Part of no place completely
Rereading The Demon, from 1987, by Matt Wagner and Art Nichols.
So I decided, as a prelude to spending half-a-year at least blogging about Matt Wagner’s Grendel, that I’d write about Matt Wagner’s The Demon. A four-issue 1987 miniseries following the character’s appearance in Moore’s Swamp Thing, written and drawn by Wagner and released concurrently with the Comico Grendel series, it’s a nice little story that’s been a forgotten gem for more than 25 years but is getting a trade paperback release in January. The timing worked, it’s one of the DC proto-Mature Readers comics I’m always interested in, and it’s a nice heads-up for anyone interested in the collection.
Great. Except, when I dug out my Demon comics off the shelf and reread them, I found myself perplexingly unimpressed. And my first issue was with issues, the physical objects themselves. I don’t usually mention the condition of the old comics I’m talking about, and usually that’s because I’m reading reprints or scans or a combination of both. So I felt a shock of recognition at the state of these things, of the poverty of comics that we’ve left behind, of how historical my little bag of comics had become. Yellowing pages, weak colours in a hugely limited spectrum, cloudy blacks, printing errors, art dulled by commercial concerns. We forget the battle for nice white paper, that the most beautiful work could be made illegible by an ink overflow.
My second issue was with the isolation of this story and its calm refusal to survive outside of context. When trade paperbacks were called graphic novels, when DC reprinted Moore’s Swamp Thing and Morrison’s Doom Patrol, the collections cut pages out that referred to later comics or other events to make like the collection was a novel, a story with closed boundaries. The reasoning was that those pages would confuse the reader, have them looking up from the book and around the room for clues as to why this disconnected page of the Monitor and Harbinger had appeared in their horror story. And perhaps that’s why this chunk of continuity has stayed out of print for so long; it all feels like one of those pages.
The Demon’s continuity, since the Kirby series ended, numbered 24 appearances over a decade in team-up titles, in back-up stories, in Wonder Woman and Crisis and Swamp Thing. The latter, of course, being the most famous and claiming the character for a supernatural milieu for years to come; Sandman #4 followed and Blood became a Swampy regular, even getting his origin in the Veitch run. You’d assume, therefore, that this series was part of that progression, part of the march towards Vertigo. But it isn’t, really. It’s very tightly focused on Blood, Etrigan, and the supporting cast, gathering the fragments of continuity scattered in other comics like pages on the ocean and bringing them together to weave an origin of sorts. No other DC characters appear and it’s only briefly set in Gotham City, usually the Demon’s home. But it’s difficult to say what it’s trying to do. It doesn’t really tell a story of the Demon. It’s more a story told around the Demon, though that doesn’t make sense because it’s about nobody but the Demon and only the Demon appears in it.
To summarise: we open in Tintagel, Cornwall, where Jason Blood is brooding. He’s interrupted by girlfriend Glenda, who stole the Philosopher’s Stone from his place and has used it to find him. She’s been doing some research on the yellow batwing-earned creature that shares her boyfriend’s body and has found a picture of Belial, which neither Jason nor a summoned Etrigan are able to recognise. The Demon can, however, direct them to a book about Belial which may contain answers. They track down the remaining two copies, losing one, but find nothing useful. Belial himself is summoned and reveals that Etrigan and Merlin are both his sons. Jason follows Etrigan’s plan to confront Merlin, back at Tintagel, and ends up with Etrigan freed from imprisonment in his body, loosed on the world.
It sounds, from that précis, like a continuity implant. Plotwork: moving stuff around to explain Merlin’s connection to Etrigan and to get Blood and his Demon divorced. And at times it feels like that, a complicated retcon two-step to give the character a better foundation and a new status quo. The final issue is called Begins This Tale Of Woe, a clear hint that this is a new start for the character. It compares to JM DeMatteis and Mark Badger’s 1988 Martian Manhunter mini, one of those series that kept escaping superhero culls on my collection until I realised I was keeping it because I liked it. In that J’onn J’onzz’s Edgar Rice Burroughs origin is exposed as a lie, a comforting fiction concocted to shield him from the pain of his true memories. And there’s a point to that; the original origin was outdated, caused continuity problems and did nothing for the character’s motivations. A new one gave J’onn a new role in the DeMatteis-scripted Justice League and a past to build on, even if it was kind of similar to Superman’s.
This Demon origin retcon is like that, except without any of the context that makes it necessary. His origin wasn’t particularly outdated and it doesn’t add much to have he and Merlin lashed together. There was no ongoing team book or anything else to benefit from the new status quo. And that new status quo wasn’t, anyway, an improvement for the character. The duality of a demonologist who is a cage for a demon, the rational man who must constantly unleash a force he can’t control, made the whole thing work. A demonologist and a demon with no reason to have anything to do with each other aren’t a successful proposition. In practically his next appearance, as one of the ensemble cast for Cosmic Odyssey, Etrigan was forced back into his Blood-shaped bottle. So it’s a retcon in a void; scattered bits brought together, carefully unified, and developed into a new angle on the character which is left for someone else to deal with or overturn. Adam Strange’s guest-starring issues in Swamp Thing did roughly the same, but that was in two issues as the background to someone else’s story. Here we’ve got a great deal of effort spent on accomplishing little, with the feel of a pitch being worked out on the page.
The other thing about the précis above is that it sounds sort of boring. A quest without conflict. There is conflict – the series was published in an era where no comic could exist without a couple of traded punches – but the fights are shoehorned in. A quick scrap with a choking demon at the end of the first issue, an equally brief struggle with some blue hellbeast at the end of the second, and the outmatching of a pair of factotum gargoyles in the last. The true conflict, the face-off that drives the series, is between Jason and Etrigan. Who obviously can’t actually face or meet each other. So it’s a subtle game of influence, the demon manipulating the human and the human always a step behind, catching up, doing what’s expected while watching for the con that he’s always too late to see. There’s a very real fear there, the summoning not done lightly, Etrigan kept in a circle in the first and third issues and not allowed to physically manifest in the second. Which is then immediately undercut, in those first two issues, by Etrigan being summoned without restraint to fight monsters a couple of pages later.
Jason Blood is underwritten, a cypher who’s fighting not to be a cypher. Glenda, his girlfriend, serves as the interpreter between him and his alter ego and has too much of the plot on her shoulders. Etrigan is wonderfully theatrical when he appears, his rhyming dialogue perhaps not written with Alan Moore’s quartz-movement precision but polished and flourished at the right times, never better than when he’s delivering soliloquies in the spotlight of a containment circle. But the highlights of the series, the true stars, are two other demons: Belial and Asteroth.
Belial I’ve mentioned. Etrigan’s father, a fat, squatting yellow toad of immeasurable power, is the cannonball on the series’s rubber sheet, deforming events with the weight of his evil. The third issue is all about Belial’s summoning and caging in a huge, painted circle with flaring candles as bars. Blood, wary between towering stacks of cages, throwing in live pigeons every time he asks a question because Belial demands sacrifices for answers. The demon in the circle, down in a warehouse by Gotham City’s docks, barely moves. He answers questions impassively, with a still malevolence, the glimmers of grim pleasure at the damage his answers will cause barely registering. Etrigan and Merlin may be his children, but he has no concern for them. This is an Archduke of Hell. It’s by far the best issue, the best scene, in these pages, magnetic in its attraction. And the coda, where Etrigan binds himself in the same circle, convulsed with pain at the power of its bonds, is his finest hour and his greatest trick.
And Asteroth? He’s not really in it. He never appears and has only the most minor role in the narrative. Instead he’s the narrator: presumed captor of Merlin at the denouement who spends his time watching and rewatching the story, the miniseries, providing a throughline for what’s happening. His voice: sardonic, witty, vulgar and poetic, savouring Etrigan’s devious plan and mocking his captive’s idiocy. We learn nothing about him. His name is mentioned once, early in the first issue. That voice, though, that voice’s rich and vicious omniscient commentary on events, all for the benefit of an audience crucified on a million thorns, the idiotic sadism of the tone, crackles like electricity through these four issues. And there’s a lot of it. Wagner can be, and I like him best when he is, a wordy writer. Having found Asteroth he’s reluctant to let a panel go by without commentary, mockery, insight, not unlike the narrator of Come Dine With Me performing to a kidnapped audience of the participants, endlessly amused by their humiliation.
As artist, Wagner abandons the design-led whole-page approach he employs as artist of Grendel, instead focusing on the storytelling. His brushline is simple and quick, backgrounds left for the colourist, faces outlined and the only shading blacks. The density of the narration, the constant interjections, is matched and given space by packing each page with panels, moment-to-moment reactions from our protagonists and their snickering overseer. It’s fine work hobbled by the paper, the printing, the colouring. How it’ll look in a new edition I don’t know.
So – to end where we began – should you go and buy that new edition? If you’re a Wagner fan, a Grendel fan or a Demon fan? It remains a blind alley that doesn’t pick up on the Etrigan from the Swamp Thing appearance and doesn’t provide an interpretation of the character anyone else continued. When Alan Grant and later Garth Ennis wrote a solo title they took the Demon into jester territory, mocking the DC universe. There’s no hint of that here. (Though an offhand line about Harry the seat-cushion became a running joke in the Grant series.) Wagner brings a hint of Arthurian mythology from Mage and his skill with a brooding bloke with a white streak in his hair from Grendel, and he would return to the idea of demons and circles. The series doesn’t entirely play to his strengths as writer or artist, to either Mage’s easy flow or Grendel’s experimental formality. It’s a misfit, an interesting and always readable failure. Whether of not you buy it depends on your tolerance for those.
The Demon by Matt Wagner and Art Nichols has been out of print since 1987, but is republished along with #22 of a later series, written and drawn by Wagner, in The Demon: From The Darkness trade paperback from DC in January 2014. Thanks to everyone whose scans I’ve stolen for this post.