Jack Kirby’s ‘Spirit World': We Are on the Outside
The 2012 hardcover collection of Spirit World isn't just a compilation of lesser Jack Kirby ephemera. These are comics that few readers have ever seen, not because they weren't popular, but because they weren't given a chance to become popular. Not that the series stood a chance to gain a huge following upon its release in 1971, as unusual and weird-looking as it was (and still is!), but these paranormal tales, drawn mostly written or rewritten by Kirby and completely drawn by Kirby, are like art projects launched thirty-something years into the future.
What I'm saying is that the Spirit World hardcover is like a brand new 2012 comic that just happened to be written and drawn in the early 1970s and if you like your strangeness strange and your art artistic and your sense of equilibrium equi-liquified, then you should totally read this book. Unless you're scared. Are you scared? Just a little?
First, some background: Spirit World itself -- a glossy horror magazine directed toward a more adult audience -- was barely even released. As former Kirby assistant and longtime Kirby scholar Mark Evanier writes in the 2012 collection, "Even if you were buying comics back then, you might not have seen Spirit World #1. Neither Steve [Sherman] nor I could find a copy at any newsstand. Then again, we did live in the tiny, insignificant town of Los Angeles, California."
Spirit World was part of Jack Kirby's ahead-of-its-time proposal to DC which called for them to reach out to new, contemporary audiences with better paper, magazine-style, and with books filled with content that wasn't just rehashed 1960s cornball schlock. Kirby knew the world was changing, that readers wouldn't fall for the same silly romance tropes and stunted sci-fi spectacle. According to Evanier, Kirby proposed themes that "mattered to college-age kids of the day: The Vietnam War. The environment. Politics."
To provide context, DC comics from 1971 featured visuals like Jerry Lewis hiding atop a totem pole from some colorful Indians, Aquaman shrinking down into magic ring, Lois Lane turning into a snow sculpture, and someone named David cheating on his girlfriend on the cover of Secret Hearts.
The superhero "realism" and "relevance" of the Bronze Age was creeping into other DC titles, as Neal Adams drew an extra-sinewy Man-Bat, and writer Denny O'Neil said "no more" to Kryptonite in Superman, and the Teen Titans faced ironic pummeling at a so-called peace rally.
Amidst that DC Comics backdrop, Kirby proposed something that might actually have been reasonably adult and sophisticated. But Spirit World ended up not being what he had envisioned. DC cut costs, ditched the idea of a full-color glossy magazine, and left it up to Kirby to create his own stories to fill the pages. And rather than connect it to their other publishing projects, they released it under the made-up name of "Hampshire Distributors," and cancelled the series before they heard sales reports for issue #1. Not that it would have mattered. Undistributed bundles could be found in warehouses. No one knew what to do with Spirit World, even after they saw it.
Because Spirit World, as released in 1971, is kind of a mess. It's not a comic that tackles social concerns of the day. It's not particularly adult in its sensibility. And it features three Jack-Kirby-meets-the-1970s-meets-Vault-of-Horror suspense stories followed by an inelegant prose tale and a Sergio Aragonés gag page ripped from a different source.
In every way, it's nothing like Jack Kirby reportedly proposed it to be, but it can't help but reveal his true interests. It's a Kirby work, through-and-through (except for the prose short and the Aragonés page), and while it's clear the DC Comics abandoned the project without proper support, the first issue of Spirit World, as reprinted in the 2012 hardcover, springs from the heart and mind of Jack Kirby. It's his interests that shine through on its pages. His passion for art and history and psychology and the unknowable that lies behind it all.
Spirit World may have been a mess, but it's a fascinating one that offers some genuine chills because of Kirby's confidence in his own material.
The three Kirby written-and-drawn Spirit World stories from the first issue -- reprinted as the first half of the hardcover collection, printed in dark blueish-gray -- are set up more like episodes of a television series than a comic. Hosted by Doctor E. Leopold Maas, parapsychologist, each installment tells of a strange, haunting occurrence: the housewife who could foresee the assassination of John F. Kennedy even if no one would believe her; the house haunted by the towering ghost of an escaped slave once chased by a "Confederate commando unit"; and the past life regressions of "The Screaming Woman." Though more overtly sexualized and violent than most of Kirby's work up until that time, these stories were tamer than many of the EC Comics of fifteen years earlier and more tepid than the Warren magazines that likely prompted DC's even fleeting interest in Kirby's magazine proposal from the beginning.
But Kirby's storytelling power makes his supernatural tales more convincing than most. And his use of the fictional Dr. Maas provides a pseudo-scientific grounding for the stories that makes them more effective than the cackling EC Cryptkeeper or his colleagues.
This isn't mysticism and fantasy, Kirby's Spirit World implies. It's parapsychology. Which is almost close enough to maybe be considered a science, as long as Kirby says it is.
And while those three Dr. Maas-introduced tales fill the majority of pages of Spirit World #1, Kirby also follows his muse toward an increased use of the collage technique he had sometimes incorporated into his superhero comics. Here, it's skulls and eyeballs and masks and ominous skies, a far more interesting medley than the poorly-reproduced geometric collages of the Negative Zone in The Fantastic Four. And there's even a full-on fumetti sequence with young men and women photographed in homemade Flash Gordon-esque costumes that reads like a cosmic questing of the sort that would fit right into the middle issues of Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III's 21st century Promethea.
In page after page of Spirit World, Kirby's ambition surpasses his execution, and in the collected edition, we get to experience it for probably the first time. Plus, we get to read additional Kirby stories intended for Spirit World, including his explosive declaration of the power of Nostradamus's prophecies, the horoscope monsters of yesterday and today, the proto-New Godsian "Toxl, The World Killer," a deadly-sincere exploration of spontaneous combustion, and the case of Karl Burkel, whose brain may have contained "a chamber locked to all other men!?"
(Double or triple punctuation are not uncommon in this book, and that's okay!!!)
It doesn't seem that Kirby spent long mourning what could have been after the brief life-and-death of Spirit World, since the rest of the 1970s proved to be another amazingly fertile decade for his unrestrained creativity. But few of his comics before or since are as odd as Spirit World, the magazine that never quite was, and the stories that seemed to not quite belong to any particular era. "Are We on the Outside of the Spirit World" the first issue's cover asks us, without even a question mark. Yes, we are, and we always will be. But we can all see inside its covers now, and appreciate it from a distance.