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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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04/11/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: The Comics Go To Hell"

The Comics Go To Hell: A Visual History of the devil in comics
by Fredrik Stromberg
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (2005).

Review by Russell Smith

This reviewer would love to get a look at Frederick Stromberg's personal library. All of the images of the Devil that appear in this book are from his personal collection of comics. In the prologue, he says they are mere samplings but, "that the selection should be as representative as possible of the comics culture as a whole..." Of course he begins his discourse with a disclaimer that his work is more like a pop study than a doctoral thesis. Thank heavens! Mr. Stromberg has delivered to the public a readable and immensely interesting study of the history of the Devil in comics.

The Comics go to Hell is a delightful collection of images of the Devil in a 6.25 x 6.25 inch, 320 page hardcover book. All of the illustrations are in black and white. Opening the book, one is presented with a cartoon on left page; opposite a snippet of explanation about the accompanying work of art. His commentary includes information about the creators, the country of origin and the year it was published. While no keen wit, Mr. Stromberg's critiques are infinitely interesting, sometimes insightful, and only occasionally wrong. There is no table of contents, but there is an excellent index and an appendix with translations of non-English text.

Throughout the book, the author has chosen to call the his subject the Devil, "unless there is a specific reason to choose another name." This was done in order to avoid confusion over the many names that society has dubbed this icon that represents evil in its most pure form. Although Stromberg is an atheist, his approach is objective, except on the matter of Christian proselytizing through a medium that is geared mainly at the young. Examples of these truly creepy comics can be found pages 35, 47, 49, 65 and 179 and are authored by a whacko named Jack T. Chick (these are commonly known as Chick Comics). Particularly weird is the image of the Pope riding a horse with a quote from one of the founders of the Reformation, Martin Luther, declaring that the Papacy is the Antichrist. This reviewer found the image presciently bizarre.

The book is divided into nine chapters with titles like, Ancient Devils, Funny Devils and Superdevils. Drawing mainly from American comics, other nations represented include Japan (the only non-Western example), France, Belgium, Sweden and its neighbors, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Mr. Stromberg sees a divergence of attitudes between European artists (and their markets) and Americans. In European comics, the Prince of Darkness is more often than not portrayed as a comical character or a sophisticated metaphor, such as a symbol for internal moral struggles. As an brief aside, the Japanese version of the Devil is a poodle. Obviously, the artist, Osamu Tezuka (page 174) knows poodles well.

Let's get Stromberg's boo-boos out of the way, so I can concentrate on the why I recommend this book to anybody who has an interest in comics or the Devil, or both. His criticism of the artistic abilities of artist Voenix (pseudonym for Thomas Vomel) is unwarranted (page 97). The image of a half-ram half-human creature holding a big goblet with a baby's head swimming in blood is nothing short of brilliant. Remember all those scary stories of the Goat Man? Well, here his is in all his glory, just as I've always imagined him. The image of a baby's head sweating and talking juxtaposed against the emotionless face of Goat Man gives new meaning to the hackneyed phrase -- a grisly tableaux. Here's the translation from German of what Baby Head has to say, "Go back through that gate while you still can..." Sounds like good advice.

The other little point will be annoying to fans of Dragon Ball Z. On page 136, the illustration is of a character drawn by Akira Toriyama that is called Demon or Devil. Mr. Stromberg asserts that in the American version of the comic, his named is changed to King Piccolo. Wrong. Just do a Google image search on King Piccolo and you will find an elf-like creature, who does look pretty evil, but looks more like Spock in a smock than The Lord of the Flies, The Prince of Darkness, the fallen angel that is the Devil. (The reviewer would like to thank L-Rox for pointing out this error).

Now that we're done with this unpleasantness, this reviewer can now sit back and gush. Frederick Stromberg should be applauded for tackling a topic so vast and organizing it into an intelligent and engaging nugget of devilish gold. The ever-pervasive story of Faust is dealt with extensively. The paradox of the very existence of Satan in Christian theology is also discussed; that is, why would an omnipotent God create an opponent who is doomed to lose and has no control over his own existence and fate? Does this sound like a loving God? To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, let's have some sympathy for the Devil. Mr. Stromberg very logically explains why the devil is often portrayed as a sympathetic character and why readers are often eager to accept this characterization.

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