You’ve gotta hand it to Jack Kirby — if you or I had been toiling away in the comic-book industry for approximately four decades, only to have our major life’s work strangled in the proverbial crib, we would probably give up on the whole notion of the “sprawling cosmic epic” altogether and just stick with simple stand-alone stories, punctuated by the occasional two-or-three-parter, until it came time to hang up our pencils and call it a career. Who needs the disappointment of early cancellation all over again?
And yet, after the editorially-mandated quick demise of his Fourth World opus, The King’s non-stop imagination kept chugging away at the only speed it knew how to operate : full throttle. And while he kept creating new and innovative concepts and characters during the remainder of his tenure at DC (Kamandi, The Demon, OMAC), these were all essentially self-contained narratives that didn’t attempt to replicate the scope of his then-recently-scuttled saga. And yet, the siren call of the cosmos never fully let go —
When Kirby returned to Marvel at the tail end of 1975, he was ready to reach for the stars again, and while he would (apparently somewhat reluctantly) return to famous characters he’d created like Captain America and the Black Panther, the project that he was most excited about was his next “high-concept” science fiction masterpiece-in-the-making, originally entitled “The Celestials” and then “Return Of The Gods” before making its July, 1976 cover-dated debut as The Eternals.
Right off the bat in this first story, titled “The Day Of The Gods,” it’s clear that Kirby is playing a “long game” here : incorporating then-popular elements of the cultural zeitgeist such as the purported “sunken kingdoms” of Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu, and the like; mysterious “vanishing zones” such as the Bermuda Triangle; and, most especially, the “ancient astronauts” theories popularized by the dubious-at-best Erich Von Daniken, this debut issue is all about setting a vast and ambitious stage for itself encompassing not only all of human history, but the histories of two purported “sibling races,” as well — the genetically-and-morally-challenged Deviants, and the titular and quasi-godlike Eternals. Most of the principal characters we’d come to know over the course of the book’s run aren’t even introduced in these pages, so dense and complex is the task of “world-building” that Kirby has set for himself, but it almost doesn’t even matter in the scheme of things — this isn’t so much the “ground floor” of something big as it is its foundation. Sure, we get to meet Ikaris (albeit in his thinly-disguised “civilian identity” of Ike Harris) as well as archaeologist Doctor Damian and his fetching daughter/assistant, Margo, who would go on to become semi-important supporting players, but on the whole this is one big old info-dump.
Why, then, is it so endlessly fascinating and eminently readable, even after all these years?
A lot of it is down to Kirby’s genius pacing — despite its heavy reliance on Ikaris’ lengthy “here’s all you need to know before we begin” monologue, there is a clear and present danger hanging, Sword- of- Damocles-style, over the proceedings here, and before we even see a single Celestial (which doesn’t happen in this issue, in case you were wondering), the senses-shaking prospect of their imminent return is established as something larger and more profound than our mere mortal minds can process —and Kirby communicates it all with such vital urgency that there’s no mistaking the import of what’s about to happen, even if it doesn’t happen here. Seriously, though, I defy you not to be absolutely hooked on this comic by, oh, page four or five.
The art (masterfully aided and abetted by the heavy-but-faithful brush of John Verpoorten, for my money one of Kirby’s most underappreciated inkers) is absolutely killer, too — a heady stylistic mix of any number of various ancient cultures, particularly the Incas (who, along with the Aztecs, had long been a major influence on The King’s visual ethos), it nevertheless looks like something from several centuries into the future given its incorporation not only of all kinds of typically-awesome “Kirby Tech,” but of truly alien designs courtesy of the undersea realm of the Deviants. This may be a Marvel comic, sure, but it looks like something from a universe all its own — and indeed, such was Jack’s original intention, to the point that even when the company’s bean-counters handed down dictates to include guest appearances from The Thing and The Hulk, Kirby cleverly (and probably to the chagrin of said “superiors”) made certain they were only lame dopplegangers and not the “real” thing. After all, when you’re pouring this money concepts onto the page at once, tying yourself down to a pre-existing, inter-connected corporate “world” is only going to slow you down.
And if there’s one thing that this comic doesn’t do, even in this first issue that skirts the edges of “information overload,” it’s slow down — not even for a single second. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read it, then what are you waiting for? Do it before the much-hyped movie comes out and see where Marvel Studios’ latest billion-dollar idea came from. Hint : from the same place most of ’em did, one man’s limitless imagination.