Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... The Demon #1


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... The Demon #1

By Matthew Sunrich

According to Ronin Ro, author of Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution, Kirby came up with the concept of the The Demon and the plot for the first issue during dinner at a Howard Johnson's. Tasked with creating a new title, "Jack sat quietly and thought about what to bring Carmine [Infantino, DC's publisher]. Soon he started telling [his wife, daughters, and assistants] a story about a man named Jason Blood and his ability to transform into a fiend from hell."

This isn't hard to believe when you consider that Kirby was known for his staggering imagination and seemingly inexhaustible well of ideas (some better than others, admittedly). And while the comics he created for DC aren't as memorable as those he did for Marvel, his output at the former was still remarkable, though it might not have been as well appreciated as it should have been at the time. (Bear in mind that the comics industry was undergoing major changes when Kirby made the move to DC, and, at least according to some, Kirby was unwilling or unable to adapt. Thankfully, his work from this period is generally better regarded in retrospect.)

The original series, which debuted in 1972, lasted only sixteen issues, but Etrigan remains a fairly popular character in the DC Universe. (I'd compare him to Marvel's Doctor Strange: valuable but not necessarily strong enough to carry his own series.) Most recently, he's served as the central character in Demon Knights, one of the original titles of the New 52 initiative. Unfortunately, the series is getting the ax in August with #23 (predictable, since fantasy comics, for reasons that I will never understand, are mostly ignored by fans), but at least it outlasted many of DC's new books. (By contrast, the second series of Sword of Sorcery, featuring Amethyst and introduced as a replacement title, while well written and beautifully illustrated, only stuck around for eight issues.) In spite of this, I'm sure he'll continue to show up in other comics from time to time.

The Demon occupies an interesting place in the history of comics. In some ways, it's a darker exploration of the concept behind the Hulk (though the Hulk himself was derived from a conflation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein). There are also unmistakable echoes of Marvel's Thor. As far as the first issue is concerned, the "mechanism" by which Etrigan is changed into Blood is difficult to pin down, just as Thor's transformation into Donald Blake is a bit of a head-scratcher. Both men are unaware of their other selves until something releases them. In the case of Thor, it's the discovery of Mjolnir in its hidden location. In the case of Etrigan, it's a vault in an ancient castle. In both instances, magical words are involved; an inscription is related to their hidden alter egos. This comes as no surprise, as words are used to powerful effect throughout mythology.

The Hulk, on the other hand, is very much a creature of pure emotion. He is neither demon nor god. He is a manifestation of repressed anger, of frustration. Like Thor and Etrigan, however, he is unaware that such a thing dwells within him. Bruce Banner has forgotten his unpleasant childhood and the feelings associated with it. Blood's history is mysterious to him; he doesn't realize that his "ancestors" (including one painted by Rembrandt) all just him. Both men lose themselves in their respective careers: Banner in physics, Blood in, appropriately enough, demonology.

It also prompts the question (not "begs"; check Wikipedia) of where fantasy ends and horror begins. Most fantasy, at least to some degree, includes elements of horror, though the purpose of the monsters in fantasy is to provide something for the heroes to fight, something that clearly represents an element of evil (or, at the very least, savagery encroaching on civilization), rather than to scare people. Kirby thought of The Demon as a horror title (even though it differed greatly from books such as DC's House of Mystery and Warren's Eerie and Creepy), but it doesn't appear that his intent was to keep readers awake at night.

The "horror" in this book is related to the idea that sorcery, such as the kind practiced by Merlin, is inherently evil, deriving from creatures dwelling in hellish realms beyond our own. Merlin has typically been considered a "good" character, but along with that he has frequently been cast as dangerous, as someone whose tireless quest for esoteric knowledge has thrown him into the paths of infernal forces, entangling him in their dark designs. How good can a character really be if he has summoned a demon? Can something so evil be used as an instrument for good? Or is the concept of "good" really just relative? Are good and evil essentially just two opposing sides, in binary opposition, eternally struggling with each other?

Like the Hulk, Etrigan doesn't fit the heroic archetype, which certainly made his book stand out on the racks when it was published. (These days, of course, such a thing isn't that unusual.) A monster with his own comic? Other than The Incredible Hulk (and by this point readers knew he was really a good guy, more or less), this kind of thing hadn't really been seen before. (Note that Swamp Thing didn't get his own book until two months later.) Despite the approval of the Comics Code, some parents still might have forbidden their children to lay down twenty cents for this thing. The first issue sold well, however, perhaps because some kids bought it just to defy their folks.

A character like Superman is easily recognizable as a hero. And while Batman's appearance frequently instills fear at first blush, he has an easy-enough time, given the opportunity, of convincing the innocent that he's on their side. The Hulk has a much harder time getting people to believe that he means them no harm, especially in his childlike persona (Peter David defined it as the "id" of the Freudian psychic apparatus). Even though the Hulk isn't evil, his episodes of rage cause mass destruction, and, for this reason and others, he is relentlessly hunted by Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross and the army (until Ross becomes a Hulk himself and sees the error of his ways, that is). Etrigan isn't a hero in the traditional sense. He has no sense of altruism. His infernal origins would make such a thing functionally impossible.
The Demon #1, "Unleash the One Who Waits," opens in Camelot. The forces of Morgaine le Fey are attacking the castle, and Merlin declares that neither he nor his "Eternity Book" will fall into the hands of the enemy. The castle's walls are no match for Morgaine's sorcery, but her troops are "stopped and thrown back by an attacker of unequalled ferocity." This attacker is a demon in Merlin's service. As the castle crumbles amidst the rising flames, Merlin calls to his infernal servant and gives him a page from his magic tome to keep in his possession until the time comes when he is needed again. As he walks away from the ruin, his shape changes into that of a man, and his memories fade.

The story picks up centuries later, as Jason Blood is discussing the page Merlin gave him (although he is unaware of its origins) with a sorcerer. Blood explains that he has been having nightmares about a demon, and desiring an explanation he has taken great pains to track the man down. The sorcerer tells him that the page reads "Yarva! Etrigan! Daemonicus!" ("I summon the demon, Etrigan!"). Suddenly, an empty suit of armor assails Blood. He seizes a burning brand from the fireplace, thrusting it into his foe's face, and the armor explodes. Unconscious, Blood experiences visions of Etrigan engaged in fierce combat. Morgaine, a mask concealing her wizened features, appears. It is clear that she knows Blood's secret and that it's only a matter of time before Merlin summons him.

When Blood awakens, he finds himself lying in the grass outside the ruins of the structure he had been inside only an hour before. The sorcerer, not surprisingly, has vanished.

On the other side of the world, a statue from Castle Branek comes to life, much to shock of the villagers, and disappears into an opening in the ground. During a dinner party at Blood's apartment, the statue shows up at the door and presents Blood with a scroll. He understands that the statue is one of the "Unliving," sent to bring him to Castle Branek. He agrees, unaware that Morgaine and the sorcerer have been observing all of this through a two-way mirror.

When Blood reaches the castle, he is ambushed by Morgaine's men. The statue bears the brunt of the attack, and Blood responds to a voice's beckoning him into an underground vault. Following the voice, he is led to a tomb surrounded by gargoyles. The stone monstrosities allow him to pass, and Blood reads the mystical inscription carved into the tomb's door. By the time he has finished reading, he has changed into Etrigan.

And not a moment too soon, as Morgaine's forces have found their way into the tomb.

While certainly a good introduction to the series, The Demon #1 suffers from the same problems as many of Kirby's Bronze-Age comics. He wrote, penciled, and edited his own stories, and, as is the case here, there are often issues with the way things play out. While the richness of Kirby's ideas permeates every page, the dialogue doesn't always flow naturally, and the characters don't come to life; they fail to transcend being mere drawings. They seem two-dimensional and lack distinct personalities. Also, some of the captions are unnecessary, but this was often the case in Bronze-Age comics. In addition, the story doesn't develop in a completely logical fashion and appears unfocused, making it somewhat difficult to follow.

That being said, there is much to enjoy. Kirby's inimitable art style is at its peak here. At DC, Kirby was finally free to choose his own inkers, and the finished art stays truer to his original intent than much of his work at Marvel. While Joe Sinnott (Kirby's embellisher on Fantastic Four) is arguably the greatest inker in the history of comics, he did tend to alter the look of Kirby's figures (not that this was necessarily a bad thing), and on leaving Marvel for DC Kirby was looking for someone who wouldn't change things around so much. He found this in Mike Royer.

Even though it isn't a completely satisfying issue, it does leave readers wanting more, and there is a lot of potential here for great stories once some of the wrinkles are ironed out.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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