Friday, December 10, 2010

2001: A Kirby Odyssey

When I was but a young lad and a budding comic book collector, I noted that Marvel Comics once published a "treasury edition" called 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I surmised it as being an adaptation of the film as Marvel tended to do much of back in the day.  It was indeed a comic book translation of the legendary Kubrick/Clarke science fiction film, but what I didn't know was that comics giant Jack "King" Kirby launched a short-lived series of the same name after that.

This was a fact that I was unaware of until only recently.  I became curious.  How could even a talent as big as Kirby's tell stories expanded from a film that seemed neatly encapsulated?  Heck, the most memorable character from the movie, HAL-9000, was effectively disabled at the end.  And even if HAL hadn't been taken out, a comics version would be left impotent with the reader unable to hear its chilling voice ("What are you doing, Dave?")  So what could Kirby do?
Not much, it turns out.  The series was a critical and commercial flop as the first few issues showcased the meanderings of the Star Child, or New Seed as it was called, illustrating commentary on the evolution of man.  Despite all that, the 2001 comics series did leave us with a character that remains to this day. That character is Machine Man.

Once again, I had no idea that Machine Man had his origins in this book.  And from reading a precis of that origin online, it makes me want to hunt down 2001 issues #8-9 to ingest the whole thing.
Machine Man's "real name" was X-51.  He was the last in a line of sentient robots developed for combat by the Army.  What no one realized was that sentience without identity leads to psychosis (great concept!)  All except for the case of X-51.  His well-adjusted nature came from his creator, Dr. Abel Stack, treating him like a son.  The Monolith takes an interest in this and visits X-51, granting him a soul and a human face.  
When the Army decides to pull the plug on its ill-conceived psycho robot program, Dr. Stack is killed while removing X-51's self-destruct mechanism.  X-51 goes on the run as "Machine Man...robot with a soul!"  While on the lam, Machine Man attempts to assimilate into society in order to better understand humans.  This of course leads to a whole schmeer of interactions with Marvel superheroes as Machine Man comes to their aid with his augmented strength, enhanced senses, built-in weapons, and extending limbs.

So the series might not have been a success and Machine Man is a second-tier character at best, but I say bravo, Kirby.  He took a chance.  He attempted to generate new material from a source that was challenging at best and at least gave us the intriguing origin of Machine Man.  As a writer, I certainly respect that.

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