There’s this character in the comics called The Demon, a sort of horror-themed superhero. He was invented in the ’70s as a kind of witchity version of The Hulk – by day he’s occult specialist Jason Blood, but whenever he chants the magical rhyme given to him by Merlin, he changes into a demon called Etrigan.
He’s fun in a grim-yet-goofy sort of way, and he’s visually quite arresting, all red tunic and golden skin as he bounces across the page laughing maniacally and speaking exclusively in rhyme.
A couple of years ago they released a comic series called The Brave and the Bold that featured mix-and-match adventures between pairs of superheroes chosen for their dissimilarity. Issue 32, written by J Michael Straczynski (who some of you might know as the driving force behind that old cult scifi TV show Bablyon 5) and drawn by the striking Jesus Saiz, featured the pairing of The Demon with Aquaman as they fought against Cthulu (although they never actually say it’s Cthulu, but that’s as good a name as any for the giant octopus-headed monster they fight) and his armies of the dead.
It’s great high-concept stuff, well written and beautifully drawn, one of my favourites of the series, but one thing has always bugged me about it. Straczynski has written The Demon’s dialogue in the obligatory rhyming couplets, but to be frank the poetry is a bit wonky.
Not to cast aspersions on Mr Straczynski’s talents as a writer, and not to big-note myself, but poetry is a specialist writing skill, and while he’s undoubtedly talented in terms of plot and characterisation, the quality of his poetry in this issue is pretty patchy. Not that there’s anything really wrong with that. The talking poetry gimmick is a pretty minor detail in this comic and Straczynski shouldn’t be expected to bring what’s essentially a bit of doggerel to add colour to The Demon’s characterisation up to the standards of William Blake or anything. He’s not a poet and he’s never claimed to be one, so expecting him to crank out some high quality verse isn’t really fair.
I doubt that many comic readers would think twice about whether The Demon’s dialogue scans or rhymes properly, but for a poet into superheroes the wonky poetry distracts from what is otherwise one of my favourite single-issue superhero comics in recent years.
And so for my own peace of mind I have taken it upon myself to attempt a revisioning of The Demon’s dialogue in this issue in the hopes that I might tighten it up and make it as robust as the rest of the comic.
Throughout this exercise I’ve tried to stick as close as possible to the original meaning of the dialogue. What I was aiming to do was not to rewrite the poetry per se, but rather to edit it to make it adhere closer to a fixed rhyme and metre, and also to make it clearer, more narrative, more like a chunk of dialogue with a point and less like the words were chosen to get the rhyme right.
We first meet our two heroes on page four of the comic, after our introduction to the narrator of the story, a sailor whose boat was sunk by Cthulu’s army, and whose fellow sailors were all taken by evil fish-men.
The thing that sticks out about Etrigan’s lines in this scene is that they follow a totally different rhyming scheme than the rest of the comic. In this scene he’s speaking in A-B-A-B sequence, but the rest of the comic has him speaking in A-A-B-B.
There are also problems with this section’s content. The first four lines of The Demon’s speech don’t flow logically. “…a single soul somehow survives/in what the sea delights to save…” is confusing, though it’s possible to fix this by adding a full stop after “survives” and breaking the first four lines into two separate sentences.
That doesn’t fix the next problem, though, which is that, even as a separate couplet, “…in what the sea delights to save/may aid in what we two surmise” doesn’t make sense. The two “in”s are confusing. Removing the initial “in” counters some of the ambiguity, but you still get the confusing use of “surmise” at the end of the sentence.
To surmise is to suspect something even though you have no evidence to confirm that suspicion. So what The Demon is saying is, “what the sea has saved may help us with what we suppose is true (though we have no evidence to prove it).” You could take that sentence to mean “this guy is going to help us fix what we’re pretty sure we have to fix”, but the use of the phrase “aid in” (ie, “help with”) creates an expectation that you’re going to be talking about this guy helping with a plan or an action of some kind, not a supposition (I have no idea how you help someone surmise, or if it’s even possible).
Also, the word “delights” seems to be being used here as a synonym for “chooses”, which is clearly not right. Those two words mean totally different things.
The next two lines are nice, containing as they do some lovely imagery, not only of the sea as a dangerous predator, but as a predator that is so distressed that it ignores its own predatory instincts in order to spare the life of its prey so that its prey can ask for help from our heroes. That’s great stuff. The line “forbearing prey to cry for aid” is just choice.
The final two lines have the same problems that the first six do. When The Demon says “…that darkness”, the use of the word “that” implies that he’s referring to a darkness which he’s referred to previously, but the only other darkness he’s mentioned at this stage is the dark that he refers to in the first line.
But the dark mentioned in the first line seems to simply be the darkness of the ocean itself. The darkness mentioned in the last two lines, however, is portending (ie, warning) of “madness, death and horror”, which would seem to be an unnatural state of affairs (especially if it requires the intervention of two superheroes). But if this latter darkness is the same as the former darkness, you’ve got a situation where Aquaman and The Demon are being asked by the sea to fight against the sea.
This is patently not the case. They’re going down there to kick Cthulu’s arse, not the ocean’s arse. The ambiguity needs to be eliminated.
Attempting, then, to distil the essence of The Demon’s dialogue, I decided that the crucial stuff to be retained should be that a) the sailor dude has been sent by the sea to petition Aquaman and The Demon for help, and b) the fact that the sea is so freaked that it gives up the chance to drown the sailor dude is testament to the bad shit that’s going down.
The other thing I did was to take the couplets out of the A-B-A-B rhyming scheme and rewrite them as A-A-B-B.
The first two lines of my revised dialogue manage to hang onto the meaning of the original first two, setting the scene as The Demon remarks upon the sailor’s survival. The next three lines discuss the implications of the sea rescuing the sailor, though I did unfortunately lose the concept of the sea as predator.
I took the opportunity to throw in a little reference to the difference between our heroes and the narrator, by adding the word “mortal”. It creates a sense that he’s well out of his depth, not only because he’s in the presence of two such powerful, godlike characters, but also because he’s been chosen to survive by the pure elemental force of the ocean itself in order to witness an epic battle between good and evil.
I also had fun throwing in some ye-olde-isms like “Mistress Ocean” and “Hark, Sea King”. The partial rhyme of “bear” and “fear” pleases me too.
Aquaman and The Demon decide to take the sailor with them, but in order to do so The Demon casts a spell to give our hapless narrator a set of gills so he can hang out with them under the ocean.
This one only needed a bit of tweaking to adjust the rhythm in the first panel’s dialogue. The dialogue in the last two panels was also pretty good. I really like the first couplet with its reference to earth, air and water, three of the four alchemical elements (implying that The Demon is the fourth one, fire), but I got rid of the “a” in “a man” to make it more about humanity and less about one specific man.
The second couplet didn’t work as well. I thought that the introduction of the idea of the tail distracted from the cool stuff about gills. I also thought it read like The Demon was saying that the sailor would be given gills because he had a tail when he was an embryo, which doesn’t make sense. I didn’t really like them being referred to as nature’s gills, either.
I took the opportunity to make reference to nature’s will as a way to retain the original’s reference to nature (ie, biology) and also to invoke the idea that what The Demon was doing was against nature’s will – a supernatural or unnatural act.
They swim down to spy on the enemy camp, and more is revealed about the nature of the army that Aquaman and The Demon are preparing to face.
“Breeded” is not a word. The past tense of “breed” is “bred”. The only reason I can think of for using “breeded” is to provied the required rhythm, but you can achieve the same thing by changing “place beyond” to “place that lies beyond” if you’re a bit flexible with your emphasis.
I also changed “spawn” to “spawned” to match the new past-tense status of the first line’s revised “bred”, which had the serendipitous result of matching the rhymes a bit better.
“More besides” is a bit of a cliche, so I switched it for “and bound them with”, which necessitated changing “their” to “whose” for reasons of logical flow.
I also changed “mixed” to “stole”, which is more sinister in meaning, and which ties in better with Aquaman’s subsequent explanation (which I haven’t shown) to the sailor about the stolen humans who were forced to mate with demons in order to create Cthulu’s army.
Aquaman swims down into the enemy camp to reconnoitre while The Demon and the sailor stay behind. The sailor expresses his concerns for Aquaman’s safety, but The Demon pish-toshes the very idea that someone like Aquaman would need help.
Aquaman is discovered in the midst of the enemy’s ranks and The Demon and the sailor swim down to help him. Aquaman responds to his discovery by summoning an enormous army of sea creatures to fight alongside him.
I liked the first two lines in this panel, but I thought an “and” instead of a comma in the second line gave it a better rhythm. The rhythm of the last line was a beat short, though, so I rewrote the last couplet and changed the rhyme from “shake”/“quake” to “storm”/“form”. I thought the former was problematic because both words kind of mean the same thing, which meant that it was essentially rhyming a word with itself.
I was pretty happy with the concept of the ocean’s anger taking form, which harks back to the idea of the ocean as a living thing, as mentioned in The Demon’s first little speech. It’s also a nice line to lead directly into the image on the next page, which is this:
The first line of this couplet was too general a statement about reunions (and one that isn’t entirely true – some reunions are most definitely not a waste of time) so I recast it to be specifically about this particular reunion being untimely.
I also didn’t like “tarry” – it was a bit too cod-Shakespearean – so I changed it to “linger”. The use of “crime” didn’t work for me either – who exactly would it be a crime against to tarry/linger? It would be a bad thing, undoubtedly, but not all bad things are crimes. Some of them are sins, or morally repugnant, but you can be both of those things without being a crime. So I ditched “crime” and went for the partial rhyme of “left behind”, which gave a much more specific consequence to the sailor being distracted by his old dead friend, and also a touch of alliteration.
Aquaman’s fishy (and cetaceany/cephalopodesque – no decent underwater army is without its dolphins, whales, octopuses and squids) army turns the tide of the battle, which leaves The Demon to deliver the killing blow to Cthulu, casting a spell that makes it burst into flames.
“By this token you’ll rue the hour” doesn’t work – “by this token” refers to the runes of power mentioned in the first line and sets up the expectation that something is going to be done by them, but “you’ll rue the hour” is actually about something Cthulu will do, not something the runes of power will do (ie, it’s Cthulu, not the runes that will rue the hour). The sentence has switched subjects halfway through.
Also, “each new try attempted” is a redundant phrase – “attempt” and “try” mean largely the same thing, so what he’s saying is “for each new try you try”.
I hung onto the first line, with a few minor changes, but rewrote the second line to give it a specific subject: the might of the runes mentioned in the first line. It also let me get rid of “rue the hour”, which seemed to me was only there as an unconvincing reworking of the old “rue the day” cliche so that it could fit the rhyme.
I reworked the third line to give it a stricter beat – the dah-DUM-dah-DUM of “from whence you came” has more gravitas compared to to the humpty-TUM-tee-TUM-tum rhythm of “to your own dimension”.
I also gave his last speech balloon two syllables – it felt like a more dramatic ending than the original single word.
The comic ends with the sailor, divested of his gills and returned to land, digging up his dead friend’s grave to see if his friend’s body is actually there, and not at the bottom of the ocean as part of Cthulu’s defeated army. To his relief his friend is in his own grave, and in a nice “it wasn’t a dream” touch, the sailor’s St. Christopher medal, snatched by his friend during their underwater confrontation, is there too, clutched in his friend’s dead fingers.
The Demon doesn’t get any more dialogue, just a final panel of him and Aquaman swimming resolutely off to their next adventure.
Correcting the poetic dialogue of an obscure comic-book character may well be the nerdiest and most anal retentive thing I’ve ever done, but I had a lot of fun mashing the comic-nerd and poetry-geek sides of my personality together. It made me think carefully about the way poetry is constructed, and it gave me an excuse to bang on about superheroes (as if I ever really needed one).
Plus, it’s a nice way to prove to DC Comics that, if they should ever be on the hunt for an editor for any future comic series starring characters that speak exclusively in rhyme, I’ve got what it takes to get the job done.
(Thanks to Blambot for the Dragonbones font, which I used to reletter the revised pages.)