Monday, September 29, 2008

Looking at Eternals in light of New Gods

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.
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Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday Night Fights

Hey, Black Canary is fighting a bad mother -- shut your mouth!

No, really, the goon here actually does belong to a bad mother, who's thrown her planet into an horrific crisis of overpopulation. So yes, I'm just talkin' about Mother Juna.

Bahlactus can dig it!

[From "Death Be My Destiny!" in Green Lantern vol. 2 #81, December 1970. Written by Denny O'Neil, pencilled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by John Costanza.]
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Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Eternals question

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.
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Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Night Fights

[Postponed from last week....]

No Jon around, but here's Kate Plus Eight!

... or, wait a minute, maybe there's nine. Ten? Aw, heck. With Multiplex, who can tell?

Anyway, we can't get enough of Bahlactus!

[From "Forgotten Part 4," in Manhunter vol. 3 #34, November 2008. Written by Marc Andreyko, drawn by Michael Gaydos, lettered by Travis Lanham, colored by Jose Villarrubia.]
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Monday, September 08, 2008

New comics 8/13/08

Olivia turned four weeks old yesterday, and will be a month old on Tuesday ... not unlike my current-comics backlog, as it turns out.

I've also been reading a lot of non-superhero comics. I finally got around to The Professor's Daughter, The Plain Janes, and Black Hole, with Bottomless Belly Button on deck.

But yes, the superheroes still dominate, so let's get to 'em.

In Booster Gold #11, guest-writer Chuck Dixon joins regular artists Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund for a light look back at Batman's less-grim days. Batman, you say? Yes; Booster must pose first as Killer Moth and then as the Darknight Detective himself in order to fix the problems one of Dixon's one-shot Detective Comics villains has caused. It's part 1 of 2, and it seems content to gawk giddily at the trappings of '60s Batman and one of his goofier villains. (Killer Moth considered himself the anti-Batman, down to his own set of themed gadgets.) There's the usual drama about A World Without Batman, but we know by now how that sort of thing turns out -- especially in a two-part guest-written arc. It's still fun, though.

Someday soon -- maybe after Bottomless Belly Button and finishing another run through Watchmen -- I'll break out all of the Grant Morrison Batman issues to date. Maybe then I'll have a more informed angle on "Batman R.I.P." In the meantime, though, every issue seems like a mad dash through the storyline, with Morrison throwing out ideas and plot points left and right. Batman #679 finds the "emergency persona" in full effect, busting heads and behaving like a cross between Rorschach (i.e., vigilantism on the cheap) and the Frank Miller parody, with a little "Moon Roach" from Cerebus thrown in. I liked it pretty well, and I think my problem is that I read it too quickly.

Wonder Woman #23 finished the "Ends of the Earth" storyline with a big, brutal fight between Diana and the Devil, with her soul (among other things) at stake. I liked it on its own terms, but I still couldn't follow the changing loyalties and subtle reveals from previous chapters. Fortunately, the issue brought Donna Troy into the romantic subplot involving Nemesis, and let Donna have a good scene involving Amazon ritual.

Assuming we hadn't seen it previously, Action Comics #868 adds The Matrix to the other sci-fi influences writer Geoff Johns and penciller Gary Frank have brought to their ultimate version of Brainiac. While Superman contends with the villain, the more lively parts of the issue involve Supergirl and her soon-to-be-Jonah-Jameson-like rival, Cat Grant. It's all good, though.

Fantastic Four #559 tracks the Human Torch's fight with the New Defenders across Manhattan, while Sue has dinner with Reed's ex-flame and Ben takes his new love to see Johnny perform on "The Late Show." If you think this is mostly an opportunity for Bryan Hitch once again to demonstrate his photorealistic tendencies, you're not far off (although there is no David Letterman cameo, unfortunately). One money shot shows the Fantasticar flying low over Times Square. The issue has a couple of big revelations, one involving Magrathe-- I mean, the "new Earth" -- which is mildly surprising, and the other involving a classic FF foe which recalls both the Walt Simonson issues and JLA/Avengers. If you'd never read a Fantastic Four comic book before, you'd probably think this was pretty cool stuff, but for us lifers, it feels pretty hollow.

Green Lantern Corps #27 holds a hodgepodge of day-in-the-life-of-Oa subplots including the opening of "Guy Gardner's American Cafe" (it's not called that), a visit to the Green Lantern graveyard, and hints of affection between Kyle and Dr. Natu. However, the cover image refers (somewhat inaccurately) to the tragedy which I presume kicks off the next storyline, and it's a gruesome one. Guest penciller Luke Ross (with guest inker Fabio Laguna) has a less distinctive style than regular penciller Patrick Gleason, but considering that this issue is concerned with introductions (Guy's bar, the crypt), I suppose that's okay. I have to say, though, that the aforementioned tragedy seems to fall squarely within the "worthwhile = realistic = gruesome" thinking which DC can't seem to shake. This will sound like an empty threat, but I think I'll be dropping this book if things don't improve after "Black Lanterns."

Batman Confidential #20, Part 4 of the current 5-part Batgirl/Catwoman storyline, was pretty much like the other three chapters, except with Batman replacing the shredded costumes and outright nudity. By that I mean Batgirl isn't necessarily struggling to impress/one-up Catwoman here, but Batman himself. Still pretty entertaining, although Batgirl's dialogue tends to be a little too earnest.

Green Arrow And Black Canary #11 lays out the details of the Plot To Kill Green Arrow, along the way revealing the mysterious mastermind behind it all. Not bad for an expository issue, although I'm not sure it dovetails entirely with the "Countdown was responsible" tone of the first few issues.

I'll be honest: I was ready to declare Final Crisis: Revelations #1 (written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Philip Tan, inked by Jonathan Glapion et al.) one of the worst comic books I have ever read. The art seemed deliberately ugly and incomprehensible, and the writing depended upon a good working knowledge of recent DC crossovers.

Well, re-reading it, it's not quite that bad. The writing still involves a particular learning curve, but I suppose if you're buying a Final Crisis [Colon Subtitle] book, you're halfway there already. The art isn't a model of clarity, but perhaps it fits the particularly grim mood of the book. This is an issue where Doctor Light dresses up helpless teens as rape-ready superheroines, and where the Spectre subsequently gives him and assorted other supervillains their ironic punishments for the even-more-sordid acts they committed in the course of recent DC crossovers. Furthermore, the story invokes one of the classic responses to an omnipotent character: making him powerless (or not so powerful) against a particular foe. I wouldn't mind it so much here if it hadn't just been used in Countdown To Mystery, although it does make more sense here than there.

Ultimately, though, I'll stick with this miniseries largely out of a need for closure. I hate to say it so bluntly, but at least we won't have Doctor Light to kick around for a while. Maybe by the end of this miniseries we'll have a functional Spectre and/or Question.

Finally, The Last Defenders #6 was a letdown on a couple of levels. First, the big revelation is something of a betrayal of the "non-team" concept. Second, I kinda get Nighthawk's role, but I've been reading those Essential Defenders (halfway through #4!) and does he really need to be validated this much? I guess I was expecting something more subversive. Also, the opening fight choreography was hard to follow.

Three weeks (or so) worth of comics left....
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