Etrigan the Demon is one of Jack Kirby's odder creations, conceived for DC in the decade after Kirby created most of the Marvel superhero canon, and also conceived separately from the New Gods—Kirby's best known contributions to the DC universe. Etrigan has a mutt-like charm, and—especially when drawn by Kirby—even a mutt-like visage, but a less obvious hook than Kirby’s more popular characters. A mix of Arthurian lore, the tortured duality of Kirby’s Hulk, and the modern-mystic trappings of Lee and Ditko's Dr. Strange, the premise behind the Demon combines so many high concepts, it quickly gets blurry. The character has remained a minor presence in DC books for decades without being the subject of a truly celebrated run. There’s no equivalent to Walt Simonson’s issues of Thor or the years Chris Claremont spent expanding the world of Lee and Kirby’s X-Men.
The issues collected in Hell's Hitman, dating to the mid-'90s, are not much of a talking point, even among fans of the issues’ writer, Garth Ennis, and they're probably best remembered as the birthplace of Tommy Monaghan, later the title character in Ennis's Hitman series. DC released this collection with little fanfare, perhaps to coincide with Ennis's recent All-Star Section Eight series, a belated Hitman spin-off surrounded by little fanfare itself. Ennis and Etrigan make for a counter-intuitive pairing; the Demon speaks in verse, precluding the scenes of between-fight bullshitting that fill Ennis titles like Preacher. (The release may also be part of an effort to put as many Garth Ennis collections on the market as possible before the Preacher TV series premieres.) Ennis himself admits in his author's note at front of the collection, "I see some things I don’t like, but an awful lot more that I do.” In short: Hell’s Hitman is an especially weird bit of back-catalog excavation, both in its narrow appeal and its wild vacillations in quality.
While scripting these comics, Ennis would have only been a few years removed from his time writing for 2000 A.D., and although DC’s Gotham City is the nominal setting of most of the stories in Hell’s Hitman, Ennis’s version of the place often recalls Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. It’s home to a large cohort of losers and schemers, full of garbage-dump local color. (D-list Bat-villains Tweedledee and Tweedledum make an appearance, along with the congregants of Gotham’s “Church of the Blessed Televangelist.”) Unfortunately, Hell’s Hitman also recalls 2000 A.D. in the success rate of its jokes.
Boosters of Ennis’s Hitman run tend not to mention the number of fat jokes in Tommy Monaghan’s first appearance. Etrigan lobs a number of them at his and Monaghan’s shared enemy, and Ennis’s squeezing of already-lame gags into verse form makes the issue a slog. More embarrassing still is a moment from the start of the collection, in which Etrigan flashes back to youthful battles in Hell between “the north-Hell Bloods” and “the southside Crips.” Preacher, despite its failings, has the charge and the charm of a person from another country exploring different the landscapes—and notions—of America. In these pages, Ennis just comes off like a tourist.
A reader can usually rely on Ennis to populate his genre exercises with legible, complicated characters, and in this respect, the demon Etrigan defeats him. Ennis provides a pretty half-baked take on the relationship between Etrigan and his other half, Jason Blood. The demon is theoretically a dangerous presence and an antagonist of sorts to Blood, yet circumstances always position him against the villain of a given arc. And when Etrigan receives the title of “Hell’s Hitman” midway through the collection, his new duties aren’t discernibly different from his earlier ones.
The slightness and the puckishness of the comics in Hell’s Hitman do sometimes work in their favor. Even when a giant demon threatens to destroy Gotham or zombified Nazis invade Texas, the stories are fundamentally low-stakes reads: platforms for Ennis to riff on biker movies, private-eye novels, or—in the case of the zombie Nazis—to revive DC’s obscure Haunted Tank concept. And, crucially, the issues always give John McCrea material for a steady stream of lively pages. McCrea’s cartooning sensibilities are less refined throughout Hell’s Hitman than they are throughout later projects (e.g. regular Hitman). In fact, certain pages look like milder versions of the baroque superhero work Kelly Jones would do on DC's Batman books around the same time. And yet McCrea’s artwork still elevates the stories.
McCrea inks his own pencils in these comics, and his choices with spot blacks lend both balance and atmosphere to the pages. His work makes an especially big impression in the first issue of the run, due to the coloring choices of David Lloyd (who doesn’t stick around for later stories). Lloyd applies a suitably garish palette to his issue, using pale pinks and swamp greens in odd places and laying a creamy yellow behind the Gotham City skyline. Excepting Ennis’s tone-deaf Crips/Bloods gag, the story serves as a look at how much stronger some of the following issues could have been. (A handful of stories in the back half feature guest pencillers, and they’re converts-only reads.) McCrea creates a section of the universe in which everything twists and curls, from Etrigan’s cape, ears, and fingers to the flames and wreckage that tend to accompany the demon. It is a suitably decadent approach to a demonic character.
And perhaps there’s something decadent about Hell’s Hitman as a collection, too. The book brings together a fitfully entertaining run from creators who did better work elsewhere, aiming this content at what can only be a niche readership. Even the strongest issues lend themselves best to one-off browsings. If readers are looking for a truly memorable Kirby revision or a fully-actualized Ennis, these comics don’t conjure up either one.