Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review: The Eternals by Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby, the King of Comics and certainly one of the architects of the Marvel Universe! I mentioned in this earlier article "Jack Kirby's Back: FOOM 11 and Captain America 193 covers" that I wasn't necessarily a fan of his mid-seventies Marvel work. I have been trying to revisit that material lately with fresh eyes to see what I thought.  BTW, currently the first volume of The Eternals is free on Comixology Unlimited if you have that service and want to give it a try.

The Eternals 3

Here is what I remember of this time, late 1975 and into 1976. Kirby's first publications coming back to Marvel were 2001 A Space Odyssey (Marvel Treasury Special) and then Captain America. The Eternals didn't start until months later, towards late spring 1976. We were teased about it for months...and it seemed tantalizing! Those of us who loved New Gods from DC Comics had high hopes this was similar quality and scope. But when I finally got my hands on the first issue...I was a bit disappointed. It was far out, all right, but it didn't have the same punch as New Gods 1, which started off explaining the whole setup and the focusing on the main players in that conflict.

Kro and Ikaris

The Eternals 1 starts the story slowly. I think you could almost say The Eternals is an example of decompressed storytelling, or perhaps we could say it is Mosaic storytelling. There is a wide scope and the players / concepts are slowly unfolding, even though there is action and conflict. The guy we think is probably the star of this book, Ikaris, doesn't even get into costume until issue 3.


In order to appreciate The Eternals, you need to consider the influences at the time. There was a very popular paperback book titled Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Daniken which put out a theory that extra terrestrials visited ancient mankind and influenced our development. This theory included various religious myths, saying that these events had been the work of aliens and not angels or spirits. To an uninformed person, science appears to be magic. Marvel Comics had published a 1975 Marvel Preview magazine which I wrote about earlier, Neal Adams and Alex Nino on Man-Gods From Beyond the Stars. In addition, Arthur C Clarke had a popular science fiction novel, Childhood's End, which was enjoying a new wave of popularity in paperback. In this story there were Overlords who would determine Earth's fate after a 50 year waiting period. Demons in this story were humanity's misrepresentation of another species. The Deviant Kro in The Eternals is pretty much using that Clarke idea.

Eternals - The Gods have returned

With The Eternals, Kirby is trying to take these science fiction concepts along with his favorite theme, that the Gods (New Gods, Asgardians from Thor, etc) are actually alien beings with superior technology. The scope of the artwork in The Eternals may be on a grander scale than anything Kirby did before. The first issue brings the Celestials back to Earth in a massive spaceship. If you are young, reading this issue and hoping to see a hero like Thor or Orion, you were disappointed. That archetype never arrived in The Eternals 1. What did arrive are these massive alien beings, The Fourth Host, and they were only alluded to within the story. We learned the Celestials experimented on Apes to Uplift them through science; the Apes evolved into three races on Earth: The Eternals, the humans, and The Deviants.

The Eternals main cast members

Now here is one thing that was confusing back then. Kirby called The Celestials "Gods" but they weren't just ordinary Gods, they were Mega Overlord Gods. The ones who were going to decide the fate of mankind after 50 years. What would become our main cast of Eternal characters were Gods of Myth. Sersi was Circe, Thena was Athena, Makkari was Mercury, and so on. Kro was from the Deviant race, clearly the Devil when he sprouted horns. After a number of issues we got to meet this entire cast. We saw hints that nearly every religious pantheon was influenced by a member of The Eternals. I am sure Kirby must have seen the potential for this series to go 100 issues or more.

Ajak

In the second issue of The Eternals we met this guy, Ajak. I love, love, love the design of this character. He is clearly influenced by the Aztec / Inca design. He was known by the Incas as Tecumotzin, Lord of Flight. He just looks spectacular. Unfortunately he is stuck inside an Incan ruin for much of the series. Ajak's main job is to communicate with The Celestials and be their spokesperson. He does see some action later on.

Arishem, leader of the Fourth Host

There are astonishing splash pages and double page spreads in The Eternals. This is nothing new, by this time Kirby fans are used to that and expecting more. In the third issue we see this double page spread of Arishem, leader of the Fourth Host of Celestials. Again, such a wild and fantastic creation! If you though Galactus was terrific, this is Galactus to the next level and beyond.

There is a big complex story in The Eternals, which may have gotten away from Kirby a bit. Readers wanting to see a traditional good vs evil story get a bit of that in The Eternals vs The Deviants. Kirby has some interesting themes there, some commentary on the use of ovens for extreme Deviants and Nazi / Roman like behavior. But while young readers may have wanted more of that stuff, it wasn't what The Eternals was really about.

Eson

The most interesting part of The Eternals are the deployment of members of the Fourth Host around the world. They don't do much other than observe, but their very appearance causes nations to react nervously. They do interfere a little more directly with The Deviants (shown above), as they previously destroyed their ancient city Lemuria centuries ago.

Nezzar

There is one neat little story about how the Soviet Union military reacts to the presence of Nezzar of the Fourth Host. They launch an attack against this giant creature who deflects it with the power of his mind. It turns out the launch order for the attack was never given, but he simulated the outcome in the minds of the leaders and gave them all a stroke. That story may be cribbed from some other source but it was neat. I could not help thinking about The Celestials deployed among all different types of countries, that seemed a little bit like the recent movie, Arrival.

Eternals summoned for Uni-Mind

The Eternals themselves become even more compelling by issue 11 when we get to travel to Olympia and witness their leader, Zuras, summoning all of them to participate in the Uni-Mind. This double page spread does remind you of the glory days of New Genesis in the New Gods. It's also a far-out concept as these Eternal beings meld themselves together into one giant golden brain that flies off into outer space, to ponder the mystery of The Celestials return. I couldn't help but think of The Forever People coming together to summon The Infinity Man. In that case they were trading places with another being from The Source, but it seems like a concept Kirby was very interested in. People coming together for the common good.

As a young person, I stopped reading The Eternals by issue 12 or so. This time around I read all 19 issues plus the first and only Annual. It was a lot of fun and clearly there is a pantheon of charactes here that could be mined for other series or movies. The story itself is flawed: there is no through line, no spine of action to drive you through the story as Orion does in the New Gods. Ikaris appears to be the main protagonist, he has a cool costume, but his personality is bland. If you compare Ikaris to Thor or Orion, he just doesn't measure up to those heroes. The character we briefly see in one issue, The Forgotten One (aka Gilgamesh), seems vastly more interesting than Ikaris. There is no overall compelling villain in the mode of Darkseid to propel The Eternals forward. Sersi, with her witty and wild personality, was the breakout character who went on to join The Avengers. I don't know any of the behind the scenes drama on this series, but I am curious now how Marvel editorial staff might have interfered or caused changes to be mind.

Neil Gaiman attempted to fix many of these flaws in his 2006 mini-series The Eternals, which I plan to re-read next. Nuff Said!

Update: I did re-read The Eternals 2006 7 issue mini-series by Gaiman and John Romita Jr. I remembered liking this when it came out originally. But reading it on the heels of the Kirby work, I did not like it very much. It actually made me appreciate the genius of Jack Kirby even more, the 1970s series was much better in comparison, despite any of the flaws that I mentioned.

5 comments:

  1. I love 70s Kirby. He didn't always make a lot of sense, especially all that dialog that no real human being would ever utter, but his stuff in that era was so far out and fun that I find it easy to forgive. The Eternals is one of my favorite Kirby series. Of course, that may be because I read it years before I ever read the New Gods stuff (which I also love).

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    1. I do like The Eternals a lot! I just have to rate it behind New Gods / Mister Miracle / Kamandi / The Demon / Forever People. Perhaps because - I read those first, as you did with The Eternals.

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  2. I have to be honest and say that when I re-read The Eternals relatively recently, I found it to be an incredibly tedious read, especially the annual. I wanted to like it, I really did, but something was missing. Or 'someone' I should perhaps say. And that someone was - you guessed it - Stan Lee.

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  3. Kirby's Eternals is one of my favourite 70's Marvels, Neil Gaiman's follow up was a huge disappointment. However, the series that followed that is pretty good.

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  4. I think there was a very coherent set of ideas behind this series and that it was very deliberate that Ikaris didn't seem like a compelling lead character, that there was no Orion, no Darkseid equivalents, and so on. That a lot of readers were looking for stuff like this and didn't get it is probably one of the main reasons it puzzled or disappointed so many, but I think it's a misunderstanding to see all this as a flaw: on the contrary, I see it as one of the things that makes the Eternals so original and forward-thinking.

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