Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Demon #s 4 and 5

Fear is an emotion deeply rooted in childhood. 
Perhaps this is because our fears are often irrational, are based on things that don’t even exist. And the source of a lot of this is imagination, which, generally speaking, children possess in greater amounts than adults because, sadly, the older people get the less time they have to dedicate to it (even most Dungeons & Dragons players can only find one night a week to indulge).  

A lot of childhood imagination is, unfortunately, used in undesirable ways. For instance, a coat and hat draped over the back of a chair can look an awful lot like a monster in the darkness. Imagination, not surprisingly, is frequently invoked by a lack of understanding. There is often a huge difference between the way things look in the light and the way they look in the dark. When a child sees that chair from his or her bed, he or she might not remember what it looked like when the lights were on, might not have even noticed it before. He or she can’t help wondering, then, what it is. That’s when imagination takes over and transforms that caliginous, sartorial mass into a hungry beast ready to strike.   

What are children afraid of? All kinds of things, certainly, but there are several that show up again and again: snakes, spiders, monsters of various descriptions (many of which are derived from films and television programs). Even though snakes and spiders are real, they are typically harmless and are rarely aggressive. A child’s idea of these creatures is vastly different; in his or her mind, they are evil rather than amoral. They stalk us rather than just accidentally run into us. Adults (well, most anyway) know that animals are usually most interested in avoiding contact with humans. They don’t mess with people unless they are really desperate. While there are vicious snakes in some parts of the world, the ones in this country would rather live and let live, as they say. Spiders try to stay out of sight and are only interested in eating insects, not children. Again, the erroneous beliefs that children have about these animals are derived from a lack of understanding. 

The idea of a creature that can assume the form of what a person fears most has been explored both in folklore and in fiction. The Scots have given the name “brollachan” to the monster that supposedly does this. After all, it’s one thing to tell a child that a troll dwells in the surrounding forest, but it’s far more terrifying to tell him or her that there is a thing out there that will appear as his or her greatest fear. It may not be representative of the best parenting, but it’s a good way to keep kids from wandering the woods.  

Perhaps the most well-known fictional example of this idea is found in Stephen King’s It. King is often given the credit for making clowns scary, but the monster in his novel takes the form of numerous other things, as well. It’s capable of reading a child’s mind and becoming the thing he or she is most scared of. Adults rarely encounter It and are blind to its designs because, as the novel explains, they “stop believing.” 

In the third book of J. K. Rowling’s bestselling fantasy series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin introduces a “boggart,” which derives its form from a person’s fears, into his Defence Against the Dark Arts class. Being a werewolf, Lupin’s greatest fear is a full moon. Rowling has remarked that Voldemort, who above all else is afraid of dying, would see his own corpse. Rowling’s boggart, like the mythical brollachan, has no shape of its own, or at least no one has ever seen it.  

Jack Kirby uses a similar creature, which he calls a “kamara,” in The Demon #4. Merlin summons Etrigan and sends him to a dilapidated house in the pursuit of a monster that dwells there. When the infernal warrior arrives, he finds the body of a hanged man just before being attacked by the evil creature in question. Using one of his master’s spells, he sends the thing back to its own world, or so he thinks. When the police arrive to investigate, they find a small, monkey-like animal. The sheriff takes a shine to it and allows it to stay with him at the station until the kennel can pick it up. Exhaustion overwhelms him as he pores over his report, however, and he dozes off.  

He awakens to find a horrible monster, straight out of his worst nightmares, staring at him from the other side of his desk. The horror causes him to suffer a heart attack, and before long the little monkey-thing’s ability to assume the form of what a person fears most results in the deaths of several others who were unfortunate enough to encounter it. 

We soon find that the creature is under the control of one Ugly Meg (Kirby had a way with names, didn’t he?), a witch who wishes to destroy Merlin. At the behest of her master, a man calling himself the Iron Duke, she plans to use Etrigan to get to the wizard. Using a magical mirror, she discovers that the demon shares a body with Jason Blood. She sends the kamara to Blood’s apartment, and it takes the form of a dragon, the thing Blood’s friend Harry fears the most, and bursts through the window. Blood and his friends try to fight the beast, but their attacks prove useless, and the dragon carries Blood at incredible speed to the Transylvanian duchy of Trollsac (heh).  

Ugly Meg uses her magic to change the kamara back into the little monkey and then returns it to its own world. She then transforms her staff into a boa constrictor and drops it onto Blood’s prone body. Before the snake can wrap around him, however, the voice of Randu, sent by ESP across thousands of miles (as seen in previous issues), changes Blood into Etrigan. In an unexpected turn of events, Merlin also appears in corporeal form to face his enemies.


Moving right into issue #5, the witch wastes no time in casting a spell, which causes an earth elemental resembling a mass of logs to rise from the ground. It is a powerful adversary, but Etrigan defeats it. Before he can get his hands on Ugly Meg and the Iron Duke, however, they vanish in twin puffs of smoke. Merlin climbs onto the horse the Duke left behind, and he and his infernal servant head for a nearby castle. The wizard and demon encounter a group of villagers who tell them of the Duke’s cruelty, which impels them to an even greater degree. Etrigan climbs onto the horse behind Merlin, and the wizard uses his magic to give the horse wings to speed their journey. 

When they reach the castle, fire blasts them from the eye of a statue, and they crash into the courtyard. Robbed of their supernatural powers by the witch’s “mortality fumes,” Etrigan and his master change into Blood and a frail old man, respectively. In the bowels of the castle, the Iron Duke plans to steal Merlin’s vast wisdom by using “mind masks.” (It is at this point in the story that things start to get really weird.) The masks, which look a lot like shopping bags, are designed to be used in conjunction to transfer information from one brain to another (not unlike the helmets used at the climax of Young Frankenstein). Merlin warns the Duke that he will be at Ugly Meg’s mercy once the masks are in place, but the Duke ignores him. 

This proves to be his undoing, as Meg betrays him, transforming him into an iron golem (or, as she calls him, “mannikin”). Abandoning Merlin for the time being, she instructs the mannikin to carry Blood to the castle’s parapet and throw him into the moat. Before he can do so, however, Blood summons Etrigan using his own voice (for the first time). A savage battle between Etrigan and the mannikin ensues, causing the castle’s walls to crumble. The mannikin picks up a large chunk of stone and prepares to crush the demon with it, but Meg can’t get out of his way in time, and the two villains plummet from the tower. 

When Etrigan returns to the dungeon to free Merlin, the wizard, having determined something about the nature of Ugly Meg’s magic, tells his servant to open a panel in the floor. There, they find a tentacled creature straight out of Lovecraft (Merlin calls it “Somnambula”), which had been the source of the witch’s power. Etrigan uses his magical fire to send it back to its plane of origin, and the pair leaves the castle. 

The most noteworthy development in this story is that Blood is now aware of his connection with Etrigan and seems less repulsed by it. Blood’s friends Randu and Harry are also by this point fully cognizant of his infernal alter ego and are trying to deal with it accordingly (Randu is, thanks to his background, far more comfortable with the idea).  

This is the first story in The Demon that is told in two parts, which is why I decided to cover both issues in one article. These two issues, while interesting, lack focus. There are too many ideas thrown in, and the dialogue frequently seems forced and heavy handed. The story doesn’t seem to be headed toward any sort of logical conclusion, and concepts that could’ve benefited from further development are glossed over. 

Kirby wasn’t always capable of bringing his “A game” to everything he did because he operated under a schedule that most modern creators would consider impossible. You’ve got to admire his immense creativity and energy, but sometimes his stories just go off the rails. Thanks to the unfair treatment he had received at Marvel, he insisted on editing his own books at DC, and that wasn’t always in his best interest. I can understand his point of view, but his pride prevented some of his ideas from being better realized.
In any event, there’s some good stuff going on in these issues; they’re just all over the place.

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