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.

September 22, 2008

An Eternals question

Filed under: jack kirby — Tom Bondurant @ 1:10 am
Thanks to the magic of trade paperbacks, I’ve finally read all of Jack Kirby’s Eternals, and … well, I liked it a good bit, but let’s just say I think we have a lot to talk about.

Before I launch into a long blog post, though, I’ve got just one question:

Surely someone besides me has noticed all the similarities to New Gods? (And if I might be allowed a follow-up — boy, Kirby loved hidden civilizations, huh? The Inhumans, the Asgardians, the Hairies….)

I mean, I was reading these issues and thinking “do-over,” and I can’t have been the only one.

Anyway, I do have more to say about Eternals, but I have to get that out of the way first. Back soon — I promise — with those thoughts.

May 19, 2008

Sunday Soliloquy

Filed under: fantastic four, jack kirby, sunday soliloquy — Tom Bondurant @ 12:29 am
Doom had a few good speeches in the classic “Trapped In Latveria” storyline, but this one stuck out. Not only does it have this great splash panel …

… it hints at another of his dark secrets —

— namely, that he had Earth-Marvel’s Stan Lee roughed up by Doombots for misspelling “soliloquy.”

[From “The Name Is Doom!” in Fantastic Four vol. 1 #84, March 1969. Written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, pencilled by Kirby, inked by Joe Sinnott, lettered by Sam Rosen. Color reconstruction by Tom Smith. Reprinted in Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four #9 (2005).]

December 30, 2007

Sunday Soliloquy

Filed under: jack kirby, new gods, sunday soliloquy — Tom Bondurant @ 9:30 pm
… or, “Orion Talks The Smack.”

I like this sequence for the unrestrained glee that Orion brings to both the verbal and physical beatdowns. It’s not quite anti-heroic, but it’s not exactly good sportsmanship, either.

Of course, laughing about the Mother Box’s sacrifice is just cold, especially since Fourth World readers would already have seen DeSaad torture a “good” Mother Box in Forever People. Still, I get the feeling Orion would have said much the same things about Slig’s real mother….

[From “Spawn,” in New Gods #5, October 1971. Written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked and lettered by Mike Royer, color reconstruction by Drew R. Moore and Dave Tanguay. Scans from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 2, which my own mother and dad gave me for Christmas.]

October 26, 2007

Friday Night Fights

Filed under: friday night fights, jack kirby, superman — Tom Bondurant @ 10:12 pm
JIMMY OLSEN MUST … oh, you heard that one already?

The monsters are mad at Jimmy because he reminds them of their tormentor, an evil genius who’s been manipulating them for his own amusement. Insert Dan DiDio joke here, I suppose….

It’s from Jimmy Olsen Adventures By Jack Kirby Volume 2 — something to look forward to if you haven’t read it yet, Bahlactus!

[From “Genocide Spray!” in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #143, November 1971. Written and pencilled by the King, inked by Vince Colletta, “touch-ups” on Superman and Jimmy by (I think) Murphy Anderson, color reconstruction for the reprint by David Tanguay, lettered by John Costanza.]

August 3, 2007

Friday Night Fights

Filed under: friday night fights, jack kirby, meme — Tom Bondurant @ 11:58 pm
It’s survival of the fittest at the Dawn of Man — but it helps if you’re getting tips from an extraterrestrial intelligence….

Cue the Strauss — “Also Sprach Bahlactus!

[From “Beast-Killer!,” 2001: A Space Odyssey #1, December 1976. Written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by Mike Royer.]

March 29, 2006

Essential Archives Of Absolute Masterworks

Filed under: captain atom, firestorm, green lantern, howard the duck, jack kirby, wonder woman — Tom Bondurant @ 6:05 pm
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of collections I would buy, gladly and without hesitation, should they ever appear:

1. Absolute New Gods. I have been lucky enough to collect the six-issue New Gods reprints from 1985 (the last issue of which set up The Hunger Dogs), but to my knowledge, other than a black-and-white paperback, DC has never reprinted this series. That’s unfathomable to me. If Marvel thinks it can sell a pricey oversized hardcover of Eternals, why doesn’t DC want to do the same for its most famous Kirby work? Do two Absolute volumes, include Hunger Dogs, and throw in some behind-the-scenes information about how Kirby would have preferred the series to end.

2. and 3. Color reprints of Forever People and Mr. Miracle would be appreciated too. Again, the Kirby issues of Jimmy Olsen got their own color paperbacks, so why the black-and-white treatment for the rest of the Fourth World? Even Kamandi got an Archives volume.

4. The Greatest Wonder Woman Stories Ever Told. Sure, Diana got the Complete History treatment a few years ago, but that was just a bunch of words. Where is the career-spanning anthology volume? Is DC having trouble picking the most representative of the subtext-filled Golden Age stories? She warrants at least her own “Decades” series.

5. Essential Howard The Duck Vol. 2. Marvel has been pretty good about cleaning out its library, and their back-catalogue is varied enough that a casual fan like me doesn’t see huge holes. However, I’m surprised it hasn’t picked up the spare with Howard the Duck. It took four Essential phone-books, but Tomb of Dracula was collected in its entirety. C’mon, Marvel, let’s get this one moving.

6. Showcase Presents Secret Society Of Super-Villains. Between Identity Crisis, Villains United, and the upcoming revival of Secret Six, the time is right to revisit the troubled ‘70s series, and probably throw in the Society’s appearances in Justice League of America to boot.

7. and 8. In the same vein, how about some love for DC’s models of shadowy ‘80s government conspiracies, Captain Atom and the Suicide Squad?

9. Showcase Presents Firestorm. Hey, I like Firestorm, okay? Put together the first Gerry Conway/Al Milgrom series, a few Justice League of America stories, the backups from Flash, and the first year or so of Fury of Firestorm, and see how its numbers compare to Essential Nova Vol. 1.

10. And speaking of Flash backup series, if the Green Lantern Archives get that far, I hope they don’t forget about the early ‘70s backup strip, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams, Dick Dillin, and Mike Grell. The various O’Neil/Adams reprints I have seen never seem to get into this material, which bridged the gap between issues when Green Lantern (Co-Starring Green Arrow) went on hiatus.

July 14, 2004

Last week’s comics

Kind of a light week last week. I’m writing these from memory too, so you might see some editing after a while.

Birds of Prey #69: Written by Gail Simone and drawn by Ed Benes. Murders, a cult, and the costumes of dead superheroes combine for the first part of a storyline spotlighting Huntress. Since she has to go undercover at said cult, there is a certain “Charlie’s Angels” feel to some of the scenes, especially when she gets hassled by the local sheriff’s department. The book has just come off a multi-part odyssey through Black Canary’s martial-arts past, which was entertaining but hard to remember from month to month. This looks like a good change of pace. The cliffhanger ending is effective, if not unexpected.

DC Comics Presents Batman: The first of DC’s Julius Schwartz tribute books takes its cue from Batman slacking off to watch TV. The book has two stories with TV themes. The first, written by Geoff Johns with art by Carmine Infantino (the artist who redesigned Batman for Schwartz in the ’60s), involves a murder on the set of a “Batman” TV show, with the real Dynamic Duo getting involved. The twist ending is clever enough, but I know I have seen something similar on the recent Batman animated series. The second, written by Len Wein, is a little more satirical, and more fun. Someone’s been taping Batman and Robin and editing the bits together into a reality TV show. This story ends on a fairly trite note, but it gets points with me for satirizing both the “reality” genre and the editorial notion that Batman is a Bigfoot-like “urban legend.” Both stories are unusual for today in that they feature Batman and Robin working together, so that was a nice plus too.

Detective Comics #796: Speaking of Batman and Robin, here’s the newest Robin, Stephanie Brown, making a special appearance outside her own comic. Anderson Gabrych wrote and Pete Woods drew this story about the Dynamic Duo tracking an incredibly dangerous serial killer, Mr. Zsasz, who carves a notch in his own body for each life he takes. The story is rendered in two styles, with a “watercolor” effect used for Zsasz’s point of view. There is nothing groundbreaking about the story — Batman doesn’t want Robin around when he tracks down Zsasz, because she’s never encountered him before and might get killed. You can probably guess what happens. Predictability aside, I liked the interaction between Batman and Robin better here than in the Robin book. However, Pete Woods’ take on Stephanie makes her look quite different than Damion Scott’s art in Robin, and despite Scott’s heavily stylized take, I’m not sure which I prefer. (Woods did draw Robin for a while, so it’s not like he’s new to Stephanie.)

Firestorm #3: Written by Dan Jolley, pencilled by ChrisCross. For those who might not remember, as originally conceived Firestorm was the union of a teenager and a nuclear physicist. The teenager’s body controlled Firestorm, and the physicist provided unseen “backseat driver” commentary. The new Firestorm series has so far shown readers the new Firestorm’s sudden discovery of his powers, and the “fusion” he achieves with a second person. In this issue the “backseat driver” is our hero’s antagonist, who’s not so much a part of Firestorm as he is trapped inside Firestorm’s head. The drama comes from needing to find a way to separate the two people before the “backseat driver” is killed. I didn’t expect the outcome, but I did want more closure, since this is the end of the first arc. The most I got was the notion that Stormy’s new secret identity will use his powers to escape his unquestionably bad life. (Peter Parker has it 10 times better than this kid!) Next issue, Firestorm gets visited by the Justice League, who remember the old guy and don’t know who the new one is.

Captain America and the Falcon — Madbomb: Jack Kirby co-created much of the early Marvel comics (the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, etc.) in the early ’60s, but ended up leaving Marvel very publicly in 1970 to go to rival DC. There he created the groundbreaking “Fourth World” series and gave DC one of its most enduring villains, Darkseid the Destroyer. Kirby returned to Marvel in the mid-’70s, where he worked on various esoteric projects like Devil Dinosaur and a comics adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also wrote and drew Captain America, a character he co-created with Joe Simon in 1941. Cap had fought in World War II but then was frozen in an iceberg at the end of the war, and thawed out by the Avengers some 20 years later.

I was excited to read Madbomb for a couple of reasons: because its first cover was all over Marvel’s Trapper Keepers when I was in elementary school; and because I was expecting mind-blowing Kirby action taking up where the Fourth World had left off. Well, compared to his epics, Madbomb is a pretty ordinary story. Basically, a group that wants to roll back democracy has developed a mind-control device which causes riots, and they’ll set off their “Big Daddy” bomb on July 4, 1976. It’s mostly action without a lot of the social commentary Kirby had put into his earlier work. Considering that DC had just gotten a lot of attention in Green Lantern with a couple of superheroes traveling across America and righting social injustices, this is doubly surprising. The African-American Falcon makes a few ironic remarks about being descended from slaves, and the villains dress like George III, but other than that, and Cap’s romantic interlude with a terminally ill woman, not a lot of thinking getting in the way of the action. Still, it is Kirby, which means the action is very well done. I know Kirby did more Cap in the ’70s, and from what I remember it was a little freakier than this.

Fantastic Four #515: This is the second part of what looks like a three-part storyline featuring the new Frightful Four. As with Madbomb, there’s a lot less going on here than in other storylines, but it’s still reasonably well-done. Basically, a villain called the Wizard occasionally assembles a group of three other super-villains to take out the Fantastic Four. Here he’s enlisted his daughter to infiltrate the Fantastic Four by seducing Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. I continue to be confused by the daughter’s role, and the Wizard’s insistence on having exactly four members in his group, but it does provide a plot point about midway through the issue. FF alum Karl Kesel helps out regular writer Mark Waid here, and regular penciller Mike Wieringo is on vacation, so these feel like fill-in issues — but, as I say, reasonably good fill-ins.

Supreme Power #11: This installment of Marvel’s “mature” take on familiar characters centers on Zarda, a beautiful naked woman, explaining to Superman-analogue Hyperion their shared history. The short answer: they’re supposed to take over the world. Doctor Spectrum (think Green Lantern), still working for the U.S. military, continues to look for Hyperion, aided by the power prism which has a mysterious connection to Hype. Meanwhile, Nighthawk (i.e., Batman) enlists the Blur (the Flash) to help him track down a serial killer.

Since we’re at issue #11, and the book goes on hiatus after #12, it’s more than a little frustrating to feel like writer J. Michael Strazcynski is still setting things up. A lot could happen in #12, but given the pace of the book so far, I doubt it. Zarda, originally conceived as the Wonder Woman-analogue, is defined here by three qualities: naked, beautiful, and evil. Not the best combination for someone whose model is a feminist icon.

Back in a few hours with this week’s books, fresh from the shop!

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