Jack Kirby’s ‘Spirit World’ returns from the realm of obscurity

The co-creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Thor, Hulk, Avengers and other superheroes of the Marvel Universe, Jack Kirby is more commonly known for his moniker ‘King’ Kirby. The delineator of dreams, his stylish artwork brought a pop art sensation to the comic book medium that still packs just as much punch today as it did back when it first graces the spinner racks of the world. In the 1970′s, after over 100 issues of the Fantastic Four, Jack decided to leave old Marvel for the Distinguished Competition across the street and start anew.

Kirby’s creations at DC Comics are various and sundry, including the New Gods and their foe Darkseid, the Demon, Kamandi and others. However, Kirby had intended to not just write and draw comics but start a new sensation in the magazine world, publishing larger books targeted to an older audience with more sophisticated taste. His pitching session with DC Comics is legendary as he threw about such unconnected concepts as In the Days of the Mob, Soul Love, True Divorce Cases and of course The Spirit World.

Longtime colleague and Kirby historian Mark Evanier recalled these experiments for Two Morrow’s Kirby Collector:

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.”

(Via TwoMorrows)

While the Spirit World failed to grab readers when it was published, it remains a true gem for Kirby enthusiasts. I myself hunted down a copy of both ‘Speak Out’ specials and cherish them to this day. While they do not contain his best work as a cartoonist, they are fascinating oddities from a genius of the medium. Apparently someone at DC Comics agrees with this assessment as the Spirit World is due for the hardcover reprint treatment!

We know the story. Jack Kirby, enraged by the lack of respect and/or money he was getting from Marvel Comics, moved to DC. This was a big deal, the equivalent of Marvel signing Geoff Johns now, or DC signing Brian Bendis. And so he began work on what would become Jack Kirby’s Fourth World.

Except, not quite. Because first he worked as writer/artist/editor on a a range of new magazines for DC in a variety of formats and topics. Including Spirit World, a supernatural themed, oversized, black-and-white with better production qualities, the magazines could explore areas that a comics code-restrained comic could not, under the company name of Hampshire Distributions. He used collage, fumetti and standard comic book styles to tell a variety of stories, from the predicted death of JFK to the life of Nostradamus.

It lasted one issue.

Other produced stories were then printed in issues of other DC mystery comics including Weird Mystery.

Well, now it seems that DC Comics are to reprint it, 102 pages long and twice the length of the only published issue, probably with some of those Weird Mystery stories to make up the length.

Jack Kirby’s Spirit World ships in hardcover in April.

Via BleedingCool

Thanks to Johnny Caples for the info!