On Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey Continuation, Part 2

Having introduced Jack Kirby’s 2001, and looked at his adaptation of the film and the first issue of his bizarre continuation, let’s continue examining one of the oddest sci-fi comics in history.

Issue #2: Vira the She-Demon / Vera Gentry

If we look ahead to issue #2 (Jan 1977), we see that Vira the She-Demon will play the ape / caveman role, encountering the Monolith before the story transitions to the future to show a descendant transfigured like David Bowman, or Woodrow Decker in Kirby’s first issue. She’s presented with the same bombast with which Kirby presented Beast-Killer in issue #1. Her great distinguishing feature is that she’s a cavewoman, not a caveman. Kirby even calls her “a non-submissive female” — language that probably wouldn’t be used today. (Oh, do you mean “dominant female?”)

2001, A Space Odyssey #2, pages 2-3Vira the She-Demon is clearly a riff on the cavewoman archetype, most directly on Mavel’s Shanna the She-Devil (who debuted a few years prior, in Shanna the She-Devil #1, Dec 1972). 2001 was also published by Marvel, so it’s not clear why Kirby would create such an obvious analogue. In any case, neither Vira nor Shanna seem to belong in a 2001 comic.

After an encounter with the Monolith, Vira finds herself able to command the cavemen who had previously menaced her, and she sets herself up as a living goddess of sorts, with the men now delivering offerings to her instead of threats. Because these prehistoric sequences are supposed to show how the Monolith steered human evolution, we’re told that the absurd stone house the men build for Vira is “perhaps the first man-made house in existence.”

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #2, pages 8Is Kirby offering a metaphor for the theory that civilization was once more female-focused, before men discovered their role in reproduction? Certainly, female worship is tied here to human evolution. But the metaphor is only implicit, and one gets the sense that it’s more an accident of Kirby wanting to use a cavewoman archetype, rather than having any deeper agenda.

The transition to the future is again accomplished by a visual juxtaposition. Now we’re following Vera Gentry, a female astronaut with a station on Ganymede — and a mission to investigate U.F.O. sightings there.

(Note that this is the first time Kirby gave the prehistoric protagonist and the future protagonist a similar name. In issue #1, we’re only told that Beast-Killer and Woodrow Decker are related. With issue #2, Kirby began to underline the connection between the story’s two disparate protagonists by making their names similar.)

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #2, pages 8

If casually placing humans in the asteroid belt in issue #1 was problematic, Ganymede’s even more of a problem. It’s a Jovian moon, after all. Remember what a big deal going to Jupiter was, in 2001? Now, that journey’s so unremarkable that Vera can complain that she’s been sent — which she attributes to sexism, since this is such an irrelevant mission.

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #2, page 9If humans are now so casual about travel to Jupiter, have they investigated what happened to the Discovery One at the end of 2001? If they have, there’s no mention of it. (Such a mission would be the subject or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, but the need to send such a mission — or what a grand undertaking it would represent — is utterly ignored by Kirby.)

As with the alien ruins in issue #1, the fact that U.F.O.s have been spotted around Ganymede seems like it’s not a big deal at all to humanity. The Monoliths of 2001, where they eerily represented evidence of extraterrestrial visitation of our solar system, have now been reduced to one of many, many such visitations. Why, our solar system is positively teeming with alien life.

And forget the movie’s careful realism, with regards to its depiction of technology. Among Vera’s tools on Ganymede is what looks like a human-sized pair of binoculars. Not a telescope. Binoculars.

Of course, those U.F.O.s almost immediately show up — and attack without warning! Vera, alone on Ganymede, flees — only to confront green aliens in spacesuits, still attacking with no explanation!

Naturally, a Monolith saves Vera Gentry from certain death — as it saved Bowman and Decker before. A trippy sequence follows, and then Vera finds herself back home — where she has access to a swimming pool, allowing us to see her in a swimsuit. Of course, it’s all been prepared by the Monolith, and Vera ages, dies, and gets transformed by the Monolith into a space baby, who then wanders the stars.

No, really. This is what Kirby’s continuation, at least initially, was all about. This is the formula he took from 2001: prehistoric adventure, future adventure, then turn into a space baby.

This has to be one of the strangest comics ever made.

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #2, page 15In the film, it’s not clear how long Bowman lives within those white Louis XVI rooms — or even if time is relevant anymore. Here, Kirby’s caption tells us that Vera Gentry lives out her entire “life span” in “ninety minutes.” This is making things clear that work precisely because they’re ambiguous, but it also raises the question as to what possible purpose the Monolith would have in accelerating humans’ aging process. That’s not exactly at odds with the film — it’s one possible interpretation. And maybe the film doesn’t make sense either. It certainly thrives on ambiguity. But pinning this down, especially in the rudimentary way Kirby does, strips the original of its resonance and inevitably raises logical questions, which the ambiguity of the original kept us from asking.

If there was any doubt, the end of the second issue makes it clear that Kirby’s formula isn’t going to change soon. The blurb advertising the next issue promises to tell the story of Marak, “the barbarian’s barbarian!!”

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #2, page 17

Issues #3-4: Marak / Commander Herb Marik

Issues #3-4 (Feb-Mar 1977) did change things up a little — but only by expanding the tale, which follows the same formula, over two issues, instead of cramming it into one. The first issue takes place entirely in prehistory, although it’s thoroughly anachronistic. In one of his conquests, the warlord Marak meets an old man named Egel, who has encountered the Monolith and consequently has learned how to meld metal — in 200,000 B.C. Marak follows Egel to the Monolith, where Marak has a brief vision of the far future before seeing a woman named Jalessa, who challenges him to find her. Using Egel as a kind of Hephaestus, Marak is soon outfitted in Roman-era armor, with metal swords and shields.

In issue #3′s conclusion, Marak tosses the round top of a stone cask, which rolls like a wheel — a fact only Egel’s inventive brain notices. Yes, this is really supposed to be the invention of the wheel.

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #3, page 17

In issue #4, Marak continues his rampage in search of Jalessa — only he now has chariots to help him. (Yes, in 200,000 B.C.) We soon meet Jalessa, who has a stone pit with her own Monolith inside it. (Boy, there seem to be a lot of these things!)

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #4, page 7The idea that the Monolith might be incorporated into ancient religion, or used in soothsaying rituals, is an exciting one that could easy serve as the starting point for a story unto itself. But here, it’s only one, easily-forgotten element in a wild barbarian tale.

And just what is the Monoliths’ agenda, in all of these appearances? Theoretically, they should be spurring human evolution and development. Instead, they’re giving people visions and iron-working skills, long before they actually show up in history. Rather than revealing the mysteries of human history, Kirby’s Monoliths are now blithely violating it. Again, Kirby seems to see the devices as little more than a deus ex machina that can be used to spur any sort of story he wishes to tell.

The Marak story ends when Marak is united with Jalessa. Instead of fighting, they unite peacefully — and presumably romantically. Now, Kirby’s got the Monolith playing matchmaker.

The transition to the future, by way of visual juxtaposition, comes halfway through issue #4. It’s a fine transition, but Kirby’s own interest is clearly more in the rather incoherent barbarian tale than in what’s essentially a denouement set in the far future.

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #4, page 10The setting is a space station in orbit around Mars. Like the two futuristic settings Kirby has introduced previously, this makes no sense because it represents a major human excursion beyond the Moon, the likes of which are completely absent from 2001.

Here too does Kirby ignore 2001‘s realism. A slew of meteors are slamming into the space station, prompting its evacuation. It’s hard to imagine a swarm of meteors, packed so tightly and happening to hit a space station, which is a relatively small target in the vastness of space. This is the kind of sci-fi cliche Kubrick took pains to avoid, but if Kirby knows it’s a cliche, the work gives no indication.

With the station evacuated, Commander Herb Marik remains aboard, prepared to go down with the ship, as it were. And then — surprise! — a Monolith shows up outside the space station. Marik, in an absurdly colored spacesuit, spontaneously decides to go outside to investigate!

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #4, page 13

Of course, Marik touches the Monolith, which saves him from certain death, sending him on a trippy journey through what seem like parallel dimensions — as Kirby has chosen to interpret the “stargate” sequence from the end of the film. Then, Marik is deposited into a mythological haven, which looks very Greco-Roman. He seems to recognize it from his dreams, and he’s greeted by a woman — apparently his lover. Unlike the end of Bowman’s vision in the film, Kirby’s versions are frequently populated with other people. And lest there be any confusion, Kirby’s captions explain that the Monolith “has woven an environment from Marik’s own dreams and placed him in it.” So much for ambiguity.

from 2001, A Space Odyssey #4, page 16But there’s a twist: Marik doesn’t “respond to the aging speed-process” (which, as we’ve discussed, is only an interpretation of the film, not something necessarily in it). Because of this, Marik will age normally and die an old man — without being transformed into what Kirby has all along called a “new seed.”

Does this represent a utopian ending for Marik (and symbolically for Marak the barbarian, whom Kirby lavished more than a full issue upon) — allowed to live his life in this heaven crafted for him? It feels like it. But why wouldn’t the Monolith, which seems rather more impartial in the film, simply turn off Marik’s dreamlike world, once it ascertains the man can’t be transformed? And what does it mean that the Monolith has apparently failed? Why wouldn’t the aging process work on Marik?

None of these questions are answered, nor is Kirby apparently interested in answering in them — despite his literalism, which has pinned down so many elements the film deliberately left ambiguous.

Lest we feel bad that we don’t end the story with a flying space baby, Kirby gives us one anyway — although it’s clear from the captions that this isn’t Marik, but some other (or perhaps symbolic) star child.

And that’s it. Four issues into Kirby’s continuation of Kubrick’s 2001.

What Was Kirby Thinking?

Who in the world thought this was what fans of 2001 wanted to see?

Kirby certainly was no stranger to barbarian stories, which is really what the prehistoric sections of his 2001 stories are. He had already created Kamandi at DC, starring a young man in an apocalyptic future clearly riffing off Planet of the Apes. Shortly after his 2001 for Marvel, Kirby would create Devil Dinosaur (#1, Apr 1978). Later, after leaving Marvel (again), Kirby would work on the animated Thundarr the Barbarian. So perhaps he simply wanted to work on such stories, and used the opening sequence in 2001 as his justification.

Still — and in all fairness — Kirby seems to have understood little of the film. And even his science-fiction sequences, filled with unexplained aliens and human space explorers, bear no resemblance to anything in the film.

To be fair, Kirby would break the formula of his first four issues, beginning with issue #5. But his stories wouldn’t become any more controlled. Nor would they feel any more in sync with the film.

This suggests the most telling insight into Kirby’s mind. He seems to think that what people liked about 2001 — or at least what he liked about the film — was seeing an alien artifact intervene in an exotic, prehistoric setting… combined with the wild idea of future humans encountering a similar alien artifact and being transformed into some kind of super-being. One can see how such a wild hodgepodge would appeal to Kirby. But it’s not 2001.

Except that it really is. Sure, Kirby depicts both the prehistoric sequences and the future sequences through genre tropes. He’s at home with stereotypical cavemen and astronauts in wild extraterrestrial settings, which are their own reward and require little explanation. But that’s grafted onto a portion of the story that, while adapted, does come from the original.

What Kirby seems to think was essential to 2001 might seem radically misjudged. But it’s material that is, after all, in 2001.

And contrasting this with Clarke’s own — later, and very different — continuation is incredibly telling, not only about Kirby and Clarke but about the tensions within 2001 itself.

Tomorrow: Jack Kirby Vs. Arthur C. Clarke!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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