On Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is surely one of the strangest sci-fi franchise comics ever published.

2001 treasury adaptationFor one thing, the comic appeared in 1976, eight years after the 1968 film debuted. Most other sci-fi franchises (like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica) saw comic books produced almost immediately with the franchise’s debut. Not only did the 2001 comic take almost a decade to appear, but there was no sequel film or novel, nor any other new material set in the Space Odyssey universe, during this intervening time. (The sequel novel, 2010, wouldn’t appear until 1982, and its film adaptation had to wait until 1984.)

And make no mistake — the comic was an adaptation and continuation of the Stanley Kubrick film, not the Arthur C. Clarke novel that also appeared in 1968. (The two collaborated on the plot, based on a few of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories, including “The Sentinel.” But in recognition of the film’s prominence, Clarke’s sequel novels were effectively sequels to the film and not his own novel. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the comic takes the film as its starting point — especially since adapting novels to comics wasn’t common in 1976.)

2001: A Space Odyssey screenshotFor another thing, the 1968 film has come to be regarded as almost sacred. Although it received mixed reviews upon its release, with negative reviews quite rightly pointing out the film’s plodding pace and lack of conflict during its first half, 2001 steadily increased in reputation and influence. Today, it’s often considered one of the finest films ever made and even more universally considered one of the finest sci-fi movies in history. Making it into a comic book can seem a little like adapting and continuing Citizen Kane.

This pattern of reception, from mixed reviews to greater praise over time, is typical of many films directed by Stanley Kubrick. Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Full Metal Jacket (1987) are all regarded as classic films, although they divided critics upon release. Kubrick, perhaps more than any other American director, is regarded as an auteur — a singular creative mind who dominates his work, even when it’s a collaboration (as all films are). It’s hard to imagine a comic-book continuation of those other films, perhaps featuring the further adventures of the sociopathic Alex from Clockwork Orange, returning to ultra-violence and “the old in-out.”

The very idea feels like sacrilege — less because of the low status afforded comics (one hopes) and more because any such continuation, by other creative minds in any medium, seems to dilute the special nature of the original. It’s equally hard to imagine a cartoon series based on Full Metal Jacket (and if you don’t believe this could happen, based on the violent content of that film, both Rambo and RoboCop got cartoons).

In 1976, however, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hadn’t yet become such a sacred text. It was well-regarded enough that adapting it into one of Marvel’s oversized “treasury” editions might have made sense to someone at the company. After all, there were no home videos at the time, and adaptations served the very real purpose of giving readers some version of a movie that they could enjoy at home. With the film’s many grand visuals, it must have seemed like it was a perfect match for the treasury format. Even if it had come out almost a decade earlier. Having adapted the film, an ongoing series might have seemed to make sense to Marvel — after all, such a beautiful treasury adaptation could serve as a high-profile springboard for such a series.

Even so, it’s worth noting that Star Wars — which sent Hollywood scrambling to approve sci-fi films — wouldn’t come out until the following year (1977). Marvel had great success adapting and continuing that film. But in 1976, there was no history of success to point to, in adapting and continuing 2001 — a film from eight years prior.

2001: A Space Odyssey screenshotBut the strangest thing about Kirby’s 2001 is that Jack Kirby was the one to do it.

Kubrick’s 2001 is characterized by its long takes, its meditative quality, and its almost total lack of action. It’s certainly a visually stunning film — perhaps that’s even its strongest element. But these visuals are elegant, beautiful, and characterized by their geometric precision and, indeed, their minimalism. Everything is understated. Even when what’s being depicted concerns the fate of humanity, the dialogue is banal (if there’s dialogue at all). The music‘s often more important than any words, and there’s certainly no punches and photon torpedoes, nor anything of the sort.

It’s hard to overstate just how ill-suited Jack Kirby was to such material.

Like the film, Kirby’s visual style is distinctive — but it couldn’t be more different. Kirby’s bombastic. His art is famous for its extreme foreshortening, adding a sense of drama and excitement to leaps and punches. He’s action-oriented and in-your-face, where Kubrick’s film was all about the subtle. No one ever accused Kirby of being subtle. Indeed, his almost complete lack of subtlety is part of his charm, but it’s not a charm one could possibly imagine fitting 2001.

The visuals for which 2001 is so famous are stark. Minimal. Kirby’s art is anything but. Indeed, while he was certainly a master of the comics form and profoundly influential, his art is often rather ugly. He excelled at wild, jagged technological devices, brimming with otherworldly energy — but his figures are all muscles, and his faces are almost uniformly brutish. His characters — yes, even the women — look like mashed-up street brawlers, even when they’re supposed to be royalty, or defined by their gracefulness. There’s certainly an elegance to Kirby’s wild illustrations, but they’re not exactly elegant.

2001: A Space Odyssey screenshotMany of the long shots in 2001 are about establishing a sense of place — whether it’s feeling the ship overwhelmed by the black vastness of space, or being able to visualize how humans would interact with the ship’s circular interior. Even as the ship’s computer, HAL, is deactivated, you have a sense of the size of the room and how one navigates it in zero gravity. It’s because of the position of a porthole that HAL is able to read the astronauts’ lips and figure out their plan. These are real settings, not sci-fi backdrops.

HAL, from 2001: A Space OdysseyKirby, in contrast, almost never communicates place in this way. He would toss torches or technological devices into a scene, but their function is to communicate ambiance, not to let the reader imagine characters interacting with a real, three-dimensional space. He’s simply not concerned with such matters, nor does he seem to see such precise settings as an integral part of the story itself. Even on this fairly subtle level, Kirby and Kubrick were very different brains.

Then there’s Kirby’s prose, which is often wildly overwritten — a pattern he learned from earlier periods in comics history, when captions could describe what was shown visually, and from his collaboration with Stan Lee specifically. This doesn’t fit well with the film’s long dialogue-free sequences. Kirby’s prose is also spectacularly purple — more poetic than Lee’s and at times quite effective, but purple nonetheless. Again, not a great fit with Kubrick. Especially when, in the comic, Kirby would use captions and thought balloons to spell out, in melodramatic language, what the film leaves implicit or ambiguous.

Kirby and Kubrick also had almost antithetical creative approaches. Kirby was famous for banging out multiple pages a day and working on several monthly titles simultaneously. He maintained a remarkable level of quality, given this level of production. But he didn’t sweat the small stuff. Kubrick took years to make a single movie, and he was famous for driving his actors to madness by redoing the same scene over and over, without giving them almost anything in the way of notes or advice, simply because what he’d filmed wasn’t perfect or the way he saw it in his head.

Kubrick may have been ambiguous and plodding, but he thought deeply. While filming The Shining, he famously (depending on which story you believe) called Stephen King in the middle of the night to confront the horror writer’s beliefs about God. Kirby’s work dabbled in philosophy, but it didn’t probe too deeply or in any organized or sustained way. Philosophy was a theme to Kirby, who wasn’t an intellectual.

2001: A Space Odyssey screenshotNone of this should be seen as anti-Kirby, nor pro-Kubrick. Kubrick’s perfectionism abused actors, and he scrapped material that represented huge expenditures of talent and money. And what Kirby’s work lacks in intellect or pristine beauty, it more than makes up for in dynamism and a vitality that seems to leap off the page.

The point isn’t that either man’s style is superior to the other. It’s that they’re so completely incompatible, so utterly at odds with one another, that it staggers the imagination that one man would be tasked to adapt and continue the work of the other.

No, Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey shouldn’t work. Sometimes, such odd combinations work anyway, while creators who seem perfectly matched to content sometimes fail. This isn’t one of those exceptions. Kirby’s 2001 is, instead, the most bizarre sort of failure — a crazy comic that by all rights shouldn’t exist but somehow does, like a continuation of Citizen Kane by Frank Miller. It’s an oddity produced by a sci-fi time rift, or a product of a parallel universe. It certainly doesn’t belong in ours.

And that is its greatest charm.

Tomorrow: Jack Kirby’s adaptation of Kubrick’s film.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics and his transgressive novel Nira/Sussa. He currently lives in Illinois.

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