Every now and then, it’s our turn to be one-up on Earth-2.
On Earth-2 they’re not carrying out redevelopment works in Mersey Square, including closing the cut-through that affords me the shortest route from the bus stop to the Post Office. Normally, that would be our imaginary parallel world’s superiority to this one. On Earth-2, I wouldn’t have had to go the long way round, that takes me past Stockport’s surprisingly central comics shop. Where, in the window…
But let me digress into history. Back in 1971, the legendary Jack Kirby, sick of various things at Marvel, from the lack of creative freedom with Stan Lee always having the last word, disgusted at the lack of proper credit for his contributions – Stan Lee having, like I said, the last word – left Marvel to work for DC Comics for the first time since the Fifties.
DC Director Carmine Infantino attracted Kirby with glowing promises. Full credit. Editorial freedom. A studio in which he could create characters and series that his proteges would work on, under his supervision. New formats. New genres. In short, a breath of fresh air. Kirby signed. And Infantino began the process of reneging upon everything that wasn’t Kirby writing and drawing superhero comics, under New York based editors and having Superman’s face redrawn over his pencils.
It wasn’t quite as blanket as that. Infantino paid lip service to Kirby’s desire to reintroduce Crime comics, which had been wiped out of existence when the Comics Code was drawn up in the Fifties. These would be in black and white, in magazine format, and they would be real, raw and direct. They would be red meat.
Oh yes, Infantino kept that promise. One issue of In the Days of the Mob, under the name of a minor sub-company with no connection to comics, without promotion, poor distribution, and cancelled with issue 2 complete and unseen. The same story applies to another Kirby creation, Spirit World, about which I have absolutely no knowledge. Did I say no promotion? Both magazines were plugged in DC’s comics, in holes in the corner, crappily designed commercial ads with the tiniest possible reproduction of the covers.
You knew the magazines existed, but you couldn’t get hold of them to read.
Which brings me back to the present day, in which I am walking past Stockport’s surprisingly central comics shop. Where, in the window… In the Days of the Mob. Jack Kirby.
I shot inside, enquired trepidatiously as to the cost. Which was expensive but not unaffordable. This was not the original magazine. It’s just as rare, mind you, but it was a hardback book, published by DC in 2013, reprinting from the original art not just issue 1, but the never published issue 2. Oh my.
The same was done for Spirit World, which can be had through Amazon or eBay for only more than twice what I paid for In the Days of the Mob and which is, under current circumstances, expensive and not affordable. I can dream, however. And I have read In the Days of the Mob and it is superb. Prime Kirby, rejoicing in the breath of fresh air he finally had, drawing serious, violent, rock solid true crime stories from the Roaring Thirties, not a trace of superheroics, no fantastic poses, just real people. It feels weighty and important, because that’s what it is.
And it is tragic too, for the fact that this is all there is. Kirby was rolling, and what he could so very easily have done with this was to change the face of Comics. Why not? He’d only done that half a dozen times already. The possibilities were endless, and that for this title only. But imagine it as the flagship of a line of crime comics, energetic, raw, real, more adult than the comics of the ebbing Silver Age.
And imagine it as a beachhead, ushering forward a greater range of genres, to stand alongside the one genre we’ve been limited to for half a century since. Imagine choice, real choice, attracting a wider pool of readers. And imagine too that, with so much to choose from, there would have to be fewer superhero comics, but these would only be the best, written and drawn to a standard higher than we endured.
All of these possibilities are there in the pages of In the Days of the Mob, and no doubt in Spirit World too. Probably, on Earth-2, Kirby didn’t get shafted by Infantino, and they got all those titles. Lucky bastards.
Now I’m ranted out (don’t you believe it), what of the actual book?
The actual published issue was written and drawn by Kirby, with inks throughout by Vince Colletta, with Mike Royer taking over that role for the unpublished issue 2. The difference is immediately apparent with Royer, at that stage, adhering much more faithfully to Kirby’s pencils. Colletta was notorious for speeding up his ink jobs by erasing characters and simplifying backgrounds, but in comparing the art on the two issues, I can see no great difference between Kirby’s compositions on either.
What is different is that issue 1 has a softer, less stark appearance that is not solely down to the different inking techniques. Yes, Colletta uses more feathering but that’s not the only factor in the overall softening of the look. Issue 1 has extensive use of grey shadings, on every page, mostly in the form of solid areas, whereas issue 2 is simple black and white, without any gradation. Funnily, enough, I prefer Colletta’s issue: it was more of a feel to it, a sense of time, and given that Kirby is working on a realistic subject, with actual historical figures, that is much more in keeping with the era in question.
Kirby’s approach is to tell true gangster tales, never shying away from the callousness and brutality of the figures involved. The format is of a series of four tales per issue, set in Hell, yes, Hell, in this section constructed as a Maximum Security Prison, run by Governor Fry. Fry, in the grand tradition of comics narrators, addresses the reader directly, telling them that this Hell is constructed by its inmates, who conceived it and thus it is what it turned out to be. A very interesting forerunner of Neil Gaiman’s conception of Hell in Sandman, though Kirby doesn’t openly state that Fry’s Hell is the consequence of its denizens’ expectation of punishment.
And each issue is a guided tour by Fry, showing the reader/visitor another aspect of the men and women in Hell, and what they did to come here.
And these stories are rock solid. They are true stories and what’s more they feel it. Kirby is working at the height of his skill. The lines and figures are massive and powerful, untainted by colour and, because Kirby is dealing with real people, with no superhuman element whatsoever, he avoids exaggeration. People stand or move like you are I, except that they are driven by forces we cannot comprehend, only see for ourselves. There is a bedrock truth to the stories in these two issues that, for all Kirby’s skill and ability to render vivid imagination believable, shines through every panel.
Two issues collected. Eight stories. Not much to show. If Infantino hadn’t been so limited in his vision, snapping up Kirby not for what he could do with a free hand but only to stick two fingers in Marvel’s eye, what the hell could the King have achieved? On form like this, what could he not have achieved? And who could he have mentored, taught, encouraged to look further and deeper than the guys in the funny costumes?
After reading this, I am determined some day to get my hands on the Spirit World companion book. There’s a copy available on Amazon at only about twice as much as I can afford to spend but who knows what might happen? I live in hope. Unlike the mobsters of the Roaring Twenties. They live in Hell. Deservedly.