December 4, 2003

Open Media

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It takes a particular kind of insightful perversity to create a series around the best known villain in the western canon and then change the nature of his villainy. That is what Mike Carey has done in Vertigo’s wicked, witty Lucifer. Carey’s Lucifer (not the devil, exactly. He used to be, but he quit) doesn’t spend his time trying to ruin the lives of puny humans. He doesn’t buy souls. He isn’t responsible for the proliferation of evil in the world and he isn’t likely to show up on anyone’s shoulder with a pitchfork. All he does is pursue his one wish: to be free.

But Carey is more than a wanna be romantic critic, the series and the eponymous character neither justify nor apologize. Carey is fond of saying that while Lucifer’s overriding desire is total freedom of action, thought, and will, he would be perfectly happy to subjugate the rest of the universe in order to achieve it. Carey, along with artists Dean Ormston and Peter Gross have followed Lucifer for 45 issues as he’s made his passionless, obsessed way through the universe to arrive at the just concluded “Brothers in Arms” arc, which finds both Lucifer and his creators at the height of their powers. Carey’s sublime command of continuity is put to great use as a minor character, Beatrice (and yes, that name is just as intentional as the Dire Straights reference in the arc title) not seen since the very early days of the series, plays an integral part in the struggle for heaven’s throne. Carey’s first great accomplishment as a writer was the magnificent “Dalliance with the Damned” storyline, which was a nuanced, subtly affecting study of the nature of Hell cloaked in a Mills & Boon romance novel. In “Arms,” he manages to do what even Dante failed to accomplish, that is, make heaven as interesting as hell.

Carey ads a surprising amount of depth and character growth to a protagonist who by definition cannot change simply by placing him in an unexpected position: that of uncontested, legitimate authority. One of Lucifer’s most fundamental characteristics is that he has no code of behavior — not even the figure’s traditional one of evil for evil’s sake. He will do anything, for anyone, to help advance his own position. Even if that means defending heaven and securing the throne for his brother and nemesis Michael, who happens to be sulking and unwilling to fight for it himself. One of the basic pitfalls of any supernatural work staring a powerful figure is the lack of tension that inevitably results when the protagonist is so strong as to be invincible, beyond any threat the universe could logically produce. Carey’s simple solution was, while keeping god almost entirely offstage, to provide Lucifer with an equal. The relationship between Michael and Lucifer is just as epic and inevitable as any sibling rivalry, and, while they may have been created to be opposing forces, they have more than once found themselves (grudgingly) on the same side. The casualness of their constant bickering encompasses everything from the most hurtful, poisonous comments to a sort of rueful respect. Underlying all of it is the kind of exasperated affection unique to siblings that allows the audience to relate to such alien creatures.

Even though it’s a marvel of pacing, characterization, and art, “Arms” also points out a flaw in the series. Lucifer, although a mesmerizing, seductive character, is also somewhat emotionally flat. While his disarming charm lies in his easy admission of his character (he never tries to hide the fact that he’s a bastard, which somehow makes it all the more surprising when he acts like one), we’ve never really seen him express any emotion other than sarcastic amusement. Carey is much more likely to show us hints of his protagonist’s real nature in relaxed, passing moments than when he is in extremis.

Lucifer is very, very good, but it is not yet great. Carey seeks to place himself with the top echelon of modern mature comics, and the company he seeks, Hellblazer, Preacher, and Sandman, were better than any competition because they were about something. Carey needs to explore his fascinating character and the universe he inhabits more fully. Perhaps the most perfect moment in the series so far came when Lucifer, upon encountering a trespasser lost in his headquarters, starving to death and praying for a miracle, pauses long enough to say “you came into my house, and then you called His name,” before walking away. The explanation behind that comment is one well worth having.

Archived article by Erica Stein