Jack Kirby’s run at DC Comics was already sliding towards its ignominious end when I started showing interest in comics again. New Gods and Forever People had already been cancelled and were nothing but subscription blanks: I only became aware of them, and very intrigued by the names, when I started picking up some back issues. Mr Miracle was still running but was in decline artistically as well as commercially, dragged out of its Fourth World frame: I would end up only buying its last issue.
The same went for another of Kirby’s creations, The Demon. It ran sixteen issues, I bought the last. Gradually, I collected the Fourth World series’, even down to Jimmy Olsen but my only substantial exposure to Etrigan, the Demon, would be in later appearances, under diverse hands: never Kirby. Until now.
Except that his contributions to First Issue Special were very much below Kirby’s exalted standards, the first issue of The Demon follows the same pattern, of an extensive set-up leading to a cliffhanger ending that is our first introduction to the central character. There are substantial differences, not least in the considerably greater confidence and power of the art, but mainly in that this was a genuine first issue, with a no.2 all set to roll two months later, taking up the story from its moment of poised menace.
Instead, the story concentrates on initially establishing Morgaine le Fay’s last and successful attack on Camelot, and her inability to prevent the escape of Merlin, who takes with him a demon in red and yellow, together with a slip of parchment torn from a larger spell, that he charges the demon to preserve. As Camelot is spirited away by Merlin, the squat figure of the Demon, Etrigan, straightens, grows tall and wanders away, human. He is now Jason Blood, he of the long life, demonologist. He is not Etrigan. But he is the fleshy form out of which Etrigan, if summoned, will rise to battle with fire and rage.
The origin is a two-parter, showing not just Blood and Etrigan but establishing Morgaine le Fay as a recurring enemy, intent on using Etrigan to get to Merlin, who she needs to restore her eternal life, and with it her eternal youth and beauty. It also establishers Blood’s existing friends and one about to become even closer.
The first of these is the most puzzling, advertising executive Harry Mathews, eager and energetic, with his perpetual cigar. Harry’s a Ben Grimm figure, a rough diamond, the common man (though not from Brooklyn). You ask yourself how he’s so close a friend of a demonologist that he gets to learn Jason is a literal demon, because he has nothing that recommends him as being right for this kind of world. Maybe they just like each other?
Of more direct relevance is United Nations delegate Randu Singh. Like Harry, he’s a long-standing close friend, part of the trio. But unlike Harry, Randu is much more subtle. He has psychic powers, amongst them the ability to summon Etrigan from the form of Jason.
And then there’s Glenda Mark, beautiful blonde, first introduced to Jason in issue 1, the two hitting it off on very short acquaintance, though not to the extent of confidences like that.
The Demon was an instant hit, leaping to monthly status by issue 5. The response warmed Editorial Director Carmine Infantino, who’d seduced Kirby to DC in the first place with promises reneged upon without any unnecessary delay. Kirby had started on his Fourth World books, which he’d intended as interlocking finite series, only to be told that they couldn’t end. He’d intended to be the equivalent of what he was at Marvel, a creation machine who would start books off, draw two or three issues then pass these into the hands of acolytes to progress under his direction, but the moment The Demon sold, Infantino insisted Kirby write and draw it himself. In order to ensure he had time to do so, Infantino cancelled New Gods and Forever People.
It’s to Kirby’s credit that, despite the absolute devastation he felt at this decision, he did not allow it to spoil his commitment to Etrigan and Jason Blood. According to his friend and assistant Mark Evanier, Kirby had no interest in horror comics and only created The Demon because DC wanted a horror series. But, being Kirby, he produced a vivid job and a character who, like so many Kirby others, has lasted.
Issue 7 conjured up Klarion, the Witch Boy, and his cat, Teekl (I like cats), though he was quickly dismissed.
Kirby’s next move could be read as a rip-off of The Phantom of the Opera, down to the gothic organ playing. The masked Phantom of the Sewer steals fabulous objects, hoping to bring to life his statue of the beautiful Galatea. When he sees Glenda, he recognises her as the spitting image of his love and kidnaps her. Ordinarily you’d say No Problem and send in Etrigan, but Jason Blood is growing fearful of the Demon within him, fearful of the Demon taking him over and has killed Etrigan, severing their connection by using Absolute Zero cold. Not a timely step.
Kirby was relaxing into the series now. Blood managed to summon back Etrigan using the same Philosopher’s Stone by which he had banished him, but the Phantom’s story ended with his revelation as a tormented victim of an evil witch, whose spirit returned, albeit briefly, to restore the Phantom’s face before he died. This led directly into a Frankenstein take-off that ran over four issues. Kirby was freewheeling in the best manner possible and the results were pure kinetic fun.
There was a two-parter showcasing the return – and re-banishment – of Klarion, and then we come to issue 16, the only issue I bought all that long time ago, in which Morgaine le Fay returned. I remember practically nothing about it. Morgaine subjugates Etrigan to her will, but Glenda rescues him with the Philosopher’s Stone, learning in the process about Jason’s dual identity.
And that, suddenly, was it. No word, no explanation, just a look-for-Kirby’s-next idea. In the absence of other explanations, always assume low sales, though as Kirby’s contract was either in or rapidly nearing its last year, his own attitude to the work may have played a part.
Until now, The Demon 16 is the only comic done by Kirby outside the Fourth World titles that I’d ever read (I have never had the least interest in Kamandi). Though I suspect I would have struggled with Kirby’s art in 1974 or thereabouts, I’m glad now to have had the chance to read the full series. I’ve no great insights to take from it, but I liked it and wouldn’t have minded seeing more.
A dozen years later, in the wake of Alan Moore using Etrigan in Saga of the Swamp Thing, Matt Wagner wrote and drew a four-issue mini-series, yet one more among those thousands of comics I have had and sold. It’s on the DVD, I’ve re-read it. It’s very nicely drawn but in contrast to Kirby, large sections of it are purely static and it’s so bloody verbose, between the overcap narration and Etrigan’s exceedingly long rhymes, I’m very quickly reminded of why I didn’t keep it.
Storywise, the knowing, cynical narration, with its continual contempt is the authentic note of Post-Crisis DC, a tone that’s only multiplied in extent and volume ever since, until nothing is free from it any more. The miniseries is a befuddling and befouling of the original series. One can say that The Demon, above almost everything else, invited it, but at this late stage I’d rather not have it at all.