Before he had his own ongoing series, Lucifer came to prominence in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. But Gaiman’s Lucifer went through three very different depictions, somewhat inconsistent with one another.
The angelic appearance of Lucifer in Sandman #4 (April 1989), entitled “A Hope in Hell,” features the Wood of Suicides from Dante’s Inferno (Canto XIII), the great expanse of which provokes comment from the titular character as he seemingly accidentally breaks a branch and allows the suicides, imprisoned in the form of barren trees, to speak. Despite this, the issue and The Sandman in general have more to do with previous DC comics than with Dante. Indeed, the issue features Etrigan, a colorful rhyming demon created by Jack Kirby for the inventively titled comic The Demon. At the issue’s conclusion, Lucifer swears Dream’s destruction, a move by writer Neil Gaiman to establish plot threads for subsequent issues.
Sandman #4 must be understood as an immature work, certainly not without joys but demonstrative of a new DC title reconciling itself with past DC ones and featuring a writer who was still getting up to speed. As such, this first Gaiman Lucifer is the least fully-formed, a stereotypical King of Hell that echoes Gaiman’s predecessors more than offering a unique vision.
Upon his reappearance during the “Season of Mists” storyline (issues #21-28), Lucifer has radically changed. Much of this has to do with changes in the artistic staff: Sam Kieth’s pencils in #4, with their smooth, rounded lines, have given way in #23 (February 1991), the issue most prominently featuring Lucifer, to those of Mike Dringenberg, who inked the previous issue and became the title’s penciller after Kieth’s departure, in turn inked by the capable Malcolm Jones III. Indeed, Lucifer’s appearance in #23, characterized by shadows under the eyes and an angular head with short, curly blond hair, is reminiscent of actor Tim Curry. Lucifer’s visage, in staring at the reader, feels quite threatening, his smile upturned, his actions shocking both to Morpheus, dressed (as seen in #22) in ceremonial battle dress, and to us.
Here, Gaiman manages to successfully negotiate the anxiety of influence. Instead of inserting the Wood of Suicides from Dante, or echoing Alan Moore’s incorporation (on Swamp Thing) of DC magical characters like Etrigan, Gaiman manages to incorporate Satan’s famous dialogue, that it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, from Milton’s Paradise Lost in a way that feels seamless, enhancing the present story.
Lucifer’s abdication, leaving Hell emptied, must be seen as irresponsible; this is certainly how Dream interprets this action, and the implications of the condemned dead returning to Earth are explored later in the storyline in issue #25 (pencilled by Matt Wagner), featuring two dead English boys. The fact that these boys are English may be seen as culturally insensitive, since Gaiman is English, though it does avoid the issue of translation. This choice on Gaiman’s part is reminiscent of Dante’s filling of Hell with white Italians, though Gaiman’s Hell contains, as seen in #23, a few people of other ethnicities, and his overall work on The Sandman, including “Ramadan” (in issue #50), demonstrates far more multiculturalism than Dante.
But Lucifer’s abdication illustrates a theme in the series, that of “you don’t have to stay anywhere forever,” an important theme in a series featuring allegorical characters who are granted not only agency but real personalities, including psychological problems (depression in Dream’s case, most clearly seen in his self-pity in issue #41). This same theme would be repeated in the Brief Lives storyline (issues #41-49), which featured Dream and Delirium searching for their absent brother, Destruction, who similarly forsook his realm, letting destruction run rampant in recent times. Discovered, Destruction (in issue #48) defends his abdication along lines similar to Lucifer’s – that no one, even allegorical characters defined by their duties or at least their areas of influence, has to stay anywhere forever.
The same theme would find fulfillment in The Kindly Ones (issues #57-69), the series’s climax, which culminates in Dream taking the message and asking his sister Death to take his life – a move which responds to his growing humanity over the course of the series, and in flashback issues (particularly issue #13, entitled “Men of Good Fortune,” that shows Dream’s growing friendship with the human Hob Gadling), his depression, and his fundamental inability to do as Lucifer and Destruction have.
Lucifer appears in this climactic storyline as well, though this Lucifer is again different. Here, thanks to the Marc Hempel’s stylized art, Lucifer appears as a sauve, well-dressed nightclub owner who finds fulfillment, or at least distraction, in playing the piano for his wealthy, but fundamentally deluded, mortal patrons. Playing popular songs and accompanied (though he insisted she could not follow him in issue #23) by Mazikeen, his vocally-slurred female assistant with whom he has a strange relationship, seemingly defined by game-playing known only to them, Lucifer appears content, having forsaken great power (and it seems, his vow of vengeance, though this remains debated and Lucifer an unpredictable character) for a piano.
Though this final Gaiman Lucifer may not be as fondly remembered as the version in “Season of Mists,” it’s Gaiman’s most unique, personal interpretation yet. It’s also his most charming.
Lucifer was later pictured among the mourners for Morpheus, but that did not constitute a significant appearance, nor a new version of the character.
Perhaps the inconsistency of Gaiman’s three versions of Lucifer should not surprise us. After all, Satan has always been a particularly malleable figure, changing even in his religious depictions over time. Huge gulfs exists between the serpent of Genesis, the prosecuting angel in Job, the Bible’s brief and vague references to a fallen angel, and the vaguely Manichean personification of evil in the New Testament, who were not even intended to be the same characters and were only united by exegetic interpretation. Equally, Dante’s bloated, immobile Satan is a world away from Milton’s deft, self-damned, self-hated rhetorical master.
In other words, Gaiman’s three Lucifers may not be consistent, but then, Lucifer never was.