Last time in this column I discussed the oddly desultory nature of Steve Gerber’s work on “Morbius the Living Vampire” in Fear. That comic seemed randomly thrown together, with arbitrary character decisions, insane plot twists and an awesomely bizarre sense of 1970s comics continuity.
So why is it that Gerber’s debut on “Son of Satan” in Marvel Spotlight #14 seems like such a tremendous achievement?
It doesn’t make any sense, really. This comic was released one month before Gerber’s first issue of “Morbius”, yet the writing feels so much more confident in the work he is delivering in this comic. Where “Morbius” feels tentative, “Son of Satan” feels confident. Where “Morbius” feels arbitrary, “Son of Satan” feels certain. Where the character of Morbius feels unformed, the character of Daimon Hellstrom feels well-considered and contemporary for his and our time. And where Morbius lacks supporting characters and a consistent world, Gerber immediately gives Hellstrom a fully fledged life and love interest starting with his very first issue.
It also helps that Daimon Hellstrom is a genuinely intriguing character whose literal demon inside himself is even more terrifying than he might have seen four decades ago.
Part of the reason for Gerber’s confidence has to come from the wonderfully professional artwork of Jim Mooney. Mooney was never one of Marvel’s most celebrated artists, but he and Gerber were longtime fruitful partners in the 1970s. They worked on hundreds of comics together and seemed to have a delightful rapport on the page. Like with another frequent Gerber collaborator, Sal Buscema, Mooney seemed to have a preternatural ability to make even the most outlandish moment feel real.
You can see the power of Mooney’s work on the first page of Gerber’s first issue. The milk man comes to Daimon Hellstrom’s door early one morning (and isn’t a delight to have a completely old-fashioned character like a milkman be the first character we see in this comic?) and receives the shock of his life. Mooney and inker Sal Trapani deliver so much here with shadow and with subtle facial movement, perfectly juxtaposed against Gerber’s purple prose.
Or, again, the quiet moment above, with Daimon raging against his literal own inner demons. Panel three is lovely with the Son of Satan’s face half in shadow as a subtle symbol of the character’s rage slowly coming to the surface. So is panel five, which overlays the window frame against his body, jailing Daimon’s alter ego inside his body by the sunlight. He looks at peace, but it’s a tentative, furtive peace that will soon be disrupted.
The last panel on the page, the triptych of Hellstrom’s face, echoes a similar scene on the previous page and acts like a series of film frames, capturing a small, furtive moment of wakefulness. All of us can see ourselves in his reaction to a ringing doorbell, which also puts all of us closer to imaging ourselves as having the same sort of demon within that our protagonist has.
The doorbell brings a special delivery letter – another quaintly delightful touch that feels charmingly dated. The letter is from Dr. Katherine Reynolds, a Parapsychologist at St. Louis’s Gateway University. It seems that one of the University buildings is haunted and Daimon is an expert on exorcism.
Daimon picks up his corded phone and calls the beautiful Dr. Reynolds, who informs him that poltergeists and an ice demon have taken over the building. Of course, our protagonist boards the first flight to St. Louis.
In a delightful set-up for the main action, Mooney and Gerber set up the groundwork for this story. They set the rules for the moment, show the dashing Hellstrom in a fancy suit, and show the feelings that Dr. Reynolds is immediately feeling for her expert consultant. This is old-school comics storytelling at its finest, taking the time to establish the setting and characters before diving into the action.
But of course evening comes and Hellstrom journeys into the University buildings in his flamboyant costume as the Son of Satan. He wanders through the building, contemplating everything that he encounters, before he is attacked by an ice demon. The battle quickly moves to the ice world of the demons, where we receive the crazily outlandish scene above, where nearly abstract bodies made of snow attack our hero and in which thought balloons carry most of the drama.
This is dangerously close to “because we said so” territory, where the rules of a scene happen only because a creators says that they happen. The reader has no grounding in the hero or in the world in which he finds himself, so how are we supposed to react? With Mooney’s grounded artwork, though, we’re always filled with the sense that we can imagine this world. There is some sense that what happens in these scenes is important.
This is another difference between the art in “Morbius” and the art in “Son of Satan.” In “Morbius”, so much is flamboyant and showy under the art of Paul Gulacy, Gil Kane and Craig Russell that is accentuates the weirdness of the situation. Their art almost makes the story more unbelievable. But somehow under Mooney, the art does the opposite. It makes this strange world feel more real and as more of a threat to our gaudily costumed hero.
By the final page of the issue, everybody is back on Earth again and our hero is ready to exterminate the University from the demons’ attack. This page is way too packed with action, as if Mooney simply ran out of space for his story. Too much happens here, but all of it is interesting – especially the first two and last two panels.
In the first two panels we watch Daimon struggle briefly with his humanity, with a delightful sequence in which he decides to keep his demonic nature under control. With that confidence, he attacks the demons (whose threats look stupidly similar to attacks that Mr. Freeze might make in z-grade Batman comics) and sends them back to their strange world.
The issue ends with a terribly powerful two-panel zinger. The Son of Satan slaps Dr. Reynolds viciously, calling her a fool and condemning her with horrifying words. But Dr. Reynolds, the strong and educated woman we just met, finds that slap intriguing. “Who… is he? Why does he fascinate – and frighten me so?”
That’s some spooky abusive shit there, with all kinds of terrifying subtext. Nobody probably noticed it in early 1974 when this comic was created, but Daimon Hellstrom reveals himself in those last two panels as a terrifyingly evil being, a man whose everyday inner demons are as frightening as the mystic power he wields.
Gerber makes much about the dual nature of Daimon Hellstrom, as he is a man looking to hold back the demon inside him. He has Hellstrom mediate on the complexity of his nature and his need to move on from the world that his father has inflicted on him. In doing so, he takes an obscure genre character from four decades ago and has the character reflected back to us in the modern day as a truly frightening man. When we all have Satan within our souls, how dangerous is the world directly below the surface? This is a theme that’s even more powerful today than it was then.
Come back next week as we see how this terrifying drama starts to play out.
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