Mike Carey’s ‘Lucifer’ Helped Define Vertigo’s Second Generation [Review]
Although Vertigo has lost all of their DC characters and almost exclusively publishes creator-owned work now (the source of a tsunami of mixed feelings within me), they still get dibs on reprints of anything first published under the storied imprint, and have always done a fantastic job of keeping now-classic comics vital and within the public consciousness. At least a couple times each year, there’s a new edition of a Sandman or Hellblazer trade hitting the shelves and defibrillating thumps of joy in the blackened little hearts of longtime Vertigo fans like myself.
We can now count Lucifer among them. After a significant gap, the long-running series finally received its first new edition last week. By Mike Carey and various artists, Lucifer Book One collects nigh-on 400 pages of Lucifer’s story, and it’s well worth the attention of new readers. In fact, it’s one of the defining books of Vertigo’s second generation.
For a few years, it seemed like at least half of Vertigo’s catalog was Sandman related. While that title was still ongoing, there were spin-offs and adjacent stories like Sandman Mystery Theatre, The Children’s Crusade, and Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo’s Death comics. Then when Sandman concluded in 1996, The Dreaming started, running for sixty issues, while a bunch of Sandman-related miniseries rounded out the lineup.
In 1999, Vertigo made the Sandman fixation official with the Sandman Presents line – a gaggle of limited series and one-shots that went after withdrawing Sandman addicts with glee, starring a host of minor characters from the completed epic. Sometimes VERY minor. The line overall was…okay. Okay is probably the best word. There were a couple of bright spots, but taken as a whole, the venture was tepid and unfulfilling, and all it did was drill into us the conviction that there simply never would be anything else like Sandman.
Lucifer: The Morningstar Option was the spectacular exception. Included in Lucifer Book One, The Morningstar Option outshone everything else in the Sandman Presents series, even the other bright spots. Written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Scott Hampton, the three-issue mini started where Lucifer was left in Sandman –- having abdicated his throne in Hell, and running a moody piano bar in Los Angeles with the half-faced Mazikeen of the Lilim by his side, content to stay out of Heaven and Hell’s affairs entirely. Heaven has other ideas.
A chaotic new power arises, granting human desires and fulfilling wishes, threatening to shove mankind into cataclysm. Heaven doesn’t want to directly intervene, but they can’t allow it to continue unabated, so a high-ranking angel named Amenadiel approaches Morningstar with an offer directly from the Voice of God. If Lucifer can root out and negate the source of the power, the Voice will grant him whatever he desires in payment. Even for God, this seems like a risky move. Lucifer makes quick work of the job, destroys a life or two in the process, and easily earns the price he names: a letter of passage. The right to travel from creation to the void, without consequence.
Again, that really seems like one of God’s worst ideas. Right up there with HIV and Florida. Though Carey pitched it as a self-contained story, it was obviously meant to set up something much larger, and about a year after The Morningstar Option wrapped, it was full-steam ahead on the ongoing series. Initially assigned to artist Chris Weston, the art duties quickly shifted to an alternating team of Peter Gross (with Ryan Kelly) on the arcs, and Dean Ormston on fill-ins. Though it would have been great if Weston could have stayed on –- there’s something cultured and exquisite about his version of Lucifer that the others never quite matched -– Gross and Ormston brought plenty to the table. Gross’s accomplished page layouts and solid cartooning made a good match with Ormston’s heavily-stylized figures and stark, eerie inkwork, and the two quickly achieved a visual equilibrium that defined the series for almost the entire seventy-five-issue run.
With talented artists and a plan in mind from the very beginning, Mike Carey sends Lucifer off on a tear through all creation, like a pissed-off teenager with a get out of jail free card. Lucifer’s motivation is the same as it was in Sandman‘s “Season of Mists” storyline – to slip from the yoke of predestination and know that his will matters, to do something outside of God’s plans. Free will versus determinism on a universal scale. With his letter of passage, Morningstar fashions a plan, and opens a portal to the void. Over the course of the first year of the series, the immense eschatological repercussions of that act slowly become apparent, and the massive scope and shape of Lucifer’s plan become clear.
The tightropes that Carey walk are impressive, especially with Lucifer’s characterization. As both the hero and the villain of the story, he has a valid point of view, morals, and several qualities about him that make him likeable. Simultaneously, he’s cold, vengeful, manipulative, and self-serving . He only cares for people as far as they can help him, and places nothing above his own need for freedom, but he also has a sense of honor and never breaks his word. And when you watch the character navigate through the other worlds and push them into the shapes he wants, it’s hard not to love him a little.
The plot is very tight and frequently surprising, especially when you consider how little Lucifer actually does. Keeping with the theme, it’s often the free will of the characters around Lucifer that determine how things turn out, it’s just up to Lucifer to push them a little. Carey does a masterful job of winding them up with flaws and desires and letting them run. Lucifer subtly coaxes and cajoles unwitting agents into accomplishing things for him, and frequently allows his enemies to defeat themselves.
He contends with other powers like the Basanos – a living tarot etched into life by another angel eons ago – and the gods of Yomi, the Shinto Hell, with as little effort as possible. Actually, “The House of Windowless Rooms,” in which Lucifer journeys to Yomi to retrieve his old wings, is itself a Buddhist parable about letting others act. And the whole time Lucifer is cutting through existence with minimal action, we’re reminded that God is doing even less. If He really is omniscient, then He knows all of Lucifer’s plans anyway, so why does the Voice remain mute?
Lucifer is rewarding on so many levels. Its fantastic structure, compelling visuals, sharp characters, brilliant dialogue, and philosophically challenging narrative consistently made it one of the best reads on the shelves for years. An epic that matched its source material in density and scope, Lucifer proudly picked up the flag for Vertigo’s shared universe and planted it in a mountain of skulls. A modern comics classic.