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.