March 23rd, 2009
Jack Kirby’s much lauded return to DC comics is best remembered now for his monumental 4th World proto-epic. Its fate and subsequent rescue as a lost classic are now extremely well documented, and Grant Morrison’s recent Final Crisis was pretty much a love letter to Kirby’s grandiose and complex vision. But Kirby’s other later works often get lost in the mix, viewed by many as lacklustre work for hire; contract-fulfilment by a man crushed by the general apathy that greeted his masterwork. Simply not true. Whilst they may have not stemmed from the same visionary core that Darkseid and Co sprung from, it was virtually impossible for Kirby not to infuse even his most meagre creations with a manic, creative energy that still read like nothing else.
I’ve always had a fondness for Etrigan. Something about the glee with which he burns, blasts and pummels his way through his adventures is just so…sweet. Seriously, there’s barely a panel when he’s not howling with laughter as he mashes it up with some gigantic Kirbeast. Even when he’s getting stomped on or tortured you get the feeling Etrigan’s basically getting some infernal thrill out of it all. After the dourness and mythmaking of the 4th World it’s genuinely refreshing to have such a deranged and gleeful maniac bouncing around the comic’s page.
The Demon actually offers some of Kirby’s strongest and most solid work. The artwork is sublime; in attempting to do a ‘horror’ comic to suit the times his angular chunky linework adopts a more gothic, loose tone, echoing the brushwork of the Creepy and Eerie artists whilst retaining the satisfying chunkiness and bold design that characterises all of his work. Alongside Mister Miracle it’s my personal favourite Kirby work, a perfect synthesis of the old school craftsmanship with the wild and weird work that was to come.
Kirby’s art really comes alive when depicting the Demon himself – apparently the design was nicked wholesale from a Hal Foster drawing in Prince Valiant. But Kirby makes the character sing, as he twists and leaps around his four bordered prison with reckless abandon. It’s truly dynamic stuff, and the gothic trappings of the strip allow him to indulge in some heavy shadows and a smoother, more organic line than in work produced at the same time for OMAC and Kamandi.
As previously mentioned, Kirby’s attempt to do a horror comic yields some predictably bizarro results. He creates a wonderfully weird rogue’s gallery, including Baron Von Evilstein, the Howler and most memorably Klarion the Witchboy (who, I was pleased to note, entirely informs Morrison’s nu-puritan take on the character for Seven Soldiers ). Indeed the Klarion episodes are some of the best of the run incorporating the Judge and is Draaga, and of course lovely, loyal Teekl. Kirby also finds time for a typically gonzo ‘Phantom of The Opera’ pastiche, Merlin, cosmic-medieval battles, time-trapped eastern European locales, denizens of Hell, and a distinctly Kirby-esque take on Morgaine Le Fey. In case you don’t believe me, check out this example of a Jack Kirby Medieval battle:
The supporting cast also make for a very lovable Scooby-esque gang. We have Randu Singh, psychic UN emissary of implacable calm and resolve; Harry Matthews, basically Jack Kirby, sceptic wise-cracking Brooklynite advertising executive and comic foil; and of course beetle-browed blonde bombshell Glenda Marks, who sticks with her schizophrenic boyfriend/Hellbeing through thick and thin. At the centre we have Jason Blood, demonologist, and all round turtle-neck wearing 70′s gadabout, with a burning secret at his core. His constant po-faced angsting is counterbalanced by Etrigan’s fun-loving destructive rampages and lust for tussling with supernatural foes three times his size. Jason’s best feature is his red hair with a white streak down the middle – an updating of Reed Richard’s classic distinguished side stripe, and a nod to Doc Strange’s duo-tone sweep back.
The best episodes are probably Klarion’s two appearances. He really is a wonderfully anarchic little bastard, posed equally as a mischievous rebellious teenager, and as a menacing and amoral supernatural force. He and Teekl make a wonderful double act, especially when confronted with the stiffness of Ol’ Jason. I particularly love his continual reference to Jason as ‘Uncle’ despite there being absolutely no suggestion they are related.
The story featuring Baron Von Evilstein and his tragic monstrous creation is also excellent and manages to wring a tremendous amount of pathos out of the plight of the maltreated brute. Perhaps The Demon’s biggest strength is that it crams an awful lot into its pages; humour, horror, romance and melodrama. Yet it’s a remarkably fluid read, especially in light of Kirby’s increasingly fractured storytelling. It fits into that mid 70′s horror vibe that Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan made so popular, whilst still remaining utterly unique. Kirby can’t quite give up the *ahem* ghost of superheroes, and whilst his stories indulge in some murky, gothic depths, they still resound with the vibrancy and four-colour energy of his best spandex work. It’s a shame it didn’t find more of an audience, as it’s a work of considerable charm.
(Aside – is it just me, or would all of DC’s occult characters make for terrific Columbo era TV series? That particular 70′s TV format and vibe would be absolutely perfect for The Phantom Stranger or Dr 13)
Like most of Kirby’s DC creations, despite the brevity of their original runs, the characters have lived on in the greater continuum (often with middling results – the nebulous 4th World characters have proven especially hard for other creators to get a handle on). Etrigan actually fared better than most. He was successfully resuscitated by Alan Moore for Swamp Thing (although the rhyming speech he forced on the character was a typically Mooresque conceit, and also a BIG FUCKING CHORE), and Matt Wagner’s beautifully drawn, if slightly boring mini put the character back on the map and more importantly proved he might be financially viable. Gaiman used him in true eldritch fashion for Goth snoozefest The Sandman. Alan Grant’s take on the characters was okay, and suited the times (Lobo was a regular support character). He amped up the black humour and increased Etrigan’s amoral, demonic side pitting him and Blood against each other. It yielded some fun results in the early issues, but it did get a trifle wearing and by the time Garth Ennis stepped in for a well received short run, the series had run out of steam and readers. He’s popped up pretty frequently since, and now seems to be a staple part of DC’s supernatural roster. Exactly what his status is, in the current brainfucking continuity-strangled DCU I couldn’t tell you.
The original series is still the best of course. Like everything he did, Kirby puts his heart and soul into the comic and even if there are a couple of soggy episodes, overall it’s jam-packed with imagination and energy. The omnibus presents a saga that had plenty of mileage in it, with an offbeat central characater, crazy-ass monsters and a fun supporting cast. It’s well worth a look. Sadly it’s just another of Kirby’s later great series cut off in it’s prime.