Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.

0Lucifer on TV

Six months before it aired its first episode, the Fox Network television series Lucifer was already generating controversy and protest. Numerous religious groups objected to the show’s premise and drafted petitions demanding the show be canceled before its pilot was even filmed. In the show The Devil Himself – now living on Earth having grown bored with running Hell – turns his considerable powers towards helping the LAPD solve crimes as a consulting detective.

Equally passionate in their annoyance were graphic literature readers, who objected to the show on the grounds that it had nothing to do do with the comics on which Lucifer was reportedly based. While the basic set-up for the show mirrored the background of the literary version of Lucifer seen in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the plot of the Lucifer TV series wildly diverged from that starting point. The character of Lucifer himself was majorly changed as well, being a wise-cracking bad-boy whereas the comic version was dignified and rarely smiled.

Questions about the television series and how it matched up to the comics prompted me to reread the Vertigo series Lucifer, which followed up on stories from Gaiman’s The Sandman. I’d purchased the series when it came out and still have all the original comics in my personal collection. I was pleased to find that the series held up as well as I remembered and that Mike Carey’s continuation of Lucifer’s story was no mere sequel – it was an epic capable of standing alongside The Sandman on its own terms.

1What’s it About?

Originally known as Samael, Lucifer was one of the first three angels brought into being to oversee the heavenly host. Lucifer came to chafe in his assigned role, wishing freedom to pursue a destiny free of God’s preordained plan. This led to his rebellion and ruling the space that was known as Hell, until he realized that this too was part of God’s plan. Thus did Lucifer abandon his throne and his power, retiring to the city of Los Angeles where he opened a piano bar called Lux.

As Lucifer opens, the ex-angel is approached by an agent of Heaven regarding a dirty job that God needs doing. His reward for this is a Letter of Passage – a backstage pass that will allow Lucifer to travel into the void outside of God’s creation. Armed with this letter, his own considerable powers and no small amount of base cunning, Lucifer is able to build his own universe outside of God’s control.

As before when he first took charge of Hell, Lucifer opens his realm up to any outcast who wishes to live there. The only condition is that they must obey The One Commandment – do not bow your head in worship to anyone. Not even Lucifer himself. Especially not Lucifer himself!

Unfortunately, there are many beings for whom the idea of a new creation free of God’s influence offers many attractions. And as Lucifer must contest with them to protect what he has created, so too must he return to God’s Creation to deal with the unintended side-effects of his departure. In order to save countless souls from total oblivion, Lucifer will find himself cast as both the reluctant hero and as a maker of reluctant heroes.

2Notable Notes

I’m hesitant to describe Lucifer in terms of being a spin-off of The Sandman, due to the negative connotations in the words “spin-off”. And yet it is impossible to tear the two works apart for reasons beyond their shared continuity and characters. There are a number of common themes to both series and the base structure of Mike Carey’s story mirrors that of The Sandman, in that there are an assortment of characters, mortal and supernatural, whose lives are touched by the actions of the titular hero in a wide variety of stories.

Despite this, The Sandman and Lucifer are decidedly different in how we are allowed to view their protagonists. The key difference is that we get direct insight into Dream as a person in The Sandman and, as such, he can be empathized with despite his inhuman nature. By contrast, we get almost no insight into Lucifer’s thoughts. The stories of Lucifer are told exclusively from the viewpoints of other characters in reaction to Lucifer himself, so there is no sympathy for The Devil.

One aspect the series share is the recurring theme of freedom versus responsibility in regard to their protagonists. Both Dream and Lucifer are defined by their responsibilities and their roles as rulers. The key difference between them is that Dream meets obligation for obligation’s sake, obeying the rules his role imposes upon him because the rules must be obeyed. By contrast, Lucifer allows himself to break free of his role yet still clings to his responsibilities out of a personal sense of ethics and a proud refusal to fail.

In this, ironically, Lucifer is a very moral character. Lucifer believes in giving people the freedom that has been denied him, prides himself upon always keeping his promises and never speaking an untrue word. However, this does not stop him from omitting details when telling the truth or offering people just enough rope to hang themselves. The Devil will give you a choice, it’s not his fault if you choose poorly.

When considering Lucifer, I am reminded of two separate works – Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and the television series Fraiser. For as The Sandman begat Lucifer, so too did Shakespeare craft The Merry Wives of Windsor as a vehicle for Falstaff and the stuffy psychiatrist from Cheers found new life as a radio personality in Frasier. These three fictions prove that a creative work can be born from an earlier piece and prove to be a unique construction of quality,

Strangely, that metaphor is Lucifer’s character in a nutshell. He wishes to stand apart from God and be considered on his own merits. He wants to be his own man, more than the role he was assigned or the power that he wields. This is ironic from a metaphysical standpoint, as The Devil in The Tarot is the symbolic card of bondage and repression. Inverted, the card becomes a symbol of freedom and empowerment, which is what Lucifer seeks in abandoning his role.

Significance

Apart from its connection to The Sandman, Lucifer is noteworthy as one of Vertigo Comics’ longest running series, numbering 75 issues, a three-issue mini-series, and the one-off special Nirvana. It was a part of the shared Vertigo Universe, which included such titles as Saga of The Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. Indeed, John Constantine makes a quick cameo early on in Lucifer.

Professionally, it is noteworthy as the first work Mike Carey wrote for Vertigo Comics. Since that time, Carey has gone on to be one of the most critically acclaimed authors working in modern comics. He went onto greater prominence as the writer who brought Red Sonja out of obscurity for Dynamite Comics and for his work on X-Men before returning to Vertigo with his original series, The Unwritten.

In mentioning The Unwritten, another fact of significance comes to mind. Lucifer is also noteworthy for being the first professional pairing of Mike Carey with Peter Gross. While a wide variety of artists worked on Lucifer, Gross is considered the series’ second father, despite not starting work on it until the fifth issue. The two are numbered among those rare creative teams who have worked together on over 100 individual comics. This places Carey and Gross in an elite order, alongside other teams like Stan Lee/Jack Kirby, Brian Michael Bendis/Mark Bagley and Marv Wolfman/George Perez among others.

Appeal

Lucifer should appeal to the same audiences that embrace Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Christopher Moore. Ignoring the connection to Gaiman’s work (Death, Dream, Destiny, and Delirium all make cameos), there is a similar humor to Carey’s writing as well as a complex mythos built upon a variety of world mythologies. The supporting cast includes characters from the Norse, Shinto, and Abrahamic mythologies as well as original creations such as The Basanos – a sentient Tarot deck that sees all but requires a human host.

I would also recommend the series to readers of a certain maturity level, who enjoy Young Adult fiction featuring female protagonists with supernatural powers. One of Lucifer’s most endearing supporting cast is Elaine Belloc, who starts the series as 12 year old girl with a magic she cannot explain, ghostly grandmothers looking after her, and a best friend whose murder needs solving. Elaine is notable as a heroine for being one of the few beings Lucifer respects and the series is more her story than Lucifer’s in many respects.

I make the above recommendation with the caveat regarding “a certain maturity level “ because Lucifer is intended for mature readers. I know some 13 year old girls who would enjoy it and prove capable of handling it. I know many thirty-somethings who would not. The point must be made that the story does involve rape, murder, torture, disturbing imagery, and a lot of the general unpleasantness that permeates the fabric of the Vertigo Comics shared universe. You have been warned.

5Why Should You Own This

Lucifer is a historically important series, not only for its connections to other works but also for its creative team. More than that, it is an enjoyable read with a riveting plot, interesting characters and amazing visuals. And with the series having been fairly recently reprinted in five volumes, there is little excuse for any library of adult graphic literature not owning it.

Lucifer: Book 1: 9781401240264
Lucifer: Book 2: 9781401242602
Lucifer: Book 3: 9781401246044
Lucifer: Book 4: 9781401246051
Lucifer: Book 5: 9781401249458

  • Matt

    | He/Him Librarian

    Reviewer

    A librarian with over 10 years experience in public and academic settings, Matthew Morrison has been blogging about comic books for nearly as long as they’ve had a word for it.  Over the past two decades, he has written regular columns, commentary, parodies and reviews for such websites and blogs as Fanzing, 411 Mania, Screen Rant and Comics Nexus.  He has served as an Expert in Residence for a seminar on Graphic Novels and Comics for Youth and Adults at the University of North Texas and has given several lectures on the history of comics, manga and cosplay culture at libraries and comic conventions around the country. In addition to his work for No Flying No Tights, he is the Contributing Editor of Kabooooom.com and maintains a personal blog at MyGeekyGeekyWays.com.

Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!