The Devil As A Charming Chap, Murder As Entertainment: 31 Days Of Atlas #9

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continued from here;

4. The Unreconstructed Devil

The figure of Satan in The Black Widow is in one sense at least a rather daring, and even provocative, adversary for a 1940 comicbook. For the explicitness of his nudity matched to his habit of, as above, displaying buttocks to the readers while parading even more transgressive bodily organs to a fiendish, dead/undead female character was hardly likely to please the censorious. Throughout the story, only judiciously-placed shadows and a swirling cape prevent Satan from adding full-on frontal exposure to his many other manifest sins.

But beyond his disconcertingly proud displaying of himself to dead if stereotypically beautiful women, there’s little else in Kapitan and Sahle’s Lucifer to challenge the age’s popular stereotypes of the Devil. He is a protagonist created entirely from pre-existing cloth, with little but a small number of unexplained plot twists to mark him out from any other common-and-garden representations of Satan. In short, whatever might be found imposing and even frightening about comes not from the strip, but from the culture’s common reservoir of beliefs. This really is the stuff of the-flames-are-ever-there Sunday School harangues as refracted through the lens of a bashed-out, barely competent kid’s comic. Everything about this devil is rooted in cliché, from his appearance to his home, from his power to his corrupting mission. And of course, we’d expect nothing else from a bottom-feeding exploitation comic of the period.

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We would however expect something more thoughtful and nuanced, if only by a small measure, to feature in a 1974 comicbook with Lucifer as a central character. From its earliest days in the early 1960s, Marvel had pursued a policy of presenting antagonists with the same two-dimensional illusion of depth that it lent to its heroes. To varying degrees, the various editorial fiefdoms in DC Comics had followed suit. (One dimensional characters came to be thought of by many as yesterday’s fictions, as if straight-forward representations couldn’t in themselves prove highly enjoyable.) Within a few years of the Marvel Revolution kicking off, even died-in-the-wool Communists might be depicted with some – usually small – measure of understanding and sympathy. But not here, not in The Grim Ghost. Instead, Fleisher and Colon’s Devil is, bar a few extraneous details, essentially the same Satan that appeared in the Black Widow. The differences between the two versions as slight. As discussed yesterday, there is a moment in The Grim Ghost #1 where Satan joyfully surrenders himself to the pleasurable responsibility of whipping the naked, char-boiled dead, which its hard to believe the proud Satan of The Black Widow would publicly revel in. Beyond that, both depictions sit easily with age-old visions of Satan at, simultaneously, work and play. As such, the habit of deconstructing popular comics stereotypes and rebuilding them in a way that added depth and freshness is absent in The Grim Ghost #1. Rather, the comic is a conspicuous celebration of unreconstructed clichés. As Marvel’s new horror books wrestled with the problems of how to present traditional representations of evil in a more modern and interesting form, The Grim Ghost stood in his key first appearance for nothing but the absence of change. Wolfman and Colan’s Tomb Of Dracula and Steve Gerber’s work on Man-Thing, with any number of artist collaborators, embraced the challenge of making the staid unsettling and compelling again. But that was not, in The Grim Ghost’s first issue, how Fleisher intended to grab the attention and the dimes of the readers of 1970’s America.

5. The Afterlife As Satanic Mission: Lucifer’s Unresisting Cop

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Having taken Clare Voyant’s slain remains to Hell, Satan recreates her as “The Black Widow” and informs his now “immortal” servant that he has great plans for her. Quite what these are goes largely unexplained at first, although the specific task of avenging Voyant’s own murder is issued and accepted without the slightest sign of consideration or resistance. But upon returning to the underworld after burning to death the man who killed her, Satan informs her that;

“On the upper world are mortal creatures whose hearts are blackened with wickedness and corruption. You, the Black Widow, will bring their evil souls to me!”

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In The Grim Ghost, Satan offers pretty much the same deal to the recently-hung Matthew Dunsinane:

“I want you to keep me supplied with souls for my domain! My demon-torturers hardly have enough on hand to keep them busy! … I’m afraid you’ll have to confine your killing to evil people, however!” (*1.)

The one major difference in this depiction of the dead soul’s mission is that Dunsinane is, or so it seems, given a choice. The furnace or the freedom to murder isn’t really anything of a choice at all of course, and the once-and-future Grim Ghost grabs it with no reflection or scruple.

As a character-type to grab a reader’s attention and drive them to search out further issues, this is undeniably thin gruel. There’s nothing of rich mix of guilt, regret and responsibility that formed the matrix for Marvel’s bestselling Silver Age leads. As a lead, this first appearance of Dunsinane promises an unchanging status quo. For those beguiled by the image of a Satanically-powered dead Highwayman hunting down and killing irredeemably sinful criminals, and doing so over and over and over again, The Grim Ghost was clearly the book for them. But for most, it was always unlikely to prove a lasting and considerable success. How anyone ever imagined otherwise is something of a mystery.

After all, Fleisher’s scripts for The Spectre had offered pretty much offered the very same cocktail of story-elements, and, despite featuring a relatively familiar DCU character, it was hardly breaking any sales record. Indeed, the final appearance of the Fleisher/Aparo Spectre strip was in the Adventure Comics of July 1975, which, by cruel coincidence, was the same month in which the third and last issue of The Grim Ghost, without Fleisher’s writing credit, would appear. As much grim fun as both strips could be, they were never the stuff of lasting successes. There is a point at which such straight-forward revenge fantasies become, by their very nature, repetitive and over-obvious.

6. The Absence Of Empathy For The Super-Person’s Prey

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Finally, both these strips are, in essence, profoundly unchristian. Which is no little irony, given how central Satan himself is central to each book. When The Black Widow searches out and executes her own killer by, from all appearances, setting light to his face and leaving the brand of a black widow on his forehead, she’s assuming the role of judge as well as one-woman death squad. The last, if briefly, surviving member of the Wagler family, the young man is lent no time to repent of his sins. It’s as if The Black Widow is racing to doom his soul to the pit before he can come to terms with his decision to avenge his mother and sister’s murder. It was Satan himself who commissioned the killing, and we can hardly trust his judgement as to the victim’s potential for contrition and reformation. After all, it was the Devil himself who goaded the young man towards vengeance, and who did so during a moment of absolute grief that would disconcert most, if not indeed all, of us. Indeed, the whole string of murders, from that of each of the Waglers to Voyant’s own end, was the result of Satan’s meddling. And yet, Kapitan and Sahle’s tale makes no effort to have us sympathise with the victims. In truth, it’s the pleasures of watching other people suffer and horribly die that the narrative expects us to buy into.

Christian or not, a liberal humanist would consider that there were at the very least extenuating circumstances at play for all of these deaths. The Wagler son, for example, appears to have been driven quite mad by the trauma of the fatal crash that only he survived. And yet, the strip plainly defines him as “evil” and deserving of his appalling end. As if these were all some sorcerously powered up gangsters, who supposedly only kill their own, the underlying sense being that it’s as fun as it’s beneficial to watch “evil” thin out its own herd.

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The same vengeance-hungry, reactionary agenda underpins The Grim Ghost too. The criminals that the Ghost dispatches to Hell are presented as unvarnished fur thieves and murderers. If they’re not all directly involved in the killing of a security guard, they’re happy to chuckle at its occurrence while exploiting it for further gain. Their fate, and the “tortured agony” which immediately precedes it, is there for our prurient pleasure. In short, they’re not people, they’re the predatory human underclass of a hang’em’high conservative fever-dream. Whatever drove them to their crimes, whatever they were thinking and feeling, and whatever they might have gone on to believe and do in the wake of their shared sins, is entirely absent from the story. The idea that we’re all entitled to the due process of the law appears to be even fantastical than The Grim Ghost’s flying horse, which at least gets to appear in these pages.

In essence, and for all the perverse entertainment that they offer, both of these stories are profoundly flint-hearted and inhumane. They are the graphic depictions of the world-view of a Bernard Goetz. Revenge porn, dressed up with demons, flying horses, costumed zombies and undead highwaymen. Harmless fun? As the 21st century has shown us, and at terrible cost, the culture’s reactionary fictions aren’t harmless at all. Exactly the opposite has proven to be true.

To be continued tomorrow, in the 10th installment of 31 Days Of Atlas …

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