The big bad
Posted by Ron Edwards
This is one of the follow-up Cosmic Zap posts trailin’ in the wake of September, certainly related to Cosmic villainy, because we’re talking about metaphysical evil here. Especially the kind who favors red, fire, and underground habitation, and has something to do with death and sin and treachery. I know! It’s Set, from the ancient Egyptian pantheon, right? Uh, no …
I’m talkin’ ’bout the devil, man. The one who has no actual presence or place in textual Christianity, but emerged in the neo-Zoroastrian practices that co-opted Christianity in medieval Europe (along with the plague, and at about the same time) and which provide more cultural and values reference points in Europe and the U.S. than anything else. In 20th-century comics, the default villain throughout decades of horror before 1954, the same one who’s more real in the minds of most Americans than anything to do with Jesus or God, and who must have been raring to return twenty years later once the Code took an elbow in the teeth as I described in Flyin’ high. “Satan” and “Lucifer” and whatever are just names … he’s the devil, and it’s all about the details … and the deal.
He even showed up a little early in 1968, prior to the Code revision. Mephisto was created as a primary bad guy in the Lee & Buscema Silver Surfer, for whom you see, I think, not merely another supervillain would do. It strikes me as a meaningful choice to have the adversary not be another cosmic being associated with Galactus and the Watcher, but rather an extremely earthly one, not contemptuous of humanity but deeply concerned with it.
Yet of course, still a metaphysically insanely powerful reality-warper, effectively a god just as the cosmic beings were (bit of trouble for the ‘Verse vans, to consider what Mephisto might think of Dormammu showing up one day). Obviously, blasting one another with power bolts just isn’t the point. He wants the Surfer to want to be bad. Other godly villains showed up in the title too (the Stranger, Loki), but I think Mephisto provided the only genuinely solid threat in the two stories he provided, including that brilliant sequence when he transforms our hero-saint into a thought and embeds him into his own mind … only to discover that this very thought was intolerable.
1970 brought more than just Code-cracking, though; this is also when Marvel finally got out from under DC National’s distribution and could get more than eight titles onto the stands. It didn’t lose the anthology practice for introducing characters, though, and a Marvel reader of the day spent at least as much time with Marvel Spotlight, Marvel Premiere, and Tales to Astonish as with the more famous titles. The Ghost Rider was an early feature in Marvel Spotlight.
Given the historical-political focus of the blog, I am forced to mention Evel Knievel, who provides half of anything you need to know about why motorcycle stunting would be a must for “gee how about a new character” discussions, in tandem with the brand-new “occult! horror! yessss!” opportunity. The other half comes from Easy Rider including Johnny’s perfect hippie-shitkicker haircut. Oh, that original bike is amazing.
The thing is, the bad guy is really really Satan, no dodges or name-tricks, and the story is the classic EC and 40s-50s fiction deal, including the legal loophole betrayal. Blaze’s only lifeline is Roxanne, who apparently can tell Satan to go away, and the whole origin run is substantial, a pretty long run of issues as I recall, until he can find a way to close on the deal, armed with the Power o’Love (plus motorcycle; there is a correlation there). It is a really solid story.
The same Marvel Spotlight introduced Daimon Hellstrom in a Ghost Rider story, then featured him with Son of Satan emblazoned on the cover for ten issuse, for which the question isn’t “in what amazing committee meeting did they decide on this concept” or “how on earth did they get away with it” but rather who the fuck let Steve Gerber get involved?! No surprise that his issues were trippy, ridiculous, and intelligent, nicely combining The Exorcist with father-issues and a good amount of beautiful blithering about the cosmos.
I especially like his Satan, who is well-defined as fear of knowledge, willful ignorance, and suppression of thought. There is no tempting charisma here – he’s an evil asshole. Again, no tie-in to Marvel as a “universe” or to other metaphysically-important characters, despite various appearances with other superheroes in the late 70s or spurious explanations in the 80s.
Oh my that issue #17: I told you this was still Cosmic Zap, and let’s see, there’s a detour to Atlantis, a sword-and-sorcery crossover from who knows what, a trip into “space beyond space” to meet a truly astounding female entity named Zheded-Ma and her boobcups after which all boobcups are as dross, a series of what appear to be progrock album covers, and a facially-mutilated Adam, yes the guy from the Bible. Hey, and after that, bonus, two issues of Gene Colan. There’s more awesome whackadoo in more issues – you do not want me to talk about Kometes the Fire Serpent. I think all this is from before Gerber got bitter.
Let’s jump a decade later and look at what Moore did in Swamp Thing. This is really important: by this point, Marvel had completely rebranded itself and reidentified its content in the intervening decade, and was dominating the toy market, at that time much more important to them than movies. By contrast DC was in complete disarray trying to restructure and redefine itself in a variety of ways. To fan these flames, Byrne and Miller the hotshot writer-artists were engaging in a successful bidding war at both companies, and a lot of other creators were starting to say the same. Although we don’t have a book about DC equivalent to Howe’s to rely on, I can at least speculate that DC went headhunting over in the UK to secure both a new look and cheap labor.
I’m gonna hurt you now: Moore had clearly grown up on pre-Shooter bull-goose Marvel and that’s exactly what he brought with him, especially at its most politically fervent and most mystically grandiose – it’s basically the resurrection of the young Steve Englehart (see Buddha on the road, Steve! Get’im!) let loose upon the pristine and admittedly slightly confused heroes of DC. You’ll pardon my amusement at DC desperately trying to become early-80s Marvel only to discover to their shock that they were getting the mid-70s instead. No wonder they only let him near off-brand properties like the Charleton characters and a leftover horror-guy.
I’m sure I’ll blog about the Swamp Thing more fully later, but for now, this is about American Gothic, the
savage journey into the heart of the American Dream symbolic and supernatural exposure of our society’s ills as they are used to fuel the unleashing of the Darkness upon reality. I’m not snarking this time – it’s bombastic and preachy as hell, but one thing it isn’t is bad, and one thing it is, is actually pretty scary. Well, things escalate until much ado about Heaven and Hell is involved, and they keep escalating until #50 when the two primal forces – which have been separated and whose separation has led to all notions of Heaven/Hell, good and evil, right and wrong, superhero and supervillain, and much else, gets a cosmic revision:
With some dialogue afterward to make it clear that this is a new universe now, in which new values must be found, in which the old ways no longer hold. Because this is Marvel now, although not the one you were thinking of. (Too bad this didn’t last – it was fun at DC for a while, too) As far as I’m concerned, this was the last great gasp of Cosmic Zap at Marvel or DC, and I will say for Alan Moore, holy crap but he did it. Not his fault that he was just one guy.
The later Vertigo material is actually a lot more like the Ghost Rider and Son of Satan stuff than one might think. On the one hand that undercuts the point of American Gothic, as in, don’t give me this necessary-side of Cosmic Balance shit, we need our dealmaker back! Some of the contortions to justify this are a bit hilarious, especially in Hellblazer. But on the other, that title and Mike Carey’s Lucifer certainly earned their places in the sun, or shadow as it were, with the good ol’ devil stories, and to a laudable extent, in the same spirit of politics and excess that the Marvel Spotlight stories did.
I like to say, I don’t believe in either true love or the devil, but damn, do they make for some good stories.
Links: Retro/Vintage Scan: Marvel Spotlight #17 (really, you must)
Next: Faster, pussycat
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on October 8, 2015, in The great ultravillains and tagged Alan Moore, American Gothic, boobcups, Comics Code Authority, cosmic zap, Hellblazer, John Buscema, Lucifer, Mephisto, Mike Carey, Satan, Son of Satan, Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Swamp Thing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.