The grotesque figure with the smirking, orange-ish face approaches his podium on the debate platform. The other candidates regard him with a mixture of resentment, envy... and fear. Who is this upstart who dares to challenge them for their party's leadership? He didn't even belong to the party, not really. And yet, he is beating them.
What does Donald Trump have to do with comic books? Ah, but I'm not talking about Donald Trump.
I'm talking about the Demon.
Etrigan the Demon was a character created by Jack Kirby during his brief sojourn at DC in the early '70s. During this period, he created the villain Darkseid, and the three books that were the core of his “Fourth World” saga: NEW GODS, FOREVER PEOPLE, and MISTER MIRACLE. In addition, DC requested that he do something with a horror theme. The supernatural was really big at the time; this was the era of “Rosemary's Baby” and “The Exorcist”, and both DC and Marvel published a number of titles reflecting this trend. Jack contribution was the DEMON,.
The Demon, Etrigan, was a hellish servant of the wizard Merlin; a yellow-skinned gargoyle-like creature with horns and glowing red eyes. He was evil, but used by Merlin to fight greater evils, like the sorceress Morgan le Fay. Foreseeing his own demise and the fall of Camelot, Merlin bound Etrigan within a mortal named Jason Blood, who thus became the demon's custodian and his alter ego. For the most part, Blood is happier to keep Etrigan chained; but at need, he can call forth the Demon by uttering the invocation:
“Gone, gone, O form of man,
And rise the demon, ETRIGAN!”
Interestingly enough, in Kirby's early issues, the magic wielded by Merlin and Morgan le Fay had a technological look to it, as if the devices of sorcery could have been borrowed from Reed Richard's laboratory. Did Kirby intend for Merlin and Morgan to be using alien tech? Was he invoking Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that a Sufficiently-Advanced Science is Indistinguishable from Magic? Or was that just the Kirby style, that he drew everything to look futuristic, even the Middle Ages? If that was his intent, later writers didn't follow up on it; (or did so only rarely).
Kirby's DEMON only lasted about a year or so. Kirby got fed up with DC and went back to Marvel. But the character would pop up again, now and then. Alan Moore used him occasionally in his startling re-visioning of SWAMP THING. Moore gave the character a habit of speaking in rhyme, the mark of a special order of demon, to which Etrigan had been promoted. He also made Etrigan a lot nastier, giving him a cruel and sadistic streak. Matt Wagner, creator of GRENDEL and MAGE, did a four-part DEMON series in the mid-'80s, revealing that Etrigan was Merlin's half-brother, and portraying him as devious trickster, scheming against both Blood and Merlin. Other writers played off his rhyming to give him a sense of humor, albeit a dark and cynical one.
All these qualities came together in the '90s DEMON series, written by Alan Grant and drawn, for the first few years, by Val Semeiks. Etrigan was a perfect character for the Dark 'n' Gritty '90s: an anti-hero with a wicked sense of humor, which was about as much relief from the unrelenting grim of the rest of the universe that DC was willing to give us.
Then, in the middle of Alan Grant's run came a four-part story arc written by Dwayne McDuffie titled “Political Asylum”. McDuffie was another of of those rare lights of the Grim 'n' Gritty Era willing to let some joy break the murk. He first came to my notice with his DAMAGE CONTROL series for Marvel, a workplace comedy about a construction firm that cleans up after super-hero slugfests. He later became one of the founding members of Milestone Media and created the characters Icon and Static, the latter of which became a fairly successful Saturday Morning cartoon. Later still, he worked in animation, as a writer and story editor for JUSTICE LEAUGE UNLIMITED and writing a number of DC's direct-to-video animated projects, until his untimely death in 2011.
The story starts of with an adamantine-hardline conservative zillionaire who has set his private political think-tank to find the perfect presidential candidate. In 1992, George Bush Sr. was running for re-election, but there was a considerable faction in the Republican Party who considered him too moderate. He faced a number of challengers in the Republican primaries that year, most notably from political pundit Pat Buchannen.
Dingle's staff puts all the qualities they want from a candidate into a computer to try to find the perfect man for the job. Then they do it again, and a third time just to be sure.
When you speak a demon's name three times, you risk summoning him. The same, apparently, is true of listing the demon's attributes; and it just so happens that all the qualities Dingle wanted in his candidate were qualities that Etrigan has in spades. And so they find a demon summoned in their midst.
Unexpectedly, Etrigan really does turn out to be the perfect candidate. He is forceful; he has charisma; he's not afraid to buck the system; and he promises to Take Back America.
“A caring soul has heard your cries of angry discontent.
When your country's gone to Hell you NEED a demon president!”
His combination of boast, bluster and flag-waving proves popular with the public He comes out with a best-selling book outlining his vision for the nation titled “America Rules: A New Vision for America's Future” (consisting of pictures of himself in patriotic poses accompanied by jingoistic quatrains). When questioned about the feasibility of his policies, (and the quality of his rhymes) by a pundit on a political talk show, he incinerates the reporter with a blast of fiery breath, which only boosts his popularity.
The problem of how the Religious Right will react to a demon candidate is neatly solved. Etrigan's handlers persuade a popular televangelist that it would be a tremendous coup to baptize an actual demon in his mega-church. True, the baptismal pool explodes at Etrigan's approach, and the demon emerges blistered and half-scalded to death from the ordeal; but as long as Etrigan utters the right catch-phrases about Traditional Values, the televangelist is more than happy to overlook the smell of brimstone.
At one point, Superman enters the picture, and Etrigan tries to make a deal for the Man of Steel's endorsement. Superman refuses; he does not endorse political candidates. “If you stay out of the game, it suits me just fine...” Etrigan shrugs. “...For if good men do nothing, victory will be mine!” As they trade blows and barbs, Etrigan taunts Superman by reminding him that Democracy means that if the people choose him, that is their right to do so. As H.L. Menken observed, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Since Superman won't comment publicly, Etrigan drops some broad hints to the media that he does have Superman's support. This forces Superman to deny the rumors, of course, but by then the damage has been done, and Etrigan's popularity has gone up even further.
By this time, Etrigan is crushing the other challengers for the nomination, and even Bush is feeling intimidated. The President considers naming Etrigan as his new running-mate in order to avoid the embarrassment of being beaten by gargoyle who speaks in verse. This fits in with Etrigan's plans just fine. Once he's become Vice-President, he can always ascend to the Oval Office by eating the President.
But what is Jason Blood doing during all this? At first, he and his friends thought that no one would take Etrigan seriously; but as the campaign commences, they become more and more concerned.
Then, at the Republican National Convention, just as Etrigan is about to deliver his big speech accepting the Vice-Presidential nomination, Jason's friends manage to trick Etrigan into changing back into Blood. Jason publicly withdraws from the race, and Etrigan's campaign is over.
At the end, Etrigan has one last conversation with Superman. He is not disappointed by his defeat at all. He's an immortal demon; he can take the long view.
“I offer this tidbit to add to your fears:
The lessons I've learned I'll apply in four years.
The problem I pose you can't possibly fix.
I'm here to serve notice: I'll be back in '96 !”
Well, as it turned out, the DEMON series ended before the next presidential cycle and so Etrigan never had another opportunity to try again. Although in 2000, Lex Luthor ran for president in the DC Universe and won, using tactics which could have come from Etrigan's playbook.
But is Etrigan really gone? Whenever I see Donald Trump on TV, I hear a voice in my head saying:
“Don't listen to those spineless fools;
We can't be stopped, AMERICA RULES !”