Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Super Blog Team-Up Expanded Universe - 2001: A Space Odyssey #3 & #6

Expanded Universe
2001: A Space Odyssey #3 & #6

Kirby repeats a formula

"Marak!” (issue #3) and “Inter-Galactica” (issue #6)

Writer – Jack Kirby
Pencils – Jack Kirby
Inker – Michael W. Royer
Colorist – George Rousos
Letterer – Michael W. Royer
Editor – Jack Kirby
Editor-in-Chief – Archie Goodwin
February 1977 - May 1977

The call went out and the Crapbox has answered! Welcome, one and all, to the Super Blog Team-Up’s round up of EXPANDED UNIVERSES!

After reading this special edition of the Crapbox dedicated to exploring one of the strangest concepts ever to grace Marvel’s distribution list, be sure to check out the LINKS at the bottom of the page to other blogs that go into the Expanded Universes created from properties in popular media. First off though, a brief explanation.

Where have I been? 

I suppose the first question readers of the Crapbox may be asking is where the heck did Son of Cthulhu go? After months of providing you bottom shelf entertainment, I suddenly drop off the face of the Earth, only emerging to throw 31 days of horror comics at you over October and nothing more. What is that all about?

Good and upstanding Crapbox readers, I have been neglecting the blog due to a couple of factors. First, my work in the past year or so has taken a larger chunk of my time than I would like. It has left little downtime and has stolen much of my early morning creative juices, a resource critical to scrawling these few lines of nonsense. Even more recently, IT people such as myself have had a devil of a time in these Covid-19 days making people able to work remotely as well as taking processes that were in whole or in part paper-based and re-jiggering the process so they could be done electronically all the way through. The demands on my time have been staggering.

Secondly, my passion for taking a single issue and boiling it down to the essentials of an entire series has given way to me actually reading complete stories. That means it might be an actual BOOK book, like Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, John Langan’s The Fisherman or a series of graphic novels or collected trades. I’ve made my way through all of Harrow County, most of the early Marvel Star Wars tie-ins, and I’ve started trekking though George Perez and Mav Wolfman’s New Teen Titans. This has eaten into the time I would pour over single issue pop ups from the Crapbox which were my staple for most of my long blog journey.

And lastly, before the shelter-in-place ruling, I had been spending lots of time going out, meeting people, and…well, to be honest, dating. Son of Cthulhu’s search for a “Daughter of Dagon” has yielded one he might yet take back home to R'lyeh to meet Dad. We'll see how that goes.

However, when Charlton Hero sends up the Super Blog Team-Up signal, this little minion MUST answer and boy, what an answer is he going to receive. Without further ado, let’s jump into the familiar territory of Jack Kirby’s extension of the 2001: A Space Odyssey universe.

The Sentinel – the story and the original universe 

We must begin this journey, much like 2001 itself does, back in the prehistory of the written novel. Originally the concept for 2001 came from a short story by Arthur C. Clark called The Sentinel. The short work was a submission to a 1948 BBC competition in which it failed to place. It was published in the Spring of 1951 as The Sentinel of Eternity in the magazine 10 Story Fantasy and has since been reprinted several times in various story collections.

The basic framework of the tale is that man finds an alien artifact on the moon that has been there for millennia. The odd tetrahedron is protected by a force field and is beaming transmissions into deep space. The narrator of the story speculates it is a “warning beacon” devised to keep an eye on the development of human kind. In true 1940’s fashion, the astronauts blow it up with atomic power, showing a very “us vs. them” mentality about it.

Arthur C. Clark was at the time a noted scientist and veteran of World War II. He had obtained a first-class degree in mathematics and physics from King’s College London and was serving as president of the British Interplanetary Society. His contributions in science would further thinking about things like geostationary satellites and space flight. At the time, he wasn’t yet considered one of the “big three” of science fiction writing, but time was rapidly approaching in which he would take his place alongside Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. His later novels The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End propelled him into the forefront of speculative fiction. 

2001: A Space Odyssey – The movie that created a book 

To say without the assistance of the unique visionary director Stanley Kubrick there would be no 2001 universe is a tremendous understatement. Kubrick was, of course, the director who took Clark’s story ideas and made them into a visually stunning and aurally arresting 1968 movie. Still considered groundbreaking in terms of science and story over 50 years later, the movie is a must-see science fiction classic. And for those of you who want to put a pin in how forward thinking the movie is, SoC was somewhere around the tender age of one when it was released.

2001 was groundbreaking in one other aspect: as a property it didn’t exist when Kubrick was searching for a new film project. Kubrick decided after filming 1964’s Dr. Strangelove that he wanted to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie.” He had ideas of the kind of story he wanted to film and even the visual style for how he wanted to film it. What he didn’t have was an actual story. So Kubrick went looking for a collaborator in the science fiction community.

That is when he was pointed in the direction of Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke and Kubrick met at a Trader Vic’s in April of 1964 and began discussing the project that would take up the next four years of their lives. Clarke meticulously documented their project’s development, most of which ended up in his 1972 book The Lost Worlds of 2001. Kubrick wanted to make a film about “Man’s relationship to the universe.” To create a story that would show the grandeur and awe Kubrick attempted to capture, Clarke offered up several of his stories to be ground together to make 2001. The aforementioned The Sentinel which formed the second act of 2001’s four acts, Encounter in the Dawn, which was the prehistoric first act, and several other stories cannibalized for plot elements or scenarios that were grafted into the narrative.

It was originally agreed that Clarke would write a novelization first with assistance from Kubrick and then both men would work out a screenplay with Kubrick doing the lion’s share of that job. As it ended up, the novel idea sputtered, with Kubrick finishing his screenplay first and Clarke finishing his novel independently later. The success of the movie allowed Clarke’s novel to flourish enough to support three sequels. Before those follow-ups were published, Marvel comics got their hands on the property. 

Marvel’s head-scratching 2001 Tie-in 

Eight years after the movie came out, 2001 was still a hot property. While upon its initial release there was critical disagreement about the quality of the film, thanks to the dynamics of Kubrick’s vision, it eventually became recognized as a science fiction classic that would transcend generations. But that was still some time to come. It was popular enough though and given that licensing was the name of the game in 1976, Marvel snatched it up.

Instead of adding it to their Classic Comics line of literature-to-comic book adaptations, the publishing house decided to create an oversized Treasure Edition of the property. This seems likely due to the fact that the book is modeled more from the Kubrick movie than from the Clarke novel. Marvel tapped the returning Jack Kirby to both write and illustrate the book. The large format page size fit the cosmic bombasticism that Kirby’s drawnings had in spades. The writing and story, however, were less of a fit. Kirby had to work a film filled with classical scores and lacking in dialogue and narration into a form that begged for narration and exposition to explain what was going on. The book was a modest success, with Kirby’s visuals being praised but his adaption seeming a bit boorish and overbearing. It was a no-win scenario given the breadth of the film he was attempting to capture. 

“2001: the series” and a shackled talent 

From this high-profile springboard, Marvel made the further confusing choice of launching an ongoing 2001 series. Kirby was again tapped for writing and illustrating chores. While this looks like it would be an opportunity for his unique vision to shine, Kirby was not enthusiastic about the idea. However, like a talented comic professional he set out to make the best of it, as he had done with countless other lackluster properties. And that is when an additional wrinkle appeared.

Given that the licensing between Marvel and MGM didn’t define who would own copyright over any original characters Kirby chose to introduce in his ongoing, Marvel editorial made a fateful decision. They dissuaded Kirby from creating any recurring characters and asked him to use the book as more of an anthology series that recycled the plot elements of the movie over and over again. This created two specific plots which Kirby expanded into under 20 pages of art and story a month. The plots were: 1. A prehistoric man is influenced by the monolith in a way that furthers human society or development OR 2. A man in a futuristic setting encounters and is transformed by a monolith into a “Starchild” or “space seed.”

It isn’t until issue number 8 that Kirby threw this formula out the window and used the "monolith influencing" bit as a springboard to create a character that would transcend the title to eventually become the superhero Machine Man / Aaron Stack. Machine Man tales took up the last three issues of 2001’s ongoing series (issues 8, 9, and 10). When the property was shuttered with issue 10, Kirby’s creation was moved to his own series a few months later which was written and illustrated by Kirby. 

Two special finds in the Crapbox 

With that history out of the way, I’m going to take a deep Crapbox dive into the next two issues of the 2001 ongoing series that managed to come my way. As luck would have it, issues 3 and 6 are examples of both types of derivations of the movie plot. Issue 3 deals with the monolith guiding man’s development. Issue 6 is more of a standard space opera tale ending in a space seed transformation sequence. Both are multi-issue tales, with issue 3 being the start of a two-part epic and issue 6 being the middle act of three connected issues. I’ll leave the finer points of dissecting them for my analysis below.

It is worth noting here that there has been tremendous amounts of written material about Kirby’s work, to the point that there is an entire book on the subject of his 2001 comic alone. The book is called The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by Julian Darius, a guy with some serious credentials.

Far be it from The Crapbox to attempt such a delicate dissection of the comic. Especially since I’ve already done a cursory review of the first issue of the ongoing waaaaay over HERE!

But back to the issues at hand…We’ll jump right in to issue 3, a little ditty called Marak!, which follows formula number 1. Kirby starts us off in the thick of battle using his bold, in-your-face character style to introduce the savage warrior Marak as he leads his troops against a fortified city.

Marak comes off as a brutish leader intent on nothing but conquest in this tale. Kirby does nothing to soften Marak’s rough edges, allowing the story to coast on his sweeping visual style in hopes the audience is swept up in the grandeur of battle. From a lesser artist, this wouldn’t pass the muster, but Kirby’s loud graphics place you so close to the action that you relax you grip on needing a morally centered character.

Which is a necessity if you are going to enjoy the yarn Kirby is spinning. Marak comes off as a brutish thug without a lot of redeeming qualities. He exists only to slay his enemies and dominate them completely. And while many of us enjoy a Conan-type character, Kirby doesn’t approach giving Marak the noble soul that Robert E. Howard infused his barbarian hero with. Instead, we get a thug who pillages indiscriminately and shows his foes no mercy or quarter.

Much like the hominids from the opening scenes of 2001, Marak operates without empathy or compassion. And while that opening worked for the movie, the prehistoric proto-humans in it were not shown to have the level of intelligence that Marak possesses. The tale suffers quite a bit by not making Marak more likeable or imbuing him with some semblance of honor.

Even when presented with a foe wielding a superior weapon, Marak’s motivations revolve around turning the situation to his advantage, not toward finding a ground of commonality with his enemy. And while it could be stated that his willingness to negotiate for the knowledge of how to make more of those weapons makes him the better of the men who follow him, ultimately this just shows him as a shrewd and cunning predator, not as a precursor of a better, more benevolent human.

For me, this is one strike against the story. Kirby doesn’t create a relatable protagonist. And as if the master illustrator could sense this was the point he might start losing his audience, we find ourselves rooting for this Old One who Marak takes captive and then releases so he can learn the secret of the “Stone That Talks” and the method of building harder, superior weapons. It is no surprise that the Stone That Talks is 2001’s Monolith.

The Old One and Marak both are accepted by the Monolith, which awes Marak’s followers.

Meanwhile, the Monolith takes Marak’s consciousness on a far off freaky ride through time and space ending with the face of this female antagonist that Marak is destined to meet next issue. Will she be friend or foe…or a little of both? I’m thinking door number 3.

Once both the Old One and Marak’s minds return to their bodies, they are now best buds. Marak appears to have learned the name of his rival and possible love interest, Jalessa. And now that the Old One is pledged to Marak’s task by his shared experience with the Monolith, we learn his name is Egel, The “Thing-Maker”.

I’ll admit to a bit of fondness for the post-Monolithed Marak. Being driven by love and desire mellows the harsh conquering barbarian we met on page one. There is something that annoys me about all this though, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

First, though, we watch as Marak rallies his followers and lays down new orders. He has his forces commit to taking captives and keeping them alive so that they can join forces with them. This "changed" Marak startles his troops.

But as skeptical as they are, they continue to carry out his orders, including mining ore and smelting it while also learn to catch and tame wild horses for mounts.

And Marak works at a more compassionate way of dealing with his enemies. Turning former enemies into trusted allies is hard work and a sudden attack appears at first to call the choice into question. However, it is just a young warrior fooling around, and one who displays the great benefit Egel’s new metal shields provide.

With the unveiling of the shield, Marak is strongly pleased that his men shall suffer few losses, a sea change from the opening of the book where he willingly threw their lives into the gristmill for his own glory. Yeah, Jack turned me around on Marak’s character and now I might actually be rooting for the big lug.

But shields aren’t the only thing up Egel’s enhanced-brain’s sleeve…

Yup! He’s made wearable metal armor and the first every bronze sword. I’d have to go check my Age of Empires game to figure out what timeperiod this places us in, but I know it’s pretty far down the road from the start of humankind.

Also a quick note on the art: Kirby’s later Marvel work emphasized big and bold. His characters were large and the drawings less intricate. I noticed this in his Eternals and Machine Man books too. It’s a style that I first saw in his New Gods DC work that denotes a subtle divergence from his prior Marvel house style. He was always into powerful, full-page images, but all of his scenes in this book have that giant “coloring book” feel to them. Personally, I dig it. It feels like this is authentic Kirby, like his more brash approach was where he always wanted to go, but factors such as the volume of books he was doing or Stan’s story structures (such as they were) shackled him into drawing more establishing panels or conveying action differently.

Story-wise, through innovation and invention, Marak has spurred a new level of commitment from his forces. While they venerate him, he is troubled, however. He asks Egel for a method of transporting their supplies over the great distance they will need to travel. Egel has part of a ready answer at hand. He has crafted pre-history Tupperware designed to keep their supplies fresh. Marak still frets about how they will carry those canisters such a far distance…

A thought that drives him into a rage! In his tantrum though lies his salvation, because as Egel notices one of the tops to his stone canisters rolling away, he is hit with a moment of inspiration…NEXT ISSUE box spoils it, as it appears Marak will get his WHEELS OF DEATH!

Overall, not a bad issue. The art elevates things greatly. Kirby was a master at graphical storytelling and it shines through in his later works.

As for the plot of these, I only have one big complaint: The fascinating thing about Kubrick’s vision in the movie is that all humanity needed to move forward was one gentle nudge. By the very premise, these Kirby creations (mandated by Marvel to be this way) tend to dispense with that. Mankind's development is like a bowling lane with the kiddy-guards up. Throw the ball anywhere and we will still end up evolving the same way. If we start to slide toward the gutter of civilization, the Monolith appears to nudge us back to the center of the lane. Not much suspense in that scenario.

I much prefer Kubrick’s vision on this. One gentle toss and the Monolith steps away and allows us to progress on our own. Sure, the bump is the inciting event that allows all the advancement our species has made since then possible, but human-kind gets to own all of that progress. Kirby’s more “gentle parent” Monolith that guides our path at key junctures undermines for me that sense that the intelligences behind those giant unmarked dominos are testing us to see if we are worthy as a species to ascend to their Starchild Godhood. It becomes more like they are guiding us in an inescapable path toward a predestined outcome. I prefer we view humanity’s successes as our own, for the most part. The Marvel comics 2001 stories from pre-history undercut that theme of man’s independent advancement.

Moving on, issue number 6 shows up next in the randomness that is the Crapbox, and the tale in it could not be more different. The middle act of a three-part epic, Inter-Galactica starts off with the crew of a Earth spaceship encountering hostile alien forces.

Our opening full page graphic talks of Harvey Norton, a comic book reader's ideal hero, who in the last issue rescued a young female alien. He is nowhere to be seen on our first page, however. Instead we are treated to his shipmates contending with these yellow-faced chaps in purple jumpsuits who appear as agitated as they are incomprehensible.

Only after his comrades have taped the message and attempt to decipher it does Harvey Norton make an appearance and I must say, he bears a very striking resemblance to…well, see for yourself…

Okay, so the blonde hair is a bit off, but I swear upon first glance all I can see is a young Jack Kirby. His introduction of Harvey even fits Kirby to a “T”. Dreamer and comic book freak…with an adventurous streak, brash, brave…if Harvey isn’t the embodiment of the author, I couldn’t think of a closer character to mirror the real-life Mr. Kirby.

And of course Harvey is super perceptive, knowing the aliens are after the female alien they just picked up. I mean, that isn’t rocket science, and ferreting it out shouldn’t take actual characters who are, by their very job titles, real rocket scientists. But here it apparently does. 

Harvey gets what’s up while his cohorts are still puzzling it out.

Harvey also appears to have some kind of fetish for big-headed aliens, because from the very first we get this vibe that he wants to protect their new passenger from harm. It’s a chivalrous, if somewhat meaningless, gesture. I say that given that our human craft doesn’t appear to have any weapons to counter the alien craft’s attacks. Harvey can try saving the young lady as much as he wants, but without a method of attacking back the best thing he can do is run. Quickly coming to that conclusion, Harvey rushes to his guest’s side and asks her to trust him…

Also note that Harvey seems to think of her as a “princess,” a fanciful assumption that casts him in the role of a dashing fairy tale knight who vows to protect her. There’s a neat little subtext here given my thoughts on this being a stand-in for Kirby.

Not only is Harvey all kinds of wise and brave and just, he also is not above self-sacrifice, as his companions find out when they finally make it to the princess’s holding cell moments later. Harvey has busted her out and made for her escape pod, hoping to lead the aliens away from his friends and their fragile vessel. It is a chase that Harvey doesn’t feel he’s coming back from.

And it is also one that would make a terrific velvet blacklight poster. Love Kirby’s “Cosmic” and it is easy to see why he was the natural pick for the artist of the book. 

As a storyteller, there might be some room to question Kirby’s fit. However, you can’t fault his exuberance. Nor Harvey’s, who chatters in 70’s slang a mile a minute while “laying” in the weird alien “chick’s” cockpit as they zip around the galaxy. There hasn’t been dialogue this groovy since the JLA’s friend Snapper Carr first laid one on you, Daddy-O. It’s a real mind-breaker! *snap snap*

Given that these stories are pretty much on a rail to fit one of the two formula, we get a bit right out of the movie as the alien woman turns on the hyper-drive and Kirby gets to do a retread of the movie’s Stargate sequence. While it is neat to homage these bits of story, it does feel like the property is a bit tapped out. And I say that as a guy who’s only read half of the books produced in the series up to this point. The bits of space fantasy Kirby added were infinitely more interesting than the recycled parts from the movies. It is a shame that he wasn’t allowed to create persistent characters or plotlines in the 2001 universe. At least not at this point in the book’s run, anyway.

That doesn’t mean his recycling of parts of the movie plot didn’t allow him to throw in some really great shots on some of the pages, like this vibrant and over-the-top spaceport. Again, where is the blacklight poster of this baby. I can feel the 70’s calling me back home.

In our story, the alien princess guides the pair right down to a landing strip on the surface, a tactic that Harvey has a lot of problems with. Seems the Earthman thinks this does nothing but trap the two of them on the planet’s surface. From the looks of things, it appears he’s right. What is the princess’s game in rushing toward this odd square building?

Whatever it is she’s playing at, the pursing big-heads don’t like it much. First, they destroy the ship the two are riding in. Don’t worry, it came fully equipped with the outer space equivalent of airbags. Next however the ship drops a line of armed shock troopers arranged to make sure our pair of heroes don’t reach that strange fort.

The princess arms Harvey with a space gun and it’s all “pew-pew-pew” time! Although in book terms it’s actually “Fzuum-tzaam-wump” time. Either way what we get is some dramatic and odd fight scenes as Harvey’s superior (hey, he’s human and that makes him better than an army of aliens) shooting skills blasts their way to the building. At this rate, it’s strange the pair didn’t rely on Harvey to kill all the bad alien pursuers and take over their ship. But whatever, book. I feel there’s a reason we have to push on to the building.

That reason is this weird platform that the princess ascends to and REALLY wants Harvey to join her on…

…which Harvey doesn’t figure out is a teleporter right out of Star Trek until AFTER it transport his alien companion away. C’mon guy! You’re supposed to be the big sci-fi comic book nerd. Surely you’ve see this type of thing in a story somewhere?

Alas Harvey doesn’t catch on until it is too late and the second pass of the Alien attack craft demolishes the building, bringing it down around his ears. Smooth move, dummy!

That’s when the Monolith appears, looking all the world like a blank black tombstone. Harvey isn’t dead, but he’s in no shape to survive long on this harsh alien landscape. Kirby’s text states that this isn’t the end for our intrepid hero, however. And since “the change” is mentioned in bold dark print, we can guess which part of 2001 will be slapped into the tale next.

Harvey awakens dressed like a superhero and lives out an entire life the same way Dave Bowman does at the end of the movie while in the care of the Monolith. He proceeds to old age and upon his death…

…no surprise here, he is transformed into a Starchild, which the book names “the new seed.” NEXT issue writes the end of the three part epic as the new seed/Harvey interacts with an Earth-like alien culture on a distant world. For us though, this is where the Crapbox ends and gets off the ride.

So there you have it: Kirby’s contributions to the 2001 universe. How would I rate his “expanding” it beyond the confines of the movie? Pretty poor, actually.

Not to be nitpicky (but hey, this IS the Crapbox!), but the anthology series missed some really good story ideas that Kirby COULD have used in these first six issues instead of these retreads of “similar but not exactly the same as the movie” plots. Like exploring where the Monoliths came from. Even teasing a bit more at their origins would have made for interesting reading. I get that a lot of their power comes from us NOT knowing or understanding them, but done right they could keep a lot of the enigmatic secretiveness while still being featured in a story that hinted around at where they came from or what their goals were.

The issue following this one, where we actual see this new Starchild interacting with another culture, sounds like an intriguing premise. It definitely was something parts of the audience were speculating about, so much so that there was a short student film made in the late 70’s showing the Starchild tearing apart Earth. The storyline of what does man do if given Godhood and how does he use that power could be a springboard to infinite storylines. Sadly issue 7 is the only one that deals with that issue.

Even something as reductive as the plot of Clarke’s 2010, which dealt with human politics and rescuing the Discovery from Jupiter’s orbit has lots of entertainment value. The book is great and the movie, less a visual and aural smorgasbord and more of a straight-forward sci-fi thriller, are tons of fun. Clarke mined fertile territory with plots featuring reactivating HAL and dealing with the giant stargate Monolith in Jupiter’s orbit, not to mention discovering what could be a new lifeform within the confines of our own solar system. Pity Jack never took this up as a story idea.

Jack’s take on it was to bring in pulp and fantasy elements, which fit the tone of what he had been doing at DC and the new titles he had just started at Marvel. In comparison with the original movie universe, the contrast is a bit jarring, but due to Jack’s superior illustrative style, it worked for a bit. It came crashing down around issue number 10, but as mentioned, he capitalized on the books to springboard in a new original character. I’m in favor of Machine Man being Marvel canon, and as a fan of Nextwave, I have to applaud however he got his start.

But in all these books underperformed. They weren’t pastiches, as Jack never tried to capture the tone of the film, just the smattering of plot elements he enjoyed. Likewise, they can’t be considered parodies because Kirby was continually playing this as straight as he could. Even with a broad newspaper-strip character like Harvey, Jack was never poking fun, just trying to instill his love of pulp storylines into the readers. If anything, those repeated plot elements and bits from the movie feel like an honest attempt at homage. Jack took a lot of care in the Treasury Edition movie adaptation, showing that he owed fidelity to Kubrick’s vision even if he had to translate it into a written form that stripped away the wordless grace of Kubrick’s movie scenes. It is this feeling that is most prevalent in the 2001 series. Jack being Jack, writing HIS version of good sci fi and sprinkling in bits of the movie that he felt appropriate. 

I hope you enjoyed this romp through Kirby’s 2001 issues and I implore you to check out my Super Blog Team-Up friends as they look at other Expanded Universes:

The TSR Universe (DC Comics)      --      DC in the 80’s

Go check out their seriously great content and we’ll see you back in the Crapbox very soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.