The Devil in Disguise: The History of The Devil As A Comic Book Supervillain
Lucifer. Mephistopheles. Beelzebub. Auld Hornie. Satan. Nick. Clootie. Whatever you choose to call him, the devil has a long and storied (pun intended) history, from his humble beginnings as a nameless adversary in the book of Job to a tempter in the desert to the spokesmodel for canned ham.
The prince of the power of the air has been at the center of stories for thousands of years, canonical, deuterocanonical, and extracanonical alike. His status as an instantly recognizable symbol and a royalty-free denizen of the public domain have made him an irresistible go-to in stories where an ultimate evil is needed.
It's no surprise, then, that the devil should be a popular figure for comics stories. Comics, especially superhero comics, are rarely about subtle shades of morality, so having a figure of pure evil in your pocket ready to go at any time is a useful tool.
Plus, the devil is already practically a comic book character: he's been passed from writer to writer, some of whom, like Milton and Goethe, make significant additions to the canon; he gets retconned pretty regularly, such as when he was conflated with a talking snake in a garden and later with the planet Venus; he even had a sort of Silver Age period in the Middle Ages when, through folk tales, he became less a figure of pure evil and more a wandering trickster, kind of like happened to the Joker in the '50s.
That said, the devil has appeared in probably more comics than one could recount in 666 articles like this one, but to mark Villain Month, let's take a look at some of the more prominent ones.
One early example of the devil as a villain comes strong out of the gate, as he wasn't just one devil, but six at once. Designed to be an evil opposite to Captain Marvel Jr, Sabbac, was created by Otto Binder and Al Carreno, and first appeared in 1943's Captain Marvel Jr #4. Like the earlier villain Ibac, Sabbac draws his powers from speaking his own name, which infuses him with abilities bestowed by Satan, Aym, Belial, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Crateis. While the Golden Age version of the character just looks like a guy in a robe, later versions have made him more explicitly diabolical.
For the most part, however, early appearances by Satan in comics tended to use him as a source of comedy rather than religion-fueled terror. Examples of the old gooseberry as a comic device include Forbidden Worlds #116, in which comics' greatest hero, Herbie Popnecker, proves his ultimate power by literally kicking Satan's butt; Betty and Veronica #75, in which Betty sells her soul to the devil to get a date with Archie; Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #65, in which Jimmy eats too much cake and dreams that he is trapped on Devil's Island and must sell his soul to the mysterious “Lord L” to get away (amusingly, this is, according to multiple sources, the official first appearance of Vertigo's Lucifer Morningstar; more on that dude in a minute); and Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #103, in which Lois Lane marries the devil and Superman tries to marry her corpse (admittedly, this one is less intentionally comedic than the others; it is also about one decade and one era of comics removed from the others).
By the time superhero comics decided to try to introduce the devil as a legitimate threat, they were a little cagey about referring to him explicitly as Satan. Reasons for this might include restrictions from the Comics Code Authority, fear of backlash from religious groups, wanting to keep an even greater evil in their back pocket for later, or any number of others.
The most prominent example of this, and indeed, possibly the most prominent devil figure in comics, is Mephisto, created by Stan Lee and John Buscema in the pages of Silver Surfer #3. Based on the demon Mephistopheles from the Faust legend, Mephisto has served as a villain for the Silver Surfer, Thor, the Avengers, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and Black Panther, as well as, most notoriously, being behind retconning Spider-Man's marriage. While he is probably best recognized in his original, dramatic high-collared cape design, he can also occasionally be seen as John Romita Jr's redesign from 1989, which envisioned the Prince of Lies as a squat, frog-bodied demon with stack-of-penny nipples.
Mephisto is far from the only Marvel devil, however. While the names “Lucifer” and “Satan” occasionally get bandied about, especially once the Comics Code is revised in the Bronze Age, these appearances are nearly always retconned into being one of a number of other pretenders to the throne of lies: Marduk Kurios, the actual father of Son of Satan and Satana; Azazel, the biological father of Nightcrawler who is perhaps best forgotten except for how he was in a blockbuster movie; or Satannish, who isn't Satan, he's just Satan...ish.
Not to be left out of the devil game, DC Comics has a number of Satan and Satan-adjacent characters. One of the most prominent of these is Lucifer Morningstar, an example of a character who has precariously straddled the line between the mainstream DC universe and the Vertigo imprint. First formally appearing in Sandman #4 by Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth, this version of the character is based heavily on John Milton's tragic heroic fallen angel character from Paradise Lost. After deciding to abandon Hell in the story 'Season of Mists', Lucifer primarily featured in his own self-titled series, though he did pop up in several DC Universe titles, including The Demon and The Spectre.
Beginning in 1995's Underworld Unleashed mini-series by Mark Waid and Howard Porter, the main devil figure of the DC universe was established as Neron, who took over Hell after various changes of power in the wake of Lucifer's abdication. Neron, whose name is a reference to the Greek version of the name of the emperor Nero, which adds up to 666 in gematria numerology, is much more Faustian in nature than his Miltonian predecessor: his main function is offering great power in exchange for souls.
Other DC/Vertigo devils have included — but are not limited to — the First of the Fallen from Hellblazer, CW Saturn, the villain of the Superman novel Miracle Monday, and Lord Satanus and Lady Blaze, who took over the rule of Hell from Neron in the Reign in Hell mini-series.
Perhaps the best-known devil from independent comics is Malebolgia, who was the big bad from Todd McFarlane's Spawn for many years. Malebolgia, whose name is derived from an area of Hell in Dante's Inferno, was the Lord of Hell to whom Al Simmons traded his soul in exchange for the ability to see his wife again. Though Malebolgia is the main devil-figure for years in the book, it is eventually revealed there is a Satan, who is God's twin brother, both of whom were punished by the Mother of Creation for their endless bickering.
One book in which Satan was conspicuous by his absence for a long time was Mike Mignola's Hellboy, which prominently featured such Dukes of Hell as Astaroth, Azzael, and other denizens of Pandemonium, with hardly a mention of Satan himself until Hellboy in Hell, in which we learn he hasn't been feeling too good the last few millennia, and then Hellboy seemingly unwittingly cuts his throat. Whoops.
Other independent comics to feature the devil as an antagonist include Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, in which he appears as Señor Diablo; Scud the Disposable Assassin, in which it is revealed that the Apocalypse was just a contest between God and Lucifer to collect the most stuff; and numerous manga such as Devilman that I didn't mention that nevertheless you will certainly yell at me about in the comments.
These examples are really only scratching the surface of appearances of the devil and devilish characters in comics, and I'm sure they are far from the last. But until we see you again, devil, in the words of the Bard of Ayrshire, “fare you weel, Auld Nickie-Ben!”
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