Friday, March 13, 2009

Bronze Age Spotlight: Sympathy for the Devil

son of satan"We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talent."

- Mark Twain

The Bronze Age offers us very little support for William James' proposal that "the Devil is a gentleman," but gives us a plenty of reason to applaud his work ethic. The Comic's Code exorcised him quicker than you could say "vade retro satana," but its liberalization brought him roaring back, hell-bent on acquiring souls by any (and every) nightmarish means available to the imaginations of 70s comic writers. And he brought his kids along.

So raise those devil-horns high, and give a hearty "Ave Satanas!" as we embark to chart new maps of (Bronze Age) hell, and attempt to give the devil, at long last, his due...

"My subjects' deeds are mild in comparison to the plans I hold for you!"

- Satan, Mystic Comics #4 (August 1940)

Before we delve into Bronze Age Satanism, let’s wax (even more) nostalgic and look back at devilish doings of the Golden Age. 1940s Timely Comcs brought us the Black Widow, “a human tool of Satan whose very touch means death,” debuting in Mystic Comics #4. Veronica Lake stand-in Claire Voyant (no, really!) is given magical superpowers by a nude Satan so she can kill evildoers, enabling hell to more quickly collect its souls. After a hiatus of over half a century, Black Widow is back on the job in the pages of J. Michael Staczynski’s The Twelve.


Not content with waiting for men to turn evil on their own, the Prince of Darkness upped the ante with MLJ (Archie) Comcs’ vamp, Madame Satan, who posed suggestively for the first time in Pep Comics #16 (1941). At His Satanic Majesty’s request, Madame Satan seduced men into evil acts--and then killed them.

Alas, all this soul-harvesting fun was not to last. Nineteen fifty-four brought the Comics Code, and while it didn’t specifically prohibit depictions of the devil, it sure took a lot of fun out of them. For years, Hot Stuff was about as devilish as comics got.

The comics code didn’t stay strict forever. By the late sixties, the way was being paved for horror, terror, vampirism, and even “werewolfism” to return to the American comic book. Around the time Rosemary’s baby boy would’ve been turning one (well, in the film version anyway), the devil was making his way back.

“I use to study these books on Satanism as a boy…Now if only I can make the spell work!”

  1. Johnny Blaze, Marvel Spotlight #6 (1972)

Two things are apparent from the above quote. One is that Johnny Blaze probably lacked appropriate parental involvement as a kid. The other is that Satan was back in comics.

House of Mystery #182 (Sep.-Oct. 1969) is a harbinger of what’s to come. In a story called “The Devil’s Doorway” an occultist and his family buy a house that use to belong to a cult. After their daughter disappears into the mirror, then later returns with a story of meeting “Mr. Belial,” and presents dear ol’ dad with a diabolic looking statuette, Mister Occultist, goes investigating. What follows is vintage House of Mystery, involving a twist ending that really ain’t much of a twist, but what matters is our oh-so smart occultist protagonist goes to hell and meets Belial, which he informs us is another name for the Devil.

There were going to be a lot of cults, and a lot of smart-guys learning they weren’t so smart when they tried to go head to horns with the Prince of Lies over the next ten years. Who’d of thought one of Satan’s most successful antagonists would be a young carnival performer on a motorcycle?

Anyone familiar with the Suicide song is aware that Ghost Rider is a motorcycle hero. What this two minute thirty-three second primer doesn’t say is that he became one as a result of a deal with the devil. This all goes down in Marvel Spotlight vol. 1 #5 by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog.

It’s the classic story, really: orphan boy becomes carnival stunt rider. Surrogate father is dying of cancer, so boy turns to his trusty Carny’s Library ™ of occult and satanic books, and summons up Satan to do a deal. Boy doesn’t read the fine print, and loses his mentor’s life and his own soul. Girl’s pure love saves boy’s soul, so angry Satan binds a demon to boy and forces him to punish evil with a flaming skull head and hellfire powers. See what I mean? It’s like it’s right out of the Bard, himself.

It should be noted that Marvel eventually retcons “Satan” of the early Ghost Rider stories into Mephisto. Marvel prefers to have “devils” rather than “a Devil.” I think its safe to say that's splitting hairs. In a New Testament scripture the Devil would surely quote for you: “My name is Legion: for we are many” (Mark 5:9).

The Bronze Age shows Satan still preferring to sub-contract out as much soul collecting as possible. Ghost Rider winds up in sort of a modified Black Widow plan. Atlas-Seaboard’s Grim Ghost is a full return to form.

Grim GhostIn Grim Ghost #1 (January 1975) Michael Fleischer spins the tale of Matthew Dunsinane, highwayman in colonial America. After being hanged, Dunsinane is given a “Get Out of Hell (not-so) Free” card by Satan, who’s going to arm him and send him to the 20th Century to hasten evildoers into Perdition’s flame. The 20th Century, one supposes, has so much evil, Satan needs multiple sub-contractors running around.

Or maybe the reason Satan decided to start farming out so much of his work in the 20th Century might be a shift in his priorities. It seems like the original rebel finally decided settle down and have a family.

"...and suddenly the screams of a baby born in Hell!"

poster for To The Devil…A Daughter (Hammer Films, 1976)

Ghost Rider #1 (Sep. 1973) introduced us to a guy with a very suggestive name--Daimon Hellstrom. He spends most of his first two appearances getting folks to tie him up in an isolated shack to prevent something bad from happening. It wasn't until his third appearance, Marvel Spotlight #13, that we came to know Daimon Hellstrom as the Son of Satan (and got to see that he evidentally visits the same hair-stylist as Magneto and Quicksilver).

This title's literal. Hellstrom's mother was a well-meaning, and apparently fairly oblivous, woman that married a man of wealth and taste after a whirlwind romance, and eventually bore him two kids--a son and a daughter. Ultimately, she discovers that her husband is Satan, which drives her crazy. Mom goes off to an institution, Dad goes back to hell with sis, and little Daimon (mama's boy) goes to an orphanage.

Stan Lee orginally suggested a series called Mark of Satan, which Roy Thomas apparently altered to Son of Satan. Probably Rosemary's Baby was something of an influence. Certainly, The Omen, another tale of a son of Satan was not--it came after Marvel's version. Whatever the inspirations, writer Gary Friedrich gave it the Mighty Marvel mythological spin. Hellstorm gets a trident made from magical metal netheranium mined from Hell, and a flying chariot drawn by two hellspawn horse-things. In other words, Hellstorm is more Journey into Mystery than he is New Testament, or even Dante's Inferno.

It would be the grim and gritty 90s before horror elements began to outshine superhero ones in the portrayal of the Son of Satan. And that era lies outside protective chalk circle of our Bronze Age summoning.

Stan Lee's inexorable commerical reasoning demanded that the devil have a daughter as well as a son. Naturally, she was to be given the alliterative (if somewhat unimaginative) sobriquet of The Devil's Daughter. The comics buying public would come to know her better as Satana.

Satan was more pleased with his little girl than with number one son, Daimon. She got to go with him to hell. When was makes her teaser debut in Vampire Tales #2 , not only has she filled out nicely, but she's become a succubus.

For those of you not fully versed in the works of Gary Gygax, a succubus is an attractive female demon who seduces men. The creature originated in European folklore, and has a name ultimately derived from the late Latin succubare meaning "to lie under."

Roy Thomas and John Romita brought Satana into the world, but Esteban Maroto went on the draw her next appearance and create her definitive look. Maroto's cutaway costume seems to have been inspired by another slinky succubus played by Euro-temptress Erika Blanc in a 1971 slice of Italian-Belgian psychotronica called The Devil's Nightmare (amongst other things).

Satana is a bad girl, though occasionally shows a glimmer of compassion. Mostly, she goes around consuming men's souls and generally playing the anti-hero--that is, until her death in Marvel Team-Up where she inexplicably shows up to helpout Dr. Strange.

Ultimately, given the relatively low-key nature of Satana's evil, maybe Daddy Devil was disappointed in both his kids. Strangely, he's mostly absent from his kids' adventures, just showing up occasionally to rant at that screw-up Daimon.

As the Bronze Age drew to a close, Satan's profile got a little lower in mainstream comics; the giddy thrill of a laxened Comics Code possibly fading. Swamp Thing would get to meet Hell's ruling Triumvirate in the 80s, but the real Satanic second wave would come in the 90s, when Constantine would bedevil (heh) the First of the Fallen, and Dream would verbally spar with Lucifer Morningstar.

Hot StuffHe's been around for a long, long year, and finally got his own title, Lucifer, from Vertigo in 2000. From plot device to protagonist on a highway to hell through the weird and wild Bronze Age.

Hot stuff indeed.


RKB said...

I'm a son of Stan fan myself, tracking down his first appearances and some of the issues of his own series was a collector highlight for me. Not to mention Moon Knight and Omega the unknown.
I enjoy all those odd ball concepts DC had back in this time like Kobra and the orig. Secret Six even more.
That being said Prez (about a kid who becomes President/ never trust anyone over 30) was the worst the bronze age has to offer.
Zuda with all the different 'out-there' concepts sort of reminds me of the try out books (marvel spotlight etc; etc;) from this time. Every comic doesn't give a nod of the head to the bronze age, but many do have that feel to me as I read them.

RKB said...

satan not stan. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments.

Will be tackling some of DC's bronze age characters in upcoming installments.

Jim Shelley said...

@RKB - see, I'd call myself a Son of Stan anytime! :D

Wow, that's weird that you mention those two comics. You know, I'm glad you like the Secret Six because we are working on a zuda concept that is very similar in some ways. And Kharon was originally going to be more like Kobra, but I went in a very different direction as I kept working on the concept. Prez is a cool concept someone should rework for zuda too...
About your comparison between Zuda and the old Marvel Spotlight/Presents (or DC First Issue Specials for that matter) - Yeah, I'm right there with you. I've thought the exact same thing myself!


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