Monday, September 28, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey (the comic book series)

"He takes a multitude of issues to tell in detail a story that many other writers would cover in one or two; therefore, the structure is not so much that of a complete story, as that of a single incident. It is only when a dozen of his comics are absorbed in series at a single sitting that the larger story becomes clear."

-Archie Goodwin (?),
2001: A Space Odyssey #6 (Letters Page), 1977

Well, never let it be said that I don't follow advice found in 70s Marvel Comics letters pages. It's gotten me this far in life and I'd be a fool to stop now. Yes, I spent a good portion of my day reading the entirety (all 10 issues) of Jack Kirby's comic book series 2001: A Space Odyssey, based of course on the classic Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. I'm a great admirer of Jack Kirby, and this semi-obscure project seemed so odd to me, on so many levels, that I had to check it out for myself.

Let's get this out of the way right up front, then: 2001 is not Kirby's finest hour. It was a strange idea to base an ongoing comic book series on Kubrick's film and assign it to an artist like Kirby, who is stylistically worlds apart from Kubrick and who almost always worked on his own original concepts. Goodwin's assertion that Kirby had a larger story to tell with this concept is not apparent from the comics themselves. It seems that over the course of the ten issue series, Kirby was either forced by editorial mandate to shift direction and focus, or was himself struggling to find a way to make the series work.

There are four approaches Kirby takes over the course of the series: The first two issues each involve a character from the stone age encountering the Monolith (the surface of which appears rough in the comic, in contrast to its smooth appearance in the film, highlighting the stylistic differences between auteurs Kirby and Kubrick), at which point the characters become inspired to invent a critical tool or concept in the evolution of mankind (the first stone weapons in issue one, the first proto-society in issue two). The stories then flash forward to the year 2001, where astronaut descendants of the cave-people also encounter the Monolith, are transported to a world constructed of their own fantasies, age rapidly, and are reborn as Star Children (called "New Seeds" in the comic book). Essentially, then, these first two issues are a retread of the story told in the film.

Issues three through six contain a couple of two-parters which more or less follow the same formula as issues one and two. Issue seven is a one-off which follows a newly-born New Seed on his journey through the cosmos, while issues eight through ten tell the origin of the robot superhero Mr. Machine (later renamed Machine Man and spun off into his own series). These final issues take place in the present day, and have almost nothing to do with the concepts explored in the first seven issues of the series, except for a couple of arbitrary appearances of the Monolith in issues eight and nine.

Despite the rambling nature of the series and the repetitiveness of the first few issues, I rather enjoyed reading these comics. I suppose it's fair to classify the series as a failure, but it is an interesting failure, and I'm enough of a Kirby fan to find these odd corners of his long career kind of fascinating. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of genuinely entertaining stuff going on in these comics. The second and third pages of every issue are devoted to gorgeous two page spreads which are as dynamic and well-crafted as anything Kirby had done, and the general quality of the artwork (inked my Mike Royer, Kirby's best inker), is generally very high. As is always the case with the artist, one gets the sense that Kirby was really putting his heart and soul into every panel of the comic, making it the best it could be. Strangely, I think the repetitive, and, dare I say, boring nature of the first couple of issues have the unintended effect of shifting the reader's focus away from the plot and characters and onto Kirby's admirable storytelling skills. The heavily narrated panels in issue one are a bitch to read through, for example, but they also have the effect of slowing down the reading experience so as to better appreciate the craft on display.

The series gets better as it goes along, too. Issues five and six take place in the year 2040, where the protagonist acts out his fantasies in Comicsville, a simulated environment allowing people to act out their comics-inspired fantasies. I liked the funky, cosmic vibe of the New Seed story in issue seven, and the Mr. Machine material in the final issues is quite strong. I think it would have been interesting to see what Kirby would have done with the series had it been allowed to run a bit longer. Would he have followed the formula of issues eight through ten and turned the book into an anthology title to introduce new characters like Mr. Machine? Would he have explored the origins of the Monoliths and New Seeds, expanding the mythology of the story? It's really impossible to say. As it stands, these ten issues of 2001 shouldn't be anywhere near anyone's list of "essential" Kirby, but I hope those who are already fans of the artist and his work will appreciate the reminder that they're out there, and seek them out the next time they're interested in exploring an odd corner of the man's extraordinary career.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror 15

Holy Jesus I'm looking forward to reading this.

Pick of the Week.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I've been reading a lot of mainstream superhero comics lately, certainly more than I have in the last few years, and it got me thinking about continuity. You all know what I mean by "continuity": The concept of the "shared universe," where all of the superheroes exist and interact with each other, sometimes across titles, sometimes in company-wide "event" crossovers like Civil War or Final Crisis. There is a shared history, an accumulation of events to be drawn upon in the construction of a grand narrative.

Continuity in superhero comics is a strange, messy concept that is sometimes blamed for being a hindrance to new readers. Certainly this is often true. I read the new issue of Green Lantern Corps. last night, the latest chapter in DC's Blackest Night crossover, and I can't imagine it being anyone's first issue of the series. It would be completely incomprehensible without some knowledge of previous Blackest Night books at the very least, and you would probably need at least some knowledge of other events in recent Green Lantern comics to begin to understand what is going on. But that's just one example of what continuity can look like.

In the past, I've argued against the concept of continuity, pointing out that most classic comic books that have stood the test of time exist outside of continuity (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Bone). But recently, I've been thinking about what drew me to superhero comics in the first place, when I was a kid. Do you know what my introduction to superhero comics was? The Marvel Universe Series 1 Trading Cards. Yep, before I ever read a single superhero comic book, I had already familiarized myself, somewhat, with the characters via this set of trading cards, which offered not only character stats and biographies, but also cards summarizing major "events" that had taken place in the Marvel Universe, such as the first time Galactus had attacked Earth, or the Kree/Skrull War. I became entranced by the complex, evolving narrative suggested by these cards, and when I finally jumped into the comics themselves, I loved when the characters mentioned things I had read about, but not yet read. It created the sense of the Marvel Universe as a real place, where things actually happened and had consequences whether or not I had read them myself. I was welcome to participate, but if I walked away, the Marvel Universe would go on, and indeed had been going on for years before I started paying attention to it.

I had been reading comics for years before I finally got around to reading the comic where Gwen Stacy died, but I knew it was a big deal. Ditto the "Dark Phoenix Saga." I still haven't gotten around to reading the Kree/Skrull War, but I have some understanding of what it was, and why it mattered to those characters. So, the idea of the shared universe worked on me as a kid, and it works now. I recently started reading the first trade paperback collecting the Incredible Hercules comic book, and the first issue takes place in the immediate aftermath of the World War Hulk event, which I have not read. Thanks to the internet, I do have a basic idea of what that crossover was all about, though, and, just as when I was first getting into comics, that idea of the Marvel Universe as a real place comes through. The gimmick still works. It's fun.

For me, far from being a hindrance, continuity was one of the primary draws of superhero comics. I wonder if it is still the same for kids today? Perhaps not. Perhaps now kids feel as though they need to start at the beginning of a story to understand what is going on. Certainly that's more possible now. When I was a kid, I really had no choice but to read a summary of the death of Gwen Stacy story. Now, with all of the reprints available, it's all right there for you. You can read Spider-Man from the beginning, or pick up Robert Kirkman's Invincible trade paperbacks and have an entire universe contained in an easily digestible series of books. I guess that's good. I know that's good. But reading them that way, they seem like stories. When I first started reading comics, jumping in the middle of this unwieldy, ongoing narrative, comics was a place I could go to. I may not have understood everything that was going on, but the individual comics offered enough so that I could get by. It was up to me to fill in the gaps, to explore that world myself, to uncover its secrets. It was a hell of a lot of fun, one of the primary pleasures of a shared superhero universe with complex continuity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I Just Really Loved This Paragraph, and Wanted to Share...

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly once he had looked with mortal eyes on the things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked into the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the glowing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles of the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

- Kenneth Grahame
The Wind In the Willows (1908)

At the Movies

There are a lot of great shows returning or debuting this Fall, but one that I'm particularly excited about is the new season of At the Movies, the latest incarnation of the movie review show begun years ago by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. This season, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips take over as hosts, replacing Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz and returning the show to its roots: two qualified critics seriously engaged with the discussion of films.

I think Phillips and Scott are perfect choices, as both did great work as guest hosts on previous seasons, Scott in particular. I also quite enjoyed this Rotten Tomatoes interview with Scott about his five favorite films, and what we can expect from the new season of At the Movies.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is the best mainstream comic currently coming out. I'm using the term "mainstream" here to refer to the type of material usually popular with a wide audience, as opposed to something like, I don't know, Mat Brinkman's (also great) Multiforce. I could also have said "genre" comic, I guess. I did not want to say "manga."

Why am I leading this review off with a lot of fussing over always-tricky comics terminology? Probably because I'm not a very good writer. Buy also because I really want to put Urasawa's masterpiece in the proper context. In other words, I can't imagine how you would compare it to a comic like Multiforce, but it certainly holds its own against the best of what the American mainstream has to offer. Hell, I finally got around to reading Darwyn Cooke's much lauded The Hunter last night, right after I had finished the latest volume of Pluto and, while I enjoyed Cooke's book, of the two I preferred the Pluto volume. That might not mean much to you, but I think it's significant in that I have fairly diverse tastes in comics, and am by no means a manga "fan." To me, manga is just comics. I like the good stuff and I ignore the bad stuff. Pluto is the good stuff. The very good stuff.

I suppose the context in which Pluto is considered is so important to me because I feel like it is under appreciated by the very audience I think should be enjoying it the most: American mainstream comics fans. With Pluto, Urasawa is doing something very unique in manga but fairly common in American comics. He is taking a well known, beloved character originally intended to entertain young children (Astro Boy), and reimagining him and his adventures for a modern, older, more cynical audience. Isn't this the very approach taken by almost all mainstream comics writers? That's what Geoff Johns is doing with Green Lantern, right? Or Ed Brubaker with Captain America? Look at Marvel's "Ultimate" line. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a modern superhero comic that did NOT take this approach to one degree or another. And some of those comics are very good.

Here's the thing, though: Naoki Urasawa is a much, much better cartoonist than almost any mainstream artist or writer that I can think of. His storytelling is crystal clear, and that alone is enough to set him apart from a lot (not all) of the most popular American comics artists. Looking again at The Hunter, there were a couple of wordless or near-wordless sequences in that book that, while they looked beautiful, I had a hard time following just what was going on from panel to panel. It lacked a kind of "flow," to the point that I'm not sure I would have caught everything that was happening had I not recently read Donald Westlake's novel from which Cooke's book was adapted. Urasawa would have totally nailed those scenes. I don't think I've ever paused for even half a second trying to work out what I was seeing in an Urasawa panel, and he's drawn some pretty wild stuff, particularly in the latest volumes of Pluto. I'm pretty sure you could follow a volume of Pluto without reading the words and come out with an okay idea of what was going on. The characters' faces and the range of emotions they express are a wonder to behold.

There's a lot more that Pluto does well, things supposedly prized by mainstream comics fans. Urasawa could teach a class on "the art of the cliffhanger," for example. Also, they should really create some kind of category in the Eisner Awards for character design, so that Pluto could win it. This quality of the work is a treat for readers already familiar with Tezuka's original Astro Boy (known also as Mighty Atom). Urasawa masterfully plays with our expectations regarding when and how characters from the original manga will appear, the first appearance of Astro Boy/Atom at the end of the first volume being the best example of this. That particular sequence is hands down my favorite comics "moment" of 2009.

Christ, what else? I've hardly talked about the story. Sorry about that. It's a mystery. Someone is killing the world's most powerful robots, and it's up to one of those robots, the German police robot Gesicht, to find out who or what is responsible. Sounds pretty straightforward, but the story becomes steadily more complex as it goes along, encompassing sub-mysteries (such as Gesicht's missing memories), the origin of Atom, human/robot relations, and a talking teddy bear thrown in for good measure. Oh, and it's also something of a political allegory for the current war on terror and post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy. At the heart of the story is the philosophical question of just what it means to be human. Yes, this sort of thing has been seen in millions of comics, but, again, Urasawa simply does it better. It never becomes a cliche, or if it does, you don't notice because Urasawa is so damned good at what he does, and the mystery is so compelling.

So, yeah, I guess what frustrates me is that this comic is probably only read by manga fans and people who follow Marvel and DC aren't aware of it, or dismiss it because it's manga. Usually I don't care at all about that kind of thing, but with Pluto it's frustrating. I think competence is mistaken for mastery a lot of the time by mainstream comics fans, and a book like Pluto would be instructive. And I would think they'd really enjoy it. Maybe not, though. Maybe because they didn't grow up reading Astro Boy, it wouldn't excite them as much as a bad-ass version of Green Lantern. And that's fine too, I guess. I don't know, if you like good comics, I think you'll like Pluto.


Addendum: Naoki Urasawa's other two translated works, Monster and 20th Century Boys, are quite good as well.