Once upon a time, the Marvel Universe had this villainous character more terrifying than Galactus and more horrifying than Thanos. Anyone care to guess his name?
Still uncertain? Would you care to lend a hand here, Church Lady?
It is Halloween, holiday of ghosts and goblins and demons and devils, which makes it an appropriate time to discuss the most feared and powerful force of supernatural evil in the history of folklore and fantasy. Now the topic of Satan is hardly new territory here, particularly not around Halloween time—I’ve gotten into this before in 2018 and 2020, both times dealing with Steve Gerber’s stint writing Daimon Hellstrom, the “Son of Satan,” for Marvel. Although Hellstrom was the devil’s son and thus Satan’s presence was felt almost constantly in Hellstrom’s stories, Satan seemed to show up more often (literally, in the flesh) in the pages of Ghost Rider.
For most of the seventies and into the early eighties, Satan was a recurring character in the Marvel Universe (specifically in connection with Hellstrom and Ghost Rider). Then, in Ghost Rider #68 (May 1982), Roger Stern retconned Satan into Mephisto. While this retcon originally applied to just Ghost Rider, it would eventually become clear that Satan had been booted out of the Marvel Universe altogether. Now some may wonder why this would be a big deal, since Mephisto is just a Satan analogue anyway, right? Well, for some (perhaps even most) it may not be a big deal. But personally, for me, I’m in the “big deal” camp.
My reasons are simple: Mephisto just feels like a watered-down Satan to me (especially in this context). We all know who Mephisto is supposed to represent, so why not just call him Satan? The story will take on a lot more dramatic power if you do this, as the name “Satan” packs a few more millennia of punch to it. I’m not saying Mephisto is a weak or bad character on his own, but I don’t think you can effectively replace the OG devil, Satan, with him.
One thing we know about the retcon is that it was made to avoid offending anyone on religious grounds. We know this because the original retconner, Roger Stern, admitted to it in an interview I did with him back in 2017. “That was my decision, completely,” he said, taking full credit or blame, depending on where one stands on the issue. He would go on to state:
I’d always thought that the “Satan” connection was a weakness in the origin, as Satan is part of many religious canons. If Satan plays a part in your religion, you might take offense at his being turned into a comic book character. And, if you don’t believe in Satan, that disbelief might make it harder for you the accept the premise of the series.
On the other hand, Mephisto was an established Marvel character—and not part of anyone’s religion, as far as I knew. I thought that making Mephisto part of the Ghost Rider origin made it work better within the context of the Marvel Universe. (Roger Stern, “Ghost Rider’s First Ride,” Back Issue #95, April 2017, p. 24.)
I realize that religion can be a touchy and tricky subject. Religious belief is an almost entirely irrational thing, which renders most debate over any such issues pointless. People feel what they feel and believe what they believe and that’s all there is to it. The Bible, however, as a document, is something that should be debatable. And speaking strictly in Biblical terms, it is never truly clear who or what Satan is in the Bible. And whatever he may be, he is not (again, in strictly Biblical terms) this guy with the horns and the pitchfork. This particular character (or any such a portrayal of him) is much more rooted in ancient folklore and superstition, which should facilitate, to at least some degree, allowing him to be depicted in fiction.
Satan in the Old Testament
Many people make assumptions about the Bible without actually reading the Bible, particularly when it comes to today’s subject, Satan. When someone who has never done so does sit down and read the Bible, they just might find a few surprises waiting there for them.
In the Old Testament, the noun “satan,” Hebrew for “adversary” or “accuser,” occurs about ten times with the article “the.” (And if you have a more modern translation it might be rendered as “adversary” or “accuser” without ever seeing “satan” anywhere in your translated text.) Without the article “the,” it only pops up a couple times (and again, perhaps not even that often, depending on the translation.)
Going strictly be these oldest portions of the Bible, “the satan” (ha satan) would appear to be more of a position or an occupation than the name of a singular, specific entity. Also, everything the satan does takes place with the knowledge and, apparently, approval of God. He’s kind of like a prosecuting attorney (or, in the case of the Book of Job, maybe more like a repo man) in the service of God.
As Heads Is Tails, Just Call Me . . .
Lucifer appears in Ovid’s Metamorphosis as a minor Roman deity representing the “morning star” or “morning light” and was father to a couple of other minor Roman gods named Ceyx and Daedehon. Before the Bible was translated and began to spread across the Western world, this was all anyone on Earth knew of Lucifer.
It is in Isaiah 14:12-15 where we see the expression Helel ben Shachar, Hebrew for “shining one” or possibly “star of the morning.” This was written as a condemnation of the king of Babylon, accusing him of such egotism that he saw himself like a star shining in the sky. Well, whoever the Latin translator was sometime around the dawn of the second century, it would seem they had been an Ovid fan, as they turned the original, descriptive Hebrew text into the proper name of Lucifer. This is the only time the name appears in the Bible and thus can be readily categorized as a mistranslation or, perhaps more charitably, a misguided transliteration of the Hebrew. More modern translations of the original text do not even invoke the name “Lucifer” here.
Sidebar: During the course of my research for this post, I stumbled across this rather interesting video, which hypothesizes that the figure of Satan as we know him started to develop among the Jewish people as a result of the influence of Persia (what we know today as Iran) and Zoroastrianism after the end of the Babylonian exile.
Satan in the New Testament
In the New Testament, Satan is more often spoken of as a singular and unique entity, with his name being dropped with more regularity in the Gospels and elsewhere. Still, even though he may sound and feel like he’s the more traditional Satan most of us know, he’s still never captured in any kind of consistent detail. By the time we get to the Book of Revelation (last book of the New Testament), Satan is described as “the ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2), but the wording here does not precisely identify him as the same serpent from the Garden of Eden. There are also passages here that describe him as a “dragon” and a more general “beast,” but again, none of these characterizations are at all definitive.
Sidebar: I’m thinking there had to be a time when all these names were considered separate things, right? Because why not just call them all Satan if that’s who/what they were always supposed to be from the beginning? And what is the origin of this tendency to lump all these evil entities together so that they’re the same, one, evil entity? Is this mostly a tendency born out of Western culture is it more universal?
And once more, nowhere in the New Testament do we see Satan described as having red skin and/or red eyes, horns, a black goatee, a tail, or possibly being cloven-hoofed. These things came later, from non-Biblical sources.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the greatest works of English literature and the likely source of most of our presumptions about Satan today. However, the idea of Satan/Lucifer being expelled from Heaven certainly did not start with Milton. The Book of Revelation, for one, tells us that Satan was “thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (12:9). Pre-dating even this, we have the apocryphal Jewish text, the Book of Jubilees, wherein God bestows authority upon “the satan” to command a group of fallen angels.
Regardless, Milton is the one who put it all together between two covers and created a literary masterpiece, so he still deserves the appropriate credit for this. Remember though, Milton was writing fantasy here, not issuing dogma. So if you’re writing a work of fiction that involves the character of Satan/Lucifer and your drawing the character from the work of Milton, you’re not drawing from any conventional religious source and there is no kind of heresy in it. If your Satan ever uttered (or repeated) the words, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven,” then that’s Milton’s Satan, a figure of fantasy, and there’s nothing legitimately religious to it.
Even without any potential heresy, Milton still courted some controversy with Paradise Lost, chiefly because there was some criticism that the work offered a sympathetic portrayal of Satan. Such a take is reasonable enough and, in fact, not an unusual phenomenon in more contemporary art and entertainment. Many modern television dramas feature complex antiheroes who can be quite unlikable, if not downright awful, at times. Tony Soprano and Walter White leap to mind almost immediately. While these characters are not heroes by any stretch, and we should probably hate them, we also understand them, which makes it difficult (if not impossible) to hate them entirely.
In Paradise Lost, Satan comes off similarly. He’s evil and does evil things, but he possesses flaws that are simply all too recognizably human and relatable to us. Satan has an abundance of vanity, pride, and even insecurity—part of why he resents humankind so much is because he appears to believe humanity has become God’s new “favorite” creation, supplanting himself. In the end, Milton’s Satan winds up feeling rather sad and tragic, as he could probably regain all he’s lost if he were to simply admit his misdeeds and ask God, his creator, for forgiveness. But we know his ego will never allow him to do this.
Satan’s Swan Song at Marvel
In the seventies, specifically between 1972 and 1976, we saw Satan in Marvel comics on a fairly-regular basis. However, after Daimon Hellstrom took his bow in the final issue of Son of Satan #8 (Feb. 1977), both he and his father would disappear for precisely four years. Then Daimon popped back up in Defenders #92 (Feb. 1981), with a cover blurb declaring, “At long last . . . the return of Son of Satan!” J. M. DeMatteis, in his writing debut on the title, had just begun the build for the huge 100th anniversary issue eight months down the line. Daimon Hellstrom would play a big role in this story, but his father would play an even bigger one.
It was all part of the “Six-Fingered Hand” storyline, which would kick off properly in Defenders #94 (Apr. 1981). I hadn’t been reading Defenders much at that time, but picked up the following issue, #95 (May 1981), because the presence of Dracula on the cover intrigued me. And if I hadn’t bought that issue, I guarantee you I would have definitely bought the next one, #96 (Jun. 1981), because Ghost Rider was featured prominently and I was not one to miss a Ghost Rider appearance back in those days. In any case, I was very much on board with this story at the time it was being published. This whole string of issues was a parade of great supernatural guest stars, continuing with Devil Slayer in #97 (Jul. 1981), the Man-Thing in #98 (Aug. 1981), the return of original Defenders Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and Silver Surfer in #99 (Sept. 1981), culminating in all the heroes facing off against Satan and the forces of Hell in the double-sized Defenders #100 (Oct. 1981).
As I said at the start, the best Satan we saw at Marvel (or at least the best Satanic conflicts) came to us via Steve Gerber in those “Son of Satan” tales for Marvel Spotlight, but the one DeMatteis gave us here was still pretty good. In many ways, in fact, this anniversary issue of Defenders feels like the conclusion to Gerber’s earlier character work on Daimon Hellstrom. Back in those Spotlight days, Daimon often ruminated over that inevitable day when he would have to face off against his father, Satan, for all the figurative marbles, which is basically what happens in Defenders #100.
It’s a wonderful build up to this anniversary issue, with all the aforementioned guest stars, along with the introduction of one new cast regular, the Gargoyle. There are also plot developments aplenty, with the juiciest (as well as the weirdest) being the possibility that Patsy Walker/Hellcat may also be a child of Satan. It all comes to a head with Daimon agreeing to fight his father one on one, with the Defenders promising not to interfere. When Satan begins to beat Daimon with ease, however, the Defenders break their word as Strange casts a spell that adds a portion of the team’s combined power to that of Daimon’s darksoul.
And it isn’t enough.
Satan still manages to put down Daimon without much effort and is poised to slay him . . . but finds he cannot. Because he loves his son. Satan essentially surrenders, undone by paternal love, and is about to return to Hell in defeat when Daimon asks to go with him. “I am nothing but darksoul now, father. I belong nowhere on Earth. I belong only by your side. Take me with you.” Satan agrees. In return, he releases his hold over Patsy/Hellcat. Then he shares some parting words with the group.
Satan being unable to kill his son because of love is an interesting creative choice, but it’s this end speech that really knocks it out of the park. Because not killing Daimon could have been seen as a major weakness on Satan’s part—but now, after this? Who knows what the Lord of Lies was really up to? And who knows what he may still have up his sleeve? This was great. In fact, I’m invoking the chef’s kiss for this one.
In the wake of this 100th issue, Satan and son disappeared for a couple issues, but then DeMatteis checked back in on them in Defenders #104 (Feb. 1982). Daimon then bid farewell to his father and his infernal kingdom in issue #105 (Mar. 1982) and returned to Earth. Two months later, Satan was kaput in the Marvel Universe.
The Nature of His Game
The word is “weight.” This is what the name “Satan” brings to the table; this is why I prefer to use this name over other diabolic options. If Daimon Hellstrom is the son of someone else—the son of Mephisto, or the son of (ugh) Dormammu—he loses something big. Only the comic diehards even know who Mephisto or Dormammu are, while literally everyone knows who (and what) Satan is. Thus, when you call your character the “Son of Satan” you’re giving him a lot more weight, a lot more power. The invocation of that name is going to demand the reader’s attention and take hold of their imagination with a fierce grip. Such is simply the nature of the game.
This added to those Gerber stories immensely. Gerber’s Daimon Hellstrom wasn’t just struggling with any ol’ force of evil, he was struggling with the greatest force of evil, the ultimate evil. This raised the stakes in all the narrative’s conflicts, both literal and figurative. Did being the spawn of the ultimate evil guarantee that Daimon had to be evil? Could he conquer his own evil nature? Still choose to be good? Do any of us get to choose? Can any of us overcome our natures? Good stories will make you ask questions like this, will make you think, and these are some of the deepest questions one could ponder. We all have both the infernal and the divine in us, and the conflict between those two drives is something that’s relatable to all. They literally don’t make comic stories like this anymore.
And this is what disappoints me the most about these circumstances: the fact that we are clearly going backward and have been for quite some time. There was a whole lot more freedom and daring in mainstream comics (especially at Marvel) in 1972 than there was by the time we got to 1982 and probably still less today. Keep in mind the original idea for Marvel Spotlight after Ghost Rider left for his own title was to make a comic with Satan himself as the protagonist—“Mark of Satan” was the proposed title, as revealed in the lettercol of Spotlight #11 (Aug. 1973). Moreover, the idea for this appears to have come directly from Stan Lee, of all people. Back in 1972, Lee was completely comfortable with using Satan, to the point of even giving him his own book. Would any mainstream publisher feel comfortable doing this today? Heck, by ‘82, even Marvel didn’t have the stones for it anymore. (By the time we got to the end of the twentieth century, DC finally gave us Lucifer. Though it was a Vertigo book for mature audiences, and “Lucifer” doesn’t carry the same weight to my ears that “Satan” does, it was something, at least.)
Satan is one of our most powerful literary characters (regardless of whatever else one chooses to believe about him) and a powerful tool for a great story. Whatever religious issues may be evoked by the invocation of Satan for some, can we acknowledge and allow that he has also been used as a fictional character since forever and simply allow this to continue? Can we maintain freedom of expression? Forgo the censorship? Please? If we don’t, we’ll be cheating ourselves out of some of the best potential stories—and doing more of the devil’s work than most of us will ever realize.