Welcome to part seven of my look at Steve Gerber’s 1970s run on “Son of Satan” in Marvel Spotlight.
In the previous two weeks of this column I wrote about a deliriously horrific two-parter in this “Son of Satan” run that was illustrated by Gene Colan. The art in those issues, by perhaps the finest horror comics artist of the Bronze Age, was gorgeously empathetic, full of sensuous lines and thoughtful character design that emphasized the complexity of the characters he was presenting.
Unfortunately, Colan was only on the series for that mere two issues before he moved on to something else – as I found in my articles on Gerber’s “Morbius”, Marvel of the mid 1970s had major problems with keeping creative teams on series for more than an issue or two. Colan moved on to another series, so Marvel Spotlight #20 brought on one of Marvel’s steadiest (and blandest) hands, Sal Buscema.
Buscema is the epitome of the sort of hyper-professional artist who delivered professional quality work on time and with a minimum of flash. He therefore found a lot of work at Marvel during an era in which it always seemed like there was always more comic books to release each month than competent creators to work on them. Buscema isn’t a bad artist by any means. In fact, Buscema’s work with Gerber on their transcendentally weird Defenders run is wonderful. But in this story Our Pal Sal delivers merely competent work, nothing very special or very poor. Reading this 17-pager, it’s easy to see why some Marvel editors felt they had to push Buscema to move beyond his standard tropes and create something beyond the merely prosaic.
This latest “Son of Satan” story suffers from being illustrated by Buscema, but thankfully it still has Gerber. That fact alone guaranteed readers a surreal and wacky ride, and Gerber delivers his usual level of greatness here. A college student receives a mysterious invitation in the mail that beckons her to visit a psychic who knows truths about her. The girl is puzzled so she calls parapsychology professor Katherine Reynolds, who in turn brings along Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan.
The relationship between Reynolds and Hellstrom is underplayed here, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to tell from body language if the pair have a relationship and how they relate to each other. Under Colan, we got an idea from the way the characters looked and stood around each other that they were a couple, but under Buscema, that subtext simply doesn’t exist. That’s a real loss for readers, and emblematic of the difference between the two artists.
As the story moves on, it proceeds more or less as you might expect, as the little trio of hero, professor and student go to the psychic’s mysterious office, where she reads Daimon’s fortune using tarot cards. In fact, the oddest aspect of this scene may be how much it feels like rote repetition of this sort of standard trope. You’ve seen this sort of thing again and again: the strange crone-like woman who somehow knows everything about these characters; their astonishment that she knows their names; the mysterious fortune that somehow seems to reflect their real lives; the fact that the crone disappears shortly after the fortune-telling session.
It’s all so bland that it screams out for parody or for some sort of Gerbereque twist, but instead this section of the story simply falls flat, as a maze of unwanted clichés that echo the blandest possible storytelling tropes. Even the customary Gerber text page, usually a deliriously delightful destruction of inner demons, is dull and unreadable (it doesn’t help that the ink smudges some of the text.).
After the trio leave the psychic’s shop, strange events start happening. Somehow I think it won’t surprise you that all of the events the crone prophesized start to come true. A wolf attacks – like it was prophesied to do in the cards! The sign from the “Red Devil Sausage Factory” crashes down on our protagonists’ car, then the devil in the sign domes to life as a demon to drag Daimon away through the skies! Daimon is dropped into a mysterious old mansion, in which seven swords appear behind us, which Gerber’s narration tells us, “Alas, it’s plain that while one peril was fled another is about to reveal itself: the peril of the nine of swords… the card of cruelty, suffering, despair.”
This is mediocre even by the rather low standards of 1970s Marvel Comics, with an arbitrary approach and unexciting artwork. Colan’s empathetic, sensuous linework in the previous issue brought a dull story to vivid life, but here, in pages like the one above, Buscema merely makes this all feel like a stupid b-movie, overlit, overwrought and overly dramatic.
I’m not sure there’s a great story in exploring the tarot in comics form, and this comic makes me (sadly) feel right in that opinion. Maybe next issue will redeem the brilliant Steve Gerber.