What grows in Lucifer’s Garden?
In choosing a theme for my next graphic novel after Narcissa (Random House/Doubleday 2002), I decided to return once again to my 40 volumes of hardcover sketchbooks. I’ve been filling up these books at a rate of two a year for two decades, and they’re filled with literally hundreds of story ideas and character designs. I’d gotten the idea ten years ago to collect a group of my fantasy stories with a related theme into an anthology series, under the title “Demon Flowers”. It was to include the tales which eventually saw print in an altered form for NBM publishing, and a few yarns that didn’t.
In 2003 I pitched an unrelated piece to NBM, and veteran publisher Terry Nantier told me about his Comics Lit line of books and its guidelines for content. Sure that I had something appropriate in my personal cartoon encyclopedia, I promised to return with a better pitch.
Literally the night before our next meeting a few months later, I cobbled together a new title for the proposed book series: “Lucifer’s Garden of Verses”. I limited my stories to ones that included the devil directly as antagonist or protagonist, following the reasoning that everyone knows the devil and we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining to Diamond distributors (et al) what the series was about. Had I been aware of DC/Vertigo’s then new ‘Lucifer’ series I might’ve called it something else entirely… just to avoid confusion on the comics stands, but I wasn’t at all worried about readers confusing my approach to the work with Vertigo’s. Stylistically we’re miles apart & there’s room in stores for both. I was thinking (with the title) along the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses”, and it wasn’t until after Terry agreed to buy the series that I realized that I’d stolen the title subconsciously from Salman Rushdie! I sure didn’t want any part of what happened to him after “the Satanic Verses” saw print, and Denmark later reminded us that fanatics don’t like their superstitions trifled with.
Which brings us to the Devil himself. As readers of “Narcissa” might guess, I’m an atheist who nonetheless has a fascination with mythology. At five years old I would check the same books out of my local library week after week: anything related to dinosaurs, and the D’Aulaires series of books on Greek, Roman and Norse myths. (I was a fan of Thor stories before I ever discovered the Marvel comics series.) Because my father was an atheist as well, I learned from my earliest days to view Judeo/Christian/Islamic myths as stories meant to teach important moral lessons and entertain… but not meant to be taken literally. The devil, who predates J/C/I myths, has always been used in folklore to symbolize evil, conflict, knowledge, rebellion, freedom & creativity. His significance depended on the story being told or the lesson to be learned. Later religions prospered by turning Satan into a literal figure, each using him to sell their particular brand of salvation through magic. My hope was to use the character myself, to examine my own feelings about my native America, the changing world and, of course, religion. Philosophy & science might eventually assume their rightful place in society’s decision making process… but I’ll never live to see that day. Especially when every man with his finger on a nuclear trigger today, takes seriously one form of archaic mysticism or another. Each blames his particular devil & accompanying godless infidels for his woes. As my pops used to always say, quoting Shakespeare, “the fault lies not in our stars…”
But that said, I too can blame the devil for playing a nasty trick on me… I was sure that these books would be a lark to create. Easy, basic tales that I could whizz through for entertainment’s sake and move on to the next thing. But, my “Lucifer’s Garden of Verses” series is suffused with personal melancholy over current events, and that made the series a very difficult one to create. I’m definitely not the kind of artist who creates with a particular audience in mind… if I knew who to market my comics to I’d probably sell a lot more than the very small number I do. But I could understand if a reader found them less than a breeze to get through… they’re the hardest work I’ve ever done.
BOOK 1: THE DEVIL ON FEVER STREET
The concept behind book one’s a simple one. The fallen angel Lucifer, who’s slept through the entire twentieth century, awakens to discover that mankind didn’t need his help at all in spreading suffering, exploitation and wickedness across the globe. Sensing that their leader might need some encouragement to complete his appointed task as “bringer of Apocalyse”, the devil’s loyal demon henchmen Beelzebub & Belial come up with a plan to return him to “fighting shape”, a light warm-up of sorts for the heavy days ahead. He is to tempt the person with the strongest religious faith in the world, a woman named Black Lily Baptiste. But if Satan in his weakened state were to fall in love, could the Tempter become the Temptee?
BOOK 2: DARLIN’ NIKI
The devil appears in book two as a sixteen year old girl named “Darlin’ Niki” who has been used her entire life as a corporate mascot to sell products, entertainment and a religion to an eager world. Our story begins when Niki is turned out into the street by her wealthy philanthropist father. She seeks a resolution to their endless conflict, and with the help of childhood friend Sussudio, tries to crash a massive corporate banquet in his honor. Niki, a willful first-born teenager is unable to abide by her father’s strict and often contradictory rules. Her father spends a lot of his valuable time and money helping others, yet refuses to see his daughter as anything more than a once useful mascot. He now considers her to be too much trouble, perhaps forgetting that she is as he made her.
BOOK 3: THE STUDENT, or Nude descending a staircase… headfirst
Features a more traditional devil as adversary. Inspired by the German Silent film classic "The Student of Prague", this is the story of Andree’ Baldwin, a down-on-his-luck would-be Basquiat who enters into a Faustian bargain with a powerful art critic in exchange for status, riches and the love of a woman. He receives all that’s promised him and more, but is haunted by his “doppleganger”: his liberated mirror image tampering with his newfound success. Acquanetta Scapinelli is the critic in question, and she recounts this bitter tale with sardonic delight... "For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
BOOK 4: BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND MILES DAVIS
Book four is the wildcard in the deck, as neither the Devil, nor Miles Davis make an actual appearance in the story. Yet, this is the book that ties the previous trilogy together. Amo Tanzer is a hardened journalist, at war with the human race, who smokes and drinks too much, though not nearly enough for her own taste. Assigned to profile the late jazz legend Miles Davis, she finds herself at a creative impasse. How does one approach such an ‘overly-written-about’ artist from a fresh angle, and what’s her opinion worth anyway in a world so fast unraveling? At her wit’s end, she stumbles into the mysterious ‘Smokeasy’, the only bar in Manhattan where adults are allowed to behave as such; and it is that misty room that Amo falls under the spell of a ghostly bartender.
And that makes a quartet.
After all’s done and said, I consider myself to be more in the entertainment business than the art business. Comics were an early influence, but my current loves are film and music. I take the things I love from the entertainment that I love and ask, “How do I express this in comics form?” It’s my hope that the finished work proves entertaining to someone.