Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... The Demon #6


Hasslein Blog

Friday, August 23, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... The Demon #6

By Matthew Sunrich

The most popular and best-remembered episode of the 1970s The Incredible Hulk television series was probably the two-part story called "The First."

In it, David Banner discovers that he was not, in fact, the first person to incur the curse of the Hulk. Under the care of one Dr. Jeffery Clive, a sickly man named Dell Frye underwent experimental treatments using gamma radiation and found himself changed into a similar monster. Unlike Banner's Hulk, Frye's was a murderous creature that took the lives of several people before Clive managed to cure him.

Unlike Banner himself, Frye liked the power that the transformation gave him, power that he used to get revenge on the men who had bullied him all his life, and wants to regain it. Banner finds the long-dead Clive's notes and attempts to free himself of his alter ego, but Frye interferes and becomes a Hulk once again. The two Hulks, of course, wind up fighting each other, but Banner's Hulk is far stronger, and Frye succumbs and then meets his end by way of a bullet fired from the sheriff's rifle.

Fans and casual viewers alike responded positively to this episode because the idea of an evil version of an established "good" character is always compelling. The Hulk, while often hounded by the authorities and the insufferable Jack McGee, has never been a malicious entity, has never killed anyone. The writers' decision to explore the possibilities of a sinister Hulk produced one of the most memorable installments in the series' canon.

The Demon #6, published several years before The Incredible Hulk was even on TV, shares a similar story, though the elements are somewhat reversed.

By this point in the series, Jason Blood, now fully aware of his connection with Etrigan, is capable of summoning his infernal alter ego himself and is willing to do so if the situation calls for it. As our story opens, he is on his way back to the States following his confrontation with Ugly Meg and the Iron Duke. Stopping for supplies at a small village, he finds himself on the verge of an encounter with another strange creature called "The Howler" that terrifies the townspeople. They warn him not to go out, but he is eager to get his journey underway.

Climbing onto his horse, he rides through the village and soon becomes aware that The Howler is chasing him via the rooftops. He summons Etrigan in preparation for a fight, and on the outskirts of town, the creature leaps into his path and stops the horse effortlessly. The Demon soon realizes that his adversary possesses unnatural strength even greater than his own. He blasts the creature with fire, which drives it away, and believes that he has seen the last of it. Merlin, still in corporeal form, however, emerges from the forest and explains that The Howler cannot be dispatched so easily, that it is in fact a mortal who carries the "Primal Entity." It is a curse, and if he can find a suitable new host, he will transfer it to him or her.

As Blood climbs onto the airplane that will carry him back to the States, he meets a man named Eric Shiller. Blood claims to have never seen him before, but Shiller reveals that he is The Howler, having accidentally become host to the Primal Entity while exploring a cave. He, of course, knows Blood's secret and also that he is a demonologist. He explains that he desperately wants to rid himself of the Primal Entity but would rather have Blood exorcise it from him than find another host. Blood agrees to perform the necessary ritual at his apartment.

Things are going as planned until Glenda Mark (a woman Blood met in the first issue of the series) unexpectedly shows up at the apartment. Blood tries to get her to leave, but before she can do so Shiller changes into The Howler. Blood manages to get the woman to safety, locking her in his artifact room behind a steel door, moments before the monster seizes him. Pinning him to the floor, the creature attempts to transfer the Primal Entity into Blood, but he stops it by unleashing The Demon. Etrigan again attacks the creature with fire, and it crashes through a window, plummeting to the sidewalk several stories below.

Changing back to his human persona, Blood releases Mark, and looking out the broken window they see Shiller's body splayed out on the pavement. Blood naturally wonders whether the Primal Entity died with him. A group of bystanders examines the lifeless form, pondering the stranger's fate, and as the first of them, a man in a pinstriped suit, wanders away, there is the suggestion that the evil that possessed Shiller has found a new host.

The similarities between this story and "The First" are striking, and, considering the popularity of Jack Kirby, it's possible that the writers were inspired by it (just as some have suggested that parts of Star Wars were inspired by Kirby's Fourth World). It's interesting, though, that Blood, unlike Banner, is not particularly interested in divorcing himself from his alter ego. This removes a valuable aspect of dramatic tension that the television episode had. Witnessing Banner's outrage as the only remaining vial of serum that could have cured him shatters affects the audience viscerally and makes Banner's plight immediately identifiable.

The fact that The Howler and The Demon are different types of monsters makes the story a bit less effective than "The First" because Banner knows exactly what happens to Frye when anger consumes him, even though they perceive its effects differently. While both Blood and Shiller lose control of themselves when their respective alter egos take over, Etrigan, for all his savagery, is fiercely loyal to Merlin and for all intents and purposes operates on the side of good. By all appearances, The Howler is merely a manifestation of an ancient evil. Shiller's only desire is to be free of the Primal Entity, which is the exact opposite of Frye's agenda. We feel sorry for Frye to an extent, particularly at the beginning of the story, but that pity soon dissolves when we become aware of his vengeful nature.

I think The Demon #6 could have benefited from being told in two parts. The concept of the Primal Entity is interesting, and further exploration of its nature could've opened some interesting story avenues. Also, it's hard to feel sorry for Shiller since we only see him for a few pages. If readers had had a chance to get to know him better, his death would've been more tragic. We'll have to wait and see if the Primal Entity shows up again in later issues.

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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