Sunday, February 14, 2010

What We Have Been Reading #1: Kirby's Eternals

A few days ago, I posted an odd mostly-magenta panel that Mike quickly pegged as a Kirby swipe. Now it's time to tip my hand and reveal what I have been reading this week.

I'm actually still making my way slowly through this, but it's a collection of the first eleven issues of Kirby's mid-'70s von-Däniken-influenced post-Fourth-World return-to-Marvel Eternals.

Who are the Eternals? Well, you see, in the time before human history, a cadre of titanic aliens (the Celestials) visited Earth and, from a single common ancestor, derived three races. The humans, you're already familiar with. The Deviants, whose genes are so unstable that every one of them is grotesquely different, have lived on the bottom of the ocean for centuries, since the destruction of Lemuria. And the Eternals are a bunch of undying and beautiful humanoids who meditate on the top of mountains, perfecting their superhuman mental gifts.

It's kind of high-concept.

When the series begins, the only human record of the Eternals, the Deviants, or the Celestials is in our ancient mythology. And then, just as a human archaeologist discovers an Inca ruin that depicts their presence, the Celestials return. The archaeologist's guide and assistant, Ike Harris, reveals himself to be in fact the Eternal master of flight, Ikaris, and suddenly massive wheels are in motion. The Celestials will observe the planet for fifty years, then judge it.

To Kirby's credit, the Eternals that we meet really do have the personalities of immortal semi-gods. They're either prone to pranks and hijinks, bored with their interminable lives, or pompous and portentous in their over-seriousness. (Ikaris tends toward the latter disposition, but Sersi, Makkari, and Sprite are all rascals.) And not even the most sober of them is incapable of irony.

Please click to enlarge and read that dialogue. The "raiment" that Ikaris has assumed is really anything but simple: it's a phantasmagoria of Kirbyesque design, and it's hard to imagine drawing this a hundred times...

Ikaris isn't the only sartorially complex Eternal. Consider the haberdasher who cooked this up:

Once the Deviants find out that the Celestials have arrived, they decide they need to provoke humanity to attack the space gods. (The Deviants fought the Celestials before, and that's why they live under the ocean now.)

So a bunch of Deviants dress up like "Space Devils"—I told you this was high-concept—and attack Manhattan.

There's Kro, the Deviants' general, dressed up as Space Satan. He's the guy I was drawing in my teaser panel.

It turns out that humanity is pretty easy to convince, on this score...

...and this is something I'd like to return to in a moment.

Eternals is fun because it gives Kirby room to imagine a new mythology, and because it gives him a chance to draw some incredibly crazy things. The Celestials are mountainous in size, and one of them (Arishem) carries the formula for world decimation on his brobdignagian thumb:

Yes, click to enlarge there. Arishem wouldn't fit on my scanner.

It seems pretty clear from the first five issues that Eternals doesn't happen in the regular Marvel universe. The story wouldn't make any sense there. Humanity is totally unaware of beings with superhuman powers living among them. The Eternals, not the various pantheons of gods, are the source of mankind's myths. Margo Damian panics when Ikaris, dressed in his bold-colored togs, jumps out of her plane and flies. When weird-looking guys in spacesuits start burning up New York, everyone assumes that it's the Devil, not the Skrulls. This can't be the world where The Fantastic Four fended off Galactus.

And yet, in the sixth issue, a skeptic named Arnold Radisch becomes the victim of an odd prank...

... and on the very next page, three well-equipped field agents are identified as "Nick Fury's men." From this point forward, the Eternals are in the same continuity as the Inhumans, Starfox can join the Avengers, Kro's kids can hobnob with Iron Fist, and Ajak can shoot pool with Beta Ray Bill or something.

I'd like to know what brought the Eternals into the Marvel universe. I wonder whether this was Kirby's decision, or something that came from Archie Goodwin, the book's editor. Anyone out there know more about this?


Mike said...

"Demonic figures garbed in spacesuits descend with thermal weapons": this panel and its caption really remind me of Fletcher Hanks, only amped up somewhat (Hanks wouldn't have bothered with the exclamation point at the end of the caption, I don't think; and Kirby's drawing itself is like figural exclamation points all over the place).

impy said...

I'd like to know what brought the Eternals into the Marvel universe. I wonder whether this was Kirby's decision, or something that came from Archie Goodwin, the book's editor.

I'm not sure exactly how it played out in the Marvel backrooms, but the initial push for this seems to have come from the readership itself. If you can get hold of these issues with the "Eternal Utterings" letter columns intact, you'll discover a fascinating/frustrating parallel narrative about (Jack Kirby's) creativity vs. (basement-dwelling, continuity-obsessed) market demands. Issue after issue, people write in wanting, nay demanding to know how the Eternals fit in with existing Marvel mythos! While checking myself for getting worked up over 30+ year old comics, I have to applaud the voices in the wilderness who wrote in to say:

"Concerning the letters page, I'm sick of the controversy about whether ETERNALS should occur in the Marvel Universe! Hasn't anyone heard of dramatic license? I hope so- 'cause Marvel uses it all the time." (Mike Underwood, Issue 14)


"I wish the idiots would stop complaining the ETERNALS violates the Marvel Universe- whatever that is! If the Marvel Universe is so self-constricting as to not allow new concepts, then it's outlived its usefulness." (Al Schroeder, Issue 14)

So anyway- Kirby & Co. try to pacify the MMMs with a Hulk pseudo-cameo in issues 14 & 15 (redrawn on the cover by John Romita, but that's another controversy), and what do they get? This same guy, Al- who just finished defending the "new concepts" in the Eternals -writes in four issues later to take Kirby personally to task for not going far enough with it, not being Roger Zelany-enough, etc., etc. Some excerpts for color:

"Look, Jack- we're trying to meet you half way on this continuity thing, but you've got to make an effort, too.

...Jack, I read a lot of science-fiction, as you do, and I like occasional explanations for these things.

...I'm still reading this mag, but it's becoming an act of loyalty, rather than a pleasure.

(then, after suggesting- along with other "improvements" -that someone else take over on writing duties...)

...I hope you read these letters, Jack. Reader feedback- as Stan found out -can be one of the best things about the comics medium.

I can't say I quite agree with Al or Stan on that one. Kirby though, ever the class act, thoughtfully and gently responds to all this arrogant bluster with a re-statement of the Eternals concept (which he expands to a rumination on the meaning of life itself) and an invitation for more reader mail. :(

Isaac said...

Thanks for the info, Impy!

So, is it your impression that the fans were trying to push for more integration into the Marvel universe?

I kept finding myself wishing, as I read this, that Kirby hadn't brought in the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents — that he'd done everything he could to mark this series, like Kamandi, as essentially a separate world from the main one coming out of his publisher at the time.

Mike said...

Impy: not only do I appreciate the fascinating information, but I *love* the use of lettercols to shine a light on these matters! As Isaac will attest, I have an inordinate fondness for the letters pages in the backs of old comics--which are sometimes superior to the comics themselves...

Scott Koblish said...

I loved the Eternals. I think Jack's design sense was at an absolute peak in the late 70's

My first Eternals was the "Cosmic Powered Hulk", I didn't know what the hell was going on in that book, but I loved it just the same. It wasn't the Hulk? I knew the Hulk, but this ...wasn't the Hulk? to this day I'm still perplexed, - the Hulk robot is just tearing up the scenery screaming, so why not use the actual Hulk?

Jack was working from California back then, starting to fall into animation.