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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.

The Demon.

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.

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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:

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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.

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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)

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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.

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For shame.

23 Responses to “Beyond The 4th World, with Jack Kirby: The Demon”

  1. Zom Says:

    That medieval battle looks amazoridiculous, and the Demon’s wrangling’s with Klarion seem to promise many a chortle. I think I’ll be getting me some o’ this.

    One thing, Etrigan *didn’t* rhyme before Moor got his hands on him?

  2. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I think Moore made it a strict discipline. Kirby had him thyme occasionally, but mainly he just laughs and fucks shit up.

  3. RAB Says:

    First of all, yes to everything you said.

    In addition to the often mentioned Prince Valiant homage in Etrigan’s appearance, there’s another Golden Age influence that gets overlooked. Kirby absolutely loved the original Captain Marvel, and not only pushed DC to hire C.C. Beck for a revival but also did a few riffs of his own on the basic idea. OMAC was one; Etrigan was another. (For that matter, so is Thor.) It’s a bit clearer if you think of his version of Merlin as basically the old wizard Shazam. That’s a big part of why Kirby’s Demon is so much a superhero book when other creators seem to feel it “ought” to have been a horror title.

    Speaking of prior influences, when I see Jason with Harry and Randu it’s hard not to see the Terrible Trio — a.k.a. Handsome Harry Phillips, Bull Brogin, Yogi Dakor — not because Kirby intended some sort of reference or allusion, but because that archetypal trio of a ladies man, a tough guy, and a mystic simply felt right even in a different context. (There’s arguably a similar dynamic in the “Three Rocketeers” strip for Harvey Comics.) But man, Jason and Harry and Randu just have such great chemistry: you just believe those three have been friends for years.

    One thing later creators tossed away (and Moore is the worst offender here) is the notion that Jason Blood is, tragically, a fiction who thinks he’s a person. He’s a character invented to disguise Etrigan and nothing more, but he doesn’t even like the demon — and certainly doesn’t go around talking as if they were the same person. It just always seemed like a great potential conflict was wasted in the hands of subsequent writers.

  4. Jack Fear Says:

    Kirby absolutely loved the original Captain Marvel, and not only pushed DC to hire C.C. Beck for a revival but also did a few riffs of his own on the basic idea.

    Not to mention actually working on the character himself, in some of his earliest published work. (Which you probably already knew, but I still find it pretty amazing, and the pages are fascinating to look at; he was trying his best to ape Beck’s style, but the proto-Kirbitude kept on busting through.)

  5. Zom Says:

    Something which strikes me is just how enjoyable writing Seven Soldiers must have been for Morrison. I can just imagine him lusting after a chance to write Klarion for years and years and then one magical day, someone gives him a paycheck, sits him down at his laptop, and tells him to get on with on with it.

  6. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Reading the original I was surprised how closely the two versions tie together, right down to the Horigal, and the Jusdge and his Draaga. The tone of Klarion’s character is laid out like a template for Mozzer.

  7. Zom Says:

    It’s the way that Morrison fleshed out the Horigal that put the thought in my head. Morrison seeing that as a kid/adult and thinking I want to see more of that; what is that!?!.

  8. Andy G Says:

    Anyone read the Matt Wagner 4 issue Demon mini from the 80s? I thought it was an interesting take on Jason Blood and his attitude to the Demon as mentioned above.

  9. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I love Wagner’s art, but I found that mini a bit stodgy. To be honest I should give it another read, as I’ve got it kicking around somewhere.

  10. Zom Says:

    I’m sure I’ve read that but I can’t remember a thing about it

  11. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I know it springboarded the subsequent ongoing. Wagner set up the new status quo for Jason and Etrigan, which Alan Grant then used to comedic and dramatic effect. He basically made Etrigan a right bastard, much more the reluctant ‘hero’.

    I’ve just rememembered that Etrigan played a substantial role in Cosmic Odyssey, which was also one of the fisrt series to fully try and tackle the Kirby mythos.
    Pretty unsuccessfully as I recall, but it had lovely Mignola artwork.

  12. Zom Says:

    Twas pretty bad. For years I laboured under the misapprehension that the Anti-life Equation was simply intended as some sort of malevolent, lethal dark energy – like nasty electricity. Cosmic Odyssey, with its pedestrian and mundane writing, was directly responsible for that erroneous belief.

  13. Bill Reed Says:

    The Demon is the one Kirby Omnibus I’ve yet to purchase. I should rectify this.

  14. Bill Reed Says:

    Also, 70s Kirby is my favorite Kirby. I prefer his brilliantly weird solo work to his stuff with Joe or Stan. Unfettered imagination running naked and amok on the page, assaulting you with its fists.

  15. Zom Says:

    Yeah, although I’ve still yet to rectify the huge Kirby void in my life, I can’t help feeling that letting the man do his thing probably produced the best results.

  16. Papers Says:

    I really can’t say how much I love Etrigan, and finding the DEMON omnibus was a great opportunity to read all the original Kirby magic with him. Most people favour the Fourth World jazz, but I’ll always veer in the direction of DEMON and OMAC any time.

    The fiction of Jason Blood alone! It’s a nifty idea. And Klarion, sweet Klarion…

  17. Papers Says:

    By coincidence, I downloaded a recent episode of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD and who should Batman be teaming up with in Victorian England, but the Demon Etrigan? Well, technically the Demon Etrigan *and* Sherlock Holmes, but is it really worth the quibble?

    (Okay, so I’m forced to grit my teeth once it becomes clear that it’s YET ANOTHER Gentleman Ghost episode, but time travel! And Etrigan!)

    The Shazam connection is one that I never made, but it’s certainly there (and, yes, in OMAC) and it dovetails nicely with the Fourth World stuff, this constant bond between Man and God that can never be broken, even if inexplicably the divine makes things go wrong (or the profane makes things go right — Etrigan’s motivations were always all over the place). But while Billy Marvel and his clan are basically a bunch of goody-two-shoes-es, well, Kirby couldn’t help but make his counterparts emotionally blank super-soldiers (OMAC) and cantankerous monsters (Etrigan).

    …there’s something in there worth picking out with regard to Promethea, and the lineage of humans-who-become-gods and humans-who-become-demons via the use of language (and, let’s be honest, artists and writers worth their salt are quite often unrepentant bastards, but as long as the use of language is suitably magical)…

    COSMIC ODYSSEY *was* pretty awful all right. I bought it on a whim because of the Mignola art a couple years ago but it didn’t survive the library weeding process because while it looked pretty, it managed to bash haphazardly at Kirby-stuffs without even attempting to be elegant about it, and there’s something rather emotionally flat about things (like John Stewart accidentally letting a planet be destroyed) that has to lead me to think it the work of some nobody but it was Starlin, wasn’t it? He made more sense doing WARLOCK, I’m afraid.

    (Adam, thank god, not that lamentable techno-organic thingee from THE NEW MUTANTS)

    And I’m settled on a reread of THE DEMON omnibus, oh yes, once I’ve finished Urasawa’s PLUTO manga.

  18. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I’ll be covering OMAC, DEVIL DINOSAUR and SILVER STAR in the coming weeks.

    And believe me SILVER STAR is some unfeasibly weird shit.

  19. Bill Reed Says:

    Yet another Gentleman Ghost episode, maybe, but I sense a pattern developing: The Gentleman Ghost episodes are the best ones.

  20. Zom Says:

    The boy and I watch Brave and the Bold every week. Good times.

  21. 3/29/09 (Catching Up: Part 2) « Batman a Day Says:

    [...] Here’s an awesome blog-post about Etrigan the Demon http://mindlessones.com/2009/03/23/beyond-the-4th-world-with-jack-kirby-the-demon/ [...]

  22. Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources » Sunday Brunch: 3/29/09 Says:

    [...] Ones, the Beast Must Die delves into the world of post-Fourth-World Jack Kirby greatness. First up? The Demon. I still say 70s Kirby is the best [...]

  23. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » FLASHBACK TO JACK: KIRBY’S DEMON REVISITED Says:

    [...] The Beast Must Die’s classic (#classic) post on The Demon, I decided to start there and I was impressed by the supremely elegant hackwork I found [...]

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