Comics Ate My Brain

September 29, 2008

Looking at Eternals in light of New Gods

Filed under: eternals, jack kirby, new gods — Tom Bondurant @ 8:53 pm
As promised, here are my thoughts on Jack Kirby’s The Eternals, which on the whole is eerily reminiscent of New Gods … except when it isn’t. The more I think about it, there seem to be a couple of big differences and a lot of superficial similarities.

First, some background for those who need it. The Eternals’ basic premise is that extraterrestrial half-mile-high giants called Celestials created, from prehistoric humans, two additional species: grotesque Deviants and regal Eternals. The Deviants subjugated humanity, whereas the Eternals protected it; and to various degrees Celestials, Deviants, and Eternals all ended up as part of human mythology. The Celestials left Earth soon after their experiments were complete, only to return (at the start of Eternals vol. 1 #1) for an evaluation of Earth lasting fifty years. The return of the Celestials prompted the Deviants and the Eternals to emerge from hiding, each with different designs on humanity; and of course the humans had to figure out how to react to these various developments.

Now, I said earlier that The Eternals felt a lot like a “do-over” of New Gods … and while it still does, clearly New Gods (and the larger Fourth World) has a fairly different setup.

Kirby’s Fourth World was a sprawling attempt to create a new set of myths — advertised as “an epic for our time” — centered around a mismatched set of fathers and sons. To cement a truce between the warring worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips, their respective leaders each agreed to raise the other’s son as his own. Thus, the hot-tempered Orion was raised by Highfather, and the peace-loving Scott Free was consigned to Darkseid’s brutal orphanage.

In fact, while The Eternals begins on Earth, with a scientist and his daughter discovering that their strapping manservant is Not What He Seems, New Gods begins with “a time when the old gods died,” and launches from there into tours of New Genesis and Apokolips. New Gods #1 ends with Orion’s discovery that Darkseid has been kidnapping Earthlings for his Anti-Life Equation experiments, and that sends Orion to Earth, where much of the rest of Kirby’s Fourth World takes place.

So yes, right off the bat the two series demonstrate storytelling differences. New Gods starts with the “gods” and works towards the humans, while Eternals starts with the humans and works towards the gods. However, in both series the humans are important components of the story.

Honestly, my initial reaction of Eternals-as-Fourth-World-revisited was based largely on the human characters. Once confronted with Eternals, Celestials, and Deviants, Margo and her dad displayed a kind of wide-eyed pragmatism which seemed to echo Darkseid’s kidnap victims. In both series, Kirby’s human protagonists don’t quite believe what’s going on, even as they try to rise to the occasion. I mention this not because it’s an unusual storytelling device, but because in my experience with Kirby’s other superhero work, the people encountering the “new gods” are superheroes themselves. Admittedly, here I am thinking of the Fantastic Four and the Inhumans/the Watcher/Galactus, but to a certain extent it applies to Superman’s role in the Jimmy Olsen stories which prefigured the rest of the Fourth World.

Thus, to me Eternals and New Gods are set apart because their human characters have these “cold” consciousness-expanding experiences — not blunted or filtered by their existing relationships with familiar superheroes — which reveal to them some larger world of magic, possibility, what-have-you. In New Gods the revelation to the humans is about Darkseid and the Anti-Life Equation. In Eternals it’s about the secret history of human development. In both cases, though, Kirby is pulling back a curtain on humanity’s place in the universe, and using the very loaded word “god” to do so.

* * *

There are other similarities, but they are more superficial and probably subjective: the “evil gods” attack the big city; Makkari maps somewhat to Lightray; and Olympia seemed reminiscent of New Genesis. However, the big difference to me is Eternals’ lack of a Darkseid. Without a central villain Eternals becomes more ethically neutral: the Celestials have fifty years to judge the Earth, but in the context of a monthly present-day comic book that’s a rather meaningless deadline. (I presume it was addressed at some point in a future-of-Marvel book like Guardians of the Galaxy.)

Instead, Eternals uses a series of antagonists to provide obstacles for Ikaris and friends to overcome. There are the Celestials; there is Kro, whose manipulations guide the plot of the first few issues; and there are various entities who try to destroy the Celestials over the course of the book’s short run. However, despite Kro posing as the Devil, Eternals has no personification of evil to compete with Darkseid and his overarching quest for the Anti-Life Equation. Indeed, Eternals’ setup is pretty much the point of the series. Honestly, it is open-ended enough to be the premise of a TV show. (In fact, the late-‘90s show “Prey” starred Debra “Remember me from ‘Ned & Stacey?’” Messing as a scientist who deals with warring factions of ultra-advanced humans.) Compare that to the Fourth World’s stated end-point, the final battle between Orion and Darkseid in Apokolips’ Armagetto.

And that brings up the last thing I want to mention: the fact that Kirby never got to finish either series to his satisfaction. Maybe that’s why he didn’t build a practical ending into Eternals, and why he felt free to, say, devote three issues to a battle with a robotic Hulk. I think that’s the biggest part of my “do-over” vibe: the notion that Kirby wanted to get all the important stuff out of the way first. Kro is no Darkseid because his bad-guy arc is over pretty quickly: after his Devil ruse, he shifts gears and rekindles the torch he carried for Thena. Meanwhile, Thena becomes more of a protagonist than Ikaris, “recruiting” the Reject and Karkas to the Eternals’ side. Obviously I can’t say that Kirby got bored with Ikaris, but you sure can tell that he’s not the central figure Orion was.

Of course, related to Kirby interruptus is each series’ post-Kirby fate. If Eternals was supposed to be part of the larger Marvel Universe, I just have one question: how did Marvel explain the 2,000-foot-tall armored giants which Kirby left stationed around the globe? I can easily imagine Eternals recast as a modern-day Big Comics Event, crossovers and all, with Celestials instead of registration acts or red skies. Maybe Marvel has done that already. I’d be surprised if it hadn’t. For that matter, I think DC was trying to do exactly that with the Fourth World and Countdown, even rewriting Forever People #1 as a three-issue Superman Confidential story.

That’s getting a little off the subject, but not by much. The Eternals still seems to me to be a “do-over” of New Gods maybe not in the nuts and bolts of its storytelling, but as another example of Kirby’s mythological consciousness-expansion which was cut short.


  1. Okay, that is not the approach I was expecting you to take!I think I may make a longish comment, but have to gather my thoughts first…

    Comment by plok — September 30, 2008 @ 6:58 am

  2. New Gods and Eternals both being stories about regular everyday folks finding out that the history of the world and their status in the scheme of things is very different than they supposed, and the whole human species is caught in a battle between vastly more powerful forces of good and evil — yes, that totally works for me.Where I find them radically different in theme is like this: the Fourth World is about characters who are gods. It’s not just what they call themselves: these guys are Gods, in the sense that there’s a god of war, a god of light, a god of sadism, a god of brutality, living embodiments of abstract concepts. But the Eternals and the Deviants are just different kinds of people. They may not be humans but they’re complex, confused Earthfolk just like us. Think of them as akin to the Inhumans rather than Asgardians. This is why, as you say, there’s no living embodiment of good or evil in the series. Ikaris isn’t a god; he’s kind of a thickheaded dope. Kro isn’t malevolent; he’s sentimental and heartsick. The Eternals merely represent the class and civility you can see in an elite who don’t have to worry about mortality or suffering. That leaves them a lot of time to become well-mannered, but they aren’t always nice. Eternals are the baddies in the final installment of the series. The Deviants are merely the product of their situation as well.Ultimately, Eternals is Kirby’s most explicitly Judeo-Christian book. The Celestials appear in angelic-sounding “Hosts” and are totally unknowable and unfathomable to all characters — the highest Eternal is as remote from them as any of us — they have quasi-Hebraic sounding names, and they arrive to herald, yes, Judgement Day. New Gods could be inspired by Norse, Greek, Roman, or Hindu mythologies…but Eternals is pure Old Testament at heart.

    Comment by RAB — October 1, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  3. For me it’s more like this: the Fourth World really is about “new” Gods, beings quite a little ways past Superman and into something else…but the Eternals is about old gods reinvented to keep pace with “new” humans. Old hat for Kirby: in Thor he did a lot of weird things with Old Gods (gave them never-explained “technology” for one — but technology based on godly principles, not human ones, technology different in kind), and plunked them down in a superheroic milieu with supeheroic/supervillainous motivations…with the Inhumans he messed around slightly with the idea of a vaguely Von-Daniken-ish “hidden history” with (for example) Gorgon and Medusa and Triton…but was also content to keep things at the level of allusion: Medusa never lived in Ancient Greece, and it wouldn’t have made sense if she had. Then he peppered the not-quite-superheroic stew with other characters that didn’t allude to legends of monsters at all — making it more of metaphor for something, than the thing itself.With the Eternals he does something different: turns the Earth being into the space being, explicitly. Because the Earth is in “outer space”, itself…we were “space beings” too, even before the Celestials came. And as RAB says, the Eternals are, in every meaningful way, just different kinds of human beings, with human purposes and feelings.I also think it’s significant that Eternals is very Marvel even though (as with the Hulk issues, which I loved) it’s plainly not in continuity…because it goes around Kirby’s Marvel obsession of “cosmic power!”, that neat assertion that there are impersonal transformative “energies” out there that are beyond all understanding or leashing, but that come come and touch you at any moment, just right out of the blue. Because human beings are space beings too, and already. This goes all the way back to FF #1: the universe itself changes Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben. “We know what it wasn’t…but we don’t know what it was”, as Ellis puts it in Planetary before he blows up the mystery. But in the Fourth World, this namelessly transformative “cosmic power” doesn’t really exist at all — there’s astro-force, omega beams, and alpha bullets, and whatever it is Lightray does, but these all have names and faces and they leash themselves, because they’re in the New Gods, they are the New Gods. So it’s a different kind of spirit of change Kirby deals with at DC. Back at Marvel, the cosmic-powered Hulk almost seems to say that in this little continuity-free bubble there aren’t any Fantastic Fours or Spider-Men because there’s the science we know and then there’s pure “cosmic power” which is beyond our ken, and there’s nothing in-between…even the Eternals, though beneficiaries of cosmic power, have to be in a Uni-Mind before they can really do much with it. So the Marvel stuff’s got a much more evolutionary slant to it than does the DC stuff, I think…the Eternals represent “hidden history” and therefore hidden future, but the nameless cosmic power intrudes on everything…and there you go, there are the Celestials themselves, huge and all but free of identity, just slightly suggestive of it but not quite. Like Galactus done over: in fact I don’t think Eternals is a do-over of the Fourth World so much as I think it’s a do-over of Fantastic Four comics…the cosmic-powered Hulk for Him, the Celestials for Galactus, humanity as a sea of Alicia Masters…the Eternals as the FF and the Deviants as the Inhumans. FF comics, stripped down and with the superhero conventions much more peeled-off to show the SF elements beneath. It almost makes you think of the Ultimates line, doesn’t it? Not millions of causes, just a couple simple near-Newtonian rules that animate everything…and a way to make all the busy business in early Marvel cohere as a single story, with a single beginning and a single end, and a single explanation for everything. By contrast, New Gods is all about intersection, the intersection of this world and another one…it’s the SF of the humungously advanced Galactic civilization gone all Lord-Of-Light-y coming down to meet the one special inferior world…um, except they’re Gods for real.Minor distinction, in a way.Crap, no wonder Kirby worked on that Lord Of Light stuff! The Fourth World certainly has a Bhagavad-Gita flavour to it at times…all foreordained. But not quite, as in Eternals, with the possibility of frustrating fate.Ooof, that’s all I can write for now! Sorry it took me so long to get around to it, Tom.

    Comment by plok — October 12, 2008 @ 12:29 am

  4. Hey, I’m just glad you and RAB are around to comment! It is a lot to think about, and it makes me realize how much of Kirby there really is to explore. Looks like I need to add those Essential Thor books to my wish-list.Still, I am working my way through the Fourth World Omnibii with RAB’s approach in mind, because honestly I had not really considered the New Gods as their own pantheon. I am also right there with you, RAB, on the whole vaguely-Hebraic-sounding names of the Celestials. That’s one of the things which, to me, gives Eternals a lot of its otherworldly feel.And plok, I agree about the Celestials and Galactus, but I completely forgot to put Alicia in the compare-and-contrast lineup. Whatever Kirby’s intentions about Eternals’ place in the Marvel U., the series definitely got incorporated into the all-inclusive Earth X timeline, and it is a convenient, Ultimate-style way to explain the super-heroes. I note that the Fourth World left Superman behind fairly early on, using him (as you say) as a point of comparison. The real Final Battle can’t be between Superman and Darkseid, as much as DC Editorial might like to make it so. Ironic, then, that DC has done so much with the Fourth World, and Marvel has done (at least to my knowledge) relatively little with the Eternals.

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — October 12, 2008 @ 2:11 am

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