Happy Hell-oween!

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It’s Halloween time! Also “Huluween” time—or so they tell me.

The streaming service Hulu has got this promotional “Huluween” thing going this month, launching some fresh horror programming in honor of the Halloween season. Among them is a new Marvel joint based on our old pal Daimon Hellstrom, a.k.a. the Son of Satan, in a series titled Helstrom. Keep in mind that there are no guarantees that this thing will even go more than one season, as some major creative upheaval has taken place at Marvel since the show finished production (with Marvel Television getting folded into Marvel Studios late last year), nor can I tell you how good (or not) I think it is, as it hasn’t premiered yet. But since that premiere is only three measly days away, I figured a classic Son of Satan post would be apropos.

Now I realize I already covered a fairly awesome Son of Satan story for Halloween just two years ago, but don’t worry kids, with Steve Gerber at the typewriter for a lengthy stint on SoS, we’ve still got plenty of great stuff to choose from. In fact, what follows is actually my all-time favorite Son of Satan storyline. It’s a three-parter that gets kicked off in Marvel Spotlight #20 (Feb. 1975).

“The Fool’s Path!”

We start at Gateway University in St. Louis, where undergrad Christine Sandt has received a strange piece of mail. It’s a Death card from a Tarot deck, with an invitation on the back for her and a friend to learn their future from one Madame Swabada. Disturbed by the card, Sandt consults with her parapsychology professor Katherine Reynolds, who in turn ropes Daimon Hellstrom into the proceedings. Daimon notes that he would write the whole thing off as a “cruel” marketing ploy, except for the fact that Sandt was the only student on campus to receive such an invitation. Suspecting sinister forces at work, Daimon suggests they go to the reading with him accompanying Sandt as her invited “friend.” Reynolds decides to tag along with them.

When the group arrives at Madame Swabada’s place, the fortuneteller appears as your stereotypical gypsy hag, though she appears polite and pleasant enough on the surface. Still suspicious, Daimon requests that she do his reading first. Swabada begins by choosing the Knight of Swords as Daimon’s significator card.

“The Knight of Swords, for a young man of courage and daring,” she says. “True, this is usually the card of a brown-haired man… but I believe the spirit of the card suits you best, wouldn’t you agree? “

“I agree that the reader has the privilege of exercising such a judgment,” Daimon concedes. “May I shuffle the cards?”

“That’s right. Now ask a question of the cards as you shuffle, then out the deck thrice– to the left, please– then hand them back to me, and we’ll begin.”

Daimon obliges and the reading begins. “This covers you,” Swabada tells him as she turns over the Moon card. Then a two-page spread reveals Daimon’s full reading.

In case anyone is having trouble discerning the white-on-black text on forty-five-year-old newsprint, here it is for you:

“Curious,” says Madame Swabada, her wizened face stretching into a cracked brittle smile, “Very curious indeed. Note the several cards of the suit of Swords, signifying conflict, and the four Major Arcana cards— the Moon the Devil, the Tower, and the Fool—indicating powerful, outside, influences at work in your life. Together, they suggest that you may be embroiled in a conflict whose outcome is not in your hands.”

Daimon nods, but his face remains stolid. “Yes… That is possible.”

“The card which covers you— representing, the general atmosphere surrounding your question— wait, that reminds me, Mr. Hellstrom. What was your question?”

“I prefer not to say,” Daimon replies.

“As you wish. The covering card is the Moon, the card of the psychic, of unforeseen peril or deception. Someone or something, it seems, is acting against you without your knowledge.

“The Devil: this crosses you. The forces opposing you, for good or evil, may be your own bondage to the material world… or perhaps the powers of black magic.

“Beneath you, at the heart of the matter, is The Nine of Swords. Desolation, despair, perhaps the death of a loved, one.”

Daimon flinches, tenses. “My mother,” he says mechanically. “She died only a year or so ago.”

“Passing out of your life, behind you, is a time of rest and repose, the Four of Swords. And ahead lies peril. The Ten of Swords crowns you, represents what may happen in the future. Misfortune, defeat in battle, failure, pain, tears— relating perhaps to this struggle in your life. For before you, something that will occur in the future, is loneliness, despondency, a dark night of the soul; foretold by the Five of Pentacles.

“And the gloomy outlook of the cards is reflected in your heart, Mr. Hellstrom. Your fears are represented by the Tower— conflicts, change, unforeseen catastrophe. You doubt the validity of the course you’ve chosen for your life. And you can expect no encouragement from your family. The reversed Six of Cups indicates they feel you cling to outworn morals and manners, that your cause is hopeless and futile.

“But you disagree. The Seven of Wands represents your hopes regarding the question. You feel you can hold your own if you persist against all odds; that victory can in fact be won by courage and strength of will.

“As to the final outcome… The Fool. It appears that after all your strife and struggle, all the pain and loneliness you will endure, all the grief and heartache and destruction foretold by the other cards… you will find your journey has only begun. You will find that no man can conquer the forces you’ve chosen to oppose. And the choice to abandon your quest will be offered again.

“In short, the victory you seek is unattainable and can only lead you back to where you began. The purpose to which you’ve dedicated your life, Mr. Hellstrrom… will come to naught.”

The old gypsy looks Daimon squarely in the eye… and grins.

But Daimon does not see. His eyes are fixed firmly on the cards. His mind reels with the dreadful future they portend, His fists clench tight. His brow furrows. And slowly, as if fighting the muscles in his neck, he looks up … furious!

Daimon flies into a rage, accusing Swabada of rigging the deck, and transforms into the Son of Satan then and there. After reducing the reading table to ash with soulfire, he appears to pass out momentarily. Then the group leaves without Christine ever getting a reading from Swabada herself. “Y-you chose wisely, Miss Sandt,” Daimon reasures her. “Whatever the hag’s power may be, her intent is almost certainly an evil one.”

“That’s right, Christine,” Swabada shouts after them, “you listen to him! He’s an expert on evil!” The woman then curses Daimon for “robbing” Christine Sandt of her wise counsel.

Almost immediately afterward, Daimon finds himself attacked in the St. Louis streets by a slavering, wild wolf, in an image almost exactly like the Moon card. After destroying the animal, Daimon kicks down the door to Swabada’s shop and finds it empty and abandoned, with all the furnishings that had been there just minutes earlier now gone.

Thus begins a three-issue journey wherein Daimon will be fighting off wonderfully weird and wild Tarot-themed threats while trying to solve the riddle that is Madame Swabada.

Research, Research, Research

In the lettercol of Gerber’s first issue as writer, Marvel Spotlight #14 (Mar. 1974), it was noted that “Our new scripter on the SON OF SATAN series, Steve Gerber, has been doing some serious research into the occult field in general and Satanism in particular, and beginning with SPOTLIGHT #15, you’ll start to see some of his findings – – albeit in Comics Code-Approved version – – reflected in the stories.”

I’ve found that research is one of the best tools a writer has. You can begin with the smallest of ideas, start researching and before you know it you’ll have your idea fleshed out in great detail—and will likely find inspiration for other potential stories. Research will also add a great amount of verisimilitude to your tale, which I believe is well demonstrated in this Tarot-themed storyline.

With the story playing out over the course of three issues and the comic coming out bi-monthly, fan letters responding to the first part would see print in the third, Spotlight #22 (June 1975). One particular letter from a young woman named Gil Fitzgerald got into Gerber’s treatment of the Tarot in some detail:

Dear Marvel,

This is my first letter to Marvel, though I’ve enjoyed your mags for several years. I haven’t written because, although at times I’ve disagreed with the way writers and artists have handled characters, I believe that a creative person has to write or draw the way he feels it.

Son of Satan however has asked for critical comments from readers on occult details, and I feel qualified to make one on your use of the Tarot in issue 20. I’ve read Tarot for five years, and while I’m not an expert, I do know enough about the cards to recognize the Waite Tarot when I see it. The pack drawn by Sal Buscema looks very much like the one designed by A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith at the turn of the century. It’s also known as the Ryder Tarot, and it differs from the old, traditional cards in many ways, not least of which is that its number cards have symbolic drawings, and not simply the correct number of pentacles or cups. Waite also changed the Major Arcana drastically to conform with his own Rosicrucian leanings.

Which makes me wonder why you chose this pack for such an unpleasant character as Madame Swabada. As a reader myself, I know that choosing a Tarot pack for one’s own deck means searching for a deck whose symbols speak to you: it must ‘feel’ right. I can’t see how a deck designed by a man like Waite would appeal to an ally of the powers of darkness. Waite Was a British occult scholar, a Christian mystic, a kabbalist, and a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. He did not dabble in Satanism or black magick. As a matter of fact the Golden Dawn expelled a very famous (or infamous) member for just that: Aleister Crowley. Crowley designed a beautiful deck—and one I dislike intensely; it’s filled with reversed pentagrams. I suspect that if you print this you’ll get letters from Crowleytes telling me I’m maligning their leader. Sorry about that, but his brand of occultism turns me off…

Anyway, with all those other decks, Waite’s was a poor choice. The Tarot Classic or any of the older decks would have been more appropriate.

Also, on page 6, it’s Major Arcana, not “Major Arena” Do I get a no-prize?

Thanks for hearing me out.

The editorial response:

First of all, Gil, thanks for the extensive commentary. We’re sure that what you’ve said will be of interest to many occult-minded readers.

The reason we chose to model our Tarot deck after the Ryder pack was twofold: first, it’s the deck that most non-scholars seem to be familiar with; second, its symbolism is probably the clearest and most visual of the various decks. Too, reference material was far more plentiful on that deck than any other. Steve was aware that the cards were some what unsuited (ouch!) to as nasty a personality as Madame Swabada, but felt that these other considerations outweighed that rather esoteric one.

The best collection of images from the Crowley deck that I could find can be seen here. They’re certainly eye catching, but I agree with the editorial decision to go with the more well-known images of the Waite Tarot.

“Journey Into Himself!”

As mentioned, there were a great number of Tarot-themed menaces that Daimon would face in this storyline, and while they were all tremendous fun, it was the character exploration that made this three-parter truly great. By the time we get to the conclusion in Marvel Spotlight #22 (June 1975), we’re largely done with the Tarot stuff, as nearly everything we get here is about Daimon’s past. This trip down memory lane included appearances from big names like Daimon’s sister, Satana; the Ghost Rider; his mother, Victoria; the Father Superior from his seminary school; and even his adolescent self. Threats he faced in his more immediate past also reappear, such as Ikthalon, Baphomet, and even Linda Littletree(s), a.k.a. Witch-Woman.

Oh yes, and Madame Swabada too, of course. We learn here that the gypsy seer is actually dead and it’s her spirit that’s tormenting Daimon from within his own psyche, having taken up residence in Daimon’s head at the invitation of his own evil self—his “Dark Soul.” This is the infernal part of his nature that he gets from his father and is essentially a second soul, one that his human soul must constantly struggle to overcome.

Within Daimon’s own consciousness (which is where all the action takes place this issue), the battle with his own dark nature becomes a literal fight, as depicted on the cover as well as the interior pages. The climax of this conflict is when things get really interesting, as it is anything but your typical comic-book resolution.

Most superhero conflicts end with a punch in the mush and the hero standing tall in triumph over the villain, who’s usually on the ground, knocked out. This is obviously a very different kind of victory than the one comic fans are used to getting.

Upon waking in the police station surrounded by Lieutenant Quinn, Dr. Reynolds, and Christine Sandt, Daimon reveals that he has just “won the most important battle of my life.” When Christine asks what “battle” he’s talking about, Daimon responds:

Very highbrow and philosophical stuff being touched on here. Another masterpiece from Steve Gerber with a big assist from Sal Buscema on the art.

Coming Back to Character

I’ve said this a number of times in the past, but it truly bears near-constant repeating: character is the most important thing in any story, and is most certainly more important than any given plot. This is because there are only so many plot formulas out there—pretty much all of them have already been used before. But a talented writer can still create characters that are fresh and unique, and Daimon Hellstrom is as fresh and unique as they come.

It’s easy to see this storyline and its chief conflict as your standard good versus evil, and this is certainly a legitimate interpretation if you want to go down that road, but there’s also another way to look at it. Daimon Hellstrom is the son of Satan—it’s the title of the strip and can also be considered his “superhero” name. The evil within him comes from his father, it’s a familial curse. But we all share a similar struggle, even if our father isn’t the Devil. We all carry this fear that we’re doomed to turn into our parents someday; that this is somehow our inescapable fate. The conflict is heightened in Daimon’s case because if he turns into his father someday, this would lead to him helping to destroy the world. Still, the core conflict is the same: Is he doomed to become like his father or can he forge a different path of his own? Be his own man?

Though it was never formally revealed in the story, it would seem clear that this was the question Daimon had in mind when Swabada began his reading. It’s a question we all must face at some point (or perhaps many points) in our lives.

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