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Steve Gerber, the Son of Satan, and Evil

by  in Comic News Comment

So it’s Easter when I’m writing this. And that’s always a good time to talk about evil.

This ties into one of my favorite blogger Plok’s Seven Soldiers of Steve project. I’m um…. a couple years late.

(Note from today: A couple years and a few months, as Easter is long gone.)

The whole project is a response to Steven Grant (who’s Master of the Obvious column runs on this very site) saying that Ditko and Lee’s Dormammu story in Doctor Strange was the first graphic novel. (Although he later recanted. )

Anyway, Plok responded to the core idea here – That, if any set of comics are thematically unified, are marked by a distincitve voice, sweeping narrative ambition, and are just plain good…

That pretty much makes them a NOVEL, regardless of the format the material was originally released in.

Using this as a starting point, he decided to see who, in comics, has written graphic-novels-before there were graphic novels.

And Steve Gerber was the obvious choice. He further argued that Gerber’s staggeringly ambitious (for their time) Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, and Void Indigo strips were their own animals.

BUT… Gerber’s SUPERHERO work for Marvel might, just might, have enough interconnections, in theme, setting, and character, to count as one fully formed novel, spanning many different series: Daredevil, Marvel Two-In-One, She-Hulk, the Defenders. So he sent out a challenge to the blogverse, asking for writers to tackle different aspects of Gerber’s superhero work. I claimed Gerber’s Son of Satan run, which spanned 10 issues of Marvel Spotlight. I decided to base my piece around the general theme of evil.

And, a couple years later, and several month’s after Gerber’s death I’m done!

The whole she-bang was given the catchy name Seven Soldiers of Steve, and it’s  still open, and I implore you guys to come a contribute on your own blog… Or if you don’t have a blog and want to contribute something, drop me a note in the comments section.  I made some topic suggestions t’wards the top of comment # 17.  (The long one from me, without the grey quote text.)

Note that the verry end has links to all the other SSOS posts, which are some damnfine reading.

So. Background info-dump time.

Let’s set the way-back machine for the early seventies. Marvel is having mondo success with it’s superhero line, but everything else – It’s Western, romance, and war-themed comics – are faltering.

The comics code had been loosened a little bit, allowing a greater range of content, especially supernatural horror to find it’s way into comic shops. So the PTB at Marvel decide to branch out into horror books. Here comes Tomb of Dracula, Monster of Frankenstein, Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider…

And, not TOO much later, after proposing and rejecting a series about the adventures of the Devil, a book called Son of Satan. The titular hero was Damien Hellstrom, A priest/freelance occultist who just happens to be the l-o-v-e child of…


Well, I figure you can guess.

Due to his unusual parentage, Damien was also gifted with a plethora or two of demonic superpowers. He could shoot “hellfire,” hop across dimensions, and he could magic himself up a nifty-ass flaming chariot pulled by devil horses.

This is not a terrible concept, and it was a strong enough one to catapult Mr. Hellstrom from being a Ghost Rider supporting character to the lead (actually only) feature in the Marvel Spotlight anthology starting with issue 12.

Two points: (A) The concept was good. (B) The character sucked. The Son of Satan ranked somewhere between limp dishrag and deadf fish on the personality scale, being just a little too emo to duplicate the icy charisma of Dracula and just too boring to match the wise-ass cool of John Constantine. He was originally saddled with an ungainly hero-by-day, monster-by-night schtick which worked a heck of a lot better for Werewolf by Night and the Hulk. Similarly, the stories themselves lurched back and forth between traditionally paced Marvel super-heroics and supernatural horror, never really figuring out what they wanted to be.

So. Two extremely mediocre issues of Marvel Spotlight pass before Steve Gerber starts his tenure on the character with Spotlight 14.


Poor Guy.

Gerber is stuck with this HUGE lame duck character. Damien has no personality, no supporting cast, former writers had failed to establish a consistent tone, and nobody even really knew what freaking genre they were working in.

And somehow Gerber made this mish-mash work. And, strangely, except for establishing a consistent supporting cast, he did it without really fixing any of the above problems.

Basically, Gerber did two things to make the book his own. (A) He dished out some of the most creative plots of his career, and (B) used the whole “Brat of the Devil” bit to provide a springboard for some thoughtful speculation as to the nature of life, the universe….

And evil. We’re here for the evil.

See, in most supernatural horror, evil is not clearly defined. We know it when we see it. Freddy Kruger is evil ’cause he just killed your boyfriend. The demon from the Exorcist is evil cause she just ruined your carpet. Not a heck of a lot of theophilosophical depth, there.

Conversely, Gerber used his time on Son of Satan to sketch out a fairly cohesive and effective definition of what evil IS, and how it WORKS, starting from his very first issue.

Plot summary: Doctor Katherine Reynolds, (who would hang out and sorta girlfriend for the rest of the series) calls Hellstrom in to investigate a haunted Communications Building on the campus of Gateway University. Oh shit! It’s all haunted by ice demons! (See above. Or below.) Damien takes the time to question ’em about their campus invasion.

Invasion?

Sneers frosty the snowman.

We were summoned to that place inadvertantly — By a human who “teaches” there. Like ourselves, he seeks to squash human creative potential… For men who’s thoughts run in narrow, rigid channels, are easily dominated…

And, in case we didn’t get it the first time: When he makes a return appearance, in Marvel Spotlight 22, the demon king Ikthalon reiiterates

I dwll wherever men fear the truth, wherever minds seek not to learn! I touched the wole Earth in it’s long ago Dark Ages. I am the embodiment of man’s stagnation of thought and resistance to change.

And…

I reside within you.

So. It ain’t exactly subtle, but here it is:

Point One: Evil is rigid, and anti-creative.

Jump forward a couple pages. With Damien safely-for-the-moment imprisoned in another dimension, the Ice critters are free to begin their invasion of earth, and in doing so drop this tidbit.

Ice Demon 1: You see my lord? It is as I told you! Man has come far since we last ruled him. AYE, — In some ways, but not in the most crucial. Man is still a being who prefers ignorance to the pain of awareness.

So, denial gets you conquered by ice demons. Or, call it

Point Two: Evil is defined as Fear of Knowledge.

Not to worry, folks: Dr. Reynolds scares up Damien’s mystic trident and deux-ex machinas him homewords, where Satan’s kid sends ’em packin’ with a few quick spells. Honestly, this issue wasn’t Gerber’s best work, although the last page over here made me smile. (Click to embiggen.)


Damien 1, Frosty 0.

Next story arc: It begins with a dream sequence, where Damey mixing it up with his pop, the spectre of greed, Dr. Reynolds and, most importantly, this dude.


A catholic priest. Which leads us to Point Three, Evil is sneaky, and can come at you from anywhere. (Keep in mind that the Son of Satan comics had adopted a fairly strong pro-Christian bias up to this point.)

it ends with Damien’s dual nature’s being merged, which ends the (fairly stupid) premise that Damien ONLY turns into the Son of Satan at night, but doesn’t seem to have any impact on the story for the rest of Gerber’s run, so I’m gonna gloss over it… And the rest of the issues as well. Damien, his sorta-girlfriend Dr. Kathleen Reynolds and her student Byron Hyatt head out to investigate a satanic ritual, Damien gets into his skirmish with his pop, the FATHER of the Son of Satan. Who looks like a goat, and Bryon decides there’s something “evil” about the Son of Satan.

*Snicker*

We move on.

# 17: Annnnnd POOF, the book gets better, as Gerber and artists Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney cheerfully deliver a chunk of congealed insanity called 4,000 holes in Forest Park!

As the title suggests, 4,000 prairie dog-size holes pop up in Forest Park, smack-dab in the middle of St. Louis overnight, with no explanation for their appearance. Damien, Katherine, and Byron head out to investigate.

And find one happening scene, man…


Because this is a seventies Marvel comic, Hellstrom ‘n pals get attacked by dudes with swords, Damien defends himself with devil fire, which somehow leads to…

The holes (A) All get set on fire,

(B) Somehow connect with each other, and give birth to a big-ass fire dragon,

who (C) sets out to destroy the world as we know it.


As we all know, the logical thing to do when confronted with a big-ass fire dragon is to go back in time to the lost city of Atlantis so you can astrally commune with The Sunning Zhered-Ha!


This is where it gets a little tricky, theology-like. Stay close.

Apparently the appearance of the above BAD is the result of the universal guardian of stability, a dude named Spyros, abandoning his post and mucking around with the mystical-double-helix thingy at the center of the universe (just work with me, OK..) After an initial encounter Spyros yanks off his mask and reveals, underneath…..


Adam!

Yep, the OG of original sin. Who informs us

Dost thou knowest me Hellstrom? Twas [your father] who made me this monstrosity.. and now his son doth attempt to compound the crime!

To which Hellstorm replies

If you are who you say, then surely this pain has taught you by now. My father but tempted you! YOU made the fateful choice! My “crime” is to wish the same freedom to choose for all men.

Which leads us to Point Four: Evil is a choice. (And, conversely, so is good.)

Adam’s beaten, he returns to his post, the dragon calms down. Next issue.

After this trippy little tale, the next couple issues are a bit of a disappointment. They’re a fairly standard Exorcist riff. And while the Son of Satan character pre-dated the flick… HERE, Gerber and company are almost violently ripping Friedkin’s flick off. There’s a demon, a daughter, some angry parents… Pretty typical stuff.

The saving grace being new artist Gene Colan’s genuinely nerve-wracking pencils, which perfectly convey the subtle menace that the book needs.


It’s worth reading for Colan, but there’s not much here that relates to this essay.

Let’s move onto the last of the four major Son of Satan arcs. The major gist has ourboy Damion given a tarot card reading by an evil fortune teller. She deals him nine cards, which come to life over the rest of the story. (For the record, the cards are: The Moon, the Devil, 9 of Swords (below), 4 of Swords, 5 of Pentacles, 10 of swords, 6 of Cups reversed, Death, and the Fool In that order. )


What’s most interesting in the early issues is that the head-tarot witch lady describes herself as a “nihilist”,” which brings us to another facet of Gerberevil, one that a flip through Gerber’s (rare) responses in the Son of Satan letter columns will back up.

Ah, the letters page. You remember letter pages? Where fans used to write to comics, and the editors answer them? This book had a spectacular letter page, one which I’d like to peruse now.

There’s plenty of normal (and richly deserved) “What a great book” style letters, but there are some WEIRD compliments

Jesse Huang, New York, New York
The storyline and graphic design of demons reminds me of black lotus induced fantasies.

Lots of niggling by avowed occultists

Ms. Gil Fitzgerald, Cockeysville, Maryland
[The Tarot Card Pack drawn by Sal Buscema] is also known as the Ryder tarot and it differs from the traditional cards in many ways… it’s number cards have symbolic drawings, and not simply the correct number of pentacles or cups.”
And goes on to say

“I can’t see how choosing a deck designed by a man like Waite would appeal to an ally of the powers of darkness….”

or, more stridently

Jim Freund, New York New York
“You are, however, making one grievous error: [The Pentagram on Damien’s Chest] Is a WITCHES Pentagram!”

There’s also a couple Christian types who are seriously cheesed

Bob Sodaro…not only am I angry but I am downright incensed! Why, you ask? I’ll tell you in one word: Satanism!”

None of this is especially important for our purpsoes… Until, in issue 22, Steve Gerber’s REPLIES to an incensed letter writer, a letter which includes this choice nugget..

SP5 John Kubrock CSC 1/51 Infantry
REgarding your comic Son of Satan, you are obviously trying to undermine the moral and religious fiber of our young people…. Sir, whether you know it or not I am certain you are being used as a tool of Satan.

Gerber says


Sadly, we’re receiving a lot of letters like this on SOS, and though I don’t wish to discuss my religious beliefs in detail here, I feel obliged to say something in my defense and in the defense of Marvel comics.
First of all, John –(and all the others who wrote in to express similar sentiments). I am not a tool of anybody. Not the Kremlin. Not even Irving Forbush, for crying out loud!! “I am not a number, I am a free man,” as someone once put it.
Second, I really do not see at all how a comic in which Satan is consistently defeated every time he so muc s tries to poke a pinky into our world can “undermine the moral and religious fiber of our young people.” Reality should only be so encouraging!
Want to know who I think is doing Satan’s work on earth, folks?
Anyone who asks us to close our minds to any possibility concerning anything in the universe!
God is alive. God is dead. God is in hibernation until spring. God is vacationing in Andromeda. God is within us all-even the Devil’s own son! I can’t tell you which of those to believe. (Markandrew: Although he makes it fairly clear in his last issue which HE believes.) You’ve got to make up your own minds.. And that you deserve the right to shape your own beliefs is MY strongest belief!
That’s why I don’t write you off, John, even though I do think you’re being fanatical. No one who is concerned with the wellfare of other human beings ever, ever writes off anybody.
Better, though, to panic at air we can’t breathe, populations that won’t stop growing, desert wars that could trigger nuclear holocausts, and onrushing crises in food and energy that nobody wants to admit… than at a comic book.
End of debate? Please???

Remember… the enemies in these issues are nihilists. And Gerber says anybody who HAS beliefs is worthy of respect. Therefore”

Point Five: Evil is defined by beliefs that limit, or non-beliefs.


So the plot moves on. There’s fights with demons, and half crazed sword wielding berzerkers. The ice demon returns, Damien ends up in an upside down world, he encounters his younger self, Ghost Rider shows up, he ends up in a borderline incestuous embrace with his sister Satana..

You know. The usual.

It’s the sisterly embrace that most concerns us here, though. as the text informs us

Her lips touch his cheeks… and he screams… and up from his throat flutters a black butterfly…
His sister the sucubus has stolen his soul… Or one of them, at any rate… Stolen it, and set it… FREE!

The “freed soul” is a shadowy reflection of Damion hizzself, and after a couple pages of shooting hellfire at each other, our exorcist hero comes to revelation.

YWe are one, you and I. You cannot kill me–Nor I, you. Our conflict is unresolvable… And eternal… And universal. All men are TWO men… and must restrain their own demons.. to live among other men in peace. You are immeasurably stronger than most.. almost an entity unto yourself.. but for now at least… You are still part of myself. And the way I may deal with you.. is to accept you. For what I am.

and, later

Only after after we face that demon and realize it is an energy force — capable of creative as well as destructive action — only then may the fool’s journey towards enlightenment commence.

Which brings us to the close of Steve Gerber’s tenure as solo writer of Son of Satan, and our sixth and final point: Self-knowledge, or awareness of evil, is the most potent weapon we have to fight it.

Epilogue one: Quick review:

1. Evil is anti-creative.

2. Evil feeds on ignorance.

3. Evil is subtle, and not always readily apparent.

4. Evil is a direct result of free choice, and

5. Choosing belief in nothing is evil.

6. Evil must be acknowledged to be fought, and can be harnessed through self-awareness.

Gerber’s work on Son of Satan migtt not be competitive with Heart of Darkness or Saint Augustine’s Confessions ‘”pin the definition on the devil’ department, but it does form a coherent, unified, and personal philosophy.

Which belies a careful thoughtfulness which is a rarity in comics… or, hell, pop culture in general.

And, hey, it’s the only time I’ve ever felt that reading comics might be useful come judgment day.

Epilogue Two: David at the Pah blog nicely provided links to all the Seven Soldiers of Steve posts. So I thought I’d borrow ’em and show you what other folks had to say.)

  1. Manifesto-More Or Less (Plok on the Defenders)
  2. The Final Disconnect (RAB on Omega the Unknown)
  3. Location, Location, Location (Plok on Defenders 22-25)
  4. YJ’s Progress (Plok on the Character of Henry (Giant Man) Pym)
  5. Epilogue Part One (Sean Kleefeld on Sensational She-Hulk 11-12)
  6. Epilogue Part Two (Sean Kleefeld on Sensational She-Hulk 14-15)
  7. Epilogue Part Three (Sean Kleefend on Sensational She-Hulk 18-20)
  8. Matt Is Not Coming Back (Thomas on Daredevil 99-107)
  9. Two Earth-Clotted Hands (Jim Roeg on existentialism and Marvel Two-In-One 7-8)
  10. The Astronauts’ Tale (Plok on Guardians of the Galaxy)
  11. Oneiric Orphans And Overmen (Jim Roeg on the characters of Wundarr)
  12. Goodbye To All That (Plok on Nighthawk and Trish Starr)
  13. Recognition (Plok, on the Defenders, again)
  14. Something Like Democracy (Plok responds to Jim Roeg’s destiny essay)
  15. Kill This Duck (Plok on the Howard the Duck/Defenders team-up)
  16. Unconclusion (Plok sums up/analyzes some of the previous essays, talks about Annie Hall)
  17. The Supercontext (Plok on… I have no idea how to summarize this one. Go read.)

And, again: If anyone here has anything to add, drop Plok a line.