Last summer, we took a look at the first two issues of The Demon — a series created by writer-artist-editor Jack Kirby as a response to DC Comics’ request for him to come up with something in the “horror hero” vein. Although this new feature hadn’t originally been intended to replace Kirby’s beloved “Fourth World” titles on his production schedule — at least, that hadn’t been Kirby’s intent — following the cancellations of both Forever People and New Gods, and the mandated retooling of Mister Miracle, that’s effectively what happened, as both Demon and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth (another series dreamed up by Kirby at DC’s direction) had their publishing frequencies increased from bi-monthly to monthly status within their first three issues, so that by the beginning of 1973, they, along with the still bi-monthly Mister Miracle, effectively absorbed most if not all of the creator’s time and effort.
Following the introductory two-parter that introduced Etrigan the Demon and his immortal human alter ego, Jason Blood, as well as relating his Arthurian-era origin and establishing his Gotham City-based supporting cast, Kirby offered readers a done-in-one story of the evil “Reincarnators”, who used occult methods to physically revert people to their past lives. Next up was a two-issue tale that took Etrigan and Jason back to the European setting where much of the first two issues had taken place, Castle Branek; there, the Demon and his master, the wizard Merlin, faced the joint menace of a witch named Ugly Meg and her master (or so at least he supposed), the Iron Duke. Finally, issue #6 found Jason followed back home to Gotham by “The Howler!” — a supernatural man-beast who plainly evoked (but didn’t fully commit to) the familiar trope of the werewolf.
Now, with issue #7, Kirby (with inker Mike Royer) was about to introduce a villain who’d prove to have more staying power than virtually any other character Kirby had or would create for this series, not counting the Demon himself — a character who’d also have the distinction of being one of the relatively few Kirby Kreations known to have been based (visually, at least) on a real human being of his acquaintance: Klarion, the Witchboy…
If Kirby felt less invested in The Demon than he had in his “Fourth World” books, the artwork he was producing for the title showed little evidence of it. The preceding double-page spread serves as a case in point, its sudden action and extreme forced perspective delivering all the in-your-face impact you could ask for from such a tableau.
So, who was the visual inspiration for Klarion? Those of you out there who’ve been reading this blog for a while may recall how, back in Jimmy Olsen #144 (Dec., 1971), Kirby had introduced a group of Darkseid-serving musicians called the San Diego Five String Mob. As we covered at that time, all the members of the group were based on young comics fans that Kirby knew in San Diego area; the specific model for the “sixth string”, Barri-boy, was a guy named Barry Alfonso.
While all six members of the Five String Mob would eventually become known in fannish circles for their organizational efforts in the early years of the San Diego Comic-Con (and several would also become known in their own right for their professional efforts in comics and/or related fields), “Barri-Boy” was, to the best of my knowledge, the only one of the bunch who ever made a return appearance within the pages of a comic book — albeit as a different character, this time.
As Alfonso explained to John Morrow in a 2005 interview for The Jack Kirby Collector #44:
…I’m not sure how it came about. I will say this — in those days, when I was 13 or 14, my hair was growing longer and I didn’t wash it as often as I might have. Consequently, it curled into little horns around my ears. I think that — along with my skinny appearance — inspired Jack to create this little witchboy character with the horns at his temples. I guess I knew Witchboy was going to appear in the Demon, but I don’t think I saw him until the issue came out. I identified with Witchboy much more than with Barri-Boy; there did seem to be some of me in there.
Such is the “secret” real-world origin of Klarion the Witchboy… and, as it happens, it’s considerably more origin than you’ll get from Kirby’s story, which doesn’t give us more than a hint or two as to who the fellow is and where he comes from. But I really should let you all find that out for yourselves, shouldn’t I?
Karion calmly informs Jason’s pal Harry Matthews that Jason is, in fact, dying; but there’s no need to worry, as the Witchboy’s orange tabby cat, Teekl, “knows what to do! … He can sense the approach of death… and all things unseen…!”
Poor Harry doesn’t really know what to think; but he ultimately opts for the simplest solution, which is that this weird kid has simply pulled a prank on him…
The bemused Jason apologetically informs Klarion that he hasn’t had time to shop lately, and thus doesn’t have any food to offer either the boy or his cat. Not to worry, the mysterious youth assures his “uncle” — and confidently proceeds into the kitchen to open the door to a fully loaded fridge. As Jason and Harry look on dumbfounded, Klarion begins to prepare lunch for Teekl and himself. But then…
Jason tells Klarion that he and Teekl are welcome to stay at his place for now… though they’ll have to manage on their own for a few hours, as he and Harry are going out. “Oh, that’s all right, Uncle!” says the Witchboy. “Stay as late as you like…! If I need you… I’ll know where to reach you!” “How about that!” Harry growls in response. “We didn’t even give him the address!”
The skeptical Sid Courtney (who self-identifies as “the stock market whiz kid”) figures that Jason’s in on the joke as well. But then, Sid suddenly begins to tremble, as his eyes stare glassily off into space. “Something’s got hold of me – ! Something I – I can’t see! I… !”
Whatever has gripped Sid releases him after he’s drenched himself with the punch. Unsurprisingly, he thinks that Jason must have hypnotized him somehow…
Both Harry Matthews and Jason’s other best bud, Randu Singh, have been aware of his dual nature since the series’ third issue… which means that of his regular supporting cast, only Jason’s date, Glenda Mark, remains out of the loop. That may seem unfair, or even sexist; but in Jason’s (and Kirby’s) defense, he hasn’t known her nearly as long as he has the two men.
After scorching his foe with flame, Etrigan polishes it off with an overload of electrical current from the wires of a power plant the harpy’s flight fortunately takes them over… still, that doesn’t mean the Demon’s trials are done…
What is the “Beyond Country”? Where does it lie? What is the nature of its people, and why do they dress like 17th century New England Puritans (besides the obvious visual association with the Salem witch trials, that is)? If Kirby knows the answers to those questions, he’s not interested in letting us readers in on them — at least, not in this issue.
The ending of “A Witchboy!!” feels a little rushed to me — personally, I’d have preferred it if Kirby had spent a bit less time on the party scene, and more on the climactic sequence featuring the Elders — which may be one reason why Etrigan’s final disposition of Klarion, who up to this point has been depicted with a degree of sympathy (or at least ambivalence) comes as a bit of a surprise. On the other hand, that stuff on the next to last page about Klarion expecting the Demon to serve him until such time as he can conquer the Elders was pretty ominous, so it’s not like we can say Etrigan acted capriciously. Even so, it’s easy to feel at least a little sorry for Klarion (not to mention Teekl), and to hope that we see them again one of these days.
That day would in fact come just seven months later, as Demon #14 brought both boy and cat back for a return engagement that continued into the next issue.* Somewhat disappointingly, the characters displayed considerably less nuance this time around, as Klarion, seeking vengeance for Etrigan’s having banished him at the end of #7, behaved in an unambiguously hostile manner towards Jason Blood and his alter ego. (He didn’t even affect to call Jason “Uncle” anymore.) While the Witchboy’s scheme to replace Jason/Etrigan with an even more fiendish doppelganger made for an entertaining enough yarn, one can’t help but wonder whether Kirby — aware, perhaps, of the title’s pending demise (the issue that followed this two-parter, #16, would be the last of the run) — was just marking time until the end, bringing back one of the few antagonists he hadn’t killed off outright, and then having him play a traditionally villainous role.
Klarion’s next appearance came some years after not just the cancellation of The Demon, but of Kirby’s overall departure from DC as well, as writer Gerry Conway used the Witchboy as the villain of a three-part Wonder Woman serial (also guest-starring Etrigan, naturally) that ran from issue #280 (Jun., 1981) to #282 (Aug., 1981). And that was that for Klarion and Teekl… at least in their pre-Crisis on Infintite Earths incarnations, as when they next turned up, it was in 1991, in the third issue of a revived, post-Crisis Demon series. This version of Klarion, as imagined by writer Alan Grant and artist Val Semeiks, seemed to be some four or five years younger than his predecessor, and had a penchant for wearing short pants, besides — a look that, in retrospect, made him come across like some kind of Dark Richie Rich. (Let’s call him the Poor Little Witch Boy.) The basics of this depiction would continue into the next millennium, as Klarion got his broadest exposure to date (at least in comic books**) as the primary instigator of DC’s 2000 line-wide crossover event “Sins of Youth”, a spinoff of writer Peter David and artist Todd Nauck’s Young Justice series.
David’s take, which played Li’l Klarion basically for laughs, remained in place until 2005, at which time writer Grant Morrison introduced a new version of the Witchboy as part of their multi-title, multi-month Seven Soldiers project, in which seven different heroes — Klarion among them — starring in seven different four-issue miniseries, fought (and ultimately prevailed) against a common threat without ever actually all coming together as a team, even in the second of the two issues of Seven Soldiers of Victory that bookended the event. Working with artist Frazer Irving, Morrison went back to the roots of the character as originally depicted in Demon #7, restoring him to his original teenager-hood. (Morrison and Irving did make one major adjustment to Kirby’s design, giving Klarion as well as the other natives of “Limbo Town” blue skin — an innovation which has persisted in later depictions.) Morrison also built on the hints provided by Kirby to develop a full, conceptually rich origin and background for Klarion and his people, even fleshing out the two throwaway “monsters of the month” Kirby had created for that first Witchboy story, the “draaga” and the “horigal”.
Morrison’s Klarion went on to make a few more appearances before he, like the rest of the DC Universe, was overwritten by the publisher’s Flashpoint event of 2011 — although like most denizens of that Universe, he’d eventually be back, albeit in yet another iteration. By the time the “New 52” version of Klarion turned up in 2014, however, your humble blogger had largely tuned out of the whole DC line; therefore, I’ll have to refer you to a 2015 blog post by my friend Ben Herman for more details about this Klarion’s short-lived (six issues) series, as written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by Trevor McCarthy and others. I will note that, based on Ben’s overview, this seems to have been a completely new take on the Witchboy, not sharing any continuity with earlier versions, and barely related to them even at the conceptual level; of course, that’s pretty much par for the course with most things “New 52″… and despite my oft-stated general antipathy to that whole initiative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Klarion was a bad comic book.
In any event, since the cancellation of Klarion our favorite Witchboy has continued to pop up fairly frequently, indeed, he seems to have been busier than ever, and (if the Fandom DC Database is to be believed) has even become something of a joiner, with the Night Force, the Elite, Suicide Squad Black, and Injustice League Dark all having been added to the “Membership” section of his resume in the last few years. Of course, with all the continuity “adjustments” DC has made during the same time, it’s anyone’s guess as to how much history the Klarion who recently appeared in Batman vs. Robin #2 (published three months ago, as of this writing) has in common with any of the iterations of the character we’ve discussed in this post up to this point — but maybe that doesn’t matter. As always, your humble blogger recommends that you let your own headcanon be your guide.
Meanwhile, Klarion also seems to be doing all right for himself in ancillary media, following up his 1998 television debut in The New Batman Adventures with appearances in other animated fare, including Justice League Action and Young Justice — the latter of which, judging by Google, may boast the most popular version of the Witchboy going these days. At this point, a live action interpretation seems all but inevitable.
All in all, it’s been a pretty good showing for a character who probably would never have come into existence if something about a particular young San Diego comic book fan hadn’t sparked the imagination of the King of Comics — not once, but twice — fifty and more years ago.
*If you happen to take a close look at the cover of Demon #15, and you suspect that some of the words in Klarion’s word balloon have somehow gone missing — well, you’re right. Luckily, a copy of Kirby’s original pencils exists, so we can see what the Witchboy was supposed to be saying.
**I could be wrong, but I feel pretty certain that the television viewership of the New Batman Adventures episode “The Demon Within” (original airdate May 9, 1998), in which Klarion appeared, far exceeded the total readership of every comic book he’d appeared in up to that point. And probably since.