|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
Spirit World & Other Weird Mysteries
by and © Jon B. Cooke
After feeling stifled at Marvel in the late '60s, Jack Kirby took on his new position as editor/writer/artist at DC with great creative energy. "He proposed a whole series of new format comics," Mark Evanier, former Kirby assistant said. "Big magazines, small magazines, tabloid-sized magazines, weekly comics, novels. Jack was really at that point of the belief that comics had to get out of the 32-page format to survive."
"What Jack wanted to do," Kirby associate Greg Theakston said, "as a one-time publisher and a guy who packaged his own books for years, was to package different kinds of books." And now the King had a receptive publisher and he was pitching ideas hand-over-fist, many of them non-superhero concepts. "Jack wanted to do a Dracula book, very similar with what Marvel came out with later [see sidebar]," Evanier explained. "A couple of characters Jack wanted to buy the rights to Doc Savage was one of them. Mostly it was a matter of subject material. Jack was highest on the romance as an idea."
While the vampire and pulp material never got beyond the talking stage, DC did give the green light to two of Jack's ideas: True Divorce Cases and In the Days of the Mob. "He submitted a whole series of concepts, and DC picked what they wanted. They picked out of the dozen or two dozen ideas that he submitted. They picked to do Mob first, Soul Romances (a blaxploitation incarnation of True Divorce Cases that was completed but eventually scrapped), and then DC suggested Spirit World."
Jack advocated a new format for these magazines, one that would later be realized by others in Heavy Metal. "Something slick with upscale advertising for an older audience," Evanier said. Jack admired the European sophistication in subject matter and their expensive production values, and would haunt the shelves of Graphic Story World Richard Kyle's Long Beach, CA comics shop for international editions. And he certainly envisioned these projects in color, not the one-color tint that eventually saw print. "That was somebody's idea in New York and Jack didn't like it," Evanier said.
Unfortunately, DC kept scaling back the projects "into cheaper formats," Evanier explained. "To my knowledge, Jack never came in and said 'let's do black-&-white magazines.' Jack did not like black-&-white." In launching the pair of projects, the company inaugurated Hampshire Distribution, "just a fake name that DC set up," Evanier said. By not labeling the books as published by the nationally-recognized DC Comics, Theakston said, they revealed "how much faith they had." DC then christened their books the "Speak-Out Series."
"Prophecy! Reincarnation! Haunting! Black Magic!" screamed the cover copy of Spirit World #1 which was published in the Summer of 1971. "Jack did a cover [to Spirit World] that was part collage, part drawing," Evanier said. "Then they had Neal Adams re-draw the whole thing in New York with a similar layout. They changed a few things." As with Black Magic, Jack's interest in the subject area continued to be in suggesting terror of the unknown, rather than the explicit gore and repulsive horror epitomized in EC Comics. In sharp contrast to the black-&-white Warren books and the garish Terror magazines sharing space on the stands, Spirit World delved into more supernatural aspects with its bespectacled and bearded host, Dr. E. Leopold Maas, paranormalist - it was more X-Files and less Tales from the Crypt.
The contents of #1 were mature and provocative, indicating that Jack was reaching out to a more adult audience. The initial story dealt with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but exploited not the conspiracy angle, but the reported premonitions of "Lucille M." and her futile attempts to influence the White House to cancel the tragic Dallas visit. Aided with three pages of Jack's legendary collage work, the story's use of "the damnable click of the rifle bolt" is chilling. Next up, our host Dr. Maas becomes a player in "The House of Horror," as he witnesses ghosts of a mass murder in a standard poltergeist tale.
The third story was something completely different. "Jack was big on fumetti [photo-stories resembling comic books, with captions and word balloons]. One of the 107 different ideas Jack proposed to DC was a whole fumetti comic. He loved that idea, and it was something he just never got any response on from New York," said Evanier. But he and Steve Sherman took up the Spirit World assignment with gusto, and with Evanier plotting and Sherman photographing, "Children of the Flaming Wheel" was a psychedelic trip into "the forbidden rituals of Secret California Cults." Starring friends of the teenage assistants, the story is certainly a weirdo artifact from those hippie days. The story abruptly segues into Jack's "The Screaming Woman," a ten-page tour-de-force featuring reincarnation, semi-nudity and the dreaded Torquemada, chief architect of the Spanish Inquisition. Kirby's full-page of the bloody aftermath of Conquistador warfare is awesome.
"We did a lot of research for Jack," Evanier said of himself and Sherman, "because we wanted to make it authentic." Part of that research went into the next feature, "The Spirit of Vengeance," a three-page text piece written by the assistants embellished with a Kirby collage. Besides a one-page Sergio Aragones "Weird Humor" page, the issue is rounded-out with a look at the predictions of Nostradamus, complete with visions of Napoleon's defeat, Hitler's warmongering, Khruschev's pomposity, and an image of Mao superimposed over a mushroom cloud, never mind the final page's nightmarish collage of Paris as a nuclear wasteland in 1983.
Jack's art, while hindered a bit by Vince Colletta's underwhelming inks, was big and explosive. Gone were the constraints of panel borders, and if he was disappointed in the one-color format, the masterful use of his blue ink washes didn't show it. The King used the larger 81/2" x 11" format to give his beloved collages their fullest effect.
As good as Spirit World and its sister magazine In the Days of the Mob were, much of the potential audience never got a chance to see them. First, they were difficult to categorize for those stocking the stands. "They were racked nowhere near the comics," Theakston said. "So no one knew that there was a comics magazine on the newsstand, and the casual person who checked it out didn't know what to make of it."
But the major problem was poor distribution. Evanier explained, "Independent News [a branch of the same company that owned DC] was one of the biggest distributors in the world at that time, but the comic book division did not control distribution. The first issues [of Mob and SW] got very bad distribution. Steve and I went down to the warehouse in L.A. We never saw an issue on the newsstands in L.A., so we went down to the warehouse to pick up copies. They had not even left the warehouse. DC actually later on sold them in ads in the comics because those issues had not gone out to whole states."
The entire "Speak-Out Series" was cancelled, reportedly before sales figures of the first issue were reviewed by DC. Along with a second issue of Mob, "We turned in Spirit World #2, knowing that DC was probably not going to print it. We knew that the book had not gone over well with them I don't think that Jack even did covers for the second issues. There was [talk of] a possibility of a re-launch," Evanier said, but beyond the house ad re-promoting the books (and selling the huge warehouse stock), Jack's brief foray into the black-&-white field was over.
But there was a matter of the leftover inventory for Spirit World #2. Luckily, most of the contents found their way into various color DC mystery comics within a short time, and most of that material was outstanding. Weird Mystery Tales #1 featured seductive personifications of the signs of the Zodiac (including the sensuous Pisces goddess, revived by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, & Glen Murakami in a recent Batman Adventures Special) in "Horoscope Phenomenon." The second issue of Weird Mystery Tales featured a classic fantasy, "Toxl, the World Killer," a parable on the insidious effects of pollution on the environment. The full page of a world's destruction is superb.
Pencils from "Toxl, The World Killer," intended for Spirit World #2.
Mark Evanier dialogued this story.
"I wrote 'Toxl,'" Evanier said. "It was a plot we worked on together. It was very strange: He just threw it at me one day. I wrote an outline, which he didn't follow, and then he gave it to me to dialogue - it was the one time I ever dialogued for Jack over his pencils. I wrote it in his style and he changed a few lines here and there."
Next is the obscure Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion #6, with the odd "The Psychic-Blood-Hound," featuring a rare instance of Mike Royer working over Kirby breakdowns. "Jack wanted very much not to do everything himself," Evanier said. "We tried an experiment: Could we sneak other artists in by having them work over Kirby layouts? Ultimately, it didn't work very well, partly because if you're going to have Royer finishing Kirby art, you might as well have Kirby draw it. Mike really couldn't bring any of his own skills to the project."
"I did the plot outline for the story," Evanier continued. "But Jack didn't use anything I did. The only thing that remains is a movie marquee that says, 'A Piece of the Action.' A friend of mine had made an amateur movie with that title."
Finally, in Weird Mystery Tales #3, "The Burners" saw print. It was a bizarre tale about the hapless victims of spontaneous combustion featuring a classic example of a perfect art team: Kirby pencils and Royer inks.
Spirit World is proof of Jack's ability to take a twice-baked concept and invigorate it with original and enticing storytelling. "My feeling was that DC just wasn't interested in getting into that black-&-white market," Evanier said. "[Jack's] plan was a project that didn't interest them much and when they talked about it, there was not much enthusiasm. You have to remember that sales at that time were very bad and DC was trying a little bit of everything. In a year or two, they tried tabloid-size comics, digest-sized comics - they were trying a much narrower area than Jack was proposing, but they still were trying a number of different things. There was very little enthusiasm for the two black-&-whites, and the minute that there was the slightest negative from the distributors, they decided to give up on the idea." Regardless of DC's lackluster support, Jack and his team gave it their all, and Spirit World remains a curious and well-executed project by an artist at the peak of his creative powers.
Kirby's Dracula Book
Spirit World wasn't the only horror concept that Kirby worked on at DC in the early 1970s. Mark Evanier said, "When Jack was first at DC, his job was to come up with all these ideas for new books - tons of them. I was typing up outlines, he was pitching them verbally over the phone and doing drawings. One that Jack had come up with was to do a black-&-white horror comic - a Creepy-type thing. Jack had this idea to do a book called Dracula, which he thought was going to be very commercial. His idea was to do Dracula at different time periods, an anthology book. One story might have had him in the present day, one story might have him in the past, another would have him in the future. He made the presentation to DC, and Carmine said, "Yeah, we'll get to it, we'll get to it." Then Marvel announced the same idea [with Dracula Lives!]. Jack got a little paranoid about his ideas being stolen by Marvel, at that point; that Marvel was going to put the stuff out before him and make it look like he was imitating them.
"He decided at that point to put that vampire thing in Jimmy Olsen. And he did the first issue of the "Transilvane" thing, which Steve [Sherman] and I kind of co-plotted. Apparently at that point there was a Comics Code provision against vampires in color comics. There was a day or two there when Carmine was saying, 'I don't know if we can print this, I don't think the Code will let us.' A couple of days later the Comics Code was changed, liberalized, and they started allowing vampires in, along with a couple of other things. I don't know if it was because Carmine put pressure on them or what, but it was literally changed after Jack handed that issue in. Marvel immediately started work on the character Morbius in Spider-Man. Because of the lead time, Jack was way ahead of Jimmy Olsen at that point. Morbius came out a little bit before his Transilvane story. Jack got very upset. He picked up a fanzine one day, and saw someone accuse him of stealing the idea of Morbius, and putting it in Jimmy Olsen."
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