While William Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture has been constantly recognised, feted and celebrated, John Milton’s has declined considerably since his eighteenth-century peak.
Unlike the Shakespeare’s works, frequently described as “timeless”, Milton’s prose works are irrevocably bound up with their seventeenth-century contexts, while his poetry is so entangled with key Christian stories and psychic locations that it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish the influence of ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667) from that of Genesis, or Milton’s Hell from that of Virgil, Dante or Hieronymus Bosch.
Despite this, ‘Paradise Lost’ remains influential in many arenas: among other things, the poem is a prototypical work of science-fiction, featuring heroic interstellar voyages and speculations into the workings of the universe.
Critical consideration of this influence tends to concentrate on C.S. Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’ (1938-45) and Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ (1995-2000), and these novels, conveniently enough, mirror a factional divide between Milton scholars. C.S. Lewis’s interpretation of the poem, as explicated in his ‘Preface to Milton’, is orthodoxly Christian.
On the other hand, Philip Pullman favours a distinguished critical line which argues that Satan is the poem’s secret hero and which includes William Blake, Percy Shelley and William Empson. Aside from these two novels, essays tracing the influence of sophisticated readings of Milton in popular fiction have been few in number.
In this article, I will examine how the developing mythos of the DC Comics Universe (or DCU) came to incorporate a distinct and clearly legible line of Miltonic influence.
I will begin by identifying those aspects of ‘Paradise Lost’ which present the most parallels with the comic book narrative, notably the ‘War in Heaven’ as related to Adam and Eve by the Angel Raphael, and which forms the bulk of Books V and VI in ‘Paradise Lost’.
In the second part, I examine how Miltonic material was first incorporated into the DCU in Alan Moore’s ‘Footsteps’ and how it proved integral to shaping the recurring character of Lucifer in Neil Gaiman’s comic book series ‘The Sandman’ and his short story ‘Murder Mysteries’. In my final section, I examine the presence of Miltonic themes in the spin-off series ‘Lucifer’ (2000-2006) and ‘John Constantine: Hellblazer’ (1988-2013) and in Grant Morrison’s ‘JLA’ (1997-2006), before bringing my narrative up to the present day.
In the epic tradition of in media res, to begin at the beginning is to begin in the middle, and it is in the middle of the fifth book of ‘Paradise Lost’ that the angel Raphael descends to Eden from Heaven, and relates to Adam the events of the War in Heaven, a confrontation between the adherents of God and the followers of Satan.
This leads to the expulsion of the latter with all his angels from the borders of Heaven. It is the only martial episode in a poem whose central action, notoriously, is the eating of a piece of fruit. Its critical standing has decayed a great deal over the centuries.
Joseph Addison, one of Milton’s great eighteenth-century popularisers, thought that the War in Heaven was the pinnacle of Milton’s sublimity: “that wherever he speaks of it, he rises, if possible, above himself”. His reaction was one of awe and wonder at the scale and spectacle of the epic combat, but the superhuman conflict is not to everybody’s taste. Later on in the century, in tones of lofty dismissal strikingly similar to the early critical dismissal of the comic book medium, Samuel Johnson would declare that: “The confusion of spirit and matter […] fills it with incongruity; and the book in which it is related is, I believe, the favourite of children, and gradually neglected, as knowledge is increased”. For Johnson, the mechanics of combat between etherial adversaries are too far removed from real life to interest an adult sensibility.
Modern critics have found in Book V elements of the mock-heroic and the farcical and portrayed it as a subversion of the familiar tropes of epic warfare. For instance, on the first day of battle the weapons are the familiar to anyone who has happened to glance into The Iliad: sword, shield and spear.
By the second day, Satan’s angels have excavated metals and minerals from the soil of Heaven, and invented cannon that throw God’s host into confusion. Things escalate quickly as Michael and the angelic army regroup and retaliate by throwing mountains at the opposing side — whereupon the whole war becomes a mountain-slinging match.
Arnold Stein memorably refers to this as “a giant custard-pie fight” in ‘Answerable Style’ (1967) — yet it is also a tremendously destructive conflict, and it becomes evident that even the empyrean firmament cannot take much more of this kind of punishment.
God has a plan, however, and sends in a literal deus ex machina, in the arrival of the Son within the Chariot of Paternal Deity. At his command the uprooted hills retire to their places; he routs the rebellious angels and forces them to the very brink of the abyss: “The monstrous sight Strook them with horror backward, but far worse Urged them behind; headlong themselves they threw Down from the verge of heaven, eternal wrath Burnt after them to the bottomless pit.” (VI. 862-6)
At this point, the narrative comes back to where the epic began, with the fall of angels into Hell.
As should be evident even from this brief précis, there are certain parallels with the simpler kind of superhero narrative. Both feature a Manichean conflict between a set of heroes and adversaries unable or (in the case of the Son) unwilling to land a death blow.
Even when Michael’s sword cleaves Satan in twain, the archfiend is only briefly inconvenienced, for “The grinding sword with discontinuous wound / Passed through him, but the ethereal substance closed / Not long divisible” (VI. 329-31). Satan feels pain for the first time in his existence, and is briefly disabled, but soon returns to the fight.
Though the angels possess in an eminent degree the two superhero characteristics of mission and powers, they lack the important distinctions of costume and identity (Coogan, 2006). As the quote above makes clear, they are beings of spirit rather than matter, and do not have the impermeable solidity of Superman or Wonder Woman; rather they possess fluid abilities of second-stringers such as Metamorpho or Plastic Man.
When the angel Raphael descends to visit Adam and Eve in Eden, Adam’s curious questioning uncovers the fact that beings of pure spirit can not only eat and drink, but also enjoy a kind of sexual congress: “if Spirits embrace, / Total they mix, union of pure with pure / Desiring; nor restrained conveyance need / As flesh to mix with flesh, or soul with soul” (VIII. 626-9). The physicality of Milton’s angels is explicitly worked out, albeit in the kind of detail that DC comics largely leave to fan fiction. They wear material armour to protect their bodies from the pain of division and recombination, but this itself can become a weakness if the armour is crushed upon them.
As in the comic book narratives, War in Heaven is both visually spectacular and horribly destructive but its consequences are easily passed over. Just as Superman’s home town of Metropolis appears to be able to absorb and repair spectacular damage in the twinkling of an eye, so the mountains of Heaven return to their former places and leave no trace of the catastrophic conflict that first saw them wrenched from their roots.
The Deus ex Machina performs its function of exiling and containing — rather than annihilating — the threat to the status quo. Even though Hell appears to have the same revolving door release policy as Arkham Asylum, the escape-prone institution responsible for incarcerating maniacs in the Batman series, Milton at least has the excuse of divine providence to account for Satan’s escape from perdition and arrival in Eden.