Magic is an element that isn’t a natural fit for Batman’s gritty street-level adventures, but “The Demon Within” makes a strong case for bringing more fantasy into the Dark Knight’s life. Jack Kirby’s Etrigan the Demon is one of the more off-kilter superheroes in the DC Universe, summoned by Merlin to protect Camelot and then bound to one of King Arthur’s noblemen so that it could continue to fight for humanity. Etrigan’s host Jason Blood is a wealthy Gotham resident who is lucky to have the friendship of Bruce Wayne, which comes in handy when he finds himself part of Klarion the Witch Boy’s petulant plot to bring chaos to Gotham by taking control of the Demon.
This week’s story is a fun fantasy romp that may not have the most complex conflict, but the execution is so sharp that there doesn’t need to be that extra layer of sophistication in the story. That’s the thing about good all-ages entertainment: When it’s approached from a high level of quality and artistry, simplistic plots are given added weight. It’s one of the reasons shows like Adventure Time and Regular Show are able to receive full-length reviews on this site, in spite of their brief running times; the creators deliver such a fully realized final product that there’s plenty to break down.
The story by Rusty Bjornhöel (that’s got to be a pseudonym, right?) is a nice play on the problem-child concept by pitting Batman against an extremely powerful boy foe. When Klarion steals Morgan Le Fay’s magical iron brand after Bruce pays $1 million for it at an auction, he’s able to assume control of Etrigan and uses him to do what a kid would do if he had a giant yellow hell-beast at his control. He has Etrigan burn down a movie theater for playing a sequel, attack an ice cream truck, destroy public transit because it’s loud, and level eyesore buildings. Klarion has no gameplan except mischief, and an enemy that can only be satisfied by chaos is a very dangerous one.
As Batman tracks down Klarion, Robin stays with a rapidly aging Jason, who is using magic to protect the Dark Knight from afar. The actual spell-casting in this episode looks spectacular, with TMS using neon red, blue, and green to create a color palette that is a lot brighter more ethereal than what we normally on this show. “The Demon Within” is sadly TMS’ final episode of The New Batman Adventures, but the studio goes out with some of its most impressive work to date. The transformation sequences for both Klarion’s cat Teek’l and Etrigan are incredibly smooth, and the animators choose to show each physical transition rather than cutting away because they know they can make it look fantastic.
The technical elements are what really elevate this episode, from the sleek TMS animation to Shirley Walker’s whimsical score. In the past, I’ve talked about how the quality of an episode’s animation can be gauged by how the explosions and flames look, and TMS creates raging infernos that are beautifully shaded and react to how the air flows in the environment. When Jason casts a spell that multiplies Batman, the extra forms evaporate in a cloud of bats as they are attacked, a very cool visual that shows the intense power at Etrigan’s disposal. The magic only gets bigger and brighter as the episode continues, and TMS clearly has a lot of experience with animating spells, because they sure do create pretty balls of energy in this episode.
Ultimately, Batman wins with a mix of magic and brute force, taking the brand from Klarion and reciting the incantation to make Etrigan return to his host. Rather than opening up a can of worms by explaining to Tim what just happened, Batman just decides to end their magical adventure by not talking about what just happened, in spite of it being really frickin’ cool. Jack Kirby’s artwork always has incredible liveliness on the page, and “The Demon Within” captures that bombastic feeling, along with the sense of youthful excitement that permeated the King’s stories. It makes magic fun but also mysterious, and the fact that the writers use magic sparingly on this shows give it more effect when it comes into play.
- Batman Beatdown: While Klarion is concentrating on making Etrigan attack Jason, Batman charges at him and slams him up against a wall, stealing the brand and waving it above Klarion’s head because he’s so short. Batman’s such a bully sometimes.
- Etrigan is currently appearing in Robert Venditti’s Demon Knights, which has had an upswing in quality since Paul Cornell left the title. Check it out if you’re a fan of clever fantasy with a small dash of superhero action.
- Can you imagine how epic the baked goods must be at Kirby Cake Company?
- “No strawberry, master.”
- Etrigan: “Mother’s grief, father’s shame, soon he goes from whence he came.” Robin: “What does that mean?” Etrigan: “I’m sending him to his room.”
- Robin: “About tonight…” Batman: “Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.”