Well, sometimes there's an article you keep wanting to write and it keeps proving too much for you, and finally you figure you just can't go it alone. What do you do? Well, in my line of work the wisest decision's definitely dropping a line to Joe "Jog" McCulloch, of Comics Comics and Jog - The Blog fame, and asking him for a bit of help. In addition to being the internet's hands-down best writer about comics for a good half a decade, Joe is the big inspiration/point of departure for my own musings on the medium. He kindly agreed to lend some words (like, thousands of them) to DTU for the piece I'd been struggling with; problem solved.
But just what was that problem? As it turns out, my sporadic surveying of Jim Steranko's lesser-known works had caught up to his adaptation of the '80s space movie Outland, and I just happened to be reading Jack Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey adaptation at the same time, so naturally it had to be -- yes! a DOUBLE FEATURE!! Two great artists, two obscure comics, two science-y movies, two adaptations, two very interesting times in the medium... and the two of us to tell you all about it.
JOE MCCULLOCH: Ok, here we go.
MATT SENECA: All right! So first I guess I’ll just state the obvious: it’s a little bit odd that the Marvel Age’s two biggest innovators decided to do sci-fi film adaptations within a few years of one another, no? It’s not exactly a common subgenre of comic books or anything. But regardless, in 1976, Jack Kirby drew a tabloid-sized 2001: A Space Odyssey comic, and in 1981 Jim Steranko serialized his novelization of Peter Hyams’ Outland in Heavy Metal. Was there something in the water? Where exactly were American comics between ‘76 and ‘81? What was the climate that produced such a bizarre phenomenon?
JM: It’s interesting you should start off with this, because there’s a profound separation between those two years, a hell of a lot going on for American comics in half a decade, and I think the individual contexts of both of those works affected them.
For 2001, my suspicion is that it almost had to be latched onto a preexisting media property just to gain access to the Treasury format (which is what Marvel called its super-huge tabloid-sized comics line, although DC had been putting out material of similar dimensions for a bit longer). That line of books started off in 1974, and all of its releases that year were property-based compilations of superhero stories, Christmas special included: stock your stuffing with previously seen material! Big! There were always Christmas books; DC had its own superhero things, plus a bunch of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer specials - the format was mostly a stunt, intended to get collectors a little excited and parents stuffing kids’ stockings.
Now, at that same time, Marvel also had the Curtis Magazines line of b&w, no-Code, half-a-toddler’s-stumble-more-Mature stuff going -- a reactionary thing basically set up to tangle with Warren Publishing -- but it wasn’t so long for the world; in fact, by the next year, ‘75, it was scaled back to include only licensed properties or (very) slightly racier versions of superhero stuff. This conservatism mostly held all around - the same year 2001 arrived, there was a Treasury edition of Howard the Duck that was put together in kind of a hurry as a means of getting the early, scarce, hot hot Howard stuff back on the market with a little new material sprinkled in to sweeten the pot. At a higher price, naturally! And, you know, Howard the Duck was one of the defining Marvel series of the decade, primarily because of how saturated it was with Steve Gerber’s personality, neuroses, etc. - very writer-driven, very texty, but it didn’t have much bearing on format, because form wasn’t really a concern for Marvel. To them, Howard the Duck appearing as a really big comic was mostly an eye-catching means of managing a dandy new property for maximum return (it became a magazine-format thing later on, after Gerber got kicked off); it might look nicer printed really big, but as a unit it’s just bigger little comics. And while DC started pushing out all-original, made-for-the-size items that year -- Superman vs Muhammad Ali from ‘78 would be the memorable example -- they were all superhero fight books.
That’s not to say Marvel/DC was the only game in town. It’s important not to forget Warren, since by the mid-’70s its slavish continuation of the EC horror comics dynamic as incarnated in Creepy and Eerie had evolved into a small but very pertinent counter-mainstream born from the same caption-heavy ooze as many of the undergrounds, complete with headlining characters and serials and (loose) continuities; Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Steve Englehart - they all became quintessential ‘70s superhero writers, but they all started out at Warren in the early ‘70s, with most of them spreading out pretty quickly. The Warren magazines are mainly remembered for their artists, actually, which is pretty funny considering how much some of their former writers contributed to a pretty writer-driven period in superhero comics, the beginning of a long line of writer-driven times, continuing today. But anyway, Warren was still a going concern in ‘76, and a few tentative steps at not-so-underground genre comics were being taken with ‘mainstream’-familiar artists - Star*Reach and the like, which had Neal Adams, Walter Simonson, Howard Chaykin, all of whom did some work at Warren, and in the Marvel magazines, and later with Heavy Metal.
So there was continuity, is what I’m saying, but ‘76 was still a limited time. The comic book direct market was still in its infancy, and the bookshelf-style comic was just barely getting off the ground -- that was the year Corben’s Bloodstar hit, along with the first Byron Preiss word ‘n picture custom blends; you’ve previously mentioned Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide, which was one of three that year -- so a big (by which I mean physically huge) original color non-superhero comic like 2001? Not a lot of options for getting that made, which leaves Kirby’s work looking entirely out of place on the Marvel scene of ‘76 despite the fact that it probably couldn’t have gotten produced anywhere else. Thank heavens it wasn’t 2004: Odyssey Beyond the Stars, or they’d have blown the quarter-century marketing hook.
By ‘81, things had changed. In terms of subject matter, Star Wars had started a new craze for sci-fi (and the Star Wars license had maybe/sorta saved Marvel’s bacon), so there were quite a few adaptations out, even in the Treasury format - Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, compilations of the Chaykin Star Wars issues. Moreover, artistically, you didn’t have to deal so much with Marvel if you didn’t want to, because the Direct Market had grown, guys were publishing with Eclipse and the other mini-mainstream presses (including Gerber & Kirby on Destroyer Duck), RAW had arrived to quietly punch a hole in the world and more-or-less ‘start’ alternative comics as a firmly separate entity from the underground books (partially through its use of European comics, which also greatly affected Heavy Metal’s identity as a separate entity), etc.
Few of them were as market-dominant as Marvel, sure, and not all of them would print the same material, of course, but Heavy Metal was big color business enough that it could attract its own sci-fi licensing deals, maybe with freedom enough to catch the eye of another established comics veteran. So Steranko (who was dealing with non-mainstream forums since at least as far back as witzend) could envision a big media tie-in thingy in a suddenly mainstream comics forum as kind of an experimental (or at least plainly form-minded) visual feast. I don’t think Kirby had that option.
MS: Well, in so many ways Kirby was the biggest thing limiting himself, but I know what you mean. Much as the alternative channels Steranko explored through the ‘70s seem bloody-minded or just dumb in retrospect (uh, Mediascene?), you gotta admire him for just hammering away at it, running down every non-newsstand comics lead available at the time, I’ll try a tabloid newspaper, I’ll try anthologies, I'll try portfolios, I’ll try my own publishing company, I’ll try a Byron Preiss graphic novel, paperback covers, calendars, concept art in about a million different places -- including some of the Marvel b&w mags. And hey, Heavy Metal -- he finally found a venue that had some staying power, that really worked. (That is, more or less... good luck finding those Outland issues these days...)
JM: Ha ha, I think that’s important, right there! I mean, Outland has never been reprinted in English! Holy shit!! There’s a French edition out there, somewhere, but: Jim Steranko, damned to the bins. And, y’know, could be licensing issues, but perhaps it’s a symptom of the environment he found himself in. Surely in the ‘60s Steranko was ahead of his time, ‘pop’ genre comics-wise, but by 1981, time had caught up. That same year, just as an example, Howard Chaykin had a Cody Starbuck serial running in Heavy Metal; I think it’s last chapter ran just as Outland was starting up. And it’s just rich and smeary and tactile with markers and colors and big visions - a direct continuation of the work Chaykin had been doing with Star*Reach, particularly this sick color one-shot from ‘78, or even the Byron Preiss stuff he’d been doing, like Empire with Samuel Delany. But in Heavy Metal, it was suddenly newsstand-ready work, while Star*Reach was basically a quasi-underground comic filled with Marvel/DC-ready artists; it stood to defy that dichotomy. Heavy Metal made it public.
MS: The limbo that Steranko’s work inhabits these days is one of the comicky-type things guaranteed to keep me up nights if I start thinking about it. Damned to the bins isn’t the half of it! He’s got entire books out of print, monographs that get solicited but never come out, stories that not even his dedicated fans have heard of -- including a final, completed Marvel book that remains unpublished to this day... it’s tough for me to think of a bigger hole in our Golden Age of Reprints than the utter lack of any available Steranko material. Let’s say you’re a new-ish reader who’s getting into the history of the medium, maybe you dig Kirby and you hear about Steranko in that context, get hot to read some of his stuff. The only problem is that you can’t buy it! It’s simply not possible unless you go to a con or find a store with a real deep back-issue stock or turn to the internet.
A big part of that void is because he did the lion’s share of his career in comics (volume-wise, anyway, 29 out of 42 books) at Marvel, hands down the publisher with the worst reprint schedule in comics. They’ve ravaged his library of works, man -- first they put out these horribly recolored cheap-o trades that the man himself refuses to sign at conventions, and now a sixty-dollar, super-limited, not-available-on-Amazon hardcover is the only way to read the SHIELD stuff that comprises the bulk of his books there. Corporate ownership of great comics takes on a whole nother pernicious dimension now that reprints are so important! But more than that, there’s this weird critical negative zone surrounding Steranko’s work where none of the big marquee sources -- Comics Journal, I guess, and publishers that might refurbish or recontextualize the non-Marvel stuff for a new audience -- will even go near it.
JM: I personally wish there was some kind of index to the Journal, actually. It’s such a huge potential source of criticism (even criticism-as-history) that it’s difficult to keep sorted. Not that every article needs to be online, but a list of what was reviewed where and when would be a massive boon to the current criticism, if only to spark a few guided searches into critical antiquity. I’m sure there has to be a few long essays on Steranko in there someplace. But go on.
MS: I’m not sure the Journal, especially the prime-years Journal, ever did do any Steranko stuff, actually. Outland aside, he's basically been out of comics from ‘76 forward -- ten pages of Superman and that’s it. Plus, given Gary Groth’s animus toward Kirby during that TCJ glory period, I imagine whatever does exist on Steranko, a less “substantial” Kirby follower, is of an eviscerative nature. I know he never did an interview, which is what we really should have. And the body of criticism that does exist on Steranko is deeply embarrassing for comics as a medium. Fannish, adulational crap that’s totally unwilling to engage with the work itself, let alone the numerous flaws that make it so crunchy and interesting. The Vanguard Press school of hagiography -- and did you see that Jonathan Ross article that came out a few months ago?
JM: Oh, the one where Steranko runs eleventy jillion miles per days and eats fibrous roots fresh out of the ground, and probably floats above his bed while asleep? Yep, I recall.
MS: And he has sex with a lot of beautiful young women. There was a part about that, too. Probably the highest-profile piece of writing on the guy ever, and it ends: “He is Steranko. He is the greatest.” Fucking shoot me now. Dash Shaw and David Mazzucchelli’s Comics Journal interview, Mazzucchelli brings up Steranko as a big inspiration and Shaw’s immediate response is “Are you serious?”
What is up? I just don’t understand how Steranko’s work, flawed though it may be, gets ignored so entirely by the medium. Like you said, time’s caught up to the stuff, but is that a reason to dismiss it? Just about everything we’re discussing -- Heavy Metal, Corben, Starlin, Howard the Duck, Chaykin -- owes at least as much to Steranko as it does to Kirby, the one superhero guy even the hoity-toitiest stuffed shirt in comics punditry can feel secure in mentioning. The intense formal innovation, the expanding genre comics into more personal aesthetic realms, the psychedelia, the high failure rate... it’s all Steranko more than anyone else. I see that guy as the driving force of mainstream comics in the ‘70s (a decade during which Kirby was largely considered a washed up has-been), which puts him right in the thick of so much that was so important and seems these days to be getting important again.
JM: Kind of an absentee father, though. My own suspicion as to the lack of substantive Steranko writing is that his work seems to exist as almost pure aesthetic - you can name the big formal experiments he worked at, chart the visual influence, sure, but that’s fairly tricky to hook a piece of critical writing on, even a history-of-comics’-development thing, like with Krigstein, who’s mostly associated with EC and that moment in time. Essay writers particularly like to have literary content to discuss, and I couldn’t tell you what Steranko’s ‘themes’ were, like I could with Kirby. Or like Douglas Wolk did with Starlin in Comic Art. His actual output isn’t really big enough to divine any overarching concern, beyond a desire to integrate some extra-comical influences into comics, to expand the form into more overtly illustrative areas - and even then, Red Tide seems less grounded in raw personality than, say, Gil Kane’s Blackmark. Maybe that feeds the desire to turn him into a supernatural being: history’s instrument!
But yeah, even given all that, it seems odd that Jesse Marsh has more at-my-fingertips substantive critical writing devoted to him at the moment.
MS: That’s really interesting, and if it’s true then hopefully the Steranko-crit drought will end soon, as more and more writers-about-comics get interested in the pure-visual dimension of things. Here’s a Steranko theme for yuh, though: nihilism. And not the limp, black cardigan, Gauloise cigs kind -- rage and hate and total dessicated emptiness. Steranko -- everywhere, but in Outland more than lots of other places -- destroys his pages, welds these scabrous masses of information onto them, but they always refer back to the same void, this place beyond the story, outside the story. His first big continued saga, the Yellow Claw/SHIELD epic in Strange Tales, denies readers the kind of Kirbyist action climax that’s proper in these matters and ends on a big cresting cliffhanger, never resolved, with all the characters we’ve been following for issues and issues revealed as literal chess pieces, a shit-scary Dr. Doom howling with laughter as he manipulates them toward their deaths while shutting the story down with no ceremony whatsoever, spitting in our face, Marvel’s face, hero comics’ face. And don’t even get me started on “Today Earth Died”. Literary content? Steranko at his best wrote like a Borges from hell. There’s more to say on that corrosive emptiness, but I’ll save it for Outland. Jesse Marsh is the bomb, though.
JM: You’re multiplying the writing-on-Steranko by the week, I’d say.
MS: Somebody needs to! Seriously, I think comics are more “pure aesthetic” than any other storytelling medium, and that makes Steranko so very worth examining. (Hear that, internet?!) Let’s take the two biggest poles of early Heavy Metal, Moebius on the Euro side and Corben on the American side -- both might owe more stylistically to Kirby, but it was Steranko at Marvel who pushed the mainstream envelope far enough into trippy drug innuendo, medium-bending formalism, sexy tease, and actual good coloring to make those two guys feasible for a market that up until then had those Gutenberg-looking Kirby photo-spreads as its cutting edge.
JM: And naturally, Moebius had a whole school of Franco-Belgian masters to follow in this personal development; Jijé, say, who initiated the bifurcation of ‘realistic’ and ‘cartoony’ styles Moebius brought to the point of split personalities. But yeah, I get what you’re saying.
MS: Yeah, and there's more: Paul Gulacy, the biggest Steranko ripper-offer in history at the start of his career, expanded those ideas into a whole style of his own, which is now being directly tapped by Benjamin Marra, who in turn is directly influencing the modern underground. Jim Starlin took that information overload into a more xplicitlynovelistic, ccharacter-based place with stuff like Warlock and influenced Morrison, Alan Moore... none of it without Steranko. Though Moebius and Corben are probably 2 and 3 on the list of artists we need good reprints of, and Gulacy’s up there too, so maybe we’ll never see any of the stuff again and my point is totally invalid. Or I just need to go a lot wider: where is all of this? Tom Spurgeon’s list of emblematic ‘70s comics, which we both contributed picks to -- how many of those books are in print? How many are accessibly in print? How has this pivotal era been lost so entirely? Can anyone walk into any comic shop and buy anything we’ve been talking about? Ummmmm.......
JM: I just bought Kirby’s 2001 adaptation maybe a month and a half ago; saw it sitting on a dealer’s table at a local wheelin ‘n dealin’ con held in a tech college gymnasium. I hadn’t so much as laid eyes on one in person before that. On the other hand, I got most of my issues of Kirby’s later 2001 series out of a local shop’s extensive line of longboxes for four bucks a crack. It’s luck, mostly. You have to be educated on what to look for, which is an old comics fandom thing (although, really - how likely were you to have seen, say, a blaxploitation film before the advent of home video, or even classic Hollywood pictures, without the aid of some cinema club, obsessive forums that powered the French movie criticism of the ‘50s?). At least Epic lined up most of its Moebius books in handy numbered editions, so you know where to toss your stray fifties.
MS: Ah, yes. Fifties is right, I have two of those Epic books, a hundred bucks of my money. I gave up. I gave up on Moebius, how wrong is the market that I have to admit to that? But yeah, while the thrill-of-the-chase thing makes having the stuff so much sweeter, it’s really of detriment to the comics medium. How much has the Criterion Collection done for film? Hell, how much has the Golden Age done for comics? Individuals like us, I guess, lifers, might get some kinda weird kick out of this dusty, librarian-y practice of “rescuing” forgotten old comics -- hell, I’ve got an essay to write on “Collecting Steranko” -- but it only hurts comics for new readers not to be able to pick up so much of the good stuff. That’s actually one of the reasons I quit comics shop clerking, I couldn’t point customers to any of the stuff I was interested in at a certain point. So now I do this, and you can find it on your own, sport! The internet, while it feels to me like a cheat for finding issues and stuff like that, does do a really good job on the first half of the equation, the educating. I wouldn’t have even heard of half my favorite guys without it.
But phew, back to the point, you’re right about how key changing times are here. When I think of Marvel’s ‘70s, especially mid-’70s, it’s Starlin, Gulacy, that crowd, taking Steranko’s expand-the-page precepts and just spewing half-baked experimentalism everywhere. Jumbled panels, censor-baiting, lots of detail, little concern for legibility. Claustrophobic-ass comics, hot and close and you can feel them breathing on the newsprint So yup, 2001 is ahead of its time. Just the format switch-up from pamphlet to tabloid, almost regardless of how Kirby utilized it, brings the comics out into an airier place with more room for the imagination -- big pages, more pages, finally some room to maneuver in! Like you say, the tabloid format was conceived as anything but a means for increased artistic freedom -- but it got the stuff there nonetheless. Where a 2001 adaptation in serialized pamphlets would feel of a cramped, sticky, penned-in piece with the Howard the Duck garde, the tabloid size brings it beyond.
JM: It certainly helped that Kirby had a fully-formed visual approach by then - some have said he was even starting to descend into tics and mannerisms by that point, sprouted from the sureness of his style (I don’t agree, but the argument itself indicates how far he’d gone). In case I didn’t make this clear above, I don’t necessarily think Kirby ‘switched up’ his work or anything for the Treasury format, just that his practiced comicking could make good use of a much larger format, knowing just where to do the double-page splashes, letting agape expressions shine out at the reader. A lot of the same techniques are present in, say, the comic book-format 2001 series, but certainly the adaptation seemed spaced and paced for Treasury parameters. Plus, you know - it’s not a superhero comic!!
MS: Well, we've mentioned time having left Steranko behind, and Kirby was facing a similar problem around the time of 2001’s release. The medium had moved past his (still) most influential work, and incorporated its style and ideas into a new way of doing things. It would be years before Kirby got reprinted and a new generation would go back to him as a wellspring. ‘76 was the Neal Adams era. After that, the John Byrne and Jim Lee eras. Let’s see, in 2001’s year of release Arcade was still being published, Marvel was putting out stuff like Starlin’s Warlock, Moench and Gulacy’s Master of Kung-Fu, McGregor’s Black Panther... and Steranko did Chandler: Red Tide.
But somehow Kirby reached forward, went beyond once again -- 2001 feels post-all that, somehow. Serene, cool, at least until you really get inside it. It seems to belong to a “quiet era” of American comics, ‘77 to ‘79 or so, when most of the sweaty, ugly energy that powered the best ‘70s comics had dissipated. Just the fact of Kirby the paragon of the straitlaced Silver Age that ran on the other side of the fence from the underground boom in the ‘60s doing a non-superhero comic in an artistically advantageous, even innovative format -- let alone the official comic of something as beloved to the hippie counterculture as 2001 -- can be taken as some kind of sign for the end of underground comix’s first wave.
And it cuts both ways: Kirby the prince of serialized, shared-universe superheroes swimming into the languid blue serenity of 2001 as he returned to Marvel rather than just going back to the same old thing again is a message to the tangle of frenetic, overstuffed, continuity-indebted action-and-philosophizing comics that had grown out of the seeds he planted since he’d been gone. Time for something new, time to go somewhere else, time for comics as art and Miller’s Daredevil (and then Ronin) and Bissette and Totleben and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (which gets pretty 2001-the-comic-ish in parts). Time, with the mainstream’s godfather moving explicitly into psychedelia and hippieisms with stuff like 2001, for the underground to punk up and create Raw. That big fucking tabloid comic works all right as a gravestone, or at the very least as a Kubrickian Monolith, put in place to evolve the form with its mere presence.
Of course, in my opinion (and I’d guess yours too) one of the biggest high points of that late-’70s “quiet era” before the next wave really started to hit was early Heavy Metal, which streamlined the more experimentally audacious side of Marvel’s “comics for adults” and the more genre-friendly, mainstream side of the underground “adult comics” into a surprisingly well-formed whole.
JM: I agree that 2001 feels a little ahead of itself, and you’re very right - that’s as much a product of how much it bumps up against the Marvel comics surrounding it. Like, in ‘75 there was a Wizard of Oz book Marvel & DC teamed up to do in the Treasury format; original content, John Buscema art - haven’t read it, but I’m thinking it probably trades on novelty, both license-wise and as a Marvel/DC thing. But 2001, which of course bears the same kind of well-remembered, well-aged license, the same potential novelty, OMG, 2001 is just 25 years away - that shit still wasn’t a movie on paper. Despite it all, it was KIRBY! It was one of the first things he did upon returning to Marvel, and despite its movie tie-in status, it seems to just burn with his personality - it was his assertion, his presence, spilling all over this big big format, all-new, like finally it’s an artist really working this format to his advantage! That, truthfully, is not something I associate with Marvel comics of the mid-’70s, not in terms of aplomb, or even writing/art unity - writers tended to trample all over the art in that time, Jim Starlin excluded (although he sometimes seemed to trample on himself). Yet it feels very much of a piece with the post-Heavy Metal scene, the Epic Illustrated scene, the later-on ‘70s, shit flipping real quick.
MS: A lot of that HM feel is just that the European artists Heavy Metal showcased were coming from a totally different, more artistically focused, maybe more “mature” tradition -- one where “Stan Lee” wasn’t the biggest thing comics had going -- but look at some of the Americans HM published between its debut and ‘81: Corben, Chaykin, Bode, Steranko himself. All guys who, despite a degree of affinity with the Marvel amphetamine-garde, couldn’t get to that place of pride in the mainstream because they put the art first. Heavy Metal was a clearing-house for that particular facet of American comics as much as it was for the Humanoides Associes guys, and it finally put post-Kirby, post-Steranko, post-underground art on a level footing with Marvel’s post-Kirby, post-Steranko, post-underground writing.
JM: Sure. I think the American contributions to Heavy Metal tend to get overlooked, actually. Like I mentioned, a lot of them had spread themselves across multiple venues, rare as they could get in the ‘70s. Corben had done a lot of work at Warren that kind of anticipated Neverwhere and New Tales of the Arabian Nights, but the Den stuff in particular was richer in visual style, more intensive in pace - maybe freer. It’s just by ‘81 there was a more visible, stable forum for that kind of work.
MS: Yeah, freer for sure. Heavy Metal was such a massive step out of the 20-page newsprint ghetto -- even if the material hadn’t been as forward-looking as it was, the things it enabled its artists to do with color, production, and craft would still be landmark. Though I would like to note, and I want to talk more about this later: while both Kirby’s whopper tabloid format and Steranko’s slick HM serialization were definitely freer and more aesthetic than y’know, Marvel comic books, they’re still limiting.
JM: Oh right, totally.
MS: 2001 is a pretty explicitly commercial object, still stocking-stuffer material despite the unleashed Kirby on its pages -- the comic ends with a Marvel plug before dovetailing into a dumb-ass photo-illustrated puff piece on the making of the movie. Outland might even be worse off, abruptly curtailed at the most awkward points by its serialized format, and in places definitely testifying to Steranko’s inability to hit deadlines without cutting corners. The Heavy Metal context gives it a weird vibe at times, too, like it makes sense next to a chapter of Corben’s Bloodstar, but when you turn the page onto a clunky John Workman space short or yep, a review of the new John Cale record, the tone it sets basically gets destroyed. There’s a tension in so many of that era’s comics, Outland included -- clearly striving for literacy, but not quite making it to the mode of “serious comics” we have today. It’s that particular place in comics history, when non-underground creators really started leaving the idea of working for an audience of kids behind but were still trying to figure out a way forward and the intense commercialism of the old days hadn’t really boiled off yet, that binds 2001 and Outland together. If Kirby’s comic belongs in any “moment”, it’s not ‘76 at Marvel but the zeitgeist that produced the first five years of Heavy Metal. There was a time when doing mainstreamy adaptations of big-budget genre films must have seemed like a good, feasible way to make comics that adults would read and appreciate.
JM: My favorite thing from that period might be the completely insane and wonderful adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s 1941 that Stephen R. Bissette & Rick Veitch did with Heavy Metal (as an original album project) fresh out of the Kubert School - there was a writer, Allan Asherman, whom Veitch apparently supplanted along the way due to deadline worries. It’s a hyperactive evocation of Kurtzman-Elder Mad-type satires, except 110% in tune with underground period elaborations on Mad itself, so its very oozy and pasted up with photographic elements, very strident in its commentary - like, mostly it’s a hot fart in the mouth of the Greatest Generation (as we know them today), casting WWII as yeah, probably kind of important in terms of results, but powered in the moment by paranoia, violent zeal, and really mostly racism. Tons and tons of racism. Lots and lots of really hard racism, with all of the Japanese characters drawn in the period-perfect style of so many cartoons and comics of the day. THAT’S what you could do with an adaptation in that little window. Not for long!
MS: There’s also just the weirdness of film-to-comics adaptations. And not just any adaptations, but completely straight, dramatic ones! Like, these aren’t 1941, let alone Yuichi Yokoyama’s Blair Witch one-pager or anything -- they’re two talented artists trying to make comics that... um... I don’t know if they’re attempting to supersede the films they’re based on exactly, but but they’re at least trying to create worthwhile companions, comics that can stand up next to the films they were drawn from, tell the same stories with an equal amount of skill and appeal. That’s a tall order, maybe even a fool’s errand -- especially on 2001, which has got to be one of the five most “filmic” films in history. Can comics do what movies do? As well? Better?
JM: I think movies will always have a leg up on comics in terms of pure, visceral effect, because live-action dramatic cinema of the 2001/Outland sci-fi bonanza type is, comparatively, a simulacrum of waking life. It is temporally bound, starting at point A and ending at point B, digressing from exact perception via cuts and camera moves and lighting and stuff, all so that it vivifies or undermines or whatever(s) the experience of plain living. Comics can’t do that, but to my mind they’re a sneakier art: cartooning, if properly and open-mindedly accepted by a reader that doesn’t view any and all divergences from photo-realism as affronts to the idea of illustrative quality, can stand in for reality itself. Like, if we’re looking at Kirby’s drawings, his wide faces and thunderous landscapes, we can more easily digest such stylization as the ‘reality’ of the story, instead of judging it as a variation on realism; this is because cartooning is not photographic, nor even necessarily illustrative so much as linguistic. As a result, a movie might leave me shaking in my seat in the way a comic never, ever has, or probably can, but a comic might become more exponentially suggestive, in fucking with pace, timing, panel layouts, in-panel drawing, etc. It can approximate the feel of a movie, yes, but it can’t be the same.
MS: Yep, and I think Kirby’s 2001 definitely works better in that comics way than Steranko’s Outland. It’s clearly told, gives a simple view into some heady material, creates a reality that never breaks down for a second, guides the reader rather than drowning them like Kubrick does to his film’s viewers. 2001 in comic book form could have been such a nasty mess under someone else, but Kirby just bears down and scrapes a story out of a very non-narrative movie. There’s so much to say about Kirby’s 2001 art, but I want to zero in on his writing for a second. It’s the most significant example in either of these comics of the artist going off the script and rearranging the story to suit his own needs -- this thing might be full of screenshot drawings, but it reads a hell of a lot like an unadulterated Kirby book to me.
JM: Absolutely. It’s good to note that it appeared at very nearly the same time as the Eternals, a more superhero-poised Kirby project that nonetheless shared the same concept of alien power arriving on Earth to tamper with humanity’s development; speaking again of the limited options available at the time, the licensed movie book seems like a chance to play with the same themes in a less genre-constrained manner. God!
MS: And even Eternals was blatantly attempting to ride the Erich von Daniken Chariots of the Gods media wave -- it doesn’t get much more in-your-face than the cover copy from issue 2 screaming “MORE FANTASTIC THAN --” (uh huh) “-- CHARIOTS OF THE GODS! Just tryin’ to survive, I guess, and those limited options were luckily ones that had some honest intellectual appeal to Kirby.
But back to 2001. There are some obvious changes made with the narrative to better suit it to the Kirbyist action-comics language; the opening stone-age panoramas get this whole little story slipped in underneath them, complete with named characters and exposition. HAL kills Frank by crushing his body with powerful steel claws, not surreptitiously disconnecting his air pipe off-camera. The dialogue’s amped up with the usual Kirby flair -- HAL’s iconic fadeout turns into “You’re destroying my mind, Dave! I WILL BECOME CHILDISH! I WILL BECOME NOTHING!!” -- double exclamation point! -- and the narration replaces Kubrick’s clinical objectivity with a mindblown, poetic air: “And soon, across the fields of night/ a stranger to these ebon sweeps/ moves toward the the unseen mind which calls/ to life that leaps the steps of time/ to take them ten by ten and more -- / in haste to reach some destined shore.” (Damn!) Most obvious, maybe most egregious of all, is the ending, which turns 2001 the film’s enigmatic final promise into an ad for the ongoing series that spun out of this book: “Even as its journey ends, another odyssey has begun on Earth... 2001 will soon be coming your way as a star-spanning SERIES from Marvel -- watch for it!”
It’s almost totally separate from Kubrick’s hermetically sealed, near-silent masterwork, but it’ll do. The heights of Kirby’s grit-toothed bombast have as much power to them as the film’s ponderous rippling, he just makes it really different. But Kirby knew what he was doing, and he gets a thrilling, wild ride of a comic out of a thrilling, wild movie. Like I said, this comic works, and that’s more Kirby’s concern than total fidelity. Still, it comes at a price: those story beats are usually included at the expense of the utter visual spectacle of 2001 the film. The comics form might just be lacking when it comes to the kind of special effects marvels that make Kubrick’s movie so incredible -- like, a pen floating in the air or a person walking on the ceiling just lacks impact when you can’t see they’re really real, when you can’t see them move. And as drawn by Kirby, maybe 20th century art’s foremost delineator of the fantastic, those kind of little miracles really feel like small potatoes. We’ve seen this guy’s pictures of alien plague ships crashing into suns, of the very walls of existence itself, and we’re supposed to be wowed by writing utensils in zero gravity? I don’t know. I tend to think of it as a good thing that Kirby made everything he worked on his own, but the “Dawn of Man” sequence reimagined as a lost issue of Devil Dinosaur, fun as it is to read and great as it looks, feels distinctly secondary.
JM: Ha, well, I totally agree that Kirby’s 2001 doesn’t feel much at all like the movie. And yes, that’s not to say parts don’t line up! The trick is, unlike Outland (which we’ll get to in due time), 2001 makes particularly fine use of cinematic elements to convey tone - it tells a story almost purely in terms of texture, on top of the stated plot-narrative.
It starts with the hooting violence of the ape things, prompted into the use of tools by the Monolith; this is both a more effective means of bashing in someone else’s head, but ironically the means by which civilization can develop. Act II: people sitting in the bone in space, walking on walls, a super-cool journey on the moon - Kubrick is always super-cool in this picture, as in the apes are observed as if by a patient alien presence, but here humanity itself has entered a cool, clean space, suggesting (to me) parity with the filmmaker’s observational style. Sitting around in space fits the camera in a way hooting pre-humans kind of don’t, and as awesome as the spaceships are, they’re still placidly voyaging as if from contentment. But the next Monolith does them violence with its signal, and inevitably Act III centers around Dave’s immortal struggle with HAL, Dave the cool human and HAL the considerably more emotive artificial party, in defiance of his monotone. He can’t ever be as cool as people -- even people murdered in cold sleep, ha ha -- because cool as they are, humans are flawed. How can they complete the mission? HAL doesn’t understand, because he is a bad helper, created by imperfect humans. This is the new violence, man now vs. the bone that built civilization.
As mercy would have it, this is not your typical three-act drama: Act IV exists to do the greatest violence to humanity: obliterating Dave’s understanding of cognitive reality, and then his grasp of time. He is then reborn; and aren’t we all born screaming? The star child is quiet, though: our perceptions are left ragged and hoarse. All of this is cinema - the performances feed it, the chilled set designs, HAL’s pleading, pulsing life eye, classical music, etc.
Kirby’s comic matches the four acts of the movie, with more comic book-y, Kirbyesque titles: “Moonwatcher-- the Man-Ape!” “The Dimension Trip!” Far out! Nothing like “The Dawn of Man” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” - those are like chapters in a travelogue, which is ultimately what the 2001 movie is: an observational tour of mankind’s ultimate evolution, underlining the progress of humanity via ‘coolness’ but undermining it via the transformative might of diverse violence. Kirby, meanwhile, is utterly declarative and flatly violent. No long takes for him! When you say there’s no ‘miracles’ in Kirby’s version of events, that I think illustrates a difference between cinema and comics - while floating pens seem unreal in a movie, Kirby can (and does) shade the entirety of human experience with the same lurching, potentially eruptive energy, which forms its own texture-story.
Here, Kirby nails the ape-men with proper frenzy, and the Monolith explodes into light! But then, come Part Two (“The Thing on the Moon!” - oooh!), there’s close-ups of guys’ faces spread out in Kirby tenseness, there’s mighty, jagged, shadowed rocks, arms reaching out and hands pointing under the piercing glow of a projector, and we see that these are the same damn people as the apes were. They haven’t escaped from anything. By the time we get to Dave and HAL, it becomes entirely fitting that Kirby applies the considerably more casual cadence initially planned for the machine’s dialogue - they’re essentially equals, spiritually, plunging along the continuity of destruction or the potential thereof. The Monolith’s final transport, then, takes on less an air of especial violence than climax, completion, conclusion. Maybe there’s a better place outside this comic, eh?
MS: That makes me think of this one Kirby interview about 2001 that I saw (I think in an issue of the JK Collector) where he says he thinks HAL was right to try and kill the humans, that he was actually in the theater rooting for HAL to win. That sentiment seems so far from the Kirby approach to comics (this book included), which glories in the the hot chaos of humanity, those ape-man limbs and posturing -- but if you look at this book right, it’s there. The biggest moments of beauty in the 2001 comic are Kirby’s massive environmental spreads -- hugely intricate spaceships splitting blackness, the abstract forms of alien planets’ surfaces, the color auras and non-representative shapes of space itself. All cold, inhuman beauties with an unsullied grandeur that human contact can only destroy. Judged against those fabulous Diego Riveraesque murals, the squabbling, screeching ape men of this comic and Kirby’s other works as well take on the brutal, primitive, uncaring cast of a deadly virus. When 2001 burns with humanity, it’s like burning with fever. This is subtext, way more deeply buried than Jim Steranko’s open, abrasive nihilism, but it’s there. You spend more time marveling at those museum-size, lifeless spreads than the conflicts of the humans swarming like ants across the earth, and it’s supposed to be that way. There are way more differences than similarities, but like Kubrick, Kirby makes you contemplate the void.
JM: Hm, I would disagree only to the character of your metaphor; I don’t see the human-ish life of Kirby’s 2001 as so much a virus as a cancer, which is to say it’s an uncontrolled growth from world organics, but still fundamentally of the organism. Everything in Kirby’s world hides the potential for struggle, from the hills to the hulls, you know? Only the literal photographic portions of the narrative offer relief for me - all of the story’s violence seems purely of the booming landscape. I wouldn’t call any of it cool at all, not anything out of Kirby’s hand.
I find this to be considerably more personal an expression than in the movie, mind you -- and query whether comics are always more personal than live-action dramatic narrative movies, given their closeness to the work of hands, and the re-imagining of reality -- because it’s as much about Kirby’s own limitations as humanity’s journey. It’s not as if comics can’t manage variations in tone, but Kirby is so close to the source he embodies basic comparative principles: here, he is comics as the substitute reality, and Kirby’s style of reality is one of propulsive conflict - it is fortunate, as you note above, that this style links up with thematic aspects of the film. Helpfully, the Treasury format presents the art nearly 1:1 with Kirby’s original pages, so we know we’re getting the most direct exposure possible at that time. In this world, Kirby’s world, there are only similarities between savagery and technology, while Kubrick concedes humankind’s development into quieter creatures prone to different hazards. The comic only snaps out of Kirby-vision a few times with those photographic panels, as if in the spirit of courtesy toward objective study of the situation.
But no, no, how about those captions - it’s Kirby’s monologue, chattering over these evolutionary events with no lack of exclamation, emphasizing the subjectivity of this history’s telling. It is blunt, loud, and individually colored - I like your use of “scrapes a story” out of the Kubrick film, ‘cause this feels like a guy is carving his epic right into rock.
MS: And while Kirby works against his adaptation's exceedingly tall order, Steranko’s playing a whole different game. I’ll be honest, I find Outland the movie pretty poor. It’s a more or less standard space-action flick that dances around some interesting ideas but seems to crash into a barrier every time it comes close to exploring them. Kirby’s challenge with 2001 is using his talent to live up to the source material; Steranko’s with Outland is getting the source to material live up to his talent. If that makes sense. Steranko often experimented for experimentation’s sake, and much of the time it was to his own detriment, but I have to wonder if the experimental, innovative passages of this comic, and there are a good few, are there because Outland-as-comics (done in the button-down action comics manner Kirby does 2001) would just be a boring read.
JM: Oh lord, Outland the movie is just bullshit. I mean, ok, it’s a remake of High Noon, right? And High Noon itself was an allegorical genre piece, arguably a work of genre fusion - it was a suspense western ‘about’ the timidity of ostensibly free-thinking Americans about confronting anti-Communist sentiment, particularly (and pertinently to Hollywood) the HUAC hearings. This political reality was simplified into your famous lawman vs. black hats showdown, but then poked into anxiety by spending much screentime on Gary Cooper’s pondering whether his very presence as a stout-hearted beacon of justice is placing his loved ones and even passing acquaintances in danger, and then trying to round up a posse to face down the threat. In the end his religious pacifist wife, Grace Kelly, is the only one who will support him, and indeed pulls the trigger to save his life - this is quite pregnant with metaphor, because if we accept Gary Cooper as as least tangentially supportive of an atheistic political doctrine, then Grace Kelly is the wobbly Christian middle of America deciding, finally, to set aside transcendental concerns for the sake of American liberty, even as it pains her soul.
But then, it’s also a very lean, tight genre piece on its own. You don’t have to ‘understand’ what it ‘means,’ or even accept its traditional reading: President Eisenhower loved it! It’s broadly about standing for justice when ‘justice’ is difficult, complicated, or even theologically repulsive. It can be argued, then, that the movie is actually quite unsuccessful as polemic, in that its metaphoric structure can be applied to wildly opposite political objectives, but there’s little denying the fecundity of the content.
Outland, on the other hand, tries to be much more of an uncomplicated ‘message’ picture - it transports the lawman character, Sean Connery, to a frontier mining town on a moon of Jupiter, where the local company men have been plying the workers with military-grade amphetamines that cause them to go insane, but not before productivity skyrockets. In a way it’s a slightly clever concept, in that it modifies the lingering terror of facing down anti-communist trouble alone into a one-man war against capitalism itself, with the local dependents of capital cowed so that Connery must stand basically alone against Murder, Inc. But if High Noon is kind of an 85-minute perfect machine of purposeful thrills, Outland tarries and dithers and fucks around, as if what Gary Cooper really needed was to be surrounded by an opening half-hour dubious gore scenes and scattered, time-eating confrontations with sub-threats.
This, then, maybe illustrates where genre movies were in 1981 (because comics aren’t the only art form with marketing expectations). Outland was post-Star Wars, a big money summer release, and no doubt under some pressure to serve up harder, methodically apportioned action scenes. It’s most definitively post-Alien, in that most of its production design cues appear to have come from the Ridley Scott picture -- there’s even some crawling around in the fucking air shafts!! -- which is a little funny, given that Heavy Metal-associated folk like Moebius and Dan O’Bannon worked on the Alien film, and Heavy Metal itself serialized and then released a bookshelf-ready adaptation by Archie Goodwin & Walter Simonson, the former of whom had served as consulting editor on Kirby’s 2001. Outland writer/director Peter Hyams later directed the 2010 movie, famous for adopting a more Arthur C. Clarke outlook on the property (funny we haven’t mentioned him yet, eh?), but I think that kind of literalism was foreshadowed by a pre-Outland project, 1978’s Capricorn One, which was faux-sci-fi about a government plot to fake a Mars landing for the sake of national morale - very cynical, paranoid ‘70s stuff, deeply untrustworthy of technological advancements, which I think is philosophically at odds with the Kubrick film (and Clarke’s body of work too, from what I’ve read), where humankind’s science know-how seems a prerequisite to its eventual transformation.
Now in Outland, everyone is helpless; the wittiest bit of production design is the multi-bulbed mining helmets, which, when framed to obliterate the wearer’s face, gives the impression of massive screaming aquatic maws. It might be anti-corporate -- which is effectively the same ‘70s government paranoia with a different label pasted over -- but it’s all about transposing the Reagan-approved Old West vision of one man justice to what you’d think might be something, given the subject matter, oh, I dunno, involving the people rising against the barons of capital. No no, this is the steely all-American individual (er, played by a Scottish actor) smashing the bad money people good in scary, inhumane SCIENCE environments. With punch cards. It seems a lot more Chaykin than Steranko, frankly, although American Flagg! is a bit more complex than this, and a lot funnier. And yeah - I do kind of miss the uncertainty of High Noon, the messy pliability of the metaphor that coats the firm action center.
MS: All of which makes it perfectly suited for a Jim Steranko adaptation. It’s such a floundering script that the only thing to do is play it straight and hope for the best -- good luck pulling much of real value from that cauldron. These pages are full of massive chunks of cut-pasted dialogue, faithfully re-recorded questionable character moments, and the same confused, confusing social messages that vaguely seem like they wanna be, I dunno, like about shit, but end up utterly nowhere. It’s worth noting that while Steranko picked up on the sex ‘n’ psych ‘n’ violence wafting over from the underground in the ‘60s, he never came anywhere near political content. In context, that’s actually a little surprising -- Marvel at the point in time when Steranko worked for them wasn’t altogether dissuasive of sociopolitical commenting. You had Kirby preaching his universalist mantras in various early forms and decrying corporate evil with Galactus, you had Ditko honing his Objectivism (though mostly on internally focused stories where Spider-Man would find inner strength and fight for what was right rather than dropping beatniks out of windows), and Stan Lee himself debuted the half-baked “Marvel Philosophy”, which aligned comics’ new top company with racial equality, social progress, and the general Left in a forgivably dopey kind of way. So uh, Lee, Kirby, Ditko... who’s missing? Yeah, Steranko, who for whatever reason never got near politics, making him the perfect guy to obscure Outland’s muddled “message” even further with total disinterest -- it’s like he wasn’t aware this film contained any subtext whatsoever -- and some killer drawings.
JM: If there’s any popular sci-fi art object of the era Steranko’s Outland most reminds me of, it’d be the classic Disney pop-up book for the Black Hole, that infamously muddled 1979 Gary Nelson thing melding obscenely saccharine cute robot designs with a mech monster villain that looked like it floated straight out of Neon Genesis Evangelion a decade and a half later. And, you know, a semi-serious attempt to out-do 2001’s cosmic freakout ending - not as common an endeavor as you’d think! Anyway, I’m saying this because the pop-up book is (naturally) a set of tableaux, depicting crucial scenes from the movie with elements sticking out and moving. Steranko structures his Outland as essentially a long chain of double-page spreads, with sequence images either marching across the ‘core’ image or dotting the area.
And talk about killers and subtext - this approach ends up hammering the movie together into a series of stage-like scenes, like it’s a 1905 production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the Wizard of Oz, with each edit marking the beginning of a new ‘scene,’ which is always characters performing before a stolid backdrop. For a while, Steranko inserts one-page ‘beats’ to break up his serial chapters, but eventually he seems to just give it up. The inset or bordering ‘sequential’ panels in the double-page images hone in one characters’ faces, mostly, isolating them from their illustrative surroundings - the motif is confinement, which is not inappropriate, given the source material.
MS: The straitjacket of those tableaux starts to break down a little when it gets to the final two chapters and Steranko realizes shit, I’ve got fifteen pages, now ten pages, now five pages to wrap this up! It gets way closer to typical sequential comics layouts as we hurry toward the ending out of the overly decompressed first half -- much as the story was secondary here, even Jim Steranko knew that a half-finished adaptation of Outland would probably not sit well with most folks. He goes closer and closer to normal comics as he has to cram more and more story into the pages -- which is interesting, it makes you realize how anti-story the big spreads are, how much easier everything would be if he just laid down a grid!
Through it all, Steranko does well on the visual side of Outland. He doesn’t have to contend with Kirby’s problem of getting to the same quality threshold as the film, because Outland the movie just doesn’t look that great -- speaking in comics terms, it’s on maybe a Don Heck or Dan Adkins level. The visual sweep and glory Steranko brings to the bare bones of the movie’s visual scheme is like Jimi Hendrix soloing on a simple blues progression or something. He enlivens it, both captures it and elevates it, gives it an identity. It’s the writing that’s the struggle. In one way, it doesn’t matter that the storytelling isn’t very clear or the layouts don’t work very well, because the story Outland tells is so rote and simplistic.
But Steranko doesn’t exactly build the story up with his stylisms. Outland the movie does have its good points, my favorite being the empty, dust-choked tension that settles over everything between the action sequences. There’s almost a weird Taxi Driver vibe to the best parts, the feeling that everything is taking place in an inhospitable environment and every person in every frame is waiting to go insane. Steranko’s art scratches the surface of that: massive banks of machinery, lots of spotted blacks, harsh angles, panoramic alien landscapes stretching endlessly back into the panels. But where the writing should support it, there’s just static. All the taut, quiet moments of the movie get cut out, papered over with expository word balloons and Steranko’s typically tone-deaf (though stylish) narration. Maybe it’s another thing that comics can’t show as well as movies, that kind of empty, creeping malaise, but another artist would have at least tried.
Steranko’s writing, like Kirby’s, yanks the film’s tone (and occasionally its narrative) way over into his stylistic wheelhouse. The hushed menace of Outland the movie finds its opposition in Sean Connery’s Marshal O’Niel, who does his best to match it but still can’t help letting his guard down and acting like a human being. Steranko, though, writes like he’s declared war on humanism (here and elsewhere -- he was always way too engaged with either evoking Kirby’s action-packed side or drawing cool, alien shit to bother with the characters and how they were feeling, and his one big attempt at a human interest story in SHIELD #1 comes off like an excuse to draw some sexy go-go dancers). O’Niel’s restrained, desperate video-conferences with his wife and kid get completely erased in Steranko’s version; now, the tapes play on in front of us, with the man they’re intended for sitting so far inside a forced-perspective-ed hall that he can’t even hear them. This entire comic has exactly one panel that shows both O’Niel and a family member in the same frame, and in it the Marshal is a silhouette, his wife a massive, abstracted blue face on the slats of a videoscreen. The caption describing O’Niel’s final reunion with his family -- the redemption he’s ostensibly spent the whole story fighting for -- doesn’t get even a panel to itself, it’s jammed between shots of pummelling, blood-soaked fists and the planet Jupiter’s barren, baleful surface.
JM: It’s telling that the first thing Steranko cuts out from the movie is Connery (unsuccessfully) making small talk with his wife and child over breakfast; it’s a little scene, filled with not-very-subtle, not-so-deft character bits like the wife lying about buying tickets home, but it’s understated enough that it doesn’t fit in at all with Steranko’s schema, which is anti-nuance, and can process that plot information just as well in the video confession. If you look at the inset panels in every splash, the sequential images, it’s never to communicate expression or feeling, or even to support the dialogue all that much - it’s to enforce some manner of visual narrative continuity onto the tableaux. The text handles most of the plot-driven storytelling, basically on its own, either through these long chains of dialogue bubbles or plain-laid rows of narration. So not only are Steranko’s characters confined, they seem to be existing outside of their own heads, laying and gazing through the ‘main’ image of most every splash while their own words often just hang in the air. And I’ll be damned if I can figure out a reason for any of this, short of Steranko approaching the whole project as an effort at freezing this dead-basic notion of sci-fi action confinement at absolute zero.
MS: Right, the end goal is a completely visual one. Which kinda makes sense given that this is an adaptation -- people already had the Outland story on a silver (or ha, maybe brass) platter with the movie. Steranko uses the comics form not to tell that story over again, but to show what comics can do when they get inside the mechanism of narrative. He slows time down to cold-syrup pace with the splashes, then warps it back into something a little quicker and jerkier than lifespeed with those animatic rows of panels. He moves multiple drawings of characters around in single frames, not choreographing their paths so much as tracking them, watching as they retreat from the camera and get smaller and smaller. He packs his spreads with ridiculous amounts of incidental detail, going further than even film can to capture every last visual element of his scenes. The story’s strictly secondary, only there to fill the word balloons (which themselves form a strong visual motif) and provide new things to draw. In one way it seems like the peak of what the film/comics transition can be, the artist coldly dissecting time and motion with panel borders for scalpels. But on the other hand, there is the question of why Steranko bothered to requisition the Outland story for his visual experiments, why he didn’t just come up with something original that might have been more interesting or worked better. My thought is that he actually didn’t care enough -- he never engages with story whatsoever, it really does only exist as a vehicle for picture-making. This is truly experimental comics, where what happens is there, but how it happens is what gets the artist drawing.
Steranko almost seems to make a point of sucking the feeling from Outland. In addition to the absence of a personal life for O’Niel, none of Connery’s uncertainty or tiredness or even his outrage play into Steranko’s interpretation of the character. He runs blood samples through supercomputers, he tells the corrupt mining bosses he’s taking them down, he blasts away at would-be assassins with a shotgun -- relentlessly, mercilessly. Steranko’s O’Niel isn’t the archetypal Western “tough guy with flaws and a heart” hero, he’s a Batman or a Punisher.
JM: I’m thinking one of the really merciless, hopeless Garth Ennis Punisher storylines, which tended to have some fairly curvy, ‘warm’ art, I’d say - Goran Parlov, Corben. I can imagine Steranko doing a one-off special in that vein and just destroying the souls of comic book readers across this great land. An ice-burned, schematic program of shooting. Looking at this late work, I can see that as a most logical progression.
MS: Even Ennis, though, is usually callous and violent as part of a concerted scheme to dig into who his characters are. Punisher, Preacher -- at the end of those comics we know exactly what the title characters are all about and why they did what they did. In Outland the comic’s world, crime exists, an abstract force, and Marshal O’Niel is little more than the abstract force which exists to counterbalance it. There’s more -- massive amounts of character narrative go missing in action (episode 3 ends with O’Niel and his crony Montone hanging out in the space station’s version of a county jail and then episode 4 skips over vast swaths of the movie to start with a Dickensian “Montone was dead”), the dialogue runs on and on in giant, almost aggressively expository word balloons, and the action gets both spread out and slowed down, dragging ponderously across page after painstakingly drawn page.
None of which is to say that Steranko’s dehumanization of Outland is a strike against it. Like I said, the movie’s no classic, and jettisoning even some of its better parts makes little difference as long as they’re replaced with something equally interesting. And I think Steranko’s scripting is really interesting, working in perfect tandem with his slow, sterile, abstracted page designs and the techno-freakouts of his machine, space, et cetera drawings to create this black robotic whole.
JM: A whole, I’d agree, that forms from our perception of deliberately separated elements, words and pictures.
MS: Yeah, exactly -- we see the pictures first, when those giant splashes jump off the page at us, then we read the big, floating, disconnected chains of word balloons as they just sit there on that one image, then we look at the pictures again. There’s hardly any relationship drawn between the two forms -- to state it directly, Steranko doesn’t try very hard to sync his art with the writing. There’s no real sequentiality to the pages, it’s like looking at a series of portraits and landscape images, not “story” pictures. None of the characters really “act”, none of the action really grabs you. The page itself becomes a screen -- you apprehend the design of every spread, you notice stuff like the placement of the blacks and the use of early computer graphics, but you never actually get inside the panels to experience the story as it happens. It all just plays out before your eyes, and you watch. It’s all about separation -- word from picture, man from his family, book from reader. Outland the film’s dim, malicious vacuum may not be in the comic’s images, but it’s definitely there -- this thing has absolutely no mercy, no feelings, and it lays bare the dormant nihilism in all Steranko’s work, defying the symbiotic function of “comics” itself. Same as 2001, it goes against the grain of the movie in a pretty skewed way, but both books end up working because they put the creators in their comfort zones.
Which makes me think. Both of these comics are really good, individual pieces that I’m obviously glad we have, but I do wonder about the weird tonal inconsistencies between comic and film versions that dog both. I feel like maybe Steranko would have been better suited to adapt the cold, hard, futurist 2001, where narrative and story are often secondary to psychedelic visual innovation, and Kirby could have done a better version of the more classically-structured, human Outland, really milked the genre grit and emotional iron of the space-western for all it was worth. Because in harsh reality neither of these comics are lasting, fundamental works -- they’re ephemera, and it seems to me that they didn’t necessarily have to be that way. But they’re both just a little bit too flawed.
JM: I think context worked against Kirby - it may be a hugely personal, thematically consistent Kirby-as-Kirby work, but Kirby’s so meat ‘n potatoes a Comics guy, grown in a primal comic book style, that pairing him up with 2001 inevitably smacks of novelty. I mean, it’s striking that he converts this stuff into a quaking history of violence, I like it a lot, but there’s little denying that the movie offers a ‘fuller,’ more challenging, subtler, nuanced, cleverer, smoother experience. I always find myself thinking forward to the 2001 series he did afterward, which was just a madly ambitious thing for its time and place - I think getting to play out that work further, longer, could have afforded Kirby’s 2001 saga its own might. I guess what I’m saying is, it needed more of him! More space! Fuck the movie entirely!
MS: Which is what ended up happening with the ongoing series, and that in turn morphed into the Machine Man ongoing -- Kirby brings Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, godssakes, back to Marvel superheroes in ten issues. Much as it might sting to admit it, that was his natural environment.
JM: I’m also sure Kirby would have done very nicely on Outland, although I sort of suspect the source material there wouldn’t have inspired him to really go beyond the parameters of the narrative - like, it’d have been a nice fight comic, but not ever an inspiring thing. Steranko’s version isn’t inspiring either, mind you - it just sits there like a completed experiment, as if awaiting data to be extracted from it. I don’t think I’d like his 2001 so much, because I’m not convinced he’d have caught the careful modulation of the ‘human’ element; Dave and HAL might be observed, tonally, but there is a real irony and poignancy to be taken from HAL’s death -- for me, the lights and pleading and determined concentration of Dave eventually created a hysterical absurdity, despite nobody raising their voice or even moving all that much -- ideally so that you’ll think of it as a ‘death’ rather than a disconnection. Both of them might come off as machines under Steranko. Maybe if he did it in ‘68...
MS: Yeah, he was past his prime. You’re right, Outland is hardly inspiring, more plain exhausting. Steranko might have had more control of himself as a visual artist in ‘81, but I mean... those Marvel stories didn't always work, but they were fun, exciting shit that got the blood pumping, that shouted at you in capital letters! This comics feels like it doesn’t care whether you read it or not, it’s content to just exist. Interesting, but hardly all it could have been. Though given the source material... I dunno.
Of all the Marvel Bullpen artists, excepting Ditko, I think Steranko carved out the most individual, non-Kirby-derivative style, but there was always still some gleam, some fundamental building stone of Kirby in there with it. Even though he formed a really unique way of doing comics toward the end of his Marvel career and beyond, it was still solidly based in Kirby precepts for the most part: hard-hitting, medium-expanding, high-octane visual thrills, with a little Eisner fun-with-formalism thrown in to spice things up. I don’t really see much anxiety over Kirby’s influence in Steranko’s ‘60s and ‘70s stuff -- maybe some in the early SHIELD stories where he’s still finding his feet, and then a bit in parts of his Captain America run -- he mostly stuck to the biggest Kirby precept of all, which is “do your own thing”.
But Outland makes it a little more interesting. Steranko had to be aware of Kirby’s 2001 by the time he started up with his own sci-fi movie adaptation, and like I said, it’s just not a very popular kind of comic to decide to do. There’s a sense throughout Outland of Steranko trying to beat Kirby at his own game, in the way his Nick Fury stuff went defiantly bigger and louder than Kirby’s. The banks of machinery loom larger, more detailed, more colorful than Kirby could manage, the forced perspectives run deeper than any previous comic that I can think of, and the facial expressions are as stiff and tortured as the King’s. It’s like Kirby had broken ground with another new type of comic, no matter how irrelevant and unworkable, and Steranko had to follow him into the fray again and make another bigger, harder, prettier version of it. Maybe that’s just what Steranko did -- lent his own conceptualizations and visual-art skills to other people’s formulas. His career makes a pretty good case for it: Outland and Repent Harlequin the adaptations, Chandler the knockoff, SHIELD and Superman and Captain America the pre-existing properties... all the highlights are solidly based in someone else’s creations.
More than that, though, there’s the late-period Kirby stylism that creeps into Steranko’s Outland art, tamping down the curves and contours and shutting everything in with big spotted blacks, hard surfaces, angular lines. It’s a definite transformation of Steranko’s Chandler/Repent style, moving away from the more illustrative Frazetta influence he cultivated in the ‘70s and back toward Kirby cartoon dynamism once again, though with an oddly inorganic photorealist twist. If Steranko shows off, works through, exorcises Kirby’s influence anywhere, it’s here, in the space movie adaptation he did a few years after Kirby did one. Interesting to note, I think.
If outdoing Kirby was the intent, I think Steranko succeeds on the visual side of things. Kirby had been past his peak for a while when he did 2001, and Steranko, at least artistically, never did peak, he just kept refining and changing until by Outland his pictures are just diamond-hard. The blacks are surer and more solid, the colors are brighter and more alien, the double-page spreads hit harder... Outland simply holds up better as a visual work than 2001. But there’s still that germ of Kirby behind it all, powering it...
JM: You see, I disagree with this, because Steranko’s Outland pictures are so hard as to be encased in amber. CGC'd. But most of this impression is due to his visual pacing, really, his close-up sequential panels mostly failing to navigate the primary images, the tableaux, in a propulsive manner. It’s intuitive, I suppose, in that I understand what’s happening, but it doesn’t communicate action in the ‘things happening in a given space’ sense, which is pretty perverse for a Kirby-informed work! Which - this clearly isn’t the first time Steranko has caused illustrational images to halt in space, positioned against text, but Outland lacks the moderation of, like, Red Tide, so that the images overpower the text and barely even seem to respect its dime novel fistfight ethos. And -- this is crucial -- the disrespect doesn’t go anywhere interesting, save for, yeah, hardening the images, solidifying the blacks, entrapping the characters. But Jim Steranko’s their jailer, not capital or technology.
MS: Well, as comics the stuff is hopeless -- he punched him? where? it’s not in the picture! But as sheer drawing I think Steranko brings a refinement that Kirby was just no longer capable of at that point.
JM: It brings to mind his Superman #400 story, which came after Outland; his last comics story. It’s a very fitting close to his career, or at least a logical one, because it concludes the development visible in Outland - now it’s all double-page spreads, with the Supeman lineage posed like handsome wax figures in the foreground, in front of the panels, in fact, while the panels’ sequencing allows background images to loosely illustrate paragraphs of narration. If anything, it’s the text narration that’s most animated by apportionment per panel, like audio guiding us through a museum exhibition (it’s not for nothing the left-to-right activity of the backgrounds suggests the narrative of a tapestry, that notorious citied origin of sequential art). Still, in that story Steranko’s technique is very appropriate, because it’s a story told about the ending of superheroes, from maybe ‘our’ world, created by the mighty final Superman (BOOM, gotcha Morrison!). They’re all gone now, the power is dispersed. The Steranko history of comics is over. This is the land of the dead.
MS: Literary content alert! It’s there, it really is! Yeah, and visually that Superman story completes another Steranko journey, from straight-Kirby sequential action comics to muraling, comics pages as cover art (the section of the medium Steranko’s influence looms largest in today). No movement at all, nothing but a dense, intricate surface image for you to bounce off of again and again. Steranko added so much to the comics page over the course of his career, but in the end he was almost kind of a Dadaist, creating to destroy. All those formal devices that get talked about so often, all the vision and inspiration -- it terminates in the creation of comics minus sequential imagery, a a flawed, vastly bizarre strand of the medium, a desert for Steranko and Steranko alone. Nowhere else to go.
I guess this is as good a time as any to bring up the wider question of influence: did these comics influence anyone? who? I think it’s in the Eisner/Miller interview book that Frank Miller basically cops to having outright stolen Steranko’s high-contrast b&w approach for Sin City, but beyond that I dunno. Of course there are a million artists with Kirby influences, and almost as many who cop from Steranko, but these particular books? Especially with Kirby’s 2001, it’s a drop in such a massive barrel of work, and even artists who specifically carry the mid-late ‘70s Kirby influence, it’s kinda like well, maybe they’re looking at Devil Dinosaur, maybe they’re looking at Omac, who knows? (It’s also here that we run up against both works’ status as basically apocryphal -- you gotta do some serious searching to find either of them (though the internet helps with Outland), and I can’t imagine they’ll come back into print anytime soon because of rights issues and all that garbage.) I do seem to remember Tom Kaczynski talking about 2001 in some interview or other... I dunno, can you think of anything else?
JM: No, I don’t consider either of these comics to be very influential on anything. But then again, 2001 is probably best taken as part of Kirby’s oeuvre of the ‘70s, the mighty cosmic tales of the Fourth World stuff going right through the Eternals in the form of battle-as-metaphor. This gets really noteworthy if you go into the 2001 series, which even moreso than the adaptation is Kirby’s big shot at playing out these obsessive themes in a non-superhero context. The first four issues, astonishingly enough, have the same broad structure as manga icon Osamu Tezuka’s own unfinished magnum opus, Phoenix: the narrative moves from the distant past to the future, then back to the past (if a little closer to the present) then back to the future, demonstrating how humanity’s eras are visited by the supernatural presence of the Phoenix/Monolith.
JM: Tezuka’s work is a lot better, I think, although it had the benefit of a considerably more mature and versatile comics industry surrounding it, even back in 1967. Tezuka could run long, long stories, touching on various genres or alternate generic styles, which I’m convinced Kirby was trying to do with the 2001 series - there’s a ritualistic quality to the early issues, always inevitably shooting from past to future, and then into some unknown experience, like humanity is unified plot-wise in addition to artistically. The Phoenix is a more versatile symbol, being a purported font of immortality - the desire for it powers many characters’ actions, and even when it doesn’t its presence is felt in the give-and-take series structure, back and forth from the dawn of humankind to its eventual extinction, closing in on the present day after demonstrating how transient life can be (and then, er, Tezuka died before he got there). The Monolith, meanwhile, seems to advise humanity on newer and defter means of building civilization through conquest - the past-set bits of early issues are always more interesting than the future parts, which don’t move backwards to the present. There’s a ritual effect - for a while, starting with issue #2, the second and third pages of every issue are a huge double-page splash, like the same story is inevitably going to be told over again, only this time a woman will adapt religious terror to form governance, or this time a conquering warrior will discover the value of culturally acclimating his enemies rather than destroying them. The future bits always end with the Monolith blasting people away from deadly peril into the realm of transformation, where they either do or do not transform. Because that’s the end of the line of violence.
Or, at least that’s how it goes until issues #5-6, which is nothing short of the King’s kiss-off to the superhero genre, set even further in the future than before, on a shitty artificial Earth where an every-fanboy lives out full-body superhero gaming fantasies. But he realizes that the artificial world is just as goofy as dressing up in tights -- ain’t it inevitable at a company where every fucking top-line story has to account for superhero expectations? -- so he blasts off into space and applies his superhero-informed heroic logic to an alien encounter, which pretty much saves the day aside from getting him just-about-killed, at which point the Monolith whisks him away to a caped fantasy that he literally ages out of(!!!) as he becomes another New Seed baby zipping around the universe. It’s easily the liveliest, funniest thing in the 2001 series - there’s this one part early on where the hero’s superman game is ruined because an older, not-so-thin woman is playing the damsel in distress, and you think it’s because he wants a thin, young, comic book-hot girl, but then when he goes up into space he encounters his real alien dream girl: this giant-headed googly-eyed mass of skewed expression, which has to be self-parody on Kirby’s part, because what could be more awesome to a comics fan in Kirby’s world than a ‘woman’ that embodies all of Kirby’s oddball anatomical tics to the nth degree?
MS: I read it as a little more vicious than that, especially issue #5, which in my opinion is the best post-Fourth World work Kirby did, centering in on hopelessness and defeat before #6 goes all Buck Rogers -- this guy, Harvey Norton by name, is a deluded, sick person whose immediate thought upon first contact with an alien being is that he wants to have sex with it. (And the space-princess more than just embodies the Kirby style, she’s a wholesale recycling of an old Kirby design, that of the Rigelian colonizer Tana Nile from Thor -- so we know he’s seen her before. A living dream girl, literally. Ew.) Norton’s a good person perverted, poisoned by comics, the perfect vehicle for Kirby to rage against the machine. “It’s not real!” he agonizes after his disappointing experience in the superhero RPG/amusement park. “I’m a captive -- in a man-made cage of illusions -- a world-wide comicsville -- which has less substance than my own dreams....” I mean, jesus!
Kirby opens the issue with “In the year 2040 AD, comics have reached their ultimate stage.” This was April ‘77 (same month as Heavy Metal #1 released): the underground was dead, there was no viable replacement making itself evident, and Marvel’s merchandising had reached a fever pitch. Thought-free superhero spectacle was looking like the future, and Kirby got physically ill every time he walked into a toy shop with his grandkids and saw consumer items bearing his art or his characters without earning him a penny in royalties. There was a next wave, thank the lord, and Kirby jumped on it eventually, leaving Marvel for animation and Pacific Comics, but at this point in time all he could do was scream as loud and anguished as he could. 2001 #5 is terrifying in a lot of ways, the father of universes brought low and trying his best to bring everything else down with him.
It’s also strangely predictive of the coming school of comics in its own way. Big chunks are given over to the city of New York and its futuristic urban decay -- smog actively rotting the wood out of old buildings, looming edifices of apartment blocks blotting over the sky, overcrowded monorail lines -- it’s cyberpunk, really, with the harsh, streety tone of Miller’s Daredevil added to the dystopian strains of Ronin, or hell, Chaykin or Liberatore comics.
JM: Ah, predicting Heavy Metal’s legacy, I’d say. How many cites have there been to The Long Tomorrow, wherein Moebius & O’Bannon purportedly ‘invented’ the dirty future style, approximately three months after that issue of 2001? And that story was a joke - it was a wry blend of rotten noir knockoff with spaceships and teeming cities and aliens - Cyberpunk (capitalized) would take this all a lot more seriously! For Kirby - it was just life, I think.
MS: Yeah, not so different from the average issue of Omac, just more focused, more outraged, tighter. And that’s not to mention all the fun the comic makes of superheroes: our man Harvey watches a "cassette film" featuring a typical Kirby brawny brawler crying “Your power sword WON’T stop me!” as the villain yells “Reckless fool! You shall DIE!” Hero comics down to the dumbest, most meaningless formulaic elements. I feel like there’s this perception in comics circles of Kirby as... well, victimized, for sure, but maybe also a little oblivious? A holy fool who deserved better and legitimately transcended what superheroes could be at the time, but couldn’t see outside of them. I think a lot of people see that as his big failing. But Kirby knew exactly how stupid his genre could get, and he didn’t make undergrounds about it -- he made nasty, hilarious comics like these, subversion from within the belly of the beast. So yeah, vicious, but you’re right -- these comics are also funny as fuck.
JM: And after that he just doubles down in issue #7, which sees a star child/New Seed floating over an off-the-cuff evocation of WWII battle, comic book-style, on a near-dead alien world, doing absolutely nothing but observing, Watcher-like, and then sucking the Power of Love out of a dead couple and using it to spark the evolutionary flame on another distant world. Excelsior! The final three issues of the run introduced Mister Machine/Machine Man, almost certainly bearing the mark of publisher concerns and possibly reader confusion: frankly, Kirby doesn’t apportion this stuff well per-issue, not until #5 or so. It might work particularly well among his works as collected into a book, which it likely won’t be, thanks to the licensing issues that afforded Kirby the chance to experiment in the first place. Fucking 1976, man.
MS: As far as the material goes, 2001 the series stands way taller than the adaptation, not to mention some of the more seen, less distinguished Kirby “classics”. His working so far outside the superhero playpen is especially interesting in the context of his career narrative, issue #7 most of all. That might be the purest Kirby comic I can think of, WWII, space, evolution, the power of love, lots of weirdly-shaped guns and blasted-out landscapes. You get the sense that this was what he wanted to do with his comics all along -- the art here is certainly the most focused of his entire second Marvel period -- but those goddamn superheroes kept getting in the way. Like you said, this is a Watcher comic in all but name, and Kirby clearly finds that character concept vastly more engaging than the Fantastic Four whose book spawned it.
It’s haunting, Kirby playing all his classic riffs without any kind of continuity backbeat. A vast, probing intelligence explores the cosmos while battles rage across wastelands and love springs eternal; if you boil out the heroic bits -- which are mostly overpowered by a deeply morose cynicism anyway -- this is every Kirby comic’s core. Naturally it’s a lot more brutal than most, with outright rape innuendo, impassioned screeding against war and violence of all kinds, and the ostensible hero taking it in the gut after a few pages of killing people himself. His girl gets shot to death a couple panels after that. There was no hope left in that hero jazz for Kirby, and the only way to kick the struggle was to evolve.
JM: Although now that I think of it - the constant beat of evolution’s necessity across at least a few different iterations of comic book genre possibilities is rather Morrisonian, eh? Seven Soldiers, I’m thinking, which featured a number of Kirby creations. That was much more of a superheroes qua superheroes thing, though, couching ‘evolution’ strictly as a course within genre permutations; the comics freedom bought by then allowed for all the more intensive burrowing into superhero stuff.
MS: Yeah, I can see it. Morrison has a lot of the same tenets at heart, evolution and ultimate redemption through love. Plus, the idea of a future in which everyone escapes a dreary, polluted reality by playing deep-immersion superhero games? That’s Invisibles, and there’s some in The Filth, too. Seaguy. Morrison’s definitely the heir to Kirby’s big, philosophizing side, now if only he’d quit with the Batman nonsense and do a wide-open non-superhero book -- like 2001 -- again!
JM: Ha, withholding judgment on Joe the Barbarian until it’s done? The thing with Morrison is, when he’s doing superheroes (at least this decade, and probably as far back as JLA), he’s looking really hard at superheroes as a concept, and increasingly now at superhero continuity as a potential for weird literalism - throwing all of Bat-history together as pretty much the ultimate Batman threat. Call it his response to the increased reliance on big ass event crossovers and continuity maniac fanservice and shit. Having a schizophrenic series splayed crazily across multiple titles is bound to mess with the quality, though, to say nothing of the varying aptitude of the artists. I mean, Kirby might pull a shit inker sometimes, but it was always him, right?
MS: Right, which is why he’s the better creator. Morrison... I don’t know, man, at this point I’m ready for him to shut the fuck up about it all and go back to 1995. I was so big on his continuity concepts for the longest time, and they worked with some of his books, but it’s ended up as this wormhole that eats itself -- it might be a response to all the marketing bullshit that modern hero comics pull, but if you look into the abyss long enough you get Batman RIP Aftermath and Return of Bruce Wayne. Final Crisis was dope while it was going on because it was new new new, now now now! -- and no time for anything else -- but two years later it's become its own needless continuity referencing, we’re seeing Tony Daniel redraw scenes JG Jones did the first time, and that’s when you know it’s time to call it a day.
Kirby recognized that the hero crap was all a merry-go-round, a sham in the end -- and he made 2001 #5 about it. Morrison, it’s like he was making fun of this shit decades ago with rad comics like Doom Force and now he’s trying to seriously engage with it? Talk about “scraping a story”! Hopefully at some point he really will go back to writing (and I hate to say it like this but) weirdness comics, but until then it’s a slog with some high points along the way. I don’t know if you saw this but there was this quote from him at San Diego where somebody asked if he writes his comics high anymore and he was like “No, I’m so busy I’m getting really into just bearing down and grinding out all my Batman ideas as fast as I can, no time for drugs.” Admitting to becoming a hack, basically. The smartest hack working in any medium, probably, but fuck, man, drugs are awesome! Especially when they help you write The Filth! Joe the Barbarian, pfff. I might be slightly impressed if it was by like "Scott Snyder" or "Jason Aaron", but it's not, it's just some of Morrison's most insubstantial work in years.
Oh, right -- Outland.
JM: Outland, eh? I think it just poofed out. Another slammin’ Heavy Metal spectacle among many, you know? Which isn’t to say an arguably marginal work can’t inspire, but - no, I’m drawing a blank.
MS: Yeah, and by that point the space/futurism genre was really kicking in hard, almost equal to hero stuff in popularity. Like 2001’s position in the library of mid-’70s Kirby, who can tell whether Outland in particular was the one book among so many to influence anybody?
JM: Watch, next I’ll open up Kevin Huizenga’s the Wild Kingdom, and it’ll all be two-page images of Sean Connery. Won’t my cheeks be red.
MS: That’s pretty funny.
Also interesting to consider is where the adaptations came in the broader narratives of the artists’ careers. For Kirby, 2001 was kind of the beginning of the end., kicking off that one last fertile period at Marvel before his decline got serious (I’m sorry, but Silver Star and Captain Victory are just not good). I always find it kind of perversely fascinating to look at Kirby post-‘74 or so, you can see his health declining and his disillusionment growing on the pages, the art decaying... brrrr! I know you said you don’t think his art was compromised by his mannerisms yet at this point, but... well. I tend to agree, especially when Mike Royer was inking, as in the 2001 ongoing and Devil Dinosaur. Those are just prime Kirby, the fullest his expression ever got. That said, if you read a run of his stuff from that era you can watch his approach narrow down until that singular, pure-Kirby mode of expression is all that’s left.
JM: It’s curious enough just reading the Fourth World hardcovers all the way through, including a late-coming return to superhero-ish exploits a la the 2001 series, with the added whiplash effect of mid-’80s Kirby landing to draw the curtains closed.
MS: Yeah, he had really started reaching there, though as ever with Kirby the material had enough inspiration behind it to pull it through. But -- for the first thirty-forty years of his career, Kirby was just a prime innovator, splashes, two-page spreads, figure animation, photo collages, boldly individual stylisms. Like many before me have said, he created a language. But he did that by always reaching further, incorporating new ideas, trying things, and at some point in the ‘70s he stops. All the profile shots become those jagged granite edifices, all the faces lose their individuality and become Kirby faces, not characters, angles and compositions start getting reused... I’m not saying Kirby was swiping from himself, but it’s like he had found the acme of expressionist power for every shot he’d have to show in his brand of comics, and at some point decided there was no reason to keep searching for something else. His art solidifies. Then, after a while, the rot sets in.
Still, 2001 itself is still a really good-looking comic, probably one of the best Kirby produced in his second stay at Marvel -- Frank Giacoia’s inks and Marie Severin’s deft colors do a lot for it -- but I imagine it must have come as something of a shock for Marvel-heads who were expecting Kirby’s return to be a return to mid-’60s Joe Sinnott slickness. This comic is rough, craggy, thick, by turns over-and underwrought, at times almost cramped. All the looseness and flow of his Silver Age classics is gone, and so is some of the stylized solidity of the best Royer-inked DC Kirby stuff.
JM: Eh, I don’t think hardcore Marvelites would have necessarily expected the Kirby of old - comics is a small enough place that most everyone prepared to distinguish between past and present styles of one artist would be aware of Kirby’s development over at DC. I agree that the Treasury format is places it all up front, though - and I don’t think it’s cramped at all! I think there’s a fine intensity to it - all those close-ups of granite-cut faces glaring right at you, only for characters to vanish into granite-cut landscapes. It’s not loose, no - but as I indicated above, I think the brute force of it is consistent in conveying Kirby’s vision of the work.
MS: Yeah, "cramped" is too strong, maybe I meant just... I dunno, flexed, almost still, like there’s nowhere else on the page these lines could go. Though it shouts and burns like all Kirby, at a certain point his work stopped being spontaneous, just solidified into place. It’s like statues, heavy, massive, epic.
It’s especially interesting to look at 2001 next to the other Kirby tabloids that were out at the time, the Fantastic Four and Thor ones that collected his prime Silver Age work on those titles. Boy, you can really appreciate Joe Sinnott inks at that size -- the lines are just so fluid, there’s such a joyous flourish to every single bit of black on the page. The Galactus Saga looks effortless, divine -- there’s a weird lack of violence to it as placed next to 2001 from ten years later. It’s just so elegant. By ‘76 it looks like work, like it was forged in fire and banged out on an anvil. It looks rough, it looks crude, it looks like a shockingly expressionist variant of the prime Kirby material that his reputation rests on. But there’s a ridiculous amount of immediacy and power to it all the same. It looks like it was a struggle to draw, and Kirby was always about struggle. The tabloid size gives him the biggest canvas he ever had in his career, and it gets downright revelatory at points, like the psychedelic ending-trip sequence, splash page after splash page blasting out of the book with as much might as anything that guy ever drew. I want to frame some of those and put them on my wall, man. On those pages, anyway, Kirby’s visual mastery matches and maybe even goes past Kubrick’s.
JM: I was most taken with the sequences directly after that, actually (although I clearly did love the phallic, ejaculatory nature of the interstellar overdrive bits - ooh, if you equate Kirby’s visual approach with the potential for/realization of violence in humanity, what’s the reading on this most un-immaculate of conceptions? SEX. VIOLENCE. COMICS.) I’m talking about Dave coming home, and while it’s drawn the same as Kirby draws everything, the coloring -- and I have to wonder if these aren’t specifically the bits Kirby handled on his own -- allows just a few streams of blue to creep into b&w images. This not so much simulates but suggests to me the presence of blue pencil, which would vanish upon printing inked art - the idea is that we’re seeing something that’s unfinished, inked but unpublished, emphasizing Dave’s incomplete metamorphosis. Kirby disliked blue pencil, by the way, and likely didn’t really use any in preparing 2001 for Giacoia’s inking, but the metaphor seems nonetheless strong.
After that, on the next page, the blue takes over - Dave ages in monochrome, until his death prompts the Monolith’s eruption into yellow light. The yellow and blue and gray intermingle then, as Dave’s face is broken down into slashing lines and streams of tone which pool as the lines reform into the Star Child/New Seed’s face, the compositional elements of one being rearranged into another’s. The final page returns to color and space, as our perspective becomes dominated by the child, no longer a Kirby-like crag of eyes and shadow, but hatched and cross-hatched lines convened around the curved outline of eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It’s a simple technique, often used to render something obscure in the midst of radiation, but from its surroundings it becomes the breakdown of Jack Kirby’s art into... something else, something delicate and arranged, if a little spiny. The post-Kirby form in a Kirby comic, leaving it post-Human.
MS: Yeah, that part gets closest to the ‘60s elegance I’m talking about, probably closest to the look of Kubrick as well. It’s sterile, or at least reserved, not in the marks on the page necessarily, but in the imposition of the monochrome color, which is so effective after the benday-on-the-outer-limits rush of the trip sequence. All the angular, shouty tension of Kirby overridden by the hush of white and the slight eeriness of that light blue. It’s nothing like the actual scene Kubrick shot, again -- but it accomplishes the same thing very well. Awe and foreboding, but not in the bombastic mode of the rest of the story. This is pastoral, almost sweet. Aging and death, two big Kirby themes, but considered in that most un-Kirby of ways, going gentle into that good night. It’s especially potent as compared to the similar death scenes that ended most 2001 issues, which were a lot more typical of Kirby and genre comics in general. Sometimes they’d get a little surrealistic, but mostly they’re either bursts of physical motion -- running, swimming -- that cramp up and break down, or the goodole walk into the sunset. But the final scene of the adaptation is genuinely other, not like anything else in the Kirby library. Powerful, but almost delicate.
It, and the subsequent birth of the New Seed, are also the most significant example in either of these two books of the artist sublimating their individual style to better put across the filmmaker’s vision. That’s not really a problem for Steranko -- Outland has so little vision to begin with, and he just cuts the material that doesn’t fit with his way of doing things -- and Kirby would change Kubrick scenes wholesale until they became Kirby scenes. But yeah, here we move out of the usual violence and pomp, and just fade and fade... You’re totally right about the style switch-up in the last panel, Kirby dots fading into pure spotted black and than fading even further into, gasp, a heavy rain of hatching and crosshatching. Like I said, at this point the Kirby era was over, and it all just got linier and linier, Adams, then Byrne, then -- Jim Lee-style comics as the medium’s New Seed? Say it ain’t so!
JM: Ha ha ha, I was just reading DC’s old Shadow of the Batman miniseries of Marshall Rogers’ ‘70s Detective Comics work; this was 1985, so they gave Rogers the opportunity to re-color everything (including the set-up Steve Englehart stories he didn’t draw!), along with some bonus shorts he did in Mystery in Space and Weird War Tales and the like - and then you hit issue #3 and for some reason they’ve included that month’s Meanwhile... column in an otherwise ad-free comic, and it’s all Roy Thomas just flipping the fuck out over Todd McFarlane. Like, holy shit, Todd Fucking McFarlane guys, this shit is goddamned murder. Literal fucking murder, blood on the floor, kids, take it from Roy Thomas. Take it home, every month... in Infinity, Inc.!! Such exquisite tension with the Marshall Rogers reprints (although McFarlane has cited Rogers as influential, so maybe I shouldn’t joke)...
MS: You can always joke about the Toddster, let’s talk about his Mark McGwire baseball now! But hey, another Steranko biter who forged his own style: Marshall Rogers, the most underappreciated artist in hero comics! It’s so interesting how many of these guys (Rogers, Starlin, Gulacy) took Steranko head-on in the ‘70s and were able to emerge with the kind of workable storytelling paradigms that the man himself never quite got to. I said this somewhere a while ago, but it’s worth repeating: Steranko just needed to do more comics. 42 books, out of which Outland’s HM issues are 37-41. That’s nothing, that’s just not enough time to learn how to do some of the basic medium-specific stuff that allows Rogers to pull off all the formalist screentone psychedelia without fucking up the narratives.
At this point in time Steranko gets mythologized because he’s mythologized, you know -- he’s JIM STERANKO -- but he lived and died his life in comics as a rookie. You can see him learn the basics on Nick Fury, get to some next level shit on Captain America, and then he moves into pastiching Krigstein, so exciting... and then... and then nothing but ephemeral offshoots for the rest of his career, never actually moving it forward again, just trying stuff for a second before taking another five years off. It’s not a waste because we have some incredible comics, but he could have been so, so much more if he had just continued to grind it out in the trenches. Not something that artists should have to do, and y’know, good for him that he escaped getting beaten into the ground like every other Marvel Bullpenner, but talk about an unfinished symphony.
And the story of Jim Steranko’s career couldn’t get much more different from Kirby the workhorse’s, considering his complete works barely fill up half a shortbox. Steranko’s “periods” are often marked by one or two individual stories, half of them shorter than regular comic length (while Kirby’s are like, “1964-’69”, jesus), and Outland marks the beginning of his last one. It’s all but a given that Jim Steranko is never going to draw a comic again, which makes this and the Superman short the capstones to his career. Like 2001, Outland is the beginning of an end -- the only problem is this doesn’t feel like it. Unlike the Kirby comic, where you can really place it in the context of a long and rich life in comics and identify where exactly the artist was in relation to his other stuff, Outland just kinda strides out of left field fully formed. It’s innovative, it’s different, it’s not too much like earlier comics Steranko had done (though you can still obviously tell it’s the work of the Nick Fury/Chandler guy). Like pretty much all of Steranko’s comics, Outland is full of new approaches, some of which create new problems. In fact, this comic is so new that it’s tough to consider what it “means” among the rest of Steranko’s works the way you can consider what 2001 means among the rest of Kirby’s. Steranko, in my opinion, never really grew or declined after about '68, never really went up or down, he just expanded outward until he stopped.
Outland’s made up of the few things all Steranko comics have in common. There’s a style change-up from previous projects with the jagged, futuristic linework, though it still looks of a piece with his other comics. There’s formal experimentation, with an emphasis on the layouts, that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. There’s clunky writing that picks up momentum from the idiosyncrasy of its flaws. There’s a tension between Steranko’s impulses toward blowing bits of information up (with the gargantuan double-page spreads) and condensing them down (with the rows of tiny panels and the frenetic jump-cutting). There’s some killer coloring, and more attention than usual paid to the letters. Those are the things that make Outland unique, just like they make pretty much every Steranko comic unique. You can’t really compare Steranko to Steranko like you can with Kirby, you just have to figure out what you think of his comics and go from there. But I can’t really tell if there are any comics to compare this one to (besides the obvious). Can you think of some other books to “contextualize” Outland with? Other Heavy Metal comics, I guess, the colder, nastier ones like Chaykin’s and Sergio Macedo’s stuff. Maybe Starlin’s Dreadstar?
JM: I don’t have half your Steranko expertise, but I see Outland as sort of related to Red Tide and Repent Harlequin!, which I believe are its closest neighbors on the Jaunty Jim continuum, if maybe as a reaction. Which is to say, it’s the reclamation of those word-picture experiments (one relational, the other allegorical, both elementally distanced) into a more enveloping ‘comics-like’ form, something where the text lays atop the images, even as those images seem to relate (stiffly) to one another more than the text itself. Like, it’s still somehow separate, even when it’s together, and I get the impression that’s an intentional value at work. So I relate it to those immediately preceding works (as ‘immediate’ as it gets with Steranko), and obviously to the Superman thing he did later.
But in all candor, it does seem a lot like other Heavy Metal comics, or at least the Cody Starbuck serial I mentioned before. Chaykin in general, his Byron Preiss stuff - there was also an element of working out the division between words and pictures in Empire, from a “horizontal/vertical axis” design system for page layouts that Preiss himself seems to have developed (or so he asserts in his Foreword) to the segregation of a good portion of the book’s narration to the panel gutters, as in actually between panels (as well as inside, above or below). Empire isn’t all that far off from Outland at all -- which makes me wonder how much influence Preiss might have had, editorially or just in consultation, with Steranko’s own visual thinking -- except it’s much more willing to shift on its “axis.” A lot of it looks like the kind of ‘widescreen comics’ Warren Ellis and others kept talking up around the turn of the millennium. Steranko approaches it far more severely, locking down those tableaux, cutting off the sequence/inset panels from the primary visuals, enough so that Chaykin’s work doesn’t even seem so separated between words and images - the layouts themselves ‘move’ to accommodate the action, to adjust the story. That doesn’t happen in Steranko’s work, and therefore the confinement of immobile characters, isolated from their words, is emphasized.
MS: It's so counter-intuitive. Widening the division between the words and the pictures in comics, why the hell would anybody want to do that? Did Jim Steranko just have the wrong idea about everything? The emblematic spread of Outland comes when O’Niel locks in security-cam surveillance on the criminals he’s targeting: you see a big panoramic portrait of them in a strip bar, several guys hunched over a table having a beer, this row of faces -- and imposed over each face is a staticky television-screen shape, making one big picture into a bunch of little panels by locking them into place. A raft of exposition-by-computer-screen hangs above the main image. No movement, no sequence, just dissection of an image, planing it apart for no other reason than to see how it looks.
While they’re obviously subservient to outside visions -- Preiss is a good call, but I don’t know how much he gave to Steranko and how much Steranko gave to him -- both 2001 and Outland are also very much products of their creators. 2001 is nicely emblematic of an interesting point in Kirby’s career, while Outland carries the same concerns Steranko always brought to his work. We’ve both written about how Heavy Metal and its derivatives were the nexus where comics’ mainstream and underground came together, so how should we view these books in that light? How “commercial” are these comics, and how “artistic”?
JM: Oh gosh, I’m sure they’re both, you know? I haven’t read any interviews to reveal the intents of Kirby and/or Steranko, and I presume their publishers have a primary goal of making money kept close to their steel hearts. From the historical context, and its evident, fitting place in the Kirby library (and especially given the outlook of the series that followed it), 2001 reads to me like a chance to embrace a simpatico work and make it Kirby’s own, and maybe take the chance to get some huge sights seen really big. Read as a whole, adaptation-to-series, Kirby’s 2001 is maybe a little tiny bit like the Jonathan Lethem-fronted Omega the Unknown, where the first issue was a pretty close adaptation of the original Gerber/Skrenes/Mooney #1, and then launched itself into its own world. Or, you know, like how Clarke’s novels all purportedly exist in their own discreet ‘universes’ so that 2010 isn’t really a sequel to 2001, but a hypothetical extension, and then 2061 is another possibility, somewhere down the line, etc. It was an epic shot, mostly unsuccessful, but it was surely taken.
Meanwhile, Steranko tends to switch his style on comics projects enough that I read everything as basically ‘his’ - I guess he could have used a movie adaptation as a means of accessing Heavy Metal. Or maybe the magazine dangled the prospect of a (presumably) good-paying adaptation to attract Steranko. Commerce hangs over popular comics, but clearly both men approached their works as opportunities for expression, troubled as they might be.
MS: Yeah, and Kirby more than Steranko, I’d say -- the existence of Prevue Magazine alone testifies to that. Kirby was always choosing to tell stories, to get whatever little swatches of his inspiration and personality and aesthetic out in public no matter what he had to put up with for the privilege, while Steranko was basically a commercial artist, not any kind of a storyteller, both before and after his couple Marvel years. Yet, from a purely textual standpoint, Steranko’s stuff has more of an individualist stamp, like he did what he wanted and changed it in both form and content every time. I guess it really goes back to the thing about literary content -- Kirby the artist is immortal, but I’m hard pressed to name a book where he let the art get out ahead of his storytelling and obscure what was going on like Steranko did in every single comic he ever drew. It’s always in service to the story, which makes me think that people don’t pay attention to Kirby the writer enough. The art was his language, but it wasn’t, to stretch a metaphor, just some comics-linguistic blueprint. He used it to say things he wanted to say. He wrote a novel, for heavens’ sake! It’s probably really interesting!
Steranko, like you said, is an aesthete first, a visual stylist in the arena of comic book stories. His goals are all visual, and the venues he used to explore them were pretty much always secondary concerns. I think that paradigm -- Kirby the storyteller, Steranko the image maker -- helps explain why Kirby’s ideas stick more to percieved commercial limits but express more in the way of concrete ides, while Steranko’s stuff looks totally revolutionary but is usually involved in some kind of blah, rote plot mechanism underneath. It’s just about what the two guys were trying to do.
Anyway, on the one hand, as pure commodities with aesthetic consideration set aside, these two books are probably way more commercial objects than say Chandler or an issue of Thor. Especially 2001, but both are tie-ins to “major motion pictures” that had more money and media behind them than straight comicky-style comics at that point in time (or this one, really) could hope to muster. But on the other hand, these aren’t “commercial comics” in the generally accepted mode, especially for their era. I’m thinking about it and I guess the full-length tabloid is as close to a “graphic novel” as Kirby had gotten in '76, and despite the film’s success, 2001 is hardly a glitzy Hollywood-type story. Outland was published in Heavy Metal, giving it that edgy push, and Steranko takes it further in both form and content than the average mainstream books did -- by ‘81 the times they were a’changing, but there’s still tits and exploding heads and a lot of weird chances taken with the formalism in Outland. Mainstream comics don’t look or read like that even now, and I don’t know that they ever will.
JM: There’s this neat little bit in the letters column of 2001 #2. A Robert M. Reed writes in, pretty much saying what you’re saying now - yeah, this is nice. This is above average; I can see that. But... dammit, House of Ideas, when the heck are you going to do a 100% original story in the Treasury format, like just a NEW story, with a beginning and an end? He didn’t say it in so many words, and y’know, he’s firmly in the perspective of 1976, but still - can’t we go farther? Marvel’s response was basically ‘if it makes money,’ but - do you think Archie Goodwin was doing the responses? He was a consulting editor on 2001; on some of the better issues of the series, #5 and #7, his credits read “Admired by...” I suspect he might have been typing his response, and nodding his head and mouthing “yes.”
MS: Yeah, and that’s an interesting credit, isn't it, basically admitting that Goodwin was giving Kirby carte blanche with the comic. Admire, don't edit -- he knew how to handle genius! As well as being one of the few Big Two editors who have placed a high(er?) premium on art over commerce. I don’t imagine we’d have either of those issues you mention if Gerry Conway had been wrangling Kirby on 2001. Somebody was in his corner with those books, and I suppose Goodwin makes way more sense than anybody else. In the end it’s always been the editor’s prerogative in American mainstream comics, Kirby and Steranko were both lucky they found themselves with lenient bosses at certain points.
That said, though, there’s nothing very transgressive about either comic, especially when you consider that Raw was out by ‘81, in addition to the first Guido Crepax serializations in HM. 2001 mostly feels like the way Kirby should have always been allowed to work, big canvas, actual plot dynamics, enough formal freedom to make the splash pages matter. It’s dynamic and grand and entertaining -- it’s spectacle, really, quite commercial in my opinion. It’s just not hemmed in by the very peculiar set of rules that commercial comics are stuck with. Outland’s a little harder, and of course the comic of that movie is always going to be a less commercial thing than the 2001 comic.
But taken in the Heavy Metal context rather than Kirby’s Marvel context -- not to mention the context of a 1981 world where Frank Miller’s career in comics had gotten off to a gangbusters start -- it belongs. It’s got naked girls and killing and weirdness, but shit, that’s what sold in ‘81! That’s what still sells now if you subtract the weirdness! I guess what I’m getting at is that these comics feel of a piece with the usual Kirby and Steranko levels of commerciality, just not of hero comics ground rules. Both guys were mainstream artists who did mainstream work, both here and elsewhere. It’s just that in the context of their wider careers, and of mainstream comics in general, both these books look kinda out there. Like the good comics always did, I guess. Always do.
JM: The work is theirs, so that I can only feel the bobbles and shortcomings were the artists’ own. Beats the hell out of impersonality.