Written and Drawn by Jack Kirby, Inked and Lettered by Mike Royer, originally published 1976-1978
On the day of its movie release, The Eternals is proving to be one of the more hard to grasp Marvel properties out there. Despite having had multiple series over the years, it’s also still one of the lesser known properties, even for diehard Marvel Zombies.
Marvel is currently publishing a generally well-liked series, and in the '00s Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr took a stab at it with a miniseries that got mixed to positive reviews. I wanted to look at the source: the original 19 issue series and annual that came out in the '70s, written and drawn by Jack Kirby.
Ideally, a comic stands on its own feet, but a tiny amount of backstory makes reading this a lot more comprehensible. And in places, this is not that comprehensible.
Jack Kirby basically invented the foundation of the Marvel Universe. Stan Lee scripted and gave a voice to it, but Kirby designed the characters, the themes, and plotted most of the comics in the first decade of Marvel, with Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man and Dr. Strange being the major exceptions. In the early '70s, frustrated at his work situation, Kirby made the jump to DC, with stipulations in his contract that either he wrote the books himself, or was given full scripts to draw. He didn’t want anybody taking writing credit for his stories as Lee had at Marvel.
Kirby wasn’t a backwards looking creator, he was always looking for the next idea. At Marvel, he had wanted, basically, to have Norse Ragnarok occur in Thor and start the series over, but wasn’t allowed to. At DC, page one of his New Gods is Ragnarok, and the New Gods saga carried on from there. While Kirby was given a lot of creative freedom at DC, his book were merely profitable rather than incredibly profitable, and were all cancelled mid-story. Considering New Gods villain Darkseid is the engine for a lot of DC media today, probably they should have just kept letting him make new characters for them. Disappointed in DC, he came back to Marvel, but was able to keep the same general contract where he could write for himself, and started work on a number of series for Marvel as both writer and artist, such as Black Panther, Captain America, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and The Eternals.
The Eternals is a Marvel comic, but it was never meant to be part of the Marvel Universe. Kirby was done with that. He was now aiming for a cosmic epic to carry on the themes of the New Gods, mixed with some of the fashionable alien lore of the '70s, notably that of Chariots of the Gods, a popular book of the day positing that aliens had given the technology to primitive cultures to make the ancient wonders. Using that as a springboard, he started creating new lore.
And with that, we open to the first of many double-page spreads in The Eternals:
What’s great about this book is that it is meant to be held and read. This is a comic that loses so much in digital. You can’t scroll the panels and get the power of the page. Much like a blockbuster movie needs to be seen on the big screen, The Eternals is begging to be held in your hand, taken in all at once.
The first issue introduces us to Ike Harris, as he assists a father/daughter archeologist team in making the discovery of the century in the Andes: alien technology. He reveals himself not to be Ike Harris, but Ikaris, one of a race of immortal beings, The Eternals.
In the ancient past, Earth's primates were divided by aliens into three species: Deviant, Human, and Eternal. By the end of the first issue, Kirby has established the framework of the whole series. It’s definitely a lot of exposition by today’s standards, but conversely, I often don’t know what a series is about by the end of the first collected trade edition these days. A story like this feels like it’s cooking with high octane. Ideas are overflowing in every issue.
The second issue introduces, what is for me the real stars of the series, the Celestials. He starts with just one, Arishem, Leader of the Fourth Host, but continues to bring in more and more as the series goes on. The Celestials are a species of silent space gods, that visit planets and cast judgment on those planets' existence, based on some unknowable criteria. It’s truly a sight to behold. In the late days of his first Marvel period, Kirby had already started doing bigger and bolder pages. More four-panel pages, more splash pages and more double-page spreads. At DC, without editorial interference, that increased even more, and when he finally came back to Marvel, he had developed a new, bigger type of storytelling. Issue three, where the pages shown here are from, has three splash pages and one double-page spread. Almost every issue from this period of his work starts with a great splash page, followed by a double-page spread on pages two and three, which are an absolute knock-out visually.
Every few issues adds to the mythology of the series. The Eternals are considered to be the basis for most of Earth’s gods and legends. The legendary lead of the epic Gilgamesh is introduced as the Forgotten One; Circe, the sorceress of ancient Greece's The Odyssey is the character Sersi; and other characters have parallels in ancient myths. Mercury is Makarri, Zeus is Zuras, and so on.
It’s here that The Eternals don’t really work as part of the Marvel Universe. In Thor, actual mythical characters like Thor and Hercules had already been introduced, so having a second series of characters just doesn’t fit in the established continuity.
And in the first dozen or so issues, the existential threat of the Celestials is established, as world powers attempt to deal with beings beyond human experience or comprehension. There are scenes of world powers like America and Russia confronting the Celestials, but Earth's mightiest heroes are nowhere in sight. So while the series works on its own, it doesn't fit into the rest of the Marvel Universe.
When Kirby came back to Marvel, they promised him creative freedom, and he mostly got it, but The Eternals was not a huge seller, and the editors kept “encouraging” Kirby to integrate the book into the Marvel Universe. Well into his fifties, Kirby probably hadn’t even looked at a Marvel book since he first stopped working for them. The notion of continuity was just not something he had any interest in. (I read his Captain America and Black Panther runs this year as well, and virtually all of it was new characters. Possibly the Falcon was the only borrowed character he used between the two books. Kirby was always looking for something new.)
Finally, he acquiesced, and in The Eternals #14, he brings in the Hulk… as a robot. In this plot, some university students create a remote-control Hulk robot as a school mascot, because everyone there is a Hulk fan, but the robot absorbs the energy from the Uni-Mind (a complicated story unto itself) and becomes sentient and rampaging. This three issue arc is the worst in the series. Reading it, I felt a sense of disdain from Kirby, as if he was saying, “There’s your goddamn Marvel continuity.”
After that, there are a few more issues before it’s cancelled, and a matter of months before Kirby leaves Marvel again, and the Jim Shooter Marvel era begins.
Post-Kirby, the ideas in The Eternals would become popular in other areas of the Marvel Universe. Celestials have made appearances in Thor, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Sersi and Gilgamesh were brought in as Avengers in the late '80s. A lot of the artists working at Marvel 15 to 20 years later really dug this book.
Even robot Hulk has been brought back in Peter David's Hulk and in Acts of Vengeance, that I know of. It's unbelievable how many creators have fed off of Kirby's work.
The ending of the book is not an ending to the series, so much as Kirby was notified he had to wrap it up. He finishes with a caption stating, “The end?” In the 19 issues and one annual, Kirby introduces a ton of characters and ideas. A few of which:
-The Deviants a race of genetically unstable beings at first portrayed as evil, but given space to show diversity of thought in the series.
-The Eternals' big trick is the Uni-Mind, where they all unite to form a single, freakish-looking powerful entity, possibly inspired by '60s and '70s spiritual thinking.
-The Eternals reveal themselves to humanity, and human institutions must deal with massive changes in what is understood to be our history.
These are all dynamic concepts with room for more exploration.
On the macrolevel, this series is, more often than not, amazing. The art, the ideas, the melodrama. At a microlevel, it doesn’t read as well. Kirby was always skipping on to the next thing, and characters are introduced and forgotten rapidly. Ikaris is ostensibly the lead character, but he’s pretty much a cipher all the way through. The only character who really gets strong characterization is Sersi, who is portrayed as someone who loves life and just gets a kick out of interacting with these curious humans.
The overall reading experience is one of whiplash, where trying to make it work as a single story frustrates.
I can’t say enough about the art though. '70s Kirby is peak Kirby. Of course his '60s stuff is legendary, but in the '70s, he had a lot more artistic freedom, and had his choice of inker. His work here is inked by Mike Royer, who also does the lettering, and lived in California where Kirby was at the time. This let them work closely, with Royer integrating text, doing his best to bring Kirby’s pencils to life without cutting corners for the sake of deadlines, as was known to happen to Kirby's '60s work.
One of the shocking things, looking at the work through modern eyes is how influential this work was on the comics of the 1990s, especially Rob Liefeld. Liefeld has suffered a lot of criticism for his confusing comics, but it’s not hard to see the influence Kirby’s in-your-face storytelling had on Liefeld. Liefeld isn’t the storyteller Kirby is, but it’s interesting to think that some of what kicked off the '90s comic boom was a mainstreaming of Kirby’s '70s bombastic graphics. The rendering and the costumes had changed, but the intensity was there.
I highly recommend this series to people, with some strong caveats: This is far removed from what comics are like today. If you’ve never read '60s and '70s comics, nor Kirby, this could be a real slog. The text is denser, and the stories are disjointed with no overarching plot. For many readers, this might be like asking them to pick up Shakespeare as casual reading. These were meant to be read monthly over years, not collected and binged in a sitting.
But if you like when comics get weird, if you like when comics do things that movies really still can’t do because movies have to be “realistic” and “believable,” then this is manna. It’s an explosion of art and ideas. It’s good stuff.
I’m going to see The Eternals movie, keeping in mind what is exciting in the Eternals comics, so I have low expectations. The book is somewhat incoherent, so maybe the movie will attempt to thread these crazy concepts together and give them a stronger narrative flow while maintaining the crazy. But that’s not what the trailers show. Just looking at the Celestial in the trailer, it lacks the impact of a Kirby splash page. The trailer mostly shows people talking and being dour. That said, I hope to be happily surprised by movie, and am going in with an open mind.
Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.