Kirby’s continuation of 2001 is nothing short of flabbergasting.
It shouldn’t exist.
It’s so odd, so wrong, that it loops back around — not to being right, for sure, but to be charming for its sheer impossible-to-make-up oddity.
Issue #1: Beast-Killer / Woodrow Decker
2001, A Space Odyssey #1 (Dec 1976) — yes, the comics title used a comma instead of a colon — opens with a splash page featuring a caveman with a Monolith behind him. The imagery and language is immediately identifiable as Kirby, and it seems radically out of step with the 2001 we know. The captions on the first page end by referring to the Monolith: “Read on — and behold its awesome secrets!” Few things could seem less like Kubrick’s film than this.
Readers approaching the comic today might well expect any continuation to take place largely in space, perhaps on the Moon or around Jupiter. Instead, we’re treated to the story of Beast-Killer, a caveman in what is today New Orleans, who battles other cavemen and has a connection to the Monolith. He battles a saber-toothed tiger, then fashions the first spear. As he throws it, the story transitions to outer space through a juxtaposition of an astronaut in the same posture — a transition echoing the famous bone / spaceship smash cut in 2001 (which Kirby preserved in his adaptation).
At this point, the issue’s already halfway done. Kirby’s echoing the beginning of 2001 by imagining that what we saw there was only one of several such interventions by the Monolith. That’s not inconsistent with 2001, but it’s still a strange idea. Did Kirby think fans of 2001 wanted more apes and cavemen? Or that this was the heart of the story? It’s as if he’s confusing a story’s prologue with the meat of the story.
Woodrow Decker, the astronaut in question, is one of two who are stranded on an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And this particular asteroid is filled with ruins of some sort of ancient civilization. In 2001, the voyage to Jupiter was a big deal, and there’s no evidence that humans have explored the asteroid belt. Kirby gives no indication that these ruins were made by the same aliens that built the Monolith — the idea seems to be that the Monoliths of 2001 represent aliens having left things behind in our solar system, so why not have more odd stuff left behind?
To a fan of 2001, this ought to seem strange indeed, because 2001 was very controlled in its depiction of the Monoliths, and their discovery means a great deal. Suddenly, in Kirby’s very first issue, alien artifacts in our solar system can be casually inserted, without any need to explain who left them or why. One can almost guess at Kirby’s thinking here. Hey, did 2001 really explain the Monolith? 2001 fans don’t want explanations. They just want more alien artifacts and ruins.
The two astronauts’ spaceship is burning. On an asteroid, which clearly doesn’t have an atmosphere, or the astronauts wouldn’t be wearing spacesuits. So where’s the fire getting the oxygen to burn? It’s a tiny thing, to be sure, but it’s a complete violation of the careful realism that defined 2001‘s depiction of space travel.
The astronauts descend into an underground alien building — where they’re attacked by a tentacled purple space monster with big yellow eyes. This is classic Kirby fare, but it’s impossible to imagine Kubrick or Clarke casually inserting such a beast onto an asteroid, let alone casually inserting alien ruins for the monster to inhabit.
At this point, anyone who’s seen 2001 ought to be asking what the fuck they’re reading. And what the fuck Kirby was thinking.
It’s as if he’s turned 2001 into a Kirby space adventure comic.
After one of the astronauts is killed, Woodrow Decker, now the sole survivor — and a descendant, we’re told, of Beast-Killer, the caveman from the issue’s first half — discovers a Monolith deep inside the ruins. He dives into it — as if it’s one of the comic-book portals Kirby spent his career drawing, despite such a maneuver not having been shown in 2001.
At this point, Kirby turns to the stargate sequence from the film, although a bit different for Woodrow Decker than it was in the film for David Bowman. Kirby excels here, letting himself go wild with the visuals.
And then Decker is in a wooded area, much as Bowman famously found himself in white Louis XVI rooms. Like Bowman, Decker quickly ages and dies in this new setting, whereupon he’s received and transformed by the Monolith.
As in Kirby’s adaptation of the film, Decker is literally transformed into a cosmic baby, which then goes flying off through the cosmos. This isn’t at all clear in the film itself, but it’s part of Kirby’s rather literal adaptation, so he repeats it here.
And that’s the end of the issue. Incredibly, the next issue promises “Vira the She-Demon!”
Not a continuation of Decker’s story, mind you. Nor Bowman the cosmic baby meeting up with Woodrow Decker the cosmic baby. Nor an update about what’s happening with humanity as a whole, or on the Moon after 2001, or something involving Discovery One dead over Jupiter.
No, “Vira the She-Demon!” In a 2001 comic.
HAL 9000, meet Vira the She-Demon. The two of you shouldn’t exist in the same world together, but now you do.
Corporate American comics, in which Jack Kirby had worked most of his life, routinely combine genres that really shouldn’t go together. Thus, a hard-boiled detective comic shares the same universe with an alien invasion comic — even though the insertion of aliens into the universe of the hard-boiled detective effectively destroys the realistic ambiance on which that detective depends. In the same way, characters relying on magic mix with realistic science-fiction characters, despite that the insertion of magic into realistic science fiction transforms that genre into something closer to science fantasy. Control over genre — and with it tone — is crucial to any story, and the more realistic genre typically suffers when unrealistic characters or elements are introduced. Popeye may be great, and The Great Gatsby may be… well, great, but the latter’s universe is shattered by Popeye’s insertion. Corporate American comics don’t usually know, or at least care, about this dynamic. But literary works, whether in prose or film or comics, typically care a great deal about this careful control of genre, tone, and realism.
That’s true of 2001, which Kubrick made sure was as realistic as possible, even when it was painful and costly to shoot. Everything was controlled.
Such control is foreign to Kirby, who spent his career in corporate comics, where the most realistic characters can meet funny anthropomorphic animals. Kubrick’s careful literary control was foreign to Kirby, who excelled at producing wild comics stories at a breakneck pace.
And so we get alien ruins on an asteroid, a spaceship burning in space, and Vira the She-Demon.
It’s hard to find words to express how strange all of this is. The comic couldn’t feel more out of sync with 2001. It’s all Kirby, no Kubrick or Clarke. It’s mind-boggling. It’s just not right.
It seems as if Kirby sees the central story of 2001 as “Monolith intervenes to spur human evolution; then in 2001, a future human in space encounters a Monolith and gets turned into a cosmic baby.” Kirby’s strategy, in continuing this story, seems to be to repeat this formula, as if the Monolith is assembling some sort of cosmic baby super-team.
It’s as if Kirby looked at 2001 and saw the Monolith as a deus ex machina — a device through which he could tell wild, if formulaic, stories about both prehistoric humans and sci-fi ones, all with Kirby’s classic, exaggerated flair.
Tomorrow: issues 2-4 of Kirby’s continuation!