“Son of Satan” may well be the oddest comic-book title to host any sort of Christmas story, much less one with an impressive level of mythicity.
To be sure, the “Son of Satan” feature was always centered upon the creation of a pop-cultural Satan-mythology, as opposed to delving into purely Christian tropes. A fannish anecdote claimed that once Marvel Comics began to pursue horror-themed features in the early 1970s, Stan Lee noticed all the “Satan” films in the movie-houses and suggested the idea of a series about the Big Bad Devil himself. Though comics had sometimes dealt with Satanic emissaries as main characters—notably, Timely Comics’ original “Black Widow”—a title starring Satan himself probably would have proved an epic fail. The follow-up idea-- that of a “son of Satan”-- at least allowed for the main character to maintain some reader-sympathy. To be sure, the origin-story for Daimon Hellstrom—the offspring of the Devil and a mortal woman—was badly drawn and badly written. Yet this ignoble beginning didn’t keep “Rosemary’s Superhero Exorcist” from developing a fairly intelligent hero-mythos of his own, particularly through the efforts of writers Steve Gerber and John Warner. Marvel’s editorship didn’t allow the use of many Judeo-Christian concepts beyond the name of the Devil himself, so the writers tended to employ names and images taken from paganism or ceremonial magick. The one major exception is the last issue of the original “Son of Satan” title, ”Dance with the Devil.” This is a Christmas story only in that it takes place on Christmas Eve—“the night Lord Satan sleeps,” as one of the Devil’s minions helpfully informs us.
“Dance,” the letters-page of SOS #8 tells us, was a stand-alone inventory story assembled over a year before its publication, against the possibility that someone would miss a deadline in the ongoing continuity. At a 1990s convention I asked Russ Heath for any memories of the story, but he didn’t seem to remember much; not even the way he had artfully emulated, for his portrait of Marvel’s hell, the paintings of the 16th-century artist Hieoronymus Bosch. Based on that conversation, I speculate that the main plot for “Dance” came from writer Bill Mantlo. Of course, since the two of them would almost certainly have been working “Marvel-style,” Heath was probably responsible for all of the layouts and dramatic pacing.
One advantage of “Dance” is that because it stands independent of any ongoing storylines. There’s an indirect reference to Daimon’s then-current love-interest, probably inserted by an editor. But aside from that reference, the story concerns nothing but Daimon’s relationship with his devilish dad, and with the image, though not the reality, of his mother, who was deceased and “out of the picture” when the series began. Daimon’s “daddy issues” are a major aspect of the ongoing series, but “Dance” is the only 1970s story that deals with the character’s “mommy issues.”
The entire adventure takes place within the dream of sleeping Satan, though apparently his trident-toting son is physically drawn into it, and into a dream-version of Hell itself. At times Daimon himself is swept along from one setting to another, as if he is the dreamer, thus suggesting a similitude between the hero and the father he rejects. However, the first entity Daimon encounters is a robed figure, the one who has summoned him into the dream. Daimon gets pissed and zaps the summoner with “soulfire” from his trident-weapon. The robed individual removes her cowl and shows herself to be his mother, whom Daimon has never seen, in any form, since her passing from the mortal coil. The cowled woman-- who is never called by the name given her in the hero's origin--accuses her son of having sinned by “aspiring to humanity,” and alludes to her own sin—the sin of lust—for having cohabited with the Devil. Daimon promptly faints—a fairly typical response to the association of the ideas “mother” and “lust.”
Waking, Daimon finds himself in the Boschian version of Hell, which horrifies him far more profoundly than any of the cut-rate Dante-scapes that he’s beheld in other Marvel visits to the inferno. An unnamed young beauty appears as his guide, and tries to persuade Daimon that he ought to take over Hell while his father sleeps, and become a more merciful overlord to Hell’s residents. (Whether dreaming-Satan himself is manipulating the female guide is never made clear.) Of the many demons Daimon sees, he’s only introduced to two of them: the witch-queen Morgane Le Fay and her son Mordred. These characters are indubitably the most famous mother-and-son pairing in Arthurian narratives, and thus provide an implicit analogue to Daimon and his own mother. Mordred, of all the condemned in hell, is not in any way malformed, but Morgane is, having been stripped of her beauty by Satan (whom Morgane curiously calls “Lucifer”). Morgane evinces some off the guide-woman’s hostility to Satan as well, and then the guide persuades Daimon to dance with her (hence the title). She kisses him and tries to make him pledge himself to them—but he holds off long enough to see her beauty dissolve into the face of a skull. Daimon flings her away and all of the demons attack him, trying to defeat him with carnage once cajolery has failed (as Stan Lee more or less said elsewhere).
A blow on the head allows for another dream-transition, and Daimon winds up in a vaguely Middle Eastern world. Joining a pilgrimage of robed people, he enters a city, where a guide tells him that “events are enacted in endless repeat.” Inside the city, Daimon sees a man wearing a crown of thorns, being rousted by Roman-looking soldiers, but this man has Daimon’s own face. While the real Daimon watches, the crowned figure breaks his bonds, becomes a tailed red demon and assails the people with fiery chaos.
Daimon faints again, and wakes in a chamber with a medieval tapestry. Though he never comments on his birth having been a parody of the Immaculate Conception, he’s shaken to have seen “himself” cast in a demonic parody of the Passion. At this moment, he notices the figure of a unicorn in the tapestry—and sees that the unicorn has the face of a woman, with her tongue lolling lustfully out—and that it’s the face of his mother. Then two more figures appear in the chamber: Daimon’s devil-father, and his unnamed mother, lustfully caressing her demon lover. Daimon’s spirit almost succumbs to the notion that if his mother was as purely evil as his father, then he too must be purely evil. But with the eleventh hour he throws off the deceptions of Satan’s dream, and he sets the dreamworld on fire. This action apparently “exorcises” Daimon himself back to the real world, while in the “real Hell,” Satan awakes from his dream. A minion tells Satan that “Christmas Eve is past,” ending what the female guide has called “the madness above.” One might think that Christmas Day, rather than Christmas Eve, would be the last moment before “humanity is returned to its normal posture of petty evils and greed.” But maybe Mantlo just liked the image of Satan’s enforced sleep ending with the coming of the day, which is certainly a common enough trope elsewhere.
I deem this a metaphysical myth in part because it dwells upon such Judeo-Christian concepts as sin and damnation. But it can also be read as a psychological myth with heavy indebtedness to Oedipal wreckage. True, the main conflict throughout the story is still centered on Satan’s attempt, whether conscious or subconscious, to suborn his rebellious son. Still, the Devil’s dream centers not upon male posturing, but upon the idea of female desire, which is made synonymous with the corruptions of the flesh. It doesn’t matter whether Heath or Mantlo had the idea of inverting the traditional association between the unicorn and the Christian virtue of virginity. What matters is that even though the Son of Satan rejects the attempt to recast his “saintly mother” as a slut, the reader is given the chance to meditate on the truth-value of one of the aphorisms from Satan’s dream: