Marvel Comics in the 1970s were, to put it mildly, weird. Now, I mean that as a compliment. The dizzying array of subgenres that the publisher expanded into during the decade is impressive. Explosive creativity on the parts of Kirby, Lee, and Ditko in the 1960s established Marvel as the hip comic book publisher, but they weren’t content to rest on their laurels. The 1970s were a tumultuous decade for the industry, and Marvel continually experimented in order to find something that would stick. Marvel also saw an influx of new, young talent during the decade. These writers and artists brought fresh new ideas with them into the Marvel Universe. The company hopped on board with many of the decade’s major fads, including blaxploitation, Kung Fu, sci-fi, occult/horror, and the increased proliferation of revenge-minded antiheroes like Dirty Harry Callahan. Thus, Marvel introduced or brought back characters like Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Warlock, Morbius, and the Punisher.
It’s frankly stunning to look back on the era today and see just how wildly creative a period this was at Marvel. In particular they doubled down on the horror genre in ways the industry hadn’t seen in years. Suddenly, Marvel’s roster included the likes of Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, and Ghost Rider, to name just a few. All were full of energy and unlike much of anything Marvel—or DC—had been publishing in the 1960s. These were far more adult comics, featuring blood-sucking vampires, tormented monsters, and flaming-skull-head avengers.
One such series that launced in the decade was The Son of Satan, featuring the exploits of the literal son of Satan, Daimon Hellstrom. Created by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, the character came into his own under the pen of another Marvel mainstay of the decade, the iconoclastic mad-genius, Steve Gerber. Premiering in Ghost Rider #1, Hellstrom would soon transition into the pages of Marvel Spotlight. That’s when Gerber took the writing reins and brought along several hallmarks of his style while writing for Marvel.
Gerber, Chris Claremont, Jim Starlin, and Steve Englehart, to name a few, were the new generation of young upstarts just beginning to make their mark in the industry. These writers, alongside several more, along with their artistic partners, helped expand Marvel’s repertoire during the decade. Like Starlin and Englehart, Gerber had a unique voice. In fact, it was unlike much of what had come before and even today remains distinct in the annals of comic book history. Gerber liked to fill his stories with grand ideas and strange concepts, many of which would seem unlikely in a mainstream Marvel book, but somehow always seemed appropriate in his work. Gerber writing Daimon Hellstrom’s adventures meant that not only would readers enjoy plenty of the action and adventure they’d come to expect from Marvel Comics, but also explorations of faith, free will, theology, and psychology.
Gerber quickly paired the exorcist-demonologist Hellstrom with an intelligent and measured parapsychologist, Dr. Katherine Reynolds (who still happened to be a fetching blond often in need of rescue from the clutches of evil), and a hot-headed reactionary divinity student, Byron Hyatt. With these companions, Gerber helped to humanize Hellstrom somewhat, as well as highlight the character’s serious personality flaws. Growing up the son of Satan, then waging a lifelong war against his father meant that Hellstrom was often taciturn and humorless. He was fiercely intelligent and hyper-analytical, yet struggled with basic social skills. Hellstrom’s sharp edges were softened at times by Dr. Reynolds’ kindness and compassion. Meanwhile, Byron’s bluster was usually allowed for a swift and forceful rebuke from Hellstrom. Together, the three characters formed an unlikely team, investigating a series of strange occult occurrences both in his temporary home base of St. Louis and beyond.
Under Gerber’s pen, Hellstrom wasn’t just a costumed antihero (although he was certainly outlandishly costumed), but also a scholar who used his vast intellect and analytical skills to combat the horrors of Hell. Reading Son of Satan today, readers might be struck by how much time Gerber spends on religion and morality. Under Gerber, the book was often a thoughtful meditation on these issues. They were frequently debated, often heatedly, between Hellstrom and his supporting cast.
Gerber didn’t shy away from the religious overtones or implications of a character who was the literal son of Satan. That this was published in a mainstream Marvel book at the time is still astonishing. The book’s letter pages were nearly as entertaining as the comic itself. They offered a melange of competing viewpoints and commentary, including but not limited to people complaining that Gerber wasn’t portraying Satanism or occultism accurately enough for their tastes, to readers expressing shock and outrage that such a comic even existed. Several readers even complained that the book was wholly inappropriate and worked to “undermine the moral and religious fiber of our young people.” Gerber countered this reactionary and specious argument by pointing out that Satan and his forces of evil were beaten back and defeated repeatedly, issue after issue.*
Steve Gerber’s run on Son of Satan remains an intriguing artifact from an era, the 1970s, when Marvel Comics were rapidly expanding the content of their line. Far from perfect, Son of Satan was nonetheless an entertaining and thought-provoking work from a master of the medium at the height of his powers. Gerber is a legendary figure from that era for a reason. When reading his work, you nearly always recognize his singular authorial voice, whether he was writing Son of Satan or Captain America or The Defenders or Howard the Duck. Gerber was a true original who blazed his own idiosyncratic trail through comics while utilizing the intellectual property of companies like Marvel to do so. That’s rare and worth celebrating.
* I sourced these exchanges from Mark Andrew’s wonderfully detailed exploration of Gerber’s Son of Satan at CBR. In the piece, he includes excerpts from the book’s letter pages. It’s worth reading if you’re at all interested in the character and the Gerber run in particular.
Also of note, if you’d like to read all of Gerber’s run, then you’re in luck: It’s recently been collected, along with the rest of Hellstrom’s earliest adventures, in the The Son of Satan Classic trade paperback. The run has also been collected within Essential Marvel Horror, Volume 1—which also includes the 1970s exploits of Hellstrom’s sister, Satana—so there are options besides tracking down individual and expensive back issues.