Out of the new Sandman Universe comics, this is my favorite. The Sandman Universe: Lucifer is on a tier close to the original Sandman and Moore’s Promethea. This is a great comic in general rather than a great Sandman story.
One reason is that, while the SU Lucifer shares the same cosmology as the Dreaming, what is happening is remote enough from the Dreaming for its relationship to be overlooked. Lucifer’s previous exploits in The Sandman provide context, but someone who has never read The Sandman can pick up these books and understand everything (albeit with the help of a close reading).
The shared cosmology with The Sandman, though, may be a subtle factor in another strength of this story. It employs subjectivity in a way that’s different from how The Sandman did. The key to that difference could lie in how Lucifer uses expectation as a structural and thematic device.
The first book, The Infernal Comedy, features fragments of a conversation between Lucifer and his son, Caliban, scattered throughout the story. This tempts you to wonder if it took place before or after the rest of the story. Later on, a story about an otherworldly, bleak village inhabited by Lucifer and the ghost of William Blake alternates with another story set in the 20th century, involving a detective whose wife has a brain tumor. Until the last few chapters, it is in no way clear whether the village story is happening simultaneously with the twentieth century story or if one preceded the other.
In the purgatorial village where Lucifer is, he repeatedly tries to dig up large statues and attacks spirits attempting to perform William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If you were wondering what the biggest connections to the original Sandman were, this usage of The Tempest is one of them. The Tempest is deconstructed in a way similar to how the new Dreaming comics deconstruct the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Near the end of The Infernal Comedy, we find out that the world containing Lucifer, Blake, other spirits and a mysterious caretaker are in a pocket dimension within the ancient skull of Sycorax. Sycorax, the Blue-Eyed Hag that occupied the island in The Tempest with her son Caliban and captive familiar Ariel, before the arrival of Prospero.
The story can be understood and appreciated without the context of The Sandman comics, but that context adds depth if you have read them. The second play that Shakespeare owed to Morpheus for the gift of inspiration was The Tempest. Sycorax, late in The Divine Tragedy, says that Morpheus commissioned the play in honor of her.
This matters because of the story at the end of The Wake. It contains, in Morpheus’ own explanation of why he wanted The Tempest to be written, the last explicit word on the angst that drove him to suicide. He says he wanted the play to be written because he may never leave his “island”, like Prospero. Shakespeare assures him “that can change. All men can change.” Morpheus says “I am not a man. And I do not change. I asked you earlier if you saw yourself reflected in your tale…I do not. I MAY not. I am Prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever.”
Morpheus eventually let go because he was haunted by dreams of freedom beyond his responsibilities. If those were the feelings that caused him to inspire The Tempest, then SU Lucifer is telling us that the events of that play were modeled after Lucifer’s family. Sycorax says that Morpheus commissioned a play “about” her that doesn’t have her in it. Rather like how, in the background information provided within The Tempest, the father is never mentioned.
What is the “story” that Morpheus wanted to tell by it’s absence? Thessaly says “The Moon would have made you Queen of The Tides, but you chose Lucifer instead. Lucifer would have made you Queen of Hell, and you chose to be yourself, instead. Your story has resonated down the ages, you know.”
If ever there was a mission statement for the opposite of Morpheus, it would be that. Lucifer has a similar legacy: in The Divine Tragedy, Lucifer attempts to bargain with various afterlives of different mythic pantheons in order to save Sycorax from the wrath of the angels.
(Some context for that: Within the pocket dimension inside of her skull, Lucifer uncovered a buried statue of Sycorax, causing the caretaker to remember that she is Sycorax. At that moment, she “wakes up” from the “dream” of the pocket dimension and rematerializes in the physical world. Angels from The Silver City state that this resurrection is a blasphemous aping of the return of Christ and must be answered. Lucifer negotiates with the angels and buys Sycorax three days before they kill her. He then tries to find a pantheon somewhere that will shelter her.)
When Lucifer approaches the entrance of the Egyptian afterlife, Anubis weighs his heart against the feather of truth and finds that they balance. Lucifer says he expected as much, because “My heart is never heavy. I do as I will, and never otherwise.” To which Anubis says “Would that all had it that easy.”
Lucifer clearly values his freedom as much as Sycorax values her own. But consider Thessaly’s wording: she says that Sycorax inspired generations of witches with this example. Thessaly also says that she, herself, would not have been brave enough to refuse the Moon or Lucifer and remain herself in preference over all else. What she is saying is that Sycorax embodied an ideal to aspire to. Perhaps not one that Thessaly or even most people could count on achieving, but an ideal worth striving for nonetheless.
When Anubis hears Lucifer claim that he never did a single thing against his will, he says “(w)ould that all had it that easy.” A life of absolute individualism is clearly not attainable for most of us. As if to emphasize this, Lucifer’s son, Caliban, attempts to follow him into the Egyptian afterlife. His heart fails the test and, when Lucifer finds him, he is wrestling with Apophis / Ammit.
In fact, Caliban may be the motivation for much of the plot in The Infernal Comedy and The Divine Tragedy. Early in The Infernal Comedy, Lucifer realizes that he abandoned his own son the same way that he himself was abandoned by God (as was as the universe, in his estimation). This similarity to the author or his misery is too much for Lucifer to bear, so he resolves to repair his relationship with his son. He begins by putting him back in touch with Sycorax.
By the end of the first two volumes, though, Caliban became my favorite interpretation of Shakespeare’s character. In literary criticism, Caliban is dogged by the need many feel to define him. Is he a racial caricature, a comment on colonialism, a psychoanalytic foil to Prospero, etc. The Tempest is one of my favorite plays from William Shakespeare but I don’t think I ever saw a version of it that didn’t give me at least a little bit of racist-cringe. Caliban is also unlucky enough to be…potentially…one of the only passive antagonists I ever encountered in fiction.
His mother, Sycorax, died two years before Prospero and Miranda show up. So his angst over losing her coincides with Prospero’s arrival. It’s like Shakespeare knew that he wanted Prospero to kill Sycorax but was afraid Prospero wouldn’t be as sympathetic if that happened. So he left enough information for a reader/audience member to make an associative connection without saying it openly. So his hatred of Prospero comes off as just pettiness.
Caliban, in the SU Lucifer comics, struggles with feelings of belonging, having lost both of his parents early. The angelic court tempts Caliban with an offer to embrace him as one of their own (being the half-angel spawn of Lucifer, after all). To be made an angel, if he sabotages his father. In the end, though, he decides that the unchanging nature of angels is too static and gossamer an existence for him. He even says, “I will die…as Caliban” and Lucifer says “You prove yourself, at last, your mother’s son.”
I sensed a connection between this exchange with Caliban and Thessaly’s last moments with Sycorax. Thessaly sees Sycorax as the mythic hero of all witches and all those who wish to be free from control. The difference between mythic, sublime freedom and the reality of human struggle is highlighted by Lucifer effortlessly passing the feather test and Caliban being forced to fight Ammit. But Caliban gets there in the end, in the eyes of his father. His words about dying as himself, Caliban, because angelic existence is too static for growth and discovery also seem to echo the sentiment repeated near the end of volume three of The Dreaming: the point is to feel. Process constitutes identity and belonging- it is not simply a means to get there.