In the days of the Space Gods: Jack Kirby’s The Eternals


Eternals

Though I was there when it was coming out, and have had plenty of time since, it’s taken me until now to look at Jack Kirby’s The Eternals. Back in the late Seventies, I was still reading almost exclusively DC titles, and not even the tail-ends of Kirby’s brutally-undermined period with the company. I had managed to collect some of Kirby’s Fourth World titles, and looked upon The Eternals as potentially following that up thematically, but somehow was repelled from what I saw.
What’s more, the Chariots of the Gods riff that was built into the series put me off terminally: I am no follower of Erich von Daniken and, when the opportunity came to read Chariots of the Gods? for free, concluded very rapidly that if von Daniken were to tell me that the sun was shining, I would go out in raincoat and umbrella.
Almost fifty years have passed since then. I did read the Roy Thomas/Mark Gruenwald sequence in Thor that wrapped up the dangling plots left when The Eternals was cancelled after nineteen issues, though since this was Roy Thomas it was dry as dust and deeply uninspiring. I have Neil Gaiman’s reboot from the 2000s because it’s Neil Gaiman, but it’s nothing more than an incomplete set-up for all that.
And now I’ve gone for the original series, to satisfy my own curiosity, and for everything that’s been said about it, and how flawed it’s been suggested it was, I thought it was great! There was a power and a sweep to the story that was awesome, with Kirby operating on a more than human scale lit with its own lunatic fire. And for the first thirteen issues, it barrelled along in its own oxygen-saturated atmosphere, telling its tale of the Space Gods.
Then, in issue 14, it hit not so much the buffers as a cliff-face.

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Let me explain in a bit more detail.
The series opens with two archaeologists, Dr Daniel Damien and his beautiful blonde daughter and assistant, Margo, uncovering a lost Incan Temple with the invaluable aid of their infallible guide, Ike Harris. Dr Damien doesn’t know what it is he’s found but Ike – or rather Ikaris – knows only too well what it is because he is looking for it. It is a Temple of the Space Gods, and its re-discovery triggers their recall (shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith in 2001 which Kirby also adapted). And the Space Gods are the Celestials.
Because the first Host of the Celestials seeded Earth with life, three separate strands. Not merely humans, but also Deviants, whose DNA is unstable, turning out different, mostly monstrous beings in every generation, and Eternals, immortal, near perfect beings, each with great but different powers, who throughput human history have often been mistaken for Gods.
The Celestials, who arrive within a single issue, are the fourth Host. And the Fourth Host analyse, investigate and ultimately judge if the fruits of their seedings are worthy. If they are not…
So there it is. The Celestials are effectively the enemy. Their judging will take fifty years – so by Kirby’s original reckoning we’ve got just four left – and if it is negative, there is a code imprinted on the thumb of their chief, Arishem the Judge that will destroy the planet completely.
Yet though the Celestials are a threat to all our existence, they are also unknowable and unjudgeable. They are helmeted, and silent humanoid figures about 2,000 feet tall, and despite their being a mid-Seventies creation, Kirby invests them with a sense of awesomeness, of massive strength and inhuman motivation that left me unable to see them properly as the threat to existence that they were. It was a combination of unimaginable power that completely obliterated any notion of effective resistance, and a majestic dominance that created the impression of infallibility: that if in 2026 The Celestials found Earth unworthy, then we would deserve that verdict.

Marvel Comics
So Earth’s other two people had to come out of hiding to face the forthcoming music. The Deviants, who had once built a plant-wide Empire based upon Lemuria and Mu before it was brought down by the second Host, sinking both lands and, of course, Atlantis, sought the opportunity to benefit themselves: their war leader Kro sought to turn humanity against the Celestials by impersonating Space-devils, including The Devil, horns and all, returned from space intent on destruction, but the Eternals preferred to work with, and for humanity, and, so far as they were allowed to, also the Deviants.
Though the series never got anywhere near an even arguable point, I read the Eternals’ aim as being to unite the planet so that it would then be found worthy.
In the meantime, Kirby tore along at 100mph, the storyline not pausing, nor breaking down into arcs or adventures. It was one thing after another. New Eternals appeared at the run. As well as Ikaris, with his strength and near-invulnerability, and ability to fly (which he, and the rest of the Eternals described as levitating), there was Ajak, the everlasting, Makkari, the speedster, Great Zuras, prime among the Eternals, his daughter Thena, the warrior, Sersi, irreverent and party-loving, and Sprite, the permanently eleven year old maker of mischief.
And what made it all so brilliant, in my eyes so long after, is that it was entirely of itself. It was published by Marvel Comics, but it was not of it. Save for the appearance of three Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., none of whom were of any significance within the organisation, there was no point of contact with the Marvel Universe. No cross-overs, no influence of any kind over the rest of the comics.
How could it be otherwise? How could a race of 2,000 feet tall Space Gods be part of the Marvel Universe without every single title then and for fifty years later being about nothing else? The series could be, and was, pure Kirby.

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But everybody hated it, and that everybody included a lot of Marvel’s staff. For one thing, there was the principle that Marvel should not publish a single comic book that did not take place within the Marvel Universe, for another there was the sense that this was just a pale knock-off of the Fourth World titles at DC (which it is certainly not except in the most superficial sense), and what’s more the comics industry has always attracted a great number of small-minded, petty jealous people, full of childish resentment, only able to look at someone like Jack Kirby with hatred and resentment, desiring only the chance to tear him down to their level and seeing it now.
Overall, though, I think it was the sheer strangeness of Kirby’s creation that repelled. It was not part of the Marvel Universe because what it was was alien and did not connect to it. And I think that for 1976, when there were essentially only two types of comics, Marvel and DC, there was no place for something like this to be accepted or understood, not at least to the extent that it could be understood.
So I assume that sales were bad, and Kirby was pressed to connect to the Marvel Universe for in issue 14, suddenly the Celestials disappear, and the Eternals find themselves spending the next three issues fighting a ‘Cosmic Hulk’. Not the ‘real’ Incredible Hulk but rather a robot Hulk infused with cosmic power. At a stroke, everything was trashed, to no long term benefit.
I am not quite sure how this storyline was resolved: on my DVD, issue 17 is incomplete and unreadable. When things resume, Ikaris finds kimself facing the treacherous Eternal, Druig, who is trying to kill the Celestials by poisoning. The end of that two-parter was the end.
So the series did not go far and, like the Fourth World, it’s plot-lines were left unresolved. But as it would have taken fifty years to resolve the story, and as there was really only one plot, it was only to be expected.

E7

Unlike the Fourth World, Kirby never returned, indeed never could have returned to the Eternals. He left Marvel over his refusal to sign their new ‘Work-for-Hire’ contracts which, unlike the deals that DC were able to do, were never rescinded in any way, not under Jim Shooter, or anyone. And after 1994 he and that infinitely creative mind were lost to us for good.
A brief look at The Eternals (and The Celestials) Wikipedia pages shows that Marvel has not been slow to feed Kirby’s creations to the dogs to come up with a complex back history that is far too convoluted – naturally – to be remotely readable or believable, not a single syllable of which is applicable to Kirby’s vision of his creations. No writers are mentioned, presumably to avoid embarrassing the talentless bastards (and I am not entirely certain I would exempt Neil Gaiman from that category, in respect of the Celestials at any rate.)
No, Kirby’s Eternals took me by the scruff of the neck and shook me until my brains rattled, Mine may, once again, be a minority opinion, but by God I found it brilliant! Until the arrival of ‘Cosmic Hulk’. Yeesh.

4 thoughts on “In the days of the Space Gods: Jack Kirby’s The Eternals

  1. I adored The Fourth World and disagree with most of the criticisms of it (de gustibus). Was I happy at having to buy issues of Jimmy Olsen for the first time ever? Not particularly, but I thought it was worth it. I was very depressed at its cancellation, although I knew enough not to blame Kirby. So, when The Eternals hit the stands, my assumption at the time was that it was a knock off. I 100% accept your statement that it wasn’t, but AT THE TIME, that was my assumption. I have also always had a similar attitude toward the.von Daniken nitwit, which even prevented me from enjoying Stargate, and The Eternals looked to be giving off more than a whiff of von Daniken. Finally, I was getting tired of both Marvel & DC by then. I’d started reading DC in the early ’50s, even before the Silver Age. When the indie movement started with publishers like Eclipse, I rapidly jumped ship and dropped both of the majors almost entirely. I was a lot happier reading Ms. Tree than I would have been The X-men. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll get the DVD like you did and install a comic reader on my laptop. You do make the 1st 13 issues sound fascinating.

    1. Yes, I too loved the Fourth World when eventually I caught up with it. And like you, I assumed The Eternals was repeating the same story. But it is well worth the effort to find. I thought it tremendous.

  2. While those last six issues very much pale in comparison to the first 13, there’s an argument to be made that Kirby was going in a satirical mode with that Hulk story. Some of the dialogue he gives to characters like Margo reads pretty clearly as a knowing joke on the audience. You can see the later Fourth World books (namely Mister Miracle, as the only one that wasn’t cancelled initially) in a similar light, channeling his frustrations over editorial and whatnot.

    It’s truly insane to me how little respect Kirby’s work actually gets and speaks to how infantile comic book fandom is. It’s not even that he was a brilliant creative mind, which is as far as some people are willing to concede about him, I think he was an excellent and consummate writer on top of that. I have yet to read a sound criticism of Kirby the writer; without fail, people come off as shallow and ignorant when they trash the man, trotting out the same tiresome points which do not hold up at all, from having now read much of his later work. I firmly believe that the average comic book reader, namely those who are utterly infatuated with superheroes and the corporate entities that publish them, are the wrong target audience for Kirby’s body of work, which is so much more vast and varied than these people realize. He’s in dire need of a literary (re-)evaluation.

    1. That’s not how it came over to me, but then I was so blown away by what Kirby did with those first thirteen issues, none of which I had anticipated, that I wasn’t in the mood to look for anything worthwhile in what followed. Next time I read the series I shall hold your argument in mind.

      It’s ridiculous that anyone should ‘concede’ Kirby had a brilliant creative mind. They should be proclaiming that from the roof-tops! At minimum. Just how many characters did he create, over how many years? But I think the problem, certainly for fandom as it is now, is that they’re just too young to know any better. Once upon a time, many years ago, my then girlfriend’s son told me he didn’t think much of the Beatles, that he thought they weren’t very good. Funnily enough, his mother had the same opinion but that was because she’d been around in the Sixties and was in the Rolling Stones’ camp. She was entitled to an opinion like that: he wasn’t. It took an act of positive charity not to tell him he didn’t know what he was (f***in’) talking about.

      But contemporary fandom sees comics through the prism of work that has been influenced by Kirby over multiple generations. They simply can’t understand how much of that is because his raw work broke ground so uncharted, Marvel is still mining it sixty years later.

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