Kirby's Gangsters Never Get Their Day In Court
An examination of In The Days Of The Mob
by and © Tom Field
Kirby Collector #16
"Welcome to Hell!"
So spoke Warden Fry, the netherworldly host who greeted readers on the splash
page of Jack Kirby's In the Days of the Mob, the black-&-white, one-shot magazine
published in 1971 by DC Comics under the Hampshire Distributors Ltd. imprint.
But while Fry's intent was to introduce the gangsters and molls who populated
his maximum-security corner of Hades, he might well have directed his fateful
greeting at Kirby himself. For although Kirby invested extraordinary energy
in this project, like so many of his efforts in his 1970-75 DC period, Mob died
aborning - scaled back and then shot down before it ever had the chance to achieve
Ultimately, spotty distribution resulted in poor sales, justifying DC's decision
to pull the plug on Mob after releasing but a single issue; but Mark Evanier
- the comics/TV writer who assisted Kirby on Mob and several other early-'70s
DC projects - says Mob really was cancelled before issue #1 even hit the stands.
He attributes the decision to DC's inability to reconcile its corporate objectives
with Kirby's creative vision. "DC never really knew what to do with Jack," says
Evanier, who describes Mob's rise and fall in a scenario so familiar to fans
of Kirby's DC work:
* -Like New Gods, which Kirby intended to be comics' first limited series -
until DC balked and made it an ongoing series - Mob was to be the first Heavy
Metal, a full-color, adult-_oriented, comics and text magazine that would compete
for newsstand space and readers alongside National Lampoon and Mad Magazine.
In fact, Kirby envisioned - and prepared - an entire line of similarly adult
titles, but only single issues of two of them - Mob and its ghostly 1971 companion
Spirit World - ever appeared. And with both, DC pulled the plug on the color,
toned down the mature content, and splashed the artwork with dull, gray tones
that even Kirby abhorred.
* -Like Mister Miracle and Kamandi, Mob was created with the intention (in
Kirby's mind, anyway) that Kirby would be Editor only, turning over the writing
and illustration to other creators under his supervision. But DC, realizing
that Kirby the creator was far more bankable than Kirby the Editor, insisted
that Kirby write and draw Mob himself, assisted by longtime Kirby inker Vince
* -Finally, just as Kirby's entire "Fourth World" epic was cancelled before
he could bring the saga to a satisfying conclusion, Mob was D.O.A. - shelved
after two issues were prepared, but after only the first was released.
"DC lost interest in the project very fast," recalls Evanier, who researched
and wrote text features for Mob #1 and the unpublished #2. "DC just gave up
- and I can't say they were 100% wrong. The newsstands just didn't know where
to put (Mob ) - I had trouble even finding copies on the newsstands in L.A.
- and I don't think most fans even knew it existed."
Indeed, even if they were aware of Mob, Kirby fans couldn't have been prepared
for it. Filled with gangsters, guns and Depression-era settings, Mob was a dramatic
departure from the cosmic-powered super-heroes and space-spanning demigods that
ignited Kirby's popularity in the 1960s. Yet, because Kirby was a child of the
Depression, growing up quite literally In the Days of the Mob, these vignettes
of Ma Barker and Murder Inc. remain some of Kirby's most authentic work.
"Jack had a certain amount of enthusiasm for everything he did," Evanier says,
but Mob had a special place in Jack's heart. "He was a fan of that stuff. He
had met a lot of people who knew the gangsters." And although Evanier and Kirby's
other assistant, Steve Sherman, did a lot of research on gangsters and the Depression
to help enrich Kirby's historical fiction, Evanier concedes, "Jack probably
could have done these stories from memory and they wouldn't have been much different."
#1 spotlights the lives and deaths of several major underworld _figures, including
Ma Barker and Al Capone. The former stars in the 16-page lead story "Ma's Boys,"
detailing the life of the shrewish matriarch and her death alongside her ne'er-do-well
brood. In the story's eerie conclusion, Ma Barker is reunited with her dead
sons in the searing inferno of Hell. The Capone story that follows, the 12-page
"Bullets for Big Al," actually was Kirby's first Mob effort, Evanier recalls
(his first work on the project was this story's two-page spread depicting showgirls
dancing atop a table). Depicting Capone as a modern-day Vlad Dracul, inviting
his rival's messengers to a lavish dinner and then torturing them to send a
"message" of his own, "Bullets" is both the most graphic and the strongest of
the stories in Mob #1. The issue is rounded-out by text _features prepared by
Evanier and Sherman, as well as Kirby's eight-page "Kansas City Massacre" and
two-page "Method of Operation" comics stories, plus two pages of gangster 'toons
by Sergio Aragones.
Two features stand out in Mob #1, somewhat in contrast to some of Kirby's other
DC work: The script and the inked artwork. Because these stories are of Kirby's
era, the dialogue is much more believable - less awkward - than that found in
many of his Fourth World strips. As scripted with Kirby's ear for Depression-era
dialect, Al Capone is a much more credible character than, say, Flippa Dippa,
who was supposed to be Kirby's take on a modern young Black man in Jimmy Olsen.
Likewise, where Colletta was criticized and ultimately removed from Kirby's
DC work because of his somewhat scratchy inking style and "simplified" backgrounds
(he's reputed to have erased some of Kirby's complex background pencils in the
Fourth World titles), the collaboration very much works in Mob. In black-&-white,
Colletta's sometimes-crude embellishment gives Kirby's pencils an edge that
amplifies the raw work. Colletta's contribution especially shines in comparison
to Mike Royer's more "slick" inks in the unpublished Mob #2.
Copyright DC Comics, Inc. Art © Jack Kirby
Unpublished art from In The Days Of The Mob #2, inked by Mike Royer.
Which brings us to the elusive, unpublished second issue of Mob. Although it's
never has been released in its entirety, excerpts have appeared in such diverse
publications as DC's mid-70s fanzine Amazing World of DC Comics, and in Robin
Snyder's 1995 'zine The Comics. These stories, written and penciled by Kirby
and inked and lettered by Royer, concentrate mainly on the misdeeds and miscreants
of "Murder Inc." These stories place less emphasis on Warden Fry and the netherworld,
but they continue to play up the historic personalities and pitfalls of the
gangster era, including one curious feature that spotlights "The colorful, beautiful,
pragmatic, inscrutable Ladies of the Gang!"
In some ways, Kirby's Mob work is ahead of its time, anticipating the mid-70s
"mob revival" sparked by the films The Godfather and The Sting; but it's doubtful,
even had DC supported the project whole-heartedly, whether Mob could have enjoyed
sustained success. Logistically, retailers didn't know where to display the
title - with other magazines or with the comics? - and the distribution industry,
beset with its own reputed mob ties, wasn't wild about the subject matter, Evanier
says. Creatively, Kirby lost his own enthusiasm for the project as DC skimped
on production values and forced Kirby to tone down some of the mature content.
"Jack never liked black-&-white comics, and he especially didn't like gray tones,"
Evanier says. "But by the time Mob came out, he had bigger problems than that.
As the project developed, it just strayed further and further from his vision."
And so In the Days of the Mob came and went without fanfare. The first issue,
a rare collector's item, has never been reprinted, and the second has yet to
appear in its entirety.
Where, in the Kirby pantheon, does Mob fit? Somewhere in the middle. "It's
not a major Kirby work - not a New Gods or a Demon or a Kamandi," Evanier says.
"It's a nice book, but it's not my favorite Kirby material. I admire the skill
(in Mob) more than I do the imagination."
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