Marvel’s decision to launch a licensed comic dedicated to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1976 is a bit of a mysterious choice. Clearly, the outfit was trying to move into licensed properties–in addition to 2001, they did STAR WARS and LOGAN’S RUN at about this time, and had great success with expanding on the mythology of PLANET OF THE APES. But 2001 was half a decade old at this point, and while it had a certain intellectual cache to it and was considered something of a classic, it also wasn’t the kind of story that really lent itself to building on. And yet, in some ways, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was perhaps the most creatively successful of all of the titles Jack Kirby worked on when he returned to Marvel after several years at competitor DC. He clearly loved the movie (and did a bang-up adaptation of it as a Treasury Edition, in which you got less a straightforward adaptation of the film as Kirby’s interpretation of events, which was even more interesting.) and the open-ended structure gave him a canvas where his imagination could run wild.
Me, I was a bit uninitiated when I got a copy of this issue, coverless, in one of those bundles of older comics sold by my drug store. I had never seen 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, didn’t even really know what it was about. Fortunately for me, this issue begins a two-part story (for all that it begins en media res as though the continuation of a prior issue–with the way Kirby was structuring his books in the 1970s, it was sometimes difficult to tell.) But the opening had the veneer of a super hero book, and so I read it. It wasn’t quite to my tastes then, though I have gone on to appreciate its strangeness and Kirby’s vision in the years since. And for all that I found it weird, I never got rid of it, never traded it at any point. Kirby’s visuals were always loaded with such power that even when the story itself wasn’t something that jived with me, the images were so potent that they landed an impact regardless.
Kirby’s take on following up on the movie was to springboard off of its very climax, in which the mysterious extraterrestrial stone Monolith comes into contact with an Earth astronaut, and in some manner transforms him into what my crowd often referred to as a “glow-in-the-dark-space-baby.” Kirby dubbed this a “New Seed”, and his follow-up stories ranged up and down the timestream, from the earliest days of man to the far future, chronicling other instances in which the Monolith would appear and have a transformative effect on some individual. Right at the end of his run–and I assume this happened in response to sluggish sales–Jack brought in a regular quasi-super heroic character, Mister Machine, a robot whom the Monolith helped make self-aware. Even after the rights to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY lapsed, Marvel had Kirby continue to do books featuring this character, his name changed to Machine Man.
This particular issue opens up on the intergalactic hero White Zero penetrating an alien stronghold in an attempt to rescue a captured princess–STAR WARS wasn’t quite yet a thing when this story was done, but there was enough information about it circling that Kirby may have taken some inspiration there. Or he may not–it’s difficult to say. During the course of this adventure, White Zero comes into proximity of the Monolith, which appears suddenly before him. it turns out that White Zero isn’t a legitimate space super hero at all. Rather, he’s Harvey Norton, average citizen of the New York of the year 2040, who is play-acting in Comicsville, what amounts to a futuristic immersive movie that allows him to be the hero he isn’t in real life. The adventure ends when White Zero comes upon the princess and is repulsed by the fact that she’s fat–a dated bit of body-shaming on Kirby’s part, I’m afraid. The fantasy has been shattered, and Harvey Norton is somehow ashamed of having given in to it in the first place.
As Harvey heads back to his digs in 2040 New York, Kirby gives us a sense of what the future looks like. The whole of the Earth is covered in dangerous smog, but life has found a way to survive by remaining penned up inside enormous apartment blocks. As we watch Harvey go through his regular routine, we get an overwhelming sense that his actual life is just as phony and regimented as the fantasy he just lived through in Comicsville. He can live comfortably enough, but it’s still like being an inmate in a very comfortable cage.
As Harvey reflects on his situation in a holographic artificial beach, the Monolith reappears in front of him. Its presence reinforces his feelings that all he’s been living is an artificial life, and Norton finds that his spirit yearns for more tangible experiences. He’s driven to enroll in the space program, to leave Earth behind and venture into the final frontier–to live out his romanticized Comicsville adventure in real life, with real consequences. He’s gone from being an observer to a doer.
This might seem to be the logical conclusion of Harvey’s story, but Kirby continues forward. Norton and his space unit come across a pod in outer space, clearly something created on an alien planet by some intelligence. Recovering it, they discover that its contents are a strange space-woman who resembles Kirby’s earlier Colonizers of Rigel. She’s the real world equivalent to the space-princess that White Zero was motivated to save, and she’s in equal peril–before too long, Norton and his team are rocked by a series of blast shockwaves. They are being targeted by an alien dreadnought, which is presumably interested in the space-woman they saved. Facing down superior firepower of a sort never encountered by Earthmen before, the story is To Be Continued!