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September 22, 2019

Kill Six Billion Demons (Volume 1) (Review)


Kill Six Billion Demons (Volume 1)
Image Comics, March 2016. Purchased: Comiczone, Perth, Australia
Writer and artist: Abaddon (Tom Parkinson-Morgan)

Allison: “God is… dead? So who’s… like, in charge?Aeon: “What happens to a man’s house when he dies? The cats, the rats, and the cockroaches take over.”

(This review deals only with Volume 1. Our review of Volume 2 will follow shortly.)

This title features what can only be regarded as a meticulous and thoroughly well-executed exercise in world-building. This rests upon the foundations of a re-jigged Judeo-Christian mythology with some Hindu trappings. That latter religion manifests in an elaborate hierarchy of gods, angels, demons, demiurges, with a mind-boggling genealogy. 
It is written by Tom Parkinson-Morgan, who has the pseudonym Abaddon. (We adopt his pen name for this review.) For those who have never read the New Testament, or who missed out on the sinister antagonist Marc Remilliard in Julian May’s science fiction / fantasy 1980s classic The Many Coloured Land saga, Abaddon is another name for the devil – appropriate nomenclature for a writer whose imagination has within this title spawned many, many evils.

The Alpha and the Omega

Coupled with the religious mythos is the minutiae. The action is set on the world of Throne, the centre of the universe but also an abandoned Heaven taken over by foul demons. Throne is literally an abbreviation of “the Throne of God”. We have seen a universe in Mike Carey’s Lucifer (Vertigo Comics, 2000-2006)  in which God abandons heaven and then creation, and the Silver City (a sort-of heaven but not in the sense of a benevolent afterlife – more a habitat for angels) is besieged and destroyed by its enemies when it comes crashing down from the sky. 

This version of Heaven is far worse. Abaddon creates an environment which is grandiose and terribly corrupted. Angels may harass small fry devils, but must bow to high ranking demons to avoid destruction. Slavery, murder, and prostitution are on every corner. The dead body of an ironclad colossus is reanimated as public transport, a spear still embedded in its torso. 

This image is poignantly striking. The corpse of an enormous warrior, who apparently died in combat, has been converted into a bus. The passengers are parasites. Something honorable and grand has been perverted. The concept captures the essence of what Throne has become.

Throne is ruled with a loose and indulgent hand by seven corrupt kings and queens. The brief portrait of one of them is particularly striking: a giant, self-indulgent lord sitting on an actual throne, blood smeared around his mouth and dripping onto his lap, black eyes looking down at his vassals as if he was contemplating a box of chocolates. 

Throne is the hub of the multiverse, and 777,777 universes project from Throne as spokes to the wheel of existence. Most of those universes are subjugated to the seven tyrants. Ours, we are told, happens to be one which is not.

There is a tone of corruption to this title which was missing in Lucifer (with rare exceptions – for example, the dead Japanese god Susano making paper lanterns out of the souls of dead children). In contrast, corruption of all that is good is omnipresent in Kill Six Billion Demons.

In a 2016 interview for Big Comic Page, Abaddon sets out his inspiration:
The whole world of the comic came from a jokey idea where someone suggested I include Freidrich Nietzsche into the comic who famously said ‘God is dead’ (a completely misunderstood quote by the way). And I had the thought of ‘Well, what if I had a story where God actually was dead? And why? What happens to the place where He sat when making the universe?’ So from the start I thought religion would have to be a big part of the story, and I drew on all of the above to write the religious texts of the in-universe religion, called Atru, which is sort of like Buddhism/Taoism on steroids.”

Fresh Epic

Demons in the title are for the most part disturbingly humanoid in both appearance and behaviour. They are not like Azazel in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (a black vapour containing teeth), although they are equally as avaricious. In Brian Michael Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men, a magician/ mutant named Illyana Rasputin has a thoroughly intriguing exchange with her mentor, fellow sorcerer Dr Strange. When Rasputin was a child on a farm, her father admonished her for anthropomorphic treatment of the animals – attributing human characteristics to cows. She goes on to note that she attributes human motivations to a powerful demon called Dormannu, an equally erroneous thought process. Dormannu has inhuman motivations. 

And so it is with most of the demons. If their motivations have any resemblance to human emotional make-up, it is because the worst of them have been exaggerated to the point of repulsion. Lust, wrath, and greed are merely some of the parameters of these demons’ sins: bloody-minded opportunism, a trigger-happy propensity for violence, a willingness to cause misery for sport, and a culture of enslavement of their fellow creatures. There is no moral frailty in action: there is exaggerated amorality. 
Setting aside the Buddhist mythos of cosmic battles, the overall premise of the comic is somewhat akin to the folklorish architecture of Jack Kirby’s New Gods (1970). But it is much more detailed. Here, we see spelled out for us the origin of the multiverse, the multiplicity of God, the yin and yang of love and hate, the rise and fall of masters of creation, corrupted angels and fallen gods. It is a heady brew. 

Unsafe Sex

The story has an urbane beginning. The main character Allison, a quite ordinary young student, is about to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time. He is saying anything he needs to say, he isn’t particularly skilful, and she is a very nervous but willing.

Then the outrageously unexpected happens. A mystic black door opens into her bedroom, and a cavalry of bone-white mounted warriors charges through in pursuit of an armoured, robed character, in what must be one of the most startling cases of coitus interruptus in fiction. We do not know at this point whether or not this creature is a very clever thief or someone more impressive (we find out later), for there is no time for dialogue – the pursued being is decapitated by his pursuers. Irrespective of what should be a fatal wound, the headless body thrusts a key of immense cosmic power into Allison’s forehead, causing her to disintegrate and be reduced to a barely recognisable grey soul. 

But has she died? Allison eventually finds herself in a frightening environment surrounded by impossible creatures she can barely perceive speaking a language cannot understand – the celestial plane which is Throne.

The Divine Comedy

All new worlds need a guide, and particularly hells. Dante in the seven circles of Hell was guided by the shade of the classical Roman poet Virgil (Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, 1380). In Grant Morrison’s breakout title Kid Eternity (Vertigo Comics, 1991) the title character guides a the soulof a terrified comedian through a layered landscape of sickly horror as a modern day Virgil. Upon landing on Throne, Allison tumbles through a window and interrupts a stand-off between an angel and some demons. Allison is a distraction, and the angel, who later says it’s name is “82 White Chain Born Into Emptiness Returns to Subdue Evil”, but who everyone seems to call “Aeon”, overcomes a demonic gang using a mystic attack. The angel’s gratitude turns to alarm as it realised that Allison possesses one of the omnipotent keys to heaven: Aeon proposes a valiant but doomed effort at recovery involving a magical offensive. Allison responds by yelling and throwing a jug of coffee. It is a very funny moment. 

The angel pauses, baffled at Allison’s inept reaction. Clearly she does not command the key. “At first I thought you vatra – a sorcerer. As I suspected, it’s much worse. You are not a criminal, but you are deeply ignorant of the power lodged in your skull. That might as well be a crime,” muses the angel in a bemused conversation with Allison afterwards. The reader is left to chuckle at Allison’s startled reaction. 

There is a lot of humour in the story. It does a fine job of juxtaposing the horror of the surrounds and the cast. Allison quaffs a drink which enables her to understand the devils of Throne, but also to her horrified surprise gives her horns. Aeon explains: “I’ve been feeding you a little liquor for three turns, so please do not mind the horns. They will fall off in time.” And later, when one particularly powerful demon puts a bounty on Allison’s head, others enter into a spontaneous bidding war, including for Allison’s teeth. Her teeth? An idiot demon has become caught up in the excitement of an auction. It provokes a smirk.

By this stage Aeon is no longer Allison’s guide and she has allied herself to Ciocie Cioelle, a minor blue-skinned devil with some very handy spells. Cio is not so much a guide as an usher – she gets Allison out of Throne as quickly as possible, defusing the chaos caused by the presence of the key

Because Allison has embedded in her head an cosmic artefact coveted by all, she becomes the object of a hunt. The temptation of owning one of the keys to heaven is too much for most of Throne, or at least the denizens of Hell 71, where Allison has found herself. At one stage, in a glorious two page spread, one hundred demons silently face off against each other in a pause before the initiation of an enormous melee, each of them or their respective guilds and clans laying claim to the key and to Allison. The scene is encircled by small postage stamp panels detailing weapons being cocked, released, readied, or small grunts or sighs as the antagonists realise the  extent of the pending chaos. It is funny and it is magnificently well-executed. 

Assisted by the apparently not-so-much malign as irascible Cio, she is pushed into a gateway and lands back in her own world. Her souvenirs are significant: a notched broadsword (which very much bothers her housemate) and the Key of Kings still embedded in her skull. 
Allison very quickly finds her life as a barista and graduate student pointless. Allison’s friends and their bleating about her love life do not compare to the dark majesty she has left behind. She now has two purposes: first, to rescue her creepy boyfriend, who unbeknownst to her is being held naked, in some sort of suspended animation, for assessment by representatives of the seven tyrants. And second, Allison has been given a broader mission by the Conquering King. Her bestowed name is “Kill Six Billion Demons”. 
Allison used the Key to return to Throne of her own volition, this time dressed in sensible hiking gear with a backpack, and with her sword. Demons look on curiously as she returns in a flash of light. One of the seven types of traditional plots is the quest motif. Allison is no longer the hunted: now, she is on a quest. 

Characterisation in this comic is superb:

1. The Conquering King is apparently marooned, knows that Allison has witnessed his death, and has devolved into rambling, desperate incoherence. The king’s first appearance is mysterious, but as a key figure in Aeon’s tale of the origin of the Demiurges, he is an awe-inspiring Prometheus. 

2. Aeon is sanctimonious as is his role as a peacekeeper – he loves his own voice, and is prickly and proud – but is also a little weary. Aeon gives the impression of being an honest cop having to work an impossibly hard beat. When Aeon brawls with a corrupted angel he is stunned into silence by the knowledge that one of his brothers can fall so low and revel in it.  

3. Jagganoth, another of the seven kings, is imperious and vicious, a looming late entry into the cast in this volume. In one panel, his sentence is broken into two word balloons: “I” and “called it” (describing a meeting) as if the word “I” could not suffer another word in its presence. Jagganoth is also bright: of all of the remaining seven kings, only he is alert enough to the danger represented by Allison’s immobilised boyfriend. He asks the right questions, each laced with menace.

The initial focus is upon Allison and the angel. Allison is initially lost, panicked, bewildered.  But within this first volume we already have significant character evolution. Allison is enabled by the key to heaven, surely. But she becomes more assertive as she finds her way. Towards the end of this volume, Allison resists to being an object to be possessed. Aeon snarls that he has not been firm enough in his dealings with her. Allison rebels, makes her own allies, and escapes to carve her own path.

A Canvas at the Centre of the Universe

The art is extraordinarily detailed. Some of the bigger panels if collected and curated could fill an art gallery. And yet the detail tells the story. Here are two of many examples:

1. Cieo is repeatedly given micro-expressions – little feral smiles as she contemplates something wicked and amusing for a moment, then replaced by her standard ennui. 

2. Aeon tells Allison the tale of the origin of the Demiurges, the seven corrupt kings. Aeon laments their failings, that they were not born to meditate and create art, but that they inevitably sought to rule. And in the hand of one of the kings is a beautiful Japanese fan, and painted upon the fan is a delicate drawing of that king’s secret heart’s desire: dominion over his peers, expressed as a portrait of the king as a looming menace over his rivals. It is a subtle touch by Abaddon. 

In a 2017 interview with Heavy Mag creator Abaddon gives insight into the thinking behind the melange of concepts:

KSBD is like an enormous stew of all the things I like to watch and read, but I think if I had to name some prominent influences it would be the art of Wayne Barlowe and the comics of Jean Giraud aka Moebius. These two guys, Moebius especially, have such a phenomenal and enormous talent at creating huge, alien, immersive worlds with an insanely impressive level of attention, detail and aesthetic. I would consider Moebius one of the greatest comic artists of all time, and I think I lie within his ‘school’ of influence with many other artists.”

The late Mr Girard’s influence is obvious. This comic will appeal to fans of Mr Giraud‘s work. 

The title started (and continues to have) its existence as a webcomic. It appears to have a respectable following and Abaddon cultivates those followers by, for example, drawing into backgrounds particularly unique demons created by his readers. This trade paperback first volume collects the overall introduction to the story: yet another successful exercise by American publisher Image Comics in identifying quality. We cannot recommend this comic highly enough. It is flawless.