Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Victory and the Vanquished

I haven't done a head count of the Marvel characters who have been in Hell and gone toe-to-toe with Satan, which is probably the ultimate confrontation in comics--depending on the character, that is. For instance, the Silver Surfer has had many confrontations with Mephisto in his realm, and Thor as well as the Fantastic Four have gone up against him. But Mephisto doesn't really "count" in this sense, probably because he plays "Satan" as more of a raving villain than the being we're more familiar with who fell from Heaven. Mephisto has all the trappings of Satan, and he certainly doesn't want for cruelty or sadism or temptation--yet Marvel has taken great pains to make him a separate entity, a being who takes a more active part in the affairs of mortals in general and super-beings in particular. We know what we're getting when we take a trip to Mephisto's realm; but Satan hasn't been as overplayed.

Still, you wouldn't want to see just anyone cast down to Hell and facing Satan. Satan, then, becomes just another comic book character. Spider-Man vs. Satan would be a joke. Ditto for Daredevil, or the X-Men, or even the Surfer or Thor. What do we care if Satan confronts Spider-Man? The first thought that would come to mind is, why the *ahem* hell would Satan bother with Spider-Man? Are we interested in seeing the Human Torch battle "fire with fire"? Would the Hulk be able to knock out the devil?

So in order to keep his credibility intact, the best we can hope for as far as characters pitting themselves against Satan is a short list. And in the late 1970s, I think a lot of us sat up in our chairs at seeing these two make that list:

We'd already seen Dr. Strange and Dracula go up against each other in an earlier battle. Strange would find himself in Hell not long after, his self-confidence at an ebb due to the building stress of knowing he was the sole survivor of the end of the world [In the now-classic Doctor Strange #13--pick up your copy today, true believer! -- Sales-pitch Stan] [Wait a minute! Whose blog is this, anyway? Shove off, mac!], and Satan saw the opportunity was ripe to take advantage of Strange's vulnerability. In Dracula's case, Satan was less concerned with exploiting Dracula's personal failures than he was with preserving his own survival, due to events Dracula had set in motion regarding his son; in addition, Dracula's companion at the time, Topaz, was a direct threat to Satan and had to be eliminated.

And so, to the delight of readers, the stage is set for each of these otherwise formidable men to separately face a foe uniquely suited to be a challenge to each of them.

Strange, of course, has built his mystical studies on enlightenment and self-discipline, having a broad perspective on the many other-dimensional entities which are unseen by mankind--while Dracula must now temper his arrogance and air of superiority in the presence of one whom even he might be forced to acknowledge as his master. The circumstances of their respective meetings are very different. Strange's state of mind and will are fragile, and he's in no shape to face a foe of this magnitude; while Dracula has no idea why he would be angrily summoned by this deity for whom he, for all intents and purposes, essentially does his bidding. But since, to Satan, Dracula's existence is an indirect threat to his own, his meeting with the devil is destined to be brief, and fatal.

Gosh, I don't think Dracula has quite grasped the fact yet that he hasn't been brought to Hell for a conversation:

Yet Dracula hasn't been slain--merely removed from Earth, in order to negate the necessity for his son remaining. But in that "removal," Dracula finds that Satan hasn't lost his sadistic touch.

As for Strange, Satan's goal is to drive home the point that Strange has failed in his vocation, and so he toys with his victim both mentally and physically.

To his credit, Strange resists--but the whole point of Hell is that you can't make any headway no matter how hard you try. And Strange finds himself daunted by one setback after another.

Finally, he reaches a point where it seems there's no hope for himself, in escaping either Hell or his own self-doubt. But in one's own personal hell, a person tends to see only the hopelessness of a situation, rather than anything postive to grasp onto. Fortunately, on Earth, Strange's friends are in his corner. And though Satan sees the change in his victim and takes a more direct hand in his attack, he finds that the battle has already been won.

As you can see, the conclusion of Strange's encounter with Satan is somewhat more satisfying than Dracula's. Yet the more I thought about it, Satan's abrupt dealing with Dracula seemed entirely appropriate, given the circumstances and their respective stations. Dracula, in keeping with his character, retained his composure as well as his impatience--yet the story couldn't believably give him the upper hand, nor could Satan give him the opportunity to try. Topaz was the more direct threat to him, not Dracula. With Dracula, he had only to set his new plan for him in motion; and while he planned to deal with Topaz in a more deadly manner, his fear of her turned out to be justified when her powers surprisingly manifested and she attacked.

What I found interesting about both stories is that, while Strange was the only character allowed to mix it up with Satan, neither Strange nor Dracula were in Hell to face off with him in terms of power vs. power. Strange, as he himself notes, doesn't really have to fight Satan in the traditional sense at all--rather, he had to identify what was making him so vulnerable to the "prince of lies" and face up to it. Dracula, in sharp contrast, has only been summoned because he accompanies Topaz--he doesn't really know why Satan would have any quarrel with him, specifically. Satan could have dished out Dracula's fate without spiriting him down to Hell to do it; but as long as he's caught in Topaz's "wake," so to speak, their circumstances have coincided so that Satan can deal with them both at the same time.

As for Topaz, we know she survived Satan's wrath because she later hooks up with Strange. And while Dracula finds a way to get around Satan's little makeover, unfortunately he'd find his days as numbered as the final few issues of his book. Maybe we should have interpreted Satan's goodbye to Dracula in a broader sense, eh?


Doc Savage said...

I find super heroes vs. "Satan" is just silly and wish they wouldn't delve into it. It either makes Satan look like just another super villain or the heroes utterly ineffectual, plus I'm not interested much in Judeo-Christian mythology to begin with.

Anonymous said...

I gotta disagree with Matt, but then again I am one of those people who do find Judeo-Christian mythology fascinating, even though I myself am not particularly religious. (I mean no disrespect to those who are.) I think Satan and Hell are fair game in comics, and we've seen some pretty far-out stories both in Marvel and D.C. using these elements. I do think they should be used sparingly, however, because when employed too much (I'm thinking of Demon and Swamp Thing), they kinda lose their impact. I think that's why Wolfman placed it near the end of the title's run, the penultimate arc, I guess. This wasn't my favorite period of TofD, but it was still pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

Another thought occurred to me about this topic, and I would welcome some others' opinions: Do Satan and Hell and similar concepts belong in comics, and if so, when? Does it work as well for, say, Spiderman or Daredevil as it does for Dr. Strange or Thor?
I think that while these concepts can be compelling, there is a danger of overusing them, or using them in a title where they simply have no place? Any thoughts?

Comicsfan said...

Satan really is too big of a gun to pull out in all but the most limited circumstances. The closest I'd ever want to see him interacting with super-heroes in a mainstream sense would be a story like Defenders #100, where his presence is key to the focus of the story (in this case, Daimon Hellstrom). I'm slightly intrigued at the thought of a Satan/Punisher meeting, though I see Mephisto having more reason to interact with Castle. Satan (and probably Mephisto, as well) perhaps see the acquisition of Castle's soul as inevitable, which would make for one hell of a challenge to the writer to demonstrate why it's not.

dbutler16 said...

I like Satan's depictions here. I especially like his use of the royal "we".

Yes, Satan is a villain best used very sparingly.

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