Thursday, 31 October 2013

Essential Marvel Horror volume 1

It's Halloween so it's time for a look at some of Marvel's horror output...

Essential Marvel Horror volume 1 is a rare example of the anthology Essential, collecting the adventures of particular characters from multiple titles in order, rather than the more conventional approach of collecting individual series in order. Here the focus is upon Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, and his sister Satana. In theory this volume could have been called Essential Children of Satan but it's much harder to use that name in this day and age than in the 1970s. (It was originally solicited as "Essential Son of Satan", forgetting about the daughter, but several big sellers refused to carry a book with that title.) The stories collected are from a mixture of preview series, black and white magazines, the Son of Satan's own series and guest titles. Included is material from Ghost Rider #1-2, Marvel Spotlight #12-24, Son of Satan #1-8, Marvel Two-in-One #14, Marvel Team-Up #32 & #80-81, Vampire Tales #2-3, Haunt of Horror #2 & #4-5, Marvel Premiere #27 and Marvel Preview #7. Bonus material includes an original page from Son of Satan #8 that was rejected by the Comics Code Authority; a replacement was written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by John Romita.

With a lot of issues there's a lot of creators. So here goes... Gary Friedrich writes the Ghost Rider and early Marvel Spotlight issues, being succeeded on the latter by Steve Gerber who co-writes one with Mike Friedrich, then the final one is by Chris Claremont. Most of the Son of Satan series is by John Warner bar the final issue by Bill Mantlo who also writes the Marvel Two-in-One issue. The first Marvel Team-Up is by Gerry Conway who also writes the second Vampire Tales and first Haunt of Horror issues. The second Vampire Tales is by Roy Thomas and the rest of Haunt of Horror are by Claremont and Tony Isabella. Claremont then writes the Marvel Premiere and Marvel Preview issues and the last two Marvel Team-Ups. The art is by Tom Sutton and Jim Mooney on Ghost Rider, Mooney, Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema on Marvel Spotlight, then Mooney, Sonny Trinidad, P. Craig Russell, Ed Hannigan and Russ Heath on Son of Satan. Trimpe draws the Marvel Two-in-One issue and Buscema and Mike Vosburg draw the Marvel Team-Ups. The Vampire Tales stories are drawn by John Romita and Esteban Maroto. The Haunt of Horror material is drawn by Pablo Marcos, Enrique Romero, Pat Broderick and George Evans. The Marvel Premiere issue is drawn by "The Tribe", presumably a group emergency effort, and the Marvel Preview is drawn by Vincente Alcazar. Whew. It will come as no surprise that two separate posts are needed to carry some of the creator labels, one for writers, one for artists.

The contents were originally published in two rather different formats - comics, and thus subject to the regulation of the Comics Code Authority, and larger black and white magazines aimed at an older marker and without such regulation. The magazines also contained some text stories and features and included here are a couple of contemporary behind the scenes pieces which explore the process of Satana's creation and development, hampered by deadlines not being met and publications getting cancelled. It's clear that many in the Marvel Bullpen had high hopes for her but ultimately found themselves unable to develop her much, and it's unsurprising that her last solo writer, Chris Claremont, opted to give her story closure and save her from a long run of mediocre and inconsistent guest appearances by killing her off when he later got the chance.

The contrast between the tone of the two publication formats is pretty stark with Satana, although the Marvel Team-Up issues were published a few years later and it seems either the Code had been relaxed or was less rigorously enforced. Satana's regular costume is very daring, ranging from her open chest and exposed cleavage to her fur boots with distinctive toes that from the right angle make it look as though she has cloven hooves. When she appears in both Marvel Premiere and in the flesh in Marvel Spotlight (though not when she pops up in her brother's dreams) the costume is different, with no exposed cleavage or hooves. Satana's actions also vary a bit - in the magazines there's no holding back from calling her a succubus or showing her stealing the souls, although even then she's shown taking them only with a kiss rather than the full on sexual intercourse traditionally associated with succubuses, but once again under the Code this racier side of things is overlooked. Her introduction doesn't pull punches as it shows her disguised on city streets and being chased by a rapist whose soul she steals and later she's shown street walking and seducing a passing man.

Unfortunately this volume suffers from some problems of order. Marvel Team-Up #32 was published the same month as Marvel Spotlight #21 and matches the status quo around then. However it's placed right at the end of the Son of Satan part of the volume, coming after Marvel Two-in-One #14 even though that issue references Team-Up #32. Both issues are set around the New Year, just adding to the discrepancy. Even more confusion stems from the basic decision to place all the son's stories before the daughter's, despite the two having first appeared almost at the same time and despite Satana appearing a few times in her brother's stories at a point towards the end of her own.

Despite this the volume presents two sagas of siblings tortured by their half-human, half-demonic natures. Separated early in life when their mother discovered the truth about her husband, there's a strong contrast between the would-be priest turned exorcist who struggles to control his demonic side as he seeks to oppose his father, and the woman who has embraced her demonic nature and spends most of her early appearances seeking to break the spells that prevent her from being reunited with her father. The actual struggles don't get the strongest of portrayals and over time both move beyond their initial portrayals in different ways, but by the time of Marvel Spotlight #24 the two siblings have been separately established to the point that the clash between them feels like a real conflict of philosophies.

The changes themselves are mixed. In his initial appearances in Ghost Rider, Daimon Hellstrom appears to be another in a line of two entities sharing a single body, a mild mannered exorcist and a demon in human form. Even the transformations come at dawn and dusk, much like the original changes for both Ghost Rider and the Hulk. However there isn't a great deal of distinction between the two forms of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan with clear continuity of identity and memory, so it's of little surprise that as early as Marvel Spotlight #15 the arrangement is altered by Satan and from then on the two natures are merged into a single being. There's a few points after this when the two identities are shown separately though the most notable case here is in Marvel Team-Up #32, which suggests updated information on the character did not reach Gerry Conway in time. (Another one comes in a later appearance in Howard the Duck where Steve Gerber had less of an excuse.) Satana's struggle is more drawn out, with the character starting as an out and out succubus but steadily finds her human side affecting her more and more, especially when she meets a defrocked Catholic priest who saves her life from a group of paramilitary religious fanatics. Later she discovers her father was behind sealing her off from Hell as a way of testing her (yet another Marvel ruler with an inability to simply tell their offspring the basics) but at a crucial point she refuses to take the ex-priest's soul and is banished forever. Her soul has been bonded with a spirit called the Basilisk and she continues to struggle against this whilst seeking redemption. The final story in the volume is a two-parter from Marvel Team-Up in which she gives her life to save Doctor Strange, achieving victory over the Basilisk and redemption in the process.

By and large these stories are somewhat isolated from the wider Marvel universe with appearances by other heroes confined to the various team-up comics and Hellstrom's initial appearance in the pages of Ghost Rider. Instead the two siblings face new situations and foes. Appearing from the outset is "Satan", who, unsurprisingly given where the story starts, is initially presented here as the same being with whom Johnny Blaze made his deal with the Devil. It would be several years before Marvel would cause no end of confusion in its attempts to row away from presenting the actual Devil as a character and instead turn the various (and often inconsistent) portrayals by various names into separate entities such as Mephisto or Lucifer. But as far as the stories in this volume are concerned, there is only one entity and he is the actual thing. Most of the other foes Hellstrom encounters are other lesser demons, some of whom are pawns of Satan but others are independent operatives. Reading through I thought many of the names seemed familiar, but the only one lifted directly from writings on Satanism is Baphomet. Curiously the lead foe in the later issues also has a pre-existing name but comes instead from Egyptian mythology - Anubis, the god of funerals who empowers an estate agent into becoming his pawn Mindstar. The rest of the demons seen are all Marvel creations including Ikthalon, Kometes, Spyros, Allatou, Kthara and Proffet, also known as the Celestial Fool. Closer to the more mortal level are foes such as the cult known as the Legion of Nihilists and their powerful leader, Father Darklyte, or Madame Swabada, a Tarot reader and fortune teller embittered by negative press which gave her a heart attack. Despite having died her spirit is still seeking revenge until she is exorcised. The Possessor is an illusionist whom two demons tried to use as a host but instead wound up under his control, along with Nightfire, a Native American transformed by his master. The two team-up issues bring their own foes - Marvel Two-in-One features 19th century criminal Jedadiah Ravenstorm possessed by Kthara and Marvel Team-Up brings conflict with Dryminextes, another demon.

Satana's small number of adventures see her face off against a few foes, the most prominent of whom are the mysterious group called "the Four", demons who seem to be the ones who erect a barrier preventing her from returning to hell, but ultimately it's revealed to be Satan behind it. There are a mixture of other demons, mystics and mortal crusaders, but virtually all die in the process. So too do Satana's few friends and allies such as Exiter, her black cat familiar, Zennarth, an incubus, and Michael Heron, the defrocked priest turned medic. Daimon's supporting cast have a better survival rate but it is also limited and comes in two distinct phases of Hellstrom's career. The most prominent character is Kathy Reynolds, a lecturer in parapsychology at Gateway University who calls in Hellstrom to investigate reported haunting at the university and who steadily falls for him but it never really gets anywhere. Also caught up in some of Hellstrom's adventures around Gateway University is Byron Hyatt, a divinity student training for the ministry. Both characters disappear at the end of the Marvel Spotlight run when Hellstrom leaves to return to the house he grew up in. Later Hellstrom takes a position at the University of the District of Columbia, where he meets Saripha Thames, who tuns out to be a Wiccan witch. By the end of the series the two are an item but there's no time left to explore their relationship further.

It was very daring of Marvel just to feature the Devil as a character in their comics, even if they were tapping into a wider trend of interest in the occult. But to go a step further and introduce characters who were unambiguously (at least until later retcons came along) the children of Satan and named as such in the titles of their features was an incredible move and from today's perspective it's amazing that it didn't provoke any outcry or boycotts. Maybe the 1970s distributors and retailers had thicker skins than the 21st century book sellers who forced a title change on this volume, or maybe there just weren't well organised groups back then who could kick up enough fuss to cause either publishers, distributors or retailers to back away from titles with "Satan" in them. But the result is an interesting set of stories. The tales of Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan are pretty good, if a little repetitive, and still hold up well. However it's the lesser known tales of Satana that really stand out, probably because most of them were published outside the Comics Code Authority and were thus able to take really bold steps. The precise order of the issues in this volume could do with a little rethink, but overall this is a very solid collection.

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