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.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home