Marvel Made A Whole Comic Series Out Of '2001: A Space Odyssey'
Marvel Entertainment built itself from a ragtag band of misfit comics creators toiling in a dingy Manhattan office to a high-profile jewel in the Disney crown by mining its vast backlog of IP. G.O.A.T. comics creator Jack “The King” Kirby—the creative driving force behind beloved properties like the Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America, Black Panther, and more—provided a steady supply of colorful, compelling material for the MCU’s Phases One through Three.
While the November 5 release of The Eternals marks the latest (and—possibly—the lamest) Marvel attempt to use the creations of “The King,” it’s worth looking back at a time when Kirby played with another genius storyteller’s brainchild: his adaptation and expansion of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey ...
Kirby And Space-Based Freakouts Are A Perfect Pairing
After moving to DC Comics in 1970 amid great fanfare, Kirby found himself back at Marvel hat-in-hand by 1976. Kirby took what work he could get, returning to Black Panther and Captain America and creating the Eternals.
However, licensing was becoming a greater part of Marvel’s business as the decade progressed, with properties as varied as Star Wars, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, and Logan’s Run finding their way to spinner racks. Marvel wanted to combine the profitability of the Kirby brand with that sweet, sweet licensing moolah, and they found the perfect property for making that happen: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eight years after Kubrick’s magnum opus wowed hallucinating filmgoers and confused the hell out of Rock Hudson, Kirby was tasked with adapting the comic to the four-color page.
The pairing made sense. The best comics creators massage their creations to fit whatever trends are popular, chasing relevance in a medium often regarded as disposable. In the '50s and '60s, Kirby likewise found ways to bring the Space Race to daily strips (Sky Masters of the Space Force) and monthly comics (Fantastic Four) by having astronauts as lead characters. These stories provided excellent practice at drawing the space scenes that are the meat and potatoes of 2001. Kirby often brought these space scenes to the next level with psychedelic explosions of color and his signature visual effect known as Kirby Krackle.
Anyone who has traveled to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite can see that Kirby’s style and the visual delights of 2001 are one and the same:
With apparent brand alignment, Kirby produced a 71 -age tabloid-sized Treasury Edition adapting the film. While Kirby’s assistant Mark Evanier later cited that “The King” described the project as “an honor, but not a lot of fun,” the book was successful enough to merit a 10-issue follow-up series. “Not a lot of fun” certainly applies to that series as well since …
The Opening Issues Of The 2001 Ongoing Are Painfully Boring
Before I dive into the offenses to the senses contained in the first four issues of the 2001 ongoing series, I want you to understand something core to my being: I love and respect Jack Kirby.
I dedicated a year of my life to constructing my Master’s thesis around the portrayal of mythology in his New Gods stories. When I dream, I dream of the cosmic battles and struggles for power that provided the backbone of his stories. If kidnappers with very odd priorities made me choose between the safe return of Jack Kirby or my own parents, my immediate response would be, “Well, Mom and Dad raised me, but did they plot and draw The Galactus Trilogy?” So it brings me no pleasure to dunk on Kirby’s opening issues of 2001.
These issues follow a routine format. Each story starts with surprisingly articulate cavemen (so like a normal Raiders fan) in battle. One prehistoric person stands above the others in terms of strength and cleverness. We eventually realize that his or her prowess comes down to a relationship with the monolith from the films. A match cut between two similar objects transitions the story to a descendant of the individual in question. A brief view of them in futuristic combat leads to an encounter with the monolith, rapid aging, and transformation into a Starchild. The end.
The only deviation from the source material that drew my attention involved the monolith. While the monolith of the 2001 film is long and tall, the monolith of the 2001 comic can only be described as “dummy thicc.” A squatter, wider structure with the dimensions of a cereal box graces the pages of the comic. Later issues note that the monolith is—in fact—well known to the point where there is a scale model in that world’s Smithsonian. With yeeks like that, who could blame the people of the future for celebrating it?
Sexy obelisks aside, Kirby soon finds his footing, though, when …
Superheroes Save The Day (And The Book)
With the two-part tale “Norton of New York 2040 A.D.” starting in issue five, Kirby finally indulged in the type of compelling superhero yarn he could churn out in his sleep. The story starts with a purple, red, and green monster with three eyes, four arms, and tusks coming at the reader wielding a laser (typing that sentence alone brought me more joy than anything in the first four issues of this comic.) We soon learn that a battle between this alien and the hero “The White Zero” is part of a robotic simulation at the “Comicsville” amusement park, where Harvey Norton has paid to play the part of the Zero.
Ultimately disappointed by this fantasy, the comic fan enlists in the space program to explore the cosmos. A battle with an alien armada and the rescue of a space princess are a few of his adventures on the way to a fateful encounter with the monolith and evolution into a Starchild.
Since Kirby is no stranger to crafting fictional situations that covertly comment on the challenges of a career in the comics industry, the meta-ness of Norton’s journey is apparent. A bored comic fan complains about a pale imitation of the life he wants to live and ultimately finds fulfillment by fully living the tropes of the superhero world. The story all but acknowledges the failings of the opening issues while showing how Kirby plans to remedy them with the type of superhero storytelling that’s second nature to him.
Issue seven leans into “The King”’s comfort zone even further in a tale that focuses entirely on a newly ascended Starchild referred to as “The New Seed.” Although the Starchild only gets a few minutes of screentime in the film, he’s the star of this story, flying around the universe and fighting various battles.
The New Seed basically becomes a superhero who combines aspects of Kirby’s most famous creations. He’s a cosmic tourist, whizzing past alien beasts and riding alongside comets like the Silver Surfer. He becomes a “living flame-thrower” like the Human Torch when attacking evildoers. He acts like Uatu the Watcher—everyone’s favorite non-interventionist intervention enthusiast—when Kirby describes how he “witnesses the sad history of a planet” engulfed by war. As an unstated goal of the 2001 series was to avoid creating IP that MGM could claim as the holder of the film’s rights at that time, it makes sense that Kirby would resort to strip-mining his past successes.
However, the series would soon see a wholly new character loosed upon the Marvel Universe with …
The Creation Of X-51 (a.k.a. Mister Machine, A.k.a. Machine Man, A.k.a. Aaron Stack)
With the possible exception of Shang Chi’s creation in adaptations of the Fu Manchu novels, the final three issues of the 2001 series made the most substantial contribution of Marvel’s licensed comics to the company’s pantheon of characters. This arc also marks Kirby giving up the struggle against his superhero-y impulses by giving the world X-51, a humanoid robot who would go by the names Mister Machine, Machine Man, and Aaron Stack in the decades to come.
While most comic fans likely know the character from Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s landmark run on Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., the original character is very different from the “barely restrained homicidal robot” routine (or, as it’s sometimes called, “Michael Shannon”). that dominates his Nextwave characterization. In 2001, Machine Man is the 51st edition and only survivor of a group of androids that are destroyed at the start of the story. Mentored by his “father,” Dr. Abel Stack, and given the human name “Aaron,” X-51 escapes captivity in a government facility through fisticuffs, flamethrowers built into his fingers, and the power of flight before his captors let him walk out the door. A quick visit from the monolith evolves X-51 even further, preparing him for life outside the compound.
Kirby wants to ground the newly christened Mister Machine in the world of superheroes so badly that he saddles Aaron with possibly the worst sidekick he ever created: Jerry. Jerry has the unique superpower of transforming subtext into a weapon that he uses to beat the reader over the head. Jerry likes comics, and he. Never. Ever. Stops. Talking. About. Them. When he meets Mister Machine, one of the first things out of his stupid mouth is, “You look like one of the Marvel super-heroes!” This is the closest thing to a knowing wink I’ve ever seen Kirby write into a comic.
It’s almost like Kirby said to himself, “How can I show that X-51 is slowly embracing his destiny as a superhero? Perhaps I should mirror the structure of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? Maybe I could show him interacting with and earning the approval of the heroes of the Marvel Universe? Nah, lemme introduce this awful little turd who brings the story to a screeching halt every time he talks! Job well done. Time to sit back, relax with a cigar, and brood about how much I despise Stan Lee.”
“The King” was truly doing a mitzvah for his readers when—in the final panels of the series—Mister Machine leaves Jerry and his family behind for a life on the open road. The final panel of the issue teases, “Don’t stop here, reader! Follow the strange and stupefying adventure of Mister Machine in his own magazine! Watch for it!” With a once again renamed leading man, Machine Man launched in 1978, and Kirby explored the evolving world of his newly created character over nine issues before cancellation.
While Machine Man would go on to star in works from such certified greats as Spider-man creator Steve Ditko and Weapon X wunderkind Barry Windsor-Smith, he has yet to appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe outing. Given the character’s origins in the 2001 comic, his eventual appearance in the MCU would bring us one step closer to a film even Martin Scorsese would have to admit qualifies as cinema: Marvel vs. Kubrick. Disney, I’m ready to accept a fat check when you want to hear more.
Top Image: Marvel Comics