The plot of Paradise lost deals with the first war in heaven started by Satan's rebellion; the fall of Satan and his army; the creation of earth and man; Adam, Eve, and the apple; and God's promise of man's redemption through Christ. For most of the poem, we follow the actions of Satan who reads very much like a pagan epic hero along the lines of Odysseus or Achilles. He's quick to battle and undertakes great feats against mystical forces. We begin with him crawling out of Hell through chaos so he can mess with the newly created Earth to get some revenge on God. He decides the best way to do this is to convince man (Adam and Eve) to betray God just as he did by getting them to eat the fruit God forbade them to eat. He succeeds and is punished for it just as Adam and Eve are, and we end the book with a look into the future (a brief summary of the Old Testament) and a promise of man's redemption through Christ (a brief summary of the New Testament). This is a very rough summary, of course, and I encourage everyone to try and read this epic since it's a beautiful piece of work and definitely Milton's masterpiece (get an annotated or an abridged version, though, since this poem is stuffed with serious allusions to pieces of classic literature and myth that very few people, including myself, will get right off the bat). The conceit of Paradise Lost, put simply, is that good and heroism is obedience in God and God's order. Everyone who obeys God is rewarded and praised and anyone who doesn't is punished. Though I don't necessarily agree with this message (since I'm not a Christian), I have nothing but admiration for Milton and this poem. It's one of the most beautifully complex and sometimes flawed pieces of work I've ever read.
"But Dave," you say, "this is a blog about comics. Why are you talking about a 17th century poem in a blog about comics?" I'm glad you asked. Recently I've been working at a comic store in Dover, NH called Nellie Woe's Comics 'N Such (located in downtown Dover), and while working today something caught my eye: a three issue mini-series entitled JLA:Paradise Lost. Naturally my love for both comics and Milton kicked in and forced me to immediately purchase and read this series. It was written in early '98 by Mark Millar and Ariel Olivetti shortly after Grant Morrison began his popular run on the Justice League, and was supposed to help introduce us to a new character who would soon be a member of the Justice League: Zauriel the guardian angel. Ironically enough, Morrison's original intent with Zauriel was to create a character to stand in for Hawkman who DC put off-limits following one of their crazy continuity shake-ups (Zero Hour more specifically). I feel the result of having an actual Angelic presence in the JLA and a Milton-inspired mini-series about him is far more interesting than having boring, old Hawkman on the team but that's just me.
Anyway, Zauriel's back story is that he was a Guardian angel set to protect a woman named Shannon Coyne from demonic possession. In the process of doing this, he fell in love with Shannon and asked the forces of Heaven to release him from his duty so he could live on Earth with her. Before he leaves Heaven he catches wind of a plot that fellow angel Asmodel was hatching to overthrow God. Zauriel meets the JLA and they all initially defeat Asmodel together. The Paradise Lost story picks up after these events.
In JLA: Paradise Lost, Zauriel meets up with Shannon and expresses his love for her. Before the poor girl can even respond, the demon Etrigan attacks them on Asmodel's orders and the two are forced to flee from further attacks along with Shannon's pudgy boyfriend Jerry. Zauriel is forced to battle Asmodel and his combined army of angels and demons with the help of the Martian Manhunter, a fellow fallen angel named Michael, and pudgy Jerry. In the end, God wins, Shannon surprisingly chooses Jerry over Zauriel, and Zauriel joins up with the JLA.
So what connects this three issue mini-series with the 12 book epic poem? Obedience and duty play a huge role in both. Asmodel loses the second war of Heaven in the comic because God takes away all of his power in response to his affront. In this way Asmodel loses before the battle even began. Satan lost his war in Paradise Lost in a similar fashion. Zauriel is also a wonderful character where this question is concerned. He initially disobeys God and casts off his duty so he can selfishly make a play for Shannon. This causes more damage than good as it brings Asmodel's forces to Earth and Shannon to be kidnapped by demons. Things are only set right when Zauriel decides to resume his duty and responsibility by fighting Asmodel's invasion of Heaven and attempting to rescue Shannon. This sequence of events impresses the importance of obedience and duty onto Zauriel has he accepts the post of Heaven's representative on Earth and in the Justice League.
Zauriel's dilemma is a very human one. He chose something he thought he wanted over what he knew he was. Only when he once again accepted his place in the grand order did he feel fulfilled. Satan was the same way in Paradise Lost. He went after the power he wanted in spite of his place in the universe and was punished for doing so. The only difference is that Zauriel rejoined the fold while Satan found a new place in the grand order by playing the villain. Perhaps the universal message we can take from both pieces is that in the end who we are dictates where we'll end up in the grand scheme of things. Zauriel is a guardian so he ends up a guardian even when he tries to be a lover while Satan is a villain even when he tries to be a conquering, epic hero. In the end, you can't fight who you are (or if you're a Christian like Milton, you can't fight God's Will). But, hey, who knows if that's even true. This is all just poetry and comics. Until next time, keep reading.