"Roman Ritual" Trade Paperback Review
Written by James Ferguson
Published by Amigo Comics
Written by El Torres
Illustrated by Jaime Martinez
2015, 112 Pages
Graphic novel released in November 2015
I somehow made it 31 years before I saw The Exorcist (thanks in no small part to my editor, Steve Pattee). After finally viewing it, I've noticed the stories it went on to influence to this day. Such is definitely the case with Roman Ritual from writer El Torres and artist Jaime Martinez. The book deals with the familiar trope of a possession and a troubled priest called in to perform the exorcism, but at the end of the first chapter, it pulls the rug right out from under you. The person in need of the exorcism is not an innocent young woman or some random churchgoer. This victim is someone from the church itself and it's not someone you'd see at your average Sunday mass.
This reveal at the end of the first issue sets Roman Ritual apart from your run-of-the-mill Exorcist homage. It makes it a personal story to the Catholic Church, dealing with a supernatural horror instead of the real life ones we see every so often regarding priests and small children. In its brief four issues, it manages to deal with these shocking events while uncovering a decades old fictional conspiracy. What's a little unnerving is the fact that some of the plot points in the book actually happened, albeit with much different circumstances.
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At the center of Roman Ritual is self-exiled priest John Brennan. He's an instantly sympathetic character, although he's very flawed. He's out in the world without a parish, performing exorcisms as needed. As the book goes on, you start to get drips and drabs as to why he was exiled, and it's a fascinating story that makes him even more real. His actions came very close to having him excommunicated from the church, but he felt that he was doing the right thing at the time. This strong will, to do what's right even in the face of momentous adversity, is what makes Brennan such a solid character.
There are more than a few nods to The Exorcist spread throughout Roman Ritual. Many are pretty blatant, but never take away from the story. Yes, there's a woman yelling all kinds of obscenities at a priest while spewing what looks like pea soup everywhere.
The Church is concerned that if the truth about this possession were to get out, it would ruin the institution. I don't entirely believe this because if you were presented with undeniable proof that demons exist and they were capable of possessing a higher up in the Catholic Church, wouldn't that also prove that God exists and have people banding together to fight back this evil? I guess if this person could be possessed, what does that mean for the rest of us? No one is safe then, right?
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Jaime Martinez's artwork is haunting. He has a talent for art direction, showing the most terrifying angle of any scene. There's this one sequence where a group of priests try to perform the exorcism and fail miserably. One gets too close while checking to see if the victim is still alive. That's when we see a stream of blood as the victim's head rears back. The next panel is a closeup of a mouth grinning demonically, soaked in blood and holding two fingers. It's such a chilling scene. We'll forget for a minute that somehow the fingers are now facing the wrong direction with fingernails sticking out.
Martinez captures those subtle scares that flow through The Exorcist. These are the best kind for the comic book medium as it allows the horror to seep in slowly until you're almost too scared to turn the page. There's a brilliant shot of a priest preparing communion. When he breaks open the Eucharist, worms and flies spew out. This is only one panel, sandwiched between other seemingly normal events, but it's so damn creepy that it will stay with you.
Roman Ritual may borrow heavily from The Exorcist, but it makes the story of possession all its own by rooting it squarely at the foundation of the Catholic Church. It's shocking, terrifying, and incredibly entertaining.