In this instalment – DC/Vertigo’s Lucifer, which is located in a clear theological and supernatural framework, and which wrestles with free will, power, and predestination. And some thoughts on getting the casting right for transferring the comic to other media.
The character of Lucifer (AKA Samael; Lucifer Morningstar; Satan; The Devil, The Adversary, etc.) first appeared in The Sandman #4 (April 1989) published by DC’s Vertigo imprint and created by Neil Gaiman. Drawing particularly from Judeo-Christian texts and traditions, as well as wider mythologies, literature and popular culture, Gaiman created a character that is far more complex than typical portraits of the Devil in popular culture.
Gaiman was doing something more than simply producing good comics stories on a monthly basis: he was also creating a work that aspired to stand as genuine, full-fledged mythology … But with Sandman, Gaiman aimed to use a comics-based mythos to expand on, interact with, and deepen classical legends of mythology and popular history. On one hand, this approach might seem like merely another clever postmodern ruse, taking old Greek and Norse myths, European and Asian
and Islamic folk tales, plus scenarios from Dante, Blake, Milton, and Dore, and mixing them with 20th-century comics and horror elements. Still, Gaiman made it all work.
Gilmore, M. “Introduction.” In Sandman 10: The Wake, The Sandman, 8-11. New York: DC Comics, 1997. Cited in Porter, Adam. “Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer: Reconsidering Milton’s Satan.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25, no. 2 (2013): 175-85.
This complexity with both the character and plot continued when others, such as Mike Carey, took over the writing duties through the 75 issue run of the comic titled “Lucifer”, and when the character appears in other Vertigo titles such as those concerning John Constantine (E.g. Hellblazer 192) and further spinoffs (e.g. The Sandman Presents).
If there is one consistent theme that runs through the Lucifer series, it’s the question of how much free will does one actually have in God’s plans. A common refrain is that it feels like Lucifer and others are exercising their free will to rebel against God or to abandon the ruling of Hell, but how can they be sure it isn’t actually just foreordained by God. This forms part of the final conversation between Lucifer and God in issue 75 with the concluding thought being there comes a time when one needs to own who oneself is, to take responsibility for that, and the write one’s own story. In effect, it’s a kind of coming of age experience shaped by the existential crises shaped by the wrestling with will and power and destiny. (Philip Pullman’s conclusion to His Dark Materials books echoes this kind of conclusion).
Reading Lucifer is an interesting experience. Here’s the embodiment of evil, in a charming and often sympathetic portrayal. As a Christian theologian I bring a certain set of prior assumptions and commitments to reading this text; as a scholar of popular culture I bring others. As I read the comics, I’m constantly asking:
- How is material from sacred texts like the Bible, as well as traditions that have evolved and wider literature being shaped into a coherent narrative and cosmology?
- How are characters claiming to be adherents of faiths like Christianity and Judaism portrayed in the stories?
- In what way do the stories evoke a sense of there being a spiritual or supernatural dimension to the everyday world replete with the presence of good and evil?
- In what ways are human characteristics projected onto supernatural entities?
- How are Heaven and Hell portrayed?
- How does this (graphical) interpretation shape how people, religious or otherwise, think about evil, the demonic, theodicy, the supernatural, and free will?
Probably the most common encounter with this character is in the recent TV series, Lucifer (2016-18), which has run for three seasons. This show brings up a couple of things. Firstly, the show is written as a comedy-drama police ‘buddy’ show, and lacks the deeper layers found in the comics, and secondly, the casting of the actor to play the person of Lucifer.
Apparently, Neil Gaiman was adamant that the comic book Lucifer was to be portrayed as David Bowie. So blond, somewhat gaunt, worldly-wise and suave. Not the somewhat naive, dark-haired, and often impotent characterisation in the TV show. That casting is particularly jarring if you’ve read the comics.
This is one area where the casting of Matt Ryan as DC/Vertigo’s John Constantine stands in sharp contrast. While the TV portrayal of Constantine in the show Constantine, with cameos on Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow isn’t nearly a grim, gritty and ‘ends justifies the means’ as the comics, the casting in terms of look and sound is pretty much spot on. Something that is carried over into the animated Justice League Dark and Constantine: City of Demons films. (Also, the original John Constantine was developed so the creators could have a character that looked like Sting in The Saga of Swamp Thing comics – Sting Helps John Constantine Celebrate His 30th Anniversary.)
Reading (or watching) Lucifer won’t be for everyone – it’s definitely aimed at a particular adult audience – but it’s worth studying because of the way it brings religion, the supernatural and comics together with complex characters, plots, and some quite deep questions. And so it sits at #2 on my list of religion and comics.