Jack Kirby’s demonic creation Etrigan has struggled to find a foothold in almost all his many iterations since he first debuted in August 1972, in DC Comics’ The Demon #1. Even though he had all the abilities and attributes of popular characters at the time (super-human strength, a healing factor, force blasts, hellfire breath, precognition a la Spidey’s spider-sense, even a human alter ego in Jason Blood, the man whose soul Etrigan had been bonded to by Merlin during Arthurian times) Etrigan was unable to carry his own series for long. The first issue of The Demon sold extremely well, better than any of Kirby’s Fourth World titles at the time, but this success would not last. After introducing the character, Kirby was coerced by DC to write and draw 15 further issues. He reluctantly agreed. This reluctance might have been what ultimately caused the title to fail. Jack had created The Demon in response to DC Editorial’s request for a horror character, but he was not interested in writing a horror comic. His forte was cosmic superheroes. His magnum opus The New Gods had just been cancelled however, and the only thing he could do was to create more characters and hope they would succeed where Orion, Darkseid, and Mister Miracle had failed. But, like most of Kirby’s DC creations, The Demon’s title fizzled out. Still, the sheer scope of Kirby’s talent managed to imbue the character with that special Kirby magic that had made the Thing, Captain America, The Silver Surfer, OMAC, Darkseid and Galactus so memorable. Etrigan The Demon would live on, albeit not in his own long-running title, but he was certainly destined to become a mainstay in the DC Universe, even after a second series flopped in the 80s. After this second failure, the Demon was relegated to guest appearances in horror titles, such as Alan Moore’s Saga of The Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and eventually Garth Ennis’ irreverent Hitman. Etrigan proved popular whenever he appeared, but the publisher was reluctant to give his solo-title another go. It had struck out twice, and for DC it seems that that was once too many. Even so, The Demon was destined to be shepherded in times to come by some of the greatest comic book writers to grace the medium.
As writers other than Kirby took his evolution in hand, Etrigan the Demon picked up a quirk unique among comic book characters – he started to speak in rhyme. Though he had always used a rhyme initially found on Merlin’s tomb to change from Jason Blood to The Demon, he now permanently expressed himself through poetry, a characteristic that writers toyed with amazingly well over the decades. Apparently this was related to his newly elevated status among the denizens of hell. I didn’t much care for this explanation at the time, but I went with it, and as a result I now find that I cannot get enough of Etrigan on the page. Not only does he describe situations and events in completely unique and idiosyncratic ways, but he manages to employ his precognitive powers to throw in a bit of poetic prophecy now and then, making it a joy for any reader to identify exactly which of Etrigan’s wicked poems would come true in later panels or issues. This was how I felt the first time I encountered Etrigan in the pages of Alan Moore’s Saga of The Swamp Thing #26 (published in 1984, though I only managed to get my grubby little digits on it a year afterwards).
When I first laid eyes on him, Etrigan was perched on a skylight, looking in at a scene of horror unfolding below him. Then he uttered the first words I ever heard him speak. Written by Moore in iambic pentameter (a poetic form where 10 syllables are used in a single line, with the accent on every 2nd syllable), he mouthed a sinister declaration (see below), before plunging through shattered glass into a room, to join the Swamp Thing in battle against a demon who preys on children.
“The toys about the nursery are set
For idiot chaos to arrange at whim
He drools and ruins lives, his chin is wet
And old or young, it matters not to him.”
The frozen tableau crystallized in time
Hangs poised like spilled blood yet to reach the ground
The terror of the audience turns to mime
Their screaming masks make not the slightest sound
A gourmet of despair. It gives me pleasure
To chew upon this instant at my leisure.”
Later on, he trades blows with the Swamp Thing, spewing a variety of intricate and witty rhymes in the process. Not many beings can go toe to toe with old Swampy and live, but The Demon treated the battle as a trivial game worthy of only the lowliest of hellspawn.
“So… you escaped the monkey’s festering clutch
Perhaps you had no fear for it to use?
I’ll own, it does not interest me much
You play dice with a demon, sir,
Moore wrote Etrigan’s human host Jason Blood equally well, giving him a haughty sense of superiority befitting an immortal who’s been walking the earth for more than half a millenium. Blood used his longevity to hone the sorcerous skills he learned from his old teacher Merlin and became the DC Universe’s most respected demonologist. Here he is from Saga of The Swamp Thing #25, a chilling panel displaying his dark sense of humor and powers of premonition.
Both Etrigan and his literal soul-mate Jason Blood had many memorable appearances after SOTST #25-27. In The Sandman he guided Morpheus through the gates of hell much to the delight of fans everywhere. He was written and drawn by comic legends Matt Wagner and John Byrne, battled Superman and Lobo respectively, planted a kiss on the cheek of Batman Vicky Vale-style, and appeared in episodes of the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold on a number of occasions. Etrigan even starred in his own team-book Demon Knights during DC Comics New 52 line-wide relaunch. Though he despises setting foot on the mortal plane (see the panels below, courtesy of Mr. Wagner), any new comic featuring Etrigan would have to have him interacting with characters in the mundane realm, since a comic set solely in Hell might go stale very quickly. So, in some weird type of Fourth Wall twist, does this mean that Etrigan’s dislike of the human world keeps him from connecting to readers long-term due to his preference to stay in hell? Is he influencing us via meta-fiction just so he can remain on his stomping grounds? Nah, too convoluted. Blame this meandering train of thought on the drugs I did in my youth.
Ornery little bastard, isn’t he? And a magnificent series of panels by Mr. Matt Wagner.
So, based on everything I’ve written so far, my love for Etrigan is exasperatingly obvious. Imagine my delight when I found out last week that this August, in celebration of Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday, DC announced the release of a brand new horror series, starring… YOU GUESSED IT….
Oh yeah. The Demon is back. DC even announced his return in rhyme. Here’s hoping this will be his longest run yet.
And with these words, make my farewells
But hark, little humans, I will return
To scorch the lands where evil dwells
To watch the world burn, and burn…and burn.