The Reread Reviews — Eternals (Neil Gaiman & John Romita, Jr.)
After doing Earth X last week, I wanted to explore some more of Jack Kirby’s Celestials and Eternals, so I settled upon the Neil Gaiman/John Romita, Jr. seven-issue revamp of Eternals that they did for Marvel in 2006 and 2007. So, let’s get on with it below the cut. As always, there will be spoilers.
Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr. is a book that ends much stronger than it begins. The ending issue is actually the only interesting chapter in this story, I’d argue. What leads up to it is a pretty standard ‘race of gods are regular people and need to be reminded who they are’ story. I’ve seen that story a few times before and Gaiman doesn’t bring much new to it. It has an obvious endpoint and is drawn out without much suspense. Granted, if the actual telling of it was spectacular, that wouldn’t matter, but it isn’t. It’s rather typical ‘set up differing lives and somehow draw them together’ bullshit. Before the J. Michael Straczynski Thor relaunch, there were rumours of Neil Gaiman spearheading that and, honestly, this feels like the rumoured concept (and even a variation of what JMS did) simply transplanted to these characters. That may not be the case, but that’s what sprang to mind while rereading this.
The Eternals are a group of characters created by Jack Kirby in 1975 for Marvel. Not meant to be part of the Marvel universe, Kirby teased with that idea as the Powers That Be pressured him to bring the characters into the fold — eventually they were. Basically, the Eternals are the basis for our gods (something that doesn’t entirely work in the Marvel universe given the pantheons of gods that exist there), created by the Celestials to balance out the influence of the Deviants. The Celestials being big giant robot-esque space gods that altered the Earth for their own mysterious purposes. The Deviants and Eternals are both creations of the Celestials for the purpose of ruling the Earth for them — both too far in one direction. The Deviants are mutants, monsters, too violent and harsh; the Eternals a angelic, immortal, barely breeding, too pure. They’ve been in conflict for thousands of years with humanity in the middle. The Celestials have returned a few times to check in/intervene in the affairs of the Eternals and Deviants, the last time being thirty years previous (Kirby’s Eternals series).
The series begins with Mark Curry, an intern at a hospital that’s confronted by Ike Harris, who claims to be a superhuman/god and that Curry is also one. He tells an accurate story of the history of the Eternals/Celestials/Deviants with a few wrong specifics. Curry thinks he’s insane obviously. What follows is Curry eventually realising that Harris was right as he encounters Sersi and other Eternals, eventually used as a pawn for the awakening of a Celestial that sleeps underground in San Francisco. Until the Celestial is woken up, the story is a little plodding and obvious and dull. It’s the predictable sort of story I mentioned above. That’s not to say there aren’t some good parts, but you keep waiting for something to happen, for the story to get where it’s obviously going, and it takes six issues for that to happen.
When the Celestial awakens, it is ready to destroy the planet, but after communicating with Mark Curry/Makkari, it decides to stand there for 50 years and will pass judgement then. That’s an interesting idea and lends itself well to a future story down the road (or as a hypothetical story of what happens in 2056/2057 that isn’t actually canon). As is the idea of a banished/disgraced Celestial put to sleep under San Francisco because he spoke out against the mistreatment of the Deviants. In a nice twist by Gaiman, we find out that the Deviants are a delicacy for the Celestials — they’re cavier! We see the Celestials scooping up the Deviants and eating them! Great idea and explains why the Deviants were made to procreate so much. I would have liked to see Gaiman do more with the sleeping Celestial, though. Then again, anything there would wind up being a variation on stories he did in Sandman probably.
Once a small group of Eternals are awakened and made aware of who they are, the story becomes much more interesting as we begin to see old conflicts come to light and uncertainties about where to go now. There are almost a hundred Eternals out in the world, unaware of their true nature. Makkari has been enlightened and affected by the Celestial, acting different — and his communication with the Celestial possibly being a sore spot with Ajak, the Eternal whose ability it is to communicate with the Celestials. Thena has a son — is it fully human or part Eternal or what? Druig has been given free reign over a small former Soviet nation, promised by Zuras to be left alone by the Eternals… But that’s a weakness of the series: it’s all set up. Gaiman spends the entire time moving the characters from A to B and setting up some great stories, but never explores them. The journey from A to B is obvious — it’s what we know will happen, so why waste so much time on it? Why not jump to the interesting part?
One thing that I will give the first six issues is that the manner in which the Eternals are made humans and forget who they are is interesting: it was Sprite, the Eternals what was always 11 years old. After thousands of years being stuck at 11, he tricked the other Eternals into using their powers and the sleeping Celestial to make the Eternals human. Finally, he could age — he could turn 12… a great motive and keen character-based story.
One of the goals of this series was to firmly place the Eternals in the Marvel universe. Throughout the series, there are reference to the Superhuman Registration Act, even a reality show based around people competing to be heroes (hardly a new concept either at the time), and appearances by Iron Man, Yellow Jacket, and the Wasp near the end — with Iron Man demanding to know whose side the Eternals are on and the response by Zuras, the leader of the Eternals, is pretty funny: “IF YOU SAW TWO GROUPS OF CHILDREN ARGUING OVER WHICH OF THEM COULD PLAY IN SOME WASTE GROUND, WOULD YOU CHOOSE SIDES?” Gaiman has fun with the then-current status quo and it works.
What can I say about John Romita, Jr.’s art that hasn’t been said already? His work here is gorgeous. Looking at the first issue, there’s a double-page shot of some Celestials, Eternals, and Deviants and I’m struck by how Romita makes the Celestials his own. They’re obviously influenced by Kirby, but he adds a grittiness to them. They look more made out of stone than out of metal, which is a cool look. The way the shadows fall on them is uniquely Romita. His bulky art style works for the subject matter — updating Kirby concepts for the contemporary Marvel universe. Is there any modern artist that has drawn more of the Marvel universe than Romita?
His redesigns of the Eternals are hit or miss for me, but rarely strongly in either direction. The sketchbook in the back of the hardcover shows Romita’s sketches and a small shot of Kirby’s original designs for the characters. Ikaris, Makkari, Sprite, Thena, and Zuras all look better. I wish he would have deviated from Kirby more for Druig as his costume is a little too goofy and not evil/dark enough for the character that Gaiman writes here. Sersi is pretty equal, while I prefer Kirby’s original design for Ajak more. It is goofier, but more distinct, less restrained than Romita’s redesign. It’s a fine line and I can understand never wanting to deviate from Kirby too much, and, for the most part, Romita nails it.
All in all, I do walk away from this series wanting to read more. I read a few issues of the short-lived ongoing that came after, but wasn’t a fan. I would much rather that Gaiman started with issue six/seven, put what happened before in a condensed form that’s revealed somehow, and followed up on the new status quo he introduces for the Eternals.
Next time (be it a week or two weeks from now), I’m going to go back further and begin a two-parter on Jack Kirby’s Eternals because doing all of this backwards is fun.