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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.

eternalsgaimanjrjrEternals 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.

20 Comments

kisskissbangbang

April 25, 2010 at 10:03 pm

I’d have to largely agree with you, Chad: some nice bits and a strong finish, but not quite what I was hoping for from someone as talented as Gaiman. But there was one bit in the middle of the story that I found especially neat which you didn’t mention, when Makarri, the speedster Eternal, has to deal with a spray of bullets someone’s fired at a crowd. He’s fast enough to intercept the bullets, but they still have all their kinetic energy: what’s he going to do about that? As I remember (and please correct me if I’m wrong), he catches them in a metal wastebasket, which he deposits in a safe he then locks up a fraction of a second later, where they can ricochet harmlessly.

It’s the kind of taking the laws of physics seriously (or at least nodding towards them) you might have seen in a Silver Age issue of the Flash, but which rarely happens anymore; and doubly surprising coming from Gaiman, whom no one usually thinks of as Mr. Science. It’s certainly a contrast to John’s Flash # 1
of last week, in which a bullet is fired at Barry from a speeding car, he plucks it out of the air, looks at it, then tosses it over his shoulder. Cool, but none too plausible, and that’s a Flash Fact.

Yeah, that was a good bit. Sersi turning a cat into a dragon by accident was also good.

I liked it at the time because I was almost entirely reading Marvel. I now know that it’s a blatant copy of Morrison’s Mr. Miracle. The way they were done was different, but the basic premise (all the characters are trapped in new bodies and some have no memory of their old lives) was the same. It can be argued that this was done as an homage since Kirby took the same basic premise for both of them with Eternals coming after The Fourth World (heck, both are even Mayan inspired), but that would only really work if Morrison had written them both. Is there any evidence of collusion between them to do it that way?

@kisskissbangbang: That sort of thing happened in Silver Age flash? Kickass. I’ve read a bit of the very early stuff, but now I think I need to read more of it. I thought that Silver Age comics typically played more fast and loose with physics than today’s comics, but I guess that’s just Stan Lee.

I think Walt Simonson came up with the Dreaming Celestial during his run on Fantastic Four, but he located him as sleeping under Mt. Diablo about 20 miles east of SF. In Gaiman’s series he’s sleeping under a particularly nonexistent piece of San Francisco shoreline (Romita could have done with some basic research there). Who knows, maybe the Celestial rolls around in his sleep- maybe that’s where we get al the earthquakes here!

Tom Fitzpatrick

April 26, 2010 at 5:27 am

It also should be mentioned here that a part of the ending of this 7-issue mini-series paid homage to Alan Moore’s Miracleman (specifically the end of number 15).

Those who’ve read both will know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m being very vague so as not to spoil anyone else enjoyment of reading both sets of series.

Hopefully, MARVEL will reprint the Moore’s run soon so we can all re-enjoy them.

This series is one of the most disappointing things I ever read. I held out for the oversized hardcover and after all the hype it failed to deliver spectacularly. It might have been a little better if Gaiman had written this as an ongoing as it really seemed to be the typical “getting the band together” opening arc.

Stephane Savoie

April 26, 2010 at 6:38 am

The series was mostly set-up, establishing a new status quo for the Eternals within the Marvel Universe. Amnesiac gods who need rescuing? Check. Immortals with little memory of their own past and now-human priorities? Check. Mounting threat? Check.
It really read like a launching point for a new ongoing. And, while I love Kirby, if you want to set up the Eternals in the Marvel U, they need a different spin than “Space Gods fight among humans and have been directing history”.
It’s a shame that most of that potential was ruined in the ongoing which actually did follow up the mini. (Which wasn’t bad, but it didn’t seem to understand the storytelling potential Gaiman was setting up.)

Look up the 2 THor tpb’s the Celestial Saga. Then there’s the 12-issue maxi-series from the mod 1980’s which isn’t bad…. I think there are a few other random appearances (a Irom Man Annual I think?) but that’s about it.

While I like some of the moments that Chad and the other commentators bring up, I agree, this definitely felt like an introductory mini-series, much like 1602 did, and it suffers for it. It’s the second time that Gaiman’s been outshone by his artistic collaborator, and I wonder why Marvel wasn’t better able to capitalize on his popularity to help the follow-ups sell better (I’m assuming that was the entire point of having Gaiman work on establishing what’s presumably intended to be new franchises).

This was a massive disappointment.

Neil Gaiman working on THE ETERNALS seemed like an ideal fit. John Romita, Jr. is as capable as anyone of making the series feel like it is set in the modern Marvel Universe. His design tweaks were solid enough.

Sadly, the whole thing fell utterly flat. There were clever ideas here and there, but none of them cohere into much of anything. It is a very slight, very minor footnote in Gaiman’s wonderful career.

While both series were designed as springboards, “1602” was at least fresh and inventive, while this really didn’t do much with the concept. It really seemed like he was phoning this one in.

I love Kirby’s design for Ajak. That helmet is the single most Jack Kirby thing Jack Kirby ever drew.

It’s funny–the first work of Neil Gaiman’s that I ever read was his Marvel 1602 series with Andy Kubert, and that just blew me away. I thought, WOW, now here’s a guy who knows his history. Then I got bigger, discovered the Internet,and realized just how much all critics seem to revile 1602 for some reason…

That aside, The Eternals stuff he did seems interesting, but, Chad, is it better to read Kirby’s original material first?

I read this before I read the Kirby stuff, but I’d start with Kirby’s series. And then probably stop.

“this feels like the rumored [Gaimen Thor relaunch] concept simply transplanted to these characters. That may not be the case, but that’s what sprang to mind while rereading this.”

That’s exactly what I thought too.

I just read this series a couple of weeks ago for the first time. I held off because I heard it was disappointing. My expectations were lowered as a result though, so I ended up enjoying it. This story made for a great 7-issue start to an ongoing series, but (as others have said) a not so great stand-alone mini-series.

kisskissbangbang

April 27, 2010 at 8:44 am

Dalarsco, I wouldn’t want to imply Silver Age DC comics were hard science fiction, because they’re not. But they were edited by guys like Julius Schwartz who grew up in (or helped create in Schwartz’s case) science fiction fandom, and they were fond of throwing in editorial notes citing scientific facts which gave a veneer of plausibility to the proceedings (“a hurricane is capable of driving a straw through a tree”). That habit is where the catchphrase “Flash Fact” comes from. If you look at the Captain Comet scenes Brian reprinted a couple of days ago in Year of Cool Comics, you’ll see a few examples (“A mutant is…”). It also created the impression their their comics were (at least a little) educational. I learned a few things, anyway.

Ya, I know you weren’t talking hard sci-fi. Honestly, mid-range sci-fi is my favorite. Keep things somewhat plausible, but fudge it a bit with the occasional “polarize the deflector generator”.

I’m looking forward to the reread review of the original Jack Kirby Eternals series since I recently read them for the first time. As for Gaiman and Romita’s series, I rather like it. However, as many have already pointed out, it feels to much like an introduction and not enough like a mini-series.

I loved this series, but then I’m not the type that overthinks things like comic plots, I just sit back and enjoy the ride. Having said that I would have liked to have more of the same.

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