In 1968, legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick took cinema goers on “the ultimate trip” with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Eight years later, comic book auteur Jack Kirby reimagined Kubrick’s film for the comic book page as both writer and artist. The massive pages of the Marvel Treasury Edition book mirror the massive CinemaScope projection of Kubrick’s film. Each version of 2001 serves as a reminder of the genius of both artists and how their work left an indelible footprint on their mediums.

Masters of Craft

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Courtesy Marvel Entertainment

First, let’s take a look at how Kubrick and Kirby are typically discussed in their respective fields. There’s little I can say about Stanley Kubrick that hasn’t already been said. However, it’s worth noting the similarities between the film director and the comic book artist. Both are visual stylists who receive a script and are tasked with bringing the images on the page to life. Where directors give emotional cues to actors, comic book artists create emotional reactions with nothing but a pencil.

Kubrick and Kirby are also masters of fine details. Kubrick’s films are pristine dioramas packed with elements. Each thing looks like it was carefully chosen. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY famously features a scene where a character reads instructions for using a zero-gravity toilet. The instructions appear for no more than a 10-second gag. Kubrick had the instructions actually written out to be placed onto the plaque seen in the film.

Kirby’s detail comes from the style of his panels. Ornate mechanical designs fill his drawings of machinery. His explosions of energy contain waves of destructive force, represented in his 60’s Marvel and onward works by his trademark “Kirby dots” or “Kirby Krackle“. Readers can spend hours pouring over the visual splendor of every Kirby comic. Kubrick and Kirby are equally held up as titans of their fields for similar reasons. Yet their personal styles could not be more different. Kubrick is precise and meticulous. Kirby is lively and vibrant. Kubrick is a classical sculptor. Kirby is a jazz fusion musician.

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The Auteur and Comics

Comics historian Arlen Schumer would say that the roles of Kubrick and Kirby are one in the same. In his essay “The Auteur Theory of Comics,” he applies film critic Andrew Harris’ auteur theory to the relationship between comic book writer and artist. If, according to auteur theory, the director is the most significant creative voice because they bring the words of the page to life, isn’t the comic book artist, by extension, the most important figure in the production of the comic?

Of course, applying auteur theory to both mediums means celebrating the accomplishments of one individual while ignoring the works of many others. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is filled with scientific accuracy because of its co-writer Arthur C. Clarke. Regardless of who is directing, some screenwriters have a strong enough authorial voice (like Diablo Cody or Aaron Sorkin) that will shine through regardless of who is directing. It also belittles the efforts of Kubrick’s cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, whose stylistic choices are equally important in bringing the look of 2001 to life.

In the comics world, only acknowledging the penciler ignores the artistic efforts of the inkers (Frank Giacoia on Kirby’s 2001 adaptation) and colorists (Marie Severin worked with Kirby on colors for 2001). The film and comic industries too often ignore the work of these artists to this day. This is not to say that the director or the artist aren’t huge parts of the final product. Rather, they are leaders of a collaborative process. No one person makes a film or comic completely on their own. For massively successful works like the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY film or comic to function, it takes an entire team of skilled artists.

2001: A Space Odyssey

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Courtesy Marvel Entertainment

Kubrick’s 2001 contains long stretches of silence, relying on the images and the action to tell the story. The film’s opening sequence set in a prehistoric Earth best exemplifies this. Kubrick shows us a pack of apes, man’s earliest ancestors, as they struggle for survival against the cruelty of rival packs and deadly predators. Suddenly, the enigmatic monolith appears before the tribe. The apes surround it and genuflect to its majesty. Shortly thereafter, they learn to use a bone as a weapon. It is through this tool that the tribe becomes dominate. The monolith gives evolution a jumpstart. 

Kubrick’s ability to convey meaning through images makes all of this clear to the audience without any dialogue. Kirby, on the other hand, never met a comic he couldn’t pour bombastic narration into. I say that in a loving way. In fact, Kirby’s comic creates an interesting blend of the visuals of Kubrick’s film and the details of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel that was published concurrently with the film.

Kirby’s narration uses the leader of the ape tribe Moon-Watcher from Clarke’s novel. Besides being a very Jack Kirby name, it’s a name with great significance. Moon-Watcher’s epiphany about using the bone as a weapon is the first small step towards mankind’s giant leap to the stars. Kirby’s art captures this both the name and visual symbolism of the character, creating a strong adaptation of both works.

The Art of Space

Kirby’s art brings to life sequences that, due to special effects limitations, fall. The opening sequence of early man’s evolution works better in Kirby’s comic book form. The limited emotional range of the ape masks stifles the performances of the ape actors. In Kirby’s adaptation, his penchant for action and violence bring the scenes of mankind’s earliest days to life with a sense of vibrancy that Kubrick’s film is lacking.

Kubrick’s deliberate pacing of the film almost makes it feel like a series of still images. The viewer becomes so transfixed by the static shots that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a film until a visual trick begins, like the stunning rotating set of the Discovery 1 spacecraft, that brings the surroundings to life.

Kirby brings equal wonder and splendor to his artistic recreation of Kubrick’s work. Take the design of the Glory Boat from NEW GODS #6 and compare it to Kirby’s version of the Jupiter 1.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Courtesy of DC Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment

The Glory Boat is an insane piece of alien design that seems completely improbable. And yet, Kirby’s sense of design makes you believe that it can function, but our Earthling brains couldn’t possibly comprehend how. It’s this understanding of function in design that allows Kirby to create an equally convincing version of the film ships. 

The Ultimate Trip

Where Kirby really gets to cut loose is in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s infamous final sequence. The most famous sequence of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is the one that likely saved Kubrick’s film at the box office. After shutting down the renegade AI HAL, Dave Bowman flies towards Jupiter to finish his mission. There he finds the mysterious monolith from the beginning of the film. The monolith sucks Dave into itself and takes him on an indescribable journey of sights and sounds.

This bold, hallucinogenic sequence was unsurprisingly a hit with the counterculture crowd of the time. New Yorker writer Dan Chiasson documents a number of endorsements from the likes of David Bowie and John Lennon who took in the film while in an altered state.

It’s unsurprising that Kirby’s best work in the adaptation comes from this chapter. In fact, this very sequence likely got Kirby the job. Only Jack Kirby could come close to matching the massive 70MM projections of Kubrick’s ultimate freakout.

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One Small Step…

Kubrick’s film is deliberately vague, especially the ending. The simplest way to explain it is as follows: Dave sees various versions of himself, each older than the last, positioned throughout the mysterious room the monolith brings him toward. Finally, Dave, now an old man, dies in his bed while the monolith watches on.

Kirby, of course, provides narration for this sequence. He clarifies that the audience is observing the rapid aging of David Bowman between each of the film’s cuts. Kirby replicates this aging in a panel-by-panel procession.

Kirby elucidates where Kubrick obfuscates. Again drawing from Clarke’s novel, Kirby makes clear that David’s rebirth into the “Star Child” is the work of the monolith.

“But there is more to a man than mere identity. There is — material…and, a genetic code from which to work. The monolith completes the job it began millions of years ago.”

This is where 2001 aligns most closely with Jack Kirby’s interests. Kirby has long had a fascination with the “ancient aliens” story trope, as seen in the Inhumans, the Celestials, and Devil Dinosaur. The 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY adaptation was the perfect comic for Kirby. No other artist could capture the wonder of a visual medium like Kubrick did.

Although the styles of the two men could not be more different, their ability to stun us with images was identical. In a better world, the two men would have adopted each other’s works and brought awe to the cinema and the comic book page. For now, we will just have to live with the one glorious moment where these two artistic stars finally aligned.

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