Welcome to part six of my look at Steve Gerber’s wonderful run on “Son of Satan” in Marvel Spotlight.
Last week I talked about how the art in this series transitioned from the excellent Jim Mooney to the sublime Gene Colan as the story shifted from extra-dimensional time-traveling adventure to a smart pastiche of The Exorcist, which was an iconic film in the mid-1970s then a recent memory of the film-going public. Spotlight #19 continued Colan’s excellent run on the title, albeit with inks by Mike Esposito, whose angular lines are often in conflict with Colan’s sensuous and moody pencils.
That said, Colan delivers a lovely, humanistic performance in this story, delivering characters whose poses and attitudes seem to come directly from real life. In this early scene, reporter Dan Crandall (last seen in Marvel Spotlight #17) pays a visit to psychic researcher (and possible future girlfriend to our hero) Dr. Katherine Reynolds. The scene is choreographed in a smartly designed way, with Crandall trying to act casual as he tries to use his good looks and friendly attitude to persuade the Doctor to tell the truth about her friend.
It’s wonderful how Crandall keeps eye contact with Reynolds as he interrogates her, with the flipping of angle in panels four and five giving the reader the sense of him stalking her in an attempt to track down the story. That impression is locked in during the next panel. We’re living the scene along with Reynolds, so when she asks, “Are you follow me, Mr. Crandall?” We know the answer as well as she does: “Yeah. I am.” This is the sign of a writer and artist in sync with each other, delivering callouts that enable each other to deliver a scene that transcends this small moment.
Though the character moments sell the story, a Marvel reader of the 1970s wanted action, and Gerber and Colan deliver plenty of action. Unfortunately it’s in the action scenes that Esposito lets Colan down. Backgrounds are sparse, bordering on the non-existent, and everything takes place in a murky gray space that is devoid of all surroundings. Characters float in the air and seem weightless even as they fight. It’s disorienting and confusing and robs the scene of the drama.
And yet, and yet. Gerber was always one of Marvel’s most existentialist writers, and it’s somehow easy to see these scenes as being more like moments in a one-act play than the depiction of super-hero drama. Remember that the kickoff for this story was a girl who was turned to evil by her father’s nasty intentions and anger at her. That’s the stuff that fuels many a great drama. Is it too much of a stretch to see this father possessed by a power-lusting demon as somehow emblematic of lost middle-American values? It’s tempting to read the rise of some power-obsessed little man in this story, and to see in him the striver who is always looking to lift himself up, no matter who he brings down next to him.
No, that’s too much of a stretch to work here, since this demon jumps from body to body. Still, it’s interesting to consider how many comic writers of the time would even bring up thoughts like this among comic readers.
Perhaps if Gerber had had more space or more time for planning or simply the thought at the time of exploring these themes, this story would have completely taken flight. Even still, under Colan’s empathetic linework, the story keeps teetering on the edge of moving from good to merely munificent. The image in panel two on this page is genuinely creepy, and the horrific page in panel three shows how evil has decimated this once gorgeous teenager. Her world has been completely destroyed by the evil that visited her, and she is truly paying the price for that loss.
If the body-hopping demon starts to get old by the end of this page (and the shrieking possessed man in panel seven looks a bit hokey), it can also be seen as Gerber beginning to bring this saga to a conclusion.
As this page shows us, Daimon Hellstrom is ready to bring this threat to a conclusion. As we see him become more and more furious, emphasized by that lovely triptych in panels two, three and four, this is not a man to be trifled with. As the demon reminds us and Hellstrom, “your mother was a psychotic and your father, the lord of Hell”, and we see that child emerge in the feral and vengeful look that Daimon reaches in panel four.
Again Gerber and Colan are in sync as each uses their specific and brilliant skillset to build each other’s component of this story. Too bad Esposito (or maybe Colan) cheats in the middle tier and fails to deliver on the drama that Gerber describes. The narration is gorgeous, anyway, all fury and sumptuous purple prose.
That leads to the despairing conclusion, the moment that shows Gerber at his full cynical flowering and the devastation that the deeply depressing decade of the 1970s brought him too: the demon’s ultimate fate, the horrible punishment that it has brought upon itself, is… to walk among humans. Satan’s own punishment for demons: that they should live out their lives… as humans.”
The only real devils in this world are ourselves, and the ultimate demons we bring to life are inside our own souls. Even for Gerber, this is dark and cynical. For a comic intended for bright teenagers, this message could bring deep despair. And perhaps a spin of a Black Sabbath album to indulge that dark despair. As this story reminds us, even families can bring terror.