Kirby's Late Period 2001: A Space Odyssey #1
Written and drawn by Jack Kirby
Inked and lettered by Mike Royer
Colored by George Roussos
Where are we going? Somewhere in the dawn of time we began - somehow, in these perilous times we keep moving on - and some time in the future, something will happen to change us!
These words open Jack Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey and set the stage for what's to come. Kirby asks some big questions there, and yet delivers a series that fails to answer them in any meaningful manner. It's probably not helped that the title forces you to draw comparisons to one of the greatest films of all time. As you may have guessed, 2001 is "based on concepts from the MGM/Stanley Kubrick production." Most notably, Kirby explores the film's fascination with man's past and future evolution and creates a nifty story structure based on the movie's iconic flash-forward cut.
2001 #1 is evenly split into two parts - one taking place in the distant past, and the other taking place in the far future. The issue opens with scenes of our caveman ancestors as they hunt for his food. However, their inability to catch dinner leads one brave "neo-man" to consult the Monolith, which inspires him to invent the spear.
If the above summary makes this story seem simplistic, it's only because the story is simplistic. Perhaps too simplistic. Very little happens over the course of the issue, and the key events are crammed into two or three pages, which undercuts their impact. The tone of the story isn't helped by the narration, which belabors every plot point in the purplest of prose. The King would hae been better off following Kubrick's lead - in the film, the silence of the prehistoric scenes helped enhance the mood and create a sense of enigmatic foreboding. As it stands, the overwritten captions only call undue attention to the issues they don't address - the nature of the Monolith and the causes of evolution and inspiration.
As the neo-man launches his spear, we flash-forward several million years to astronaut Woodrow Decker. 2001 has been relatively uninspired until now, but the transition between the past and future is particularly striking...
This is some of Kirby's greatest storytelling.
In the first panel, your eye is drawn right to the neo-man because he's sitting right in the darkest area of the page. At the same time, the fleeing procameli and the jagged rocks draw your eyes rightward into the second panel. The only discordant note is the procamelus in the lower left, who is staring right at the reader. Had Kirby tilted his head a few degrees to the left he'd have been far less of a distraction.
In the second panel, the dark areas along the left-hand border are placed against empty areas on the right-hand border of the first panel, which helps separate the two panels while at the same time creating a subtle bridge between them. Your eye is drawn into the negative space between the tip of the neo-man's spear and his left arm, and down the arm to the intense look of his face. The neo-man's pose arrests the rightward motion of your eye bouncing it down and to the left into the third panel.
You enter the third panel from the upper right, and your eye immediately zoooms down the shaft of the neo-man's spear and then slingshot right into the fourth panel by the zip lines representing the motion of the neo-man's arm. This is probably the weakest panel on the page, mostly because of the deficiencies in the figure drawing.
By the fourth panel, we've reached the future. What Kirby does here is pretty clever - Decker's pose echoes, but does not duplicate, the pose of the neo-man, implying that their situations are analgous but not exactly so. A weaker artist would have used the same pose for both figures, which whould have made the composition far too stiff and rendered the transition between the third and fouth panels less meaningful. The busy details of this panel also contrast with the simplicity of the third panel, helping to strengthen shift of time and place. If I had to change anything, I'd alter the magenta of the nebulae in the background so that they matched the red cloud behind the neo-man in the third panel.
Note that we flash forward to the future before the spear hits its target. That's a very clever move - if we'd seen the neo-man get his first kill, that would have provided a sense of closure to his story and made the future scenes seem like a tacked-on epilogue.
Anyway, in the future, astronaut Woodrow Decker winds up shipwrecked no an alien world, gets chased through alien ruins by a tentacle monster, and falls down a hole into the Monolith.
If anything, this part of the story is even more unsatisfying than the first half. The neo-man was questing for knowledge, trying to open his boundaries, and the Monolith represented some mysterious, unknownable phase in his evolution. Decker, on the other hand, doesn't do anything except run. There aren't even any thematic ties between the two halves of the story, except for the presence of the Monolith.
Of course, one of the reasons that the future seems so rushed is that it also has to include Decker's transformation by the Monolith...
At first glance, this page seems amazing. However, you soon realize that Kirby's used his bag of tricks to cover up some uninspired drawing. Decker's poses throughout the page are extremely stiff, the creature in panel three lacks any sort of dimensionality, and the composition of panel number four is so simplistic that it draws attention to the crude drawing. The storytelling is also disjointed - perhaps appropriate for such a disorienting experience, but still somehow unsatisfactory. Still, that is one awesome-looking planet in the second panel.
After his passage through the Monolith, Decker is transformed into a space baby and flies off into the unbounded cosmos. No explanation is given, and perhaps one shouldn't be expected - after all, isn't the next stage of our evolution ultimately unknowable?
Which is fine and dandy, except that prologue promised answers to that very question - or at least a careful consideration of it. The book doesn't deliver either, and as a result can't be considered more than an interesting curiosity.