On Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey Adaptation (Part 2)

Continuing an examination of Jack Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey begun here.

Kirby’s more successful at other points in this chapter, and he seems to thrive on the conflict in this section of the film. He’s also not immune to granting space to sequences he finds interesting, even if he didn’t feel inclined to do so with the lip-reading sequence. When HAL kills Frank Poole, Kirby depicts the astronaut’s body adrift over three panels — much like he did with the Discovery One, upon its introduction. And when Dave Bowman reenters the ship, Kirby gives the image of the tumbling astronaut a full splash page — it’s just the kind of thing Kirby’s art excels at.

Of course, Kirby can’t resist adding captions and thought balloons, which either add little or spell things out a bit too much. For example, when Dave Bowman goes to check on the astronauts in suspended animation, Kirby has Bowman think, “Let me be wrong! Let my suspicions be groundless — above all — let me be in time!” It’s the kind of thought balloon that would be at home in Silver Age Marvel comics, but it has no place in an adaptation of 2001.

More successful is the sequence in which Bowman deactivates HAL. Here, Kirby doesn’t have the benefit of audio, so HAL’s dispassionate tone of voice, his vocal degeneration, and his singing of “Daisy” is impossible to fully represent on the silent comics page. But Kirby’s able to represent the sequence over multiple panels of varying size, depicting the sequence from multiple points of view — most dramatically in a splash page that exploits the adaptation’s oversized format. What the sequence lacks in detail, it makes up for in its sense of expansiveness. It’s not nearly as successful overall as the film’s version, but it does have some advantages over the original.

With the Discovery One no longer able to sustain life, Dave Bowman abandons it in a pod, occasioning another photo-collage page. Drifting in space over Jupiter, Bowman encounters another Monolith — which Kirby can’t resist depicting in a splash page that manages to combine his wildly expressive depiction of outer space with his depiction of the Monoliths as crackling with energy. It’s his most over-the-top page yet — so much so that, taken on its own and out of context, it would be almost impossible to tell even what it depicts.

This leads into the fourth and final chapter, colorfully titled “The Dimension Trip!” In the film, this segment is famous for its long symbolic sequence, attempting to represent an ambiguous transcendence in cinematic form. Kirby’s adaptation feels much shorter — but it’s no less abstract. In trying to represent the awesomeness of the experience, Kirby incorporates two double-page splashes into the sequence.

It’s a smart choice, even if Kirby’s visuals surprisingly don’t seem to capture the majesty of the cinematic sequence. Despite not being constrained by budget considerations, Kirby’s visuals here simply aren’t that imaginative.

Here again, the adaptation seems to willfully literalize what’s depicted. In the film, once the vision starts, Dave Bowman and the pod disappear, and the viewer is immersed in what we presume Bowman is experiencing. The vision takes over the film, and in this way the experience is made subjective. In Kirby’s version, we see Bowman’s floating pod amid the wild visuals, as if they’re objectively happening.

Kirby seems to want the depiction to be trippy — his captions, as well as the chapter’s title, certainly suggest so. But they seem far more mundane, and readers far more distant from Bowman’s experience, than what we see in the film.

In the film, this gives way to a mostly white room, in the Louis XVI style, and it’s not at all clear that this is a physical place at all. Indeed, given the subjectivity of the visions that preceded it, the room feels like it’s also a vision — like the austere, rational calm at the center of the chaos of the mind.

In Kirby’s version, the caption that begins this portion of the story explicitly tells us “the Monolith has [...] remove[d] Bowman’s pod to its own special place…” The setting, we’re told, is a physical place — not a symbolic mental one. Here again, the story is literalized precisely where the film thrived on ambiguity.

If Kirby seems uniquely ill-suited to the minimal aesthetic of Kubrick’s 2001, it’s here that this clash seems the most apparent. It’s hard to imagine anything more outside of Kirby’s metier than an extended sequence taking place in almost colorless Louis XVI rooms. One marvels at what Kirby must have thought about tackling such a sequence — although, as such a versatile workhorse, he may have simply powered through. Still, there’s perhaps nothing so strange in the whole of the adaptation, which is so defined by Kirby’s aesthetic, as seeing him illustrate this particular sequence, which is so defined by tactile concerns and bound up in the effect of their careful observation.

In these environs, Bowman ages unto death. In the film, this ageing occurs in stages, and the transitions from one age to another occur as Bowman sees his older self, which then takes over as protagonist and focus. Of course, these transitions are also visually interesting. But they raise questions of identity — is the new and older Bowman we follow the same Bowman, displaced in time, or some other David Bowman? This helps to emphasize the subjectivity of the sequence, in which it’s not at all clear what’s literally happening.

But as we’ve seen, Kirby’s adaptation repeatedly literalizes the story, lessening its ambiguity. For example, the captions describe this setting as a physical place, which isn’t clear in the film — where it could be, for example, a virtual construction within the Monument itself. So it shouldn’t surprise us that Kirby leaves out these transitions between stages of Bowman’s ageing.

Kirby goes further in this literalization, suggesting that not only is this a physical place but one where Bowman’s every need is provided for him. Because of this, the sequence feels less like a subjective vision than a kind of alien zoo, in which Bowman is kept by the Monolith. The captions do underline the fuzziness of Bowman’s perceptions and memories of this place, but it remains a physical place, in which physical laws seem to apply. For example, Bowman seems to need to eat here, whereas in the film it feels more as if he eats simply because he thinks he must or is used to doing so. The two versions aren’t utterly incommensurate, but the film’s is far more mental and subjective, while Kirby’s is — true to his personal tendencies — far more physical and “real.”

Kirby also spells out why this sequence is happening at all — at least in superficial terms. A caption tells us that “the old one must pass before the ‘new one’ can come into being…” This is, of course, symbolically true in the film, in which Bowman ages and dies, over this sequence, before attaining some sort of cosmic consciousness — or a consciousness as advanced, relative to our own, as we are to the apes at the beginning of the film. But there’s a vast difference between what’s symbolically true (and perhaps feels right to the audience) and what’s literally true. In the film, this entire sequence could be simply a mental way station, what happens to Bowman’s mind on the edge of this new consciousness, as he sheds his former self. Equally, the sequence could be the Monolith deliberately preparing Bowman for what comes next. It’s up to us, as readers, to navigate these possibilities. Kirby’s captions preempt this. They’re not wrong; it’s just that, in underlining one possibility, they close off others.

Of course, Bowman dies, and he’s transformed into a new, more advanced being. In the film, this is represented by the image of a baby against the cosmos. Whether this is a physical representation or not isn’t clear in the film. Such questions, we may realize, have by this point long been abandoned by the film. The “cosmic baby” image is certainly symbolic, however, of a new birth, suggesting the beginning of a new stage in human evolution, in which our species might adjust to its new, outer-space environment, and in which it might interact meaningfully with alien intelligences.

Unsurprisingly, all of this is literalized in Kirby’s adaptation, in which Bowman seems to physically be in this place — and seems to physically be transformed into a cosmic baby.

Kirby also describes what this cosmic baby goes on to do: to wander “the universe” (not the galaxy or “the stars” but the universe) until it finds a planet it likes, which it will then inhabit.

In the film, it’s implicit that Bowman’s new “form” — if indeed it is a physical form — represents a new stage in human evolution, parallel to how the Monolith triggered a leap in human consciousness near the beginning of the film. But this is only gestured at. Obviously, David Bowman isn’t among a community of humans, like the apes were in the beginning. We assume that this new stage in human evolution will take place among the stars, which are home to extraterrestrial intelligences that our minds can barely process — hence the ambiguity and symbolism of the film’s ending. But what this new stage in human evolution will look like is anybody’s guess — if we are even capable of understanding it.

Kirby’s adaptation tells us that Bowman has been literally and physically transformed into a kind of cosmic baby. Kirby’s adaptation tells us what that baby will do: wander “the universe” and find a new planet to inhabit — though this doesn’t really help much, since we don’t know what it seeks to do on such a planet. But Kirby’s adaptation also tells us that Bowman is “the first of many. For the Monolith knows there must be more than one new seed to sew the harvest of a new species…”

In the film, because Bowman’s alone when he’s “transformed,” it’s not clear how or if this represents a new stage for humanity as a whole. His destiny may well be humanity’s overall destiny, but it’s not at all clear how the rest of humanity will get there — or if this is indeed the Monolith’s intent. For all we know, the Monolith is simply elevating Bowman and leaving humanity to find its own way. It’s at this point that the parallels between the Monolith’s actions in the beginning of the film and the Monolith’s actions at the end break down.

While this is ambiguous — and perhaps appropriately so given the idea that we, as current humans, could not understand this alien intelligence — it’s also one of the film’s weakest points. Because it’s not simply a matter of ambiguity. It’s a matter of the film following through on its own structure. The evolutionary boost the Monolith gave humanity in the beginning is supposed to mirror the Monolith’s transformation of David Bowman at the end — indeed, without this mirroring, we couldn’t understand that later transformation. Ambiguity can be wonderful — and appropriate, especially in depicting the unfathomably alien. But when a parallel a text itself establishes doesn’t really seem to work, praising ambiguity can be a way of hiding an inherent structural flaw — or at least a lack of completeness. Ambiguity isn’t its own reward. And 2001 is lopsided in this way: is Bowman’s elevation at the end the next stage of human evolution, parallel to the beginning, or is it just something that happens to the final survivor of a doomed spaceship?

Any adaptation must adapt — and thus change — the original. Ideally, these changes make the result work better, not only in a new medium but also in terms of its narrative. Adaptations often fix ambiguities, where ambiguities weren’t intended and don’t help a story. Kirby’s adaptation may be wrongheaded in several respects, especially in its literalization of things the film is wise to leave ambiguous. But here at least, the way Kirby tends to spell things out may be seen as improving upon the original. If the film’s ending mirrors its beginning — and only makes sense, to the extent it does, because of this — why is Bowman alone, whereas the apes evolved as part of a society?

Kirby’s answer is simplistic: Bowman is just the first. It’s not a bad answer, and it’s perfectly consistent with the film. There’s certainly nothing in the film to contradict this. And it does sort of solve a structural problem with the film, in which the ending seems to mirror the beginning but doesn’t, really.

Of course, this benefits Kirby’s agenda, because it sets up his own ongoing series, in which we’ll follow the Monolith’s program to elevate humanity. It’s hard to figure out where to go next, after the transcendental ending of 2001, and Kirby’s figured out one way of doing so — a way that, while not subtle, does address one of the problems inherent in the original.

Tomorrow: Kirby’s continuation of 2001!

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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. He currently lives in Illinois.

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