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.
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.
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.
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.