Welcome to part 10, the final part of my look at Steve Gerber’s run on “Son of Satan” in Marvel Spotlight.
In part 9 of my series I looked at Gerber’s penultimate chapter as scripter of this series, which feels as much as a summary of how work as a freestanding comic book. If there’s a sense in that issue of Gerber summing up his key storylines by summarizing his take on this oddball character, “In this Light, Darkness” from Marvel Spotlight #23 feels like Gerber clearing the way for the next writer to take over. In fact, this issue lists Mike Friedrich as co-writer, though the story is full of Gerberesque hallmarks.
There are a lot of Gerber-style moments in this comic, many times when Daimon Hellstrom experiences existential doubt and faces foes he doesn’t understand. In that way it feels like an archetypical Steve Gerber comic. In fact, the driving force in this issue is a terrible moment that shatters Daimon’s world and upsets the small but important status quo that had been established.
Gerber’s characters are a product of their relationships as much as they are anything else. Like most of us, they’re defined by their friends and colleagues, by their reactions to the world around them and the illumination those friends bring to their personality.
Daimon had recently begun a relationship with the beautiful parapsychology professor Katherine Reynolds and now, suddenly, Reynolds was slain by an unknown threat that had just appeared. We’d seen the friendship between Reynolds and Hellstrom slowly blossom into an implied romance as Gerber’s run on this series proceeded. The characterization was subtle, but an attentive reader could see between the panels and find passion in the eyes of these two people. Gene Colan highlighted this connection in his wonderful two-parter. If Gerber had stayed on the book, we might have seen that relationship grow, seen this delightful and brilliant woman begin to break down some of Daimon’s strange split personality and expose the inner humanity within.
Instead we experience one of the strangest, most dislocating moments Gerber ever delivers in one of his stories. Even as she’s killed, doppelgängers of Reynolds are quickly conjured, but those duplicates are destroyed in the most heartless, vicious way possible. No matter how much he fights his literal inner demons, Daimon Hellstrom simply is incapable of personal change.
It’s a truly horrifying moment because it seems so thoroughly estranged from the way that normal people live. Look at the horror above in the face of Byron, who had been a friend to Daimon and Katherine in previous issues – and even a friend earlier in this issue. Daimon’s true nature demonstrates his lack of empathy for a friend. Byron is in tears due to his shock, fear and anger while the literal Son of Satan stands impassively, statue-like, refusing to call his friend by his given name.
This man seems like a hero, but as the son of Satan, he can never transcend his true nature, can never be anything but the vicious, uncaring person he is inside.
And thus, as Gerber’s run reaches its end, it’s appropriate that it wraps up with a moment of pure existential dislocation. With a series that often felt like its plot threads were written on flecks of sand, once again the nominal plot of this issue is flooded by a wave of existential doubt.
“Will he ever make sense of it? Right now, he just doesn’t know…”
I often refer to Steve Gerber as the man who brought existential doubt to the pages of the American super-hero comic book. That doubt is on huge display here in this comic book, and in fact in this whole series. Strange mystical creatures pop in and out of stories with little explanation of where they came from. Daimon spends many issues battling against a group that calls themselves Nihilists. Battles are presented on the surface as being with strange villains but instead are fought in the hero’s soul.
And our protagonist, the man who wears a freaking orange and gold cape, for crying out loud, is as weird, complicated and messed up as any character presented in this series.
For all its trappings of ice demons and devil possession and world-destroying sea serpents from Atlantis, the character at the center of Gerber’s “Son of Satan” is Daimon Helstrom. Hellstrom is a man of literally conflicting impulses. He essentially has two souls living inside his buff body with its six-pack abs and trident tattoo on his chest. One soul is the soul of mercy and peace, of humanity and friendship and human love.
The other soul is that of his father. Daimon’s father is Satan. Not a metaphorical Satan, or a demon pretending to be Satan. No, in the 1970s Marvel cosmology, Satan was as real as any other creature. Satan birthed the Ghost Rider, and his progeny literally was the protagonist of this very strange series. Some dads cast a long shadow on their children. Under Gerber, Daimon continually fought to free himself from that shadow, to become more human.
Of course, the devil always wins, and as the horrific events of this issue show us, the Devil inside us will often overcome the angel that represents our best nature.
In the end, the story of Daimon Hellstrom is the ultimate horror comic because the ultimate horror is that which lives inside our very souls. The ultimate horror is the weak impulses we can’t control, the painful world that our parents built for us and the near impossibility for transcending that pain.
Daimon Hellstrom represented a true dichotomy of good and evil. As such, he was an ideal hero/villain for Marvel’s most existential writers. Gerber often asked “Will I ever make sense of it?” That question animated perhaps Gerber’s greatest creation, Howard the Duck. Two years before Howard, Gerber was asking that question in different ways.
“Son of Satan” is deeply flawed, like most Gerber comics from the 1970s. Plots meander, art is inconsistent and everything has a very dated feel. But the energy, the spirit and the power of these comics remain.
We all are Daimon Hellstrom, at least a little bit. May God have mercy on our souls.