The King and I
Gone, Gone, the Form of Man...
By Desmond Reddick
28 May 2009 — I have an addiction. Beyond the comics, the horror and the Kirby, I mean. I have an unending appetite for hunting down and devouring issues of DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest, which reprint stories from the 1970s and 80s. It was these that cut my teeth on DC's massive bank of continuity and introduced a very young Desmond Reddick to characters and properties like Jonah Hex, Haunted Tank and The Demon.
In fact, the reprint in DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #5 of The Demon #1 is among the very first times I ever laid eyes on perhaps Jack Kirby's most left-field creation of the 70s. Out of all the stories in that 100-odd page digest, The Demon's was the most wildly fantastical and outlandish. Beyond that, it satisfied my addiction to horror and comics, and helped foster an addiction to Kirby. I loved it. And now, thanks to the oversized, re-colored omnibus edition, it can be enjoyed in all its glory.
My name is Desmond Reddick and I am a Kirbyphile. In this column, I'll be breaking things down into three sections: the good, the bad and the Kirby.
The Demon #1, cover dated August 1972, was edited, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, and featured inks and letters by longtime collaborator Mike Royer.
The premise: Sensing the fall of mighty Camelot, Merlin summoned the demon Etrigan to defend the kingdom against the evil of Morgaine Le Fay. But when all was lost, Merlin sent Etrigan away to slumber inside the body of the human demonologist Jason Blood until which time he was summoned again.
Cut to present day where Jason Blood is trying to translate ancient spells and plan a swingin' shindig, Jack! But the party's cut short (squaresville!) when a giant stone golem comes and invites Jason to Castle Branek where he is ambushed by Morgaine Le Fay and her minions. He turns into Etrigan but not before Le Fay breaches the tomb of Merlin!
The good: I have never heard any indication of whether or not Jack enjoyed horror films. I think his work at Marvel (Atlas, really) on giant monsters certainly indicates a liking for the giant monster films of the 1950s, but those are very different from what we get in this issue. His previous horror work was very much grounded in the EC Comics style, so that is likely an influence, not cinema.
There is a clear connection to the Hammer Films out of Britain that were being made at the same time. There is a grotesque, Gothic sensibility that is hard to find in any medium, let alone comics of the Bronze Age. The horror comics at the time were getting back into the House of Mystery-style ruminations on death, and the consequences of bad karma that had run rampant in horror comics since the 30s. But The Demon is a straight-ahead horror adventure comic in the vein of Tomb of Dracula. And you know how I love Tomb of Dracula! In fact, the story is so Gothic and 70s in tone that I often cast a dream Demon film with Paul Naschy as the debonair Jason Blood. But, this is about a comic, not a film that never was.
Kirby takes this entire first issue to create not one, but two universes: the mystical, medieval Camelot, and the modern world where arcane mysticism still holds fast. The glory of Camelot's last stand is some of the best images ever put into a comic, and set against the hardly mundane world of swingin' Jason Blood and Randu Singh, his ESP-practicing mystic friend, makes for a wonderful juxtaposition.
Other members of an eclectic extended cast are love interest Glenda and blue-collar buddy Harry Mathews, who is very much the entry character for Jack. He's a fun-lovin', cigar-chompin' ladies man responsible for sexily luring his gal Mona into some less than chaste behavior:
Harry: Let's get off the weirdie jive, gang! Let's rock it! Sock it! — and send it first class mail!!
Mona: Dance fast, Harry! — Before the werewolves get here!
Harry: Enough serious talk. Let's dance!!
Mona: That thing you put in my drink is makin' me feel weird...
Beyond the setting, Kirby writes a compelling story that rounds out the character's origin, and introduces us to his supporting cast — alongside giving the template for what was to follow.
The bad: The only negative aspects at all about this issue are the circumstances from which it was spawned. In 1972, Jack had a monthly page quota to fill. His stint on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen was over, and Kirby was very protective of the remaining Fourth World titles (New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle).
When DC Publisher Carmine Infantino requested Jack create two new series for DC, he agreed but never planned on continuing past issue one. Jack wanted to start new series set within the Fourth World but to have others write and draw them. It was not to be. It's funny that what is regarded as some of the best work of his career has less than inspired origins. The popularity of Planet of the Apes brought rise to Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth and the request for something demonic led to the creation of The Demon. The uninspired beginnings didn't end there. Jack, as assistant Mark Evanier is fond of pointing out, wrote the entire first issue in his head over a hot turkey sandwich right after Infantino made the request, and then he went home and wholesale stole the look of the title character from a Prince Valiant panel.
In reading about this character design in places like the introduction to the omnibus and Kirby Collector Magazine, you will hear the terms "referenced" and "inspired" by said Prince Valiant story, but having seen the image in question, there is no denying that it was stolen.
But even beyond all of that, which is all something I can look past, there is one overlying negative to the existence of this book. DC told Jack they were putting New Gods and Forever People on "temporary hiatus" while he developed the two books in question here. I don't think anyone was fooled as to what that meant. Unfortunately his two wildest and most atypical works caused the demise of what everyone would consider his creative opus.
The Kirby: The great thing about The Demon is that it is both a typical Kirby story and the farthest thing from it at the same time.
We open the story with a narration from Merlin himself. A one-page portrait of the wizened wizard greets us and then we are smashed over the head with quite possibly the most stunning double-page spread of his career. Often Kirby used a dynamic image and a double-page spread following it to knock it out of the park, but the dynamic qualities go from 0 to 100 at the turn of a page. This takes a great tenet of Kirby's style and amps it up to 11.
The character designs and their movement are all dynamic as all Hell as per his usual modus operandi, but this issue, and series in general, is startlingly devoid of technology and light on crackle. Even the architecture takes on a much more medieval look than even the architecture in his Atlas story in 1st Issue Special #1. There are only a few instances of crackle, and the most technological apparatus you'll see in this issue, and dare I say the entire series, is a handgun.
But one thing is clear: Jack was ready to turn his brain off of the headier works of the Fourth World and have some fun. What we get here is pure, unadulterated fun with moments of genius throughout. The opening medieval battle is a great example of why it is both typical and atypical of Kirby's style. The double-page spread is dynamic and bombastic in that classic Kirby style — with people in movement and expression caught at a moment in time. But, those people are knights in brutal combat, which is not something you see done by Kirby. Swords are being swung, helmets are falling off, bows are being drawn, rams are being battered, fireballs are being catapulted through the sky. If it wasn't such a perfect depiction of warfare, it would be a cluttered piece of art.
Final thoughts: For good or bad, this is an inspiring piece of comic book history. While its creation brought about the demise of his magnum opus, it still provided an amazing example of the man's work that I adore reading after reading. To quote the back copy of the issue, there ends my account of "one of the strangest and fiercest heroes ever to battle the horror-cultures that have plagued this world since time began!!"