Jack Kirby was the greatest genius that mainstream American comics ever had. The breadth of his imagination was equaled only by his skill at getting it to look good on paper. He created characters, worlds, genres, ways of perception that we'll be mining for another century, if we have one.
When I first saw his work, I hated it.
In 1973, I was nine years old. I'd discovered comics on the bus ride from school. The driver, Steve, was fond of stopping for snacks and picking the latest stuff off the spinner rack to keep the small hoodlums on his route entertained. Though there were a lot of 100-page Giants, Steve was a Herb Trimpe Hulk man and thus I was a Herb Trimpe Hulk man. This became stamped on me, part of my identity, the moment I mentioned it to my therapist. (I was in therapy, by the way—my childhood was of the class and decade where having a therapist was somewhat like having an allergist is now.)
Late in one of our sessions, my therapist handed me a Jack Kirby comic. I'd never seen one before. Adults are sometimes so wrong about childhood intrigues that they end up being right. I was a sensitive kid, and the formula “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets” appealed to me. I'm sure it was also catnip to a mental health professional. I can see the logic behind his gift—Kirby created the Hulk, the Hulk involved transformation, the comic in question had those things in common...but it was The Demon, issue #16. I said, Thank You.
It was the most terrifying comic I'd ever seen.
The cover had no word balloons on it, just a silent, beautiful, frightening woman extending her arms in triumph over a yellow creature (it had to be The Demon, I knew) in a medieval torture device that forced him into a painful squat while a masked servant held a torch over him. The interior was equally horrifying. The Demon fights a horned monster, is choked by poison gas, is branded on the forehead (thus enslaving him), and while completely helpless is beaten by a faceless gladiator, then returned to human form (still being tortured and controlled) and is forcibly aged (while screaming!). He's only rescued by a series of evil folks betraying each other, one of them turning into a living sarcophagus and another dragged off into a void by horned tentacles. In the last couple of pages, the villains are gone, but the mists and embers of their extraction are joined by lengthening shadows that suggest the darkness was still encroaching. The End.
Oh, also: THE END. It was the last issue of the series.
Even though I hated it I couldn't stop looking at it. And I mean “looking,” in that I couldn't read it. There was something so frightening about the pictures that I felt that engaging in the words would pull me through a door I might not exit again. Maybe Kirby had co-created The Hulk, and maybe there was transformation going on here, but otherwise the stories couldn't be more different. Was it a good thing to transform into The Demon? I couldn't tell. There was no way I explained this to my therapist, as I didn't understand it at the time, but the overwhelming issue for me was that I didn't know who to cheer for.
Pretty much every earlier time seems like a simpler time, but 1973 was its own horror: overseas war and Washington corruption and threats from Russia and violence in our streets. There was anxiety in the air fueled by fresh questions about who our enemies actually were. My parents' marriage was ending, and so I faced the same questions—only far more personally—with every waking moment. Were my parents still the people I knew or had they transformed too?
Kirby's view of the “enemy” was incredibly nuanced. He grew up in a slum, and fought in a gang against other kids, and when he was an adult he fought Nazis as a scout for General Patton's army. He killed Nazis with the same hands he later used to draw the characters that so terrified me. His hatred of fascism caused him to create Darkseid, and many people smarter than myself have seen Darkseid's quest for the Anti Life Equation as an overt reference to that political movement's most coherent strategy, suppression of free will.
The nuance Kirby brought to this discussion begins, to me, with comments like those he made to The Nostalgia Journal in 1969:
Interviewer: At least give the villain a chance because evil does win.
Kirby: No. I feel that nobody wins....A victory is a static concept. There's always going to be somebody around, in a hidden corner, plotting against you.
But as to who that “somebody” is, Kirby was even more specific:
Darkseid is what we mean when we say 'the powers that be.'...He is what we mean when we say 'them,' but what we really mean is 'us.'
In other words, to him, the question of good and evil wasn't “us versus them,” but an internal conflict. This is what fueled The Demon—the creature and his human host Jason Blood aren't separate. In fact, in the final panel of the final issue, Blood says “That thing you saw—exists!! We are one!” It's not like you and I are good, and evil is parked with “them” or “the other guy.” Instead, we all have Darkseid or The Demon in us, which makes conflicts a lot more complicated. Particularly when your parents are getting divorced.
My parents were civil to each other, even a little frosty, which was fine. I was fine. Everything was fine. I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything—I just wanted to read my comics until I understood them better.
I have no idea how I got the whole series of The Demon. 1973 came with ridiculously good access for comics in pharmacies and markets, and there were actual comic book stores driving distance from my house. I'm going to assume here that a certain enlightened family friend bought them for me, sensing that age nine was the time to ask certain questions. (Also: he took me to see Barbarella, and he was a child therapist, a set of facts that either makes his judgment calls reasonable or utterly insane.)
I used to open up the comics to the double splashes in the series and stare at them until they seemed to talk back to me. I wasn't used to this part of a comic book. Kirby had used double splashes infrequently at Marvel, but they became a staple of his 1970s DC work from his very first issue of Jimmy Olsen. When his ideas were so huge they over spilled the page, he worked his strange magic with them. As an adult, I note their inevitably weird perspective—Kirby kept it in his head, which meant it bows and warps in such a way that the characters seem to move as your eye scans across the page. You get trapped in them. They're meant to be not just looked at but experienced.
I was in the habit of lining up the final four double-page spreads—from issues 11-14—because they seemed to tell a story to me. The Demon confronts a variation of Frankenstein's Monster in the first one, leading in the second to a roomful of monsters, which in the third explodes into flames. In each of them, The Demon is leaping, punching, confronting, ready for action. That's the kind of story I recognized.
But then the fourth piece (above) turned everything upside down. The Demon is floating near a creature with a woman's face and hair-like tendrils that are capped with the souls of the damned. It's a strange composition in that the normal Kirby dynamics—his way of forcing a reader to engage with the action and anticipate turning the page—is stalled out. It's as if, with the momentum of the first three splashes over, he was telling us “this is what happens after all the storytelling you anticipated ends. Here is eternity.” Not peace, not triumph. There was just...this...constant...tension. This felt strangely adult to me.
Here's how childhood works: at some point, the stories you needed to understand where the horizon line is, and which ways are north and south, turn out to be way too simple to explain what you're seeing with your own two, suddenly-educated eyes. My father lived in one city and my mother another. When I got on a plane, one of them would sometimes hand me an envelope with documents for the other to sign. Once, my father also handed me an ancient comic, brown tape on a heavily-rolled spine, that he'd actually had to go to a comic book store to buy: Hulk #3! It was an eleven-year-old comic book, as far back in the Marvel universe as I'd ever seen, an artifact of the Big Bang. I know he felt pretty good, having so perfectly nailed what his kid would want.
But something had changed. To my eyes the Hulk of 1963 was cool, but limited, the characters underfed and weedy, the storyline far too simple and childish. The art was great, but in a fairy tale kind of way. My father had a new girlfriend. My mother was starting to date. “Of course they should,” I thought, and I felt very adult thinking this. My parents spoke kindly of each other in front of me. There were no villains or heroes, just people who had grown apart, and this, too, struck me as terribly sophisticated to know.
My memory skips some of the harder beats of ages nine and ten, but I stopped riding on Steve's bus. My therapy was over. Mom and I were moving. I was starting to hit that awful moment where my body was lumpy and I tended to knock things over without meaning to—in other words, I was heading into puberty, and in further, other words, I was transforming.
the form of...
I had insomnia, a lot. One night in my new house I finally read The Demon #16. It turned out The Demon is imprisoned and punished by his oldest foe, Morgaine Le Fey. She is one of Kirby's smiling, sexy, evil, powerful women—starting with the rough immoral babes of the 1950s romance comics and continuing with the Enchantress and Karnilla the Norn Queen. Like those others, Le Fey seeks to break this creature's will, in this case so that he will give her the Philosopher's Stone. This is an object with seemingly infinite power, the latest in a line of McGuffins—cubes, nullifiers, boxes, amulets—that Kirby designed.
Having now read the series, I see a strange powerlessness in that final issue—the Demon barely acts, and when he does, he mostly fails. Instead, he's mostly acted upon and abused. I tend to see autobiography where maybe I shouldn't, and if not in Jack's life in this case (why wouldn't the lead character of a comic getting cancelled get kicked around by forces larger than himself?), then in my own.
I had gone to a private school for “gifted students” which made a sort of Charles Xavier promise about us. At first, I thought maybe I could be a superhero with the powers of my enormous brain. It was an origin story that was never really executed. My brain was just a normal brain. I left that school, the household around my parents' marriage collapsed, and now I was kicked around by whatever fate had planned.
Jason Blood's rescue begins when Glenda Mark, his human friend, stumbles over the stone herself. She tries to bring down his tormentors with it, but it's stolen by a wizened lackey named Warley. His own greed allows him to be consumed by “hosts of evil,” on top of which are tongues of “nether flame” with a very specific purpose. “Like the mark on my forehead,” Blood says, “the flame can destroy or enslave the soul of any creature.”
How is it that at age 11 or 12, whenever it was at night that I should have been asleep, that I suddenly understood this? I felt like I'd been through those flames somehow. I'd begun to think of myself as not part of a family, but tossed around by a somewhat-malevolent force with no real end in sight.
Even here, with Kirby dipping into a bag he had a thousand times (the bad guys want an artifact; the artifact has power), the threat is against free will. This time it's not a political movement, like Darkseid's, or the Nazis, but a smaller, more personal hell. Jason Blood fights back, consuming the flames with his own spell. The outcome looks awful—he collapses against a wall that has burn marks on it in the shape of tentacles. It doesn't feel as if anything is over, just halted for the meantime, and that too felt like a realistic view of the world for a kid spat out on the other side of divorce. Was this satisfying? No. Was my life satisfying?
When I discovered comics, I read them the way you'd unwrap candy bars, eager for the rush, ready to finish one off and pick up another. But when I finished reading this issue, I felt a little ill.
There would be further to come for Kirby—more Kamandi, then OMAC, Our Fighting Forces, then his return to Marvel, then animation and more. But for me, the most consequential comic book of this era was that random, transformative issue of The Demon. As a child, it only frightened me viscerally. But as a young adult, I'd seen just enough of the grey areas of the world, the places where a person's intent could be blurred with both good and evil, to understand one of Kirby's other slogans a little too well.
Accepting it as both a promise and a threat, I prepared myself for Jack Kirby's messages from The World That's Coming.
Glen David Gold is the author of the novels Carter Beats the Devil and Sunnyside. He's written comics for DC and Dark Horse, and for "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" and "Welcome to Night Vale." His three-part memoir I Will Be Complete is forthcoming from Knopf in June 2018.