by Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
…its attempts at rising are hopeless. As all attempts are.
Lucifer, Lucifer 1
Drew: When I spoke with Lucifer writer Dan Watters about the teaser pages for this series that appeared in Sandman Universe 1, he was unequivocal about the symbolic meaning of the death of a character named Hope:
I’ve made it quite clear, at least I tried to, that this is going to be a dark book. This is the darkest corner of the Sandman Universe — at least that’s being explored right now. Which, you know, by the nature of the character, by the book, I think it should be. It’s definitely a statement of intent.
And the book is definitely dark. Lucifer‘s assertion that all “attempts at rising are hopeless” comes on the first page, before the issue plunges us into the present day of a status quo Lucifer clearly wishes to rise out of. A character learning to embrace hope would normally be an upbeat moral, but it takes on a twisted meaning here — whatever it is that could force Lucifer into retreat must be truly harrowing. And this is the story of what that experience was.
Er — sort of. This issue is operating in at least a couple of time periods, so it’s only in part the story of how Lucifer came to strive for escape — we also see what he does now that he’s stuck. It’s Vonnegut’s classic “Man in Hole” story, only the “man” in this instance thought he was already at the bottom of the hole, and that climbing out of holes was a futile gesture.
Curiously, though, I think the particular hole Lucifer finds himself in might be the same one he’s always been in: Hell. Obviously, there are some key differences — Lucifer is stuck, and his neighbors don’t seem totally miserable — but I can’t really think of another explanation. There’s the Sisyphean repetitiveness of it all, from Lucifer’s daily digging to the apparent routine of having his eyes gouged out, and there’s the supernatural elements, including the formless players interpreting Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But the element that stands out most to me as placing these events in Hell are the other characters Lucifer interacts with. I can’t comment on everyone, but this panel immediately jumped out at me:
I believe that’s Robert Johnson holding the guitar, someone who famously sold his soul to the devil. And unless that dude in the background shaved his mustache with something other than Ockham’s razor, he’s got to be Hitler — another famous resident of Hell.
All of that makes me confident that Lucifer is languishing in Hell, though the obvious necessity for such a circumstance is that he isn’t in control of Hell. He’s not responsible for the souls of the damned, and he’s certainly not holding the keys to the castle. It’s a situation we know is possible — he abdicated the throne a couple of times in Sandman — but he also doesn’t seem to be getting any special treatment for his emeritus status. Everyone knows he’s Lucifer, but they all seem resigned to his presence as a fellow prisoner.
Meanwhile, the flashback storyline introduces us to that much more pessimistic Lucifer we’re more familiar with as he plots a reunion between his son, Caliban, and Caliban’s mother. Never shying away from those loaded symbols, this issue depicts Caliban more or less in his platonic Tempest form; a hulking, monstrous figure with undeniably human form. Is this literally the monster from Shakespeare’s play? Is Lucifer his “father” as Prospero was — as a kind of master — or could Lucifer be his literal father? We don’t have a lot to go on yet, but there’s clearly plenty of room for Watters and Max and Sebastian Fuimara to run with.
Running parallel to all of this is the story of LAPD detective John Decker, whose ailing wife hints at some dark secret just before she died. Ever the detective, Decker follows the trail to Orlando, where he discovers his wife’s troubled cousin and Caliban himself. It’s that last bit that has me most intrigued — I’m not sure how to place this in the timeline of the series. It’s obviously set before the “present day” segments (which end with the reveal of a dead-ish Caliban), but is this before Caliban and Lucifer started their quest, or is this part of their quest?
Maybe that’s a shallow mystery in the midst of all of these others, but with so much left to explore, I’m seeing every alley as worthy of further investigation. Patrick, I’m curious which of these dangling threads most caught your attention, and if you have any deeper thoughts on what any of these symbols might mean. We might need another issue or two to orient ourselves before we can really start to put everything in context, but there’s already a lot here to sink our teeth into.
Patrick: “Hitler — another famous resident of Hell” has got to be my new favorite Retcon Punch-ism. I’m am 100% an board with Drew’s reading of who’s in that panel, and with the logical conclusion that makes the setting hell. But I think we need to be careful of what conclusions we draw based on the the formal machinations of the artist. This issue is full of obvious, intriguing symbols that beg to be translated to some more literal meaning. But it also opens with Lucifer and Caliban’s conversation about Bach’s endlessly rising canon.
Lucifer does a pretty good job of explaining why the illusion of canon works, while also pointing out that it doesn’t actually accomplish that which it sets out to do, i.e., it does not literally rise forever. Bach is a master of form: both Drew and I went to a music conservatory that taught Bach’s voicing for four-part harmonies as gospel. If something can be achieved through the mechanics of western music, it can be done by emulating Bach.
The other art mentioned in this issue is William Motherfucking Shakespeare. Watters is wielding the names two unquestionable masters in their mediums. To add an interesting wrinkle to the Shakespeare reference, the play the wraiths are putting on his The Tempest, a famously lumpy stab at self-referential writing with the thematically autobiographical Prospero standing in for the playwright himself. The Tempest is one of those plays that hard to teach, and falls outside the neat Tragedy / Comedy / History categories that are so useful for understand the rest of Shakespeare’s canon.
Which means Watters is evoking both artistry and the hollowness of the illusions they cast in the same breath. It would be unfair for us not to apply this same scrutiny and skepticism to this work. Pencilers and inkers Max Fiumara and Sebastian Fiumara, and colorist Dave McCraig, fill the pages with jaw-droppingly expressive art, but they are not immune to the allure of leveraging hollow symbols and forms. Let’s take the example of that six-pointed sunburst Penny draws on the foggy window of Decker’s getaway car.
We will see this shape again and again throughout the issue. On the very next page, it is recalled in the reconstruction of Lucifer’s eyes. We’ll see it carved into Robert’s chest, and rotated 60 degrees and printed on Penny’s wallpaper.
These are meaningful symbols because they were meaningful to Penny. But will getting to the meaning behind them help Decker, or the reader, process what is happening?
There’s one other piece of formal artistry I want to touch on, and that’s the Fiumaras’ use of the nine-panel grid to represent imprisonment. We see it early in the piece as a disheveled Lucifer does everything in his power to avoid eating his oatmeal. He is, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It doesn’t matter how much he blusters on about being this great rebel in the face of God, he’s stuck here suffering the indignity of a mundane breakfast.
He’s tossed back in that nine-panel grid after lashing out against the Shakespearean wraiths. Diegetically, he’s crammed into a bucket, but the Fiumaras depict this incarceration in that familiar layout.
This is the visual language of being trapped. We’ve written extensively about this layout being used this way in Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle, but the nine-panel layout’s place is comic book history is enough to evoke the formal restrictions of the medium in its infancy. It is, universally, something to be escaped.
Watters and the Fiumaras directly and indirectly address the limits and artificiality of the formal techniques of Bach and Shakespeare, while employing a techniques that are at home in their medium. It’s staggering statement of artistry that explicitly tells you not to be drawn in by that artistry. I’d expect nothing less duplicitous from Lucifer.
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