Wednesday 29 April 2015

The Devil Made Me Do It

Lucifer vols 1-10, Mike Carey et al, 2000-2006
Ghost Rider vols 1-4,  Daniel Way et al, 2007-2008
Ghost Rider: Road to Damnation, Garth Ennis et al, 2007
(Spring 2015)

My headlong plunge into Mr. Salaryman’s MASSIVE BOX OF COMICS continues apace. You’ll forgive me for being a little vague with the details, I’m sure, but when I said there were a couple of hundredweight of them I really wasn’t exaggerating. Anyway, at this point I’d like to do a little pondering about the nature of the Devil. The old ones are always the best, eh?

In the interests of not knocking heads with literally centuries of theological scholars I’m going to limit my remit a touch, and focus on the Devil as a fictional device*, and I’m further going to contend that he (for it’s seemingly always a he) has an inherently limiting effect on whatever story he’s in. It's an indirect limitation, however. Basically the devil is, to all intents and purposes, omnipotent, and omnipotent characters do not make for compelling storytelling; what drama could possibly exist when a character could change everything with the wave of a hand? This was exactly the problem faced as Superman gradually became more and more powerful throughout the years, hence the eventual need for kryptonite.

"Ah, but what about God?" you sensibly ask. Well, quite. The real problem with the devil is that he presupposes the existence of a god, and as soon as you've got that, all narrative bets are off. Predestination, free will, dancing on the head of a pin, all that jazz. More to the point, at least kryptonite was inert; it was only ever as effective as the person who wielded it. What happens when your kryptonite is the fount of all existence and the ultimate arbiter of good and evil? I'd argue that any storyline that follows the devil to any sort of ultimate conclusion (and honestly, why invoke the devil if you're not going to do that?) must eventually run up against the resolution that everything has played out to His grand plan, which is the theological equivalent of saying, 'They woke up and it was all a dream," and about as narratively satisfying.

This is my ultimate issue with Lucifer. Spinoffs are tricky things at the best of times: for every Fraiser there’s a dozen Hollyoaks: Boys do Barcas. This is more of the latter than the former. It’s still enjoyable enough in its own way, but never really breaks free from Sandman’s shadow. More to the point, the amount of (increasingly transparent) tricks the writers need to perform in order to keep Lucifer vulnerable enough to be interesting is slightly ridiculous, thus when God finally does appear and the whole omniscience thing kicks in you are rather left wondering what the point of it all was.

Ghost Rider is significantly less ambitious, and is nice dumb fun which has no pretentions to being anything other than what it is. Though its occasional overlapping with other characters in the Marvel Universe again throws the God Problem into the spotlight. If God and the Devil are real, how the hell do we then fit in the Fantastic Four and the Hulk (and The X-Men, and The Avengers, and, and, and…)? I guess this is just the crossover problem writ large: exactly how scary should we find Magneto or Ultron or whomever if the actual fucking Devil is walking the face of the Earth?

Probably best not to overthink these things, eh?

*I know, I know.


  1. Ah... Sandman. I worked for a comics (sorry, 'graphic novels') distributor in Montréal in the 90s, and if any work is seminal: Sandman. I first read it there and almost began to understand comic geekdom, but it was the weaving in of Orphic myths and Platonic characters that got me. I was a, more Athenian than German, philosophy major with a dash of religious studies from an agnostic perspective (graduated to atheism since).

    Be warned though, I thought that the Watchman movie was better than the book (squid?!), and that 'Unbreakable' is Shamalyan's last good film. Shall I 'duck and cover'?

    1. No ducking necessary. I've yet to see the Watchmen movie, though while I can see why people value the book so highly I have a hear time seeing it as the 'masterpiece' it's often lauded as. I guess coming to comics as an adult means I'm less familiar with its importance in context, or less invested with certain sacred cows, depending on your point of view.

      I'll also happily admit that while I hugely enjoyed Sandman, a lot of it went straight over my head. How does the philosophical stuff hold up if you actually know about these things?