My brother Ken had eclectic taste in comic books. He was only ever so-so interested in them, mainly because I was–and that interest tended to flow in two directions. First, he wound up buying copies of more than a few comics that I already owned, so that he would have what I had. Alternately, he would buy comics that I would never have purchased, and had no real interest in. He had brief forays into war comics and comics based on properties that he liked (such as PLANET OF THE APES) and then occasionally just a random book because we were there and he could. This issue of ETERNALS was one of the latter, coming out of the Big Bin of Slightly Old Comics at our local drug store chain, the source of many of my early Marvel books.
My tastes in comic books were very simple: I wanted super hero stories, and in particular super hero stories shaped by the ethos of the Julie Schwartz-edited titles. I would wander afield of that somewhat, but for the longest time, that formed the solid foundation of my interest in the form. So series such as ETERNALS were vexing to me on a certain level. It had all of the outer trappings of a super hero book–costumes, larger-than-life characters, exotic powers–but none of the story structure. The stakes were always weird and broad, the bad guys difficult to pin down. I wanted more certainty in my super hero comics. The sort of novel-like epic that Jack Kirby was crafting here went completely over my head–in part because we were coming in on the ninth chapter of that novel.
I’d venture an opinion that ETERNALS was the best and most well-realized series that Jack Kirby produced upon his return to Marvel in the mid-1970s, at least for its first dozen issues, before Kirby began trying to make concessions to the home office and the fan press of the day. It’s chock full of great ideas and concepts and expands on those concepts gradually in a very thoughful way. But it’s not NEW GODS, and after that series, I think that many of the fans of the era saw it as a lesser version of the same thing. While it certainly shares some of the same DNA, though, ETERNALS was very much its own thing. It was also pretty clearly not supposed to exist in the same Marvel Universe as the rest of the publishing line, and all the attempts to reconcile it with the MU over the years have largely been to its detriment.
The premise of ETERNALS is very simple: years ago, colossal space aliens called the Celestials visited Earth and experimented on our primordial ancestors. They not only produced the spark that would lead humanity to becoming intelligent life, but they also developed two offshoots: the Eternals, immortal superhumans whose exploits over the centuries came to have them viewed by primitive humanity as Gods; and the Deviants, horrific mutated creatures that live deep within the Earth and under the sea, and whose visages inspired many of the tales of demons and monsters throughout history. But now, the Celestials have returns from space, to see what their experiment has grown into and to judge it. This judgment will take place over a period of fifty years, and if humanity is not found worthy, the Celestials will wipe it all out. It’s a big concept for a single series, and one rife with potential.
In this particular issue, after a preamble in which Ikaris, Makkari and their guest Margo Damian are pranked by the trickster Eternal Sprite while on their way to the Eternals’ hidden city of Olympia, the book moves into its main story: Thena, daughter of the Eternals’ ruler Zuras, is a guest in the city of the Deviants, where she is wooed by their Warlord Kro. The Deviants are all genetic monstrosities, except for one–the one they call the Reject. And for their entertainment, they intend to have the Reject battle to the death against the huge, monstrous Karkas, while a protesting Thena looks on.
Thena’s sympathies are with the beautiful-looking Reject, who at first appears overmatched by the much larger and more powerful-seeming Karkas. But Karkas is ultimately a gentle soul with a cultured disposition who hates violence. Whereas the Reject, for all of his outward beauty, is an almost uncontrollable killer. The true essence of the Deviants lies within him, for all that he seems perfect on the outside. As was his way, Kirby uses very direct and almost mythological metaphors ere. Anyway, the Reject trounces Karkas and ten turns his attention on the guards and the Deviants in the stands. He hates everyone and wants to kill everything.
The Deviant leader Tode tells Warlord Kro that the Reject must be destroyed, but nobody among the assembled crowds seems to possess the power to stop them. Then, to make matters worse, the citadel of the Deviants begins to quake as a Celestial approaches it. The Celestial is unfazed by the Deviants’ defensive weapons and casually drains the city of all power. This includes the electrical barrier that separates the Reject from the crowd. And so he advances forward, intent on killing everything in his path–and that’s where this issue is To Be Continued! It’s a pretty powerful piece of work, but I understand why I didn’t connect with it as a kid. I’m not sure in all of these events who I’m supposed to be rooting for–the situations and sides aren’t anywhere near that clear-cut.