I'm going to be honest, the first time I ever heard of Mike Carey was through his Felix Castor series of supernatural procedurals. Even then, I heard about the novels through an Amazon review that (like all Amazon reivews) vanished up its own ass in disparaging Richard Kadrey's exquisite Sandman Slim while singing his praises. It didn't give me a good impression of the Felix Castor books or their fans. I hadn't even heard that he'd written comics until two years later, when I suddenly discovered that in the vast recesses of my various collections, I happened to have a copy of the critically-acclaimed Hellblazer story All His Engines*, which, despite being bleak and nihilistic (and if you have a problem with bleak nihilism, don't read Hellblazer because unless it's written by Neil Gaiman and thus drunk and stoned off its ass**, this is all Hellblazer is.) was optimistic and very well-written. And then I'd heard he'd written an entire series about Lucifer, one of my favorite characters in Sandman due to his immensely sympathetic nature and status not as a villain, not as a hero, but as a character who could easily be each.
And, well, it was brilliant. The characters, even the villains, have at least some kind of motivation that's understandable. It weaves together several stories, and actually surprised me when I thought they were going to end poorly. Which isn't to say that there's a lot of winning-- it's a series about Satan, after all, his winning would mean some very odd things about existence and God-- but there are enough wins that it doesn't wind up in crushing despair. The series structures itself as a very odd epic poem, with the start of the arc being the creation of a new world, and the end being, well, I'm not going to spoil that in the opening paragraphs. Rest assured, you should read Lucifer. But why? Well, read on...
"Lucifer Morningstar speaks for himself."
"We know which way everyone jumps. Those who believe in free will make the best puppets of all."
- The Basanos
- The Basanos
In 1668, John Milton wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost. In blank verse, he told of the war in heaven, the fall of Lucifer and his rebel host, and finally the temptation in the garden and the fall of man. In Paradise Lost, however, despite Satan being an antagonist, he's treated more like a tragic hero. He fights with his father over the concept of having one's own will, and the angels being godlike in their own right. And thus was born the Miltonian interpretation of Satan, a tragic, arrogant figure borne more of the Greek myths and the hubris of man than any actual malice. The Miltonian interpretation has actually become the popular intepretation of Satan in a good deal of fantasy works, seeing him not as some kind of malicious deceiver but as a figure more interested in questioning the creations that his father deemed worthy of His unconditional love. And, as a part of this, Lucifer is seen more or less as a reluctant ruler of Hell, a figure whose act of rebellion, of finally having something of his own, was ruined by humanity and God when God sent the unfaithful to Hell and they showed up begging to be punished.
In 1990, Neil Gaiman took this one step further by having Lucifer actually retire in his Season of Mists storyline in Sandman. The fallen angel locked up Hell, gave the key to Dream of the Endless, got Dream to cut off his wings, and packed up to go run a piano bar in Los Angeles. Hell was later taken over by a pair of lover angels who were content to let it run itself with minimal administration, as neither was able to comprehend the amount of suffering that had become the status quo when a staggering number of demons decided to break bad all those millenia ago. And, as far as Sandman went, that was in fact the entire story. But for the entire saga, Lucifer's story-- and indeed that of Hell-- was far from over.
Nine years after Neil Gaiman penned the story about Satan abandoning Hell, Mike Carey picked up the story with The Sandman Presents: Lucifer: The Morningstar Option. The character had grown enough in popularity by this point that he gained his own ongoing series, known as Lucifer. Lucifer ran in DC's Vertigo imprint for seventy-five issues before ending in 2006 with a rather unsettling finale that at first, I somehow managed to skip entirely. And thus, Lucifer entered into the comics canon, a strange, gently surreal tale of gods, monsters, and one angel's quest to gain free will and agency to any extent possible.
What follows is a quest not for any tangible reward, not to save any damsel or rescue any world, oh no, our hero cares, but he doesn't care that much. No, Lucifer begins with a quest to finally become free of God's influence. With his knowledge, a few well-placed schemes, and the power of an open-ended letter of transit written in God's own hand, Lucifer opens a gateway to the Void beyond creation and undertakes a plan to create and shepherd his own cosmos, similar to what his Father did, but better. In creating and operating his own cosmos, Lucifer plans to finally break free of God's machinations and once and for all gain his own will and individuality. In his quest, Lucifer must win back his wings, protect the Void from hosts of angels who would take everything away from him (simply because he was the rebel), and keep his partially-stable creation from collapsing and/or being overrun by a motley host of would-be gods, goddesses, mythological creatures, and other threats from within. Along his quest, he will make powerful allies, dangerous enemies, and, with any luck, finally gain the freedom he seeks. Or cease to exist in the attempt. No matter what, philosophical discussions over inevitability, determinism, and the problems of free will and theodicy will ensue.
Lucifer can actually be contrasted with the hero I started the month with, Jesse Custer from Preacher. Jesse believes he is a man of honor and what he does is good and justified. He believes that what he does is right, anyone who gets in his way is wrong, and application of force is the best way to solve every problem, save for the problems that can be solved by verbally and emotionally breaking your opponents down. He is implacable, a Western hero in his own right, and will keep coming after whatever obstacle stands in his way. Of course, by the end of Preacher, the reader discovers that Jesse's take-no-prisoners attitude is complete crap. It kind of makes him a total dick and he's driven several people to suicide and one to extreme gastrointestinal distress. Jesse is also ruled by his own fears, a move which causes him time and again to rob his girlfriend of her agency, no matter how many times (and it is almost every time) she saves his ass.
Lucifer, on the other hand, takes the same attitude-- "I am determined and nothing will get in my way", and makes it smoother. He's driven, but he understands the art of the compromise. He's unwilling to play the game by any rules but his own, but he's willing to negotiate and try to get the parties to see reason before he goes right for kicking them in the teeth. His kicks in the teeth are also much more figurative than literal. He acts diplomatically enough when approaching the Japanese pantheon to get his wings back, and it is only after they decide to attempt to murder him that he finally loses his cool. He's even willing to work with most of the powers surrounding him, his only qualm being working with the powers of Heaven, as those are under direct control of his father.
Lucifer is, of course, not without flaws-- he tends to lack crucial empathy and perceive certain people as his tools rather than his friends, and his attitude of "I do what I want when I want" is kind of just as dickish as Jesse Custer's-- but by the same turn, the only bad turns he does his bodyguard are when he refuses her requests with regards to her race (and since the Lilim are soulless murder creatures, he has some misgivings siccing them on his creation and being bound by his word there...and there's also the tricky bit where they want to serve as his militia), and at the very end when he has one last confrontation with her. He never robs anyone of agency, in fact, he celebrates it. He refuses to let himself be ruled by a lot of his fears, instead choosing to eradicate them. His one major flaw is that he is continuing to fight a losing battle for something that he cannot, will not, and does not have. A battle that will probably cost him much more than just his status as God's favorite son.
In fact, were it not for his using people and some apathy where consequences of doing what he wants are concerned, he could actually be cast as a traditional mythological hero. He's the progeny of a god, he's resolute, steadfast, cares at least a little for his companions (especially the way he sees himself as a father figure to goddess-ascendant Elaine Belloc and the gentle way he tries to handle his bodyguard Mazikeen), and is determined to see his quest to completion. Hell, he doesn't even want to overthrow God, he's quite content instead to build a universe next door and have his father leave him all alone. All he wants is something of his. Something he can call his own. A life on his own terms, with no responsibility. An anarchic existence in the best form of the word, where he would be bound by no rules or rulers or needing to serve, but could just live.
Which leads me to the other characters. The cast in Lucifer is huge, ranging from mythological beings all the way down to simple humans. And if any one of them gets page time, they're actually developed as well-rounded characters. A demon who shows up merely to assassinate Lucifer and then winds up sacrificing her life for him in a grand total of two issues' worth of appearances gets a backstory, a name (Musubi of the Shiko-Me), and a motivation. Of course, they get offed in spectacular fashion, there aren't many minor characters who survive Lucifer's gambits (the Lightbringer has a lot of honesty, but he's fuzzy on the whole compassion thing), but the point is that they're well-developed. One of my favorite non-Lucifer characters has to be Bergelmir, the Norse hero whom Lucifer conscripts to captain a voyage between worlds on the Naglfar***. For one thing, he manages to make being a total lecher charming and debonair. For another, he's fairly accommodating given that he's being managed and ordered around by someone for whom the concept of "compassion" is kind of alien. He's also the only person to try to screw with Lucifer other than God and get away with it.
The other thing I like about the characters, and this is playing into my desire to see coming-of-age arcs, is that the characters develop and mature as the series goes on, with one major exception. Standing out among these are Elaine Belloc and Mona Doyle, two teenagers who eventually become goddesses in the Second Creation and silently watch over the domains of "Hedgehogs" and "Everything that isn't hedgehogs", as the request was so absurd that Lucifer couldn't help but grant it. By the end of the series they now understand (much like anyone who's ever gained a position of authority) that directly intervening and dealing with people the way they had at the beginning of the story won't work. Elaine even decides to try a new approach to her divinity, "working from within", rather than presiding over those in her hands from above. They also tend to discard the old mentors of the past in an attempt to continue on their own.
This is actually a theme that continues throughout the work. In fact, to use Preacher as a contrast again, where in Preacher God was a manipulative asshole who wanted all the power for himself and couldn't bring himself to care about humanity, Lucifer's Creator/Yaweh/Father/God actually cares too much about His subjects. He vacates his throne not out of fear, but to try to get his two sons to reconcile and rule their domains maturely without His help. And, eventually, Lucifer finds himself in the mentor position and realizes that he has to give up the codependent relationship he has-- firstly because he can't allow himself to be in a position where he would be bound, but also because the person he's mentoring really doesn't need him any more. Part of character development in Lucifer is knowing when to let go as much as it is the free will or anything else. What truly defines Lucifer in the closing moments of the series is that he refuses to let go of the desire for what he wants, that single-minded obsession. Where so many are able to actually mature, Lucifer never does. His refusal to change is actually a character trait, rebelling against the very conventions and lessons he's supposed to learn.
I suppose if there's any issue with the series, it's essentially in the design. Lucifer comes off sometimes as needlessly and hopelessly socially inept, which, while a facet of his character (being unable to give up his ideals) becomes kind of defeating at points. While it's made clear why he can't reconcile with his brother the Demiurge, and why Michael refuses to take God's throne as the Demiurge and rightful heir to Heaven, there were times where I was shouting at the page "IT'S FOR THE GREATER GOOD AND THE WORLD IS BEING DESTROYED! HUG IT THE FUCK OUT ALREADY!" but them being antiheroes and comics being a non-interactive medium****, they failed to listen. I will admit it didn't get to Thomas Covenant levels^, but it was bad.
The other thing is that at a certain point, to drive the dialogue on maturity home, Lucifer eventually gets kind of relegated to a decoy protagonist. Another character takes the chance he was given, because they grew up and kind of deserved it, and he first serves as their mentor while a lot of other things are going on, and then eventually takes his ball and goes home. While this serves as an important lesson Lucifer will never learn, I felt more like it was taking the focus away from the center of the story. Also, the last few issues of the series end on an immensely depressing note, essentially ending on the question of whether or not free will is worth the cost and the amount of tears shed, if true freedom is really worth all the pain and suffering Lucifer went through just to get what he did. And, in the end, as is a part of life, even the people who got what they wanted still didn't get what they wanted.
In the end, though, this is a series more people need to read. It's a celebration of free will and the need to exist on one's own terms, as viewed through someone who was probably fighting for it long before we even decided on the question. It's a celebration of maturity whose central character is the least mature person in the whole thing, and that's counting the two teenagers. It's a proper mythological epic, one that spans several mythologies and features a classical antihero with everything to lose fighting over the one thing that matters, the one thing that ever matters, the right to exist as he sees fit, bound by no rules or laws or people he would be beholden to. It's well-drawn, well-written, and its highs and lows are absolutely crushing as they're revealed. Buy this. Borrow this. Download this. I don't care. Just for Gan's sake, read Lucifer. It's worthy of your attention and respect.
Epics Month concludes with Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets
- A return to book reviews
- An in-depth look at Hellblazer as a multigenerational saga
*Featuring the famous Constantine line "I wasn't playing poker with her soul, it was chicken. And I won, didn't I?"
**Neil Gaiman is good at writing, but terrible at writing Hellblazer. Though I admit, writing a Christmas special for Hellblazer is hard. People getting offed at Christmastime is usually a terrible idea.
***The Naglfar is a warship made from the toenail clippings of dead men. And canon in Norse mythology!
****Believe me, if that were the case, there would be some very interesting changes in comics. There still might be.
^There is no one I know-- no one-- who has not thrown their copy of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever across the room in frustration as its lead character failed to realize his situation. Oh, and also it was on my high school reading list, so technically it's the bane of my alma mater's literati, too.