The final* frontier (or “Remember: this book is called…”)
The last three issues of 2001: A Space Odyssey are even less connected to the source material than the previous seven. I know that seems impossible considering that if there’s one thing that unifies this little known chestnut from the Kirby Kloset, it’s that ol’ Jolly Jack clearly didn’t quite grasp the material, and therefore had no idea how to expand the universe of the movie.
Whether it was an intentional swan song; a genuine attempt at furthering the concepts in the movie; or at its most benign, the launch of a new character – Kirby abandoned even attempting to suss out what a 2001… comic might be, and went with what he knew. This manifested itself in X-51, or as he’s more commonly known, Machine Man.
Both of the people who read this column might remember that, way back in part one of this exploration of a four-color nadir, I mentioned that I had no idea that a continuing …Space Odyssey book was even attempted – and I know some pretty obscure shit! I “discovered” it when I looked up the origin of Machine Man in the Marvel Comics Encyclopedia. A double check on Wikipedia confirmed it. Somebody, somewhere, sometime thought it was a good idea to transition 2001: A Space Odyssey from the realm of contemplative, cerebral scifi, to straight up rock ‘em, sock ‘em superheroics.
Machine Man is one of those crazy concepts that plays beautifully to comics fans, but not so much to people with a tangential relationship with the medium. So if you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry. In fact, my only recollection of Machine Man was an issue of Marvel Two-In-One I had when I was a kid. He was this B-level, perhaps even lower, character – a robot with extendable limbs, and mechanisms in his fingertips that would open up so he could communicate with computers and/or pick electronic locks. He was the IT guy in the Marvel Universe.
Actually, issue 8, though as ham-fisted and wtf-worthy as the previous issues, is a good start to a superhero origin story by way of Isaac Asimov. Ironically, it’s the only issue that hits on a basic idea the movie: the implications of true AI. The government’s “X” series robots (of which there are 51, get it?) are like a lot of major appliances – many of them go haywire after continuous use. After one too many “incidents”, Uncle Sam decides, “Enough of this shit! Twiki, you’ve got to fuckin’ die!”
The exception is X-51, or Aaron Stack. His father, a professor of robotics, and partial creator of the screwy robots, raised him to be conscious of is robotitude, but accepted him as a “son.” The bomb inside of Aaron is activated on the day “dad” is giving him his latex, human face, and sending him out into the world to be a man – a “bot”-mitzvah, if you will.
He also takes the bullet (bomb) for his “son,” but I don’t quite understand why. Sure, better storytellers would fill the void with plot, or exposition, or motivated action… or perhaps an explanation of how the explosion from the robot at the beginning of the story leaves the soldiers attacking him — AT POINT BLANK RANGE — virtually unscathed and still quite able to spout terrible dialog, while the blast from just a couple more exploding robots level a military installation… or why, even if it’s a very localized, but powerful explosion, and the destruction of a military base was a series of chain reactions, the co-inventor of the robots solemnly holds a bomb in his hands and accepts his fate, when he could clearly pitch the bomb away, EVEN WITH A SCIENTIST’S FUCKING ARM…
But I digress.
So, Aaron ventures out into the world, unaware that Geppetto is dead, and “the man” has already issued his burn notice. [Could be a nice thing to tell a person, “Oh, by the way, son, the public will fear you, and the second the authorities lay their fucking eyes on you, you will be hunted like a rabid beast!”] He is first spotted by a commercial airline – which ordinarily, isn’t anything of note, except that the pilots are freaked out by the appearance of a flying man, and don’t do a fucking thing. Who finally calls somebody about the flying robot? Why the nosy neighbors, of course.
The action that follows is also believable, sort of: the military hunts him down, apparently trying to kill him. But while his back is turned, and they have the shot, do they take it? YES! With a stun cannon. I mean, weren’t they so bloody desperate to get rid of these things that they sacrificed a strategic location in the process??? Just a couple… pages…??? Never mind.
So Jolly Jack dusted off the remnants of a cheap bottle of Bardstown Bourbon, went to the Central Casting office in his mind, and pulled out a Nick Fury/Thunderbolt Ross analog to browbeat X-51, and rub it in the face of a couple of “meatheads down in the research division.”
Hey wait a second!!! How does this relate to the series so far??? No cavemen??? No spacemen??? No Monol…
The Fat Hornet, not-HYDRA, Fin Fang Fuckizzat, and the terrifying visage of Monkeyface
After eight issues, I really thought I could stop saying “…and then it got stupid,” but no such luck. The first half of issue nine isn’t all that bad. As simple as it is, it’s at least a premise you can get behind: the robot is bustin’ out of the base, and he’s takin’ back the most important thing they took from him – his face. A nice, simple, most importantly CONNECTED, origin story for a quirky superhero. Right? It’s been a while since the last installment, but in a nutshell, remember – the book was plagued with continuity issues from the get-go.
[What should be] The end of the arc — in which the military ultimately decides to let X-51 go — is a little on the cheesy side, but it’s nothing you can’t excuse in graphic soap opera every once in a while. The problem is that the story, for all intents and purposes, ends halfway into the second issue of the arc. Left with pages to fill, Kirby decided to make it a three issue origin story, rather than using the extra page space to, I don’t know, fill in the holes he left in the plot…And much like the rest of the stories, the second half is pretty much a repetition of the first – only without the temporal connection of a caveman’s descendant fighting space monsters.
While pondering his next move, Machine Man is visited by the Monolith one final time which apparently gives him some kind of power/responsibility mandate. When it leaves, he finds that a child has been watching the whole exchange.
Now, even if Jack Kirby may not have been the best storyteller in front of a typewriter, he was/is certainly the gold standard when he was in front of a light table with some Bristol board. The facial expressions of his characters conveyed style, weight and import – even when the dialog blew. He practically invented the look of many actual, contemporary high tech devices. And Kirby’s worst panel is leaps and bounds ahead of what a lot of contemporary artists could ever hope to achieve in their entire careers.
Well, 99.9999999% of the time. Kirby’s rendering of females has, at least to me, been a little on the masculine side, but until I’d seen him draw a child, I chalked it up to a style/interpretation thing. A child who looks like a full grown man is much creepier than a manly woman. It’s why there’s a WNBA, but no professional basketball league for little people.
So he helps the kid’s aunt change a tire which, in addition to the costume, convinces the kid that he’s a superhero. Changing a tire without a jack is always a good way of proving you’re a superhero. It wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, (it worked for Superman, and…) but the kid is convinced that he’s a Marvel superhero, and won’t let it go. But it’s never quite clear whether or not the Marvel superhero connection is a product of a vivid imagination and a steady diet of comics, or if there is an Avengers, FF, etc. in this version of the future.
If you want to get technical, I guess Marvel Comics eventually answered that question in the 90’s with their 2099 line, but does anybody really want to go there?
So, though it’s never explained with so much as a description box in the panel reading “Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the robotic rescuer and his newfound friends, prying eyes are watching in a nearby field…” Machine Man catches the eye of a talent scout for a Doomsday cult, named Mister Hotline and his underling/chauffeur, Mister Kringe. They kind of look like the Green Hornet and Kato, if they were played by Oddjob from Goldfinger and a ventriloquist dummy of Peter Lorre.
Mr. Hotline tests him [Now that I think about it, does gender really apply to a robot??? Anyway…] by sending a hit squad to exterminate Monkey Boy and Aunt-Man who give Machine Man a ride into town. He makes short work of work of the assassins, and they report the incident to the local Sheriff. At the station, he is abducted by cultists and dismantled.
His head is brought before a Fin Fang Foom rip-off, who wants his soul — that’s right, his soul — although it’s never clear exactly why.
Before the dragon can take the robot’s soul, the robot commands his disassembled limbs to reassemble, and kick some cultist ass on its way to the head.
Yup, just said that.
The cult still seems to have the edge, as Machine Man’s new friends are being closely guarded by a cult member. And after a hastily thrown together eleventh hour save, he decides that he is still too much of a danger to his new friends, so he leaves, destroying the cultist headquarters in the process.
Shortly after 2001’s final issue (#10), a short-lived Machine Man comic debuted in 1979, with Kirby continuing to pull double duty for nine issues. According to the Wiki entry, the series was the character’s entry point in to the mainstream audiences. I only have issues #1 and #6 so far, and I can tell you that, at least up through issue six, Monsieur Machine has gone nowhere near the 20th Century.
Machine Man was, and still is a popular supporting character in the Marvel Universe, if only in the realm of “fan favorite.” He was a West Coast Avenger for a spell in the late 80’s. A 1999 mini-series even brought back the 2001… connection when, at the end, he’s abducted by a Monolith. They’re supposed to be inventions of Marvel’s Celestials – a nice nod to Jack Kirby, who also created the Celestials. More recently, Warren Ellis — another guy with a penchant for the weird and obscure characters in the mainstream comics universes — recently revived him in his series Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Since then, he’s been sort of comic relief – not the friendly, human-loving original concept of the character, but rather, an beer swilling smartass who lives on a SHIELD Heli-carrier with an android of the second Captain Marvel.
If you don’t say it, I will – that’s pretty kickass!
The book is already obscure enough, but for those foolhardy enough to seek out this, it’s a puzzling read. Obvious choices were ignored (for one: the continuing adventures of the American space program as it attempts to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened on the Jupiter mission seems like a natural way to go) in favor of either a rote re-telling of the story in the source material, or a really bizarre attempt at trying to fit a round peg into a square hole by turning cerebral scifi into a superhero book. I just wonder if he was up late nights, working at a feverish pace, cackling insanely, thinking all the while, “This stuff practically writes itself!”
Then again, I doubt that Kirby is entirely to blame. Somehow, I think Stan Lee took him to a second run theater showing 2001: A Space Odyssey after they’d just obtained the license to the property in the mid-70’s, and said, after plenty of steak and a half dozen whiskey sours, “Come back, Jack. I need you to do this story in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Excelsior!”
Until next time, True Believers, put a fork in me. I’m done with this one.
*I just mean the final installment of the 2001… bit. In between other projects, I’m still planning to keep doing this column, albeit still pretty infrequently.