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Kirby's Eternals

When i was younger i didn't like Jack Kirby at all. Well, it's not so much that i didn't like him as i thought his artwork looked dated. Recently i've sort of come to terms with that - it's not so much that it looks dated, it's actually just that it is... bizarre. It's most appreciable when he drew the really far out stuff - the cosmic stuff from Fantastic Four or Thor, the ancient mystical stuff in Black Panther, etc. And the bizarreness is definitely a good thing. Some of his drawings are just so crazy, i can actually spend a few minutes just looking at them, whereas with most comics i generally race through them, just glancing at the art while reading the script. So i've definitely been getting back into Kirby as an artist. And when he (or Stan Lee, for that matter), writes, his dialogue is incredibly cheesy and over-the-top, but that actually has its own charm.

Well, years ago a random issue of Eternals fell into my collection, and i thought it was pretty bad, and i'd picked up a few more in bargain bins over the years and was actually stunned to realized that the series was printed in the mid-70s, whereas it read to me more like mid-60s (and judging by Paul O'Brien's comments in his review of the new Eternals comic by Neil Gaiman, it looks like he's still under that impression). But now that i'm having a Jack Kirby Renaissance, i thought i should give it a try. The whole series was only 19 issues + an annual, and i already had a bunch, and i'd just found a great online comic store where you can get stuff pretty cheap, so i figured i'd fill in the rest of the series. The Eternals seemed like it would be a great outlet for Kirby's more bizarre tendencies and it was a series where he had complete creative control since he was both writer and artist and there weren't any other marvel characters for him to worry about*, so i was ready to re-evaluate my earlier opinion.

Well, my earlier opinion stands. Actually the basic concept of the series is great, or at least it is something that i've internalized. The idea is that in the earliest days of mankind, great space giants came down and performed genetic experiments on us. Their experiments resulted in three distinct races of man:

  • Eternals, who are immortal and unchanging, and essentially benevolent and godlike.
  • Deviants, whose genetic structure is so unstable that no two are alike. They are generally not so nice.
  • Humans, the regular folk who had to struggle to survive with no special abilities, but had the potential to surpass either group. Later writers took the idea of that potential to be the mutant X-Factor that allowed some humans to acquire super powers, either through birth (mutants) or when triggered by some external energy, such as radiation or cosmic rays (and of course most humans don't have the X-Factor genes and would die if exposed to the same energy, which is why you can't just create an army of Hulks).

The space giants (Celestials), after performing their genetic mischief, left the three races to their own devices, and come back periodically to check on the results of their experiments. The second time they came back, they found a world where the Deviants had completely enslaved the humanity, and the Eternals had retreated high into the mountains. The Deviants saw the Celestials and attacked them, afraid they had come to end their domain. In retaliation, the Celestials destroyed all of the Deviant civilization, forcing them to retreat into under-sea labyrinths, which is where they remain today.

All good so far as a backstory, and the actual series begins with the Celestials returning again in modern times, with one of the Eternals announcing to the humans that the Space Gods have returned again to judge the three races of Earth over a 50 year period. Great, let's get started! So Kirby takes a few issues jumping around introducing us to various Eternals while the Celestials stand ominously in the background and the Deviants fret about what might happen to them this time. Even though people writing in praise Kirby for not following a formula and making the story about a single group of people, the stories largely focus on Ikaris and to a lesser degree his friends Makkari and Sersi (which is fine). The dialogue is awful, but the concept is good enough for me to plow through it.

But after a couple of issues i start to get antsy. Nothing is happening. Sometimes Deviants attack, sometimes Eternals-gone-bad come up with some crazy schemes, but the larger Celestial plot never seems to move. At one point the Eternals all get together and form the Uni-Mind - a giant organic brain that is literally composed of all the Eternals. They form this as a way to gain consensus on how to deal with the Celestial question, and i think this means we're finally getting somewhere. But when they come out of the big floating brain, nothing comes of it. After meandering for a few more issues, the series ends with no conclusion. Remember, there was supposed to be a 50 year period of judgement and then the Celestials were going to decide to wipe out humanity or let their experment continue. Instead it ends with no resolution at all, the Celestials still just standing around on Earth. Considering this was supposed to have happened in the Marvel Universe, i have no idea how to square that away. (It might have been resolved in a soon to be reprinted Thor story that i have never read but am looking forward to getting my grubby little hands on.)

Now, it's pretty clear that something happened around this time between Marvel and Kirby, because all the books he was working on at this time come to an end. I thought maybe Newsarama's Eternals primer would have some insight, but other than mentioning low sales, it doesn't say why the series stopped** (it does have better pictures and a better plot description if my review isn't doing it for you). I suppose someone could argue that if Kirby had been allowed to finish the story it would have ended better, but after 20 issues of going absolutely nowhere, i have doubts that he intended to tell an actual story with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. It seems more like he was just setting up a new environment to play in.

Seems to me that Kirby is a concept guy. The idea of the Celestials, and their prehistoric genetic manipulation resulting in 3 branches of humanity, was interesting, and have obviously had a lasting effect on the Marvel Universe (although that wasn't his intention). But he didn't seem have the desire or ability to take that concept and develop it into anything more than a playground for cheesy action/adventure stories.

Overall, while i'd recommend the story to a die-hard marvel fan interested in the origin of some concepts that pop-up elsewhere, this isn't a very good series (I recognize that to some people this is heresey as Kirby is a god that can do no wrong). We'll see if Neil Gaiman can do better at taking Kirby's concept and turning it into an actual story.

*The question of whether The Eternals was, or should be, in continuity raged in the letters pages at the time. In the end, a half-hearted concession was made to say that it was in continuity by throwing in some SHIELD agents and a robot that looked like the Hulk (in the worst plot of the whole series). I think it was pretty clear that Kirby didn't want to be bothered with the MU, which would have been fine, but editors or readers pressured him into bringing it in. Later writers integrated the Eternals, Deviants, and Celestials much more deeply into the Marvel Universe.

**UPDATE: From Wikipedia:

Still dissatisfied with Marvel's treatment of him, and their refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, Kirby left Marvel to work in animation, where he did designs for Turbo Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and other animated television series.

Yeah, Thundarr the Barbarian rocked.

By fnord12 | June 29, 2006, 9:37 AM | Comics

Reference from SuperMegaMonkey : chronocomic

The coming of the Fourth Celestial Host    Read More: Eternals #1-19, Annual #1