The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space OdysseyA book review article by: Eric Hoffman
When I informed my friend and co-editor Dominick Grace that I would be reviewing a critical essay on Jack Kirby's lamentably awful 1970s comics series 2001, A Space Odyssey, and that the essay is entitled The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made, Dominick remarked that the book might just be the weirdest critical text ever made. While Julian Darius' book falls short of that singular accomplishment, it remains a brisk, enjoyable read about this late Kirby work (perhaps the worst, second only to Devil Dinosaur). It is to Darius' credit, then, that he manages to rescue the work from its current obscurity, and impart on it a fresh glance, finding in Kirby's mostly forgettable comic a few worthwhile moments.
A refresher course for Kirby initiates: following a brief tenure at DC Comics (1971-1974), in 1975 Kirby returned to Marvel Comics, writing and drawing Captain America, his Erich Von Daniken-inspired series The Eternals, The Black Panther, Machine Man and the aforementioned Devil Dinosaur, work that was much despised by comics fans, the almost self-parodying bombastic style which stood in decidedly stark contrast to the then-dominant Neil Adams-inspired house style. Machine Man made his first appearance in the seventh issue of the ten-issue long 2001, A Space Odyssey (like his work for DC during the 70s, Kirby's Marvel work often ended after a handful of issues), which followed on the heels of Kirby's single-issue, Marvel Treasury Edition (an oversized 10x14" comic Marvel published from 1974 to 1981), a 1976 adaptation of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's classic 1968 science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This comic adaptation, as Darius notes, has the distinction of appearing a full eight years after the film on which it is based. Kubrick and Clarke's film, itself based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" (among other Clarke stories), concerns a mysterious artifact, dubbed a "monolith" and its orchestration of human evolution, appearing first at the "dawn of man," sparking our use of tools, then again making contact with humanity via a buried monolith on the Moon which, after having been unearthed, releases a signal directed towards Jupiter. This leads to a years-long mission to Jupiter in the spaceship Discovery, piloted by an intelligent computer, HAL 9000, and manned by several astronauts, who seem more robotic than the likable computer. HAL, for some reason, goes mad, and attempts to kill the astronauts. The lone surviving astronaut manages to disconnect HAL, after which he encounters another monolith; the astronaut enters the monolith, undergoes a transformation into a fetus-like being in an orb of light. Got that?
At the time of its release, Kubrick's 135 minute, mostly wordless, nearly abstract film, as with most of his other efforts throughout his career, deeply divided critics, though it was later accorded near-universal acclaim as one of the finest and most groundbreaking science fiction films ever made. This being the pre-Star Wars Hollywood, Kubrick's film is more an existential meditation on human consciousness, human evolution, and alien and artificial intelligence. As Darius rightly observes, assigning the then-heavily-influenced-by -the -"ancient astronaut"- popularizer-Von Daniken Jack Kirby the task of adapting Kubrick's quietly meditative film was a serious misstep. It's not only Kirby's narrative choices that clash with the film; according to Darius, but also Kirby's visual style, which, Darius observes, is more "action-oriented and in-your-face, whereas Kubrick's film is all about the subtle." Kubrick's visual style is "stark," Darius continues, while Kirby's is "brimming with otherworldly energy." To illustrate this, Darius points to the "Kirby crackle" that adorns nearly every depiction of outer space in Kirby's 2001: "Instead of the mostly black void seen in the film, we now have a black and pink field that's positively filled with excitement – a purple atmosphere, two explosions (one of purple, the other orange), light blue orbs inexplicably floating copiously, and Kirby crackle everywhere."
In fact, it is in Darius's comparisons between filmic language and comics language where The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made excels, comprised of interesting unpackings of Kubrick's mise-en-scene, in particular his exceptional use of the static cinematic frame (and his notable tendency in 2001 to utilize a static camera with moving sets, a vestigial remnant of pre-CGI, in-camera special effects) as opposed to the comics medium, where the frame is malleable, alterable in size and shape and, as a result, when used right, arguably more expressive. Darius points to the limitations of the 2001 scene depicting an astronaut's gravity-defying centrifugal jog around the circumference of a spaceship, a perspective hampered by the horizontal frame; Kirby on the other hand is able to utilize a vertical frame depicting the entirety of the spaceship's interior in a single image:
As a result of Kirby's dependence on, and inability to break free from, a decidedly 1950s and 60s "corporate" comics idiom, the first four issues of Kirby's interpretation of the film is, as Darius notes, terribly literal, and roughly follows a pattern of "Monolith intervenes to spur human evolution; then in 2001, a future human in space encounters a Monolith and gets turned into a cosmic baby . . . It's as if Kirby looked at 2001 and saw the Monolith as a deus ex machina- a plot contrivance that could be used to justify almost anything."
Darius' greatest weakness is in his missed opportunity to compare Kirby's literalized adaptation of 2001 with the Arthur C. Clarke novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, published in 1968, the same year as the film's release. Darius is certainly aware of the Clarke novel, judging that, despite its departures from the Kubrick-Clarke film, Kirby's comic should be considered as canonical as Clarke's subsequent novels 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), 2061: Odyssey Three (1991) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997), which also depart from the film by revising certain plot points to fit Clarke's reconceptualized approach to the material. Darius perceptively notes that Kirby's version of 2001 is essentially a sequel to the first and final sequences of the film, what Darius calls "the existential bits," while Clarke's books are sequels to the middle section of the film, the more scientifically-oriented exploration of space. "The only way [Clarke] could get a handle on the existential," Darius observes, "was to reduce it to the function of his famously realistic depiction of technology."
The second half of Darius' book is the real highlight: a marvelously perceptive analysis of Kirby's uneasy revision of the series from superhero satire in issues #5-6 to straightforward superhero comic in issues #7-10. In his examination of the two central issues of the series, Darius all but saves the series for me, recognizing their groundbreaking, subtly powerful qualities, issue #5 in particular. As Darius observes, issue #5 takes place in 2040 and, moreover, unlike the first four issues, has literally nothing to do with the Kubrick-Clarke film. It's as if Kirby began using the comic as a springboard for new science fiction ideas he wanted to test out, and the idea tested out in issues #5-6 certainly have interesting moments, even if they do not coalesce into a satisfying whole. The story told here has to do with a super-hero named White Zero (actually a young comics fan named Harvey Norton in costume), whose adventures turn out to be a kind of dress-up, pretend "super-hero exploit." Kirby writes in a caption: "In the year 2040 A.D., comics have reached their ultimate stage. They have offered and become a life-style for the descendants of the early readers. What began with magazines, fanzines and nation-wide conventions has culminated in a fantastic involvement with the personal life of the average man!"
What makes Kirby's narrative experiment so interesting is that in these two issues, Kirby essentially foresees the rise of the "cosplay" phenomenon. In one of the more incisive passages from Darius' essay, Darius writes: "Over his long career in comics, Kirby had witnessed the rise of organized fandom, including fanzines and comics conventions. He projects this forward, imagining people paying to enact super-hero adventures of their own. Kirby did so before 'cosplay' was a widely-known term [though, as my astute editor Jason Sacks points out, fans were dressing up in superhero costumes long before cosplay became a "thing," certainly previous to the publication of Kirby's comic], before the rise of live-action role-playing, Lazer Tag and paintball, before the internet made the development of [an] alter ego a very serious business indeed, and before the phenomenon of [the] real-life super-hero. Decades later, we can easily imagine fandom developing simulations like the one Kirby depicts here." But Kirby's simulation goes one step further, as when the "hero" of his story visits a beach, which as it turns out is just one more simulacrum made up of "film! . . . solar lamps! . . . wave machines and plastic sand!," a plot twist reminiscent of the best of Philip K. Dick (in particular his first real masterpiece Time Out of Joint (1958), which Darius doesn't mention), or the Time Out of Joint-inspired The Truman Show forty years later (which Darius does mention). It's a fascinating moment and one that Darius essentially rescues from oblivion, recognizing it as a wonderfully concise mini-science fiction masterpiece that unfortunately devolves into a rather utilitarian narrative in issue #6.
It's a devolution that comes to a dispiriting close in the remaining four issues of the series. Following issue #7's brief detour back into 2001 territory, similar to the first four issues, following the rather bland and unimaginative "adventures" of one of the star children, Kirby almost entirely jettisons the 2001 plotline (save for an obligatory appearance by the monolith in issue #8) and begins to utilize the comic as a showcase for his latest creation, Mister Machine (later Machine Man).
"Kirby's first four issues were a mixture of barbarian comics and sci-fi comics riddled with clichés," writes Darius. "Harvey Norton's story (in issues #5-6) included a super-hero sequence, fraught with parody and ambivalence. And although that story included about three pages of quite good sci-fi comics, it degenerated into a wild, uncontrolled acid trip of a sci-fi ride that feels like undiluted Kirby yet couldn't be more different from the film in tone. The tensions between Kirby and Kubrick – between the creator and the project, between wild exaggeration and subtlety, between uncontrolled imagination and careful, controlled narrative – have been present all along. Now, with two issues left to go, Kirby openly admits that his new protagonist, despite his sci-fi trappings, should be considered a super-hero." Darius speculates that Kirby did this perhaps because he was aware of the series' pending cancellation, or maybe he simply ran out of ideas and the Mister Machine character seemed at least close enough to the spirit of the Kubrick film that Kirby decided to go ahead and introduce him. In other words, Kirby thought, "hey, this is a science fiction comic, not a western, so I may as well go ahead. Plus, Kubrick's movie had a robot, and this guy's a robot, so . . . what the hell, let's do it." In the end, Darius concludes that it is Kirby's limitations as a storyteller, and his inability to free himself from the clichéd trappings of the superhero comics idiom of previous decades, that lent the series both its strengths and its weaknesses. If it's not the weirdest sci-fi comic ever made, it's certainly one of the least coherent. Darius' book is a fascinating and eminently readable study of a frustratingly un-readable comic, which is perhaps reason enough to give both the comic and the critical essay a look.
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Eric Hoffman is the editor of Cerebus the Barbarian Messiah: Essays on the Epic Graphic Satire of Dave Sim and Gerhard (McFarland, 2012) and, with Dominick Grace, of Dave Sim: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2013). Chester Brown: Conversations, also edited with Dominick Grace, is forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi this fall.