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cic2007-09-17.jpgHaving spent the last several months covering this summer’s major movie and DVD releases associated with comics, animation, and megaheroes, and reviewing comics exhibits at two museums, I can at last turn to a subject that I’ve wanted to address for a long time: Neil Gaiman’s revival of Jack Kirby’s The Eternals, illustrated by John Romita, Jr., which was collected into a hardcover edition earlier this year. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of my close readings of a comics series in this column, and Eternals affords me a perfect opportunity.

Last year, to pave the way for the Gaiman revival, Marvel reissued Jack Kirby’s original Eternals series from 1976-1977, collected into a handsome hardcover edition. This was long overdue, and I suspect that it would not have happened when it did if Gaiman had not agreed to write an Eternals series. In the course of critiquing the Gaiman series, I will be referring to and critiquing the Kirby Eternals as well.

One of Kirby’s inspirations for The Eternals was Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods?: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, which purported that extraterrestrials visited Earth in ancient times, that they became the “gods” of ancient religions, and that they were responsible for amazing achievements such as the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. One of my friends in my school days was a staunch believer in von Daniken’s book, and I found his efforts to convert me tiresome and irritating. The book is scientific nonsense, but it provided Kirby with a fruitful basis for his fantasy epic.

According to The Eternals, in prehistoric times the First Host of the Celestials, enigmatic aliens of colossal size and tremendous power, came to Earth and experimented on humanity’s apelike ancestors. Although the phrase did not exist in the 1970s, as far as I know, the Celestials were engaging in genetic engineering. As a result, the Celestials created three species of humanity. There were the Eternals, immortal, handsome beings who could not be killed, who lived upon mountaintops, and who developed superhuman abilities, enabling them, among other things, to fly through the air. There were the Deviants, grotesque creatures who lived beneath Earth’s surface, and who were genetically “unstable”: whereas a normal human child may resemble his or her father and mother, a Deviant child was radically different genetically from his parents. Finally, there were the “ordinary” human beings, like you and I, who lived on Earth’s surface, midway between the Eternals of the sky and the subterranean Deviants.

Humans of ancient times thought of the Eternals as gods or superhuman heroes. Hence, the ancient Greeks thought that Zuras, ruler of the Eternals, and his daughter Thena, were Zeus, ruler of the gods, and his daughter Athena. The people of ancient Rome mispronounced the name of the Eternal called Makkari as “Mercury.” Ordinary humans thought of the grotesque Deviants as devils and demons.

In The Eternals Kirby further developed certain concepts he had been developing since the 1960s. He previously demonstrated his interest in genetic engineering by co-creating the High Evolutionary, who debuted in Thor #134 (November, 1966). This master geneticist accelerated the evolution of animals, transforming them into his “New Men,” who had human intelligence, the power of speech, and semi-human physiques. In Thor #146-152 (1967-1968) Kirby and Stan Lee revealed that the Inhumans were the result of genetic experimentation by the extraterrestrial Kree. Later, in stories for DC’s Jimmy Olsen, Kirby created “The Project” (later dubbed Project Cadmus) and its sinister counterpart, the “Evil Factory,” both of which experimented in genetic engineering and cloning.

More importantly, through the 1960s and 1970s, Kirby returned time and again to the concept of two warring races of “gods” or “superhumans,” with ordinary humanity caught in the middle. There were Thor and his Asgardian allies against Loki and the forces of evil. There was Professor Charles Xavier and his team of X-Men pitted against Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. There were the “good” Inhumans such as Black Bolt arrayed against Maximus the Mad and his Inhuman allies. There were the HIgh Evolutionary’s noble New Men, called the Knights of Wundagore, and his archfoe, the Man-Beast, an wolf that evolved superhuman powers, who would lead other renegade New Men. Most prominently, in his “Fourth World” comics, Kirby depicted the benign New Gods of New Genesis in conflict with the satanic Darkseid and his fellow gods of the planet Apokolips.

In various respects the Eternals and Deviants are similar to the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips. Darkseid and his minions seek the Anti-Life Formula and conquest of the universe. In Kirby’s Eternals series the Eternals go to war with the Deviants to prevent them from conquering the Earth and attacking the Celestials.

But if the focus of the Fourth World books was on thwarting Darkseid’s quest for ultimate domination, in The Eternals Kirby appeared less interested in the battles between the Eternals and Deviants than in a more challenging subject: the nature of God. In my columns about the second Fantastic Four movie (see “Comics in Context” #184-185), I have investigated how in Lee and Kirby’s “Galactus trilogy,” the Watcher and Galactus represent different visions of God: a benevolent God who is unwilling to interfere directly in human affairs, and a God of wrath who has sentenced all of humanity to death. In the Fourth World books God is represented by “the Source,” who is unseen and mysterious. The gods of New Genesis consider the Source to be benevolent, and their leader, Highfather, who significantly resembles an Old Testament patriarch, can communicate with him. But those who attempt to breach the Wall in outer space which separates us from the realm of the Source are punished by being transformed into “Promethean giants,” imprisoned, immobile, on the wall.

The Eternals represent the gods with a small “g” of ancient mythologies, who possessed human-like personalities and emotions, whose powers, though vast, were nonetheless limited. The Celestials represent God with a capital “G”: all-powerful and beyond human comprehension. The Source was mysterious, but was nevertheless clearly benevolent towards the New Gods of Apokolips. In contrast, the motivations and goals of the Celestials are almost wholly enigmatic. In the present day of Kirby’s Eternals series, the Fourth Host of the Celestials arrive on Earth, apparently to spend fifty years studying human civilization. At the end of that time, the leader of the Fourth Host, Arishem the Judge, is to deliver his verdict. If it is negative, humanity and the Earth will be destroyed. The odds do not look good: the series’ omniscient narrator tells us that over the ages the Celestials have performed genetic experiments on numerous worlds, and that not one world so far has received a favorable judgment.

But what is the basis for Arishem’s judgment? What do the Celestials expect of us? In Kirby’s vision the Celestials created humanity for reasons that remain unknown and expect us to fulfill some purpose that likewise remains unknown. This is the human dilemma in real life. Why are we here? If God exists, what does He expect from us?

Like the Galactus trilogy, Kirby’s Eternals is a tale about the possible end of the world. According to Christianity, the end of the world is the time of the Last Judgment; “Arishem’s” name looks as if it were a Hebrew word, but he too is to deliver a Last Judgment. Moreover, as I’ve suggested in the past, the end of the world can serve as a metaphor for one’s own mortality. Arishem’s “fifty-year judgment” fits the metaphor. One’s own death may seem a long way off–perhaps fifty years–but within a period of time that nonetheless seems uncomfortably short.

Although Kirby is considered an icon today, and his Eternals remains a remarkable achievement, back in the mid-1970s it was a commercial flop.
But why?

One reason might be that, when it is read one issue at a time, the series seems to meander. As with the Fourth World, Kirby had created a vast tapestry, and would move from one set of characters in one issue to another set in the next issue. So, for example, the efforts of Ikaris, Thena, Sersi and Makkari of the Eternals to thwart Deviant Warlord Kro’s attack on Manhattan in issues 3-5 are followed by Ajak’s confrontation with three SHIELD agents in issues 6-7, and then Kro and Thena’s journey to undersea Lemuria in issues 8-10, which introduce two new significant characters, Karkas and the Reject. This series isn’t like, say, Spider-Man, which keeps its star, Spider-Man, in the spotlight in every issue.

Nor do Kirby’s Eternals storylines always receive conventionally satisfactory conclusions. Kro’s invasion of Manhattan halts not because he was defeated, but because he meets his former lover Thena and, his feelings for her aroused, he agrees to a truce. In Kirby’s Eternals Annual #1 a super-strong being named Tutinax is transported through time to the present, where he begins a titanic battle with the Reject. But the fight abruptly ends when Tutinax simply fades back to the past, and possibly because the story had run out of pages. Though Kirby’s dynamic battle scenes in Eternals make fight scenes in contemporary superhero comics look tame, he understandably seems less interested in standard superhero combat than in unveiling the next set of wonders he has devised for the audience.

It should be no surprise that the Kirby Eternals reads better collected into a single volume than it did as separate issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kirby thought of it as a serialized version of what we would now call a graphic novel, in the days before that format existed.

There’s also the problem that Kirby was less adept at dialogue than Stan Lee, or Roy Thomas, or various other writers who were working at Marvel and DC in the 1970s. At times Kirby definitely shows a tin ear for dialogue: “That’s funky corn,” Makkari tells Sersi (Kirby Eternals collection, p. 73), as the rest of us go “Say what?” However, rereading the Kirby Eternals, I find the dialogue to be much better than I remember, sometimes producing truly well-turned phrases, as you shall see. It’s true that the dialogue may seem dated by today’s standards, but Kirby was working in the melodramatic style that was standard in superhero books at Marvel and DC at that time. (I recall one editor instructing me in the 1980s, “Write more purple.”)

A particular problem with the Kirby Eternals may be that its heroes really did not conform to the Marvel mode. One thinks of a Marvel superhero as a seemingly ordinary human who lives a realistic daily life, but who assumes a costumed identity to go on fantastic adventures. Even Lee and Kirby’s Thor, a Norse god, transformed into the human surgeon Don Blake. The Marvel heroes’ everyday identities make it easier for the readers to identify with them. Kirby’s lead character in Eternals, Ikaris , may initially pose as a human called “Ike Harris,” but he drops this “secret identity” almost immediately. Kirby’s Eternals lack “normal” human identities and lives: they are full time “gods,” if you will. Normal humans, such as Margo Damian and Dr. Samuel Holden, may hang out with the Eternals, but very much remain subsidiary characters. Moreover, in classic Marvel series of the 1960s, the heroes had ongoing personal problems, which many have condescendingly referred to as “soap opera,” but that allowed for still further reader identification. Again to cite Thor, there was the thunder god’s doomed love for the mortal Jane Foster, forbidden by his father Odin. Kirby’s Eternals has no such subplots. Marvel introduced three-dimensional personalities to the superhero genre in the 1960s, but Kirby’s Ikaris, Makkari, Ajak, and Zuras, seem flat in comparison. This isn’t true of the entire Eternals cast: Thena, Sersi, Kro, the Reject, Karkas, and Sprite all develop multidimensional personae as the series goes along. But none of them is the central figure of the series. Indeed, Kirby’s Eternals really has no central figure, since not even Ikaris appears in each issue.

Recently in his blog Mark Evanier pointed out that Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, disagreed with what became the classic Marvel approach to portraying its superheroes: “The company dynamic had evolved into offering a diet of ‘heroes’ who were either flawed or uncertain of their own heroism and values. That’s not the way Ditko saw the world.” (http://www.newsfromme.com/archives/2007_09_11.html#014000). And indeed, Ditko characters like the Question definitely don’t go in for self-questioning.

All of this suggests to me that it really was Stan Lee who was primarily responsible for something that is considered a quintessential Marvel concept–the flawed, self-doubting hero–since his principal collaborators in the 1960s, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, pursued a different direction when they subsequently wrote their own superhero comics.

So The Eternals was canceled in 1977, apparently so fast that Kirby did not have the time to devise a satisfactory conclusion to the series, or perhaps he simply did not want to; the final issue, 19, simply wraps up the concluding three-parter about Ikaris’s attempt to stop his evil cousin Druig from finding and using a Celestial weapon. As far as loyal readers were concerned, Arishem was still standing in the Andes, contemplating the forthcoming fifty-year judgment.

Marvel writer/editor Roy Thomas reintroduced the Eternals in Thor in the 1980s. In Thor #300 (for which I was a consultant on the plot) the gods of Earth’s pantheons, such as the Asgardians and Olympians, attempted in vain to defeat the Celestials, but Arishem delivered an early judgment in Earth’s favor, and the Fourth Host departed the planet. There was a twelve-issue Eternals series in 1985 and 1986, illustrated by Sal Buscema and initially written by Peter B. Gillis; editor in chief Jim Shooter disliked Gillis’s scripts, so Walter Simonson wrote the final four issues. Of all the attempts to portray the Eternals before the Gaiman revival, the Gillis-Simonson series was by far the most interesting and creative, but it has been grossly underrated and did not lead to an ongoing series. Subsequently Marvel demonstrated no interest in using the Eternals outside of one-shots and guest appearances, and certainly none in reprinting the original Kirby series. In 2003 Marvel even produced a ghastly mini-series called The Eternal, which utilized the names like “Eternal” and “Celestial” from Kirby’s series but otherwise had nothing to do with it. I expect that if Neil Gaiman had not accepted the offer to write a new Eternals series, the recent flurry of interest in the characters would not have occurred.

Gaiman’s first issue opens with a medical student named Mark Curry, and perceptive readers who already know the Eternals will realize that if you pronounce that name fast, you will get “Makkari.”

In interviews Gaiman has expressed amusement over the fact that in the Kirby Eternals series Ikaris used the transparent alias of “Ike Harris.” But “Ike” only uses that alias in the first issue, before he begins operating openly in the modern world as Ikaris. People are not about to suspect that “Ike Harris” is Ikaris, because at that time they don’t know that Ikaris exists.

Gaiman’s alias for Makkari, “Mark Curry,” is in the tradition of Kirby’s “Ike Harris.” When Makkari appeared in Marvel’s Quasar series, the late Mark Gruenwald gave him the alias “Mike Kahry.” Gaiman’s alias is an improvement.

And here’s an interesting coincidence–or is it? A while back I was watching a rerun of The Sopranos on A & E–the first episode of Season 3, “Mr. Ruggiero’s Neighborhood,” I think–and discovered that the nickname of a recurring character, FBI Agent Dwight Harris, is “Ike.” Well, that’s probably because President Dwight Eisenhower was nicknamed “Ike.” Then again, one of The Sopranos’ writer/producers, Robin Green, used to work at Marvel and wrote the celebrated 1971 Rolling Stone cover story about the company (http://www.geocities.com/jonhulkholt/rs91.facefront.1.html). The first explanation is probably the correct one, but the second is certainly tempting.

Back on page 1 of issue 1, Mark Curry is “trying to remember why I want to be a doctor.” This may be because the Roman god Mercury, known to the ancient Greeks as Hermes, carried the caduceus, a wand that had wings at the top and that was encircled by two serpents. The caduceus has been adopted as a symbol of medicine by various organizations. However, these groups have confused Hermes’ caduceus with the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, which has only one serpent and no wings (http://drblayney.com/Asclepius.html). Most medical associations, it seems, use Asclepius’s staff as their symbol, not the caduceus.

If Gaiman is aware of the difference between the caduceus and the staff of Asclepius, then perhaps that further explains why Mark Curry is questioning his decision to become a doctor. As we shall learn later in the series, another Eternal, Sprite, has removed Makkari’s memories and given him this new identity and role in life. But just as the caduceus is not supposed to be a symbol of medicine, Mark Curry/Makkari/Mercury is not meant to be a physician.

Curry states that “I’d hoped that I’d dream of racing a Ferrari down an open track forever.” Hermes/Mercury was the swiftest of the Olympian gods, and Kirby gave Makkari a “mania for fast vehicles” (Kirby p. 74). That’s reminiscent of Johnny Storm’s fascination with hot rods, come to think of it. It’s a bit strange that Makkari is so interested in “fast vehicles” since he can move at superhuman speed, but perhaps it’s because at times he needs to transport others at superhuman speed (as in Kirby’s Eternals #5).

Of course, Sandman readers should pay attention to Gaiman’s references to dreams, whether it is Curry’s dream or the Dreaming Celestial.

Mercury/Hermes is also the messenger of the Olympian gods, and this fact may explain why later in the series Gaiman turns Makkari into the “messenger” of the Dreaming Celestial.

The reader who realizes that Mark Curry is Kirby’s Makkari then faces an unexpected question. Why does Mark Curry have dark skin? Kirby made Makkari look Caucasian, which would be appropriate for someone who was mistaken for a Greco-Roman god, and all other artists who have portrayed Makkari have done the same, until now.

The likely answer is that Gaiman wanted his Eternals to have a multiracial cast.

In the interview in the back of the hardcover edition of this Eternals series, Gaiman states that he red the Kirby Eternals but acknowledges that he has not read all of the subsequent stories featuring the characters. It is possible then, that Gaiman is unaware that in the second series, Peter Gillis already supplied the Eternals with racial diversity.

In a brief sequence set in the Eternals’ city of Olympia (Kirby pgs. 184-185), Kirby introduced Kingo Sunen, an Eternal who dresses in samurai armor, and who associated with actual Japanese samurai in centuries past. Ikaris’s companion Margo Damian recognizes him as “a famous Japanese movie star,” and we are informed that he stars in samurai movies. In other words, what if Toshiro Mifune were one of the Eternals? Gillis gave Kingo Sunen a much larger role in the second Eternals series, which made clear he had Asian features.

Moreover, in the second series Gillis and artist Sal Buscema created a black Eternal, Phastos, who was based on Hephaestus, the blacksmith (get it?) of the Olympian gods.

However, in this same interview Gaiman explains that he did not want his Eternals to have as large a cast as his previous Marvel series, 1602. So perhaps he knew about Phastos and Kingo Sunen but felt he did not have room for them. So he turned Makkari non-Caucasian instead.

I would have preferred sticking with Kirby’s visual depiction of the character, but this change doesn’t bother me much, since I can explain it away.

Sprite altered reality, transforming his fellow Eternals into seemingly ordinary humans, unaware of their true natures, by creating a “Uni-Mind” (a group mind) that drew power from the Dreaming Celestial. It’s possible that Sprite could thus have altered Makkari’s physical appearance, although then one must ask why he didn’t bother doing that to the other Eternals.

Another possibility is that since Eternals have “absolute mental control” over their bodies (as established in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe), then each can alter his or her own physical appearance at will, at least within limits. So Makkari may have altered his own appearance at some point in the past. Later, Gaiman and Romita present a flashback showing Makkari in ancient Egypt, where he was believed to be the god Thoth (Gaiman issue 3 page 2, see also issue 4 page 8). Makkari has dark skin in this flashback, which would be appropriate for looklng Egyptian. So possibly Makkari has altered his physical appearance at various times in the past in order to match those of the people of the countries to which he travels.

Instead of dreaming about a Ferrari, Curry instead has on of his “weird dreams,” in which he is wearing his Makkari costume, is rescued by Ikaris from captivity by Deviants, and finally sees three immense Celestials (including Arishem on the left) in an extraordinary double-page spread drawn by John Romita, Jr (Gaiman issue 1, pages 2-3).

Far more successfully than any other visual sequence in the new series, this double-page spread captures the feeling of awe that the Kirby Eternals induces issue after issue. Perhaps the greatest difference between the two series is that the Gaiman-Romita Eternals tends to keep to a (comparatively) more human scale, since so many of the Eternals in Gaiman’s story have been reduced to living “ordinary” human lives. The epic grandeur of Kirby’s art and visual concepts for The Eternals is an essential part of that series. Perhaps Gaiman and Romita did not believe they could match Kirby in this regard for more than an occasional sequence like that double-page spread. But Gaiman takes a more psychological approach to his Eternals cast, making the relatively more human scale of his series more appropriate.

By the double-page spread even readers who have no previous experience of the Eternals may recognize that Gaiman is working a variation on a familiar trope of fantastic storytelling. This is what may be the archetypal story of the person who is seemingly ordinary and who leads a normal life, but who discovers that he has another, truer identity with extraordinary potential.

Gaiman’s novel Anansi Boys follows this pattern: the protagonist Charlie discovers that he is the son of the trickster spider god, and that he is the brother of another trickster deity, known as Spider, and Charlie ultimately wields the abilities of the spider god himself (see “Comics in Context” #105, 106, 107 and 108).

This is a variation on the traditional story device of the protagonist who is unaware of his true parentage and hence of his true station on life. Similarly, in Gaiman’s Stardust, the young hero Tristran does not learn until the story’s end that he is not a simple villager but the heir to the throne of Stormhold in the realm of Faerie (see “Comics in Context” #191 and 192).

According to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey, the protagonist starts out in a lowly position, perhaps having fallen from a higher one. So the protagonist may even be unaware of his rightful status. In the Star Wars films Luke Skywalker first appears as a farmboy, who does not know that his father was a Jedi Knight until Obi-Wan Kenobi tells him and, as herald in the monomyth, issues what Campbell terms the “call to adventure” for Luke to become a Jedi himself.

In Anansi Boys Charlie learns about his true identity from other characters, including Spider, just as Ikaris will inform Mark Curry that he is actually Makkari. But in other variations of this story pattern, the protagonist senses or glimpses his true identity through dreams or visions, or through having thoughts or exhibiting abilities that surprise even himself. His normal, everyday life is therefore a lie, preventing him from achieving his real, greater destiny. Hence Curry dreams about himself as Makkari, about Ikaris, the Deviants, and the Celestials.

It did not take me long to come up with an extensive list of other stories that follow this pattern. There’s Alan Moore’s Marvelman a. k. a. Miracleman, as well as Paul Jenkins’ The Sentry for Marvel: in both, middle-aged men have forgotten their past careers as superheroes, but reclaim their memories, powers, and heroic identities. There’s Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story “For the Man Who Has Everything” in Superman Annual #11 (1985), which was later adapted into an episode of the television series Justice League Unlimited: in the story, Superman is trapped in a fantasy of leading a “normal” life as a husband and father on Krypton that never exploded, from which he must wake to his real life as a superhero. Similarly, in the episode of Batman: The Animated Series titled “Perchance to Dream” (1992), in which the Mad Hatter captures Batman and gives him a dream in which his parents never died and Bruce Wayne never became a costumed avenger, and yet the dreaming Wayne comes to realize that this “life” isn’t real.

In live action television there was the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Far beyond the Stars” (1998), in which Benjamin Sisko finds himself as a science fiction writer in the 1950s who may only be imagining his life as a starship captain, and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode significantly titled “Normal Again” (2002), in which Buffy is temporarily persuaded that she is an inmate in a mental institution who has only fantasized being a super-powered Slayer of vampires. This year there was the two-part Doctor Who story, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” in which the alien Doctor has transformed into a human being, and is living as a teacher in 1913 England, unaware of his true identity, but experiencing memories of his past through dreams. The Doctor’s companion Martha and ewven his enemies, the Family of Blood, attempt to convince him of his true identity, but he initially refuses to believe them and to give up his “normal” life.

Then there’s Philip K. Dick’s 1966 science fiction novelette, “We Can Get It for You Wholesale,” and the 1990 film adaptation Total Recall.

There’s even Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted onto film by Martin Scorsese in 1988: these not only deal with a Christ who regards himself as human but struggles with the realization that he also has a divine nature, but also climax with the “last temptation”: a vision of a happy life as an ordinary human being, which proves to be merely a fantasy and a diversion from Christ’s true mission as Messiah.

So Mark Curry finds himself dissatisfied with his “normal” life, wondering why he is trying to become a doctor, while being puzzled by his “weird dreams” of being a superhuman in a world of superhuman beings and gods. On page 4 Curry seems in a lowly position in life, all right: he is exhausted, his girlfriend has left him, and he just got a phone call from a student loan company that “wasn’t good news.”

And then, the Campbellian herald arrives with the call to adventure: Ikaris, who tells Curry, “I’ve got some good news for you.” Curry replies, “Great. I need good news.” The word “gospel” means “good news,” and this religious allusion may be no accident.

Ikaris has come to tell Curry his true identity: “that you were an immortal, indestructible being” who has “power you’ve never dreamed of.” But Curry refuses to believe Ikaris and rejects the call. Those who know Campbell’s work know that rejecting the call to adventure is never a good thing.

Moreover, Curry tells Ikaris, “I’d say I don’t need a religion” (issue 1, page 5). Here Gaiman’s Eternals begins one of its major themes: the role of religion in a contemporary, rationalist world, as we will examine further next week.

-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson

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