As the surge of elation sweeps through him, Moonwatcher shouts in victory and throws his weapon at the sky!! Higher and higher, it sails—aimed at the infinite where the countless stars wait for the coming of man… And, man comes to space!! Across the agonizing ages he follows the destiny bequeathed to him by the monolith.
That’s Jack Kirby, translating one of the most famous match cuts in cinema history into comic-book captions in the 1976 Marvel Treasury edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The words are singularly inelegant—quintessentially Kirby. When comics connoisseurs and pop-culture scholars talk about Kirby, they tend to downplay his prose style, which is so funky that newcomers often find him unreadable. Kirby is hailed instead for his impact on the development of the medium—not just as the co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and others, but as an innovator in bringing higher-toned, philosophical science-fiction to the comic-book page. Kirby was an innovator as an artist as well, experimenting with stunning splash pages and mixing photographs into drawn panels. There’s no mistaking a Kirby character, all thick-lined and grimacing, posed in a crouching stance, with one foreshortened arm extending toward the reader, dwarfed by intricate, multi-piped, visibly crackling technology. Yet Kirby the pop artist, Kirby the cosmic dreamer, and Kirby the accidental Beat poet—these were all the same guy, and it’s unlikely that any one of them could’ve existed without the others.
Kirby’s friend and biographer Mark Evanier writes in Kirby: King Of Comics that Kirby’s dialogue “did to linguistics what his art had always done to the rules of anatomy and physics.” In his early career, Kirby worked alongside writer Joe Simon, who favored artless directness in his dialogue and captions. And when Kirby moved to Marvel Comics in his middle age, he worked with (and sometimes against) writer-editor Stan Lee, who preferred showmanship and grandeur. When Kirby became a writer-artist-editor, he fused those styles, combining florid excess with a leave-nothing-unarticulated bluntness. The result was an overdressed word-salad, with slangy phrases and grandiose proclamations tossed together indiscriminately. Evanier says that reading Kirby’s writing is a lot like having conversations with him. “He had a tendency to ramble from topic to topic, leaping about and leaving one sentence unfinished while he began three others.”
The director of the movie 2001 had aesthetic quirks of his own. Stanley Kubrick already had a reputation as one of the great American filmmakers before he collaborated with science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey. But coming on the heels of the cultural phenomenon that was 1964’s Dr. Strangelove—and after a four-year layoff in which there was a fair amount of media speculation about his big, secret science-fiction project—2001 clarified that Kubrick was one of a kind. Thereafter, every film Kubrick made would be an event, in part because he made so few, in part because he kept himself out of the public eye, and in part because the films themselves were so unusual, and so densely packed.
Kubrick still had his doubters, in the critical corps and the general public. But even the skeptics operated under the presumption that Kubrick knew what he was doing, even when it came to the performances in his films, which tended to be either flat or histrionic. People who worked with Kubrick behind the camera insist he was much friendlier and more communicative than his reputation for inscrutability allows. But actors frequently describe a different Kubrick, who gave them very little instruction and had them do so many takes that they lost a lot of the nuances of a scene. Over time, educated filmgoers grew accustomed to the acting in Kubrick’s films, as well as to the somnambulant pacing, which also hamstrung his actors by pumping a lot of dead air between their lines. But for those unaccustomed to Kubrick, there can be some dissonance, not unlike what novice comics fans experience when reading a Kirby book for the first time.
The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I lacked the experience to understand what I was watching. I would’ve been about 13, and watching the film on TV after hearing for years that it was the greatest science-fiction movie of all time—a strong endorsement to a geekling like me, who came of age in the Star Wars era. I’d already read Clarke’s novel, which is more plot- and character-driven than the movie, so I understood what was happening on the relatively tiny screen in our family room. I just misinterpreted the how and why of it. I presumed the slowness of 2001 was due to the viewers of 1968 being overly impressed by the special effects. I read the film as dated, because I didn’t have enough awareness of Kubrick, 1968, or the contemporaneous critical reaction to 2001 to know any better.
In an essay in the back of the Marvel Treasury adaptation of 2001, writer David Anthony Kraft talks about seeing the movie in its original run, and describes feeling let down by it for many of the same reasons as I was. And Kraft wasn’t alone in his bafflement. 2001 weathered a wave of high-profile pans from film critics who found it pretentious and presumptuous. Kraft suggests that a lot of those critics were annoyed that Kubrick would spend so much time and money on a genre as juvenile as science fiction, which at the time was usually the stuff of drive-ins and Saturday matinees. SF fans rallied around the film, though, as did young people drawn to the psychedelic interludes and highbrow spiritual inquiry. Word of mouth and repeat business kept 2001 in theaters for a lengthy run, which led to more conversations and reconsiderations. Kraft himself went back several times, and eventually changed his mind. “The actual theme of the story is quite passé in printed science fiction,” he writes. “It is his transcendent mastery of the medium that makes Kubrick’s film stand out.”
That sentence could serve as a critique of the comic-book pages that precede it. Kirby wrote, drew, and served as his own editor on Marvel’s 2001 adaptation (with inks by Frank Giacoia and coloring by Marie Severin), but doesn’t bring much personal feeling or “transcendent mastery of the medium” to the Treasury. He really doesn’t vary much from the basic plot that Kubrick and Clarke originally hashed out together. Kubrick came to Clarke with an idea for a first-contact story, imagining a mysterious, godlike alien race that has guided human evolution from the time of the apes to the early stages of space exploration. Borrowing elements from a couple of Clarke’s short stories—most notably “The Sentinel”—2001 begins with a tribe of ape-men encountering a mysterious black monolith that helps them learn to fashion weapons. Then the movie jumps ahead to the discovery of a similar monolith on the moon, which sends mankind on an expedition to Jupiter. There, another monolith opens up into a stargate and transports one astronaut into a plane beyond conventional human understanding, where he’s reborn as a “star child.”
Clarke’s book—written while the movie was in production, and released around the same time—shades in some human details, telling the story through the eyes of its few major characters, describing what they think and how they feel. Kubrick eschews all that, choosing to keep dialogue and explanations to a minimum. (According to Kraft, Kubrick scrapped a planned narration that would’ve placed the film more in the realm of docu-realism, in line with his The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove.) The only section of Kubrick’s 2001 that’s conventionally audience-friendly is the third, in which the two Jupiter-bound astronauts, David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), discover that the super-intelligent computer aboard their ship Discovery, HAL 9000, has become conflicted about the secrecy of their mission, and is responding by trying to kill all the humans on board.
Coincidentally, the third section of the movie also contains an image that’s remarkably Kirby-like. When Dave enters the Discovery’s computer center to “kill” HAL, he’s shot from below, looking like one of Kirby’s iconic superhumans. As an artist, Kirby made sense for 2001, because he excelled at drawing futuristic technology and he thought in widescreen. Visually, the 2001 Marvel Treasury is a thing of beauty, with the oversized format (10 by 14 inches rather than than the more common 7.25 by 10.5) suiting Kirby’s preference for big panels and two-page splashes. Kirby borrows some compositions directly from the film, but he adds his own dynamic poses and granite faces. He gives a somewhat stately film a jolt of Kirby electricity.
But when he tries to do the same with his words, the Marvel Treasury fails—and spectacularly, too. Kubrick purposefully chose silence for his 2001, while Clarke simply and understatedly provided more backstory in his novel. Kirby, on the other hand, explains and exclaims throughout the comic-book version, adding dialogue when none is needed, and narrating every moment with the remedial tone of a grade-school history primer.
In his book The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made, Julian Darius writes, “It’s hard to overstate just how ill-suited Jack Kirby was to such material,” referring to the disconnect between Kubrick’s subtlety and Kirby’s boldness. And Darius isn’t just talking about the Marvel Treasury. Later in 1976, Marvel started publishing an ongoing series based on 2001. Kirby again served as writer, artist, and editor, with inks and lettering by Mike Royer, Kirby’s best 1970s collaborator. The series only lasted 10 issues, and changed its focus dramatically between #1 and #10. For the first four issues—encompassing three stories—Kirby repeats the arc of the movie over and over, with new characters. Each story begins in a prehistoric era, jumps ahead to the future, and ends with the hero transformed into a star child by a monolith. Issues #5 and #6 begin in the year 2040, and tell the story of a fan of superhero comics who gets to live out his fantasies. Issue #7 follows a star child as it journeys through the universe, witnessing humanity at its best and worst. And issues #8 through #10 introduce a robot originally dubbed “X-51,” who gains consciousness and becomes a superhero named “Mister Machine” (called Machine Man in further Marvel adventures).
Darius gives Kirby his due as an artist, acknowledging that in a way, the trippy existentialism of Kirby’s 2001 comics are truer to Kubrick’s vision than Clarke’s later sequel novels to 2001 (and the one sequel movie, 2010), which are more about answering questions. But mostly, The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic picks apart Kirby’s work on this series, mocking its drifting focus and its dogged adherence to a few superficial elements of the movie: the monolith, the star child, etc. Darius also notes—rightly—that Kirby misses an obvious link to the film when he fails to connect the story of X-51 with the story of HAL, which for many viewers is the true heart of 2001, in that HAL’s confusion gets at what constitutes “consciousness.”
But Darius’ multiple knocks against Kirby for ignoring or circumventing the movie’s continuity misses the bigger picture of what this comic is. To understand Jack Kirby’s 2001, it’s necessary to understand Jack Kirby’s 1976.
For Kirby, 1976 was a year of transition in a career that saw multiple major changes since he started work in the mid-1930s, while still in his teens. Kirby and Joe Simon co-created Captain America for Timely Comics (a predecessor of Marvel) in the 1940s, then worked together at Harvey after World War II, before Kirby moved to DC in the mid-1950s, at a time when his style was falling out of favor with editors for being too distinctive, and not generic enough. Kirby returned to the former Timely (then called Atlas), where Stan Lee hyped him as “King” Kirby, and made his characters and his approach to comics storytelling the foundation for “the Marvel Age of comics.” But Lee ended up getting the lion’s share of the credit—and money—for what he and Kirby created, so at the end of the 1960s, Kirby jumped back to DC again with much fanfare, and was given free rein to develop an intricate, multi-title mythology he dubbed “The Fourth World.” Sales were sluggish, and the inevitable editorial interference drove Kirby back to Marvel, in a move that was announced in 1975, again with a lot of hoopla. In some ways, Kirby was more respected in his field when he tackled 2001 in 1976 than Kubrick was in 1968—even though Kirby was ultimately less successful. Critics initially scoffed at Kubrick, but audiences turned out for his 2001, while Kirby in the 1970s was regarded as the best in the business by people who didn’t actually buy his comics.
As for why Marvel was even bothering with an adaptation of 2001 eight years after the movie came out, that had to do with the changing culture of comics circa 1976. By the mid-1970s, a more organized fandom—having launched conventions and fanzines to share their knowledge and enthusiasms—was letting publishers know that the same adults who read J.R.R. Tolkien, watched Star Trek, and obsessed over Kubrick’s film were also still reading comics, and were interested in a more mature approach to the medium.
Kirby’s 2001 was not that comic. To some extent, it was a victim of bad timing, debuting a few months before Star Wars mania hit (spawning its own popular Marvel comics adaptation and ongoing series) and a few months before Heavy Metal magazine started building an American audience for adult-oriented science-fiction comics. The 2001 comic also caught Kirby at a low creative ebb. He’d poured a lot of himself into his Fourth World saga for DC, without much to show for it, and by the time he returned to Marvel, Kirby was back to thinking of himself as a hired gun, sweating to fill as many pages as his bosses required, governed by the mentality of a boy who grew up in a ghetto during the Depression. Where Kubrick was a meticulous planner, taking years to develop a project and fussing over every detail, Kirby was a disorganized workaholic, who according to his wife Roz would accidentally throw away about half the good ideas he scrawled onto notepaper and napkins, and who felt like he was on the verge of destitution if he didn’t generate at least 20 pages a week.
Much of what made Kirby’s work so one-of-a-kind resulted from his breakneck pace. The larger panels and the comics that begin in the middle of the action—as though an entire issue is missing—let Kirby work quicker, and not sweat whether everything made sense. There’s a stream-of-consciousness quality to Kirby’s storytelling. This is a man who once created an entire comics series for DC—one of his best, Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth—based on what he imagined the Planet Of The Apes movies were about, not based on any close reading. With the 2001 series, he took what was meaningful to him about the source material and just riffed on it, dwelling on the persistent struggle of human beings to believe that they’re improving and working toward a higher purpose—something Kirby likely thought about a lot in the 1970s.
Deifying artists does them a disservice. As the documentary Room 237 shows, some folks get so caught up in the notion of Stanley Kubrick as an infallible genius that even his bum notes get explained away as part of a master plan, rather than the result of mere human error (or, more charitably, mere humanity). For all the focus on 2001’s groundbreaking special effects—which are still impressive in the way they conjure the axis-bending physics of weightlessness, 45 years before Gravity—and all the arguments over the movie’s deeper meaning, it’s easy to overlook how wonderfully wry the film is, as Kubrick’s films so often are. 2001 depicts one of the grandest moments in the history of humankind, and the actual humans involved are studying zero-gravity toilet instructions after consuming tubes of hot food-paste, gathering officiously in boardrooms to look at slideshows, and receiving messages from home about their lingering pay disputes. It’s these odd little touches that refute the popular take that Kubrick’s films are chilly intellectual exercises. There’s a lot of his own personal bemusement over human folly filling the periphery.
On a featurette included on the 2001 Blu-ray, James Cameron says, “It’s the ideas behind the spectacle that are still the most important special effect of all.” But the people behind those ideas matter, too. It’s not essential to know how Kubrick’s fascinations with avant-garde film and music influenced 2001, or to focus on how a mid-1960s conception of computers and technology affected the character of HAL, who’s like an elaborate version of one of those early chess-playing robots. But it does recontextualize 2001 to think of it as the product of an individual, working in concert with other individuals, none of them delivering messages from on high. And for all the angry letters Marvel received (and, to its credit, published) from 2001 fans who felt Kirby was besmirching their favorite film, it helps to remember the pressures that Kirby was under at the time, internally and externally, and to see the 10 issues and one tabloid edition of his 2001 as the product of a scatterbrained genius grappling with his own relevance. Kubrick and Kirby—these were both just people, grasping at something just beyond them, while planting guideposts for others to follow.
Next month: The Blues Brothers videogame.