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The Lucifer In Us All

There is something deep within the structure of our ape-bequeathed brains that ever strains against the necessity of buying safety in the coin of freedom.  That call to mad, independent flight is the source of some of our greatest stories, and the characters who draw our rapt attention, generation upon generation.  And of those champions for pure freedom, none rings so elementally true as Lucifer, the angel who challenged his creator.

 

Of course, he failed, but the nobility of that failure, the humanity of it, have made him impossible to forget.  And so, from Dante to Milton to Goethe, Lucifer stands at the center of the story, the horror of his realm and the degradation of his fall sparking our curiosity and respect in ways that the subsequent, party-line marshaling of Heaven’s glories have never quite balanced.   We read Inferno out of a desire to understand our true stars.  We read Paradiso largely out of obligation.

 

 

 

At its best, fiction centering on Lucifer brings us to foundational grips with the tension between the lip service we pay to our love of freedom and our more commonplace (but civilization-building) need for things to be in proper and expected order when we wake in the morning.

 

At its worst, it is titillation mongering, and I admit I’m largely okay with that too.

 

But we are here to discuss an instance of the former case.  This year, Vertigo Comics has begun its long-awaited re-release of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s Lucifer, which ran for seventy five issues from 2000 to 2006.  The first two books cover issues one through twenty-eight, with a third scheduled for release in March 2014.  I remember catching from issue fifty onwards when it first came out (which is saying something in light of my extreme Marvel partisanship at the time), but didn’t bother to hunt down the earlier trades until it was too late, so this was my first time laying eyes upon those first story arcs.

 

And they are exquisite.  Picking up where Neil Gaiman’s epochal Sandman left off, Lucifer has given up ruling Hell and runs a piano bar in Los Angeles from which he is turning over schemes to be free of Heaven and its determinacy at last.  That’s all you really need to know, and people coming to Lucifer without having read Sandman won’t be missing out on too much other than those “That guy we perceive dimly has some pretty spikey hair – I bet I know what that’s about” moments which are eventually made explicit anyway.

 

So, yes, you can come to Lucifer issue one, page one, with no continuity at your back and be well served.  Truth be told, Lucifer and Sandman are two very different beasts, the former an intense study of the character of rebellion and the philosophical thorniness of causality that is pure ambrosia to the likes of we humanist sorts while the latter allows itself to wander more broadly along the roads of its fancy, which is also exquisite but without the same rash, cocksure angularity that makes Lucifer so unique.  Lucifer Morningstar seeks one thing, and the comic is drawn along swiftly in the wake of that quest, and we as readers are hurtled briskly, breathlessly along, gasping to ourselves, “Can he?  Will he?  Should we be hopping off now, while it’s still safe?”

 

It’s precisely that vertigo-inducing sense of wishes fulfilled that perhaps oughtn’t be that I love so much about this comic.  Lucifer has the courage of his vision and the power to see it to its conclusion that we do not, as a day to day rule, share.  Nor should we.  Humanity would shake itself to pieces if our brains didn’t quell our Lucifer boldness in the oxytocin glow of community.  But thinking about where the boundary lies, between that need for permanence and the instinct to tear a hole in space and create our own kingdom in the void beyond, is the most important thing we can do, and Lucifer excels at ruminating on these issues.

 

 

I realize all of this focus on the book’s philosophy makes the comic sound perhaps like a ponderous slog through The Illustrated Heidegger.  But Carey is far too good a writer to let the philosophy ossify the story.  There are tales here of incredible scope and virtuosity – stories of demons turning to addiction in the absence of leadership, of the cards of fate inhabiting a cabaret performer, of a new Adam and Eve given the sole command to never bend their knee in worship of anything, of angels callously cutting a swath through innocence to maintain their hold on power, and of a dream walking girl having to fend off a creature armed with a thought-sucking straw.  It’s in every way marvelous, and Peter Gross’s art is perfectly matched to bring out the Baroque-modern harshness of Lucifer’s new plans for rebellion.

 

I suspect we’ll continue telling stories about Lucifer even after we have ceased being a religious species, because the point here is not religious.  It’s not about Christianity or the papacy or the rich absurdities of theology, though they all make their appearance.  It’s about the limits of existence, where they lie, and how close to them we dare tread.  And that will be of interest to humans so long as there are humans and, most likely, to whatever comes after us as well.

Comics Culture

Here Be Nerds: A Modest Account of Skepticon 6

Daleks.  Picard v. Janeway.  Super Soakers.

For the twenty-five hours I was stationed at my booth, these were the deep issues I and my fellow Skepticon attendees wrestled with – no First Cause arguments, no earnest discussions about The Future of The Movement, just a steady stream of entirely lovely people and our shared geekery.

How different it would be, if the world saw atheism more often from the vantage point offered by this humble foldable chair – the group huddled excitedly over a game of Settlers of Catan in the corner, another planning their big Karaoke Night Out, and right here, at this table, two strangers bonding over a shared love of The Wild Thornberrys.

Because that’s what atheism is – getting ecstatically, unreasonably excited about the products of the human imagination, having the entire weft and warp of human fancy as your own private source of daily delight.  That world of unhindered exploration is so tangibly yours for the having once you let fall the notion of the sacred and its shadowy Iago, Shame.  The people I see have loosed the final fetter on their nerdishness, and it gives them this sort of radiance that it was my privilege to bask in for two days.

That’s not to say we stop explaining and expounding and, yes, arguing, if need be, because there are terrible things happening in the world that must be pointed out, regardless of the opprobrium inevitably attached to the pointer.  There is a hard-won heft to the notions of existence and purpose we have scratched from the often cold surface of reality, and we certainly do ourselves a disservice accounting it all as too austere or depressing for public consumption.  But, as in all things, the key is balance.

Certainly, the last thing we want is the atheist equivalent of those sheepish Mormon ads that, in attempting to suggest breadth and normalcy, come off portraying Mormons as, most likely, alien changelings.  But a few glimpses of joyous humanity, here and there, could not hurt, to which end I offer the following Skepticon sketches in miniature of the people I met and conversed with over the last few days:

 

Steven Olsen is a strong proponent of Cookies For Dinner.

 

If you give Nicole Crenshaw a chance, she WILL wear your Victorian cape, and WILL twirl in it.

 

Rachael Berman has a sixth sense for knowing when somebody around her is starving, and a seventh sense for conjuring ways to feed them from the ether.

 

Amanda Brown will craft a captioned jpeg of you while you’re not looking, just to make life that much more fun.

 

Lauren Lane’s family can, within about ten minutes of conversation, fix all of your life’s problems and will give you free beers while doing it.

 

K. Johnston is probably a ventriloquist, and more probably still is not aware of the fact.

 

Some small part of Ellen Lundgren is, even now, reenacting the Battle of Gettysburg.

 

When you’re feeling a bit down, Sara Mayhew will draw a charming picture for you that suddenly makes everything better.

 

JT Eberhard never forgets a kindness, and is lusciously unashamed to wear the goofiest hat in the room.

 

 

And so many more who stopped and chatted, about Dungeons and Dragons version 2.5 and open-shirted William Ryker, Agent Coulson and those plastic jars of Real Ghostbusters ectoplasm that came with a ghost inside, and whose names my Convention-addled brain forgot to write down or who never left one, each a standing example against the popular conception of an atheist as a curious sub-species of human eternally gripping a Bertrand Russell text tightly in cold, unfeeling fingers.  They are the future of humanism, and its great hope, and from where I sit, that future shimmers with promise and laughter.

Comics Culture

Five Thor Comics My Atheist Heart Holds Dear

For nearly fifty years now, Thor has been the comic where the big issues of mankind’s relation to its deities have been thrashed out.  And in that time, amidst all of the skull-cracking and “I Say Thee NAY!”ing, the writers have managed to craft some of the medium’s most stirring representations of religion awry, and the humanity at the heart of it all.  With the release of the second Thor movie tomorrow, it seems a good time to look back at five Thor comics that challenged our notions of the greatness of the gods.

 

5. THOR 294 (Writer: Roy Thomas.  Art: Keith Pollard and Chic Stone)

 

When Roy Thomas took over Thor from Stan Lee, he brought with him a desire to do justice to the deep tradition of Norse mythology and a sensitivity to the subtlety of man’s mythological craftsmanship.  In this issue, we are treated to the secret origin of Odin, and not only that, but the story of how the gods fashioned their own identities from bits and pieces of the world they found both buried in the memories of shared experience and in the world around them.

 

Caught in a cycle of destruction and rebirth, the young gods must answer the question of why they are here and how they came to be, and in doing so act out the origins of our own creation myths.  In a move that has a certain whiff of Feuerbach about it, Thomas shows Odin fashioning his pantheon, and the universe about it, from those things he most admires and fears about himself and the departed universe that gave him birth, only to watch that true and personal origin get buried in the myths spun by his children.

 

And isn’t that always the way?  You find something astounding and great about yourself, and you feel the need for it to be more than just personal, to be a manifestation of a great and eternal truth, and so you cut it out of yourself and make a god of it.  Humans are always doing crazy stuff like that, and Thomas captures it beautifully in this issue.

 

But my favorite part about this comic is the Letters page, which I’m pretty sure isn’t reproduced in collections, so you’ll have to shell out the big $5 to get an original copy, but it’s worth it because Thomas devotes two whole pages to an essay about the tilting of the Earth’s axis, Ragnarok, and how all of that ties into Marvel continuity, which is the sort of thing you just don’t see anymore.  PLUS, if you’re a Wagner fan, this issue has all sorts of little call-outs to the Ring’s conception of Norse myth, and that’s always fun.

 

4. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY 87 (Writer: Stan Lee, Art: Jack Kirby)

 

Okay, this issue has nothing whatsoever to do with Humanism, or Atheism, or Theology, or really anything, and everything to do with the Ritual of the Stan, which is something everybody ought to do at one point, regardless of what you believe about the heavens above.  The Ritual of the Stan is where you grab a bunch of Stan Lee comics and read through them until you get one which doesn’t quite hold together when read quietly to yourself.  Then, you get up, flip back to the beginning, and read it aloud, in the manner of Stan Lee, and behold as it all starts coming perfectly together!

 

Some comics are just meant to be read aloud.

 

This is a pretty good one for it (though Loki’s second appearance is a great one too, if for nothing else than the culminating moment where Thor throws a bunch of bread crumbs at a group of pigeons and thereby saves the world).  Thor spent a lot of time in the early issues fighting Commies.  Issue 84, which was his second appearance ever, was one such and here, just three issues later, they’re back!  Really, the cover says it all (again, read it quietly to yourself, and then read it as Stan Lee! and suddenly “electronically treated chains” makes total sense).

 

Is it one of the best issues of Thor ever written?  No, but it’s one of the best times you’ll have reading a Thor comic, and even atheists deserve a bit of fun now and again.

 

3. THOR 493 (Writer: Warren Ellis, Artist: Mike Deodato, Jr.)

 

Before writing the heaven-shaking Supergod, Ellis wrote the World Engine story arc for Thor in the middle of the comic book Dark Ages, better known as the mid-90s.  It was not an environment friendly for the crafting of complex mainstream comic book tales, but there were gems among the fist fights and flexed pecs, and World Engine was one of them.  This is the third issue in the arc, and what makes it so remarkable is how directly it engages with the various explanations that exist in the Marvel Universe for the existence of the Asgardians, even while Thor finds himself grappling with the consequences of a mortality thrust upon him by his harsh father.

 

We see the Asgardians as they exist in the mythology of their human observers, and at the same time as laughing creatures of a science evolved beyond any merely human understanding.  As beings who began with a purpose, perhaps, but who have squandered it and now burn themselves out in the fire of their own scorn and retribution.  It is a grim story with the only relief coming when Thor and The Enchantress, long the bitterest of enemies, set aside the immensity of their godly past and decide to be, if only for a short time, a couple of mortals with nothing to lose.

 

2. Thor 577 (Writer: Dan Jurgens, Artist: Scot Eaton)

 

This is a single issue from one of the greatest arcs in Thor history.  I’ve written about the arc as a whole elsewhere, but this issue is a pretty good stand-alone representation of everything that is challenging and exciting about the larger story.  The humans have brought Asgard crashing down to Earth, and in the rubble and disaster of the moment, Thor has declared that the Asgardians will now take charge of the planet.

 

In the crucial moment of decision, Jurgens is at his best, showing us how, once a binary religious mindset kicks in, it runs roughshod over the humans it is meant to help.  Lady Sif, Thor’s longtime friend and a potent warrior of Asgard, argues passionately that what the disaster betokens is that humans are now past the stage of needing gods, that their cohabitation of the planet will only bring suffering to both, but Thor, mad with frustration and egged on by Loki (of course), will have none of it, and so sets humankind in the teeth of benevolent tyranny, curing it of all its ills if only it will obey.

 

The whole series, from the Spiral arc through The Reigning and into this, the first issue of Gods and Men, investigates the consequences of charity unchecked by wisdom, and the compromises that power makes with itself in its perpetuation, and is, I think, not merely one of the best Thor experiences to be had in comics, but one of the greatest experiences, period.

 

1. Thor: God of Thunder 8 (Writer: Jason Aaron, Artist: Esad Ribic)

 

 

The Thor comic has gone through some exciting and unsteady times as of late, dying and being resurrected, and then dying AGAIN and being resurrected AGAIN, each time with a change of numbering that was entirely traumatic to all of us who love seeing those numbers in the longbox march magisterially forward.  Jason Aaron rescued the situation last year with Thor: God of Thunder, bringing the world of comics a tale of stark and uncompromising honesty that catapulted Thor back into the consciousness of a resurrection-weary reading public.

 

He also brought us our first true atheist anti-hero in the form of Gorr, the God Butcher, a character whose modest goal is to eliminate all gods from the universe and thereby free mortal existence from its self-abasing subservience and the destructive violence that comes with it.  You could pick anything from the first ten issues and it will be golden, but my favorite is issue 8, if for no other reason than the conversation between Gorr’s son and a young version of Thor:

 

Thor: You think this is a good thing, the killing of gods?

 

Gorr’s Son: It will be a better world without gods.  No more fear of eternal damnation or lust for eternal reward.  No more hatred between believers of rival faiths.  Without the lie of eternity to serve as our crutch, we will have no choice but to finally cherish what precious little time we have.  And to put our faith in only ourselves and one another.

 

It is a beautiful moment, tucked away in a little side-panel, but it says everything that needs saying about the tensions at the heart of Thor’s place in the Marvel universe, and about religion’s continued place in the hearts of a humanity that is starting to find its way back to itself again.

 

 

AND BEFORE YOU ERUPT IN INDIGNATION:

 

I am aware that Walter Simonson is not represented on the above list, and that his absence is an act of sheer madness.  He is the man who defined how Thor looks and sounds, and how his universe hangs together, and anybody looking for a good Thor story will find it written upon each page of Simonson’s time at the helm.  This list is the intersection of my personal favorite Thor stories (which include many, many Simonson issues) with my favorite humanist comics, with Stan Lee thrown in to add a bit of jolliness to the mix.  The time when I just talk for pages and pages about my fifty favorite Thor comics is still far off, we can hope.

GETTING STARTED:

 

Marvel is good about making back issues available in trade format.  The whole Warren Ellis story arc is available in Marvel Visionaries: The Mighty Thor: Mike Deodato JrJourney Into Mystery 87 and Thor 294 are both available at a great price in the Marvel Essentials series (each contains a ton of issues, though just in black and white).  And there are complete trades of Thor: Gods and Men and Thor: Godbomb, available at your friendly Local Comic Shop!  So get reading!  Verily!