May 7, 2015

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 72: 2001: A Space Odyssey #5, April 1977


When I first started reading the Harry Potter series, shortly after the fourth book came out, I found myself getting annoyed with the repetitive Harry vs. some aspect of Voldemort stories. I felt like it was a bit of a cop-out to have the same confrontation taking place over and over through progressively longer and longer pieces of fiction. It was only after I had it explained to me that that confrontation was the very point of the whole series that I was able to reconfigure the way I was looking at the stories and see them as a whole.

I keep hoping to have a similar revelation in this comic series, but I just don't think it's going to happen.

That said, the opening of this comic is one of the most wonderfully metatextual pieces of comics I've ever read. As the adventure is taking place in the panels, the captions offer not simply commentary or exposition, but this: "The race against time is inevitable. Each hero strains his every faculty to effect the last minute rescue...it is a time-honored tradition!" To this point in the story, it's not quite clear why the narrative voice of the captions is drawing our attention to the constructedness of the adventure, but it's eventually explained by Harvey Norton's visit to "Comicsville," an interactive adventure emporium.

(A brief note: my copy of this comic has a torn cover that completely removes the facade of "Comicsville" you can see on that cover, so I really had no idea what was going on when I first read this issue.)

What's more interesting, I think, about this metafictional moment is that it's Jack Kirby writing it. The tropes he references, the traditions he highlights....he created them. Or, at least, had a large role in their propagation and proliferation. It's easy for a contemporary comics writer to draw our attention to the conventions of the superhero genre, but that writer is doing so from a perspective very similar to that of his or her reader. Superheroes are something that we have grown up with, so we can recognize and appreciate the attention to these conventions. But Kirby is one of a select few who draw attention to these conventions because he had a fundamental place in their creation. If we were to look back to the earliest Captain America comics, it's likely we would see some of these conventions already fully-formed.

So what is Kirby doing with this piece? The whole of 2001, up to this point, has been about moving past the restrictions of the past (or the present) and into the possibility of the future. So is the metatextual moment of this comic a celebration or a denigration? The story moves fairly rapidly from completely fabricated superhero narrative to real adventure in a science fiction setting. In some respects, then, we could read this as a commentary on the proliferation of superhero comics and their subjugation of other genres within the medium. That White Zero/Norton encounters the Monolith within his superheroic fantasy, an encounter that spurs him to leave that fantasy and live a real adventure certainly seems to be a critical look at the superhero genre. It's hard to say, but it makes me want to read some of Kirby's other work from this era to see if the argument I've just laid out can be upheld.

That aside, the story really is the same one we've read in the last 4 issues. The twist in this one is that the story takes place in the far-flung future of 2040 A.D., and Norton actually refers to the Monoliths that appeared 40 years in his past. We are witnessing a future that exists after the advents of the various New Seeds, both the Bowman-seed of the film and the Kirby-penned ones of the previous issues. And it's not a nice future. This begs the question of what the whole point of the evolution of humanity at this point in time is supposed to accomplish if the majority of humankind is consigned to "a vast community sheltered by an astrodome" to keep out the smog that "years of apathy have allowed...to thicken until it remains to foul the air for centuries to come." It's just the New Seeds who get to flit about in the stars while everyone else continues to suffer on Earth.

The fact that, three issues from now, Kirby changes the focus of the book, gives us Machine Man, and then cancels this title and spins off into a new title makes me think that maybe he was asking this question as well, and didn't have a great answer. Or, as was long his wont, he just got tired of telling one kind of story and moved on to another.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow for a bit more of "Norton of New York, 2040 A.D."

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