The Crazy Legacy of Jack Kirbys Forgotten 2001: A Space Odyssey
When director Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey 50 years ago, he intended it to be a "nonverbal experience." The movie’s dialogue was sparse, and it relied heavily on visuals and score. It was, Kubrick told Playboy in 1968, a subjective film, meant to reach audiences "at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does.”
The same cannot be said of its 1976 comic book adaptation. Marvel's oversized Treasury Edition, which was written, drawn, and edited by the late Jack Kirby—legendary co-creator of Captain America, the X-Men, Black Panther, and dozens of others—left little up to interpretation. It followed the film meticulously: 21st century scientists discover a monolith buried on the Moon; astronauts sent to investigate are threatened by HAL 9000; one of those explorers is reborn as Star Child. But while the panels mimicked Kubrick’s shots, the comic also fundamentally subverted 2001, putting in scads of dense text where previously the director’s elegantly silent aesthetic had done all the talking.
The comic adaptation of 2001 was, if nothing else, a conceptual affront to Kubrick’s film. In a way, it had to be—comics panels can’t wordlessly convey the feelings movie scenes can. Creatively, though, Marvel’s 2001 isn’t easily dismissed, even if it has been largely forgotten. It’s a sprawling space adventure that, incredibly, launched a 10-issue spin-off and a new character into the Marvel canon. And that’s thanks entirely to Kirby.
The Origin Story
When Marvel acquired the rights to 2001 from MGM in the mid-1970s, it was about to welcome back its most important architect. Kirby established himself as an undisputed genius by developing (along with Stan Lee) the backbone of Marvel’s Silver Age glory. He left for rival DC Comics in 1970, but six years later returned to Marvel, and when the ink was dry on the contract the news was shared via one of Lee’s Stan’s Soapbox columns. "Jack Kirby is back!" he wrote. "One of Jolly Jack’s first projects will be a Marvel Treasury Edition of (hold onto your hat) 2001: A Space Odyssey!"
"My understanding is that Marvel said, 'Who should do this?,’ and everyone said Kirby," says Mark Evanier, a comic book writer, Kirby friend and colleague, and author of the biography Kirby: King of Comics. Kirby was the right choice for the assignment, but, Evanier says, he was wary of taking on someone else’s story, especially one as iconic as Kubrick’s vision of 2001.
The illustrations were instantly recognizable to anyone who’d seen the film, but the characters were uniquely Kirby's: beefy and emotive with a touch of uncanny.
“He didn’t feel he had a lot of wiggle room to expand or inject himself into it,” Evanier says. “He had to keep reminding himself, ‘That’s my viewpoint, that’s not Stanley Kubrick’s,’ and adjusting.”
To make his comic, Kirby watched 2001 again, referenced a stack of stills, and pulled from the screenplay and Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization. The illustrations were instantly recognizable to anyone who’d seen the film, but the characters were uniquely his: beefy and emotive with a touch of uncanny. There are also moments of pure Kirby: a splash page of a spacesuit-clad astronaut gaping at an exploding cosmic sky, an acid-trip interpretation of the climatic Star Gate sequence.
But then there was all that extra text. Those boxes of exposition, much of it drawn from Clarke’s novel, also filled the pages, erasing some of the film’s mystery and saddling scenes like HAL's terrifying murder of Frank Poole with hand-holding narration.
Evanier estimates it took Kirby three to four weeks to complete the 72-page book. (It was inked by Frank Giacoia, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Kirby and Marie Severin.) Kirby later said working on 2001 was "an honor, but not a lot of fun," and once it was completed he was ready to move on.
2001: Another Odyssey
Marvel, however, wanted more. 2001 was enough of a hit that the company asked Kirby to develop a monthly follow-up. "He thought the idea of doing the ongoing 2001 series was not a great idea," Evanier says. "But he spent much of his life taking not-great ideas and trying to turn them into good comics." So Kirby got to work.
But there was a hitch. It was unclear if Marvel or MGM would own any original characters introduced in the series. Rather than risk it, Marvel dissuaded Kirby from creating new, recurring characters, and when the title debuted in December 1976 its first four issues were templatized: a prehistoric encounter with the monolith is mirrored by a far-out Space Age encounter that leaves someone being reborn as a new seed.
‘2001 really is Kirby doing the best little fables or stories that are both mythological and science-fictional. It just nails him, in a way. It's pretty great.’
Randolph Hoppe, director of the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center
"I think he knew the value of storytelling and mythology and legend and how stories help us make our way through the world," says Randolph Hoppe, acting director of the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center. "2001 really is Kirby doing the best little fables or stories that are both mythological and science-fictional. It just nails him, in a way. It's pretty great."
Eventually, though, he rebelled. "Norton of New York 2040 AD," in issues five and six, is classic Kirby—a cross between Marvel’s Inhumans and DC’s New Gods, full of humans in wild future armor battling bizarro monsters and mutants surrounded by infernal machines. And then, in the final three issues, Kirby creates a new character: Machine Man, a purple cyborg originally called Mister Machine who proved so popular Marvel canceled 2001 , gave the character its own books, and introduced it into the general Marvel population.
With Machine Man, Kirby’s 2001 odyssey was finally over—and in 1978 so was his second stint with Marvel. He kept working until his death, at 76, in 1994, and in the intervening years his reputation has solidified as one of comics’ most influential figures. But as Black Panther, Thor, and the X-Men gained popularity, 2001 slid further into obscurity.
"There are no traces of the comic in the Kubrick Archive," says James Fenwick, a Kubrick scholar at De Montfort University. "I'm not sure if Stanley Kubrick ever saw the comics. I did show them to [Kubrick’s brother-in-law and longtime producer] Jan Harlan a couple of years back, and he was intrigued and had never seen them before. I don't think we will ever know if Kubrick saw them."
The chances of improving the work’s reputation are bleak. Thanks to a thicket of legal issues—Marvel’s deal was with MGM, but Warner Bros. now owns the rights to the film, and then there’s the Kubrick estate—the books have never been collected or reissued. Though Hoppe has been trying to drum up interest.
"Let's make one book filled with the color comics, then another filled with the pencil [art], and put them in a slipcase and then you have the big Monolith Edition of Kirby's 2001," he says. "But nobody was able to come back and say, 'I got [the rights], let's go.'"
Hoppe is committed, though, and this weekend the Kirby Museum is staging a 2001-focused pop-up exhibition at New York’s One Art Space. "I'm a little frustrated that no one talks about 2001 and people don't know it," he says. "Hopefully it will get some attention. Maybe somebody will figure who owns the rights."
Evanier acknowledges that 2001 isn’t one of the most important things Kirby did. But he, too, would welcome its return to print—if only to complete the Kirby library.
“In the last few years almost everything Jack did has been reprinted, brought back into print, in deluxe volumes,” he says. “This book, by virtue of being one that has not been reprinted, has a special feel to some people. To a certain extent it's the holy grail for some Kirby fans.”