On January 25th, the pilot for Lucifer will air on Fox, a show about the Devil helping solve crimes in Los Angeles. It’s (very) loosely based on Mike Carey’s Lucifer, a Vertigo comic, itself a spin-off of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. But this isn’t the first Lucifer on television — or in popular culture. Let’s take a quick tour through history and see the many different versions of the Devil. After all, I’m sure we’ll have a hell of a good time!
The most well known portrait of the Devil isn’t actually from the Bible. Rather, it’s from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, first published in 1667. Although the poem itself is about Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man, it was quickly pointed out that Satan stole the show.
In fact, Satan has such charisma as he orates over Tartarus that many say that he is the hero of Paradise Lost — or, rather, a Byronic Hero, someone proud, moody, and cynical. Milton’s Satan was all that and more. In fact, most of the things people remember from Paradise Lost are Satan’s words, such as “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
There has been a lot of interpretation of Milton’s Satan, in fact, and about whether he was supposed to be the villain or something more. In fact, William Blake wrote, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
In 1824, Washington Irving published a book of stories, one of which was called “The Devil and Tom Walker.” A later writer, Stephen Vincent Benét, found inspiration with this story and wrote another one called “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
It’s not quite known when the Devil became known for the selling of souls — certainly, nothing like it happens in the Bible. In fact, in the original tale of Faust, the deal isn’t with Satan, but rather with the demon Mephistopheles. But that was quickly forgotten and the actual Devil was substituted in his place for all types of stories — stories where people sell their souls and, trying to get out of the deal, are then forced to wander for eternity (Jack O’Lantern), stories where a person makes a deal and then gets his comeuppance (like “The Devil and Tom Walker”), or stories where it’s the Devil who gets his comeuppance (like “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” where Daniel Webster successfully argues his case — in front of a jury of the damned!).
In fact, you might remember a more recent version:
In the brilliant but short-lived TV show Brimstone, 113 of the worst souls in Hell escaped, so the Devil brings out Ezekiel Stone, a dead former cop, to bring them all back by shooting them in the eyes (the windows to the soul).
The funny thing about the show is, well, the Devil didn’t really seem that bad. He never tempted anyone, he never really did anything bad. He was, in fact, quite funny (helped, of course, by John Glover’s brilliant depiction). He wasn’t the villain — he was just a trickster. At one point, he even ties someone’s shoelaces together.
Most of the depictions of the Devil in popular culture don’t go in this direction — if the Devil is the antagonist, he is often portrayed as the Ultimate Evil, tempter of souls, et cetera. What is the point of being against the Devil if he isn’t, you know, evil? In fact, this is entirely the point: the Devil isn’t the villain in Brimstone or Reaper or even The Sandman, where he realizes just how tired he is and retires, giving the keys to Hell to Dream (one last trick). One can even see this interpretation in the Oh God You Devil movies or Bedazzled (original or remake).
Here is one depiction that is still relatively rare: the Devil as an out-and-out heroic figure. Not a Byronic Hero even, but rather someone who helps.
In Mike Carey’s Lucifer, the Devil has retired, but is pulled back and eventually is able to create his own universe, which he finds isn’t quite as easy to rule as he thought. This is quickly complicated by various other factors, including some apocalyptic — and the Devil, realizing how bad it would be, very much wants then to save the world.
There aren’t many stories that posit how much good the Devil does, but it certainly looks like the new Fox show will do so. Even if he does keep his wicked ways (after all, he is the Devil), it seems his days of doing evil for the sake of evil are done.