From Mark Twain to Mick Jagger, sympathy for Satan has never been in short supply. Though he heats up the pages of novels by John Milton or Neil Gaiman, Old Scratch is probably at his coolest when he’s a bonafide comic book superhero.
Last month, Vertigo Comics (an imprint of DC) released Lucifer Volume 1, which collects the first six issues of the ongoing comic book series of the same name. Written by acclaimed fantasy novelist Holly Black and with art by Lee Garbett, Antonio Fabela, Dave Johnson, and others, the series depicts the devil as a guy who runs a piano bar, dresses in slim suits with skinny ties, and is tasked with investigating the murder of “God” in order to clear his good-ish name. Far from being a tormentor of souls or the lord of all darkness, this version of Lucifer is a charming rogue who occasionally gets himself into a variety of compromising circumstances.
But hasn’t that always been the case with Lucifer? From a certain point of view, the Devil has more in common with a vigilante burdened with a spotty reputation — like Batman — than he does with being the ultimate embodiment of evil.
In Mark Twain’s speculative book Letters from the Earth, Lucifer’s diary entries about hanging out on Earth paint the picture of a rational guy frustrated by a ton of dogma which he he feels is created to cover-up for God’s bad ideas. “Very well, God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, and eventually assassinated them,” Lucifer writes in a letter to Gabriel, “All for disobeying a command which he had right to utter. But he did not stop there, as you will see. He has one code of morals for himself, and quite another for his children.”
In John Milton’s famous book-length poem Paradise Lost, Lucifer isn’t merely an “evil” adversary of God, but instead, the leader of some rebel angels similarly fed up with God’s duplicity and all-knowingness. Lucifer’s attempted coup to rule the heaven and Earth ends, obviously, with his exile into Hell, making the kingdom of the damned more like a rebel base than a place to burn for all eternity.
Correlatively, many Christian scholars would point out that the idea of Lucifer being “in charge” of Hell is something that comes more from folklore than it does from the Old and New Testament. “Hellfire,” for most literalist believers, is something that hasn’t happened yet, but will happen on Judgment Day to a bunch of sinners.
What this means is that in nearly every intellectual way you can possibility spin it, the image of the “Devil Ruling in Hell” has almost nothing to do with Christian faith, and everything to do with amped-up mythology. While scholars of all stripes can debate about whether or not Satan is a “hero” in a “traditional” sense in either Twain or Milton’s books, the facts are obvious: He can fly, he has super strength, often wields burning swords, and has some basic degree of mind-control abilities. In the opening pages of Holly Black’s Lucifer series, she tells us “the devil was back” and “we’d all missed him.”
In regard to DC/Vertigo comics, this “Lucifer” is a very specific kind of devil. “In the DC Universe, Lucifer is a character created by Neil Gaiman,” Holly Black tells Inverse, “which means Neil Gaiman owns the devil.” Black is referring to the fact that this smooth-operator version of Lucifer Morningstar first appeared in Gaiman’s now world-famous comic book miniseries, Sandman, at which point, Lucifer officially entered the DC comic book canon. Think about it like this: Thor comes from Norse Myth, but Thor is also a member of the Avengers — and certainly part of the Marvel comics canon. While Thor’s presence in Marvel generally creates plots about which superhero can pick up his hammer, Lucifer’s presence in DC eventually lead to Superman temporarily being installed as the ruler of hell in 2007.
Gamain’s Lucifer was then spun-off from the events of Sandman and ended up in his own epic standalone comic series called Lucifer. “Then Mike Carey took over and wrote 75 issues, the 75th issue being GIANT,” incumbent Lucifer writer Holly Black explains, “And I read them all. And I love them so much.” Black’s challenge then was to not only inherit the narrative of a character already written by Mike Carey and Neil Gaiman, but also to imbue the character with her own sensibilities.
“The challenge was trying to write Lucifer as a real person with real motivations, but also remember that he is a god,” Black said. That’s essentially the same problem all writers of superhero comics or films have with their characters: How do you make someone a believable super-human, but also simply, a believable person? At first glance, Lucifer might seems like a character too burdened with baggage to be an interesting and dynamic superhero, but maybe his different personalities are part of his appeal.
“Gaiman’s Lucifer is kind of a trickster,” Holly Black told Inverse. “He’s a much different Lucifer in many ways than Carey’s, who’s really slick. … So, the premise of my Lucifer is that I tried to go in a little bit of a noir direction where Lucifer is back, he’s wounded and from what he understands, God is dead. And it’s a murder mystery.”
All great superheroes have more than one side, more than one interpretation of their personality. Batman isn’t just a dark and brooding moralist, sometimes he can be funny and lighthearted. Ditto for Superman. Hell, Iron Man and Captain America can be funny and dark in the same story.
Holly Black’s latest iteration of Lucifer proves the same multifaceted and open-minded approach is true for the devil, too. And since he’s been in the DC canon for awhile now — there’s even a police procedural FOX TV show loosely based on the Carey version of Lucifer — who is to say we won’t see the Devil in one of the big-budget DCU movies very soon. And if it’s done right, Lucifer won’t be going toe-to-toe against the Justice League, but instead, teaming up with them.