Jack Kirby’s Spirit World


By Jack Kirby with Mark Evanier, Steve Sherman, Sergio Aragonés Vince Colletta, Mike Royer & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3418-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer Imagination Wrapped In Perfect Pictorial Plumage… 10/10

Jack Kirby is the master imagineer of American comics and his collected works provide a bundle of astounding narrative delights for any possible occasion. One ideal and seasonably timely tome is this magnificent hardback compendium re-presenting the complete “King’s Canon” of one of his least known, most misunderstood and mishandled DC creations.

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression, World War II and the rise and fall of the Space Age.

He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

On returning from service in World War II, Jack – reunited with long-term creative partner Joe Simon – began producing genre material for older audiences. They famously invented Romance comics, and amongst that dynamics duo’s other concoctions for Prize/Crestwood Publications was a noir-ish, psychologically underpinned supernatural anthology reflecting the tone and trends of those changing, globally Post-Traumatic times.

Black Magic (and its short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams) eschewed traditionally gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales seen in other comics and concentrated on deeper, stranger fare. They were – until the EC comics line hit their peak – far and away the best mystery titles on the market.

Changing tastes and an anti-crime, anti-horror witch-hunt quashed the comics industry, so under a doctrinaire, self-inflicted conduct code, publishers stopped innovating and moved into more anodyne areas. This established holding pattern persisted until the rebirth of superheroes.

Working at a little outfit that used the name “Atlas”, Kirby partnered with Stan Lee and, when superheroes were revived, astounded the world with a salvo of new concepts and characters that revitalised if not actually saved the comics business.

Kirby understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and always toiled diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the type-and-picture medium – especially from insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies’ world” they felt trapped in.

However, after a decade or so, costumed characters again began to wane. Public interest in the supernatural was once more peaking, with books, television and movies all exploring the unknown in gripping and stylish new ways. The Comics Code Authority was even ready to slacken its censorious choke-hold on horror titles to save the entire industry from implosion as the 1960s superhero boom fizzled out.

Experiencing increasing editorial stonewalling and creative ennui at Marvel, in 1970 Kirby accepted a long-standing offer from arch rival DC Comics…

Promised freedom to innovate, one of the first projects he tackled was a new magazine format carrying material targeting adult readerships. For the full story of how that worked out, you can read Mark Evanier’s acerbic article at the centre of this glorious and oversized (282 x 212 mm) hardback compilation. He was there and knows a lot of the secrets…

Reflecting the mature experimentation of Black Magic in a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine, Spirit World #1 – and only – launched in the summer of 1971, but as happened all too often, editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going.

At least when the original 1940s-1950s Black Magic was revived as a DC reprint anthology in 1973, it got a couple of years to properly test the waters…

Material from a second, never-to-be published, Spirit World issue eventually appeared in colour comicbooks but with most of his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company, Kirby opted to return to more traditional formats.

Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of supernature with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe: one that lesser talents later made a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity: Etrigan the Demon. There’s a complete Kirby compendium of the Hellish hero’s adventures out there too if you’re interested…

This eclectic, long-awaited Spirit World collection, however, eschews costume continuity in favour of plot and mood-driven tales, opening with the published premier issue which combined primarily comics stories (because DC wouldn’t spring for colour photography) with prose and monochrome “Foto-Features”, all deliciously driven by the King’s hungry, questing imagination and unique perspective…

Printed in eerie blue monotones, the arcane explorations unfold with Kirby & Vince Colletta’s pictorial investigation into the power of precognition. Preceded by a stunning 3-page Kirby collage, ‘The President Must Die!’ – narrated by erudite host and parapsychologist Dr. E. Leopold Maas – recounts and interprets the chilling dreams of an unnamed woman in the days leading up to the assassination of JFK.

Again sporting a collage intro, ‘House of Horror!’ grippingly relates what happened when Dr. Maas was invited to visit the phantom-plagued Calder House

Children of the Flaming Wheel!’ is a fumetti-work (photographic comic strips big in Europe and an area of storytelling The King was desperate to develop) depicting the astral journey of a supposed modern cultist, after which the tireless Dr. Maas shares his discoveries on the nature of reincarnation by opening ‘The Lorca File!’

As “transcribed” by Kirby’s editorial assistants Steve Sherman & Mark Evanier, ‘The Spirit of Vengeance!’ relates in a terse prose piece Maas’ interaction with a most unquiet and petty revenant before Kirby & Colletta illuminate the astounding accomplishments and warnings of ‘Nostrodamus!’ – including all those predictions still pending confirmation…

The issue was concluded with a page of ‘Weird Humor’ strips by Sergio Aragonés (and possibly Dave Manak) plus a free wallposter, included here for veracity’s sake and because they’re still pretty cool…

Following that tell-all article from Evanier, the greater contents of the proposed second issue then follow in standard black-&-white. The strips are taken from their eventual last resting place in DC’s anthologies Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion #6 and Weird Mystery Tales #1-3, and still have insets and copy from other hosts such as Destiny of the Endless, but the art, plots and most of the scripting is all Kirby…

With Mike Royer inking all these later yarns, ‘Horoscope Phenomenon or The Witch Queen of Ancient Sumeria’ opens the fearsome festivities as a bizarre regal apparition visits many modern men and women and changes their fates forever, after which the lugubrious Dr. Maas probes a primordial artefact and speculates upon the barbaric life and cataclysmic demise of ‘Toxl, the World Killer’ – a rousing fantasy warrior yarn co-plotted and scripted by Evanier.

Accompanied by photomontage inserts, ‘The Burners’ pits Maas against a sudden spate of deaths by spontaneous combustion – and possible alien incursion – before the mystery and imagination culminates with uncanny cases of ‘The Psychic Bloodhound’.

Co-plotted by Evanier & Sherman, this graphic fictionalisation of a detective with extra-sensory perception is probably based on the exploits of controversial Dutch celebrity sleuth Peter Hurkos)…

Jack Kirby always was and remains a unique and uncompromising artistic force of nature: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-&-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations. He’s still winning new fans and apostles, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. In this, his centenary year, Jack’s work is still instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst simultaneously mythic and human.

Wherever your tastes take you, his creations will be there ready and waiting. So, if fear and mystery are your meat, you can wonderfully upset your complacent equilibrium with this classy classic…
© 1971, 1972, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.