Yes, it's a great achievement of English literature. Yes, it's a deep work of spiritual belief and should be given due consideration. And yet, for some reason, Paradise Lost stumbles over the same things that bad comic books do. We're going to look at ten mistakes that serial-fiction writers make — even the famous seventeenth century British poet John Milton. And we'll take it book by book.
Book One: Slagging Off Other Characters
I won't lie. The series starts off strong. Milton starts the story in medias res, which is a bold choice but leaves us wanting more. Satan has just been thrown into hell, his defeated army around him. None of the demons really know what's going on, or what to do. Under Satan's direction, they try to regroup and form a new plan. There's a bit of drag in the story, where Milton describes in detail all the badass architecture that they build in hell, and how big Satan is, but I don't mind him setting the mood. And there are some good lines from Satan, like, "What though the field be lost? All is not Lost! The unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yeild. . . . The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." That's some good Lex Luthoring.
The problem is when he starts describing other fallen angels. Among them are Moloch, Osiris, Rimmon, and, "Astoreth, whom the Phoenicians call'd Astarte, Queen of Heav'n, with crescent Horns." Look, maybe I'm a little more sensitive about that one, being raised in nouveau hippie California, where you do not criticize Astarte, but come on. Grabbing other people's characters just to run them down is a cheap move, Milton. It's like that ongoing war between Punisher writers and Spider-man writers, where each grabs the other's character and makes him act stupidly in a story so their hero looks better. Fine, you don't like Astarte and Osiris and the rest, but don't demote them to fallen angels tormented in hell just because you've got a grudge. Professionalism, man!
Book Two: The Sudden Long-Lost Relative
This is how Buffy jumped the shark in season five, and this is what they finally brought Batman to after about 800 issues, but Satan? The guy who has all of space and time to play with? Milton hits him with a completely unnecessary long-lost relative in book two. Satan's flitting around hell, trying to find a way to heaven (hint: look up!) and he manages to find the door. His way is blocked by a terrifying monster. Satan and the monster draw level with each other and are about to destroy each other when suddenly a female monster rushes between them. She tells them that, as father and son, they should not be fighting. Satan, quite rationally, asks who the hell she is and why she thinks this monster is his son. So instead of an epic monster fight, we get a long narrative break in which we establish three generations of evil genealogy.
In bold conspiracy against Heav'ns King,
All on a sudden miserable pain
Surprisd thee . . .
Out of thy head I sprung; amazement seis'd
All th' Host of Heav'n back they recoild affraid
. . . and such joy thou took'st
With me in secret, that my womb conceiv'd
A growing burden.
And then he totally forgot about her three minutes later, and didn't remember her until suddenly he saw her in hell. Sure.
What also bothers me about this is Milton, even writing in 1667, totally cribbed her origin story from Athena springing from Zeus's head. How far do you have to go back to get a fresh origin story, I ask you?
Book Three: Spoilers!
This is an interstitial book that's more focuses on character study than actual plot development. This is fine. I've often found God to be a bit underdeveloped in books. Milton has God looking down at Satan flying up towards Eden. He remarks to his Son that he knows what Satan is going to do, and in fact he knows what Adam and Eve will do as well - give in to Satan and fall from heaven - but he's not going to interfere, because he needs to allow everyone to have free will. Fine. That's as good an explanation as any.
But then he goes on to spoil the whole story. And when I say, "the whole story," I don't mean just sucking the tension out of Paradise Lost. I mean God keeps gabbing until he reaches the book of Revelation. He talks about man's fall, he talks about Jesus's saving of humanity, he talks about how Satan will eventually be defeated once and for all, and how there shall be an eternal paradise. Letting alone that this is a kind of a reverse-villain's speech, he's totally ruining it for those who haven't read the Bible. Respect other people's work, Milton! Did God really have to speechify all the way through to the end of time? It's like a bad crossover, where one issue spoils the other.
Book Four: Sexing it Up
There's some good structure in this book. Satan sneaks down into Eden and cons his way past a guarding angel by pretending to be a cherub who wants to admire God's work. There's also an interesting dissection of scholarship, since the angel says it's a form of paying tribute to God to study his works and try to understand and admire them - but of course Satan is just looking for weaknesses. This book also builds tension when the angels realize that Satan has sneaked into Eden and rush to save Adam and Eve, only to find Satan whispering into Eve's ear as she sleeps. It's creepy and ominous. Well done. But what steals the focus of the entire book is this description of Adam and Eve's bedtime ritual.
Strait side by side were laid, nor turnd I weene
Adam from his fair Spouse, nor Eve the Rites
Mysterious of connubial Love refus'd . . .
Here Love his golden shafts imploies, here lights
His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels
Verse after verse about how boning in Eden is not like your Earthly, sinful boning. This after describing Adam and Eve as surpassingly beautiful. So, in the story, we go back and forth between Satan trying to get Adam and Eve, and the angels trying to stop him, but Milton needs to add that extra scene about two hot people getting it on connubial-style.
Book Five: Rampant Detailed Nerdery
God, even though he's already told us the end of, well, everything, doesn't want Adam and Eve to fall through ignorance. He sends an angel to tell them who Satan is and what he's trying to do. Perfectly fair. Adam and Eve, playing the good hosts, serve him food while they talk. Also fair. But then Milton goes on a tangent that anticipates "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" by about three hundred years. It's not about sex, but it is about the weird technical details of the story that no one really thought about until then.
Most of us think if an angel wants to eat a sandwich it probably won't be a problem for them. Anything that battled Satan isn't going to be thrown by a piece of bread and some cheese. But Milton got his nerd hat on, and pulled it down well past his ears, and he was not going to be dissuaded by things like dramatic tension or spiritual significance. He was going to write a prolonged conversation between the angel and Adam in which they discuss how angels can eat human food, how the food transubstantiates in the angel's stomach, and how maybe someday angels and humans will eat the same food, but not now. Now it takes mystical interference for an angel to drink grape juice. This goes on for pages.
It takes everything in the reader to keep from yelling, "Oh for crying out loud, just put it on your blog, Milton!" At last the conversation changes from how an angel can toss back a couple of peanuts to the living embodiment of evil that's coming for them and just as the angel get to the part of the Satan's backstory where he is about to make war on God, the book ends. Glad we took that time to talk about lunch, though.
Book Six: Retcons!
Of all the books, this one has the most complete, standalone story. Book six fills us in on what happened just before we cam in, re-telling the story of the angel wars in heaven. It's got a nice structure to it, as it's set over three days of battle. On day one, the good angels make some headway. On day two, they suffer some setbacks. On day three, Jesus comes in and cleans house. The problem is - Jesus comes in and cleans house. Which means he's retconned all the way back to before the Old Testament. Look, everyone wants to put their heroes in early cameos, and it seems that everyone likes prequels, but placing the savior back before there was even anyone who needed to be saved seems like a weird move.
Book Seven: Filler, Filler, Filler
Sometimes a four-issue story needs to be padded out to make a six-issue trade paperback. Sometimes a minor change needs six unnecessary tie-ins to make a line-wide change. And sometimes a writer thinks it sounds good to have a ten book story when he really only has material for about nine books. This is the case in the seventh part of Paradise Lost. This is a flimsy book - literally. It's the shortest of all of them. In it the angel talks a little about the creation of Eden while the reader patiently slogs through the text. Even the characters seem to slog through it. It halts mid-conversation, and the next book begins with Adam not even realizing that the angel has stopped talking. If an angel is speaking and your primary reaction is spacing out, that is some unnecessary chatter right there.
Book Eight: Pointless T&A Scene
This book starts in mid-conversation, with Adam realizing that the angel has stopped talking, and deciding it's time to do some talking of his own. What's the only action in this book? Eve, suddenly tired of hearing lunchtime gossip, gets up and walks out the door. As much as Milton talks about the innocence of Adam and Eve's nakedness, Eve gets a little more description than Adam. And the description goes like this:
With Goddess-like demeanour forth she went;
Not unattended, for on her as Queen
A pomp of winning Graces waited still,
And from about her shot Darts of desire
Into all Eyes to wish her still in sight.
Adam later goes on to talk about how Eve's loveliness makes him stupid and unable to resist Eve's "lesser" mind. Oh, John. Do we really have to perv on Eve, the dummy? Really?
(Although I have to give this book props because in it Milton talks about the possibility that the Earth goes around the sun and there is life on other planets. I love it when a franchise leaves the door open for aliens.)
Book Nine: The Good Highlights the Bad
So far we've only dealt with bad habits of the comics world - the retcons, the overwrought drama, and the laser-focused attention on the adornments of pretty women. This book, the strongest of them all, deals with the inherent problems of serialized fiction. Not all the books can be a highlight, but we expect them all to be. And the good casts a very long shadow over the bad.
Now I'm not saying that Satan is exactly good - but there's no question he breathes new life into the story and gets the ball rolling again. In this book, he flies into Eden, gives another dramatic speech, talks Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and then gets Adam to eat is as well, in a kind of suicide pact (because Adam knows that Eve is "lost" and doomed to die). Then he gloats his way back to hell. It's action-packed, it's interesting, it's dramatic, and it really makes you realize that you just spent the last four books watching people have lunch. No wonder they say the devil is tempting. It's like this book was The Dark Knight Returns, and the rest of the books were the entire nineties. Try as you might, if you don't have the same huge explosion of energy, it's just going to seem pale in comparison.
Book Ten: The Spin-Offs, Re-Treads, and Collector's Editions
Many of you have been reading this thinking that Paradise Lost actually has twelve books, and you'd be right. The original text was ten, but Milton expanded and revised it into twelve afterwards, and it turns out that that is unfortunate. The title, Paradise Lost, gives us the natural scope of the story. So does the deliberate start in the middle of the action. Sorry to say it, but this is Satan's show. In book ten he gets his revenge and gloats. Meanwhile, Eve and Adam are cast out, but God gives them hope that their children will rise up and finally crush Satan. Story over.
Oh, you wish. No, instead the angels come back and talk to Eve and Adam about the Tower of Babel, about the Flood, about King David and his many begettings. They even go on to talk about Jesus, again, and the eventual crushing of Satan again, neglecting the fact that God told us all of this in book three. This is where the book really resembles the most annoying habit of comics. You like Wolverine? Here's a story about his son. Also his daughter. And he's in another book now. Here's a shiny hardcover edition of his origin story, and here's a retelling of his origin story. And again. And again. Here, let me expand that story so it fills yet another two books. It's clear Milton is a big, big fan of the material he's covering, but sometimes, you just have to let it go - or at least hand it over to a new creative team.
I have to say I'd like of love Frank Miller's version of this. Sin Garden!