As I said in my Omac post, I didn’t care for most of Kirby’s Bronze Age work but The Eternals was an exception. Rereading them in TPB recently confirmed it was a cool series, albeit with ginormous problems.
In the opening issue, archeologist Professor Damian and his daughter Margo follow guide Ike Harris to a lost Inca city. There the professor discovers proof that the gods of Inca legend were real beings — travelers from outer space who descended on this world with technology our ancestors thought was divine. Ike, however, already knows this because he isn’t human — he’s Ikaris, one of the immortal Eternals.
As Ikaris explains to the Damians, the cosmically powerful Celestials created Eternals and humans, along with the monstrous Deviants, by applying genetic engineering to our ape ancestors. The Eternals are immortals, the source of our myths about gods and heroes. Zuras, Thena and Makarri of Olympia, for instance, inspired the myths of Zeus, Athena and Mercury. The Eternal transmuter Sersi is not only Circe, she taught Merlin everything he knows. The genetically unstable Deviants spawned stories of bogeymen, demons and monsters; Kro, the chief Deviant character, is a Satan lookalike.
Memories of the Celestials have become part of our religion. The creation of humanity by a divine being. Noah’s flood, caused by the Celestials destroying the Deviant empire of Lemuria. The dove that guided Noah to land was actually Ikaris in flight, but too far off to see clearly (we never learn how Ikaris relates to the Icarus of Greek myth, whose main claim to fame is that he couldn’t fly). Kro implies at one point that belief in Satan is just humanity’s interpretation of past clashes with the Deviants.In the first issue, the Celestials return to Earth to evaluate their experiment. It’ll be a fifty-year analysis, after which comes Alpha Day, the hour of judgment. It’s a pass/fail grade, and failure means the end of the world. The Eternals, knowing the power of the Celestials, figure waiting and hoping is the best strategy; fighting will only piss the space gods off.
The Deviants, however, are determined to fight. The Deviants dominated humanity until the Celestial sinking of Lemuria. If they can drive the gods off, they anticipate ruling again.
Humanity, meanwhile, struggles to take all this in. Governments ponder how to deal with these other races inhabiting the Earth, not to mention the Celestials. Zuras goes on the nightly news to encourage everyone to stay calm. The Eternals visit college so Professor Samuel Holden’s anthropology class can get a crash course in the truth of prehuman history.
The core concepts here were nothing new. SF writers have been giving pseudoscientific explanations for the mythological gods since the Golden Age. DC’s Captain Action identified the gods of mythology as cosmically powerful space travelers just a few years before Eternals. Erich von Daniken’s supposedly nonfiction books, starting with 1968’s Chariots of the Gods, brought the idea of “gods from outer space” and “ancient astronauts” into pop culture. Nevertheless, Kirby made the topic feel fresh and new.
Part of his success was the astronauts weren’t ancient: the gods were here, in the present, shaking up the world. Another was that unlike so many of comics’ cosmic battles, this one wasn’t confined to the world of superheroes. The whole world knew and had to grapple with the knowledge, particularly Sam Holden and Margo, who got to see everything up close.
I didn’t buy the book when it was new. My brother and I made our limited funds go further by buying different series, then reading each other’s purchases; this was one of his. I’m happy that I now own the entire series in TPB, even though it suffers, like Omac, from flat characterization. Ikaris is noble, Margo is scared, Zuras is a marginally less grump version of Marvel’s Odin, the Deviants are evil. Sersi, a light-hearted party girl with a sharp tongue, is the one who stands out most. I can live with that though: character wasn’t the selling point for the book, cosmic and cool was.
The book’s other problems are bigger. One was that while Kirby wanted this to be a standalone series, Marvel insisted on setting it in the Marvel Universe (SHIELD agents play a role in a couple of stories). While that didn’t bother me much at the time, I realize reading the TPB that it ruins the whole concept. In Kirby’s vision, the Eternals and Deviants are our gods and monsters; in the MU, they’re just some people who get mistaken for gods and monsters a lot. Zuras isn’t Zeus, just a powerful guy who looks like him. That’s not Kirby’s fault but it is annoying.
Second, there’s the Deviants. As one of them complained in Walt Simonson’s later Eternals limited series, they got a raw deal: the Celestials created them to be genetic defectives, breeding even more monstrous forms with each generation. They’re understandably resentful. Kirby’s Deviants, though, are just evil monsters who exterminate their more monstrous children (the image of Deviants being shipped to their death has Nazi overtones I imagine Kirby intended). Even though Thena sees the most deformed Deviants as tragic figures, she still thinks they’re inferior, proclaiming the handsome Reject “the one object of value in this ugly domain.” That scene has an unpleasant taste.
Finally there’s the Celestials themselves. According to Eternals #7, no planet has ever measured up to Celestial judgment; on Alpha Day the Celestials always decide to pull the plug. That certainly ramps up the stakes for Earth, but as one letter-writer pointed out, it makes the Celestials genocides on a massive scale.
Mass murder of inferior races has Nazi overtones I don’t think Kirby intended, but the Celestials right to destroy us goes unquestioned. Ikaris’ friend Ajak compares Earth’s people to crops awaiting the harvest, but crops don’t have feelings about being reaped. Nobody in the cast seems as eager for judgment as Ajak, but nobody finds what the Celestials are doing immoral either, just scary. True, religious believers accept harsh judgment from God as justice, but the Celestials are not God, just really powerful aliens. And even in the Bible, plenty of people try to argue God out of sending down plagues. Nobody tries this with the space gods. Like a Terminator they can’t be stopped, can’t be persuaded and can’t be reasoned with.
You’d think that once the Celestials began appearing in the Marvel Universe, someone might have challenged them, but instead Mark Gruenwald decided they really do have the right to wipe us out (although it wasn’t necessary) because they’re just that cosmic and awesome. I found this as unconvincing as John Byrne’s argument that if Galactus destroys a planet the universe was better off without it.
Maybe if the series had run longer, Kirby would have put a different spin on things. But I can only go by what was written.
#SFWApro. All art by Kirby.