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The Demon by Jack Kirby (Review/Retrospective)

Of all of Jack Kirby’s seventies DC work, I think that everything must be somebody’s favourite. His Fourth World books bristled with ambition and perhaps serve as the most high-profile, influential and long-running of Kirby’s work with the publisher, but you never have to look too hard to find a proponent of the author and artist’s work on O.M.A.C. or Kamandi. While I am fond of all of Kirby’s DC work, enjoying the raw energy and sheer volume of ideas he brings to his high concepts, I have a soft spot for The Demon, if only because it’s a delightfully off-the-wall example of Kirby’s multiple interests bouncing off one another and familiar archetypes to create something that is often quite difficult to pin down.

Night of the Demon!

It’s a shame that it took so long for Kirby’s DC work to really find an audience. Any author attempting to introduce a new comic book character at one of the big publishers must be daunted by the fact that even the creations of Jack “the King” Kirby couldn’t find a consistent audience – most cut down in their prime as they struggled to attract readers. It seems that the conservatism of comic book readers is hardly a new thing, as the more outlandish and original books of DC’s “new 52” relaunch find themselves staggering around on the verge of cancellation.

Fans like what they know. They appreciate the familiar. That’s why the million-and-one Batman books sell well every month while lower-profile (but critically praised) books tend to wither. I suspect that played a massive role in the failure of Kirby’s creations to really land on their feet during the seventies. His books were far from the superhero norm, despite the fact that his Fourth World books were launched from the Superman spin-off Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. At the time, they must have seemed the most strange and exotic creatures, hard to classify within a medium increasingly dominated by familiar superheroes.

I do kinda like that Von Evilstein isn’t his birth name. Only the slightly less sinister Von Rakenstein.

Still, it’s nice to see that time has been kinder to Kirby’s work than contemporary readers. His Fourth World has becomes one of the most important sections of the DC pantheon. In DC’s recent relaunch, Kirby’s Darkseid was chosen to unite the iconic Justice League as a force none of the seven could take alone. There was even an O.M.A.C. book written by the editor, Dan Didio. I’m also glad to see The Demon get some high-profile exposure, with Paul Cornell’s Demon Knights centring around the character and his medieval band of would-be-heroes.

Indeed, Etrigan the Demon was perhaps the most successful of Kirby’s non-Fourth-World creations for the longest time, bubbling along under the radar – in large part due to his use by Alan Moore in Swamp Thing. The character has actually held several on-going books, which I am sad to say have never been fully collected. He’s attracted some wonderful talent in the form of Alan Grant and Garth Ennis as writers. I think a large part of the character’s success is down to Kirby’s wonderfully elastic premise.

The demon inside…

In fact, Etrigan seems a little familiar to long-time fans of Kirby’s work. The notion of two rival minds competing over possession of one body is a common enough literary theme, perhaps most successfully and popularly expressed in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde, but Kirby had explored this theme before. It informed his work with Stan Lee on The Mighty Thor, but The Demon feels like something of a spiritual companion to The Incredible Hulk, a book that Kirby helped launch, but which struggled quite a bit in its early days.

There are a few echoes of that Marvel icon to be found here.The Demon seems to be something that Jason Blood dreads, much like Bruce Banner feared his massive alter ego. At one point, Blood complains, “It happened again, Randu! The change came without warning!” Like Banner and the Hulk, there’s hinted to be some ambiguity about how the duo might influence each other – even unconsciously. Etrigan suggests that Blood exerts some influence over his actions, observing, “What stays my hand from your throat! — but a voice inside me — strident — yet, remote!” It’s clear that Jason and the Demon do not simply swap places, that they sit inside one another like a set of nesting dolls.

Demon smash!

Some of the plot points might seem familiar to those with a passing knowledge of the Hulk as a character, as Jason Blood finds himself navigating a few similar plot points and hurdles. One frequent Hulk plot sees Jason Blood managing to exorcise his Demon, only to release that his freedom could not have come at the worst possible time. As his girlfriend is abducted, he laments, “There’s only one who can save her — and I-I destroyed him!” (To be fair, it’s a common enough superhero plot. Superman II and Spider-Man II explored something similar. Still, it feels like an echo of the Green Goliath here, with Blood exorcising more than just his responsibilities and superpowers, but a whole other personality.)

Like the early days of the Hulk, Kirby seems less than strict about the transformation from Jason Blood to Etrigan and vice versa. Does the rhyme need to be spoken? By Jason or by somebody else? At one point in the story, it seems like the Demon simply fades away because he is exhausted, rather than as a result of any spell or incantation. “I-I’m slipping fast — must not – yield sword-!”the Demon gasps. That said, things become a bit smoother towards the end of the series when Blood manages the transformation using the Philosopher’s Stone. Or the Sorcerer’s Stone for our American Harry Potter fans.

Chasing Phantoms…

However, despite the fact that the Demon is far less iconic than the Hulk, these stories have one great strength lacking from many of the early Hulk stories. Etrigan is great fun, in a delightfully creepy and unnerving sort of way. He’s a manic little monster who exists purely to cause mischieve – fighting the good fight, but not afraid to create a bit of a mess (and have a great time) in doing so. “What monstrous trick has been played on Mord?” a would-be assassin demands, prompting the Demon to respond, “HAHAHAH! Trick for trick! — Kill for kill -! Drink bitter wine and demon swill! Dead you were — dead you shall be — and all because you fought with me! HAHAHAH!”

How can you not love a rhymic, supernatural sociopath? (As with a lot of these early appearances, Etrigan’s rhyming is inconsistent. it occurs in the early stories, but disappears quite quickly. I’m glad that Moore brought it back, though.) The Demon is a fascinatingly madcap sort of character, and – at his best – he feels like a wildcard rather than an ally. “HAHAHAHAHAH! You unleash the Demon, and then stay his hand!” he taunts Randu at one point. “How little you know of the forces you play with!”When they get in his way, Etrigan threatens to kill Randu and Matthews, with only Jason staying his hand.

He Camelot, he sawalot, he conqueredalot…

There’s a sense in the early issues that the Demon exists as some sort of mystical “nuclear option.” He boasts, “Flee, all enemies of Merlin! — or face the Demon-!!” Unlike a regular superhero, or even the Hulk on a good day, Etrigan doesn’t fight to save innocents – he’s pretty much a one man “black ops” team for Merlin. During one adventure, the Demon arrives too late to confront his foe. Instead, the creature finds a hanging body. There’s no compassion or sympathy in the Demon. He has only one concern, demanding “Where is my adversary?” This portrayal seems to soften a bit in the later issues, with the Demon seeming like more of a tool of Jason, fighting the occultist’s battles for him.

Still, that wild inconsistency is part of the Kirby magic. I normally like my stories densely plotted, or at least cleverly structured so that it seems like the whole thing was relatively planned. Kirby, on the other hand, has a sense of making things up on the fly – the finer details prone to shift and morph in the spaces between panels. However, I love Kirby’s high-concept plotting if only because it has an incredible elastic vibrancy that so few of his successors could properly emulate.

Demon nights…

Kirby tended to tell stories in a world that operated on different physical principles to our own, where logic and physics were more suggestions than actual laws, and the end result was the one most likely to push the story forward at an advanced pace. Occasionally, like during his Captain America run, this might make it hard to really get a footing in his saga, but it always gives his work an incredible dynamism, mirroring his artistic style.

For example, at one point, the disembodied spirit evil witch Galatea takes control of a statue made in her image and animates it for some reason. As if that’s not enough, she moves across the underground lair towards something we’ve never seen before. Harry declares, “Good gravy! It’s uncovered a bomb in the wall!”There’s a massive explosion. It’s not the tidiest plotting in the history of comic books, but it moves fast enough that the reader is swept along.

Face off time!

Indeed, the last few of the sixteen issues feature lots of dynamic openings featuring the Demon in action, even if there’s no real reason or context. Kirby explains these away as flashbacks and dreams, and provides a nice segue to the plot at hand. However, in effect, they are really just excuses for Kirby to illustrate his wonderful action sequences. I am not complaining, of course. Any Kirby action is good Kirby action, and it gives the book a slightly off-the-wall feeling that suits it.

There’s really no better illustration of Kirby’s seat-of-the-pants plotting than Klarion the Witch-Boy, a concept so ripe for Kirby-esque craziness that Grant Morrison wrote a Klarion the Witch-Boy book as part of his epic Seven Soldiers. Klarion is pretty much Kirby’s take on that old Star Trek archetype, that immature kid with seemingly impossible power – which, in Kirby’s hand, he uses for all manner of delightful insanity. “Your pleadings bore me! I’ve turned you into a tree to silence you!” He’s pretty much just a little boy indulging his own relatively short attention span. “Candy, cakes, pastries — fruits of all description! Nothing shall be denied us, Teekl!”

He’s in a bit of a bind…

The Demon might seem, at first glance, to be just a little bit outside of Jack Kirby’s familiar wheelhouse. Kirby had done occult work before, most notably Black Magic, but his work in the seventies was a lot more high-concept fantasy and science-fiction. It’s easy enough to lump O.M.A.C., Kamandi and the Fourth World all together, but The Demon stands out for its somewhat macabre central character and focus. However, it still fits remarkably well with the rest of Kirby’s output at the time, while maintaining its own distinct flavour.

For one thing, the magic and mysticism feels couched in the work of Arthur C. Clarke – the science-fiction author who postulated that “sufficiently advanced technology” would be indistinguishable from magic. It makes sense, given that Kirby was heavily influenced by the pseudo-science of the era. Chariots of the Gods was a clear influence on The Eternals. here he references reincarnation and E.S.P. The first issue features Kirby documenting the Fall of Camelot, essentially the mythical forerunner of the modern comic book crisis:

Again and again, the forces in play generated, charged and struck at the once impregnable Camelot! The new names for them were not yet born — and men still called them magic! For men still lived in the shadow of the old gods! — and feared them!

The Demon lives!

There’s a sense that these things “called” magic might be governed by a science still to be understood, just cast as our ancestors in the language of mysticism. Indeed, viewing a similar conflict from a more modern standpoint, Randu likens the explosions in the forest between Etrigan and Le Fay to “an — atomic bomb!” Le Fey seeks control of “the Cosmic Bullets!!”, what we might call meteors couched in more grandiose terms. A sinister “brute” wandering the streets is not some mythical monster, but a neanderthal.

Jason’s friend, Randu, dabbles in a “mystic art called the ‘Eye of Kharma!’ — a sort of manipulation of — destiny! It’s really not unlike your ‘E.S.P.!’ See!” Etrigan as likely to be subdued by technology as he is to fall to magic. Baron Von Evilstein’s henchman, Igor, uses an ominous-looking device on him, and we’re told, “The Demon is staggered by a sonic bombardment that hammers at his brain!” Indeed, Von Evilstein plans for what looks like an almost professional surgery head transplant (complete with gown and mask) using “an instrument devised by my ancestors! — a tool that shaped the monstrous myths that roamed the ancient world!” I’m relieved to know Medusa was created in sanitary conditions.

That old black magic…

There are other nice Kirby-esque touches throughout the volume, with Kirby even effectively inserting himself into the story as the cigar-smoking Harry Matthews, who exists as the wise-ass everyman character, prone to grand statements and talking about himself in the third person while saying things to help readers keep up with the plot. “It doesn’t frighten me, honey!” he declares in the second chapter. “That’s because Harry Matthews never thinks about it! — And I’m Jason’s best friend!”

It’s quite telling that the strangest character in a Kirby comic is usually the one tasked with grounding the story, and Harry actually ends up with more character than Jason or Randu, feeling out of place in (yet strangely at home) in a comic featuring all manner of macabre monsters. Indeed, if nothing else, The Demon allows Kirby to put is own slant on various tentacled monsters that look like they might have escaped the pages of Lovecraft.

It’s all very scientific… I’m assured.

I’m also quite fond of the decision to set the story in Gotham City. I’m normally not a fan of excessively tangled comic book continuity, but Kirby is smart enough not to get messed up with Batman The Demon and Batman never cross paths here. However, like Steve Ditko’s Creeper, Kirby’s Demon characterises Gotham as a place where weird stuff happens, to the point where a guy dressing up as a bat to fight crime sort of seems kinda normal. I like the way that Kirby and Ditko could texture Batman’s world without every directly interacting with it, or being caged in by it.

It’s hard not to smile when Kirby has some crazy stuff happen in this fictional locale that tends to attract the ridiculous. There’s a lovely moment where some works are startled by Etrigan. “The tunnel is haunted!” one gasps. Another responds, “I-I think the whole city is haunted!”Given this is a fictional city that houses Arkham Asylum, that’s not too difficult to believe, and I like the idea that Kirby can add a layer or two to that without needing to slavishly crossover or reference issues of other books.

No need to get catty!

The DC comics hardcover collects Kirby’s sixteen issues, plus a nice bunch of sketches and a nifty foreword. It uses the same sort of newsprint paper as the other collections. While it doesn’t allow for the most vibrant colours, it does add a nice pulpy texture to these stories, something that actually suits this era of Kirby’s output quite well. I wouldn’t want to see his iconic contributions to Marvel collected in such a way, but is feels almost appropriate that the paper is used for these deliciously and excitingly pulpy stories.

I’m fond of Kirby’s Demon, and I think it’s my favourite of his DC work. Don’t get me wrong,the Fourth World is undoubtedly more influential, and O.M.A.C. was years ahead of its time, but The Demon feels like it’s more of a random vehicle for whatever happened to be going through Jack Kirby’s imagination at a given moment, with a more casual and random charm to it that recommends it highly. It’s hardly the most important of the King’s lengthy bibliography, but it’s still a gem.

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