The Ultimate Trip

This afternoon’s post features Jack Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A dozen years ago from our perspective and an eight-year-old movie in 1976. The appearance of this Marvel Treasury Special would be like releasing a comics version of Revenge of the Sith or the Spike Jonze Hitch-Hiker’s Guide now. Yet again, this was a Treasury that I bought on ebay almost three years ago.

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The splash page depicts the Monolith and the beginning of “the journey of Man”. All the glorious Fourth World hyperbole is here: “There are sights you’ve got to see to which you will marvel (sic)”
Part One is the saga of Monwatcher the Man-Ape. The “New Rock” and “communication from the Infinite”  recall both New Gods and Devil Dinosaur
– a kid-friendly Marvel series that’s still a couple of years in the future.

Part Two: the Thing on the Moon recalls Kamandi’s “Thing that Grew on the Moon”. It features a Kirby Kollage of the space shuttle and the wheel in space
and the King’s idiosyncratic emphasis: ” I’ll bet you’re glad to SHAKE those questions, eh Doc?”
There is  a Moonscape collage, a  huge spash of the rocket bus and a double-page spread of  “Mineral City”. Since this format allows for a cinematic scale, there are more splash pages for the Tycho crater sequence.
In Part 3: Ahead Lie the Planets, we witness the drama of Frank, Dave and HAL. Frank’s death is quite undramatic in Kirby’s hands. More creativity is expended on a  Jupiter collage. However, Bowman lobotomises HAL in a violently red splash page.

Part 4: The Dimension Trip and  the Birth of a “New One”.
Kirby uses six pages to render the “alien display…of cosmic majesty” and “kaleidoscopic madness”. There’s something endearing about the crude renditions of the  trip through the Monolith. The “immaculate room” is rendered in blues and yellows as Bowman is cocooned in “celestial softness” before the “New One” is glimpsed surveying a planet. Many of the themes explored by Kirby at Marvel and DC are revisited here: evolution, alien intervention and genetic engineering.

A rather ugly and slapdash typewritten addendum announces a  “star-spanning series” of 2001. At the time, I missed the first half-dozen issues of this freewheeling Outer Limits-style sci-fi showcase: a tentacled space monster (shades of John Koenig!); Vira the cave woman; the invention of the wheel and Norton, the comic book fan and his space princess.

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I  finally caught up with the series in the autumn of 1977 with  Mr. Machine. Back then,I felt this was a hokey retread of the journey of the Vision, Thomas and Buscema’s anguished android, leavened with the Druid’s flying eggs from SHIELD and another of Kirby’s occultist secret societies: rehashed 60s leftovers.

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Future Defenders scripter and Foom editor, rock dude Dave Kraft offers a “Space Retrospective” essay at the end of the comic. This is the kind of Big Boy literary affectation which impressed me as a teen. He tells how he was “unimpressed…(he) wasn’t ready” for the movie on his first viewing- just as I was left baffled by a BBC showing one frigid Hogmanay in 1981 or 1982.

Kraft accurately describes the film as a detached and impersonal non-verbal experience. Tellingly though, he derides the “garish frenzy ” thus: “heralded as the cinematic equivalent of a psychedelic trip by those who have obviously never experienced one”.

And that encapsulates what this comic represents to me: the cosmic themes of Silver Age Marvel colliding with the Kozmic counter-culture of the Bronze Age.

Next: The Rockets’ Red Glare
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Puny Parker and mild-mannered Clark Kent

Today’s post- the first for some time-returns to my reviews of the Treasuries and Tabloids published by Marvel and DC in the Seventies.The Superman/Spider-Man team-up is another late addition to my collection: an online purchase from a year or so ago. Yet again, this was not a comic that I ever saw for sale anywhere in Lanarkshire in 1976.

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It’s easy nowadays to forget how groundbreaking this inter-company crossover was. Yes, there had been nods to the characters from the rival companies in the past, largely in the form of parody, whether that was Not Brand Ecch or Inferior Five– or even the more sophisticated playfulness of the Englehart/Wein/Conway Rutland Hallowe’en stories. But this was the first time that two of the most recognisable heroes from the Big Two actually met- and brawled, in true Marvel style.

The tabloid is promoted as the “Battle of the Century”, a “Duel of Titans”. The prologue features a clash between Superman and Luthor’s giant robot. It’s very redolent of the rather corny, childish milieu of Seventies Superman and  jock sports presenter Steve Lombard’s bucket of water prank is a groan-worthy scene. There’s also a cringe-making reference to “Truth, Justice and the Terran Way”. You can see why the Gothic horror and grotesque criminals of Gotham propelled Batman to the status of fandom’s darling.

The sequence that follows depicts Spidey taking down Doc Ock and his Flying Octopus. The campery of that gimmick aside, this is recognisably the Peter Parker of the Conway/Andru era- he’s even wearing the ghastly Xmas sweater I remember from the Jackal storyarc.  Conway’s JJJ- like a lot of Merry Gerry’s  high-status charcters -seems, alarmingly,  on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Surprisingly, it takes nearly fifty pages before the duel of titans to  take place. The story then takes on a global scope: from Kilimanjaro to the long-unseen satellite of the JLA’s Injustice Gang. There’s a sly gag about seeing “too many Bond movies” as the Ock/Luthor team unleash a series of natural disasters from the orbiting Skylab- er, Comlab. Supey’s god-like Bronze Age Kryptonian powers avert a tsunami and the adventure ends with the suggestion that Parker has guessed Clark Kent’s secret.

Despite the melodramatic and corny story, the tabloid has great charm, scale and colour. It’s a perfect all-ages book: the camaraderie of the heroes (and the villains!) would be hard to imagine in a modern teaming of , say, Woverine and Batman (which would probably be a ten-issue “event” with multiple tie-ins).

Conway’s long tenures on JLA and the LSH weren’t favourites of mine during the late 70s-early 80s. I found his writing shrill and formulaic compared to Englehart, Claremont- even Wein. However now, in  middle age, I can appreciate his craftsmanship more. This is an entertaining popcorn comic with a timeless quality that makes it suitable for a wide audience, even for modern kids.

Coming soon : Jack and Stan (Kubrick, that is) 

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