I’ll say it: I hated Lucifer from the start.

Some background: when Neil Gaiman ended his run on Sandman, Vertigo (the mature readers imprint of DC comics) agreed to end the series; after issue 75 of Gaiman’s groundbreaking series, no one else would write the continuing adventures of the Dream-King, or the other Endless. But over the years, Vertigo did launch several spinoff series, most notably The Dreaming (focusing on the lesser-known inhabitants of Morpheus’ realm), and several miniseries focusing on the Dead Boy Detectives, Thessaly, the cat-goddess Bast, and Lucifer, the Devil who quit Hell because he’d had enough.

Like a lot of Gaiman fans, I was outraged that DC would try to milk even more money out of Neil’s precious creations (at least Dream and the rest of the Endless were safe). And it didn’t help that, with the best characters off-limits except for the occasional cameo, and less-talented writers (as in, “no one is anywhere near as talented as Neil”), the Sandman spinoffs were pretty lackluster. I read a bunch of them, and they ranged from mediocre to downright awful — the problem being that, at best, the spinoffs were pale imitations of Gaiman’s work, and so doomed to being some lesser fraction of the original.

All of which made it very hard to admit that Mike Carey’s Lucifer was good, really good. More than that, he managed to break free of Gaiman’s shadow enough to tell his own story. In fact, as Lucifer ended with issue 75 (which, after Sandman is something of a magic number for Vertigo books), it’s remarkable that I hadn’t found myself thinking of Gaiman in a while.

Lucifer followed what Gaiman had set up in Sandman‘s “A Season of Mists” storyline, that the Devil, tired of serving as the keeper to Hell for 10 billion years, just up and quit. Since then, he’s been living as a free agent, running an L.A. nightclub (“Lux”) until he’s approached by an angel to do a job for The Man Upstairs. In return, he is promised an object of limitless power, which could enable him to escape creation entirely.

And so we are off. Carey knit together a world of Christian mythology (elements of which -– Lucifer, angels, the Silver City -– made occasional appearances in Sandman, but never got center stage). We learn that In the Beginning, God (here known as Yahweh) created two beings to serve as his intermediaries: Michael and Lucifer, Power and Will. Michael contained all the power to create the universe, but needed Lucifer’s will to give it form and shape. All subsequent creation was done by Yahweh’s two children, until… well, until something went wrong.

Of course, Lucifer rebelled, and Michael led the loyal angels against him, and Lucifer was cast down into the pit. And even then, the story doesn’t really begin until Lucifer realizes that he’s been played, that everything he did was according to God’s plan. For a being who defines himself by the strength of his will, this is intolerable. And so Lucifer abandons hell, and he spends the bulk of this title trying to find a way to break free of God’s plan. Along the way, he meets Elaine (Michael’s daughter), Gaudium (a cigar-smoking fallen cherub), Jill Presto (a cabaret singer impregnated by a living Tarot deck), and…

Enough. These plot summaries always sound stupid if you’re not reading the damn thing. I know that was my reaction when I picked up a stray issue here or there, or heard about how God was abdicating (an obvious rip-off of how Lucifer abdicated in Sandman or how the Almighty fled the Throne in Garth Ennis’ Preacher).

But it’s really good. It’s moving, funny, insightful, and all of the things people said about the early Vertigo titles when the imprint first launched. Some of it might just be that I’m a sucker for Christian mythology -– give me enough angels (fallen and loyal), demons, miracles, saints, and powers, and I’m a happy camper. And pretty much the last third of the series was devoted to the Apocalypse to end all Apocalypses. The kind where all creation could be snuffed out, atom by atom (I really thought the advance solicitations for the last year of the title should just have read, “They blew it up”).

For me, the high point of the series is that Mike Carey has hit upon the solution to that most dreaded religious bugaboo, moral relativism, and explained it better than I ever could. That scourge of the Religious Right, “moral relativism” seeems to state: if we aren’t handed a code of conduct directly from a God who stands above all other gods, if our commandments aren’t absolute and eternal, then we have no way to know what to believe in. If our religion isn’t the only true one, then how do we know what to do if other religions tell us to do something different?

The answer is (and this may seem obvious): figure it out for ourselves. Because we need to grow up, and the only way we’ll do that is if we start to make our own way. In the series, God abdicates, and leaves creation, once Michael and Lucifer both go against his will. And for a series (and a main character) so focused on will, this is the lesson: to find and exercise our own. It is only when Lucifer and Michael, both of Yahweh’s children, start acting on their own, that He can leave them in charge of the universe. They’ve grown up.

And so must we. No longer having any absolutes in morality doesn’t mean that suddenly everything goes; it just means that we have to be able to justify what we believe and do. “Because God said so” is no longer an acceptable answer. We need reasons of our own. In math class, it’s called “showing your work.”

By the time the 75th issue rolled around, Carey and artists Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly had more or less broken free of Gaiman’s world. In the last issue, Carey, Gross, and Kelly essentially recreate, almost shot-for-shot, Lucifer’s conversation with Dream (Morpheus) in Hell from Sandman‘s “A Season of Mists” storyline. And it doesn’t even seem necessary anymore. It’s still a tremendously significant moment, perhaps the key one, for Lucifer, when he learned that freedom can mean just walking away, and it serves as a nice capstone for the series, but it no longer seems necessary to trace things back to Gaiman for legitimacy. The series had become its own kind of animal.

One person who was always wholeheartedly supportive of the Sandman spinoffs was Neil Gaiman. I’ve heard him (and I’m paraphrasing heavily here) liken pop culture to a kind of large soup, from which you take out something here, something there, and (if you’re very lucky) maybe you get to put something back in for other people to borrow. He pointed out that his version of Lucifer was based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, that he wasn’t the first to write about a Miltonic devil, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last.

So, for the record, I should’ve just lightened up and accepted that someone else was going to be writing Neil’s characters. And, in this case, writing them quite well indeed. It’s funny how we feel like we have a proprietary interest in these characters -– that they’re “mine” as much as Gaiman’s or anyone else’s –- to fuel our vicarious outrage. In the end, of course, they belong to everybody. And while I was busy getting steamed over what I saw as a struggle over creative rights, a very talented team of artists (I don’t as a rule, notice art unless it’s awful, but Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Dean Ormston, Christopher Moeller, and a host of others ranged from beautiful to heartbreaking to downright creepy, but always kept the story compelling and complemented Carey’s writing wonderfully), working alongside Mike Carey, actually succeeded in giving the devil his due.

My bad, I guess.