In the second of a trio of videos about Stanley Kubrick’s film, this week’s podcast is an audio-visual race through Marvel Comics’ adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.If you’ve seen 2001, you might have found it a transcendent, near-spiritual experience, or a deathly dull, self-indulgent, pretentious dirge about nothing much worth thinking of. Whichever point on the critical spectrum you find yourself, I’d be willing to bet that your first response to the film was not “hey! This would make a great comic book. You could get the guy who did The Hulk to write it. It’s OK as a movie, but a comic book adaptation would really bring 2001 to its perfect home.” And yet, this is exactly what some bright spark at Marvel decided to do. An even bigger shock than the discovery that Marvel Comics adapted Stanley Kubrick’s space epic is the fact that they adapted it, and it wasn’t rubbish, justrather an interesting oddity.
2001 invites its viewers to submit to a giant, enveloping experience that defies spatial and temporal logic. It its finest moments, it becomes the accessible, blockbuster gateway drug to the avant-garde experience of abstraction and existential tremors. Marvel comic books compact the mythical and the cosmic into a wad of wordy paper with a pamphleteer’s shouty rhetoric and muscular heroism. The two seem incompatible, and they are indeed distantly divergent for the most part. The first issue adapts the film directly, and then there are ten more that comprise an extension of the original story – the first few of these follow the same structure, mimicking aspects of the film that had presumably been picked out as the closest thing to an epic narrative, and even imposing a strong dose of superheroism on the whole story. The first half of each episode follows an individual proto-human who stands apart from his or her time, worshipping the inscrutable monolith that is the film’s selling point – a unidentified lump of stone (?) that signposts a portal to the next stage of human evolution.
And then around the midpoint, a comic-book analogue of the famous bone-to-spaceship match-cut marks the transition to a space-age descendant of our prehistoric protagonist, who will finally escape the bonds of Earth and become a Starchild, whatever that means: in the film, it is an enigmatic, wordless icon, but in the comic books the Starchild (referred to as “the New Seed”) takes on a much more active and legible role as guardian of human progress. A character’s transition to Starchildhood is a reward for prescient thinking.
What is interesting here is how respectfully the film’s ideas have been adapted. It’s a bit of a lost cause, trying to make them fully tangible and comprehensible, since that was never the fun of the film in the first place. But there’s a conceptual intangibility to the main points that Kirby has not tried to reduce to trite heroic narratives. When our heroes die, they don’t become stars in the firmament, or angels in heaven or anything else for which we might have an iconographic frame of reference. They just “merge with the infinite” and disappear beyond our knowledge or powers of representation.
Kirby frequently gets to focus on hulking great, athletic figures, continuing Marvel’s love affair with human musculature. In issue #3, Marak, a strategically brilliant and brutal leader, tens of thousands of years before the founding of ancient Greece, meets an old man in league with the monolith – the meeting of a military mind and an inventor kicks off the stone age. By issue 5, things are getting a bit meta. We’re even further into the future, 2040 A.D., with the White Zero, a real-life superhero. It is an era when “comics have reached their ultimate stage. They have offered and become a life-style for the descendants of the early readers. What began with magazines, fanzines and nation-wide conventions has culminated in a fantastic involvement with the personal life of the average man.” All is not what it seems, though – White Zero is Harvey Norton, and he is acting out a superhero fantasy in a simulated environment at Comicsville, a facility where paying customers can perform in a fabricated narrative of stooges and stagecraft. It’s a prescient prefiguring of a world of Virtual Reality entertainment, but perhaps missed the trick that computers would be providing those fantasy scenarios in virtual space. Disillusioned with the reality of his polluted world (another apt prediction), he signs up for the space programme and becomes a real life hero. As each episode ends with the apotheosis of the character into a star child, in this case Harvey’s last moments are spent in a fantasy world where he really is a superhero. All of this rubs oddly alongside the attempts at making this most obtuse of stories concrete – it is couched in terms of heroes and combat, aliens and fantasy in a way that Kubrick’s film defiantly was not.
We begin issue #8 with ‘The Escape of X-51’: a human project to produce thinking computers in human form (androids, basically), and one of them has run amok, so the scientists are causing all of their creations to self-destruct. Abel Stack has taken one of the robots home and raised him as a son, Aaron, giving him more human features. He becomes pursued by the authorities, who consider him a danger. He doesn’t understand why humans don’t recognise him as one of them. At the end, the monolith appears to him, as it seems to always appear to those whose thinking is ahead of that of human beings (though he is the first “non-human” who has so far received the benefit of the monolith’s counsel). But he doesn’t “ascend” like the others, and instead resurfaces at the beginning of #9 as an avenging superhero, looking to get back the human face that was stolen from him when he was first captured by the military. Once released, he becomes a full-fledged superhero, Mister Machine. Encapsulating the incongruous pairing of existentialism and bombast, issue #9 ends with the line: “Does a machine have a soul? That question leads to action never seen before!”
Issue 10 is very much back within the Marvel universe, as if the whole project has been designed to recover 2001 within the generic boundaries of superheroes. A mysterious figure called Mr Hotline is hoping to capture Mr Machine and use his talents “to think for all men”; it’s fairly clear that this is the Devil, and he wants to find the essence of the soul in Mr Machine’s head so that he can eradicate it from all humans. The devil turns out to be just a holographic façade for a supercomputer that wants to take over the world. Mr Machine destroys it, then sets out to find out who was responsible, to be continued in, we are promised, his own magazine. That’s quite a departure from Kubruck and Clarke’s original story, but it does seize and run with the themes of machine intelligence, evolution and human destiny with all of Kirby’s customary verve.