Forget Ol’ Brimstone Breath’s Biblical origins, or how he is so often used to make the superstitious feel guilt or shame or moral terror. Taken in simple stories that don’t shove the Psalms down your gullet, the Devil is one hell of a villain. The Frankenstein Monster does not have one iota of his strength. Dracula doesn’t have a smidgen of his power to enthrall and tempt and wield pure evil. The Phantom of the Opera’s abilities to punish pale in comparison to those of the Devil. The Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t as weird looking, as the Devil prances around with his goat legs, pointy tale, and candy-apple complexion.
All of this is why Satan has been such a regular fixture of tales of comic horror, and Steve Banes compiles a strange variety in IDW’s new anthology Devil Tales. Like the best stories of this sort, the ones in this collection are mostly short on puritanical finger wagging and God referencing and long on strangeness. In his brief introduction to the volume, Banes points out the most common Devil story clichés (stories of accidental soul-selling and ones that pivot on the great big twist “It was the Devil the entire time…gasp, choke!”), and (again mostly) steps around that dung heap of unoriginality with tales in which Lucifer sparks a gang war or tries to make a kindly couple fall in love with the hell-spawn he forces them to raise. There’s even a demonic crossword puzzle! Only occasionally is a tale skip-able, as when “The Devil’s Pact” drags its cloven feet through soul-selling clichés and churchy piety.
Culled from an array of titles, such as Adventures Into the Unknown, Tales of Horror, Web of Mystery, and The Purple Claw, the stories vary in quality, but often surprise. “Welcome to My School” has snappy, noir-ish writing stronger and wittier than one might expect from a fifties horror comic. “The King of Hades” is a wacky hunk of hilarity about a thug who gives Hell a makeover. Dick Ayer’s artwork for “Ghoul’s Gold” piles on the detail. Kenneth Landau’s for “Decapitation” is some of the most graphically gruesome I’ve seen in a tale from the early fifties. The devil appears as a hulking beast out of Fantasia, a withered old woman, a doofus in red PJs or blue underwear, a wax doll, a puppet, and in two instances, a tattoo. Best of all, Banes’s choices allow us to enjoy all the severed heads, devil babies, and candy-apple masters of darkness without feeling as though we have to spend an excruciating hour in Sunday school to atone for our transgressions. Hell yeah.