Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Creatures on the Loose #10

Berni Wrightson is considered by many to be the greatest horror artist of the modern era. Inspired by the gruesome (and eventually banned) splendor of the EC Comics of the 1950s (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, et al.), he rose to prominence during the Bronze Age on the strength of his work on Swamp Thing and various “mystery” titles for DC. He later attained further fame by providing illustrations for Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction/horror novel Frankenstein and for various projects in collaboration with author Stephen King, including The Stand and, most notably, Cycle of the Werewolf.
While he is most frequently associated with the macabre, Wrightson is, perhaps not surprisingly, also a sword & sorcery enthusiast. It’s easy to see the influence of Frank Frazetta in Wrightson’s work, and one can make a reasonable case of attributing the enduring popularity of Robert E. Howard’s Conan to the former’s remarkable paintings. When Marvel acquired the license to produce comics based on the barbarian adventurer in 1970, Wrightson expressed enthusiastic interest in drawing the title, but it wound up going to Barry Windsor-Smith instead. Marvel decided to throw him a bone, however, offering him the inaugural King Kull (another Howard character) story in Creatures on the Loose #10 (formerly Tower of Shadows). Even though he was not particularly a fan of the character, he accepted. 

“The Skull of Silence” is a mere seven pages long (the rest of the issue consists of a Jack Kirby reprint from the early 1960s), but it represents the work of an artist on the verge or greatness.  

(Incidentally, as far as I’m concerned, this comic has one of the worst-looking covers of all time. I don’t know why they didn’t just have Wrightson draw it. After all, he had provided the series’ two previous ones.)  

The story opens with King Kull of Atlantis and his warriors returning home, presumably after a battle. The monarch spots a castle, which he suggests as a good place to seek refuge for the night. He is, however, warned by a wise slave in his entourage that the structure is The Skull of Silence, wherein an ancient wizard imprisoned “silence” itself. Undeterred, Kull approaches the castle gate, ignoring the admonition carved on the seal: that opening it will unleash the evil force locked within.  

When Kull throws the doors wide, all sound melts away, and tendrils of, well, silence ensnare him. He fights against it and ultimately manages to drive it away by banging on and ultimately shattering the jade gong next to the entrance. It seems that the “silence” was some sort of otherworldly entity beyond human ken, which somehow possessed the nature of absolute silence, a terrible thing indeed. (I read recently about a group of scientists who had constructed a room capable of absorbing all sound. No one was capable of spending more than forty-five minutes inside when the lights were turned off.)  

It’s not much of a story, to tell you the truth, but Wrightson manages to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear, even if things didn’t turn out the way he had planned. In Berni Wrightson: A Look Back by Christopher Zavisa, the artist explains:  

“One of the features of the story was a skull [sic] which, when the door is opened, robs all sound. How are you going to do this in a comic book? Since you cannot play with sound effects in a comic book, I figured out a way—slowly drain away the color until the scene ended up being black and white. […] I took the completed job in to Marvel and was told it was fine. Months later, the comic comes out and everything has color on it.” 

Thanks to this fiasco, he refused to do any more work for Marvel for years. Can you blame him? 

As far as I know, this story has never been reprinted anywhere, which I’m sure suits Wrightson just fine. I think it would be a nice gesture for whoever has the license to Kull these days (if anyone even does) to offer him the opportunity to color it the way he originally intended and publish it in a collection (like DC did for Brian Bolland with The Killing Joke). I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in the character these days, though (the horrible Kevin Sorbo movie notwithstanding), so it’s not likely to happen.
In any event, Wrightson completists will want to track this one down.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Demon #6

The most popular and best-remembered episode of the 1970s The Incredible Hulk television series was probably the two-part story called “The First.”

In it, David Banner discovers that he was not, in fact, the first person to incur the curse of the Hulk. Under the care of one Dr. Jeffery Clive, a sickly man named Dell Frye underwent experimental treatments using gamma radiation and found himself changed into a similar monster. Unlike Banner’s Hulk, Frye’s was a murderous creature that took the lives of several people before Clive managed to cure him.

Unlike Banner himself, Frye liked the power that the transformation gave him, power that he used to get revenge on the men who had bullied him all his life, and wants to regain it. Banner finds the long-dead Clive’s notes and attempts to free himself of his alter ego, but Frye interferes and becomes a Hulk once again. The two Hulks, of course, wind up fighting each other, but Banner’s Hulk is far stronger, and Frye succumbs and then meets his end by way of a bullet fired from the sheriff’s rifle.

Fans and casual viewers alike responded positively to this episode because the idea of an evil version of an established “good” character is always compelling. The Hulk, while often hounded by the authorities and the insufferable Jack McGee, has never been a malicious entity, has never killed anyone. The writers’ decision to explore the possibilities of a sinister Hulk produced one of the most memorable installments in the series’ canon.

The Demon #6, published several years before The Incredible Hulk was even on TV, shares a similar story, though  the elements are somewhat reversed.

By this point in the series, Jason Blood, now fully aware of his connection with Etrigan, is capable of summoning his infernal alter ego himself and is willing to do so if the situation calls for it. As our story opens, he is on his way back to the States following his confrontation with Ugly Meg and the Iron Duke. Stopping for supplies at a small village, he finds himself on the verge of an encounter with another strange creature called “The Howler” that terrifies the townspeople. They warn him not to go out, but he is eager to get his journey underway.

Climbing onto his horse, he rides through the village and soon becomes aware that The Howler is chasing him via the rooftops. He summons Etrigan in preparation for a fight, and on the outskirts of town, the creature leaps into his path and stops the horse effortlessly. The Demon soon realizes that his adversary possesses unnatural strength even greater than his own. He blasts the creature with fire, which drives it away, and believes that he has seen the last of it. Merlin, still in corporeal form, however, emerges from the forest and explains that The Howler cannot be dispatched so easily, that it is in fact a mortal who carries the “Primal Entity.” It is a curse, and if he can find a suitable new host, he will transfer it to him or her.

As Blood climbs onto the airplane that will carry him back to the States, he meets a man named Eric Shiller. Blood claims to have never seen him before, but Shiller reveals that he is The Howler, having accidentally become host to the Primal Entity while exploring a cave. He, of course, knows Blood’s secret and also that he is a demonologist. He explains that he desperately wants to rid himself of the Primal Entity but would rather have Blood exorcise it from him than find another host. Blood agrees to perform the necessary ritual at his apartment.

Things are going as planned until Glenda Mark (a woman Blood met in the first issue of the series) unexpectedly shows up at the apartment. Blood tries to get her to leave, but before she can do so Shiller changes into The Howler. Blood manages to get the woman to safety, locking her in his artifact room behind a steel door, moments before the monster seizes him. Pinning him to the floor, the creature attempts to transfer the Primal Entity into Blood, but he stops it by unleashing The Demon. Etrigan again attacks the creature with fire, and it crashes through a window, plummeting to the sidewalk several stories below.

Changing back to his human persona, Blood releases Mark, and looking out the broken window they see Shiller’s body splayed out on the pavement. Blood naturally wonders whether the Primal Entity died with him. A group of bystanders examines the lifeless form, pondering the stranger’s fate, and as the first of them, a man in a pinstriped suit, wanders away, there is the suggestion that the evil that possessed Shiller has found a new host.

The similarities between this story and “The First” are striking, and, considering the popularity of Jack Kirby, it’s possible that the writers were inspired by it (just as some have suggested that parts of Star Wars were inspired by Kirby’s Fourth World). It’s interesting, though, that Blood, unlike Banner, is not particularly interested in divorcing himself from his alter ego. This removes a valuable aspect of dramatic tension that the television episode had. Witnessing Banner’s outrage as the only remaining vial of serum that could have cured him shatters affects the audience viscerally and makes Banner’s plight immediately identifiable.

The fact that The Howler and The Demon are different types of monsters makes the story a bit less effective than “The First” because Banner knows exactly what happens to Frye when anger consumes him, even though they perceive its effects differently. While both Blood and Shiller lose control of themselves when their respective alter egos take over, Etrigan, for all his savagery, is fiercely loyal to Merlin and for all intents and purposes operates on the side of good. By all appearances, The Howler is merely a manifestation of an ancient evil. Shiller’s only desire is to be free of the Primal Entity, which is the exact opposite of Frye’s agenda. We feel sorry for Frye to an extent, particularly at the beginning of the story, but that pity soon dissolves when we become aware of his vengeful nature.     

I think The Demon #6 could have benefited from being told in two parts. The concept of the Primal Entity is interesting, and further exploration of its nature could’ve opened some interesting story avenues. Also, it’s hard to feel sorry for Shiller since we only see him for a few pages. If readers had had a chance to get to know him better, his death would’ve been more tragic. We’ll have to wait and see if the Primal Entity shows up again in later issues.

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.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Demon #3


“Let those who tore you from the dungeons of the past find their wretched handiwork as I choose to leave it.” --Etrigan 

No one really knows where the idea of reincarnation came from or how long it’s been around.
We generally associate it with the Far East, but it’s a belief that can be found all over the world. Although science and religion are often at odds with each other, reincarnation could be related to the idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed; it merely changes form. It’s not an altogether outrageous concept when you consider it in this framework. Nevertheless, it is by its very nature a mystical process that relies on an inscrutable, seeming erratic mechanism. 

Not surprisingly, reincarnation has frequently found its way into popular works of fiction. 

In Ghostbusters, when Dana Barrett consults the guys about finding demonic creatures in her refrigerator, Ray suggests that it could be attributed to past-life regression. Of course, the thing about reincarnation is that you don’t always get to come back as a person. You also have absolutely no say in the matter. In Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything, Arthur Dent encounters a grotesque being named Agrajag who has reincarnated hundreds of times due to Arthur’s having inadvertently killed him again and again. Amongst other things, Agrajag’s forms include a rabbit, a cow, a fly, and, most memorably, a bowl of petunias. 

Jack Kirby explores the concept of reincarnation in The Demon #3, and it comes as no surprise that he gives it a unique spin. 

The story opens with an ape-man on a rampage. Having killed the Khendustan (?) delegate to the United Nations, he carves a swath of destruction through the city before being summoned into a parked car by a robed man holding a mysterious sign. The car’s other passenger, a bearded man in a pinstriped suit, holds up a talisman resembling the sign, which he calls the “Master Eye.” As the vehicle drives away, the creature slips into a coma and gradually transforms back into the form of a man, who, upon awakening, has no recollection of what has transpired.  

The man in the suit remarks that Randu Singh, the U. N. delegate from India and, as we have learned from previous issues, close friend of Jason Blood, is to be the next victim. 

We are then invited to take a peek into Blood’s unconscious mind.  

In issue #1, he tells the old wizard that a demon haunts his dreams. We know, of course, that Merlin transformed Etrigan into a man after the fall of Camelot, but the nature of this change is unexplained. Is Blood an entirely different being, or is he just a “shell”? If he is an altogether separate being, where did he come from? Did Merlin create him? 

As Blood slumbers, he dreams that he and Etrigan, as distinct entities, are facing an enormous fanged monster. They are bound together by a chain attached to collars around their necks. It becomes immediately clear that Blood is repulsed by the Demon, insisting that he wants nothing to do with him. Blood wishes to flee from the monster, but his infernal counterpart, bellicose by nature, wants to fight it.  

Blood’s screams of terror attract the attention of his friend Harry, who happened to be in the neighborhood. As Blood attempts to calm himself, Harry transforms into a murderous pirate and attempts to stab him with a pair of scissors. Blood manages to strike a blow that knocks Harry out just as Randu shows up. As revealed in the previous issue, he possesses a species of extrasensory perception, and it is this ability that reveals to him that Harry has reverted to a past life. Randu realizes that Harry’s regression was brought about by a cult of “Reincarnators” who planned to use the pirate to kill him. Using a talisman similar to the one seen earlier, the Indian changes Harry back to his old self. 

Far away, in their secret temple, the cult stokes the flames of its sacred idol and transforms a new subject into a particularly apt form from his past: an executioner. They give him an axe and send him to Blood’s apartment, where he finds Blood snoozing at his desk. Randu bursts in just before the axe falls on his friend’s head and speaks the words that change him into Etrigan. The Demon makes short work of the executioner and then turns on Randu, something the Indian didn’t anticipate.  

Before the fiend can get his claws on him, however, the executioner revives and leaps out the window, grasping a cable suspended from a helicopter. Etrigan pursues him and, stowing away on the vehicle’s chassis, watches as the executioner returns to his modern incarnation.  

Back at the temple, the cult prepares to broadcast the Master Eye over the television airwaves to cause a mass past-life regression, which will provide the group with a host of new followers. When the chopper arrives, the man who had been the executioner flees from the vessel, and the cult members find the pilot gravely injured. Without warning, the helicopter explodes, and Etrigan emerges from the flames and commences to destroy everything within reach, disrupting the cult’s plans.
The leader of the cult receives his comeuppance when the Master Eye’s beam changes him into some sort of vermin, which Etrigan easily crushes under his boot.

Overall, this is an interesting issue. The idea of reverting to a former incarnation may not be new (I’ve honestly never encountered it before, but I haven’t read everything, after all), but Kirby uses it to great effect here. I kind of wish things hadn’t wrapped up so neatly at the end because I would’ve liked to have seen this concept more fully explored. We didn’t even get to see a woman go through the change, which could’ve been interesting, especially if actual historical figures had been invoked (Elizabeth Bathory, perhaps?).

I like the way Kirby moves the overarching story forward while simultaneously giving each installment its own unique story. Rather than answering all of our questions at once, he gives us bits and pieces a few at a time, which is certainly an effective way to keep readers interested. I am eager to find out how things will unfold as the series continues.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Demon #2

Morgaine le Fey is a powerful sorceress with a long history.  

She was introduced in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Life of Merlin around 1150. Since then she has appeared in numerous works of literature and has been depicted in various ways by different authors, though she is almost always cast as an enemy of King Arthur. The reason for her hatred of Arthur also varies, but it is usually related to sibling rivalry, albeit in its most extreme form. 

The spelling of her name varies, as well, but the meaning remains the same. The word “fay” (also spelled “fey”), as any fantasy fan can tell you, refers to supernatural spirits that dwell, unseen by most humans, in forested areas: fairies, elves, brownies, et cetera. Their proximity to trees suggests that magic (shorthand for the supernatural) flourishes in areas where nature’s concentration is the greatest. Deforestation diminishes its power, it seems. Man’s interference weakens it. “Fey” can also mean “wild,” which is certainly a related term. We frequently use the word to suggest erratic or unpredictable behavior, but let’s not forget that it also means “untamed,” as in not adhering to the standards of civilized society. 

While magic is a difficult term to pin down, it’s generally understood as an inscrutable force that permits the existence of creatures and phenomena beyond that which is considered “normal.” In the ancient world, it was the go-to explanation for anything unusual. In mythical terms, it is a permutation of the life force endemic to our plane of existence. Its trappings are alien to us because they represent a different arrangement of the elements. (I am referring here to earth, water, wind, and fire, rather than to the chemical elements found on the periodic table.) The ability to harness it is the bailiwick of the wizard and the witch. Tapping into it is certainly a task unto itself, but learning to control and manipulate it is the real rub. 

While little is actually known about the druids, it has been suggested that they subscribed to a belief in pantheism, the notion that God’s essence permeates all of creation. This is, at its core, a similar concept to magic: the dissemination of the “divine” throughout nature, finding its greatest strength in vessels that can best contain it.  

The upshot of all of this is that when we put it all together we come out with Morgaine the Supernatural. Is she by her very nature a magical creature? Something other than human? Her name could be interpreted as such. 

In some stories Morgaine apprentices under Merlin, which is interesting because in this way he has a hand in creating his liege’s greatest foe. It’s difficult to say unequivocally, but in the Arthurian legends it seems that there is no distinction made between what constitutes “white” magic and “black” magic. It all derives from the same source, and a sorcerer’s preferences are all that determines on which end of the spectrum he or she operates. The universal, ongoing battle between good and evil that echoes through the ages requires a balance between the two sides; otherwise one would too easily defeat the other. It makes sense, then, that the two sides have access to similar weaponry. 

The rivalry between Morgaine and Merlin is about as good as anyone could hope for, and it forms the foundation of Jack Kirby’s foray into fantasy/horror. 

The Demon #2 picks up right where the first issue left off. Morgaine’s forces have infiltrated the catacombs beneath the mysterious Castle Branek and, as such, are struggling with the “resurrected” Etrigan (he has been imprisoned in the body of Jason Blood for centuries). It soon becomes clear that they are no match for him, and Morgaine is forced use her sorcery to subdue him. When the smoke clears, it is the form of Blood that lies unconscious on the flagstones. 

When his senses return, Blood finds himself being lifted into a sitting position by three men, including one Inspector Stavic (seen briefly in the previous issue), from the nearby village. They are eager to know what business he has at the castle and what happened there. Blood tells them that they are in Merlin’s tomb, and that the “phantoms in black” (Morgaine’s men) escaped with “what they came for.” The gargoyle statues surrounding the crypt spring to life suddenly but crumble to dust at the slightest touch. At this, Merlin’s shadow materializes before the astonished men and apprises them that Morgaine has stolen a powerful spell but that Blood’s “memory” will help them find her. 

Meanwhile, Morgaine has repaired to Walpurgis Wood, a “place of witches,” according to Stavic. As fires blaze and occultists dance around in the throes of sorcery, she removes her mask and begins to weave the spell taken from the crypt, which will restore her youth. Blood and Stavic arrive, but before they can stop the ritual, they are attacked by a monstrous “gorla” guarding the perimeter. Blood is no match for the creature’s strength, and the bullets from Stavic’s gun have no effect. 

Thankfully, Blood’s friend Randu, a U. N. delegate from India, senses that something is wrong. Using mystical abilities akin to ESP, he mentally sends the words that summon Etrigan across the thousands of miles to Central Europe. Blood again transforms into his demonic alter ego and dispatches the gorla. He then disrupts the ritual, causing a huge explosion that leaves a smoking crater and no sign of Morgaine or her henchmen. 

Back in human form, Blood assesses the devastation, knowing that they’ve not seen the last of the sorceress.

It is clear by end of this issue that the series is already beginning to find its footing. Many of the characters and concepts introduced in the first issue make more sense here, and the story is better structured. Kirby’s art is, of course, fantastic and provides the reader with an almost palpable sense of wonder not seen since Marvel’s “monster” comics of the late 1950s. It is remarkable just how much he packs into a single issue, into each page. His creative energy, at this point, seems inexhaustible. The dialogue, his frequent weakness, is even effective. Two issues in, we’ve already gotten to the “meat” of the comic.
The Demon #2 is an excellent representation of Kirby at the peak of his creative powers. As the story unfolds, there is a very real sense of greater things on the horizon. I can’t really think of anything negative to say about this issue; sometimes Kirby just got everything right.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Demon #1

According to Ronin Ro, author of Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution, Kirby came up with the concept of the The Demon and the plot for the first issue during dinner at a Howard Johnson’s. Tasked with creating a new title, “Jack sat quietly and thought about what to bring Carmine [Infantino, DC’s publisher]. Soon he started telling [his wife, daughters, and assistants] a story about a man named Jason Blood and his ability to transform into a fiend from hell.” 

This isn’t hard to believe when you consider that Kirby was known for his staggering imagination and seemingly inexhaustible well of ideas (some better than others, admittedly). And while the comics he created for DC aren’t as memorable as those he did for Marvel, his output at the former was still remarkable, though it might not have been as well appreciated as it should have been at the time. (Bear in mind that the comics industry was undergoing major changes when Kirby made the move to DC, and, at least according to some, Kirby was unwilling or unable to adapt. Thankfully, his work from this period is generally better regarded in retrospect.) 

The original series, which debuted in 1972, lasted only sixteen issues, but Etrigan remains a fairly popular character in the DC Universe. (I’d compare him to Marvel’s Doctor Strange: valuable but not necessarily strong enough to carry his own series.) Most recently, he’s served as the central character in Demon Knights, one of the original titles of the New 52 initiative. Unfortunately, the series is getting the ax in August with #23 (predictable, since fantasy comics, for reasons that I will never understand, are mostly ignored by fans), but at least it outlasted many of DC’s new books. (By contrast, the second series of Sword of Sorcery, featuring Amethyst and introduced as a replacement title, while well written and beautifully illustrated, only stuck around for eight issues.) In spite of this, I’m sure he’ll continue to show up in other comics from time to time. 

The Demon occupies an interesting place in the history of comics. In some ways, it’s a darker exploration of the concept behind the Hulk (though the Hulk himself was derived from a conflation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein). There are also unmistakable echoes of Marvel’s Thor. As far as the first issue is concerned, the “mechanism” by which Etrigan is changed into Blood is difficult to pin down, just as Thor’s transformation into Donald Blake is a bit of a head-scratcher. Both men are unaware of their other selves until something releases them. In the case of Thor, it’s the discovery of Mjolnir in its hidden location. In the case of Etrigan, it’s a vault in an ancient castle. In both instances, magical words are involved; an inscription is related to their hidden alter egos. This comes as no surprise, as words are used to powerful effect throughout mythology. 

The Hulk, on the other hand, is very much a creature of pure emotion. He is neither demon nor god. He is a manifestation of repressed anger, of frustration. Like Thor and Etrigan, however, he is unaware that such a thing dwells within him. Bruce Banner has forgotten his unpleasant childhood and the feelings associated with it. Blood’s history is mysterious to him; he doesn’t realize that his “ancestors” (including one painted by Rembrandt) are all just him. Both men lose themselves in their respective careers: Banner in physics, Blood in, appropriately enough, demonology. 

It also prompts the question (not “begs”; check Wikipedia) of where fantasy ends and horror begins. Most fantasy, at least to some degree, includes elements of horror, though the purpose of the monsters in fantasy is to provide something for the heroes to fight, something that clearly represents an element of evil (or, at the very least, savagery encroaching on civilization), rather than to scare people. Kirby thought of The Demon as a horror title (even though it differed greatly from books such as DC’s House of Mystery and Warren’s Eerie and Creepy), but it doesn’t appear that his intent was to keep readers awake at night.  

The “horror” in this book is related to the idea that sorcery, such as the kind practiced by Merlin, is inherently evil, deriving from creatures dwelling in hellish realms beyond our own. Merlin has typically been considered a “good” character, but along with that he has frequently been cast as dangerous, as someone whose tireless quest for esoteric knowledge has thrown him into the paths of infernal forces, entangling him in their dark designs. How good can a character really be if he has summoned a demon? Can something so evil be used as an instrument for good? Or is the concept of “good” really just relative? Are good and evil essentially just two opposing sides, in binary opposition, eternally struggling with each other?  

Like the Hulk, Etrigan doesn’t fit the heroic archetype, which certainly made his book stand out on the racks when it was published. (These days, of course, such a thing isn’t that unusual.) A monster with his own comic? Other than The Incredible Hulk (and by this point readers knew he was really a good guy, more or less), this kind of thing hadn’t really been seen before. (Note that Swamp Thing didn’t get his own book until two months later.) Despite the approval of the Comics Code, some parents still might have forbidden their children to lay down twenty cents for this thing. The first issue sold well, however, perhaps because some kids bought it just to defy their folks. 

A character like Superman is easily recognizable as a hero. And while Batman’s appearance frequently instills fear at first blush, he has an easy-enough time, given the opportunity, of convincing the innocent that he’s on their side. The Hulk has a much harder time getting people to believe that he means them no harm, especially in his childlike persona (Peter David defined it as the “id” of the Freudian psychic apparatus). Even though the Hulk isn’t evil, his episodes of rage cause mass destruction, and, for this reason and others, he is relentlessly hunted by Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross and the army (until Ross becomes a Hulk himself and sees the error of his ways, that is). Etrigan isn’t a hero in the traditional sense. He has no sense of altruism. His infernal origins would make such a thing functionally impossible.

The Demon #1, “Unleash the One Who Waits,” opens in Camelot. The forces of Morgaine le Fey are attacking the castle, and Merlin declares that neither he nor his “Eternity Book” will fall into the hands of the enemy. The castle’s walls are no match for Morgaine’s sorcery, but her troops are “stopped and thrown back by an attacker of unequalled ferocity.” This attacker is a demon in Merlin’s service. As the castle crumbles amidst the rising flames, Merlin calls to his infernal servant and gives him a page from his magic tome to keep in his possession until the time comes when he is needed again. As he walks away from the ruin, his shape changes into that of a man, and his memories fade. 

The story picks up centuries later, as Jason Blood is discussing the page Merlin gave him (although he is unaware of its origins) with a sorcerer. Blood explains that he has been having nightmares about a demon, and desiring an explanation he has taken great pains to track the man down. The sorcerer tells him that the page reads “Yarva! Etrigan! Daemonicus!” (“I summon the demon, Etrigan!”). Suddenly, an empty suit of armor assails Blood. He seizes a burning brand from the fireplace, thrusting it into his foe’s face, and the armor explodes. Unconscious, Blood experiences visions of Etrigan engaged in fierce combat. Morgaine, a mask concealing her wizened features, appears. It is clear that she knows Blood’s secret and that it’s only a matter of time before Merlin summons him. 

When Blood awakens, he finds himself lying in the grass outside the ruins of the structure he had been inside only an hour before. The sorcerer, not surprisingly, has vanished.  

On the other side of the world, a statue from Castle Branek comes to life, much to shock of the villagers, and disappears into an opening in the ground. During a dinner party at Blood’s apartment, the statue shows up at the door and presents Blood with a scroll. He understands that the statue is one of the “Unliving,” sent to bring him to Castle Branek. He agrees, unaware that Morgaine and the sorcerer have been observing all of this through a two-way mirror.  

When Blood reaches the castle, he is ambushed by Morgaine’s men. The statue bears the brunt of the attack, and Blood responds to a voice's beckoning him into an underground vault. Following the voice, he is led to a tomb surrounded by gargoyles. The stone monstrosities allow him to pass, and Blood reads the mystical inscription carved into the tomb’s door. By the time he has finished reading, he has changed into Etrigan. 

And not a moment too soon, as Morgaine’s forces have found their way into the tomb. 

While certainly a good introduction to the series, The Demon #1 suffers from the same problems as many of Kirby’s Bronze-Age comics. He wrote, penciled, and edited his own stories, and, as is the case here, there are often issues with the way things play out. While the richness of Kirby’s ideas permeates every page, the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally, and the characters don’t come to life; they fail to transcend being mere drawings. They seem two-dimensional and lack distinct personalities. Also, some of the captions are unnecessary, but this was often the case in Bronze-Age comics. In addition, the story doesn’t develop in a completely logical fashion and appears unfocused, making it somewhat difficult to follow. 

That being said, there is much to enjoy. Kirby’s inimitable art style is at its peak here. At DC, Kirby was finally free to choose his own inkers, and the finished art stays truer to his original intent than much of his work at Marvel. While Joe Sinnott (Kirby’s embellisher on Fantastic Four) is arguably the greatest inker in the history of comics, he did tend to alter the look of Kirby’s figures (not that this was necessarily a bad thing), and on leaving Marvel for DC Kirby was looking for someone who wouldn’t change things around so much. He found this in Mike Royer.
Even though it isn’t a completely satisfying issue, it does leave readers wanting more, and there is a lot of potential here for great stories once some of the wrinkles are ironed out.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Sword of Sorcery #5

“I feel evil seeping into my bones.” –The Gray Mouser

Humankind has an enduring fascination with lost civilizations.

Of particular interest are those that are believed to have been swallowed by the ocean, for reasons that we can only guess at. The most famous of these is, of course, Atlantis, about which stories too numerous to list have been written. Others, including Lemuria, Mu, and Ys, have found their way into fiction, as well. (Mu, in particular, was a favorite of H. P. Lovecraft.) The idea that an entire continent could have just vanished from the face of the planet is undeniably intriguing, especially if we also subscribe to the idea that its human inhabitants differed from us in significant ways and that creatures beyond imagining walked its forests and shores.

This fascination is certainly connected to the belief that we, as a race, have lost something important. Perhaps the suffering and injustice in the world can be explained away by some document penned by a sage thousands of years ago, and if we could only access its wisdom peace could be restored. We were never meant to lose connection with our ancestors; they possessed fundamental knowledge that had been passed down since the beginning. Alas, those voices were forever silenced, and the cataclysmic severing of that connection is why we find it impossible to function in the world today.   

For the less idealistic and more avaricious, there is also the notion that untold riches, imprisoned in decaying coffers, lie at the bottom of some unfathomable undersea trench. The value we place on gold and jewels is, of course, related to their rarity. Could this rarity be the result of treasures’ having been excavated throughout untold millennia and then being lost beneath the waves? While there will always be more “regular” rocks than precious stones, it’s possible that the latter were once more abundant and easier and cheaper to obtain. Anyone canny enough to devise a way to retrieve those lost riches would be a king among men.

Sword of Sorcery #5 is, sadly, the final issue in the series, but it goes out on a high note. Like its predecessor, it contains two stories, the first being a joint adventure, the second a solo one.

Things open up with “The Sunken Land,” which finds our heroes, Fafhrd and the Mouser, at sea once again. Fafhrd is in the process of trying to subdue a giant squid, as his companion stands by, an arrow nocked in his bow. While it initially appears that the barbarian is struggling, it soon becomes clear that he is merely toying with the thing and that the pair is planning to make lunch out of it (the Mouser claims to have a good recipe). I guess when you’re miles from anywhere in open water you take whatever you can get.

When he cuts the beast open, Fafhrd finds a strange ring with an emerald key attached. The Mouser recognizes its symbols as originating from Simorgya, a legendary land populated with evil wizards that sank beneath the ocean. He advises his companion to rid himself of the thing before it brings them bad luck. Fafhrd, in his typically skeptical manner, refuses, and immediately the sky darkens and the sea begins to churn. The barbarian loses his balance and plunges into the water, and by the time he surfaces, the boat is nowhere in sight.

Fortunately, he spots another boat and calls out to the crew to let him aboard. The reply comes in the form of a paddle to the head. He manages to flip the oarsman off the boat, however, and climbs onto the deck. There, he encounters a brace of armored men, who, despite the barbarian’s goading, do not speak. When he has dispatched them, an old man apprises him that the ship belongs to Lavas Laerk, who seeks the riches of Simorgya. He has forced his men to take a vow of silence (in reverence, I assume) until they reach it. Laerk appears and, noticing the ring on Fafhrd’s finger, declares the barbarian a spy and orders the crew to attack. Though he fights valiantly, the hero succumbs to the overwhelming numbers and is hung from the yardarm to serve as an example to others.

Laerk is angered when one of his men speaks but soon realizes that the fabled Simorgya has emerged from the waves beneath the boat. Traversing the island, they find a door in a hillside, and, predictably, the key on Fafhrd’s ring opens it. Inside, illuminated by preternatural light, a stunning array of treasures greets them. Fafhrd, having been tossed aside, is working at freeing himself when he spots the Mouser, who had followed Laerk’s vessel. The barbarian grabs an axe from the hoard, and the companions engage the villains.

It is at this point that they notice that seawater is filling the chamber. Deciding that the fight is not worth it, Fafhrd and the Mouser head for the egress, and Laerk orders his men to give chase. When the heroes pause for breath, however, they notice strange forms rising from the shadows. They appear to be cloaks, but there are no visible men occupying them. The phantasms seize Laerk, sending him to a watery grave, as the cursed island again disappears beneath the waves and the heroes return to their boat. Fafhrd, wisely, heeds his companion’s advice, tossing his purloined weapon into the sea.

In Sword of Sorcery #4, we are given a glimpse into Fafhrd’s youth in the frozen north in the backup story. In this issue, we are treated to a Mouser solo tale, taking place during the time when he was a wizard’s apprentice and titled, appropriately enough, “The Mouse Alone.”

His master has sent him on an errand to the city of Bathaal. Weary from the journey and eager to get things over with, he demands to see the king, to whom he offers his service. Finding his diminutive stature amusing, the king asks what the young Mouser can possibly do for him. He insists that his fighting skills are worthy, but after being given a sword and facing one of the guards, he is merely humbled. The king orders Shendai the Deft, a master of daggers, to take the Mouser away and feed him.

On the way, they are beset by brigands, but Shendai succeeds in easily killing both. The Mouser offers to reward him for protecting his master’s gold, but when he reaches for his purse he finds it gone. He is left alone in the marketplace, realizing that he learned an important if costly lesson.

Unless I missed something, it’s never made clear exactly what the Mouser is supposed to be doing there. Was he supposed to have purchased something? Why did he seek audience with the king?

Howard Chaykin’s art, which graced the pages of the first four issues, is nowhere to be found here. The main story is illustrated by Walt Simonson, who provided the art for the Fafhrd backup story in issue #4, and the backup is by Jim Starlin. Both are inked, to great effect, by Al Milgrom. Starlin, of course, is best known as the creator of Thanos and the force behind the most memorable runs of Captain Marvel and Strange Tales (featuring Adam Warlock). He has also written and illustrated several creator-owned series, including Dreadstar, ‘Breed, and Cosmic Guard. Simonson has worked on just about everything (most notably Thor, Batman, and X-Factor) and is currently involved in various projects for Marvel (he just completed an excellent three-issue run on Indestructible Hulk).

Looking back, Sword of Sorcery is a book that featured the all-stars of Bronze-Age comic art, and if it hadn’t been canceled there’s no telling how great it could’ve become. Sword & sorcery fans will definitely want to collect all five issues, which can be accomplished relatively inexpensively (under thirty bucks, depending on condition).