Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Comics Page #9: Jack Kirby's The Eternals

Marvel's glossy, high-priced compilation of Kirby's ETERNALS was the big Grade-A gift item for me this past Christmas, and I asked for it having read only one issue of the series. It was Kirby, it was cosmic, and honestly, the slickness of this $75 package was alluring. Here we have, in hardcover naturally, all 19 issues of the series, plus the annual, reproduced in full color complete with covers and a few letters pages featuring characteristically wild essays by the King himself; technically a bargain considering it's twice as much as you'd get in one of the Marvel Masterworks or DC Archives volumes (which go for around $50). So far it's the only format in which Marvel has actually reprinted the series, and though the pricetag is daunting- well, some of you should have birthdays coming up. The series itself is a bright, dazzling spectacle, noticeably different from Kirby's "Fourth World" work for DC but still in the recognizable "cosmic insanity" mold. It's nicely offbeat, and kind of giddy.

As one might glean from the cover, THE ETERNALS was a riff on concepts popularized by works like "Chariots of the Gods", namely, the idea that ancient astronauts influenced early man and formed the basis of our myths and religions. It begins in the Andes, with the uncovering of a mysterious Incan ruin by Doctor Damian, his daughter Margo, and their uncannily perceptive guide Ike Harris. The giant chamber contains images of powerful technologically advanced beings, and Harris rushes ahead to activate some of the buried alien gadgetry. Obviously more than he seems, Harris reveals himself as the Eternal named Ikaris, and explains the true history of man. In prehistoric times, Earth was visited by the "Space Gods", cosmic beings who tinkered with the early primates to produce three distinct races: the powerful and immortal Eternals, the monstrous and warlike Deviants, who currently hide from mankind at the bottom of the sea, and good old boring us. The Gods visited during the reign of the Incas to check up on things, and swiftly arrive again, wordlessly ordering one of their number, Arishem, to stand and survey the Earth for fifty years. If its inhabitants are judged worthy, they will live; if not, they will die. Needless to say, the re-arrival of the Gods triggers the reemergence of both the Eternals and the Deviants, and while Doctor Damian stays in the Chamber to study, Margo joins Ikaris and a host of other Eternals in various attempts to keep the Deviants- and also Homo Sapiens- from wrecking the average.

A number of interesting supporting characters quickly emerge. The vivacious wizard Circe, the swift Makkari, and the wise Thena join the action on the side of good; mixed in with them is Kro, a Deviant leader of devilish appearance who, while somewhat scummy, isn't completely bad, and carries a torch for Thena. (Circe also takes an amusing interest in a meek human scientist.) Later on, the action is joined by two rehabilitated Deviants- the giant Karkas and the completely normal looking Reject, both warriors in the Deviant gladiatorial pits, the former sweeter than he looks, the latter fierce and aggressive. Through this, the Space Gods, massive and faceless, masked by elaborate spacesuits, wander enigmatically and sometimes cause problems.

While Kirby's Fourth World was highly dualistic, featuring a mostly clear-cut battle between the forces of good and evil, THE ETERNALS delves into more ambiguous territory. The Eternals are generally good, if aloof from the normal world, but there are bad apples to go around. The Deviants are not as bad as one expects. A visit by Kro and Thena to the Deviants' underwater city shows a society that is rough and brutal, but also struggling with the fact every Deviant child is born uniquely hideous, repellent even to others of his kind, and dealing with the fact that they basically got a bad draw in the Space Gods' genetic poker game. That they seek to destroy the Gods who would judge them is almost understandable. The Space Gods themselves are inscrutable; it's not clear by what code they're judging us. They may decide to help us ascend to the next level of existence, or they may decide to kill us all. There are still good guys and bad guys, but they don't divide along clean lines. There is in Kirby's work a certain idealistic love of humanity that makes us see the potential for good in many characters, and in the end realizing potential may be the key theme here.

Not that the series over-intellectualizes on much of anything, though. This is first and foremost a sci-fi/fantasy comic (I'm not sure it even qualifies as superhero fare; the characters have powers and wear odd costumes, but operate in a mindset more suited to classic mythology), with action and spectacle on nearly every page. It springs from neat idea to neat idea, never getting bogged down too much in any one thing. The best word is "busy". Though by the end of the series we haven't jumped fifty years forward and the Space Gods are still mum, so much ground has been covered that it's actually surprising this series didn't have as big an impact on the Marvel universe as the Fourth World did on the DCU. (The new, oddly low-key ETERNALS miniseries by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. looks to change that.) Not that it needed to. Kirby only mentioned other Marvel characters twice, grudgingly and by half-measures; at a public demonstration of her powers, Circe makes a man look like the rock-skinned Thing of the Fantastic Four, and in two issues later on a robot made in the image of the Incredible Hulk is accidentally imbued with cosmic power and goes on a rampage.

The art is, naturally, amazing. It drives the action forward while occasionally taking a breather to show off the astounding sights of the hidden world that explodes into view, and there's a sense of dynamic movement throughout. Kirby's blocky style meshes well with the early Incan imagery and the general "ancient astronaut" aesthetic, epitomized by the truly majestic and immense Space Gods. It's gorgeous stuff, especially in color.

Judging whether a compilation like this is worth its cost is hard for me. After all, I don't know you people. But the series itself, in whatever form you run across it (I won't be surprised if Marvel puts out a black-and-white Essentials compilation later), is great. It's an exploration of myth and legend and morality and humanity by a skilled and passionate artist, one of the best in the medium. It's also breezy and fun, and if it doesn't feel quite as powerful as some of Kirby's other works, it's still a grand entertainment. I expected no less.

Grade: A-

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