I’ll be honest with you — it feels a little strange to be writing about the first issue of Jack Kirby’s The Demon in June, at a time when I still have my final posts about Forever People and New Gods coming up in August. That’s because for the better part of the past half-century, I’ve tended to categorize the bulk of Kirby’s work at DC Comics in the 1970’s as being either “the Fourth World” or “everything after the Fourth World”. But the fact of the matter is that those categories overlap chronologically, even if only by a couple of months. And that’s significant, I believe, as it reflects the fact that when the writer-artist came up with the series concepts for both The Demon and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth fifty years ago, he thought of them as complementary — and probably secondary — to his ongoing Fourth World epic, rather than as the replacement for that ambitious project that they inevitably became.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean that Kirby would have approached the development of Demon and Kamandi differently, had he known that these two series were what he was going to be spending the majority of his working hours dealing with for the next year or more. But it’s something to think about, at least.
According to Mark Evanier, who was one of Kirby’s two assistants at this time, the call for his boss to come up with a couple of new titles came about as a result of the King’s having left Jimmy Olsen, as well as the cancellation of his two short-lived black-and-white comics magazines, In the Days of the Mob and Spirit World. By the terms of his contract with DC, Kirby had a page quota to fill, and so DC publisher Carmine Infantino asked him to try his hand at something along the lines of the popular Planet of the Apes film franchise, as well as something else in the horror-monster vein. The first of those prompts would of course eventually lead to Kamandi; the second would spur the creation of The Demon.
In Evanier’s telling, Etrigan was born at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. As the story goes, Kirby had a conversation with DC about coming up with a horror-monster comic on a Friday; then on Sunday, two days later, after finishing up the latest issue of Forever People, he’d gone out to dinner with his wife, daughters, and assistants:
After we’d all ordered, Jack got strangely quiet. He just sat there as we talked, saying nothing, retreating (or more accurately, advancing) into some other world. It may even have occurred to me to think, “Hey, Jack’s writing something.”
Ten or fifteen minutes later, the server brought us our dinners… As we all stopped conversing to eat, Jack softly and without preamble began to tell us a story about someone named Jason Blood. It was the complete plot of the first story of THE DEMON, including the basic premise and characters and setup, and it was pretty much what he later drew and what was published in the first issue…
Between the time he’d ordered a burger and the arrival of that burger, Jack Kirby had created a new comic book. Right there in the Howard Johnson’s… (2008 introduction to The Demon by Jack Kirby trade collection.)
According to Evanier, Kirby went home that save evening and worked up a design for his new hero that took its inspiration from another master of comics art, Hal Foster. In the December 25, 1937 installment of his newspaper strip Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, Foster had presented a sequence in which his hero disguises himself as a demon — the main piece of said disguise being a yellow mask he’s crafted from the skin of a goose:
Evanier asserts that Kirby thought that this callback to Foster’s then-34-year-old visual would be a nice inside joke for readers who recognized the source, and that may well be true; but what had Kirby thinking about Prince Valiant in the first place? I believe that the answer lies in the simple fact that when dreaming up the saga of Jason Blood while waiting for his burger at that long-gone HoJo’s, the creator had turned to the same well of creative inspiration that Foster himself had in conceiving his classic adventure strip — the Arthurian legend.
To the best of my recollection, this particular aspect of Kirby’s new creation wasn’t mentioned in any of DC’s promotions for it, and thus my younger self probably wasn’t aware of the Camelot connection until I bought Demon #1, brought it home, and opened the book to its first page:
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post or two, in the early Seventies your humble blogger fell hard for the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. As of June, 1972, I wasn’t quite what you’d call an expert (yet); but I’m pretty sure I was well informed enough to realize that a fiery, fight-filled fall of Camelot attended by both Merlin and Morgaine le Fey wasn’t the way that the “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” was usually said to have ended. Rather, in the best-known traditional tellings, the reign of King Arthur came to an end when the king fell in battle against his son, Mordred, on the plain of Camlann; the fall of Camelot itself as a place — a castle, or city — was usually treated as an afterthought, assuming it was dealt with at all,.
On the other hand, even in these early days of my enthusiasm, I was cognizant that these were legends, and that legends were mutable; and that even the best-known versions of well-known legends might contain contradictions. (Quick [trick] question: is Excalibur the sword that Arthur pulls from the stone, or is it the one he gets from the Lady of the Lake?*) That meant that — within certain relatively flexible boundaries — a creator could give their imagination free rein when telling new stories based on this material, without needing to worry about getting things “wrong”. And who would want to deny Jack Kirby the opportunity to give his imagination free rein?
Especially when the result was anything like the second and third pages of Demon #1 — perhaps the greatest two-page spread Kirby (and inker Mike Royer) delivered during an extended period when they were turning out great ones practically every month:
Though its roots in the legends of King Arthur are unmissable to any reader with even a vague acquaintance with that narrative corpus through movies, TV, or (ahem) comic books, it’s notable that Kirby’s text never specifically mentions Arthur — nor does he drop any other familiar names from the legends, with the obvious exceptions of Merlin and Morgaine. I don’t know that this necessarily signifies that Kirby was uninterested in Arthur or the Round Table Knights; he had, after all, provided a “historical” origin for the legends, with appearances by prototypes of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and even Merlin, just six months previously in Forever People #7. (The fact that that version of “Camelot” was more or less incompatible with the story he was now telling in The Demon didn’t seem to bother him much, if at all, so we’re not going to worry about it, either.) But Kirby’s interest here isn’t with the human warriors at odds with each other in the Arthurian world, but rather with the great magical powers in conflict in that same realm. Neither Arthur and his knights, nor Guinevere his queen, have a role to play in that particular drama — and so Kirby doesn’t mention them.
In my previous paragraph I referred to “great magical powers” — but in the first panel of page 4, Kirby implies that “magical” might not be exactly the right word for “the forces in play” in this scene: “The new names for them were not yet born — and men still called them magic!” For many readers in 1972, that line likely called to mind the “third law” of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, i.e., “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; in 2022, readers may also be reminded of a similar remark made by the God of Thunder in the 2011 movie Thor (a work which itself owes more than a little of its sensibility to Jack Kirby). And that latter correlative is quite on point, as in the very next panel, Kirby invokes “the old gods” — suggesting that the shadowy powers lurking behind both Merlin and Morgaine may be identical to the departed deities whose fall preceded the rise of the New Gods of his Fourth World mythos. Would Kirby have eventually built explicit narrative links between The Demon and his other titles if the Fourth World saga had been allowed to continue? Alas, we’ll never know the answer to that question.
In later years, some of DC’s writers would fudge the details of the above sequence, positing that there was already a human being on the scene whose essence somehow became fused with that of the Demon Etrigan. But Kirby’s storytelling is exceedingly clear; the Demon physically transforms into a man. Etrigan and the man we’re about to come to know as Jason Blood are one and the same being.
Just in case you, like me, have been wondering about this all these years — as best as I’ve been able to determine, while “daemonicus” is a legit Latin word meaning “demonic”, “yarva” is just a word Kirby made up.
Jason reacts quickly to this unprovoked attack, grabbing a shield off the wall for protection against the animated armor’s sword thrusts. (You get the impression he’s been through this kind of thing before.) Still, he’s puzzled: “Why, Warly!?? Why this sudden attempt on my life!?”
Later, when Jason finally returns to consciousness, he’s surprised to find that he’s out-of-doors — lying on his back in the grass, and looking up into the face of a curious policeman. “Wh – what is this?” he stammers in confusion. “How did I end up — out here?”
“…a Gotham City men’s club…” Yes, while the earthbound exploits of Kirby’s futuristic New Gods all seem to take place in and around Metropolis — the home turf of the Man of Tomorrow, Superman — the hero of Kirby’s new Gothic-flavored, “old gods”-invoking series hangs his hat in the home city of that dread creature of the night, the Batman. That seems fitting, doesn’t it?
In this scene, we meet Jason’s two best buddies (who may in fact be his only friends, so far as we know): ad man Harry Andrews, and “U.N. delegate” Randu Singh…
Glenda Mark is especially impressed with the gallery of portraits of Jason’s “ancestors”:
Noting his friend’s changed mood, Harry suggests they postpone the party to another night; Jason agrees, and the gathering breaks up. Glenda tells Jason that she hopes she’ll see him again, and he promises to give her a call… though he suspects he may be out of town for a while…
I’m guessing that Kirby sited Castle Branek “in the heart of old Moldavia” — a historical region that, in 1972, would have corresponded to portions of Romania and the Soviet Union — because to use Transylvania would been just a little too on the nose.
Knowing Jason’s destination, Morgaine and Warly plan to be there before him — so that they can roust Morgaine’s ancient “adversary” from his resting place, and destroy him…
Jason fights valiantly against Morgaine’s minions, but the odds are against him — or they would be, if not for his silent friend:
And so ends the first issue of The Demon — though the story is just heating up, obviously. More than any other of Kirby’s “first issues” at DC up to this point, this comic tells just one half of a complete narrative — which is why in a moment we’re going to go on and jump ahead two months to cover Demon #2. But first, we have a bonus — a page that Kirby wrote and drew for Demon #1 that was cut from the final, published version — a casualty, perhaps, of DC’s recent retreat from a 25-cent/48-page format for all of their comics. This page was originally intended to fall between the published page 10, where Jason is knocked out by the exploding suit of armor, and page 11, where Morgaine enters the room. Numbered as page “10A”, it’s been added to later trade reprintings/digital editions of the issue:
I honestly think that the story works OK without this “lost” page — I certainly never had a sense of something being missing, back in 1972 — but even if it’s not essential, it’s a shame that it went unseen for decades. It’s a page of Jack Kirby art featuring the Demon, after all; as such, it was my pleasure to discover it for the first time in reading the digital edition, and it’s also my pleasure to share it with you.
But now, on to Demon #2, which begins rather unexpectedly with introductory narration from none other than Merlin, himself. Evidently he’s not just still alive — he’s actually going to be hanging around for a while…
In this issue’s opening scene, the one-armed police inspector whom we met back on page 13 of #1, accompanied by several fellow Wolfenstag residents, arrives at Castle Brnaek, only to be jumped by a late-arriving group of Morgaine le Fay’s minions. The minions are in too big a hurry to take the time to kill the hapless Moldavians, so they simply knock them unconscious and then rush on into the crypt below the castle, where they find a battle in progress — one that’s not going all that great for their side at the moment…
Of course, there is a way to take the Demon down, and Morgaine knows well what it is…
Glenda, Harry, and Randu have all returned to Jason’s apartment, where Randu demonstrates that he’s not just a United Nations delegate — he can do magic! Or maybe it’s more like ESP, just more mysterious and “Eastern”. However it works, Randu begins to concentrate on his friend’s whereabouts, whereupon he soon finds himself drawn to the row of Blood “family” portraits hanging on the wall…
Recovering quickly, Jason sees that the lid of Merlin’s tomb is ajar. He explains to his skeptical audience that “the tomb itself is a book! The “Eternity Book!” — with all its powerful spells and prophecies — in the language of the ancients!” Hmm… I dunno, the Eternity Book sure did look like a, well, book in Demon #1’s opening “fall of Camelot” scene. Still, I guess things could have changed some over a millennium or two…
The stone gargoyles surrounding the tomb come to life once more — though only long enough to give the villagers a fright before crumbling into rubble. And then…
Jason assures the inspector that he’ll try, and then asks for help with Merlin’s riddle — to wit, where do the ravens fly around these parts? “Walpurgis Wood!” comes the immediate reply. “The forest is thick with ravens! It’s a place of witches!”
The two men take a couple of horses (maybe the same ones that Jason and “the Unliving” rode in on, although that’s not clear; we don’t see the big stone guy again, in any case) and head into the woods. By the time they arrive at the scene, Morgaine, Warly, and their fellow witch-folk have already used the knowledge gained from Merlin’s tomb to begin the ritual that will restore the queen’s youth…
If Kirby got the word “gorla” from a folkloric source, or from anywhere else outside of his own imagination, I’ve been unable to track it down.
As fearsome as the gorla might be, it’s no match for Etrigan, who takes his opponent down quickly and savagely…
And so ends the first adventure of Etrigan the Demon, with a rather ambiguous conclusion that sees the immediate danger quelled, yet leaves the ultimate fate of Morgaine le Fey in question. As you might guess, Kirby would eventually get around to tying up that loose end — though not until the end of the series, as things turned out.
Back in the summer of 1972, however, your humble blogger wasn’t thinking about endings (not in regards to The Demon, anyway), but rather about beginnings — and it seemed to me that Kirby’s new series was off to a good start. The artwork was vivid and powerful, and the dual nature of the Etrigan/Jason Blood character seemed to hold a great deal of dramatic potential. Also, as you can imagine, I was happy about the final panel’s promise of Merlin’s continued regular presence in the book (though that proved to be something of a false promise, alas, as the mage ended up narrating only some of the subsequent episodes, rather than all of them).
If I had any misgivings at all about The Demon at this point, they probably had to do mostly with what seemed a less than seamless join between the medieval-derived legendary material and the more contemporary supernatural horror stuff, the latter of which appeared to be based mostly on old Universal monster movies — a mildly discordant note exemplified by Kirby’s decision to place the tomb of the famously British wizard Merlin in the might-as-well-have-been-Transylvanian Moldavian location of the imaginary Castle Branek. At the time, I probably just chalked it up to an idiosyncrasy of Kirby’s and opted to roll with it; after all, I was really into old Universal monster movies in those days, almost as much as I was into King Arthur. However, as the series progressed, I would become dismayed to see the Arthurian elements receding further into the background, as Kirby became ever more focused on riffing on familiar pop-cultural horror tropes… though we’ll have to save further discussion on that topic for another post, another day.
*In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur — probably the closest thing we have to a “standard” Arthurian text in the English language — it’s both.