Welcome back to the third part of my look at Steve Gerber’s wonderfully odd run on “Son of Satan.” Sorry for missing the last three weeks (and I hope you enjoyed last week’s look at a wonderfully weird comic featuring the incredible Prince.) This week we jump back into the conflicted world of Daimon Hellstrom, where literal inner demons threaten to destroy an otherwise kind man’s soul.
Marvel comics of the mid-1970s rarely opened with a “teaser” splash page but writer and plotter Gerber decided to work against that tradition with the opening to this issue. It’s a delightful image, to me a better cover than the one that this issue featured, but also a great indicator of the world into which this comic was presented.
When Gerber writes “there is a vague uneasiness in the air these days,” it’s absolutely true, at least in America. With President Nixon tottering on the brink of resignation, with nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union high, the oil crisis a recent frustrating memory and the end of the Vietnam War a painful slog, the United States in 1974 was in its worst shape it had been since the end of World War II. Old heroic lead characters gave way to antiheroic hero/villains who seemed to embody the uncertainty of the times.
It’s no surprise that heroes like Wolverine, Punisher, Deathlok the Demolisher and other gun-toting heroes all debuted in 1974. It’s also no surprise that characters like Ghost Rider and the Son of Satan rose around that time to tread the line between hero and threat because the world had suddenly become a terrifying place. When the entire planet seems to be closing in on your all-American values, it’s hard to have faith in heroes like Curt Swan’s always smiling Superman.
Thus this first story page above is also symbolic of the change in society. It’s a beautiful day in St. Louis, a perfect time for a happy couple to head to Forest Park for a day of sun and frolic – until, that is, they stumble over some mysterious holes in the ground. Instead of skipping barefoot through the grass, the couple are instead terrified by something outside of their control. “We should get out of here – and call the police! There’s something evil about all this!” yells the girl, and there’s a sense as she mutters those words that nobody really knows how to solve this insane problem. The holes in the grass could be from the oil barons in Saudi Arabia, for all they know, or they could be from something much worse.
Gerber’s caption on a subsequent page calls on that past with a reference to a 1904 World’s Fair that happened when St. Louis was one of the centers of American progress. Seventy years later, the city was one of the exemplars of the American “Rust Belt” and its best days were long past. There’s some appropriate symbolism for a city like St. Louis being the host for events like these. (In fact, the city was probably chosen because Gerber grew up in St. Louis and it amused him to set the story in his home town).
Within a few pages the media spreads word of these strange holes in the city park and the once peaceful Forest Park encompasses a strange carnival-like atmosphere. Snake charmers mix with the self-professed Legion of Nihilists, satanic-looking men in robes and bears, and confused fearful police. The contrast between the innocent girl on the previous page and the snake charmer woman on this page couldn’t be lost on anyone.
Our hero Daimon wanders down to the park, because he has an obligation to learn what the hell is happening, but when he’s attacked by some of the nihilists at the park, he’s forced to transform from his curious civilian guise to his more militant antihero guise. There’s a clear feeling that Daimon is being pushed to embrace his evil side against his will, driven to transform himself into an evil guise that terrifies him as much as it frightens all the people in the inset panel.
I’ve been focusing pretty much completely on Steve Gerber’s brilliant writing and themes in this article but I also need to mention artist Jim Mooney’s outstanding work creating this comic. With his quiet, staid artwork, he makes the bizarre seem more real. In its prosaic presentation, the horror feels more terrifying, with a subtle majesty to the way that he presents character. Look at the gorgeous way he draws Daimon’s face in panel two and the final panel above. That’s a man possessed by an evil, and the shocked look on the peoples’ faces in the long strip of images shows that this has suddenly become no game. Shit has gotten real, and the party is now a frightening reality.
“Two beings live inside the body of Daimon Hellstrom: one, a man of God – the other a demon, which cannot be driven out.” It really sucked to be a “hero” in the 1970s.
We see the terrifying implications of the evil inside this good man as he battles his father’s terrible inner influence, losing control as the fight continues on – with consequences that could literally end the world. Those holes are lit ablaze because of Daimon’s other side and all hell is literally set loose.
Once again we see Mooney’s art in its glory, with the wretchedly evil face in panel one, the terrified face in panel two and the pandemonium in the final panel. These events aren’t fun anymore. They’re real as real can be – and as we soon see…
The creature rises into the sky, and we soon learn that this is the same evil bring that created the cataclysm that sunk Atlantis. Our hero has no choice. Even the Son of Satan needs the world to stay alive so he somehow transports everyone…
As we’ll see next time, that adventure is even more bizarre that we can imagine. But even though this is a continued story, “4000 Holes in Forest Park” is a weird and wild ride on its own. Reading between the lines it’s easy to see a critique of Nixon-era America, its terrifying transitions and the tumult that struck America during those years. Like Daimon Hellstrom, the United States veered between happiness and fear, love and peace. Many people were afraid that the barefoot happy youths of the 1970s would turn into the kinds of snake-handlers and devil worshippers that we see in Forest Park in this comic.
Nobody knew how the decade would turn out, but few people were optimistic – including, it seems, Steve Gerber. Little did Daimon Hellstrom, Steve Gerber or the average American realize that even a vacation to Atlantis would do little to cure what ailed us.