Kirby’s Technological Sublime

Above is a close-up of the original pencil scan of panel 4 from page 14 of Jack’s 2001: A Space Odyssey # 1 (Dec 1976). A little blurry, but that is the best scan I have. I hope all of you checked out the Tom Spurgeon/Charles Hatfield interview. The whole discussion is great and there is much to comment on. Here’s a section I really enjoyed because Charles has done a great job of eloquently verbalizing an aspect of Jack’s style that has always resonated with me — what Charles calls “Kirby’s technological sublime.”

Charles Hatfield:

…his habit of using technological metaphors — that awestruck SF mode he internalized as a kid — to depict what he called “the maximum state,” that is, extreme states, extreme conditions: transformation, transfiguration, epiphany, apocalypse, self-annihilation, rebirth. Kirby is constantly gesturing toward the ineffable, toward the place where rationalism fails, where words are rendered pitiful, halting, inadequate, where all of us re-experience the young child’s sense of being overawed, and stunned, by the grandeur and terror of the universe. He clearly loved, though I think also feared, technology’s capacity to unlock experiences the likes of which we’ve never had before. Essentially, he used SF to channel a spiritual feeling, one in which sublime fear renders us slack-jawed, overborne. I see a lot of this in Kirby, this tendency for the story and art to strive together toward the inexpressible.

This is one of my favorite Jack Kirby pages that I think sums up that whole paragraph: from 2001: A Space Odyssey # 1 (Dec 1976), a scan of the uninked pencils and a scan of the published image. I have a scan of the original art in my files somewhere but I couldn’t find it. If anyone else has that scan, please send it in.

I think this is a classic example of an “awestruck” Kirby character having his mind blown, achieving what Charles calls a distinctively Kirby-esque “maximum state.” The thing I love about this page is that in addition to the remarkable craftsmanship of the entire page as a whole (the wonderful contrast in each panel, the balance of all 4 panels together, and the extraordinarily faithful Royer inks), I love the fact that you have an entire chapter (or you could argue an entire story) on this single page.

In panel one: the outer-space-exploring astronaut Decker is flung out into the universe (or some kind of expressionistic, abstract, Kirby-psychedelic realm of expanding consciousness) like a sperm cell streaming towards death, rebirth, or something altogether different. Still in his space suit, the character flies through the panel upwards, right by the reader, with a firework display of comets rocketing behind him. Plenty of Kirby crackle, Jack’s distinctive way of portraying the living energy of the cosmos. Decker reaches forward, partially in fear, partially in awe of what he sees before him. The Monolith has chosen Decker to go through an “experience beyond his knowledge,” a transcendental journey. This phase can also be looked upon as a necessary stage in every life — the moment where a cataclysmic  life-altering (or even life-extinguishing) challenge must be faced, and Decker (or you the reader) are launched on that inevitable journey when you are probably not yet prepared for it.

In panel two: Jack changes the angle so instead of watching Decker fly past, now we are behind Decker. We are with him. We can see his POV. Jack writes in the caption box: “Decker streaks through time and space… through galaxies and island universes, where sights that stagger the mind assault the senses!” We can only imagine the terror on Decker’s face at this point; if our eye glances down to panel four we can get a hint. In that way you could argue all these panels work together. We see different angles of the same experience happening at once, but they are also snapshots of the event happening in chronological order.

In panel three: Jack pulls back and gives us a long-shot. Decker is a tiny little piece of dust hurling towards the giant one-eyed monster. We can see here one tiny example of the grandeur, the massive  scope and scale of the cosmic vistas and incomprehensible visions Decker is propelling past.

Then in panel four: Jack zooms in underneath Decker for a close-up. You have the classic Kirby screaming face, expressing what Hatfield describes as a “young child’s sense of being overawed, and stunned, by the grandeur and terror of the universe.” Note that Jack has the face upside down, further enhancing what Jack calls, in the caption box, the “trauma” and “visual battering of the spectacle.” Jack has taken the astronaut Decker who at first was merely exploring outer space and sent him on totally different journey, one beyond the rules of physical science and technology. This page is a perfect example of Jack using the Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey mythos to explore his own vision of a cosmic transformation. Here, Jack worked within the constraints of that storyline to produce something truly visually awesome and unique.