Thanks for reading the fifth in my series of looks at Steve Gerber’s 1970s run on “Son of Satan” in Marvel Spotlight #18 from 1974.
After the oddball journey to Atlantis in our previous chapter, this series finally goes back to the kind of storylines that readers expected from it, with a tale of demonic possession and attempted exorcism. This month pyrotechnics of the previous issue are set aside for a much more human issue, and the tale that Gerber serves up here is easily his best issue yet.
Part of the reason for that success is the art of the brilliant Gene Colan. Gerber and Colan had a long and fruitful professional relationship, delivering several dozen comics in partnership throughout the years. Colan often referred to Gerber as his favorite collaborator – there’s a very warm conversation with the two of them published in the 2005 book Secrets in the Shadows – and it’s easy to see that chemistry in the way they deliver this comic, in a lovely synergistic manner.
It’s easy to also see the personality that Colan brings to his characters in a scene like the one above. With just a few lines (and with the underplayed inks of Frank Chiaramonte), Colan delivers so many intriguing characters: the amusingly eccentric Professor Wilfred Noble; the tall and handsome Daimon Hellstrom; the obvious warmth of Daimon’s relationship with Professor Catherine Reynolds; even the importance of Professor Noble’s dog. The dog will represent a key plot point later on in the story, so the scene at the top of this page is smart foreshadowing of events that will soon play out in a dreadful way.
I praised artist Jim Mooney’s art in the previous few issues of this series, and indeed he did a fantastic job of juxtaposing the prosaic and powerful. Colan’s work is different from Mooney’s. Colan was a master at drawing the people in his scenes, at presenting characters who seem to walk off the page fully fledged in their humanity. Colan drew many grandiose super-hero stories, but his bailiwick was these more human dramas and he’s well used here.
The scene above is a great example of Colan’s facility with ordinary people. Inker Chiaramonte deliberately underplays this moment as the whole party stops and a swarm of people surround Hellstrom, asking about his previous adventures like starstruck groupies. There’s a sense in these panels that our protagonist just wants to be normal but that his adventures force him to stand apart. The women almost seem to preen in front of Daimon, sensing his devilish personality and great power.
It’s also a wonderful way for Gerber to get readers caught up in the series and provide continuity for past adventures. This comic was produced bi-monthly, which means that readers easily could have lost track of what had happened before. In this panel the previous adventures are called out but they’re also treated almost as urban myths, as stories that have grown in the telling into near legends.
When Professor Noble’s dog is killed under mysterious circumstances, Colan plays the scene beautifully, conveying the deep, profoundly sad emotions of the kindly old man in a smartly designed sequence of panels: first characters in shadow, half-formed, them a distance shot that seems to show the professor’s back showing the strain of the pain and adversity he faced, then a shot from the perspective of the characters’ backs turned to the readers, as if the Professor and hero both wanted a moment of privacy in the heat of the moment.
I should mention that under the “Marvel method” of the 1970s, the artist usually paced the story themselves, so the story direction here is as much Colan as Gerber. Again, it’s a sign of the wonderful rapport between these two fine comics creators that the scenes have as much power as they do.
As the story proceeds, we discover (off-panel) that after the party broke up, Professor Noble’s house burned down, with Noble inside. Daimon tries to determine the cause of the house fire and goes back to the ravaged home where he discovers, “It was not an accident. Nor did Dr. Noble destroy his own home. Another force was at work – an evil force of tremendous potency.” As we son discover, that force is… a little girl, her face grotesquely transformed into a hideous vision of pure evil.
As we soon learn, the cause of all this horror and pain is as prosaic a scene as can be imagined: a quiet suburban home in which a father’s fight with his daughter escalates to vicious extremes and turns the girl evil. It’s easy to see a parallel in this story to any suburban drama gone Romeo & Juliet, which accentuates the horror of the final panel transformation into something evil. Colan delivers an image straight from hell in the final panel, with empathetic coloring from George Roussos adding to the dark tone.
This comic book also appeared shortly after the film The Exorcist, one of the top-grossing films of 1973 and a movie that sent shockwaves throughout America. It’s dark and intense tale of demonic possession directly influenced the creation of Daimon Hellstrom and undoubtedly provided the inspiration for this scene.
Though this scene is dressed up in super-hero clothes, the heroic elements of the story are deliberately downplayed in favor of the more human aspects of the story. We feel the fear of the parents’ pain, the stress of the girl’s change, even the emotional impact that this story has on Daimon. The costumes are secondary to the transformation of a single human being who has been wronged in a way from which she may never recover.
This story, like his brilliant “The Kid’s Day Out” in Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, is Gerber at his most powerful and most deliberately human. He was always the master of portraying the pain of evil, the power of fighting back, the enormous pain that everyday life can have on ordinary people. He separated the cape and cowl from everyday people simply fighting to make sense of their prosaic lives. Both Professor Noble and the family in Marvel Spotlight #18 are victims of the random horrors that their terrible world has brought on them. It’s not bad enough that they have to deal with gas lines, a Presidential resignation and the ever-present fear of terrorism. Even the household has turned from place of calm to a place of terrors. Once the demons are in your home, is there any way that any person can remove them?