REVIEWS

In the Days of the Mob

Not Pretty

Mob coverAt the outset, Jack Kirby intended the only adult-oriented magazines he was ever to work on, In the Days of the Mob and its companion title Spirit World, to look much better than what DC offers in their new hardcover collections. As with the initial impetus for his “Fourth World,” Kirby had envisioned that his arrangement with his new publisher would be such that he could be the editor of a range of projects to be drawn by other artists than himself. He wanted to bring artists such as Wallace Wood on board to realize his ideas, but DC balked. According to one of Kirby’s assistants at the time, Mark Evanier, “the Speak-Out series … would have been a series of magazines, as Jack envisioned them, that were going to be like Heavy Metal magazine, with full-color, real advertisements. He was very interested in getting into photo comics, too. He wanted to get name authors; he wanted to get Norman Mailer and Truman Capote to adapt their short stories. And DC looked at this concept and essentially said, ‘Oh, this is a chance to do Creepy and Eerie,’ and turned it into black-&-white magazines that Jack would draw himself.”[1] DC elected to publish them to resemble the Warren and Skywald magazines of that era. They fabricated an imprint, “Hampshire Distributors”, and sparsely distributed Kirby’s two magazines to newsstands, where they were lost in the shuffle of rags with similarly sleazy, dingy appearances.

Vince Colletta inked the first issues of each title and grey halftones were added by DC’s production artists. Evanier says, “Jack never really liked black-and-white comics… I think (DC) cancelled the books and decided not to print the second issues before they even had any sales figures on #1.”[2] Evanier elaborated on the distribution snafus, “Steve (Sherman) and I went down to the (DC distributor Independent News) warehouse… in L.A…to pick up copies. They had not even left the warehouse. DC actually later on sold them in ads in the comics because those issues had not gone out to whole states.”[3] Kirby’s employers did not trust his vision enough to take a chance on a format that would be a success for some of their competitors a few short years later. Still, in my opinion, Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob are not only some of Kirby’s most powerful and mature drawing, the first issues are some of the best work Colletta ever did with Kirby and the grey tones in both are amazingly well done, especially when you consider that DC never made any other black and white comics. It has been suggested that the tones may be the work of DC staff colorists Jack Adler or Jerry Serpe, who were responsible for DC’s apparently-painted, but actually grey-toned-then-colored covers in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

The new hardcover volumes each contain both the published, Colletta-inked #1 issues of their respective titles, as well as the contents of the second issues that did not come out at the time, which were inked by Kirby’s more accomplished and faithful inker, Michael Royer. In the case of Spirit World, DC has opted to publish a facsimile of the first issue, which had been printed in blue ink, and for the second issue’s stories, which had originally been released in a few issues of the regular color comics title Weird Mystery, have chosen to reprint the art in black and white line. Mob #1 was first printed in black ink, but in the collection DC has printed the art in sepia. This is apparently an attempt to cover up that the art was scanned from the published comic and the resulting reproduction is indistinct:

A comparison of a page from the original printed copy of Mob #1 and the new reprint.

A comparison of a page from the original printed copy of Mob #1 and the new reprint.

For the never-before-published second issue of Mob, DC relied on the services of Tom Kraft and Rand Hoppe of the Kirby Museum, who provided relatively crisp black and white line reproductions of Kirby and Royer’s pages. DC has also neglected to credit artwork properly, which is also seen in their inexpensive Showcase editions. In the case of Mob, they do not credit Frank Giacoia for his inking of portions of the front cover (the only other time besides the cover of Forever People #1 that Giacoia inked Kirby at DC) and they have omitted credit for John Costanza for inking the humorous two-page strip at the end of Mob #2. DC had also hired Costanza to re-letter Mob #2, for no reason that anyone will ever be able to convince me makes sense; some of that new lettering fell off the originals, but Kraft and Hoppe weren’t able to dislodge it where it was still glued on, and so there are now two different styles of lettering on many pages. Mistakes were added to the writing in the re-lettering: for instance, in the caption alongside panel 3 of page 32, Mrs. Tootsie is said to be married to… Mrs. Tootsie.

The book includes a layout by Kirby for Mob #2′s cover, but here is another that he did with the lower panels more fully drawn:

Kirby’s finished pencils for the inset panels on the cover of Mob #2.

Kirby’s finished pencils for the inset panels on the cover of Mob #2.

According to Kirby’s other assistant at the time, Steve Sherman, the centerpiece of the cover “was gonna be a photo of a gangland killing. We actually shot the photo, using us and Jack’s son Neal and his daughter Barbara. We lined them up, and they all had guns to Mark (Evanier)’s head. Mark was bound and gagged and was gonna be killed in the fields of Thousand Oaks.”[4] But, that photo is apparently lost. Also missing are several text pieces, which were intended to supplement the narrative put forth in the connected threads that run through Kirby’s comics stories. In a response to one of Kirby partisan Patrick Ford’s posts on the Facebook Kirby page, Evanier said, “I believe ‘The Planned Assassination of Thomas E. Dewey’ was a text piece and I believe I wrote it.” Evanier added that DC had been confused about the legal status of Mob #2: “DC wasn’t certain if they had the right to print the unpublished Mob material, so they made an arrangement with the Kirby Estate.” I would guess that this was because DC contracts generally have a clause relating to reversion of rights in the event that a book isn’t published in a timely fashion. As they were known to periodically forestall copyright reversions by printing a few copies of unused work in proto-omnibus editions called Cancelled Comics Cavalcade, DC published one story from Mob #2, “Murder Inc.” in altered form in their house fanzine, The Amazing World of DC Comics, but decades have passed since then.

The work for Mob #2 was done at the time of a career peak of quality for Kirby. Mike Royer says: “I think it’s the best work I ever did on Jack, because his pencils were so good, and the stories were so neat, it was like 1952 and it was Boy’s Ranch.”[5] That issue was done in the time in between Royer’s second inking job for Kirby, Mister Miracle #5 and one of Kirby’s all-time masterpieces, “The Glory Boat” in New Gods #6.[6] Much of the art has no panel borders and so it seems likely that if DC had published it, they would have added grey tones, as they did with the published issues of Kirby’s Speak-Out titles. It indicates a wasted opportunity for DC to have laid out for a bit more expense to do these collections as Kirby had originally intended them and the quality of the work certainly deserves: in full color—that is, if DC could have somehow brought themselves to do a tasteful, more organic approach, such as the blue-lined or otherwise watercolored look that would have been in usage at the time these titles were done, rather than slathering digital fades all over it. The collages for Spirit World that have been surfacing in auctions are in color and would have gained hugely by being reproduced in that form:

The original art for one of Kirby’s collages for Spirit World #1.

The original art for one of Kirby’s collages for Spirit World #1.

But DC predictably played it safe and apparently didn’t even make the effort to find any of the originals for the published issues and so, the reprints look worse that the originals.

All of the Speak-Out series titles show Kirby at his most thoughtful and serious. Left to his own devices, he most often engaged much more ambitious and sophisticated areas of content than he ever did when saddled with a dominant business partner such as Joe Simon or the heavy-handed editor/copywriter Stan Lee. Both issues of Spirit World are genuinely frightening comics that produce a palpably oppressive sense of dread. In the Days of the Mob covers a subject that he was close to, since the artist came of age in Manhattan’s Lower East Side while the careers of some of the gangsters that he covers here were in full bloom. The Mob books both utilize the overarching “host” construction of a hellish prison that foresees the “Supermax” institutions that later came to predominate the American prison system, presided over by a satanic warden character who occasionally takes on an aspect of decomposition. Kirby’s dialogue in the stories proper is believably parsed in the crude vernacular of his uneducated subjects. He uses the various players to explore causal factors such as lack of education, class differences, aberrant family psychology and the sort of dark ironies that arise from the contemplation of those issues in the contexts of incompetently accomplished crimes, jailbreaks and “hits.” Particularly in the second issue, he links the stories with each other through the (real) gangsters they have in common and by a theme of twisted gender relations that runs through them.

Mob #2 has many purposefully exaggerated images throughout and Royer enhanced them nicely. Kirby’s slashing marks are fierce and bold and the figures are often distorted to frightening effect. Obviously intentional are such oddities as the absolutely horrific page 2 & 3 spread where a hanging figure is mutilated so that his arms are apparently sprouting from his waist. Or, the powerfully abstracted marks that roil within the figure with strangely short arms being carried by huge hands on page 22, or that some heads in “The Ride” have their mouths gaping so widely they seem to be cracking in half. It is Kirby’s way of telling what is decidedly NOT a pretty story. His expressive distortions are about a deeper understanding of bodily construction, movement, space and psychology; of humans in stress, taken far past their limitations. Kirby was able to draw in this way because he’d seen and felt these things. Later in the eighties, his work flattens out, becomes even more abstract. It often loses the grace of posture and composition of his 1960s Marvel work as his priorities change. The work becomes more about the marks made by his hands, the patterning of his black-spotting and his grasping to communicate his philosophical ideas. Here and more extremely at that point, the compressed figures reflect the artist’s own losing battle with gravity. As the person in the driver’s seat, Kirby makes his own rules and I am just fine with that.

What stands out most about the second issue of Mob is Kirby’s unique depiction of women. He pulls no punches in “The Ride” and “The Ladies of the Gang”. In those stories and throughout the title generally, he shows women to have agency and degrees of culpability in their roles within the underworld structure and he effectively de-glamorizes the brutality of gangsters:

The ladies of the gang are oblivious to, or even complicit in, the men’s crimes.f Mob #2.

The ladies of the gang are oblivious to, or even complicit in, the men’s crimes. Mob #2.

The depictions of sexuality are relatively candid and the nearly explicit rapes and in particular, the beating of the “decent kid,” are shocking in their intensity. But really, the first issue of Mob isn’t much less rough. Kirby’s depictions in there of Ma Barker’s relentless hold on her sons, Al Capone’s merciless revenge on his enemies and the just plain stone stupidity of Pretty Boy Floyd and his accomplices are no less straightforward. It all goes to show that if Kirby had been enabled to make more adult-oriented comics that just these, he would have taken things quite far. But Kirby would never have handled violence and sex gratuitously. Given the themes that are also seen in his concurrent “Fourth World” series and extending into his later comics, I have little doubt that he would have used his talents to further depict women that do not adhere to templates of standardized compliance and to go deeper into the de-glamorization of violence, as someone who knew its horrors intimately—unlike so many of his contemporaries, who were always all about showing idealized, interchangeable women and the “cool money shots of dudes with guns” that so permeate comics and the rest of our culture to this day.

_____________________________________________________________________

Footnotes:

1. The Jack Kirby Collector #17. “The 1997 Kirby Tribute Panel.” TwoMorrows, 1997. p. 43

2. TJKC #6. “To and From the Source: Mark Evanier.” Interview by John Morrow. TwoMorrows, 1995. p. 23

3. TJKC #13. “Spirit World & Other Weird Mysteries.” Jon B. Cooke. TwoMorrows, 1996. p. 41

4. TJKC #17. “The 1997 Kirby Tribute Panel.” TwoMorrows, 1997. p. 44

5. TJKC #8. “The (1995) Kirby Tribute Panel.” TwoMorrows, 1996. p. 27

6. The timeline for the completion of In the Days of the Mob #2 can be determined by looking at the job numbers in “Jack Kirby’s X-files” from TJKC #17 (pgs. 48-52), as those numbers indicate a consecutive submission procedure. Mike Royer debuted as Kirby’s inker on “Spawn” in New Gods # 5 (X-190), cover-dated November 1971. Royer’s second job was “Murder Machine” in Mister Miracle #5 (X-193) and then, Mob #2′s “A Room for Kid Twist” (X-214), “The Ride” (X-215) and “Murder Inc.” (X-217) were turned in. Kirby’s schedule was such that the team did “The Omega Effect” in Forever People #6 (X-234) before the fourth Mob #2 story, “Ladies of the Gang” (X-235), and then they completed “The Glory Boat” in New Gods #6 (X-241), cover-dated January 1972. The X-numbers I have omitted are accounted for by the comics inked by Vince Colletta and such items as letters and text pages, as well as reprints of older Simon & Kirby stories that ran in Kirby’s “Fourth World” books, for which he also was responsible, as editor of his own comics.

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11 Responses to In the Days of the Mob

  1. Rand Hoppe says:

    Nice work, James! Just a quick note to say that anything Tom Kraft and I did for the book was at John Morrow’s request. He did most of the work pulling #2 together for DC.

  2. Bill says:

    Great review. I remember seeing the ads for this mag when I was a kid but not being able to find it at any of the half dozen outlets I used to bike to. I loved gangsters a child so this was a great disappointment. Distribution was such an odd thing in those days. I even used to go more than 20 miles roundtrip each week on my bike to the next town over because they got their comics a week before the town I lived in. I had a few froends whose older brothers collected comics but even they didn’t have it in their collections!

  3. David says:

    Thanks for the review. I was definitely curious about both this and Spirit World.

  4. patrick ford says:

    Very sound observations on Kirby’s view of women and his depictions of violence. Two aspects of his work which are in stark contrast to the typical Marvel or DC comic book of that time, and probably more so today as best as I can tell. Issue #2 benefits from being parts which make up a larger story. It is unfortunate the text piece is missing, although a quick comb through the web will yield up what any curious reader might like to know about THE PLANNED ASSASSINATION OF THOMAS E. DEWEY. Dewey of course escaped assassination and went on to “Defeat Truman.”
    Mark Evanier mentioned recently that DC was unsure if it controlled the copyright to the MOB #2 material.
    They worked out an agreement with the Kirby heirs for the publication. You can see there on the proposed cover for MOB #2 it’s stamped “WRITTEN OFF.” Given the pretty halfhearted effort DC brought to the reprint the fact they weren’t certain they controlled the copyright might encourage some other publisher to explore publication of Kirby’s two other unpublished “Speak-Out” creations. He produced complete issues of SOUL LOVE and TRUE DIVORCE CASES. Some of the material was never inked (a blessing really) and it’s highly unlikely DC would give the material the kind of treatment it deserves even in the unlikely event they intended to reprint it.

    • James says:

      One story from Soul Love is inked by Tony Dezuniga and he did a pretty elegant job of it. Other stories are partially inked by Colletta, but we can hope that a purely pencil version exists. There is a great cover painting by Kirby for that, but I have only ever seen it reproduced in black and white.

  5. Kim Munson says:

    It’s true that the collages really benefit from being reproduced in color. I’m very interested in the collages, and the reprint of Spirit World was a huge disappointment, with the collages printed in a muddy blue monotone.

  6. patrick ford says:

    DC put very little effort into these books (SPIRIT WORLD / IN THE DAYS OF THE MOB).
    The collage work isn’t presented properly unless it’s in color and well reproduced.
    One thing which gets lost is the fact Kirby did a lot of painting on the collages. It’s something which doesn’t come across when the work is poorly reproduced in B&W.
    Here’s a spread from SPIRIT WORLD :
    http://www.whatifkirby.com/gallery/comic-art-listings/spirit-world-collage-issue-1-pages-2-3

  7. patrick ford says:

    Here’s a detail from that collage showing where Kirby did a lot of painting on the image.
    https://fbcdn-sphotos-g-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-frc3/s526x296/1378626_379625165504162_2055933665_n.jpg

  8. Scott Grammel says:

    We repeatedly read that Kirby’s plans at DC in this period were rebuffed by the corporate masters, but, frankly, so many of them sound so completely unrealistic that I wonder if he ever really had any reason to believe in their possible realization. A full color, glossy comics magazine six years before Heavy Metal (which itself relied strongly on cheaper foreign reprints and never acquired a strong advertiser base)? Norman Mailer and Truman Capote adapting their own stories for comics? DC hiring Romita (if even possible) or Wood or Heck so as to allow the greatest image maker in the history of American comics to permanently lay down his pencil for the typewriter?

    I guess the question for me is finally whether the corporate bosses at DC somehow mislead Kirby or did he mislead himself? I ask this as someone who still hasn’t gotten his head around how Kirby, with all of his commercial and artistic triumphs behind him at Marvel at that point, still found himself saddled with Vince Colletta inks at the start of his supposedly triumphant DC return.

    None of it makes any sense to me. And, yes, I would sell at least some of my soul to read the contract he signed with DC then. Just, ya know, to get that damned permanent cartoon question mark to stop floating over my head every time I ponder this stuff.

  9. Al B says:

    Great review.

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