KIRBY VS. KUBRICK
March 11, 2011
It’s hard to think of a more disjunctive pairing of artists than Stanley Kubrick and Jack Kirby — yet, through the strange corporate logic of ’70s-era Marvel Comics, the two were joined via an oversized comic adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kirby was a go-to guy for science-fiction themed knockoffs of movie and TV properties; he had a hand in a never-published adaptation of Patrick McGoohan’s Pop-Orwellian The Prisoner, and his series Kamandi was a copyright-skirting riff on Planet of the Apes (of course, with Kirby’s maximalist bent, he wasn’t going to stop at humanized primates running a future earth — he populated his post-apocalyptic playground with humanized lions, tigers, dogs, and even killer whales).
[HiLobrow recently published a series of 25 posts, by 25 authors, each analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book. This essay by artist, animator, and writer Chris Lanier is the first of several additional Kirby exegetical commentaries that we’ll publish in weeks to come.]
Sometimes when an artist adapts the work of another artist with a wildly different temperament, there can be an exciting friction. Adaptation can be combat. I’m thinking of Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, which were meant to undercut what Blake saw as a poisonous theology, or A. I. Bezzerides’ script for the film of Kiss Me Deadly, which casts Mickey Spillane’s macho detective hero, Mike Hammer, as a vicious, reptilian punk. In either case there’s a thrill in seeing an idea, a tone, or a philosophy being subverted at the same time as it’s being materialized.
The kind of double-consciousness necessary for that kind of operation was alien to Kirby. He was more an artist of sensation than reflection. He meets Kubrick not in a dialectic, not even in a struggle — it’s just a collision. I wonder if the task he set himself struck him as paradoxical, or if he just bulldozed his way into it: making an action movie out of an inaction movie.
Kirby’s dialogue is predictably off (“Hey! Who activated these mechanical arms?”), but the disconnect throws him even at the level of his drawings. Where Kirby’s native sense of machine design was ornamental (a boxy baroque, widgets and control panels and geegaws proliferating like a tinkertoy fungus), the film designs for 2001’s spaceships and spacesuits were sleek, structurally repetitive and minimalist. Even when left to his own devices, Kirby’s architecture and costumes seem toylike; Kirby routinely went cosmic, but his “cosmic” still seems contained — if not entirely by his panels, then by the nickelodeon box of his imagination. The contradiction in scale is related to the way Ray Harryhausen’s monsters can seem like giants and like puppets all at once. The restraint 2001’s art direction forced upon Kirby short-circuited his telescoping sense of scale. Ironically, the convincing special effects of the film look like flimsy props in the comic book. The distinctive spaceship Discovery just hangs there like some overcomplicated flashlight in Kirby’s drawings — it’s as if you can see the wires. In an opposite misjudgment of scale, the glassy red eye of the onboard computer HAL, which has such a intimidating blank presence in the film, here looks as menacing as the window of a laundromat dryer.
And yet the thing isn’t an entire wash. I love this panel [above], a splash page after the astronaut David Bowman plunges through the alien “star gate” and is assailed by images of interstellar travel (“There’s no stopping the wild slide — a thousand bizarre sights and patterns rush madly across his line of vision —”).
Kubrick was a great orchestrator of quiet — there are long dialogue-free stretches in several of his films, and placing 2001 in the void of space allowed him to zero out that quiet into literal silence (or to crenelate the silence with lonely breathing, the rhythmic “score” to the spacewalking sequences). Kirby worked in a medium that is literally silent (except perhaps for the rustle of paper as you turn a page), and as a sort of compensation his drawings are uproariously noisy. They seem to throw out sound effects, even when lacking boldly lettered onomatopoeia (BTOK! GRRNNNCH! THWOK!). His distinctive action pose — the hero with an arm outstretched toward the viewer, cubistically amputated fingertips splayed — swaps the hand for a shout. His gestures are as audible as a Shaw Brothers kung fu pose dubbing itself into place.
His outer space, despite the impossibility on the level of physics, is no less cacophonous. It’s significant that the name for his famous visual tic, the “Kirby Krackle” — one of the main textures he uses to delineate outer space — is a primarily auditory description. This panel may not be his most spectacular space-scape, but it’s representative. Under Kirby’s pencil deep space crackles and hums and throbs with the deafening clamor of obscure dynamos.
The visual dynamism of the “Krackle” partly derives from the vibration it creates between foreground and background: are the dots dark discs and globes, or are they negative space in an electric sheet of atomic swiss cheese? Kirby abhors a vacuum, the same way he must’ve abhorred a blank page: he had to riddle it with machine-gun holes of black ink.
David Bowman’s face, in this panel, actually functions like one of those Krackle-dots, encapsulating an area that keeps flipping between figure and ground, inside and out. The visor of his helmet serves as an inset frame or panel, yet it doesn’t really cordon him off from the surrounding environment. Kirby is listed as a co-colorist with Marie Severin; the coloring is so eccentric in this panel, I assume it’s Kirby’s doing. The palette is chemical, sulfurous (lime green and bright pink aren’t intuitive choices to limn stellar flares); the undiluted yellow used to highlight Bowman’s face bleeds outside the visor’s rectangle, as if leaching it into the surrounding flames. Is this porous rectangle a cropped reflection of his face, projected on the glass viewport of his space-pod (so that we, too, are looking out the window)? Or is the image a sort of cinematic double exposure? Is it a purely expressionistic representation of the dissolution of Bowman’s mind, overtaken by visions, his corporeal self dissolved to the rudiments of a shell-shocked visage? The observer and what’s being observed have been collapsed onto a single, ambiguously situated plane.
Again, returning to Kirby’s strange co-mingling of macro and micro scale, the cosmos looks cellular. When he draws star systems, stars and planets that should be light-years apart are leashed together by waves of energy and lines of force, as though they’re all swimming in the same cytoplasmic soup. The boiling sun in the 2001 panel could almost be a cell in one of those new, frenetic 3D medical animations; rather than being buffeted by a solar conflagration, Bowman could just as easily be caught up in a tumult of mitosis.
Kirby’s space-scapes allowed him to tiptoe towards a formalist abstraction of what it interested him to draw: tension, turmoil, violence. I don’t think these elements preoccupied him because it gave him a kick to indulge them. Instead they were fundamental to his understanding of the world, from his rough-and-tumble Lower East Side childhood through his service in the Second World War. Where does the turmoil come from? There’s a blur between internal and external forces. In his superhero work, the powers of his heroes and villains are often expressions of internal torment, and psychological scarring — they go forward wearing their costumes or their deformities, wearing their deepest trauma as an image. In the world of the superhero, which Kirby did so much to create, this act — clothing oneself in the signage of your wound — is not a neurotic aberration, but an extension of the natural order. That “order,” such as it is, is one of incessant chaos and upheaval.
So here’s a last entry in the list of temperamental polarizations between Kubrick/Kirby, after inaction versus action, minimalism versus baroque, quiet versus noise. One of Kubrick’s real achievements in 2001 was how ruthlessly he stranded his individual human characters both in the inexhaustible expanse of galactic space and the interminable expanse of evolutionary time. For Kubrick, the terrifying thing is that the universe is mostly empty. For Kirby, the terrifying thing is that it’s full to the brim.
CHECK OUT “Cosmic Debris: Kirby in the ’70s,” a series that ran in tandem with “Kirb Your Enthusiasm” at the 4CP gallery of comic book details | Kirby cutaways and diagrams collected at the Comic Book Cartography gallery | Joe Alterio’s Cablegate Comix and HiLobrow posts about comics and cartoonists, and science fiction | The Jack Kirby Chronology | scans of rare 1940-50s Kirby comics at the Digital Comic Museum
KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker |