Gone the Form of Man: The Gothic Tradition and the Abhuman in Jack Kirby’s The Demon (1972-1974)

Note: This is to be published, eventually, in a Sequart collection of essays on 1970s horror comics


“Gone! Gone! — the form of man — ! Rise, the demon Etrigan!!
— Jack Kirby, The Demon Vol. 1 #1 (Aug 1972, 24.5)[1]


Demon_Vol_1_1

Jack Kirby’s The Demon – a 16-issue comic book series published by DC, cover-dated Aug 1972 to Jan 1974 – is not its creator’s best remembered work of comics art. Compared with the rest of the comics Kirby produced during his titanic career, which included an innovative partnership with Joe Simon from 1940 to 1955, the co-creation of the vast majority of Marvel’s heroes in the early 1960s, and a suite of comics produced at DC during the 1970s, The Demon hardly stands out. Even against the backdrop of the 1970s horror comics boom The Demon is overshadowed by long-running or more popularly acclaimed series, among them Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula (1972-1979), DC’s Witching Hour (1969-1978) and Swamp Thing (Vol. 1, 1972-1976), and Gold Key’s Dark Shadows (1969-1976).

The Demon was created as a tongue-in-cheek response by Kirby to DC editor Carmine Infantino’s request for a new horror comic, “something a bit demonic” (Evanier, 3). As Mark Evanier, then Kirby’s assistant, notes in his introduction to 2008’s Jack Kirby’s The Demon, the titular demon Etrigan’s debut issue sold so well that Kirby’s lauded Fourth World saga was put on hold so that he could write, draw, and edit both The Demon and a new apocalypse adventure, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, both monthly (Evanier, 4-5). His unimaginative title and his famous recycling of a demonic mask depicted in a late-‘30s Prince Valiant strip as Etrigan’s face were Kirby’s way of showing his initial ambivalence toward The Demon.[2]

The tale of Etrigan the demon, his alter-ego Jason Blood, and their trials against the world’s “horror-cultures” (The Demon #1, Aug 1972, 26.2) was created during a moment in Kirby’s life when he had, for the first time since his early work with Joe Simon, near complete artistic control over his comics – such was the deal under which Kirby was brought to DC in late 1970. Comics scholar Charles Hatfield, in his recent study of Jack Kirby’s comics, argues that Kirby’s years at DC were among his most artistically prolific. In charge of his own set of comics, “Kirby went for broke, pouring out work at a breathtaking pace and solidifying his odd, late-period style in which the tics of his Marvel work were magnified and his distinct graphic shorthand fine-tuned into a trademark repertoire” (Hatfield, 29). Kirby’s comics in this era represented some of his most narratively unique and artistically innovative to date.

Kirby’s Fourth World saga in particular has been unceasingly praised: comics auteur Grant Morrison, in an introduction to the first Fourth World omnibus, called it a drama “staged across Jungian vistas of raw symbol and storm,” “nothing less than a new psychedelic Bible for American kids” (Morrison, 7-8). But while the Fourth World is understood by many as a restructuring of the superhero genre, what Hatfield describes as “an operatic spectacle of otherworldly demigods and creatures” (Hatfield, 30), Kirby’s The Demon is similarly complex in its artistry: its narrative weaves in and out of sources familiar to readers while offering a trailblazing invigoration of horror comics with the iconography of science fiction, fantasy, and the superhero genre. Not surprisingly, The Demon is a cult classic among Kirby’s acolytes and the demon Etrigan has remained a staple in DC’s later horror – and even superhero – comics.

Though Kirby was forced to put Fourth World on hold in order to tell Etrigan’s tale, he utilized the new horror series to continue expressing his eccentric generic visions within the bounds set by DC’s higher-ups. With The Demon, Kirby embarked on a re-envisioning of the Euro-American Gothic tradition. Under his pen the subjects of Gothic literary and pulp horror texts were recast as co-inhabitants of a single fictional universe in which mythological traditions (Arthurian legend), folkloric figures (werewolves, witches), religious symbolism (Asmodeus, Satan), and pseudo-history (the Salem witch hunt, the Philosopher’s stone) are synthesized into a dense, continuity-driven plot. At the same time, Kirby embraces DC’s fictional universe by setting many of the stories in and around Jason Blood’s penthouse in Gotham City, home of Batman. In unequivocal fashion Kirby referred to his mythopoeic mish-mash of Gothic tropes as “horror-cultures,” giving name to a unique vision of the horror comics genre and its Gothic predecessors.

The Demon and its horror-cultures helped sate a revenant hunger for four-color horror in the 1970s – a phenomenon to which this anthology attests. Horror comics refracted the ambivalence and anxiety of a world apprehensive about the Cold War’s heated front in Vietnam, dismayed by the defeats of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s, and confronting the grim future of post-industrialism. More than an escape, horror was a narrative sensibility that parsed its creators’ and audiences’ everyday fears. In doing so, horror comics entertainingly and frightfully obscured social issues behind familiar themes, characters, and concepts drawn from a corpus of literary, folkloric, and mythological sources. Kirby’s monolithic “horror-cultures” allegorized the real-world problems of comic book readers, pitting them in monstrous drag against a clever, brightly colored demon, his gentlemanly alter-ego Jason Blood, and their rag-tag assemblage of friends.

As literary historians David Punter and Glennis Byron have noted, the Gothic – of which horror is a category – re-emerges in times of cultural crisis and anxiety (Punter and Byron, 39). Though the Gothic originated in mid-to-late 18th century romances like Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), some of the genre’s more enduring texts were penned as part of a late 19th century reaction to British imperialism, the spread of industrialism, and the exacerbation of scientific / religious conflict. Among these texts were Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Perhaps the most visible Gothic text, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1814), hails from the early moments of the Romantic period, a literary and artistic movement often described as a reaction to Europe’s Industrial Revolution.

The cultural and artistic weight of these great works of Gothic literature is experienced in every panel of The Demon. Here they are combined with a healthy dose of Kirby’s melodramatic writing and with the pulp sensibilities of comic book horror, as well as with a general penchant for exaggerating physical form and action. In the comics that emerge from Kirby’s horror-cultures cauldron, each image is animated with a primacy of narrative force that evokes the now campily slow crawling shadow of Max Schreck as Nosferatu (Nosferatu, 1922) at the same time that it suggests the solemn terror of Jonathan Harker after discovering he is the prisoner of Count Dracula (Dracula, 1897). A tension between pulp and the literary thus enlivens The Demon, and is kept dynamic as Kirby bases multi-issue story-arcs on one Gothic text after another – the most central of which, both to the pulp / literary tension and to the narrative, is Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In many ways, The Demon is Kirby’s send-off to Stevenson’s 1886 novella. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is predicated on the concept of the doppelgänger or double-body, of two halves perpetually in opposition – especially morally. Taken to its extreme, the Victorian conflict between the normate Dr. Henry Jekyll and the evil, deformed Mr. Hyde maintained that the existence of the civilized (Dr. Jekyll, science, reason) is dependent on some earlier, inner, or necessary barbarity (Mr. Hyde, religion, mysticism). Notice that Hyde’s deformity, or rather the “impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” (Stevenson, 10), is taken as incontrovertible physical evidence of his moral character.[3] The doppelgänger ontology of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is distilled by Kirby in the figure of Etrigan / Jason Blood. One cannot physically exist without the other: Blood was created by Merlin during the siege of Camelot as a human vessel to disguise Merlin’s demon guardian, Etrigan, from archenemy Morgaine Le Fey (The Demon #1, Aug 1972). As a result, the demon’s continued existence relies on Blood’s ageless body.

The Demon is a witty refashioning of Stevenson’s novella. The series inverts the novella’s logic to show that, if a Hyde exists in every Jekyll then so too does a human exists in every demon. Moreover, whereas Stevenson’s novel is preoccupied with the tragedy of an educated social elite whose life is despoiled by a monstrous, scientifically self-created other, Kirby gives equal attention to the emotional turmoil of both Blood and Etrigan as each struggles throughout the series to gain some sort of normalcy. Stevenson’s moral allegory of the inalienable differences between man and monster fails to obtain in Kirby’s retelling. Like many of the monsters-as-heroes Kirby had worked on (e.g. the Hulk, the Thing, the X-Men, the Inhumans), Etrigan is not necessarily evil, and in fact by the finale of The Demon #7 (Mar 1973) Etrigan saves Blood’s friends Randu Singh, Harry Matthews, and Glenda Mark. At the beginning of the next issue (#8, Apr 1973), Randu and Harry oblige their new camaraderie with the demon and reveal to Etrigan that he has lived centuries as the double-body of Jason Blood.

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Fig 1. “The Thing that Screams” (The Demon #10, Jul 1973)

In a story arc that unfolds across issues #8 through #10 (Jul 1973), Blood and Etrigan are forced to contend with their duality at the same time that they must defeat Farley Fairfax – Kirby’s interpretation of Gaston Leroux’s disfigured protagonist in The Phantom of the Opera (1910) – and rescue Blood’s would-be lover, Glenda. The irony of two monstrous men locked in combat is not lost on Kirby: he uses the conflict between Fairfax and Etrigan / Blood to resolve the narrative tension of Etrigan and Blood’s opposition. By the end of issue #10 the doppelgänger heroes discover in their existence a comfortable medium that allows them to collaborate against the dangers of Kirby’s horror-cultures. Throughout the remainder of the series Blood’s knowledge as a demonologist or his ability to pass as human are required to help Etrigan, while Etrigan regularly uses his supernatural powers to rescue Blood and his friends.

The Fairfax episode is therefore critical to Kirby’s development of a nuanced take on the Gothic doppelgänger tale, since it upends the moral allegory of necessary conflict between good and evil, between virtue and vice, and argues instead for the codependence of the double-body. In doing so, Kirby embeds his Gothic creation in the caped world of the superhero, a genre whose rebirth in the early 1960s he helped to establish. It is not surprising then that comics historian Peter Coogan’s observation that Stan Lee and Kirby’s Thing, of Fantastic Four fame, embraces his “irreversible otherness [as] a sign for superheroism – a willing exile from humanity in order to serve humanity,” may just as easily be read as an account of Jason Blood’s acceptance of his demonic counter-self.

The Fairfax issues (#8-10) are more than a turning point for Blood and Etrigan’s relationship, they also highlight the disjuncture between man and monster that lies at the heart of the Gothic tradition. Beginning with “Phantom of the Sewers” (The Demon #8, Apr 1973), these issues are devoted to the tale of Farley Fairfax, a once famous actor whose poor treatment of his female costar, Galatea, impels her to conjure a monster during one of their performances. The monster – “the Soul Snatcher” who “come[s] to take what you prize most—!” (The Demon #10, Jul 1973, 3.4-5) – steals Fairfax’s face and leaves him instead with a withered, monstrous visage detailed in a full-page splash (Fig. 1) that visually references the unmasking of the Phantom by Christine in Rupert Julian’s 1925 silent film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera (Fig. 2). After decades living in the sewers beneath the theatre, Fairfax emerges and kidnaps Blood’s beloved Glenda, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Galatea. In the ensuing struggle Blood calls upon Etrigan to save Glenda, which he does by summoning Galatea’s soul to inhabit Glenda’s body briefly in order for Fairfax and Galatea to reconcile their differences.

Phantom
Fig 2. Christine unmasks the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Kirby’s full-page reveal of Fairfax’s disfigured face signals an important moment in his visual and narrative play with the Gothic tradition in The Demon. Kirby, through Fairfax, invites readers to “Look! / Look!” at the monstrous face (The Demon #10, Jul 1973, 5.1). Fairfax’s face represents his loss of humanity, rendering him “Other” – a concept developed in Western philosophic thought to identity that which is not the “Self,” that which is understood as different from one’s self (or group) in a significant way. Fairfax is identified by Kirby as something not entirely human but not exactly inhuman. Fairfax is thus an exemplar of a liminal body caught between humanity and monstrosity, or what literary scholar Kelly Hurley calls the “abhuman” in her seminal work The Gothic Body.

Hurley puts the concept of the abhuman to expert use in her deconstruction of fin de siècle literary and cultural conceptions of the body, especially as bodies are described and narrated in Gothic and other fantastic fictions. Drawing on her reading of these texts, Hurley argues that the “abhuman subject is a not-quite-human subject, characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other” (Hurley, 3). Crucially, Hurley’s description of the abhuman Gothic subject takes note of the desire to return to or to retain humanity. Fairfax’s loss of his face is a physical representation of his lack of a soul, much as the Phantom’s disfiguration is a sign of his danger to Christine’s virtue and haute société life. But Fairfax does not relinquish his humanity; he ardently seeks to reclaim it in the same way the Phantom pursues Christine as the embodiment all that he is cut off from as a result of his abhuman othering.

The vast majority of the Gothic’s monstrous bodies – vampires, zombies, Frankensteinian monsters, doppelgänger, etc. – represent abhuman subjects in one sense or another, and are considered by many to be imaginative manifestations of an era’s particular social problems. The doppelgänger figure refracts the seemingly timeless danger that the (ab)human, confronted with any era’s problems, will become “not-itself.” This internal, psychological problem is externalized as the two halves of the double-body are placed in conflict. Kirby demonstrates his literary prowess by recognizing the dramatic potential of the abhuman in the Gothic. He uses the abhuman position inherent in the double-body to frame Blood and Etrigan’s conflict, but he also inverts the typical rending of abhumanity, using it as a narrative tool for resolving his protagonists’ conflict.

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Fig 4. Blood / Etrigan in a state of abhuman “morphic variability” (The Demon #9, Jun 1973)

In the middle issue of the Fairfax episode, The Demon #9 (Jun 1973), Blood’s inability to find and save Glenda from Fairfax’s clutches forces Blood to recognize his need for the demon’s powers. But Blood’s weakened body is unable to summon forth Etrigan, and he is caught in a state of “morphic variability” between man and demon, which Kirby brilliantly captures in a panel that shows Blood’s face malformed by Etrigan’s attempt to manifest (Fig. 3). Several pages later Etrigan emerges from the sewers, fully enmonstered, to save Glenda. Through his confrontation with Fairfax, Etrigan and Blood finally resolve their double-body tension and embraced abhumanity – a narrative turn represented masterfully in a single panel. In turn, Etrigan helps Fairfax reclaim his humanity and die wholly human, no longer “one of the living dead” (The Demon #10, Jul 1973, 11.1).

Despite its pulp inclinations, The Demon is an intelligent distillation of the Gothic tradition, its masterworks, central social concerns, and major literary motifs – illustrated with astounding virtuosity in Kirby’s sublime late-period style. Moreover, Kirby’s lifelong trade in superhero comics influenced his generically unique vision of the Gothic in The Demon, bringing to the series both a penchant for the melodrama and the continuity-driven fervor of Marvel’s ‘60s comics. As a result, The Demon had a significant impact in the DC Universe. Etrigan and Blood received a limited series in the ‘80s (Vol. 2, Jan-Apr 1987) and a 58-issue series in the early ‘90s (Vol. 3, Jul 1990-May 1995), and were frequent guests in horror comics and in comics set in Gotham City, Blood’s home. Etrigan (sans Blood) was also the central figure of Day of Judgment (Nov 1999), the DC weekly mini-series that turned former Green Lantern Hal Jordan into the Spectre, God’s divine vengeance incarnate. More recently, Blood and Etrigan were feature characters of Demon Knights (23 issues, Nov 2011-Oct 2013), part of DC Comics’ 2011 “New 52” re-launch.

The abhuman bodies of the Gothic populate The Demon’s 16 issues, infusing Kirby’s Gothic (re)interpretations with a literariness that typifies Kirby’s freedom from high- or lowbrow classification. The Demon is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, both for its medium and its genre. Whereas the horror comics of the 1970s were either anthologies with no sense of universal continuity (Ghosts, Secrets of Sinister House, Witches, etc.) or singular titles set in horror-worlds particular to each series and only rarely crossing over into the rest of a company’s continuity (Dracula, Frankenstein, Swamp Thing, etc.), Kirby’s The Demon blended the plot-driven quality of long-running series with the diversity of sources that characterized the anthologies. It forged a new path for the ‘70s horror comics scene, itself a Franken-comic of sources and anxieties and narratives bound up in a single, hyper-saturated story about a witty Demon and his troubled alter-ego.


Bibliography

Eads, Brian. “Etrigan’s Great Grandfather?” The Jack Kirby Collector Vol. 12 #44. John Morrow, ed. 23. Raleigh, NC: TwoMorrows Publishing, Fall 2005.

Evanier, Mark. “Introduction.” Jack Kirby’s The Demon. Anton Kawasaki, ed. 3-5. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Hatfield, Charles. Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. Great Comics Artists Series. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kawasaki, Anton, ed. Jack Kirby’s The Demon. New York: DC Comics, 2008.

Leroux, Gaston. The Phantom of the Opera. Bantam Classics. New York: Bantam, 2008.

Morrison, Grant. “Introduction.” Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume One. Anton Kawasaki, ed. 7-8. New York: DC Comics, 2007.

Punter, David and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Schalk, Sami. “What Makes Mr. Hyde So Scary?: Disability as the Result of Evil and Cause of Fear.” Disability Studies Quarterly, 28.4 (Fall 2008). <http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/145/145&gt;.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dover Thrift Editions. New York: Dover Publications, 1991.

The Phantom of the Opera. Dir. Julian Rupert. Perf. Lon Chaney and Christine Philbin. Universal Pictures, 1925.


Footnotes

[1] From here on, all unconventional spelling and punctuation and all emphasis should be read as original unless otherwise noted. Similarly all publication dates given are cover dates, unless otherwise noted. Regarding citation: the number following the date of publication, always in parentheses, signifies the page and panel/s from which I am quoting. That is, 24.5 refers to panel five on page 24 of The Demon #1 (Aug 1972). A backslash (/) used in a quotation from a comic signifies a speech balloon break.

[2] Evanier describes Kirby’s glee at deciding on the image from Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, which Kirby hoped “would serve as an inside joke for readers who recognized the source if he patterned the look of his new character after that mask” (2008, 4). It has also been suggested that Kirby’s use of Foster’s image was an homage to the creator, who retired a year earlier in 1971, while Charles Hatfield reads The Demon as in many ways a tribute to Foster’s comics (Hatfield, 51, 57, 60-64). See also Eads’ article “Etrigan’s Great Grandfather?” for a description of a possible cinematic influence on Foster’s design of the demonic mask that inspired Kirby.

[3] It is hardly surprising that, as a result of Stevenson’s representation of moral corruption as physical deformity, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the topic of a large body of critical literature in the relatively new field of Disability Studies. See, for example, Schalk’s article “What Makes Mr. Hyde So Scary?: Disability as the Result of Evil and Cause of Fear.” Of course, the trope of deformity signaling evil is rampant in literature and art, ancient and contemporary, but is especially prevalent in the Gothic. See my discussion below of the “abhuman” Gothic body.

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