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Friday, January 13, 2017

Cover Story - Top 10 Son of Satan Covers

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Another season of Lucifer is upon us, which means I’ve another excuse to dive deep into the well of comic book devils.  Last year I took a look at the original comic Lucifer is allegedly based on so this year let’s travel across the isle to Marvel in the 1970s for that was the last time Satan was really big in pop culture, or rather bigger than being a near globally recognized shorthand for evil would imply.  Son of Satan was one of many cheeky little comics published by Marvel in the mid-'70s as part of a break with the comics code, a self-imposed industry standard of what was considered suitable to be featured in publishing.  

At the time Marvel was still very much the scrappy new kid on the comics block so loudly declaring the comics code unnecessary were part of how they were cementing their cool image of “not your dad’s superhero company,” even if their books weren’t meant to appeal to slightly older children.  So, with all that said let’s dive into the shallow end and the get cover story on the son of Satan. 

We start out in the realm of Marvel Spotlight, an anthology comic Marvel started producing in the mid ‘70s as a way to debut various new heroes they weren’t quite sure about yet.  This is where the Son of Satan, real name Daimon Hellstrom, first got his own solo story, after appearing briefly as a backup story in the pages of Ghost Rider.  Despite the era, this cover is actually a real rarity for the ‘70s.  Some elements fit the time like the intricately designed cityscape and assembled onlookers at street level or the neat perspective being pulled with the demon showing the camera his back.  

What stands out about the cover is how small Hellstrom himself actually is.  This was the age when characters tended to be as big as or larger than the cover so to get such a small version of him is curious indeed.  I think the big reason for this is the color balance being achieved with separating Hellstrom’s red cape and pants from the red of the invading demon hordes.  

What I think really defines this cover, however, is that little inter-title down by Hellstrom’s feet: Black Sabbath.  By this point the band and album Black Sabbath had already been an established success so it’s telling how much Marvel was trying to ride the culture of the now with its horror characters like this or the aforementioned Ghost Rider. 

Skipping ahead to 1977 with Son of Satan #8, now this is a pure ‘70s cover.  If you look at Hellstrom’s actual size, you can see how from foot to fist he fills up all the cover area not taken but by the logo.  That level of size and afforded detail was a big staple of ‘70s comics as it provided the artists the chance to show off more skill and technique in the artwork rather than an emphasis on crazy content as had been the way in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Marvel pioneered this approach a lot more than DC, which is how they ended up with awesome covers like this.  

What I really love about this cover is the breadth of detail on the vicious snake monster that’s ensnaring our hero.  You can see its many coils and tentacles writhing about in the background, and while it outwardly looks to be an un-navigable mess, it’s actually very well plotted out.  It creates a messy but effective binary between the green monster on one side of the page and the skeleton/goblin creatures on the other.  

I’m not exactly sure what the monsters in this are supposed to be just that the lead one is damn creepy, especially its freaky skull grin.  That’s something key to remember about Marvel books like Son of Satan is that they were always meant as horror comics that happened to star a superhero-esc character.

Something I find amusing in all these covers is how much trouble the artists have with Hellstrom’s chest star.  It’s supposed to be an inverted pentagram, to go along with that whole “son of Satan” thing in his name, but most of the time, especially here, they seem just utterly confused as to how stars work.  

I also note that his pitchfork weapon has gone decidedly screwy this time around and the actual proportions on the Devil’s grabbing arm are wonky indeed.  Also, if your curious, I have no idea who the woman Hellstrom’s saving here is as there’s only 1 consistent female character in his incredibly small circle and that’s his sister, more on her in a bit. 

Even though this cover has a much more scaled down perspective the way the cover divides its action is quintessential to the ‘70s.  A lot of ‘60s comic cover artwork tended to be built off a singular focal point that everything else sort of spiraled out of.  In the ‘70s there was a bigger emphasis on creating a complex image that held the eye through its appealing design, not just because it was about living tarot cards in the yawning vacuum of space.  

In this case, Satan, Hellstrom, and the Woman form a unique three-way split in the scenes action that’s nicely divided by their defining color.  The actual content might still be the kind of shocking weirdness that informed the Silver Age but its been rendered with a greater degree of artistic ambition. 

Here’s another example of using the framing and coloring to create a visually dynamic image, even if the content is a little less out there.  In this case, we’ve got Hellstrom and the Tarot Devil exchanging energy bolts framed against the panicked sky.  I’m actually not quite sure why the sky looks so turquoise here or what the lightning bolt playing around behind Hellstrom is supposed to be, but at the same time, it looks cool, so I’ll let it slide.  

What I really love in this image is how dynamic Hellstrom looks without slipping at all into goofy.  Despite having one of the sillier comic costumes, his action pose works perfectly, and the Tarot Devil is a great looking opponent.  The texture and detail in the fur and smoke here is beautifully rendered, and I especially like the creepy, protracted nails on the Tarot Devil’s talons.  

This is also a pretty neat look at how energy is depicted in comic artwork.  The concept of visual energy has been around since Green Lantern, but it was Jack Kirby who really popularized the visual.  His approach has become lovingly known as the Kirby dots, and you can see some traces of it in the flecks of white around the green and red crackles in the Devil’s hand and Hellstrom’s trident.  It’s a tricky move, rendering energy in a convincing but also compelling way, but this cover really pulls it off. 

Now we go back to Marvel Spotlight for the Son of Satan’s so-called “ominous origin” issue.  It’s a very odd cover in that everything about it defies the conventions of the time, which is why it seems so out of place with the various other covers I’ve spotlighted so far, pun intended.  The thing here is that even though this comic debuted in the ‘70s it was, as I’ve said, attempting to be a revival of horror in comics.  

Now comics hadn't really done horror as a defining genre since the mid ‘50s, mainly because the comics code neutered a lot of the blood and guts that created a lot of popular horror content.  However, by the ‘70s expectations had grown more lax and understanding and Marvel had never bothered with the code anyway.  As such, this cover is meant to be a deliberate throwback to the horror covers of the ‘50s, right down to casting the Son of Satan as a villain with that cheesy “From Hell He Came!” inter-title slathered across the bottom.  

A lot of understanding this comes from the color palette on the infernal chariot and the smooth, curving lines of the cover main focal point.  Unlike the other issues this is much more of a singular focus rather than creating any kind of binary split, even shrinking Hellstrom down to fit more naturally into the chariot.  

However, what makes this more ‘50s than ‘60s is the size of that single focus point.  Having the focus of the entire cover be this big, defining thing, like the infernal chariot, was exactly the kind of trick old school horror books would pull back in the day.  Also, extra points for having the flames inside the letters of the logo. 

It’s rare for me to throw up a cover that’s just a picture of the main character striking a pose but this is one of those unique cases where this cover is moderately famous.  The ‘70s, informally known as the Bronze Age by comic historians, is one of those incredibly fertile eras that’s produced a ton of visually unique and arresting covers that have been re-imagined and homaged countless times since and while this isn’t a huge entry in that arena it’s certainly an entry.  I’m not exactly sure why this cover has garnered any degree of referential praise except for a couple unique elements.  Firstly, this is one of the purest examples I can give of ‘70s character proportions.  

Hellstrom fills this cover perfectly, and all you need do is look at it to understand what I meant about the characters needing to run from bellow the logo to the page’s bottom.  Additionally, there’s something lovably cheesy and retro about the vibe of this cover.  Indeed, Son of Satan has long stuck in the comic fandoms memory because he’s a cheesy reminder of a bygone era of horror-exploitation and that definitely comes across here.  It’s not exactly a spook house vibe, but the stilted dialogue, goofy monsters, and Satan’s grasping claw all form a deliciously outdated aesthetic like comic vinyl. 

Remember how I spoke earlier about the impressive texturing on certain materials like smoke or fur and the difficulty of drawing persuasive energy?  Well, this cover blows both those elements completely out of the water, and it’s amazing.  

So we’ve got another binary focus split between Hellstrom and the Devil’s Marauder but rather than just statically throwing blasts at each other there’s so much more going on.  That corkscrew fire trail is a really smart way to make the illusion of movement way more dynamic while the line and color work on the fiery demonic face is just out of this world. 

The mouth and fangs are a clear enough visual but where it really shines is the red lines that make-up the eyes and the rest of the face.  They also don’t skimp on the speed lines on Hellstrom giving a sense of movement all his own that never feels cluttered with the fire trail.  

Finally, there’s such a great understanding of color here.  The real balance is found in letting the fire trail be yellow to pop against Hellstrom while the demon head is red so the purple of the Marauder’s robe pops as well.  This even extends to the shockingly detailed onlookers, with their soft orange and dark black inking popping nicely against the dull steel blue of the ground. 

This is basically just a more action-oriented version of Son of Satan’s first appearance in Marvel Spotlight, but there’s a lot more clarity and unique colorwork that goes into this redesign.  Firstly, reorienting the perspective of this cover so that Hellstrom is charging towards the reader immediately give it a sense of oncoming action rather than an aftermath of horror.  

He’s also angled slightly downward so as to fit into that “down into the depths of hell” inter-title that’s plopped right in front of his horses.  Mostly, though, I really like the color work on the horses and their creepy, unnatural elements.  

Like outwardly they seem fine till you reach the purple horse at the end and then realize all their mains are on fire and as your eye slowly drifts back towards Hellstrom himself you see they’ve got this freaky rat/possum tails.  I’m not sure this cover is as influential as the one of Hellstrom proclaiming himself but its certainly impactful in its own right.  

I think that really comes down to how weirdly unique heroes with chariots are in comics.  Aside from the Son of Satan the only other hero with an actual chariot is Thor, and his is pulled by goats, so they do well to hide it. 

For such a high cover on this list, this is admittedly pretty cluttered, but it’s one of those cases where the clutter works well in the cover’s favor.  If you notice, despite being full up hideous, gnome-like demons with sickly gray skin Hellstrom himself pops perfectly against the infernal melee.  

Part of that comes from the color balance, obviously green and red work very well as complimentary colors, but an equally important element is his size.  If you turned Hellstrom upright in this cover, you’d find he’s about the size as when he was proclaiming himself in that previous cover, so even though he’s surrounded by a lot of clutter he’s still coming through very clearly. 

As to why this cover holds up so well, for me it all comes down to the fact the cluttered atmosphere feels legitimately panicked.  It’s one of the few covers in this list to actually feel scary instead of just informed by horror aesthetics.  

That hovering hatchet is a really great, old-school horror element as there was nothing the '50s cover artists loved more than axe-murderers.  Everything is moving forwards towards the audience and the trident, but it’s a forward momentum that feels threatening not adventurous. 

I told you we’d be seeing Hellstrom’s sister before this list was over- meet Satana Hellstrom, the slightly less popular and infinitely eviler daughter of Satan.  I ended up choosing this cover for the number one spot because it’s the only one of all the Son of Satan stuff where all the elements successfully come together.  There are other entries where individual elements might be stronger, but this is the best example of cover geometry, visualized action, scale, and a unique blend of horror and action.  

Firstly, the geometry of this cover is a very unique visual as it’s basically a binary split but with the added benefit of making the split diagonal.  Both Satana and Hellstrom are slanted at action angle to compress their size, but they fill up the scene nicely.  You even have the Daimon’s speech bubble mirrored in Satana’s “Doom is the Devil’s Daughter” inter-title. 

Also, the energy crackle in Son of Satan’s staff is easily the coolest its ever looked.  Its just belching energy forth into the sky like it’s got so much power it can’t help it.  Finally, though, what really sells this cover is the horror-action blend achieved through that incredible background.  The billowing clouds, the gravely hill, the dead trees and iron fence that frame both characters, it’s all such a great atmosphere.  

Finally, the tombstones absolutely sell this cover, that cracked and crumbling aesthetic with the midnight blue coloring.  It all adds up to a very heavy metal album cover aesthetic which is pretty much exactly the look Son of Satan was always chasing. 

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