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Kirby’s 2001 adaptation

Jack Kirby’s work on the 2001: A Space Odyssey series for Marvel Comics holds a special place for me because it was my real introduction to Kirby’s work–quite literally, as I’d discovered the series as a youngster before I’d heard of who Kirby was. I haven’t yet gotten the entire 10-issue series, but one of the best finds from my recent Comic-Con trip was a copy of the 1976 “Marvel Treasury Special” adaptation of the film that Kirby did, which led into his work on 2001 as a regular Marvel title.

I haven’t read through all of it, because I’m being very delicate with it. Transporting it home in carry-on luggage was bad enough, but I don’t have anyplace decent enough to store it yet, or a good area of my house to fully absorb it in. It’s big–roughly full tabloid size, give or take. It’s about 12 inches wide by 14 inches high, which opens to a spread of about 24″x14″–a big book no matter what, and one that’s filled with delicate and slowly aging comic book paper stock. It’s actually in great shape, very good but not quite near mint. I paid eleven dollars for the thing, marked down on “Sunday” discount (heh!) from about fifteen, and apparently Mile High Comics charges just over $100 bucks for the thing. This is why it pays to buy comics at a convention.

However, last night I found this article by John Alexander which appeared in TwoMorrows’ Jack Kirby Collector. It touches on a lot of the problematic aspects of Kirby’s adaptation. The primary problem is that Kubrick’s film doesn’t lend itself to this type of adaptation–Arthur Clarke’s book is a sort of parallel work, and Clarke was notoriously against tie-in fiction, so that work stands on its own merits.

In all three versions of 2001–Kubrick’s film, Clarke’s novel and Kirby’s comic– we have a primary auteur who approaches the same storyline and concepts in different ways. All three are known for being big thinkers, undoubtedly among the most respected artisans of their respective fields. In Clarke’s case, the story is approached on scientific terms. Clarke preferred reasonable explanations, but his grasp of scientific knowledge was so enormous that this allowed him to have dreams that were at the same time big and plausible.

Kubrick of course isn’t interested in science, but rather in doing what I think great filmmakers do–understanding and crafting good drama in order to create an aesthetic visual experience. When Kubrick avoided discussing the meaningfulness in the very confounding ending to 2001, I’m inclined to believe that it was in some part for the reason that Kubrick didn’t really have explanations for the jarring things that happen in the film. That’s not because Kubrick hadn’t thought things through, of course, but that having realistic interpretive answers for what happens isn’t something that is necessary to provide as an artist.

Kirby, of course, was somewhat as realistic as Clarke, but not as inclined towards science. Nor was he as committed to the artistic ambiguity that Kubrick offered in the film. Instead, Kirby is both concrete and pragmatic in his approach to adapting 2001. Kirby’s use of captions moderately mutes the visual impact that could have been achieved along the lines of Kubrick’s film, and offers straightforward interpretations of the material that could arguably be wrong. Kirby interprets the creation of the film’s “Star-Child” (referred to in the Marvel Treasury adaptation as “New One,” and in the series as “The New Seed”) in almost dreadful, comic-booky literalness, as if he had to formulate exactly what was happening on the fly, to answer for Kubrick’s jarringly ambiguous contrast of dying old man to fetal human life.

Moreover, as Alexander points out, Kirby’s telescoping of the plot areas centering on the crew of the Discovery leading up to the breakdown of HAL-9000 destroy the careful plotting that Kubrick creates in leading up to the film’s climax. Kubrick wanted us to visually absorb the tedium of life aboard a long-term spaceflight, and we are almost never informed of the normal state of affairs that makes the breakdown of HAL so particularly shocking.

There are numerous other problems to be found in Kirby’s work here, the least of which include:

  • Repeatedly drawing spacecraft incorrectly, such as drawing the NASA Space Shuttle in as a surrogate for the sophisticated Pan-Am spaceliner in the second act of the film, or drawing the Discovery off-model in some other areas. This can be excused for the fact that there is little source material to go by for referencing, but it’s still frustrating to see.
  • Botching plot points, such as Bowman’s helmet-less crossing of space into the Discovery’s emergency airlock, which Kirby illustrates with a helmeted (and presumably entirely safe) Dave Bowman. Or, for another example, the death of Frank Poole: in the film, the HAL-controlled space pod severs Poole’s air line, and Bowman attempts a rescue mission, only to discover that Poole is dead. In Kirby’s version, Poole is killed by being crushed in the pod’s claws, and Bowman is never able to retrieve Poole’s body.

Otherwise, I generally think that this book is a lot more successful than Alexander gives it credit, although I think a lot of Alexander’s points of contention are something I agree with. Alexander criticizes Kirby for not drawing the actual actors’ images in the roles they play, but I’ve never seen Kirby characters with recognizable (human, unmasked) faces. The art appears tight enough for me at the given format, as well, and I don’t think the nearly one-to-one ratio compromises the appearance of the work. In fact, this book is chock full of Kirby at some his best art of the 1970s. Even despite the book’s problems, it’s a fun read by a big thinker, and well worth a look.