David Parkin gave me a copy of The Devil Is Due in Dreary after my Comic-Con presentation. He’s a friend of a friend and we all ate dinner together, discussing the nature of being a Mormon and an artist and/or a Mormon artist. Also, I’m sad to share, I heard some unpleasant stories about bias against Mormons in Tinseltown. So there’s that.
Anyway, The Devil Is Due in Dreary shares some surface traits with Pariah Missouri—terrifyingly authoritarian religious orders in a Western setting tinged with the supernatural. But Dreary is either modern or near-modern and thus Dreary the town isn’t merely frontier (as is Pariah), but isolated—a pocket of the past trapped in the modern world.
Visually, the book is reasonably strong. The design of the devil is particularly good. The panel layouts frequently include needlessly baroque gewgaws that are attractive but distracting. The little missteps do mean that important visual elements—say, the fact that two main characters have similarly damaged faces—made me assume clutter rather than significance, which got in the way of proper reading. The style overall is reminiscent of early-to-mid-90s Image, if that’s your thing.
I’m more interested today in the writing and story however, as Parkin promised me the possibility of a distinctly Mormon interpretation if read through that lens.
Let’s begin with an excerpt from an interview Parkin gave about the book:
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RJS: The story has strong religious overtones to it, did you draw on personal experiences to layer that on the story, or are you looking at how the religious Right is acting out in modern-day society?
David: It’s interesting, non-religious people usually see the book as a critical take on organized religion and religious people see it as a cautionary tale for those who follow too blindly. Personally, the message I want to convey is to beware of anyone who offers to do your thinking for you. That’s good advice no matter where your affiliations lie.
That right there is a very Mormon statement, imho. And it offers a key that might correct a misreading like the one we see in this review (incidentally, I mostly agree with this review, but I do think it’s off thematically, leading it to more negative conclusions than I reach).
So while there are Mormon (or generically Judaeo-Christian) references, the most fruitful “Mormon reading” of the book comes through this idea that agency is primal and vital.
In Mormon thought, we often think of “the devil” as someone who wished to curtail our agency before life ever began, more than as someone trying to get us to make bad choices now (we have both devils, of course, but the former gets more airplay in my experience). But that’s not how the devil in Dreary works. He just appears every decade or so to take the evil away—those who have already sinned; he’s more of a judge of how characters have already acted, rather than forcing or encouraging them to act in a certain way.
The role of agency-denier then is wielded not by the Devil but by the town preacher. His power over the town is such that almost everyone does whatever he says. He proffers fear of the Devil as motivation, but in actual effect, it’s more peer pressure that keeps people in line. The townsfolk’s desire to fit in may thus the true thief of their agency.
Let’s talk for a moment about those “non-religious people [who] usually see the book as a critical take on organized religion,” shall we? That’s a hard position to take unless you know virtually nothing about the realities and varieties of organized religion, but okay: let’s consider it anyway.
Are our two outlaws who ride into town and see Dreary’s parishioners as a mindless, monstrous mass on to something?
Well, the bugaboo of the 1860s West might have agreed. Here’s Brigham Young: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are lead by him.”
But the thing about The Devil Is Due in Dreary is its seeming desire to have it both ways. It seems to place the onus of agency renegement on the leaders of the people, but any source of redemption—of reclaiming the power to choose—needs to come from the people. And when the Devil does come, he seems to hold the town’s leadership responsible for the sins of the people, but it’s the people who are left without an identity or path forward, having lost their leaders and their agency in one, fell, Devil-inflicted blow.
Whether these muddled observations detract from the point or, in fact, are the point, I will leave as an exercise for the reader.