For Christine, it’s coming for me through the trees
“Hear me, Lord of the Stars,
For thee have I worshipped ever
With Strains and sorrows and scars,
With joyful, joyful Endeavour.
Hear me, O lilywhite goat
Crisp as a thicket of thorns,
With a collar of gold for thy throat,
A scarlet bow for thy horns.”
-Alesteir Crowley, The Book of Thoth
The World of the Devil
In the 1997 movie, The Devil’s Advocate, the titular Devil proclaims that the 20th century was his time. A period where the Devil was peaking. This is a sensible argument to be made considering what was happening in that time. From Jim Crow to Ronald Regan, from Hiroshima to Saigon, from OJ Simpson to Daryl Gates, the 20th century was an era full of monstrosity and cruelty. A period where man set himself against man in seemingly the most cruel and awful ways imaginable.
Of course, to limit the history of human cruelty to just the modern era is at best folly, typically held by those who feel nostalgic for the good old days when men were men, the lower classes knew their place, and the Godly appointed king reigned supreme. To go through the list of atrocities humanity has committed would fill an entire series of unfortunately long books detailing a vast web of cruelty that humanity is capable of. And yet, there have been many arguments for the 20th century being an era of significant cruelty. An age of Holocaust and Nuclear Annihilation. Though often characterized as an age of youthful revolution, the 1960’s saw the last dying gasp of utopianism smothered in the crib at the hands of an army of jackboots and a generation deciding to vote for monsters who wanted to keep things the way they were.
That isn’t to say there weren’t any true believers in the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s. Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, Angela Davis, and many more. But among their number included noted comics writer, Jack Kirby, whose New Gods Saga acted as perhaps the last gasp of that revolutionary spirit. It ultimately failed for a number of reasons (most of them to do with DC Comics opting for more marketable fair and generally not giving it a PR push beyond its early issues as well as Kirby’s vision being idiosyncratic with the rest of the comic book landscape), but its influence can be felt even in the wider pop culture. Perhaps the most influential aspect of the New Gods Saga is that of the character of Darkseid, the main antagonist of the line.
Like many of Kirby’s New Gods, Darkseid is a character often written wrongly. For many writers, Darkseid is, at best, a generic fascist galaxy conqueror who will ultimately get his ass beaten by Superman while muttering about someday making Wonder Woman his bride. However, a closer examination of Kirby’s Darkseid reveals a more complicated figure. At once a cosmic force of grand importance and a small minded pathetic little man who is playing a role too large for him, Darkseid is the corruption at the heart of the universe, seeking to conquer it with his iron fist. A mixture of Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Jack Palance with all the evil that implies. The cosmic devil too big for Superman to fight, yet too small to do any lasting harm. He also sits on other people’s chairs like it’s no one’s business.
And yet, it is perhaps this influential character above all others that highlights just how badly Jack Kirby’s New Gods failed. Not simply that its most popular character was a villain often taken more for his aesthetic than his actual villainy, embraced by the wider culture in the form of characters such as Darth Vader, who smoothed away many of the rough edges in favor of a straightforward antagonist. The black gloved grip of a man made machine that sees all around him as lesser beings. Vader, even after his humanization, removes the potential for weakness found within Darkseid. Darth Vader wouldn’t be caught dead casually sitting on a chair or looking small. His imposing figure dominates every scene he’s in, even in ones where he’s in a weaker position, being looked down upon. Kirby’s Darkseid, by contrast, has an air of fallibility to him that his successors often lack.
But more than that, the dream that the New Gods represented revealed itself to be hollow. The Forever People discarded their hip clothes and voted for Thatcher. Orion was reappropriated into every detective story about a man fighting his inner demons and how his bad actions are justified for the greater good. Scott Free rejected his pacifistic tendencies in favor of more traditional Superhero fare. The complex1 racial politics of Forager were discarded in favor of a more simplistic and ugly view of racism that discards anything save the most explicit of slurs. The children Highfather so wished to see grow into something better ultimately embraced the cock and bull stories of adolescent power fantasies that gave simplistic answers and condemned any act of change as villainous. The utopian dream of the New Gods was always fueled by a corpse of an idea.
Perhaps the series that best understood this (intentionally or not) was Tom King and Mitch Gerrads, and Clayton Cowles’ 12 issue Maxi-Series, Mister Miracle. King is a rather controversial author for a number of reasons, both sympathetic and widely overblown. But, Mister Miracle is perhaps his most definitive work. At once a reworking of an older, less utilized comic book character in ways that are at once invigorating and infuriating, Mister Miracle tells of the titular Scott Free as he deals with a nervous breakdown2. Inspired by a real life breakdown, in a Post-Election period, wherein King himself ended up at the hospital, in what he would go onto describe as a Tony Soprano Season 1 breakdown, the book is King at his purest as a creator.
It’s at this juncture that the fundamental revelation at the heart of the work is best touched on, as it is quite telling. King’s perspective of the mythology prior to tackling the book was very much ‘Darkseid is a dime-store Thanos, yeah?’, and that’s effectively indicative of the mindset of the average comic reader. Darkseid is viewed in relation to other characters of his ‘type’, big muscly space villains who a zillion heroes gather in spreads to face, but rarely understood in all his complexity. And, ostensibly speaking, the comic follows suit with this interpretation of the character. As a physical presence, Darkseid is imposing, capable of great strength and power. The fist that will crush his enemies to dust. And yet, Darkseid is more than just a mere bruiser within the pages of Mister Miracle. For when friend and creator Julian Lytle pointed out to King that he couldn’t be further from the truth and the point. As King paraphrases, “Have you ever had that moment wherein you had the right choice and the wrong choice and yet you made the wrong choice? That’s Darkseid, dude. Darkseid is.”
And as he was granted actual perspective on the character, those final words echoed in his mind, visualized as white text on top of pitch black backgrounds. Darkseid in Mister Miracle is less a character than in his other appearances and more a presence haunting the world. A cosmic metaphorical force that infests every aspect of life and has people choose the wrong option. Where Scott Free is left thinking the only means to escape his pain is through suicide; where Orion sees an enemy and concludes the right path forward is to fight it; where Big Barda would rather keep her emotions bottled in, save moments of aggression and passion, than talk openly about the painful ugly feeling of finding her husband in their bathroom with his wrists slit open. A mindset rather than a person.
Indeed, this vision of Darkseid is perhaps most akin to John Carpenter’s take on the Devil in Prince of Darkness. Prince of Darkness is a rather interesting film, at once a blatant riff of The Quatermass Experiment and a return to the base under siege format that kick started his career in Assault on Precinct 13. But Prince of Darkness is a much different film. Where Assault on Precinct 13 was a straightforward tale of a horde of faceless criminals out to kill for revenge and the lols, Prince of Darkness is, as film critic Scout Tafoya put it, “the way I see our political climate. Why is all this happening to us if not because some Lovecraftian devil is compelling it?”
Carpenter has never been a filmmaker to shy away from the political implications of his films. This is, after all, the man who made They Live and Pro-Life. But where his other political texts often revel in a degree of unsubtle bluntness, Prince of Darkness keeps the political infection of the 1980’s to the subtext with lines like “Only the corrupt are listened to now. They only tell us what we want to hear” as well as off-hand mentions of the political landscape. On the surface, the Devil is rather straightforwardly an anti-god with minimal characterization, akin to the common framing of Darkseid. But moreover, the Devil of Prince of Darkness is one from an antimatter universe. His very presence in the material reality would corrupt reality on a subatomic level.
Indeed, the very presence of his spawn decays the human body, infecting those the system has failed into acting against their self interests. From the homeless beaten down by the cruel systems of capital and a failed mental health service to the people drowned in the liquid form of the Devil’s spawn now controlled husks out to murder their friends. But within the context of Mister Miracle, the presence of Prince of Darkness has yet another meaning. Throughout the film, characters receive incomplete messages from the future via their dreams. They tell of an apocalyptic event that will occur in the 21st century of the coming of the Devil unless those who receive the message can stop it from occurring. These dreams are presented in the form of a VHS tape.
For those who haven’t read Mister Miracle, a part of the aesthetic the comic takes is that of a VHS tape that has been degraded and recorded over again and again such that the image frequently corrupts. Character designs from Kirby’s original run on the characters replaces Gerads’ semi-realistic designs. The comic degrades even more when Darkseid himself appears, corrupting the colors to further putrify the image, at times needing the comic to be taped over just to keep things together. Darkseid is not man so much as syndrome; as a voice that bellows in the human heart.
And yet, there’s still that air of mundanity that Kirby created Darkseid to hold. He is still the paragon of all that is rotten in this world, but there’s a pettiness to his rotten core that goes beyond mere galactic conquest. Darkseid is the kind of man who will sit on your chair the moment he kicks you off of it. Darkseid’s pettiness is such that he will give up the fight and make it impossible to win, even as he’s on the precipice of galactic victory, just so he can recreate the childhood trauma of one person. Also, Darkseid double dips.
Of course, this does not amount to a character. By design, Darkseid is more of a feeling of wrongness within the world of Mister Miracle. As comics critic Charlotte Finn put it, “Darkseid is the itch in the back of your skull that wants you to destroy everything, starting with yourself.” However, while the mood of the comic effectively portrays such a feeling, it lacks the full depth of personality Kirby provided and other creators embraced. Sure, Darksied is in all things, from the largest of holocausts to the smallest of petty grievances, but what shape does he take within them? What is his design beyond mere conquest? To answer this, we need look no further than the source of “Darkseid is,” Grant Morrison.
The Worship of the Devil
Morrison is a creator that has perpetually been fascinated by The Devil. He’s had a career-long interest in Ideas and The Power Of Ideas, due to the sheer fact that the very Idea of Superman, a fictional construct, gave him comfort as a child from the dread terror of nuclear armageddon that petrified him and those around him. And what is The Devil if not the most effective, concise idea of all? It’s the recurring idea that’s terrified and fascinated us all for ages, emerging in a variety of forms across numerous beliefs. The perfect distillation of all that is wrong, of all that we fear at any moment in time, the manifestation of evil itself, into one infinitely malleable idea.
There are many aspects to this idea that have recurred throughout the work of Grant Morrison, from the toxic corruptive imperialistic influence of the Bomb that breaks everything down into rubble and decay to the vast and insidious nature of the capitalistic hierarchy controlling the world3 to the far more insidious concept of the human body, where every aspect of it from the heart to the police to the Filth itself has a function to keep the body running. But with Darkseid, he manages to express all of these ideas and so much more.
If King’s Darkseid is the dread of wrongness that haunts our very source, whose soundtrack might as well be John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness music, seeding doubt, questioning your very reality and beliefs…Morrison’s Darkseid, which King’s builds off of, is a different beast. The construct of King’s take is a natural extension of Morrison’s work, as even the now iconic phrase ‘Darkseid Is.’ comes from the Scottish scribe. Indeed, the comic where Morrison first wrote Darkseid, Rock of Ages, provides an apt explanation for what the goals and machinations of the Dark God are:
“I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad. And when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought… I will see Darkseid as in a mirror… And know what fear is.” Darkseid, in many ways, is an imperialist. At once the remnant of an ancient idea best forgotten and a sadly relevant force of the 21st century. For Kirby, he was the answer to the question “What if Hitler was sane.” Not in the sense of Hitler himself being a mad man who, but rather the pure, awful logic of a man who sees the world as solvable as a math problem.
A lot of Morrison’s tenure and work with Darkseid is an effective modernization and reframing of Darkseid for a new century, laying the groundwork for a whole generation of creators, and cleaning up the mess of many that came before. While Kirby’s vision of the terrible tyrant offers a multitudinous array of possible takes and approaches, the one Morrison would choose would be firmly rooted in the likes of Forever People, wherein the bastard-in-blue cackles at the fact that humanity hides him from their children to allow the suffering brought about by places like Happyland or Disney World to flourish. The futility of human effort is underlined, as Darkseid mocks man by exclaiming the iconic words “AND STILL THE COSMIC JOKE ESCAPES HIM! FOR HOW CAN HE COPE WITH ME–BY SHUNNING ME–HIS OTHER FACE!”
Kirby’s point couldn’t be clearer. He’s practically beating the reader with a sledgehammer, so that they get it, despite the fact that calling a character Darkseid (Dark Side) would be enough. Nevertheless, this is the fundamental basis for Morrison’s vision of the character.
Darkseid is humanity’s Dark Side. He IS our other face, that is the point! He is all the worst parts of us, the things we’d like to bury or ignore, the pieces we’d prefer to pretend weren’t around. He’s everything wrong with humanity given voice and shape, chiseled into the form of a blue overlord. And for all that some keep wondering ‘Bruh, what does Darkseid Is. even mean?!’ it’s obvious. Morrison’s phrase is merely an expression of Kirby’s intent and will. Darkseid Is. is an absolute statement, a fundamental acknowledgement. Dark Side Is. Humanity has a dark side, and that cannot be escaped. It is absolute, for it will forever exist, it will eternally haunt us. Darkseid is our terrible history, our dreadful present, and our ever-scary future. He is The Devil for a Post-War era America. The madman who sits not on cosmic thrones like any stock villain, but one who sits in the comfort of your very couch. The tyrant whose agents walk the streets, whose minions scream his talking-points and ugly rhetoric on Television.
Darkseid isn’t here to blow you up or burn down buildings. God, no. What a waste that’d be. He’s here to show your family Fox News, QAnon, and turn them into their worst selves, because it’s what amuses him and strengthens him. Glorious Godfrey in his stupid bow tie spreading the gospel of white supremacy on a national cabel news network. It’s what validates him. Not in the sense that participating in a system of cruelty makes one illegitimate in critiquing it, but rather in the active participation of those who would benefit more from a cruel system such as ours than a better one.
Perhaps the best place to see this is with Morrison’s first 21st century exploration of Darkseid in the seminal epic, Seven Soldiers. The conceit of Seven Soldiers is that it is a team book where none of the members of the team meet one another even in the same book. Each character is given their own miniseries where they tackle the threat on their own from a unique angle. Within the pages of Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle, Scott Free’s successor, Shilo Norman deals with the above aspect of the fight to the rest of the team’s below.
Perhaps the best expression of Darkseid’s will isn’t him pettily moving a box of adult diapers too far up for an invalid he had beaten and burned alive to reach or the explicit expression of the Anti-Life equation, which gives him control over all sentient life. Rather, it’s the creation of Baron Bedlam. Bedlam is a blonde haired, blue eyed white guy in contrast to Shilo’s bald4 black skinned man, both of whom work in the same industry of escape artistry. The stunts Bedlam has been performing have been blatant rip-offs of ones Shilo has been working on. It is revealed that Bedlam isn’t a man, but rather a manufactured icon for the people to follow and worship without all the messiness of real people.
Those of you familiar with the music industry might recognize this trend as happening again and again5. From the history of pop music springing from white artists taking musical cues from black ones as part of their minstrel shows to the rather uncomfortable history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” where the man responsible for the most famous part of the song died penniless because many a white person refused to believe that a black man could make good music on his own6.
Bedlam explicitly states that he aims to replace Shilo, take everything he has. As one of Darkseid’s agents explains, the people “applaud a hollow man now, who has learned to copy you. A plastic man who smoothes away all the rough edges for maximum appeal.” Shilo’s attempts at fighting the man behind Bedlam, Darkseid, with mere superheroes ends with him being brutally beaten and broken, ultimately killing himself to escape from the pain his life has become.
But Darkseid will not abide that. Death is too easy for him. Instead of merely letting death release Shilo from the cruel world around him, he instead traps him in a life trap. Every time Shilo dies, he is reborn into a new life. Be that life a mundane existence with a wife and child that goes by too quickly for him to be able to grasp it or that of a prison warden who feels uncomfortable locking people away in cages. Every life ends in death and suffering. The system never breaks, even from within. There is no escape.
So naturally, Shilo escapes. Not through the acts of superheroics of two-fisted fights against some stand in for everything wrong with the world. Rather, he comes to realize that those who are hurting him are also hurting. The cage that surrounds those protesting against police brutality, capitalistic excess, and systemic cruelty also encases those who fight to keep things the way they are. Part of the aim of Darksied and his agents on Fox News is to keep the poor from realizing that the system is built to enrich those already powerful. They spread racist ideas of cabals of Jewish bankers running the world or satanic pedophile rings in the deep state not just because they believe them, but to prevent the poor from realizing that the rich aren’t going to save them. That the queers, coloreds, and other minorities aren’t the cause of their suffering. Ultimately, to escape from a system as cruel as capitalism, we need to help each other escape. Because the system is fueled by our isolation, our suffering building character, Survival of the Fittest. Embracing an idea as radical as Mutual Aid could disrupt the very core of the system.
Thus, picking up from that, within Final Crisis, Morrison’s vision of Darkseid firmly leans into him as The God Of Capitalism. He is the man at the top of the food-chain, sitting about in the ruins of a city, surrounded by broken dreams and legions of carcasses, uncaring. He is The Devil as the cult leader of capitalism. He is the man people watch on their screens and chant the name in awe of, the way many men today seem to with the likes of Elon Musk or Peter Thiel. The kind of man who would put shock collars around his bodyguards just so he wouldn’t have to pay them when the world’s gone to crap7. And he’s the natural, most operatic display of what that kind of monster really is and looks like.
He is decaying, broken, rotten, wretched, desperately clinging onto a carcass of a body. He lost a long time ago, slain by his own son. But Darkseid just refuses to die and he’s willing to take the whole of existence down with him into that black hole of non-existence. An irrelevant old man trying to feel powerful, for it’s the only thing he craves and knows. He is the man around whom Neo-reactionaries gather, the one who attracts rightwing conspiracy theorist nuts that believe in his word and no other.
That’s the other terrifying nature of Darkseid Is. It erases all perspectives and viewpoints. It asserts the one singular ‘objective’ perspective of reality, which is built on delusions, and asserting said delusions on reality. The very concept of subjectivity is no more, as all that is allowed to be is Darkseid. You can say nothing to sway the people who have bought into his fascist rhetoric, especially given they’re aptly named…The Justifiers. One couldn’t possibly be more on the nose and explicit about the point. They’ll justify all of it, with their delusional nonsense, as anything that doesn’t fit their singular narrative is ‘fake news’ by the liberal media and The Deep State. Look, you think this Darkseid fella and Anti-Life are bad, but that’s false!! Say it with me, let go, just let go and embrace Darkseid Is!!
It’s all the terror of the rightwing, cults, and their ties to capitalism in one horrifically potent concoction. It’s all of that, put through elements of Wagnerian tragedy, so that Morrison can explicitly run counter to it and make a point. Darkseid may be, sure. But Superman Can. We all have these terrible parts to us. Humanity has this ugly history, it still does, maybe it always will. That’s inescapable. But that’s not all there is to us. There is kindness. There is grace. There is beauty. There is a radiant better-self, the good, worthwhile part of us all, the totality of all the best aspects of humankind, I give you…The Superman!
In the end, if we give in and simply choose to believe that capitalism is unbeatable forever, we become Justifiers. We surrender and succumb to the worst status-quo, because we can’t see a path beyond the problem. Just because we haven’t accomplished that which feels impossible in this moment does mean we never can, or ever will. We just haven’t imagined our way beyond it yet.
And yet, despite all that, Morrison’s Darkseid lacks the humanity that Kirby and even King’s versions of the character. He is the force that he always proclaims himself to be rather than a ruin whose power can not fill the void where his soul should be. Though he is an avatar for capitalism in Morrison’s interpretation, he wouldn’t be caught in a place as vibrant and full of life as Happyland. Morrison’s Darkseid stalks the ruin of a city like a ruin of a man.
The Mastery of the Devil
An interpretation of the Devil that ties the mundane humanity of Kirby’s Darkseid with the full capitalistic implications of Morrison’s can be found in the third season of Noah Hawley’s Fargo. Fargo is, more than just a television follow up to the 1996 Coen Brothers’ film, a successor to the television series The Wire, in that it too explores a system of vast, unstoppable cruelty that afflicts the 21st century on a specific community. But where The Wire laid its gaze upon the drug war and how it has utterly destroyed Baltimore and those who live within it, Fargo opts to widen its gaze towards the midwest and the system of Capitalism.
Though present throughout the show, it’s in the third season where this aspect of the show becomes more apparent. In the final episode, one of the side characters notes that the crime being committed for the entirety of the season is actually legal, provided that the correct paperwork was filed. Said crime being a kind of tax fraud involving the gutting of a small business to be purchased by a larger corporation for fun and profit. At the heart of it all is an unassuming man by the name of V. M. Varga.
As should be made well apparent, that is not the man’s actual name8. Indeed, even the mere search of his true name is fraught with danger. We’re first introduced to him from behind, as he sits in the office, mysterious, uncompromising, inhabiting the comfort of a seat that isn’t his, much the same way Darkseid does. We know little about him, but he knows all about us. And he’s not here to make a ‘deal’, he’s here to lay out the deal. You don’t get a choice. The choices have all been made. You just follow the instructions and serve the larger machine.
He is the force of the system. He isn’t the ur-king, the man at the top, the way Darkseid is, but he is a man who has mastered the abuse of the system he inhabits, and can sway it to his advantage. Indeed, in perhaps the most telling moment, when a man simply searches for his name online, to gain some measure of advantage on him, to defy him, and break the system that supports him, even his computer shuts down, and he ends up dead. And it’s not the loud, bold ‘You have defied us and you will suffer!’, but the quiet, ‘accidental’ death that’s sudden and silent. A drug overdose, a heart attack, a serial killer who hates men named Stussy.
Varga is the terror of the system that works exactly as intended: gamed by those with greater power stomping on the necks of anyone who could possibly get in the way. He is the monster that may not run the world as its king, but he sure knows how to work the right levers as a creature of privilege and power. He will look you in the eye and tell you what is going to happen, what he is going to do, and what you will do, and you will know you cannot escape this mechanism, because that is its nature. The system isn’t broken, it was designed this way.
Varga is not a man who lives under a game of truths. Where Darkseid wished to corrupt the world with a new truth, Varga lives in a realm of stories. “True Stories,” as he’s put it. He tells of tall tales from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being caused by a sad, lonely man getting a sandwich, to the moon landing being faked, to the barbarian hordes of the poor and unintelegent refugees baring down the doors at the world the rich have created for themselves.
He is also a grotesque, a bulimic consuming vast quantities of food only to puke them out later that night. A racist, anti-semite who forces a Jewish man to drink a cup he pissed into just to show how much more powerful he is. And yet he is invisible, another face in the crowd that could be anyone. He doesn’t flaunt his power because the power itself is the point. He is at once the ancient evil of the wolf Peter must fight against and a creature of modernity. He uses the internet with the ease of a millennial, able to find the most obscure detail of those who use it and turn it against them.
Fittingly then, his opponent within the police system, Gloria Burgle, is, in many ways, a luddite. Not that she rejects technology entirely, but rather that technology has rejected her. Automatic doors don’t open for her, soap dispensers and faucets don’t turn on. She doesn’t even have a Facebook account. And yet, it is season 3 where the police of Fargo receive their reckoning. Where previous seasons have portrayed the police as capable of overcoming any and all threats put against them, even if some of the members are sympathetically ineffectual, Season 3 presents its police force as ill equipped in dealing with a man like Varga.
Rather than the ineffectual sympathetic police chief of Season 1, Season 3’s police chief is a militaristic man who is willing to throw the most convenient person of color under the bus for a series of murders, provided it has enough truthiness to feel good. Even Burgle is framed as incapable of defeating Varga. Her investigations often run into dead ends, rarely even touching Varga in any way that matters. Indeed, more often than not, she’s given information by other characters than finding it on her own. Not because she’s bad at being a detective, but because the system is built to protect men like Varga from any real harm.
Even at the end, when she’s embraced a modern outlook with her bisexual bob, allegiance with Homeland Security, and Varga sitting before her waiting to be taken away for the rest of his life, there’s a sense of dread to it all. A sense that this isn’t going to end well in the slightest. Perhaps we should consider when the events of Fargo’s third season take place. The show begins around Christmas time in 2010. This was near the midpoint of the Obama presidency, right at the wake of the 2009 financial crisis. The main portion of the series ends in March of 2011, before cutting to five years later. A few months after that, the final scene occurs. Specifically, if the math is right, it takes place on July 18, 2016. The day Donald Trump was announced to be the Republican candidate for President of the United States of America.
As you might have noticed from Varga’s talk of stories and his embrace of the internet as a tool for disinformation, Varga is a stand in for Donald Trump. Indeed, at one point in the series, he discusses Vladimir Putin with pride and admiration. But where other Trump analogues go for embracing the persona of an imbecile Trump presents to the world, Varga is instead the cold, calculating aspect at the heart of what Trump represents. Not merely a one-to-one analogy of the man (Trump, after all, isn’t British), Varga represents the grotesque monstrosity at the heart of a man like Trump becoming president. The systemic evil that enabled a man like Trump to rise to power. The racist rhetoric we tell our children to protect them from the scary black man in The White House.
Varga and devils like him will outlast Trump. We’ve seen their type before with men like Bush, Regan, Nixon, Hitler, Jefferson, Caesar, and so on ad infinitum. They are as ancient ideas as they are modern. So long as someone can profit off of the suffering of our fellow man, they will prosper in the light of the systems constructed to house everyone else. They adapt with the times and make us think they are good.
The Lies of the Devil
Perhaps no devil reflects this more than Bryan Fuller’s interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Based on the novel series by Thomas Harris, Hannibal follows the infamous cannibal as he hides within the FBI as a consultant to detective Will Graham. To many reading that sentence, it sounds like your typical detective drama where the hero has a darkness within him that threatens to consume him whole lest he let it out on those who commit crimes. His dark counterpart just inches too close to him, egging him onwards into more and more grey areas until he embraces the monster within and brutalizes his prey before coming out the other end rejecting the toxicity of his partner in favor of a relatively cleaner approach that still involves torture, stop and frisk, and other tactics the police are wont to do. Think Blue Bloods, Training Day, or most shonen battle mangas. However, Hannibal is a far stranger beast than that.
For starters, though it wears the skin of a cop drama, and a procedural cop drama at that, in reality, the show is in the vein of Fuller’s previous work: a fantasy show about death. While the show claims that Will has an empathy disorder, the way it functions within the context of the show is more akin to psychic visions. Recreations of past events that haunt the architecture like an undead deer in a long forgotten wood. People are seen in new lights by Graham’s gaze, no one quite like Hannibal himself.
For when Will gazes upon him, he sees a Devil.
Like the Devils we have talked about previously, Hannibal’s devilish side takes on the form of corruption. But where other devils corrupt with their mere presence or with lies that have an air of truthiness to them, Hannibal takes on the more traditional approach of temptation. Like the snake in the garden of Eden, Hannibal offers people a way out of the traps they have found themselves in (usually by Hannibal’s own doing).
Take, for example, a scene midway through season two of the show. Here, Will Graham is presented with an opportunity to kill the good doctor and prevent further bloodshed. However, Hannibal tries to tempt Will into not going through with it via a three part pitch. First he goes for the mystery of what happened. Why he did all those things, spared some and killed others. This fails predominantly because Will just asks him what happens next. Then, he goes for empathy, comparing the potential murder Will is to commit to being falsely accused, as Will was throughout the season for Hannibal’s murders. This goes about as well as you’d expect.
And then, there’s the third temptation, wherein Dr. Lecter simply asks, “If I am the Ripper and you kill me, who will answer your questions? Don’t you want to know how it ends?” On the surface, this appears to be the same temptation he opened with: an answer to the questions. However, it’s that second part that changes the meaning. It implies that this is a narrative. Hannibal frequently delves into the realm of art criticism with Will acting as a critic to the various murder tableaus.
Art and the appreciation of art can be seen throughout Hannibal. Often times, the killer’s murder tableaus are presented as works of art whose meaning is for the critic to uncover. A design that must be understood in order to see where the killer will strike next. An eye looking upwards, seeing nothing has a different artistic implication than one that sees God. Season three’s The Great Red Dragon is highly influenced by the works of William Blake to transform people to fuel his own transformation into something more than mere flesh and blood. An ascension, a becoming.
But nowhere is this more palpable than when he looks at the design of the Chesapeake Ripper, Hannibal’s nom de plume. Here, Will is presented with an artist of a higher caliber than most. A Moore or a Blake to the traditional Johns or Henry. Will is engulfed into each detail, as he is in all the tableaus he encounters, but he feels more electric when presented with Hannibal’s designs. Many have read the show as a kind of romance, where two men on opposite sides of the law find each other and embrace into each other’s arms. Indeed, Fannibals have perhaps the degree of embracing their problematic ship, bar perhaps My Chemical Romance fans.
There’s a quite real allure to The Devil that Hannibal represents, in the way there isn’t with the previous interpretations. It’s the difference between the blatant monstrosity of open bigotry and the more manipulative monstrosity of people who claim they are on your side yet seek only to tarnish all there is. It’s less the fierce ideology of the former figures, and more of a sport. A fascination, if you will, with corruption of individuals, of breakdown of people, watching them shatter and warp between your fingertips.
Hannibal isn’t your Tucker Carlson, he doesn’t need to scream his point, or threaten you with the force of his systemic power (though he is quite wealthy). He’s instead the soft-talking, classy, well-dressed gentleman you know, who constantly assures you he’ll always be there for you. The person you trust and rely on, the one you hug in your times of fear and need and uncertainty. The terror of Hannibal isn’t just that there’s a monster out there in the world that you can see, it’s that there are monsters you can’t see. That they’re all around you, you just don’t know, and you may never know.
It’s the fundamental erosion of faith, and trust and belief. It’s the systematic destruction of empathy, connection and as is fitting…a corruption of the perspective one has on humanity itself. And all of that begins with him saying ‘Bon Appétit’. Sure, his dishes might look good, they might even seem sublime and magnificent at a glance. All his offers do. But beneath all that…is the flesh of fellow men and women. There is certainly a sexual component to his consumption. He is seen sleeping and flirting with many potential targets of both male and female genders. But ultimately, Hannibal is more bi-homicidal than bisexual. More interested in eating the flesh of those he considers rude than making sweet, sensual love to Will, Alana, or any of the other people he tempts. It’s food made of fellow people. That Hannibal, quite literally, relishes in watching us all eat each other, and considers it almost to be an artform, with rigorously researched and prepared recipes, should say it all. It’s the most potent realization of the terror that his temptation represents.
But more than just the consumption of the fellow man is his tendency to gaslight everyone around him. With each word from his silver tongue, he is able to convince a room that he is just a normal man and the Graham fellow with mental issues, he’s the real serial killer. He’ll even make Will believe it by breaking a ton of ethical boundaries and actively induce seizures and psychotic episodes just to sell the lie better. And he will convince even the audience that this is romance. A true romance is a game between equal partners. Where neither has control of the other. But like many a Devil, what Hannibal truly wants is control.
The Contract of the Devil
But the Devil who best represents this desire for control comes from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Madoka Magica is, essentially, a series dissecting the elements of the Magical Girl (Mahou Shoujo) genre, and Kyubey and Homura, its key antagonist is at the heart of that. Opening on an ostensible apocalypse, we’re introduced to the character, as her force and presence is immediately established. Madoka, our protagonist, is offered a choice. To ensure salvation, she must alter the way of things. However, we must consider the nature of this change. The apocalypse we are presented with is revealed to be, by the end of the series, part of the system rub by Kyubey. Like Hannibal before, Kyubey is a creature of temptation. She offers Madoka and all the other magical girls around her the chance to change the world9. However, unlike Hannibal, Kyubey is a literal talking bunnycat so it can actually change the world in new and interesting ways.
These shapes of change, however, are more akin to Faustian bargains than a gift from a fairy godmother. Each wish is twisted upon those who desired it, be it a child who wanted her father’s church to succeed becoming a cult or a shy girl who thought healing someone would reward her with his love. And when the wishes turn on our heroines, as they all must, the magical girls become witches, the very thing that they have been fighting.
This is all part of Kyubey’s system of control. As it turns out, the despair of magical girls is a means by which entropy can be prevented. A magical fuel source to run the universe indefinitely. And we return again to the awful history of the world. As many who grew up in the 21st century are aware, there is a war going on in the Middle East. A war that has ravaged the land, corrupted the soil, and broken the world. All for the sake of a fuel source found in its deserts that other countries would like access to. Sure, Western Civilizations claim to be bringing democracy to the people of third world nations as Kyubey claims to be bringing technology to the human race. But when that fuel source is gone, when there is nothing but the ecological disaster of climate change, those who benefited from a system of active cruelty and suffering will abscond from the world. Just as Kyubey does.
If Hannibal was a mere man making offers felt alluring, because they seemingly offered comfort or necessary loopholes, Kyubey’s offers are different. She’s a magical being offering not seemingly tasty food or an escape mechanism out of a sketchy scenario, but power itself. Pure, raw power enough to alter the nature of things around you. It’s not just an offer. It’s a wish. And like many stories have warned before: Be careful what you wish for.
The grave terror at the heart of Kyubey, building on Hannibal, is the idea that monsters aren’t just all around you, they’re almost the most seemingly beautiful, innocent and pure things you can conjure up from imagination. Nothing is spared. Nothing is sacred. Everything is part of this terrible inescapable system, and nothing is as it seems. It’s the idea that the very universe, in its fundamental make-up and structure, that reality itself, is built this way, upon awfulness and corruption. And that all around you, all that which is the seemingly lovely and free is part of that terrible structure of pain. What is a world that runs on despair worth, afterall? Is that any world at all? That’s the erosive power and terror here. It’s not just you losing faith in fellow people, but all that which surrounds you, in the concept of life and existence itself. Kyubey does not offer the radical change that will break the system, change the rules, create a better ending, but instead the mere illusion of change.
But there is someone working against Kyubey’s game, someone who wants to change the game, if only a little: Homura Akemi. Homura is a magical girl with the ability to control time. She can freeze the universe to give herself enough time to move out of harm’s way or set up traps for her opponents. She can also go backwards in time and has been spending the entire series attempting to do just one thing: Save Madoka. Every time she tries however, it always ends in the death of her beloved. Like Sysphus pushing a boulder atop a hill, Homura’s failures recur again and again, leading to more and more hardship.
And yet, it’s because of those hardships that Madoka could have enough mystical energy to alter the very shape of the world. To toss away the system of cruelty that has been making all magical girls suffer and die over and over again. Madoka wishes that all magical girls, past, present, and future, be free of that awful system. Be allowed to reject the individualist system that besets magical girls against each other in favor of one that embraces unity and fellowship. It’s a better world, all things considered.
Except, it’s not the world that Kyubey wants. And more importantly, it’s not a world Homura wants either. The price of this better world (for while Madoka can imagine a world without witches, she cannot imagine a world without capitalism) was that Madoka had to become a force within the universe. Effectively a being outside of space and time that does not actually exist. And Homura does not want that. For how can she love an idea and be loved back? How can she save Madoka if she’s already saved herself and also made herself non-existent?
The answer, it turns out, is by becoming a demon and forcing Madoka to exist. When her soul corrupts with despair and the energies that create witches and fuel the once fallen universe come to roost, when Madoka comes to save her from becoming a Witch, Homura splits Madoka into to, taking the power that Madoka had and reinventing the universe by her own design.
We must again revisit the effect Homura’s wish had. It was, after all, to “redo my meeting with Miss Kaname. But this time, instead of her protecting me… I want to become strong enough to protect her!” Like the shy girl Sayaka who wished to heal a boy, Homura’s wish was made with the pretence that Madoka would reward her with love and friendship. Instead, each loop only makes things worse and worse. Friends die in uncomfortably bleak ways, Madoka and Homura suffer again and again and again, and by the final loop, Madoka looks at her love with a degree of fear as she prepares to murder Kyubey.
The desire to protect is, in some regards, a desire for control. To decide what happens to someone in the long run and make sure that happens. This is certainly the case for Homura Akemi, as the world she creates for her and Madoka to live in is not the world they initially met in. Where in that timeline, Homura was the transfer student being introduced to the new environment, here Madoka is the new girl submissively in need of Homura’s guidance. And when her godly powers begin to resurface, Homura holds Madoka down in a hug, preventing her full potential from emanating.
And yet, for all her control, it is also an act of self destruction. Throughout the ending of the story, Homura repeatedly commits acts of self harm, including beating herself to a pulp, shooting her brains out, and actively manipulating her friends into killing her. As Jen A. Blue notes in her book The Very Soil, “Homura describes herself as evil and embraces the role of the scantily clad, black-winged devil-woman. But what difference is there between saying “I am evil,” and “I deserve to be punished?” This is simply another expression of her guilt, a new way of tormenting herself.”
The Love of the Devil
Yet for all their manipulations, for all their secrets and lies, in desperate attempts for control, none may come anywhere close to our next satanic figure: Lucifer from Devilman: Crybaby10. Devilman is, of course, the focus point for Go Nagai’s greatest obsessions about mankind, carrying all his horror hallmarks, from awakening armies, a hero caught between the choice of being either a hero or a devil, and a mixture of cheesecake and gore. It’s a work that’s seen numerous iterations, all effectively cutting to the essence of the same core story: Lucifer and his love on Earth.
We all know the story. Lucifer rebels against God, becomes a fallen angel. But from there, Nagai’s story takes a drastic turn, as we’re within a world full of abnormal monstrosities that were never part of God’s design: Devils. Finding kinship with those rejected by the creator, much like he was, Lucifer, The Lord Of Lies, becomes the one true lord of them all. And then the world is changed, as god’s legions arrive and change the world.
Now, ages after, humanity exists. God’s creation, while the original Devils, the unplanned natural rejects of the world, slumber. This is the starting point for Nagai’s incarnation of The Devil, which is what Crybaby runs with. This base premise is twisted and played on, as unlike in all the above narratives, save for perhaps Madoka Magica, The Devil is not known. Not until the near-end. Lucifer hides in plain sight, much like Kyubey did. Playing a deliberately planned role within the narrative he himself has planned out and predicted, wherein not even he bears recollection of the truth, Lucifer is a being willing to lie to not just others but to even himself if it will help him succeed.
And his plan? If all the above others’ intent was to simply either maintain or abuse the system for their own ends, Lucifer’s intent is to take it to its ultimate extremity. It’s to abuse the system, game it, but not for money or any meaningful gain. It’s proving a point. It’s abusing the system to completely and utterly destroy anyone and everyone that inhabits it, because his perspective of humanity is built on seeing only their worst aspects. It’s believing that they are nothing more than their basest, most cruelest urges, moments and ideas, and must be erased. Although this isn’t driven by divine judgement or enforcement of some kind of moral standard, as much as having a conclusion in mind, and being deadset to prove it, unable to see beyond it. It’s pure, pretty hatred of humanity itself, as a concept. The only one who escapes this perspective, as The Exception, the only one spared, is the sole love that Lucifer picks out.
But for all his machinations, much like Homura, Lucifer’s scheme is ultimately that of self destruction. At the heart of the story is a teenage boy named Akira Fudo, the titular Devilman Crybaby. Both of these titles are rather straightforward. The Devilman is a kind of human who has been altered into a satanic being yet still retains their humanity. This typically amounts to being able to shift back and forth between human and demon forms where other demonic entities choose to be monstrous.
Conversely, the Crybaby aspect refers to Akira’s tendency to cry when other people feel sad. Much like Will, Akira has an acute sense of empathy. He can tell, even from the barrier of a telephone screen depicting the past, when someone is feeling miserable. And he can see the humanity in anyone. When the demon Seline dies with her partner Kaim, Akira asks Lucifer if demons can feel love, to which the Devil notes that they are unthinking beasts who act on their baser emotions.
However, even Lucifer feels emotions. When they first meet as children, Akira notes that Lucifer, though stone faced and uncaring, is crying on the inside for the dead cat they buried. Lucifer doesn’t acknowledge this until the end of the world happens. As would inevitably happen with a romance between Will and Hannibal, the devil has killed his one true love. And, as angels descend from the heavens to wipe out the remains of Lucifer’s army, he cries for the love he lost.
This has happened before, of course. Much like with Homura, Lucifer is trapped in an endless loop of suffering. The events recur again and again, echoes appearing as works of fiction within the world. No matter how much he wants to, no matter how many times he tries, the Devil cannot escape thine own self.
And yet, for all that he is locked in his own loop of suffering, Lucifer is dead-set on ensuring that we are, too. We can never acquire a better tomorrow. We can never ascend to be our best selves. Not in Lucifer’s mind. Thus his vision of humanity is one wrecked, and wrecked not just by monstrous devils that he commands and controls, but wrecked by its own impulses. A humanity wherein brother kills brother, friend kills friend, wherein neighbors destroy one another, wherein there can be nothing but pain and horror11. If Hannibal destroyed your faith in people, Varga and Darkseid your faith in systems, and Kyubey your faith in the very nature of reality, Lucifer plans to do both at once, with the aid of his army that defies all human understanding of reality, and his design that promises to strip down humanity. And that design? The oldest design in the universe. The most textbook trick to ever exist: Good ol’ Fascism!
However, Lucifer, by his own machinations, is not at the helm of the fascist collapse of humanity. Indeed, his guise is perhaps more akin to a radicalized youth than as a true agent of the military industrial complex. Sure, he has power and influence, but he doesn’t have direct control of the bombs that will bring about the apocalypse. Thankfully, there is a Devil who lurks within that system.
The Nature of the Devil
Kamen Rider is, and always has been, a curious enterprise. A story about a man kidnapped and experimented on by a secret organization full of Nazis, he’s a man granted impossible power, once intended for cruel militaristic purposes of monsters, who must then rebel against those that created him. Kamen Rider isn’t a story wherein power is a gift. It’s a terrible, painful curse. A burden that must be carried with great care, as power is used in the service of others, for selfless purposes, rather than military instructions.
These key conceits which define the entire enterprise come to a head within the 28th incarnation of the franchise: Kamen Rider: Build. Distilling down a lot of these elements, Build understands one thing quite clearly: Kamen Rider is about man’s relationship to The Devil. Fitting then that the entire series is constantly haunted by Evolt, a cosmic being who is quite literally Space Satan.
But unlike, say Darkseid, the texture is quite different here. Darkseid wants to rule us all with his fascistic fist, with a fanatic fervor in the hearts of all of mankind. He is the cult-leader whose face is plastered across every path you take. His is the voice you hear at every station. His words are the ones you dream of in terror. But Evolt is a different kind of Devil. He’s The Devil of the shadows, much like Lucifer. He’s a calmer, quieter Devil, inhabiting the shadows, and operating through shadows. No one knows who he is, but his influence shapes the world. And unlike Darkseid or Lucifer, he’s capable of expressing love, and is quite comfortable with it. Only it’s a very perverse and corrupted love, and one that comes with a grave cost, for it is a pretense to serve a purpose.
If Lucifer was quite happy to watch others do the dirty work, sitting back and being the distant observer, Evolt is a different kind of monster. He lacks Lucifer’s contempt for humanity. To Lucifer, humanity is an insect that needs to be stamped on and dealt with. They’re nothing. They’re not worth the attention and concern, not really, except for perhaps Akira. Evolt couldn’t be more different. Humanity isn’t an insect to him, they’re instead a quite lovely, fantastic dinner. They’re his favorite snack, which he also loves breeding to get the flavor just right. And the secret to his marination sauce? Fascism and War, and one that isn’t detached and impersonal, but done intimately. Evolt is the one who will shake hands with Weapons Manufacturers and personally hand them the tools to mass produce weapons of war, to further feed the Military Industrial Complex, and turn the world into an even more horrid police state ruled by a fascistic government. In a series where a whole film is dedicated to Kamen Rider beating up Totally-Not-Shinzo-Abe, the politics and perspective should be clear.
Evolt is The Devil as the destroyer, he who hopes to eradicate us, but it’s driven by a consumptive desire, wherein the task of the butcher who’s prepping his favorite chicken is seen as a joyous endeavor in and of itself. He’s the butcher and the chef of humanity, and his ingredients are gaslighting, propaganda, and war-profiteering. He’s a man willing to orchestrate entire wars, aid capitalists who aspire to true dictatorship of their very nations, rather than simply being its puppet masters, all for the sake of his monstrous desire. And it’s in this desire that The Kamen Rider is created. Evolt, often called Evol, is the word ‘Love’ reversed (and awful close to Evil) and is the fundamental basis for the creation of the Riders. But the Riders, despite being created in his image, in the likeness of their demonic devil father, they act in complete opposition to him. They profess to love, even in the face of impossible horrors, wherein the futility of mankind and its horrific structures is laid bare.
To The Destroyer, all of human endeavor is conflict, war, the infliction of pain upon one another, the desire for domination and power, it’s the self-destruction we commit against each other, from dropping bombs to building entire systems designed to destroy entire people. It’s why Evolt, The Devil, loves us dearly, and finds us so delightful and fun, whereas Lucifer only finds us to be a bother. We’re Evolt’s favorite toys, we destroy and destroy as he does, which is why he’s here to help us do that, and wants us to help him do that too. It’s a terribly warped vision of mankind that’s horrifying in its casual, cool acceptance of monstrosity. Evolt loves us, truly, in ways no other Devil perhaps might. And he does so because we remind him of him, which is what’s so alarming.
It’s why the hero then is named Build, the antithesis of he who destroys. It’s why he screams at him ANYTHING YOU DESTROY, WE CAN RE-BUILD! For humanity must be more, humanity can be more. It can break past its shackles. It has the potential. It always has. From the ashes and rubble of destruction caused, from all the pain, horror and tragedy suffered, there can be new things. We can learn and do better, and maybe, just maybe, be free from the terrible systems and structures that bind us. And there are devils for that as well.
The Beauty of the Devil
To start with, we must consider the story of The Witch12. Much like with King’s Darkseid, the Devil of The Witch is a lurking presence. Something that isn’t there, but remains present. His physical form is that of a goat, Black Philip, invoking both his dark nature and his typically goat-legged appearance. A non-verbal character who sows discord within a family already on the precipice of collapse. A family whose religious beliefs are too extreme for the Puritans. Who abuse their children, and in particular their daughter Thomasin, for their own failures. The land is barren. No life can survive here.
Which makes the Devil’s offer of liberation all the more appealing. In a more human form, he offers not the power that a typical devil would provide. Not the ability to tempt men, corrupt children, or control the world. Instead, he offers Thomasin, the sole survivor of her family’s collapse, an escape. He offers her things her old life, where the best she could expect was to be sold off to a rich husband, could never give her: the taste of butter, a pretty dress, to live deliciously, and to see the world.
What this means is a rejection of the Puritarian system in favor of a different one. A space for women to get together, freed from the patriarchal world that encased them in amber. Able to fly off the ground and do as thou wilt. And yet, this is not as it seems. The Witches are a part of the system of Puritanism. The monsters inside the woods. They are still part of a system that embraces cruelty and hatred. After all, the first act a Witch did in the film was kidnap and murder a child to fuel their radience. It was them who pushed the puritan family over the edge, corrupting Thomasin’s little siblings to act in their name. Sure, all they really did was push them just a smidge. But that smidge is still a push.
Embracing villainy in a system of cruelty, rebellion against cruelty, can often be anticipated by the system itself. Acts of rebellion have been seen throughout the history of the world, from the hippies to the punks, generations of rebels have fallen prey to a belief that they must grow out of their rebellion and scapegoat all of life’s problems onto those who remain rebellious. The children who refuse to grow up and vote for Regan, who think that we have more history to experience.
Merely embracing the devil isn’t enough. The Witch offers a good start of rebellion, a potential space for women to be free of the toxic influences of a patriarchal system of cruelty, but one that could be easily subverted into white feminism reeling us back into the toxicity we wished to escape from. A devil who could be useful against the systems of cruelty would have to be one who embraces intersectionality. One who is not just a mere presence within the narrative, but an active participant in the rebellion against cruelty. One who is not merely content with escaping the world, but actively ending it.
Which is to say, it’s time to look at The Immortal Hulk.
The Hulk is, perhaps, the most primal loner of comics. The greatest and most overt ‘monster’ character of comics, he is the modern update to the classic Jekyll and Hyde concept. But most importantly, he’s one consistently framed in opposition to the Military Industrial Complex.
The first thing that always comes to mind about the character, always? He’s alone and being hunted by The Military. It’s that, his nomadic nature and the deserts of America. The Hulk is the man walking about in tattered clothes, with nothing and no one, as the state and its violent enforces hunt him down, both due to fear, and in the desperate hope that they may be able to exploit him. The Hulk is, when not being used as muscle or contrast in larger team-titles to fill out a cast or for event purposes, the man who does not fit in. He cannot assimilate and fit into the system as cleanly as many others. He’s ever The Monster, The Green Devil that haunts the heads of all who have borne witness. And little he does will ever erase that, for that perspective will always persist, and The Hulk is, at the end of the day, something and someone even his fellow peers, who work with the system, are willing to sell away.
And in response to years of abuse, cruelty, and failed attempts at working in the system, Bruce Banner finally decides to embrace the one part of himself he’s long since repressed: The Devil Hulk. And he wants to end the world. But where most incarnations of the Hulk invested in apocalyptic designs opt to simply smash, smash, smash their way through the world until it is nothing more than rubble, the Devil Hulk opts to instead go after the systemic evils of the world.
He starts small, going after people who have hurt Bruce with ironic punishments, be they small time crooks who robbed a gas station to pay off some debts or an abused old man getting his revenge on a small town by forcing them to accept the truth. But it’s after he goes to Hell where things get interesting.
Hell is where The Hulk understands his true nature, wherein his father manifests in front of him, as the saga places Bruce and Brian Banner at odds, as mortals possessed of grand, cosmic elemental forces of the world, not unlike the criminally underrated Ang Lee Hulk film. There, The Hulk’s ties to The One Below All are cemented, as Ewing reveals this mirror image of The One Above All. As above, so below, as the alchemist saying goes, and indeed if the divinities of the above have their agents and means, so do the hellish nightmares of the below. It’s here that we also learn that The Devil Hulk rather than just being a purely cruel and blunt force of destruction is one that genuinely loves Bruce. A part of him that fiercely cares, in his own furious way. The idea of a good dad13. And it’s where all the demons are confronted, as embodied by the father, the horrific, monstrous father, which is always the recurring element in regards to The Devil narrative. The defiance against ‘The Creator’, the design destined for us, as The Hulk is part of a vision Hulk has no intention of being involved in.
When out of Hell, things start to change. It begins with finally dealing with that military organization that’s been hounding Hulk all these years, the Gamma Base. More than any other group in the book, they are the Law, willing to stamp down upon anyone who would get in their way. Press Ganging criminal scientists, hiring psychopathic ex-CIA cyborgs, and actively murdering so-called allies all in the name of a cruel and unjust order.
Hulk is not a creature of order, but disorder. This is a different concept than the traditional chaos one would assume a creature who smashes their way through problems. Rather than merely lacking any sort of plan, disorder, in the words of Peter Kropotkin, “is the uprising of the people against this ignoble order, breaking its fetters, destroying the barriers, and marching towards a better future.”
And we can see this fully in action once Hulk wrests the resources of Gamma Base away from the military. His initial target isn’t the military directly nor the superheroes who sought to cage him nor even the US Government. Rather, the Devil Hulk takes aim at corporations. Specifically, he targets Roxxon Industries, one of Marvel’s long standing evil corporations that has ties with a ton of shady organizations from AIM to Hydra to the Dark Elves who just invaded the Earth.
Led by Dario Agger, a literal, actual minotaur, Roxxon seeks to exploit the iconography of the Hulk, first by using the marketing rebellion to children14 then by stealing the trademark of the Hulk and applying it to their own popular character. This fails for a number of reasons, from Hulk taking down Facebook, Twitter, and other means of disinformation to the inescapable fact that capitalism is ultimately a system designed for the “stronger” to consume the weak and such terms are, at best, tenuous. Hulk’s direct allies in his fight against these systems of cruelty range from trans women who want health care that doesn’t require using black market HRT to women of color sick of all the white men allowed to get angry. The Hulk inspires them to act against these systems and fight for a better world. It would appear that the Hulk is just too big of an idea, too big of a Devil, to be stopped in overthrowing the world.
Except, the Hulk is a terrible means of overthrowing the cruel, vicious world. Part of the Hulk that is inextricable from his character is that fear of Nuclear Annihilation that terrified Morrison as a child. But where Morrison ultimately created villains that represent manifestations of the Bomb, the Hulk is the Bomb. Like Godzilla before him, The Hulk is the fear that nuclear annihilation will ultimately destroy us made manifest. The imperialistic drive to destroy everything in favor of imposing its own order15.
The Immortal Hulk acknowledges this aspect of the character, presenting us with a vision of the future well past the end of human existence. One where the Hulk has taken the cosmic power that fuels the planet consuming Galactus and never stops making them pay. He goes planet to planet, world to world, smashing everything in his path until there is nothing left but ruins and his own isolation. Sure, the Hulk will smash capitalism and the systems of cruelty, but he will inevitably smash whatever comes next.
It is perhaps worth considering another story by Immortal Hulk writer, Al Ewing, about the desire of a man to destroy an unjust system that seeks to destroy him and everyone he loves, a man possessed by a kind of devil: The El Sombra Trilogy. As the title suggests, it follows a man who goes by the name El Sombra. But in truth, he is but one piece of the tapestry that makes up the back two thirds of the series. El Sombra was a man whose entire family was murdered in front of him by the Nazis and their army of killer robots. In turn, he sets about on a roaring rampage of revenge. Each kill is presented to us with the complete history of the man who was murdered, be they an unsympathetic monster gleefully torturing the “lesser races” or banal soldiers trapped in a fascist, capitalist system.
His story ultimately ends with him defeated by his own cruelty. The desire to make them never stop paying backfires spectacularly, trapping him in a shape that is nigh unrecognizable to him. Another bastard out to control the world. The same could be said of the Immortal Hulk in this bleak future. More a destructive force of pure cruelty than the flawed humanity Bruce Banner provides. For all his talk of being a rational scientist, Bruce is kind of a jerk. He has a smug sense of himself, refuses to acknowledge that his wife can be anything more than a willowing wallflower and any aberration to that is something she should repress. But Bruce also provides focus. He has a sense of justice that the other aspects of his multiple personalities lack.
That isn’t to say that they lack empathy or even a sense of morality. Joe Fixit has been presented as being actively supportive of trans rights, the Big Guy is capable of making friends, and the Devil Hulk wants to destroy the world just to keep Bruce safe. But the thing is… Joe Fixit has to be pushed outside of his comfort zone in order to be anything more than a thug, the Big Guy is more like a child who wants to stop hurting, and the Devil Hulk thinks a baby killing his father is a good thing that can actually happen. To say these are the paragons of justice would be folly.
It’s Bruce who, historically, has worked to make the Hulk a force for justice, fighting against cosmic threats alongside the Avengers, wandering from place to place helping resolve people’s problems, or simply punching the Leader in his smug face. But Bruce is often at his worst, most unsympathetic when he tries to repress the Hulk, cure himself of the radiation and destroy the parts of him that come out when he transforms. He’s snide, cruel, vindictive. But when he’s working in full tandem with all the parts of himself, he can change the world.
Throughout this piece, we have danced around this idea of mutual aid, the desire to help one another out of systems of cruelty. It appears throughout the texts discussed from the female spaces of The Witch to Kamen Rider: Build’s embrace of Love over Evol. But it can be seen throughout all the other texts as well. Mister Miracle ends not with the defeat of Darkseid or the overthrow of Apokolips, but instead with Scott Free and his wife, Big Barda, sitting together, reconciled after all their hardship and trauma, able to move forward into an uncertain future. Gloria Burgle’s technological invisibility is resolved not through the arrest of Varga or any of the other criminals the show presents us with. Rather, it ends when she is given a hug by a fellow person. An acknowledgment of her own existence in a universe that barely cares about anything. Even this very project, dedicated to one Christine Kelley, was done to ensure she receives enough funds to pay her rent. In a world run by devils, where the game is stacked against you and things are rather fucked, the best thing one can really do is help someone out when things are tough. Be it writing a story, protesting a system, or helping them get a paycheck.
We could go on with stories of the Devil from the 21st century. From Ice Cream Man to Hail Satan to Neoreaction a Basilisk to No Country for Old Men to Legion to These Savage Shores to Maxwell’s Demons to Doctor Who and onwards and upwards ad nauseum ad infinitum. But eventually, the point would be reiterated too often for the point to be made clear. It’s probably safe to say that we are fucked. That the systems of cruelty have already won and we are too far gone to be truly saved. But we can still be there for each other.
“…and while the Devil card may highlight our weaknesses, or the darkness within us, the most important symbol is the chains that seemingly hold the two people. If you look at the loops, you’ll see they’re loose enough for the people to take them off and walk away. We are always free to make our own choices. No matter how bad a situation may appear, no matter how low we may believe we have gone, we can change things.”
-Rachel Pollack, The New Tarot Handbook
And, if we’re being fully honest, not completely thought out. As in “Man, I hope someone who isn’t a white guy does something with Forager.”
A typical Tom King plot thread found throughout his bibliography from the highly acclaimed The Vision to his controversial but fascinating Heroes in Crisis.
Indeed, in one of Morrison’s earlier texts featuring the Devil, The Mystery Play, the narrative is about a small rural town that had recently had a performance of a Mystery Play end with someone murdering God. The detective investigating the murder halucinates a conversation with the actor playing the Devil in the play wherein he talks of man’s need to control all that he sees. The town within the comic is depicted as on the verge of economic collapse, the mayor corrupt, and the townsfolk blaming the foreigners. The crime, ultimately, remains unsolved.
It would be tempting to note that Bedlam is also bearded and get into a rather banal conversation about Alan Moore. However, his beard is not a full beard but a chin beard, which brings the far more interesting conversation about Mark Millar to mind. However, such a conversation would be too tangential for this article.
This is a fitting nod considering the Scottish Writer comes out of the punk/pop music scene, which basically explains everything about him.
For more on this, see https://www.500songs.com/e/episode-92-the-lion-sleeps-tonight-by-the-tokens/
He would later claim his name is Daniel Rand, the name of a famous white billionaire superhero known for going to an asian country and being better at kung fu than the natives. Incidentally, the devil from Elliot S! Maggin’s Miracle Monday was named C.W. Saturn.
In many ways, this is akin to the Black Rose Arc from the influential magical girl series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. There, the antagonistic figures of the arc offer various tertiary characters the chance to “Revolutionize the world.” To fight against our heroine in order to get what they want. However, as with Kyubey’s offer, it’s ultimately just another cog in the machine of pointless suffering.
Stylized devilman CRYBABY.
Note the Trump cameo.
Stylized as THE VVITCH
Parallels between this and Mr. Robot are perhaps best saved for an article about The Immortal Hulk in its entirety.
Quote Grant Morrison, “The most pernicious image of all is the anarchist hero figure. A creation of commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of revolutionary praxis. The hero encourages passive spectating and revolt becomes another product to be consumed.” Though the revolutionary spirit is more akin to the 2005 James McTeigue movie V for Vendetta, the general point of the tools of the master’s house being incapable of tearing it down are apt.
For more on this, see Action and Reaction: Coming August 2021.