KIRBY VS. KUBRICK

By: Chris Lanier
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.

Click on image for larger version.

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 |

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What do you think?

  1. “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?” One of many great insights!

  2. Kubrick is my favorite film director, and Kirby one of my favorite comic book artists.
    From my point of view their work is hand and glove.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-zRtT5jPLA
    Everything about this clip reminds me of Kirby from Billy Boy’s threads to the extreme close-ups.
    Kirby was so familiar with Kubrick he referenced Kubrick’s early film “The Killers Kiss” in a 1969 interview where he talked about Kubrick and 2001 years before he worked on the adaptation.
    Kirby: “Kubrick injects himself into whatever he does. If he does a science -fiction movie you’re going to see a Kubrick’s science-fiction, if he does a romance or a prizefighter movie, you’re going to see a Kubrick prizefighter.”
    In 1969 very few people would have been aware of The Killer’s Kiss. It wouldn’t have been easily available.
    Like Kirby Kubrick had a penchant for “Lon Chaney” sized exaggeration to get at the power of real life emotional realism.
    The “stilted” notion is off base on any number of levels.
    First you have to define what supposedly isn’t stilted; or in other words: is naturalistic.
    I think many people think of what they are hearing (or reading) in a typical TV show, movie, book, or comic book as “natural” because they are used to it. There is a certain PC style which is the accepted norm and for that reason doesn’t jump out at them. This by no means the dialogue in some TV show or movie is naturalistic, only that people accept it as such.
    Then you have to look at the intent of the author. Kirby’s dialogue has the exact same qualities as his art. His art wasn’t naturalistic, he even said (and I’ve quoted many times) that he wasn’t interested in drawing like a photograph, that he used exaggeration to get at emotional realism. In other words to get the power of reality on a page or screen an artist might best use exaggeration.

    For example. (Kubrick instructing Vincent D’Onofrio)
    “I want you to be big. Lon Chaney big.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_Xek7IQhlw

  3. Thanks, Josh — & thanks for the opportunity to grab one of Kirby’s panels and out-Lichtenstein Lichtenstein.

    Patrick — that’s a great (and genuinely Kirby-esque) clip from “Clockwork Orange.” And of course it brings to mind that slo-mo scene where Alex reasserts his authority over his gang; while I don’t know if I’ve ever “read” Kirby’s action as taking place in slow motion (and despite al of Kirby’s fight scenes, did he ever broach a nut-shot?), the framing and the telegraphed facial expressions/emotions arguably use the same sort of visual language that Kirby used:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v90KPJ6n4Ew

    I also got the impression, from a couple Kirby quotes, that he had a genuine appreciation of “2001” — that his connection to the movie wasn’t just a sort of work-for-hire professionalism. But at the end of the day, at least for “2001” in particular, it comes off mostly as a mismatch to me. As a comics-reading experience, I find it pretty dull (despite some flashes of inspiration), in a way that Kirby’s work usually isn’t.

    Setting aside the feeling of redundancy that comes from the notion of a comics adaptation of a movie, if someone had hired Kirby to do a Sam Fuller flick — that might’ve been something.

  4. To be honest I’d rather have had Kirby create his own stories, though the Treasury did result in a very interesting comic book series.
    Incidentally Kirby coloured “the trip” sequence himself, and wouldn’t it be something if those guides in all the Dr. Martin’s Watercolor dye glory showed up.
    Now I wouldn’t mind seeing Kirby’s take on “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” with Big Barda as the leader of the pack.

  5. R.I.P. Tura, Viva Barda.

    When I saw the Tura obits, the melancholy had an extra kick: she died in Reno, where I’ve been living the past few years. If only I’d been going to the right bars, I might have bumped into her in person.

    Patrick — agreed on preferring Kirby doing his own stories. But what if, instead of adapting a finished film, he’d done an adaptation of one of Sam Fuller’s unproduced scripts? From Lisa Dombrowski’s “The Films of Samual Fuller: If you die, I’ll kill you!”, here’s a synopsis of Fuller’s never-made “The Flowers of Evil”:

    “‘The Flowers of Evil’ originated in the mid-60s as a treatment written by Noel Burch and Mark Goodman of a modern-day Lysistrata, Aristophanes’s tale of Greek women who withhold sex in order to force their men to end the Peloponnesian War. According to interviews, Fuller developed the idea into a bizarre ‘semi-science fiction thing’ about a secret society called the Flowers of Evil that enlists beautiful young women who use sex, violence, and an enervating vapor to eradicate warfare around the globe. The opening scene allegedly features a ballet dancer who is a member of the Flowers bounding off the stage to avoid a killer female motorcycle gang, while the script ends in an ambiguous fashion typical of Fuller as the protagonist spirals endlessly into outer space.”

    The original ending to “the Fourth World,” executed while Kirby was still in the thick of it, would of course be the holy grail of never-realized Kirby projects. But I think a Kirby/Fuller “Flowers of Evil” would be a pretty good two-fer.

  6. Chris, Wow, that sounds amazing. I love Greek drama, and comedy.
    “Dust, the silent clarion of distant armies.”
    The “ending” Kirby created for the Fourth World satisfied me.
    And don’t forget that Kirby continued the saga in Captain Victory where as it turned out the good Captain was Orion’s son.
    “War isn’t a game you put away in a box, when mama rings the dinner bell.”
    I felt the “Hunger Dogs” and “Even Gods Must Die” were very strong works.
    Jeff Lester wrote a great review of the books where he said in parts:
    Jeff Lester:
    But, of course, that wasn’t the end for the Fourth World Saga. In 1984 and ‘85, Kirby was given the chance to come back and create an ending in the form of The Hunger Dogs, an original graphic novel, along a forty-seven page prelude titled “Even Gods Must Die!” that bridged the original stories and the graphic novels. We get apologies for the material both in the front with Paul Levitz’s intro (“[F]or if the Hunger Dogs is neither the ending Jack originally hoped to do nor crafted with the same sure hand as had a decade earlier, it is still noble to try[.]“) and Mark Evanier’s afterword (“Jack gave it his all. Jack gave everything he did his all but he really put his heart and soul into this one, and ordinarily it would have been more than enough…but with all the problems, especially the short page count, it wasn’t enough,” as well as “Finally, The Hunger Dogs was published. I wish I could tell you that it was everything Kirby fans had been expecting by way of a Fourth World conclusion, but it really wasn’t that. For one thing, the Fourth World wasn’t concluding. For another, Jack still didn’t have the thousand or so more pages it might have taken for him to build his story to the kind of climax he’d imagined.”) It’s safe to say the current take on this final work is not favorable.
    And that’s a shame. Because I found those final hundred-plus pages to be absolutely brilliant, some of the most stunning stuff Kirby’s ever done. I’ve had The Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 4 for maybe three weeks now, and every night for the first two I’d read those last 100-plus pages again and again.
    It’s probably because I didn’t follow Kirby after he left Marvel in the late ’70s, but “Even Gods Must Die!” shocks me in its departure from earlier Kirby work: It’s brasher, bolder, nearly a caricature of itself, but Kirby reframes action in ways I hadn’t seen in his work since the ’40s and ’50s: circular inset panels, rhythmic action scenes with arrows, confrontations where the panel borders run diagonally, making the tension of the scene literally explicit. Months ago, when reading Tezuka’s Buddha, I found myself in awe of Tezuka’s willingness to experiment with a page so late in his career and wondered if doing so made him a better artist than Kirby. Here, if only for a few pages, is Kirby breaking his patterns, moving finally from the blues to jazz.
    Even better, the change suits the story: the circular panels reinforce the circularity of the story as Orion finally brings the battle to Darkseid, and father and son battle as a prophecy has foretold. The characters themselves are encased in circular panels, at many points appearing trapped, just as they’re stuck in the cyclical nature of myth. This is something Kirby nicely underlines in his writing–in the early chapters of the New Gods, Darkseid is likened to a tiger, but in “Even Gods Must Die,” that same comparison is made about Orion. If Mister Miracle was Kirby as he imagined himself to be in the ’70s, the Orion of the Omnibus‘ final pages is the man Kirby finally realized himself to be: a man incapable of giving up, powered by a terrifying, inexhaustible anger, an anger that allows him to claw his way to the truth.
    What really killed me was the scene in which Darkseid, after watching the behavior of the revivified men he’s gained the power to resurrect, says to a lackey, “They don’t fully return…do they?” If you think about it, that’s a tremendously ballsy thing for an author to put in a story he’s finishing after a decade-long absence. Kirby is speaking to the audience through Darkseid and openly telling them: “You know what? This doesn’t work.” In that regard, what seems like every other faux-Stan Lee title you’ve ever read, “Even Gods Must Die!” is in fact an apt summation of the story’s point: Things are supposed to end. For most of us, that’s a hard-earned truth. For a superhero comic, that’s heresy.
    Like “Even Gods Must Die!”, The Hunger Dogs is a victory stolen from the jaws of defeat and loss, and the irony is this victory is accomplished by open acknowledging defeat and loss. In The Hunger Dogs, Darkseid sees his coming obsolescence in the face of The Micro-Mark, the digitized destroyer that is the brutal male successor to the kindly Mother Box. In a staggering page, Darkseid listens to the Micro-Mark’s inventor crow about the passing of Himon and wordlessly realizes that his own time has also passed. “His day is over, great Darkseid!” the collaborator boasts. “Regard him as a pitiful, harmless object! This is Micro-Mark’s hour! There’s no need for intrigue or great strivings–the cosmos lies open to button-pushing babes!”
    (Oh, and by the way? Holy. Fucking. Shit. It’s one thing for writers, artists, photographers, and musicians these days to complain about the digital age having opened doors in their fields at the cost of lowered standards. It’s another thing entirely to do it in nineteen-eighty-fucking-five. Fans of the prescient will also appreciate how both Darkseid and Lightray use suicide bombers to take out their enemies, the planet-destroying dirty bombs planted surreptitiously on New Genesis, and how Highfather turns such a terrorist attack back in on itself.)
    I was raving to Graeme about all this the other day and he put it best: The Hunger Dogs is the work of an old man, possessing an old man’s wisdom and an old man’s sorrow. (I don’t want to give away the identity of the Micro-Mark’s creator, but I will say it’s pretty easy to see past the origin presented and infer disgust on Kirby’s part at the way the baby boomers–his beloved New Gods–grew up and sold out.) And while Kirby may have dreamed of an epic finish to his epic saga (the conclusion he sketches out here has to settle for evoking Moses leading his people out of Egypt), I found the climax to The Hunger Dogs more satisfying, truer to life: some things change, and many things don’t. Although we’re told Darkseid takes control of Apokolips again, our last glimpse of him is a figure made lonely and small by distance and time: even through the anger, the scorn, and the violence, Kirby evinces pity for the most horrible of his characters.
    It’s a good lesson to take from the Fourth World Omnibus, for although these four volumes are a tremendous achievement and will occupy a prized place on my bookshelf, it’s meaningful they sit below Buddha, the three thousand page epic Tezuka created at roughly the same time in the manner the artist wanted, at the pace he preferred (collected in hardcover in America, it should be pointed out, before The Omnibus). It achieves very little to focus only on the shame of such a thing. And yet, to look at the whole of Kirby’s achievement and see only the wonder, and not the warning, would only compound the shamefulness further: the compromises presented in the final volume of The Fourth World Omnibus mirror the compromises a reader must suffer in seeing such Excellent work simultaneously transcend, and fall victim to, the paucity of its era.

  7. Whoa. In “Pierrot Le Fou,” when Samuel Fuller makes a cameo as himself and says he’s working on a film of “Flowers of Evil,” I assumed he meant Baudelaire’s poetry collection — which seemed a crazy, but fascinating undertaking. So that’s not what he meant, eh?

  8. Joshua, I’d rather you get Jonathan Lethem to write one.
    I’ve got an idea about Kirby, and suits of skin, which I might be able to cobble together.

  9. Lethem very politely declined — he’s busier than he’s ever been in his life, he says.

  10. Kubrick was obsessive about detail, and his years of forensic research have been well documented. Kirby, of course, was renowned for his speed, even within the context of the comic book world. I’m inclined to think his work would probably not have benefited even if Kirby had ‘world enough and time’ to research, plan and execute everything. His industrial speed is part of his aesthetic — constantly throwing new ideas into the pot, a restless factory of cosmic-pulp modernism. Could Kubrick be Kirby in slow- motion? The same modernist drive that forbids retreat or re-quotation, the same sense of exemplifying a genre and then moving on….probably not. But I thought I’d throw it into the pot in the Kirbyesque spirit

  11. Greg — it seems to me it would be nice to have a cutesy animal metaphor along the lines of the fox/hedgehog dichotomy, that’s specific to distinct artistic modes of production. Some artists sit down and revise and revise their way to a modest portion of the bookshelf, others are profligate and impatient, and you get the sense if they were made to just concentrate on a few works, it would destroy their whole system. Not too be too neat about it, but you have your Joyces and your Dreyers, and then you have your P. K. Dicks and Fassbinders. Kirby was an exemplary termite artist, but “white elephant” as the animal antipode had more to do with pretensions toward greatness than with an actual method of production.

    And Patrick — bringing up Tezuka (via Jeff Lester), another exemplary termite, really does throw some things into relief. People in the States often compare Tezuka to Disney, but Kirby is probably a better example of a fellow-traveler. Unfortunately, Kirby never had the autonomy Tezuka had (which is probably partly related to the fact that comics didn’t have the adolescent-lit stigma in Japan), and as a result, in Tezuka’s case you get an epic work truncated by the author’s death, versus Kirby’s epic work being truncated by corporate fiat. It’s hard to imagine Tezuka saying, per Kirby, “Comics will break your heart” — or, if it’s possible to imagine Tezuka saying such a thing, it’s impossible to think he’d mean it in the same way.

    Lastly, when searching for some background on Kirby’s “2001,” I came across a very comprehensive and interesting look at it (and Steranko’s “Outland” adaptation), written by Joe McCulloch and Matt Seneca:

    http://deathtotheuniverse.blogspot.com/2010/09/double-feature.html

  12. Chris, That Outland story is an irritation on a number of levels.
    Mainly the story doesn’t interest me, and it seems a shame that a long form work by Steranko was “wasted” on that kind of material as opposed to say the Sam Fuller screenplay mentioned by Joshua.
    There is also the fact that because of a divided copyright (much like Kirby’s 2001) the Outland story has never been reprinted, and appeared in serial form only, so it’s a difficult find.
    The whole story is online at Tony Roberstson’s “The Drawings of Steranko” web page.

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