:

The original Devil-Slayer (Eric Simon Payne) was a Vietnam veteran, mob hitman, and occult assassin who eventually became a member of the Defenders. He was psychic and had a magic cape that allowed him to travel to other dimensions and carry around an unlimited cache of weapons. He was to demons what the Punisher is to organized crime. The new Devil-Slayer is Danny Sylva, an American soldier on his third tour of duty in Iraq. He has no super powers or magic clothing. In fact, he’s got a good bit of disdain for superheroes in general (as well as everything else—he’s a young man who’s lost his trust and faith in just about everything). So yeah, this is an all new incarnation. Same name, but different character.

Here’s what we get in the first issue of the introduction to the character: character and the war in Iraq. Danny Sylva returns to the frontlines for another tour after a failed bid at returning to a normal life Stateside. And the story reads like the beginning to a really good war story. Just don’t get married to the idea of this remaining “just” a really good war story.

Keene’s strength lies in his dialogue, breakneck pacing, and his ability to create relatable characters (and he manages to namedrop his friends, though there was no Private Broaddus to be found!). Here, the plot has a more leisurely pace (setting up the big reveal at the end) so the book moves like the initial ascent of a rollercoaster, building tension and atmosphere.

Miles Ochse: “So what do you believe in?”
Danny Sylva: “I don’t know anymore …”

Faith is a tenuous then, fragile and strong at the same time. Many of us are barely a stone’s throw from where Danny Sylva finds himself, his faith laid waste by war and circumstances, failed love, disappointment, frustrations, the realities of life. Even as he declares “Don’t rely on God. Just rely on me,” he finds that his faith in himself also fails.

Faith is also a difficult journey, one where we’re simply called to hang on, persevere, and push through the walls we sometimes hit. That journey inward that happens, typically signaled by when God feels especially absent or at least silent.

“If praying works for you, go for it. It’s just never worked for me.” –Sgt. Danny Sylva

True faith is not without hardships, nor is it all that pragmatic. So when problems arise, there are no pat answers. There are no steps. It sucks. The key is to endure it and hold on, even if you are reduced to simply trusting in the few things you know with absolute clarity.

At the end, or at least once one gets through their dark night of the soul/their crisis of faith, they still may not have the answers, but they may be able to make peace with that. Maybe they’ll be in a place, a journey outward, where this time of shattering reflection causes one to turn outward in focus. These times of crisis will either break us and cause us to abandon God or break us down and draw us nearer to Him. We, as a community of believers, need to be there for each other.

Though Devil Slayer is a grittier work, Chris Samnee makes great use of shadow to convey mood and he has some of the most expressive faces I’ve seen in a while. The sheer … normality of the scenes heightens the moments the story goes off the rails. Once again, Brian Keene bleeds or his readers, drawing on personal experience and demons (hopefully long slain … but never as slain as they should be). The story is lean, firmly entrenching us in the character of Danny Sylva and introducing us to his figurative demons. I can’t wait for the literal ones to appear.

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