Satan and Webcomics by Bill Roundy
How scary is he, really?
Okay: war, death, disease, famine, telemarketers â€“ they're all bad... but Satan himself? He doesn't seem to be doing much recently. Watching The Exorcist these days, the 70s fashions inspire more terror than the pea-soup-vomit or the little-girl-blasphemy. In the face of real-life monsters like terrorists and serial killers, the cackling flames of the Devil can seem downright quaint. Bottom line is that, in this secular age, we just don't think much about Lucifer anymore.
But he's all over the webcomics.
The very first episode of Sinfest has the Devil bartering for souls. Long-running geek webcomic Sluggy Freelance starts its first episode by summoning Satan to possess a computer. Space Devil features a teeming host of Devils, though not Lucifer himself. Satan dates a lead character in Casey and Andy and college-strip Six by Nine even features Lucifer in the form of a teenage girl named "Luci".
It's easy to see why he's popular. The Devil is a very iconic figure. Just draw a person, then add horns and a tail. Boom â€“ the Devil. He's easy to draw, and everyone recognizes him. Using the Devil immediately gives the cartoonist a multi-thousand-year history to draw on and tweak to serve their own designs.
The audience knows Satan's backstory â€“ the rebellion of the angels, the poor relationship with God, that thing with the apple, etc. So without any tedious exposition, the audience will immediately understand why God might want to, say, taunt the Devil. Satan also makes the perfect antagonist; he is, after all, The Adversary. He makes a great contrast to more human characters that dither and worry about doing the right thing. We all know what drives Satan: evil.
However, very few strips take Satan very seriously. The webcomics mentioned above are almost exclusively humor comics. After all, there are a few stumbling blocks to using Satan as a major figure in a serious webcomic.
First and foremost, Satan is too powerful. In traditional Christian mythology, Satan is a fallen archangel, second only to God in his power, and leader of a third the host of Heaven. He is the lord of the underworld and of the Earth, able to lay all its treasures out in order to tempt that Christ fellow. In other words, if you make the traditional Satan your antagonist, your protagonists are most certainly going to lose... and if Satan is your hero, it's very difficult to come up with anything that would seem even remotely challenging for him.
Humorous webcomics have circumvented this by making the Devil an incompetent goof. In Sinfest, the Devil exists mostly as the butt of God's jokes. The demons of Sluggy Freelance bicker amongst themselves about Beanie Babies. Caliban, the cultured demon from Narbonic, is easily tricked into doing a child's homework. Scott Mills' Space Devil never really got the hang of killing people. Keeping him evil but incompetent allows Satan to interact with human-scale characters without causing any real harm. He becomes more of a sitcom-evil, like Karen on Will & Grace.
The second problem is that Satan is just too evil. The very idea of Satan stems from a time when the world seemed divided clearly into Good and Evil: our tribe was good, others were evil. God is Good; Satan is Evil. However, most serious webcartoonists â€“ indeed, most artists and authors of the last century â€“ tend to eschew this literally Manichean world-view as an oversimplification of the real world. Instead of Good Heroes vs. Evil Villains, most writers today prefer flawed heroes and villains who believe they are doing good â€“ shades of gray instead of black and white. But the Father of Lies predates psychological explanations for evil. He is Evil. And if Satan is the source of all evil, a force of pure, soul-crushing malevolence, then he becomes very boring from a serious character standpoint. He's one-dimensional, a cardboard cut-out. He has no depth.
Still, this doesn't mean that the Devil can't be useful. As a supporting character, the embodiment of pure evil can be used as contrast for a protagonist whose moral stances are more ambiguous. The evil bully-devils of Space Devil, for instance, make the somewhat-more-gentle Spacey seem more downright sympathetic. Spacey may try to kill people, but at least he doesn't revel in destruction. For creators interested in exploring questions of morality, could there be a better way to argue that the world is not just layered in black-and-whites than to show that even demons have a caring side, that the forces of good are not always pure?
Demonology 101 places that struggle front and center. It features Raven, a demon raised by humans. She seems like a good person, but she wonders about her true nature. Gabriel, her guardian (though not an angel), comes from a family pledged to the forces of evil, but abandons them to fight for good. And Poe, a warrior for The Network, an anti-evil group, tries to kill several humans in revenge for the destruction of her organization. Satan himself never makes an appearance in Demonology 101, however. Instead, we have "The Powers" â€“ off-camera demonic forces that run everything.
The Bizarre Life of Charlie Red Eye also muddles the perception of traditionally "Good" and "Evil" forces. Charlie is a normal 8-year-old boy with an enormous red demon eye â€“ in fact, it's hinted that it may be the eye of Satan himself. It's mostly a humorous series, and despite Charlie's occasional cartoonish rampage of destruction, he's basically portrayed as a good kid. So when a cross-bearing witch hunter ties up and tortures Charlie's father, the boy's transformation into a demon is genuinely disturbing â€“ as is his threat to kill the intruder. Had Charlie been a figure of Satanic evil, that would have been expected, but showing a brief glimpse of the evil that lurks beneath the sweet little kid gives the scene a more jarring emotional impact.
A final barrier to the presentation of a scary Satan is that the image of the traditional, iconic Devil justâ€¦ isn't frightening. Horns, a little tail, and a pitchfork? It's kind of cute. But any portrayal of Satan is unlikely to create fear. Creatures in the imagination are always scarier than those we can see, which is why any competent horror movie delays showing its monster for as long as possible. In the examples above, Demonology 101 has wisely kept "The Powers" off-panel and Charlie Red-Eye has shown only brief glimpses of the Devil himself. The webcomic Apocamon, however, goes the other direction. Embracing a childish, cartoony look for its demons, the webcomic makes the demons' horrific actions that much more shocking.
Placing the Devil himself at the center of the story is something rarely seen in webcomics. It's a difficult task, for all the reasons listed above. Any comic that seeks to use Satan in a serious way will have to deal with these questions â€“ how to handle his power, his unbridled evil, and his appearance. Still, we know it can be done successfully. Mike Carey is doing it now in print comics, in the Lucifer series from DC's Vertigo imprint. So where is the webcomics attempt? Where is the webcomic variation on Paradise Lost, positioning Satan as a Byronic hero? Who can put out a digital villain with the pure, manipulative evil of C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters?
A few methods for circumventing the troubles with presenting the Devil seriously immediately suggest themselves. First is the creation of a brand new mythology: a new universe, with new rules. This is cheating, in a sense, because it wouldn't involve the traditional Lucifer, but an exploration of the nature of evil with characters that parallel Christian mythology could avoid many of the problems above. Original characters need not take the appearance of the "traditional Devil," and in a universe populated by solely by angelic or demonic beings, or at least beings of roughly equal abilities, would avoid the problem of the Devil's outsize power levels.
One Over Zero, the self-aware webcomic by Tailsteak, could easily have gone in this direction. The series explored both the nature of the webcomic format and questions of theology, with Tailsteak himself taking a God-like role in his strip. The character Junior was "evil," and his journey towards redemption was a continuing subplot.
Another method of handling the Devil is suggested by that first Sinfest cartoon, in which the Devil offers "anything you want" in exchange for one's soul. Imagine a serious variation on that â€“ Satan offers several people their heart's desire: revenge, wealth, fame â€“ but with a price. Like a supernatural version of 100 Bullets, each story arc could focus on a different recipient of the Devil's attention, and the horror could come as each one realizes the consequences of accepting or rejecting the offer. Satan would be neither protagonist nor antagonist, but a catalyst in the lives of others. In this way, he could keep his identity as creature of pure evil, while the subjects of his attention could display the moral nuance and character development demanded by modern audiences. And if Satan's activity were limited to bestowing favors and collecting debts, his excessive power would not impede the story. The cliched appearances of horns and pitchfork would likely work against a serious story like this, but a sophisticated "man of wealth and taste" appearance could work well.
Those are just a few suggestions for addressing the problems of using the Devil in a serious webcomic; any reader can surely come up with further ideas. The goofy devils are fun, and the struggles among lesser demons can entertain, but for true horror you need to go to the orginal evil source. There's an absence of "serious webcomics" that showcase a Prince of Darkness who truly inspires horror.
And that's something that webcomics need right now. After all, Halloween is approaching, and we need an alternative to watching the brown suits and wide lapels in The Exorcist again.Â