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THE HEIGHT OF JACK KIRBY'S CAREER: 2001 #s 1-7

...the first seven issues of Jack Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey demand to be approached from so many different angles and on so many different levels, that articles in a fanzine are quite inadequate. To do anything like justice to these 119 pages of comic art, I ought to take a few months out and write a book. They are so wholly unlike anything that has gone on before - except, of course, for the masterpiece movie which inspired them - that everything about them must be examined on their own terms; nothing can be taken for granted or ascribed to influences, format, genre. Captain America wears a mask and costume because superheroes do; the Eternals live on top of mountains because that's what the gods of various mythologies do. But in 2001 there is nothing that has been done before.

Kirby has even refused to follow on from the movie. He was not interested in what happened on Earth, after the New Seed was born; once it has come on the scene, the further efforts of NASA and other agencies to learn more about the Monolith or any other enigma are beside the point. The point is not what mankind will from now on do, but what will from now on be done to mankind.

Kirby's adaptation of the movie, and the seven comics that followed, are shaped by a very strong sense that mankind is now at a point in its history – symbolized by the conquest of space – where the traditional ways of doing things no longer apply; where to merely push for more of the same leads to stagnation - or worse. Kirby is no doom merchant; even the nuclear doomsday scenario of #7 is a possibility, not a certainty. This might, he says, be Earth, or be "one of a thousand of its counterparts"; the contaminated nuclear nightmare he presents is a possibility - perhaps not even a very strong possibility - not a certainty.

But the alternative vision of the future presented in #5, efficient but crowded, polluted, walled-in, with even the sea - that eternal symbol of endlessness! - turning out to be nothing more than a big swimming pool with concrete walls on which false sunrises and sunsets are constantly being projected, is scarcely more appealing. Harvey Norton returns to a wall-like housing complex so immense and regular that it literally blots out the horizon and the sky (#5 p.22). Despite the heavy pollution this future suffers from, Kirby goes out of his way to show that it is not ghastly in any of the obvious ways with which dystopian cliches have made us all familiar, but comfortable and indeed easy to live in for all its members. Harvey Norton has a good little house and all the comic-books and 3-D videos he wants. Even for the pollution, a remedy has been found: "anti-smog threads". (Kirby lived in Los Angeles, where smog is more of a problem than in any other American city.) All these single problems can be rationally faced and solved; what cannot be solved by the present kind of man is the one big problem to which they all add up to - an enclosed, walled-in environment in which every response to every problem adds to the artificiality of the whole: "a world-wide comicsville" that, in Harvey Norton's view, has less reality than his dreams.

The horror of this particular vision of the future is that it is not a nightmare, but a reasonable and realistic forecast from existing trends. There are wonderfully credible details: "The automated subways are efficient, and, as always, overcrowded and overused. The automobile has been scrapped, only politicians buy the few that are left --- as symbols of prestige..." (we in London already have an automated "subway", the Docklands Light Railway, with no human drivers). That man might destroy himself with his own weapons is a nightmare - one of those horrible little possibilities that keep you awake at four a.m., even when you feel confident enough that in reality nobody will be crazy or stupid enough to do it, and that in fact the more destructive the weapons at hand, the less likely that they will be used. But that man as he now is will not be able to stop using more and more polluting machines or walling up more and more areas for his own use, cutting down further and further on free space, unpolluted environment, and the uninterrupted, unadulterated play of nature - that is not a nightmare, but a sober probability. Man has emerged from mere nature, from the interplay of things that live and die without awareness, but only so far as to risk destroying the whole environment that gave him life.

There must be a change, such a change as we cannot at present foresee, that will make man able to cope without destroying his environment or walling himself in from it. Man as he is at present cannot even see where this change would come from; all we can do is tinker at the edges, reducing the amount of fuel that single engines use even as a growing world population keeps using more and more of them, stopping building on certain sites even as the need for housing grows throughout the world at large. Man is at present exactly in the condition that the ape-men were at the very beginning of the story, in the album adaptation of the movie, where Kirby, who has in the main stayed close to the movie version, added a few notices about the ape-men from Clarke's novelization; in particular the poignant and tragic note that, being unable to conceive of killing and eating the big game around them, the apes are simply "starving to death in the midst of plenty".

The problem was not with the environment or with the food, but with the minds of the apes themselves. And the problem today, to Kirby, is with the mind of man as he is: "we have a fetish for putting up walls. We like to live in houses. We like limited space. Not only that, we don't want to go out of our houses, so we decorate them, make them livable. We like all the space that we can accumulate and fence up - that's the kind of animal we are. We'll do that with the planets, when we go out. Getting out into space for us may be the worst thing that's ever happened [for the rest of the universe]". In Kirby's interview (Comics Scene) this had followed on from the statement that "man has a drive for domination" because he is probably "descended from killer baboons"; the everlasting fencing-in and hiding away from the rest of the universe is intimately, organically connected with the inborn drive for domination and the murderous instincts of the creature Man, homo sapiens; men fence-in and shut themselves off for the same reason why they once killed each other with clubs.

This judgement does not exclude Jack Kirby himself, with his own beloved house in Thousand Oaks, and he knows it. Vera Gentry's pleasant condo in #2, in whose reproduction she spends the last minutes of her life, whose hushed, late afternoon restfulness Kirby renders so well, is a charming representation of the calmer pace and even sunlit warmth of life in the West Coast, so different from the metropolitan horrors of New York; but what it does to the environment is no different. It is, in its own way, a fencing in and a destructive claim made on nature; and it too ultimately preludes to the comfortable worldwide metropolitan jail of #5, which has its own swimming pool and likes to pretend it's the ocean. To Kirby, all these manifestations of the human spirit, beautiful though they may be in themselves, do not escape the common lot of the human mind. He does not seek to escape the guilt of the common lot of man; as a Jew, and as a soldier in the army that freed Europe, he has more right than anyone to throw away from himself the most recent manifestation of the taint of the "killer baboon", the Holocaust; instead, in the same interview, he accepts the guilt of it as a member of homo sapiens. "Forty years ago, we just got through shoving people into ovens, on a very, very flimsy reason. No other [creature] did that..." and it is from this premise that he goes on to discuss walling-in, fencing-in and the accumulation of space.

There is much to be said for this view of history, and even more against it; and if I had the space, most of what I would have to say would be contrary; but it is a credible one, that can be held by a man of conscience and intellect. The aggressive nature of man, handed down in the genes from his "killer ape" ancestors like Original Sin, has been sublimated into the occupation and neutralization of space. It now is a destructive and superfluous feature, and if man is to survive there must be an evolutionary step that gets rid of it, like the evolutionary step that allowed the ape of the 2001 album to shed their inability to think except in pre-determined grooves and allowed them to feed on the big game around them. The New Seed is to man as man is to those apes, and man is now as those apes were then – in an evolutionary cul-de-sac from which no further advance seems possible, bound either to stagnate or risk self-destruction.

Kirby has taken the basic idea of a mysterious Monolith appearing when monkeys became men and again now, when man has to become something else, and has gone back to it, deepening it into a hypothetical history of mankind, detailing some fundamental steps: the separation of the thinking individual from the horde (#1), the rise of government through the agency of women (#2), the foundation of the first aggressive empire and the invention of the wheel (#3-4); all leading to the present state of society, or rather to a state of society that follows on almost necessarily from ours (#5), and from that either to the end of history (of which Kirby gives a picture that puts the glib gibberish of American academics to shame) or else to the rise of the New Seed (#7).

This picture of the past is a good deal more serious than that delivered, for instance, in Black Panther, whose history was no more than the source of a number of objects and souvenirs. Of its relevance to the realities of the past and palaeoanthropology there would be much to say - it is in many ways more mythology than history - but there can be no doubt that Kirby meant it for a credible and evolutionary picture of the rise of mankind and society. The development he describes is not limited either to the social or to the individual capabilities of man: both are shown appearing side by side by one and the same process, as the creature evolves and enters into history.

One aspect of the Kubrick movie he does not repeat: he never has a scene such as that in which the whole clan of ape-men gathers around the Monolith and listens. All the five episodes of the story represent the evolution of individuals: "he who hunts alone" and his descendant Woodrow Decker, Vira and Vera Gentry, Marak and Herb Marik, Harvey Norton, and finally the New Seed who once was Gordon Pruett. It is as well not to make too much of this: it is surely due at least in part to the fact that it would be a great deal easier for Kirby to present the life history of one individual at a time than to trace the evolution of a whole society, however small, in a seventeen-page story. But there is something else. The evolution of society that Kirby traces goes through the separation of the individual from the mass. What the individual - Beast-killer, Vira, Marak - does, affects the lives of the mass around him or her, and the picture of society in the first four issues depends on this interplay. (It is perhaps a part of the tragedy of Norton's world that he has no similar effect on his society. His lonely protest goes unheeded, with the mass simply laughing at him. Even the Comicsville manager's helpful suggestion to try the Space Programme is nothing more than a standard response, probably made to others before Norton; in the manager's view, he is "the type" who longs for real adventure - he is a member of a group, not an individual. No wonder Norton treats his suggestion with contempt.)

This is the social theme of the first two episodes, in which two individuals, a man and a woman, find themselves at odds with the shapeless hordes of their fellow men. There is something almost Ditkoesque, Ayn Randesque, about the way "the others" try to take away from "the one who hunts alone" the results of his labour, to which they are not entitled, for no other reason than that "they are hungry too"; Ditko might have written this picture of individual enterprise and collective envy. But he would not have pictured the confused tangle that follows, in which the prey is lost; to him, the noble individualist would have been bound to triumph. Kirby is not so struck by individualism as such. Certainly, the Beast-killer - or "the one who hunts alone" - is in many ways above his fellows. But he is no upstanding heroic Ditko dummy, striding in stiff-legged steps across polished landscapes; he is a smelly, hairy, squat, beetle-browed lout, with a clumsy sharp stone on a branch - he has not yet even learned the art of sharpening them, and so he had to rootle around till he found one with cutting edges. And there is nothing wrong with the remark, from his fellow men, that they are hungry too. Kirby never allows us to forget that the Beast-killer is only a little beyond the ape; and the best he can work towards, the goal of his life, is the shout with which he casts his first spear - "I will reach and I will kill!"

It is not casual that his answer in the modern age is Woodrow Decker, not on the face of it an engaging or pleasant character. You would far rather be stuck in a lift with his cheerful colleague Mason. Decker's main activity seems to be griping. He does seem more realistic than Mason about the disaster that has stranded them on an airless satellite; Mason is a stubborn optimist, who seems to believe in the duty of keeping up spirits even in the worst circumstances. But then, we do not know which of the two is in the right - Mason, believing that Mission Control will come to help them, or Decker, with his gloomy and whiny convinction that it is all over. Circumstances will in fact not allow either of them the chance to find out. Mason is attacked and killed by a living monstrosity that survived without air in the caves of an ancient ruin (this is a distant advance hint of the theme to be covered so memorably in #7, the end and annihilation of intelligent species), and Decker, who tries to save him with a rock, finds like his ancestor, the Beast-killer, that clubs or heavy rocks aren't enough if they can't cut. At the edge of space, kept alive by technology that has now failed them - and that is the lineal descendant of the clubs and spears of the Beast-killer - Decker is out of options. It is only when the human experience has reached such an absolute dead end that the Monolith appears.

The question of the relationship between the Beast-killer and his fellow-men is never resolved; though we find from the following issue that they must have imitated his invention of cutting tools, since spears and knives are now commonplace. When they have once learned how to do it, they may even have killed him, for Kirby does not imagine these ancestors of man as being given to reason and peace. In #2, war between tribes seems to be frequent, and the skulls of defeated enemies are hoarded in a cave. The relationship between human beings, except for fellow members of a horde, is one of conflict, and from the treatment that they afford Vira in the first few pages, it would seem that women are not exempt. Whether they want to rape her and kill her, to kill her and eat her, or just to kill her, we do not know, and perhaps neither does she; but she has no intention to find out. Rather than stay in the neighbourhood of these men, she is quite willing to climb to the poisoned burning top of the volcano on whose sides the horde resides. She is hungry, terrified and desperate; but the Monolith appears to her - and awakens her to the potentialities of Fear, Fear not merely of battle and death, but of the unknown and the unexpected, of all the things that do not fit into little human schemes.

Vira and "he who hunts alone" are both at odds with their contemporaries, but while the man is merely solitary, if not surly, by temperament, the woman has a more complex relationship with the tribe. It is not her instinct to be alone: it is a necessity. And while the mind of "the one who hunts alone" is turned entirely outwards - to more effective ways to hunt - hers is more alert to the feelings and views of her fellow human beings. He could not care less what they think; she pays attention, and exploits their feelings. As a result, to the end of the story we do not know what his future will be with so many enemies around him; whereas, by the end of Vira's story, she has established the future, not only of herself but of many generations of her descendants. Having recognized the fear of the unknown - not of death, but of what lies beyond death - of her enemies, she draws it on herself: she becomes herself an image of the unknown and unknowable, the image of something that looks at you but at which you cannot look. This image implies fear, because it implies something you cannot control: the gods of men, of which Vira is the first, represent all those things that men cannot reach and quantify.

Kirby's high and chivalrous respect for women - chivalry, as we will see, is to him the natural attitude of a good man to a lady - should not blind us to the meaning of this story. The male perception is the standard perception as the male is the standard human, with the word for man being the word for male; and it is by becoming as it were a living exception to the standard, by taking upon herself the images of things beyond the human, of death, dirt and change - symbolized by the skull on her head, the bones on her dress and the coloured earth on her skin - that Vira takes control of her destiny, and of that of the tribe. She has become a living image of everything that is not human, and by entering the tribe and residing among them as a living goddess, she has achieved the simple goal of safety from the "killer baboon", facing his fear with a greater one. She has also become something else; in a world in which the only distinction known was that of member of the tribe and non-member, fellow-hunter and enemy to be killed, the notions of universal standards, abstract justice, and government as a separate matter from mere group instinct, which could not find an entry so long as mere hordes were all that mankind mounted to, have come to men in her shape. She is something different from their own selves, yet she is with them; and this distinction is at the origin of a separate level in human society, existing to serve, and to some extent incarnating, universal realities beyond the merely social.

The matter of religion is worth noticing. According to Kirby, it came to the male horde the moment Vira stuck the skull of one of their dead enemies on top of a pole and smeared it with burning tar, as a makeshift weapon. Before then, we assume, the cave of skulls was not a place of religious awe; only a deposit to keep the evidence of their victories in battle. The basis of their whole attitude to it was that the skulls they piled there were now in no condition to do them harm any more; and therefore, when Vira raised one of them against them, their whole world was shattered. The unknown had become manifest among them. In these stories, the first advance on the next step is always already made before the Monolith appears, almost always by chance, and may have been made many times before. Marak had already heard of Jalessa before the Monolith showed her to him, and Norton had already received the suggestion that he might join the space program. The Beast-killer already knew that he needed a better tool than a club; and "primitive religion came to men" when Vira quite unintentionally gave the hunters the impression that the skull of an enemy long since killed could come back to fight them again. In all cases, the Monolith did not inspire the thought, but made it effective, made it a motivation upon which men could act.

What the Monolith is, who made it, or why, Kirby positively refuses to say. Narrative art can do something that philosophical debate or essay-writing cannot: it can not only leave space in itself for unanswered questions and infinite potentialities, but even give them form. Jack Kirby made better use of it than Clarke, who, in his novelization of the movie, dropped a number of hints about the dimensions and consistency of the Monolith, thus suggesting that if our understanding of its material form was deep enough, we could understand what it is and why it does what it does. All these things Kirby, who had read Clarke's novel, firmly ignored. The Monolith appears, and that's it. We are offered no insight into what it is, who made it, or what for; Kirby completely ignored the repeated demands from foolish letter-writers who wanted to be told whether an alien civilization had made it, whether it was still existent, or whether (in a letter of quite extraordinary folly) the Watcher would turn up in the series.

The one thing that is clear is that Kirby does not believe that the development of consciousness and human intelligence, the rise of man as an intelligent animal, is to be explained in material terms. "Evolution" alone, "evolution" in a materialistic sense, that is the play of atoms, molecules and cells, does not justify it. Left to themselves, his ape-men would simply have died, the victims of their own inbuilt programming that did not allow them to stalk and kill big game; the Beast-killer would simply have grumbled and carried on, caught at the end of a cul-de-sac which did not seem to offer him anything more or better than a stick of wood or a lump of stone. Something else has intruded into reality to turn the beast into a conscious creature, and then to awaken it to the meaning of its own thoughts and to the potential of the things it sees. Without this awareness man is no more than any other animal, a mere machine of flesh programmed to act in certain ways, perhaps with a simulacrum of intelligence that allows flexible behaviour within certain parameters, but certainly not with the ability to think of itself in a reflexive manner. These things have been given to man by something outside the natural order; hence the need for that mysterious object, embodying both the certainty that intelligence was not born at random, and the question - who does it come from? It appears; it gives us what we need; but it does not answer our questions about itself. Rather than describing a fact, the Monolith embodies a question.

But while the Monolith may give intelligence, it does not give single thoughts. Those are the business of man; but man, looking into the depths of the Monolith, finds the picture of his own thought staring back at him. When "he who hunts alone" awakens to the possibilities of lurking in trees and, later, of biting one's prey with a "tooth" rather than clubbing it, the thought is from himself, not from the Monolith. The Monolith might almost say of itself what Glorious Godfrey from his Forever People said of the willingness of his followers to destroy: "Men have all these things from birth! I merely justify their use of them! That is why they adore me!"

Kirby, however, does not allow us the comfortable suspicion that the Monolith may only be a symbol, a picture of the human ability to enlarge our frame of reference and awaken to previously unnoticed aspects of our world. In the cases of Norton and "he who hunts alone", it does just that, allowing ideas already existing in their minds as unnoticed notions to become efficient and working concepts. Oddly enough, it is not in the direct purpose of his heroes, in which he only awakens and makes strong thoughts and perceptions that had lain dormant in their minds, that the indisputable reality of what the Monolith is and does is revealed, but rather in the fancy touches. Marak has already heard of Jalessa, and might even one day come to the conclusion that such a queen is the only woman worthy of such a mighty bandit-king as himself; but he has never heard of space, or seen a spaceship, and the Monolith shows them to him. There is no question of him ever imagining such things: they are being shown to him by an external agency. Hence, the Monolith is an autonomous reality.

Although clearly a religious idea - even possibly a manifestation of God – the Monolith has nothing directly to do with the "birth of primitive religion" as seen by Kirby; that is an entirely autonomous process originating in the narrow minds of Vira's enemies, once the reality they knew – that dead enemies do not come back, and that dead skulls stay calmly ordered in piles – is upset to however small a degree by Vira's use of a flaming skull as a weapon. This is nothing more than superstition, with perhaps an unrealized sense of guilt about their treatment of their enemies at the back of it; but what Vira does is prompted by the Monolith, and in a sense it is the Monolith, and its emissary Vira, that appropriate and take to themselves the religious feelings so suddenly aroused in the horde by the sight of death taking a shape beyond their thoughts. And it cannot be said that this is merely a ruse or trickery of the Monolith, for the Monolith itself is the most unknown and unknowable of all realities in the universe, the most resistant to being labelled, fenced in and put away. It has its own shape and regularity, not made by man but rather making man in its own image, and its plans are far more beyond the mind of man than even the sight of a burning skull coming back to life. When the least shred of the sense of the unknowability of life, of the mystery of the world and what lies behind it, comes to men, the Monolith takes it up and casts its veil upon its prophet Vira.

Although the series is to Kirby a hypothesis, not a statement of fact, about the realities of the human experience, this has a lot to do with a Christian, and even more a Jewish, view of God. The God of the Jews is the lord of history, and acts through history according to plans which are often "strange" (Isaiah 28.21), incomprehensible even to those who love Him, often through the most appalling misfortunes and catastrophes. What purpose the God of Israel has in mind for His people is not clear even to them, but to try to build a house, a city or a world without him is folly: "unless the Lord builds up the city, the workers labour in vain" (psalm 127, Protestant numbering). In Kirby's system, there is the additional problem that the Monolith manifests itself only when it pleases, apparently unwilling to establish a permanent presence, even by way of memory, anywhere on Earth. And as it is only in the presence of the Monolith that the thoughts of men take their proper, their most purposeful form, this means that man regularly falls short of its own potential, possibly (#7) even to the point of his own self-inflicted extinction.

But men spend their time labouring to build cities with no space for the Monolith, heaping up and shutting off space, sealing off the unknown and uncontrolled reality of which it is the very image. The world of Harvey Norton is (as Gladstone called a hateful government of his time) "the denial of God raised into a system of government". And the fantasies of Harvey Norton, the easy and colourful pictures of good and evil he plays with, are at once the picture of this denial and the image of the spiritual emptiness of this life. They represent the denial of God because they stand for the attempt to create pictures of moral realities that will merely suit the age, in the service of social cohesion and even of trade; Comicsville is a commercial enterprise, and a busy and successful one. And they are a picture of the emptiness and futility of this form of life because they have nothing whatever to do with the world as it is. Villains and heroes leap upon each other in fashions that can do nothing whatsoever to shed the least light on any actual moral choice that any actual man may actually be called upon to make. They do not embody the notions of good and evil, but neutralize them. The contrast between the fragile garishness of Comicsville and the drab reality of the world outside is telling: Comicsville exists not only to make money, but to support the empty life of the ordinary man with a plastic and neutered counterfeit of moral realities. Captain Cosmic himself, the realization of the superhero dream foisted on Harvey Norton by the commercial interests of his world, is an image not of the power, but of the impotence and emptiness of this notion of moral goodness.

The episode of Captain Cosmic points to one of the most remarkable aspects of this series: the apparent lack of attention to moral issues, at least as they would be understood by most of us - and by most comic books. Captain Cosmic, the image of goodness triumphant in a well-ordered world, is a delusion, and Kirby seems to satirize, even to make ridiculous, the very picture of the battle of good and evil within the organized society of our day. The Captain is never even seen fighting; he embodies the assertion of the metropolitan way of life of Harvey Norton, triumphant not over anything - because there is nothing real to be fought - but simply in having accomplished everything that the descendant of the killer baboon set out to accomplish. The very picture of good and evil in which Norton takes part is a mere tactic of societal self-reinforcement; the purpose of dressing Harvey Norton in this uniform is to give him a sense of triumph, of spiritual achievement and fulfilment, within the context of his life. The drab and regular city of his experience is transfigured into a splendid vision of spires and open skies, the unreal dream of a city planner intent on regulating and fencing in space and trying to convince himself that he will not by this destroy the very sense of freedom and openness he is trying to preserve.

From the point of view of Kirby's career, this is a startling position to take. The King of the super-heroes, creator of more costumed characters than anyone else, who used superhero characters to embody some of his most profound thoughts - is he saying that the likes of Eternals and Fourth World are mere worthless escapism? Perhaps not; but certainly as a part of a mere structure of satisfaction of immediate needs, taking the mind away from the realities of life into an unreal world of false good and evil.

But the whole notion of good and evil as absolutes is, in 2001, at least problematic. There can be no doubt, for instance, that Marak is, by any standards, a villain. He starts out as a bandit chief, a man whose activity is to assault and rob farming villages, and, on top of it, destroy their men to the last; from beginning to end, what he is doing is killing, enslaving, subduing men. In reworking the then-contemporary cliche' of Conan the Barbarian (already out of fashion as I write), Kirby has completely swept away and done away with all the feeble excuses and slanted presentations that allowed Conan - like other brutish heroes such as Judge Dredd - to pretend that he had a reason for what he did other than to steal and to kill; he has completely de-glamourized violence. And yet it is through this murderous creature that one strand of mankind's future passes.

Are we to conclude therefore that the dichotomy good-evil does not matter, compared with the process of history? That the progress and evolution of mankind are, by themselves, worth all the blood that Marak sheds and all the evil he does? Not necessarily. For one thing, there can be little doubt that the personal evolution of Marak himself is to be understood as a journey from destruction to constructive purpose. If he had gone on being merely a raider, however gifted, he would eventually have swept the country around himself clean, and either had to settle down in the despised occupation of farmer or just slowly starve to death. (Or both.) Tying his destiny to that of Jalessa, he becomes the force by which more and more of the surrounding country becomes bound to her wise and beneficent government, which Egel's technology will allow to work more swiftly and with far greater power.

What, I think, Kirby's story has to say, is that the world in which Marak lived made it, if not inevitable, at least very likely that he would grow into what he did. Born among peaceful but sluggish farming communities, he found himself - surely from childhood - in conscious possession of a vigorous dynamic personality, a startling talent for leading and inspiring men, and a peculiar aptitude for strategy and organization, able both to form a great plan and to take in the slightest details (#3,p.23: "Marak seems to be everywhere at once. Nothing escapes his keen eye or his authoritative voice..."). These are positive talents; first Egel, then Jalessa quickly recognize them, as indeed his men already had, leaving whatever farming community had borne them to follow him to war. But in the world he was born in, such talents had no purpose except to lead men to take other people's property. Marak has nothing to fight for and no task to accomplish; he has only himself. But once he had learned how to use his talent for strategy, the rest of his land had no answer to him. They could only wall themselves up with timber walls and wait in fear; while he, a wolf among sheep, would always strike when and where they least expected him.

The rest of his society has nothing to give such a man except prey. He becomes their enemy, and they his. He quickly learns that the only way he can be safe from vengeance is if he leaves nobody alive to take it: "a dead enemy cannot strike back" is what he teaches his men. They follow him because in his shadow they grow taller, they share in his power. Instead of toiling farmers bound to the soil and the season, with no purpose of their own except fill their bellies and die, they now are men who rule destiny, whose actions change the world. They also share in the excitement of common danger and of blood-lust in battle; but what most ties them to their leader is a sense that they, as "warriors of Marak", are above the common run of men. As for him, he strongly feels that there is something more than his abilities own about his run of luck: "Destiny protects us! We are meant to survive all dangers!" (#3 p.11). What this destiny is, he does not seem to know; but perhaps this ability to believe in reasons other than himself allows him to open himself to the Monolith when he meets it. It is in the service of a woman that he finally begins to use his powers in a constructive way.

Marak was able to influence and change the world he lived in by the inborn magic of his swift mind and - something not to be disregarded - his great size and handsome presence. When we first meet him, he is still a young man, at most in his thirties, his face lined but vigorous, his long hair raven with not a white strand or bald patch. And these are not merely standard features of comic-book barbarians: Kirby has gone out of his way to characterize the rest of his raiders as visibly individual, human and not necessarily impressive. There are receding hairlines and long manes, poorly shaven and poorly grown moustaches and beards, and beards that are full and flowing; some bald pates and some evident louts. He has carefully avoided making them into ideal or impressive people, and as he has made some of them recognizable - such as the one who always wears a bearskin - we come to understand that these are individuals, people like you and I. Which makes their attitude to other men ("I would take their heads now!", says one) even more shocking and terrible.
It is out of such material that history is made. Marak does not have a band of heroes to direct; he motivates and spurs a band of very ordinary and not very intelligent males. He is himself something more than ordinary, but he is no less than they the product of his own environment. And when we say "cruel" and "terrible", we must never forget that in other times and in other societies, he might have been far less destructive and more useful; like his descendant Herb Marik, who is at once the most admirable and the most limited representative of the current world.

Herb Marik's being is peculiarly suited to the present state of human development; he lives very well in the world as it is, and even about his heroic self-sacrifice there is a certain sense of lack of imagination and potential. He seems not to fear death, not because he is willing to give his life for the greater good, but because his imagination does not comprehend its horror as do those of Woodrow Decker and Vera Gentry. He efficiently sends all those of his crew who can be saved to safety, but in order to do that he has to use all available transport and stay on board the doomed space station until it is too late to escape. When his time is done, he sits back and waits for the end with no regret or anger, more like an animal - if a splendid animal - than an embodied spirit. There is nothing about him that regrets to die; there is even a hint that he is satisfied with "a spectacular end for a tired old warhorse". Even in the paradise created for him by the Monolith, his sight does not see beyond death: "I shall stay here until the last breath leaves my body!!". And then? He neither knows nor cares.

Herb Marik is perfectly at ease with the idea of being an animated being subject to death, not interested in any perspective beyond it. Even after the Monolith's intervention, he will die, and on the day of his death the environment created for him - and even the wonderful girl - will vanish. It cannot be said that it was, in a material sense, an illusion, for the omnipotent Monolith has made it as real as Herb's past life on Earth and on the space station; but it is delusory in a deeper sense - it does not correspond to the nature of the greater universe around it. The fact that it will vanish when Marik does corresponds to Marik's lack of prospective beyond the day of his own death: his own world dies with him. And the fact that even the animated simulacrum of a girl, a living image instead of a real person, is the satisfaction of all his dreams, places a serious question over his relationship with other human beings: he is happier, it seems, in the company of a flat enactment of his own sexual desires, everlastingly beautiful and willing, than in that of a real person, unexpected, stubborn, impossible to reduce to your own desires, subject to change and full of her own plans.

In this, the story of Herb Marik is the exact opposite of that of Harvey Norton. There is nothing of the sexual fantasy about Norton's female interest - indeed, as she belongs to a different species, any sexual contact is quite out of the question. They cannot even talk. On the other hand, she is the most perfect embodiment possible of the reality of another individual, of a person with her own life, her own purposes, her own views, irreducible to your own; and Norton throws himself into her service with no less single-minded commitment than Herb Marik shows in accepting his own dream-world. Norton's story had actually started with a misadventure in the field: Norton had asked the dream factory of Comicsville to supply him with a living image of his own dream princess, but, unlike Marik's, this had been an unmitigated, fat disaster. It is worth however noticing that even then the story he had wanted enacted was not, unlike Marik's, one of personal fulfilment and lifelong satisfaction, but one of service: he fought and risked his life to save his princess from a villain. Clumsy though this dream is, and, as Kirby underlines, full of cliches, it is one whose heart is not placed in the dreamer himself, or in the satisfaction of present and material needs, but in the service of something outside himself.

And Herb Norton's problem is that he is not allowed scope for his willingness to live for others in the very organized society, the world of over-rational and over-organized exchange in which he lives. There is no space for willingness, for generosity, for going beyond the mere satisfaction of individual needs. This is Herb Marik's world without Herb Marik's breadth (for there is no doubt that, of his own particular kind of man, Marik is the best possible specimen). But there is some significance in that Norton's adventure, and Norton's princess, has more in common with Marak's quest for Jalessa than has Marik's. There is even a close similarity between the first appearance of the "princess", with her beautiful long eyes heavily ringed with black and her long brows born down on them in a sort of royal frown (#5,p.30), and the challenging frown on Jalessa's face in Marak's Monolith-inspired vision (#3,p.15). And Norton, like Marak, takes what is, in a very curious way, the very role of the serving knight of a great lady, fighting for her and in her service. He hardly bothers, and nor do we, to find out who is in the wrong in the war she is fighting; all that matters is that she is alone against great dangers, and therefore the only side he can take is hers.

The chivalrous ideal of the proper relationship of men and women seems deeply ingrained in Kirby's mind. There is no other positive relationship between the sexes presented in this story: the alternative seems to be only between service and rape - as we are to see finally, tragically, in #7, where a man appears from nowhere to save (briefly) a young woman who is about to be raped by a group of men. Part of Kirby's instinctive chivalry is his instinctive propriety; the notion of a woman hunted and threatened by men is, both here and in the Vira episode, quite clear, with all that is dangerous and hateful about it - and yet there is nothing of the slobber that goes almost inevitably with scenes of attempted rape by other cartoonists. He seems to seriously believe that women do not want to be raped, and that that, and not the shape of their breasts or the colour of their naked skin, is the purpose of drawing such scenes. It is something genuinely hateful and frightening, and we are - for a moment, only for a moment - relieved to see the rescuer leap from nowhere and disperse the gang.

But there is another side to it: the rescuer is himself a man of violence, cruel and relentless. Mixed with the beauty and depth of love between man and woman, the chivalrous ideal also means violence and victims, and is mixed up with the relentless cycle of hatred and destruction that has doomed this planet. There is no going back. Kirby once gave a memorable description of a self-destructive state of society: "a snake's nest. In a snake's nest, nothing can survive. Eventually all the snakes kill each other. Eventually, they'll also kill whatever generated them." This - in spite of the love, the heroism, and what the New Seed, witnessing it, calls their potential for greatness - is the essence of what the mankind of #7 has been doing to itself. In some deep level of the common experience, going back through the Nortons and the Mariks and the Vera Gentrys back to the Jalessas and the Maraks and the Beast-Killers, there is the snake: the merely destructive beast, the monster that will destroy everything that made him. It is bred into man from the beginning - "I will reach and I will kill!" - because of the needs of his environment; it conditions the way men act to each other, from the mere ferocity of Vira's enemies to the violent chivalry of the nameless hero in #7. And an aspect of it is the human resolution to fence in and exploits every corner they can reach - at the end of which man find, like Harvey Norton, that he has locked himself in. Now a new step is needed: the barriers have to come down, the violence to be bred out of the race. It is even possible that the chivalrous instinct might die, along with the violence that seems connaturated to it: from all that we are allowed to see, the New Seeds are apparently sexless, and the problems and opportunities generated by the existence of two sexes may not affect them.

Such unforgettable word-pictures as the snake's nest with its inevitable destructiveness are also an indication of the most important thing to be understood about Kirby's genius. Kirby thinks in stories. Now most of us think in argument; whether we do it well or badly, we think in terms of premises, points to make, logical inferences, necessary conclusions. Nothing is more symptomatic of this than the general distrust of putting a "moral" – any "moral" – to a story; for it is felt that storytelling is a different sort of thing from proof and description. Only argument, with facts given as evidence, can establish solid facts. But to Kirby's mind, the whole interpretation of life and experience was narrative. Three great writers, C.S.Lewis, Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss, might meet and agree that you never start from a moral, but from a situation; but Kirby would not have understood the difference. To him, the situation is the moral. You might say that you cannot build a story from the Fifth Commandment; an artist such as Kirby would answer "why not?". To us, the words "thou shalt not kill" are as it were separate from any narrative context, they are an abstract statement of values to be discussed in a rational manner; but to someone like Kirby, they cannot be separated from the concrete fact of killing and its effect on the world at large, on people and things. Far from being an omily, "thou shalt not kill" is the dynamic centre of a story, perhaps like Cain's.

There are a few artists, such as the theatre composer Giuseppe Verdi and the playwright Eugene O'Neill, who have given modern critics all sorts of problems. We know they are great, that they overwhelm us; and at the same time, we cannot point to any single feature of their styles or even of their constructive abilities and say, there, that's genius. Eugene O'Neill has been called "a great genius with very little talent"; his language is overcharged, his characters melodramatic, his English style undistinguished. And Vaughan Williams said of Verdi (and he was not the only one to say it): "[he uses] such discredited devices as the diminished seventh...[his music] is melodramatic, uninventive, at times almost cheap. And yet it is great." Try to listen to Toscanini's Otello, or watch Long Day's Journey into Night with Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn and Jason Robards; and then come and tell me they are not earth-shaking experiences. Remind you of anyone?

These men, like Kirby, did not care for technique. Verdi positively refused to discuss the technical aspects of his music-making, and every time he allowed himself a remark about musicianship as such, he immediately made a face and said "what piffle! what pretentious nonsense I'm speaking!". To him, as to O'Neill, as to Kirby, the truth was in the story, and everything – poetry, music, singing, orchestra - was there to serve the story. Kirby's mind is narrative. And in 2001 he has, as nowhere else, employed his talents to weave a complex narrative structure, full of inner echoes and variations, that embodies a profound and complex philosophy.

Jack Kirby was a Yiddish Jew of East European origin, and he gave a very interesting answer to the question why Jews had been so successful in the artistic professions in America: "Jewish artists and writers were those people who lived by the stories told to them by their relatives. I was that way myself. My elders were storytellers; they loved to tell stories, which they had brought with them from Europe, and those stories always intrigued me, and I began to conceive my own..." Now, I know very little about the Yiddish tradition of storytelling, except that it exists; but I have read a collection of fables by a famous Chassidic Rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, whose spiritual import was such that they were collected and published by no less a person than the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. And it is clear to me that Rabbi Nachman, like Kirby, thought in fables: he does not give any moral to his stories, since the moral is in the story itself. And they are very good stories, too. The heritage of a great religion, I believe, must have ennobled this narrative tradition and made it capable of carrying even profound meanings; and my guess is that it is from something like the tradition of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav that Jack Kirby came.

And now it really is time for the critic to be silent for a while and allow Jack Kirby to speak; Jack Kirby, who was Jacob Kurtzberg, who was notoriously clumsy with English dialogue, whose articles and interviews were sometimes so obscure and clumsy as to seem half-witted.

"Violence begets greater violence, and, in ever-mounting fury, blossoms like a death-flower until it finally engulfs a world. Thus, the new seed witnesses the sad history of this planet... It is far easier to stop the rising sun, than hatred unleashed! It is impossible to stay the hand that holds victory in its clenched fist... In this place there is nothing more certain than a miserable end...
"And yet, there has been love here... and the steel will to protect it -- the vain hope of nurturing it in the last agonies of a suicidal world. But it is much too late for what was good on this planet. Death is now the master here! He rules by "right of holocaust"! Those on the point of dying obey his whims with their final breath...
"No chance... no chance for tender roots to cling to soil which now rejects all life! The new seed watches destiny close the book on a tragic cycle...
"The end of love is the end of all things. For this world, the drama is almost over... Seconds later, the play is finished. History has been cancelled. Eternal silence replaces its fading echoes!
"Is this the universal will? Does life struggle to evolve, and race madly to a cut-off point? It cannot be so... it cannot be a process without reason... any more than the new seed can exist without reason...
"Find the reason for being and unlock the secrets of the universe! To do this, there must be life -- there must be a living will to seek..."


Never mind the few stylistic infelicities - in particular the unnecessary addition in ever-mounting fury in the first sentence, and the equally unnecessary He rules by "right of holocaust", both of which we could have done without: the flame of this climax burns so brightly such that such minor flaws are hardly noticeable. Practically no other word could be dispensed with; every one of them tells. With all its imperfections on its head, this is stupendous English, the best I have ever read in comics, among the best of the century; and to have it from a notorious bungler of dialogue and prose is like nothing so much as a Biblical miracle. "You shall open my mouth, o Lord"; "the tongue of the dumb shall sing". Kirby's tongue does indeed sing. Speak it aloud, this is music. The proper comparison is not even with Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, but with the great stylists of literature: it has the brazen magnificence and instinctive rhetorical power of a Churchill, the inner nobility and angry passion of an Orwell, the poetic rhythm and dignity of a W.H.Auden.

There is much that I had to leave out of this article; I will not even try to analyze the splendour of the art, the pacing, the appropriateness of camera angles, the way in which captions, dialogue (which I haven't reproduced) and illustrations interact, the narrative process in the hands of a master. These things would take too much time - several pages could be written about the three climactic pages of #7 alone - and the point here is not to analyze Kirby's mastery of the medium, which we may all take for granted. The point is his work in this particular series: what he was trying to say, and how the message affected the way he told it.

As the few flaws left over in the fire show, the greatness of this passage is not the result of serious study of the skill of prose writing in and of itself, but rather the result of the employment of a powerful mind in a mighty theme. These words come naturally to Kirby, contemplating the hideous possiblity that mankind might come to an end; that love and the possiblity of love might be destroyed; that history itself might not just end but be cancelled; that everything that human beings may have been and done may as well never have been. Kirby valued people. When asked if there was a running theme in his work, something of which he might say "this is what I write about", he answered without hesitation: "Yes. It is one word: people. I've always loved people, people have always been a part of my life. I think people are very valuable..." When facing the real possibility that this central issue of his world, the life and the meaning of the life of individuals, might be destroyed and be as if it had never been, his language rises like an eagle, shaped by the strenght of his emotions.

This is the final answer to the question whether the moral categories of good and evil have any relevance to this particular story: yes they have. Kirby has presented a pageant of human life in various circumstances and settings, and the kid from the Lower East Side has shown that, under certain conditions, that good natural talents might be turned to evil purposes or simply rot away in isolation is almost inevitable. But there is no suspicion at all that, just because of that, the human possessors of these talents – or indeed their victims – might matter a jot less. The sullen anger and terror of the row of Marak's prisoners in #3 p.23 assert their individuality and their individual importance, and it is in the recognition of their usefulness as people that Marak, protecting them against the fury of his own men, makes his first steps towards becoming a useful human being.

The assertion of the ultimate value of human beings - in the face of murderous conditions, of the power of circumstance and destiny, of death itself - is the point of making this comic in the first place; it is in the telling of the story, and in the voice in which it is told, that Kirby asserts them. Why was this comic made in the first place? It was not an obvious commercial proposition; Stanley Kubrick's movie had been released seven years before, and its long silent periods, deliberate lack of explanation and heavy reliance on music did not seem to particularly encourage adaptation to comics. The only possible reason is that the film adaptation and ongoing series was part of the deal of Jack Kirby's return; that he particularly wanted to work on it. There was a story there he wanted to tell. And the story is that of the relationship of man with his environment and with the Ultimate; the same issues, after all, that his only equal - Hayao Miyazaki - treated in his own masterpiece.

A postscript: I am on record, not once but several times, as saying that Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the valley of wind is the greatest comic ever done. If Jack Kirby had been allowed to finish his own great epic, there can be no doubt that he would have achieved something of comparable value; but, as so often, he was shot down in mid-flight. Miyazaki owns and controls his own work; Kirby did not; and therefore, while Miyazaki only has to be concerned with pleasing the public, Kirby had to please the business bureaucracy of the companies he worked for. And there weren't that many who could grasp the greatness of what he was doing, while he was doing it. The present moment, the present crisis, the next week's figures, always tended to take precedence over longer-range and less financially quantifiable concerns. It was only years after, contemplating the still-smouldering ruins of a Fourth World, a Captain America, an Eternals, and many smaller but still unique efforts, that even some of those who had taken part in their destruction could find themselves thinking "if only...". What career was more successful than that of Jack Kirby, "the King"? and yet, what career was more terribly, more disastrously frustrated? Think of any of his discontinued series; think what he might have achieved if he had been on it as long as he was on Fantastic Four, or even on Kamandi; and you will have the conclusive and unanswerable argument against big business comics companies and work-made-for-hire.

The first seven issues of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are the only series in his later career not shot out from under him before completion. Fortunately, they are also the best of his period, and perhaps the most perfect piece of work he ever did. If I ever have the chance, I will make a proper study of it; for the present, I have to end this series with this brief and inadequate dash across the surface of a piece of work that, in spite of its comparative brevity, calls forth more thought than almost any other comic ever made.
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