The MCU’s Big “Eternals” Gamble

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It’s said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and the MCU may not have studied their comics history as well as they should have. Jack Kirby’s Eternals will be joining the MCU relatively soon, and I can’t help but wonder if this will prove as big a mistake as it did in the original comics over four decades ago. For those who missed it the first time around, I’ll try and fill you in.

Return of the King

As earth shaking as Jack Kirby’s exit from Marvel in 1970 was, his return to the company five years later may have been even more dramatic. It was at The Mighty Marvel Convention, held at the Hotel Commodore, on Sunday afternoon, March 23, 1975. Stan Lee sprang a big surprise on the fans in attendance at a Fantastic Four panel there, introducing Jack “the King” Kirby to thunderous applause. But pump the brakes, kids—Kirby was not returning to work on the FF, nor his other big title, Thor. Instead, he’d be taking over Captain America as both writer and penciler, in addition to doing two new projects, one being an adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and the other being the wholly-original series, The Eternals.

Marvel house ads hyped Kirby’s “latest, greatest epic series,” The Eternals.

Inevitably, fans would compare the Eternals to the New Gods, the group Kirby had created for DC just a short time earlier. This was logical on the surface—both were godlike, superheroish beings just revealing themselves to humanity at the beginning of each one’s respective series. But after a deeper look, you’ll find the Eternals bear a much stronger resemblance to another group Kirby had introduced to comics even earlier: the Inhumans.

The New Gods are godlike beings residing on planets far from Earth. The Eternals are an immortal, earthborn race created as a result of the genetic meddling of the “Space Gods,” a.k.a. the Celestials, during the days of prehistoric man. The Inhumans are an earthborn race of superhuman beings created as a result of the genetic meddling of the alien Kree during the days of prehistoric man. The latter two groups are both under the Marvel banner, which makes the overlap in premise a bit more redundant than if they existed in separate universes, or shared a universe with the New Gods instead of each other.

But this wasn’t the only difficulty presented with the Eternals residing in the Marvel Universe.

Another part of the premise of The Eternals is that this immortal race inspired ancient myth. For example, somebody (or several somebodies) in ancient Greece saw the Eternal Ikaris flying around one day and this inspired the myth of Icarus. (Either Ikaris inspired the name in the myth, or the myth saddled Ikaris with his name—take your pick.) Ditto the Eternal Sersi, who could turn men into animals just like the Circe of myth.

This creates a problem because it was already well established at the time the Eternals were introduced that the gods of ancient myth already existed in the Marvel Universe. So why do we need the Eternal Zuras to inspire the myth of Zeus when the Marvel Universe already has the actual Zeus in it?

I’m guessing these are the primary (but likely not the only) reasons Kirby wanted to keep the Eternals out of the mainstream Marvel continuity. The Marvel bullpen had other ideas, however.

The Set Up

The first issue of The Eternals carried a cover date of July 1976, which means it was probably out on the stands in April of that year. The issue introduces the three races that the narrative will be centered upon: Homo sapiens (of course), Eternals, and Deviants. All three races trace their lineage back to the same ape-like ancestor, but are very different in the present age. The Eternals are beautiful, immortal, godlike, and very genetically stable, while the Deviants are often monstrous and genetically unstable. Homo sapiens land somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Kirby would end up with a rather sprawling cast of characters (again, much like his Fourth World over at DC), but he kept the narrative in The Eternals more linear and on-track than he did in The New Gods (in my opinion, anyway). This doesn’t make The Eternals better than The New Gods, but it does make it more accessible to younger readers and probably more commercially viable. Despite the large number of characters, most of that narrative centered on the Eternals Ikaris, Sersi, Makkari, Thena; the Deviant Kro; and humans Margo Damian and Dr. Samuel Holden. Zuras, leader of the Eternals, would take up more space as time went on, and two more interesting Deviant characters, the Reject and Karkas, would be introduced about halfway through the series run and get significant attention as well.

The big event that kicks things off in the first issue is the return of the Space Gods/Celestials to Earth. Background information on the three races and the Celestials is then given out slowly over the course of the first half-dozen issues. Then, in The Eternals #7 (Jan. 1977), more detailed info on the Celestials is given, as we’re told their most recent arrival is the “Fourth Host.” The First Host was when the experiments on pre-human life took place; the Second Host was one of “wrath and discipline,” when they cleaned the face of the Earth with a great flood; while “inspection and cultivation” were the purpose of the Third Host, which took place at the height of the Inca civilization. Now the arrival of the Fourth Host signals the beginning of the fifty-year judgment. Should the Celestials judge the races of Earth unworthy, the world would be destroyed by the Celestial known as Arishem, “a planet killer!! Engraved on his thumb is the formula for the world’s destruction!!”

Two-page spread of the Celestial Arishem from Eternals #3 (Sept. 1976).

This being the case, the return of the Celestials for this Fourth Host should have made a lot of noise throughout the Marvel Universe—that is, if The Eternals actually took place in the Marvel Universe. But none of the events here were ever mentioned or even touched upon in any other Marvel comic at the time.

In or Out?

The question of whether or not the comic was part of the Marvel Universe was first posed by Ralph Macchio (right before he joined the editorial staff at Marvel) in the lettercol of Eternals #3 (Sept. 1976).

Much as I’m pleased with THE ETERNALS, there is a matter inherent in their design which is as important as the publication itself. I’m referring to this new concept being fit into the already overcrowded Marvel Universe. I’m sure there’ll be many a gleam in fannish eyes over the prospect of Spider-Man or the Thing teaming with Ikaris and fighting Deviants in New York. But I firmly believe, after much thought, that the Earth inhabited by the Eternals should not he the Earth of the Marvel Super-Heroes. In fact, it’s imperative they be kept separate. In this new series, Jack is going to be answering many of the questions about the why’s of human existence and purpose on this planet, which is all well and good; but even if the answers do not contradict already established laws of the Marvel Universe, they will severely limit any possible storylines which might deal with the creation of Man and his reason for being here. In the Marvel World, the truly Big Questions should be left reasonably open to allow for sufficient latitude in story telling. If you graft the new Kirby-mythos onto the Marvel mythos, you’re asking for inevitable contradictions that will destroy two of the most important elements that make Marvel, Marvel: continuity and verisimilitude. And I feel that if we go off in this direction, Marvel is going to find its space/time continuum unalterably locked up in the future.

Now that I’ve presented what I consider the major problem, let me try and give you some solution to this mess. I think it would be in the best interest of both Jack Kirby and the rest of Marvel to set the Eternals on a parallel Earth that hopefully does not have carbon copies of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, etc. In this way, Jack would be allowed to utilize his imagination to the fullest extent, populating his own special world with as many characters and concepts as he saw fit—in effect, creating an entire super-structure that does not have to mesh with already established Marvel Law. At the same time, the Marvel Universe would be free to continue evolving without being forced to align itself to a whole new series of unexpected constants that would limit its growth and stagnate it. Ordinarily, I would not ask that this be done, but in the case of ETERNALS, there are bound to be many things that Jack will want to touch on that will already have been answered in other Marvel books and this will hurt his work as much as Marvel’s overall continuity. Even this issue, on page 15, Jack intimated that the lost city of Lemuria was a Deviant outpost which had fallen in times past when attacked b the “Gods.” This already is perilously close to playing havoc with the Hyborian Age/Marvel Universe set-up which has nicely made it possible for Sub-Mariner’s realm to exist alongside of the sunken Lemuria. I’m sure you see the trouble here. Before things get botched up beyond repair, please keep the world of the Eternals from the Marvel Universe and let each evolve separately.

I know I’ve been somewhat long-winded, but continuity is what’s made Marvel so different from all other comics and I want that to continue in the future. Please consider the matter. And let me wish Jack Kirby the best of luck on what may be his most ambitious undertaking yet. May Ikaris never get a case of warts from Brother Tode.

The editorial response:

We appreciate your concern, Ralph, but it’s really doubtful that our newly-revealed race of Eternals will contradict any of the already-established Marvel Universe. But, as always, we are interested in what the rest of Marveldom Assembled thinks. So let us know, hear?

Letters responding to Macchio would appear in the seventh issue (Jan. 1977). Without getting too deep into their specific content, the final score was 3 for keeping the Eternals out of the Marvel Universe, and 4 for putting them in. I don’t know how accurately this tally reflected the full fan response, but by the end of the lettercol it was declared, “As you know, the Eternals et al. are definitely on good ol’ Marvel Earth.”

But based on what appeared in the pages of The Eternals, I don’t think anyone bothered to tell Jack Kirby this. Or if they did, Kirby refused to cooperate.

Heavy Is The Head

In his book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe recounted some of the King’s struggles with Marvel editorial at the time:

Kirby’s The Eternals was another variation on the ancient-aliens-visited-earth themes that had also informed his creations of the Kree in Fantastic Four and the New Gods for DC. But Marvel was more interested in Kirby building on his old ideas, and there was editorial pressure for Kirby to include references to S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Thing and the Hulk. “We felt, or maybe Stan felt, it should have been connecting more with other books,” Archie Goodwin said of Kirby’s Captain America. “We wanted Jack to use some of the villains that were current in other books so the kids reading this book would read Avengers, and the kids reading Avengers would read this book. …I guess we figured it could only help sales. But Jack said he didn’t want to do it.” Kirby roundly ignored the storylines that directly preceded his own; he made almost no reference, in fact, to anything that had happened in Marvel’s history.

The hermetic distance that Kirby tried to keep from the rest of the Marvel Universe caused some problems. (Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, p. 194.)

Evidence of this editorial pressure reared its head (pun intended) in Eternals #6 (Dec. 1976), when Sersi transforms a young college student’s head into that of the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing.

Fun Fact: This may be the last time Jack Kirby drew the Thing for a proper interior comics page. (I’m not counting Fantastic Four #236 (Nov. 1981) because that art was not originally drawn for the comics; it was drawn for an animation storyboard and modified for the comic format.)

…So that settles it, right? Kirby must have given in, as the Eternals are clearly part of the Marvel Universe, as proved by these panels.

But do they really prove this? Notice that no one in the panels above talks about the Thing and the FF as if they’re “real” characters in the Eternals’ world—it’s entirely possible that the Fantastic Four only exist as a comic book in this world.

Aside from these larger concerns, other niggling issues related to continuity persisted in the strip. In the lettercol of Eternals #8 (Feb. 1977), Mike Larson of Northridge, California, wanted to know where all the other superheroes were when a large force of Deviants attacked Manhattan in the fourth issue (Oct. 1976). One of the bullpen armadillos cleverly responded:

Where were they, Mike? Well, the Fantastic Four were in transit from Counter-Earth, the Avengers were in New Orleans, the Defenders were somewhere outside of Norman, Oklahoma, and Spider-Man was visiting his aunt in Queens. In other words, everybody was out of town!

To clarify the references: the Fantastic Four left Counter-Earth at the conclusion of FF #175 (Oct. 1976); the Avengers were in New Orleans to investigate the return of the formerly-deceased Wonder Man in Avengers #152 (Oct. 1976); the Defenders visited Trish Starr in Oklahoma (and got into a little skirmish with classic Doctor Strange foe, Shazanna, while out there) in Defenders #41 (Nov. 1976); and naturally, Spidey could have been visiting Aunt May in Queens at nearly any point (pick a random Spider-Man comic with a cover date of October or November, 1976). It was a smooth dodge, but savvy readers had to know this excuse couldn’t work every time, and future conflicts along these lines would be inevitable.

Despite this, Marvel editorial reasserted its position regarding the place of the Eternals in the Marvel Universe in the lettercol of issue #12 (June 1977), saying, “as you know by now, ETERNALS definitely takes place in the Marvel Universe,” and teased “an up-coming guest-shot by a certain green-skinned individual.”

This Is The Hulk?

Sure enough, the Hulk would show up (but not really show up) for a three-part tale that began in The Eternals #14 (Aug. 1977). I came in late, buying the second issue in this storyline on the basis of the sweet cover match-up:

The very misleading cover of Eternals #15 (Sept. 1977), courtesy of marvel.fandom.com. (I would have scanned my own copy, but it’s in really rough shape.)

Looking back, I can see how this cover would have appealed to me. It’s got two big figures front and center, throwing hands, and in those days there was nothing I loved more than a comic book fistfight. Ikaris was also my favorite Eternal, probably because of the primary colors of red and blue in his costume to go along with those killer eye beams of his.

And the other guy was the Hulk.  Everybody loves the Hulk.

Sidebar: Did John Romita Sr. touch up the Hulk’s face/head on this cover? Sure looks like it to my eyes. Generally speaking, Kirby’s depiction of the Hulk on the interior pages throughout these three issues looks off to me, so maybe someone in Marvel editorial felt artistic touch ups were called for, especially with this cover, as the Hulk was such a big part of it.

Now early on in this issue there was nothing in the text or images that would suggest this wasn’t the real Hulk. Yeah, he’s referred to as “cosmic powered” for some reason, but this didn’t register with me at that age as anything remarkable. Near the end of the issue though, we got this:

Had I gotten my start with the previous issue (#14), I would have known that this was a fake Hulk from the beginning. But learning this at the tail end of issue #15 felt like a bait-and-switch. Boy, was I mad—I bought this comic to see Ikaris fight the real Hulk and this was not what I got. I felt cheated.

In any case, this confirms my earlier suspicion regarding the Thing’s prior appearance in this title—which is that the regular Marvel Universe characters exist only in comic books in the world of The Eternals. Regardless of what editorial was telling us in the lettercol, it’s obvious at this point that Kirby did not want this book connected to the larger Marvel Universe.

Knock, Knock

Among Kirby’s key demands when returning to Marvel were independence and autonomy. Given his then-recent experience at DC, where his Superman heads were redrawn mercilessly, this was more important to Kirby than ever before. He wanted to be his own boss, essentially, and free from any outside interference with his work. Stan Lee agreed to give him this, but the rest of Marvel editorial was apparently not happy with the arrangement. Again, this was often reflected in the letter columns of the comics, which was the only space in Kirby’s books completely controlled by the editorial staff. This was likely the reason for the inordinate amount of negative responses there—or “knock letters,” if you will. Tom Brevoort touched on the issue of knock letters in Kirby’s books in a blogpost from a couple months back, specifically in the pages of Kirby’s Captain America:

It’s been reported that people in the Marvel offices who weren’t enamored with what Kirby was doing on his titles (and who may have preferred it if he had been drawing stories of their design) filled up his letters pages with “knock letters.” In this instance, they have a point. The whole page is devoted to how divisive Kirby’s return to CAPTAIN AMERICA has been–and while there’s a balance of viewpoints presented, the very fact that the idea of a controversy is acknowledged and given credence plays into the situation. This is a far cry from the typically-laudatory fare that filled most Marvel letters pages. Sure, an occasional knock letter might be printed, but usually those were few and far-between.

The letter column of The Eternals probably wasn’t as bad as that of Cap. In fact, it struck me as fairly balanced, if not generally positive overall, when I went back and re-read them for this blogpost. Still, there was criticism to be found there—and the debate over whether or not the book belonged as part of the Marvel Universe never really ceased, despite earlier declarations by editorial that the matter had been settled.

Without getting into it too deeply, there was one letter attributed to a Vallard Eding in Eternals #8 (Feb. 1977) that I’d like to share here, as it was so detailed and insightful that it could have very well been written by a Marvel staffer under a pseudonym. The letter was respectful but still quite critical, particularly so in regard to the power Kirby was given over his books:

Like many other Jack Kirby fans, I waited in anticipation of the King’s return to Marvel. Now, after having read his CAPTAIN AMERICA and ETERNALS efforts, I’d like to discuss two areas of concern.

First, I’d like to comment on an artists control over the production of comics. In the past, both Steranko and Starlin have produced comics that they wrote as well as drew. But unlike Jack, they did not have editorial control over their comics. My question is: “Does one person’s complete control over a comic produce a better comic?” In the undergrounds there are artist/writers like Rich Corben who have created beautiful comics. But similar efforts by aboveground artists and writers have been disappointing to me. Jack Kirby is the first artist at Marvel that I am aware of who has nearly complete control over his comics. I believe that Jack has sacrificed valuable input and feedback in gaining his editorial freedom. I feel that Jack the writer and Jack the artist lose something by working together at the exclusion of another creative “sounding board.” I believe this in spite of my respect for his Fourth World series. But then many of the ideas for that series had been developed over the years when Jack lad still been at Marvel (as deduced from many interviews and articles concerning Mr. Kirby). I know that many fans will disagree with me, but once the honeymoon period is over, I think that more readers will notice that the quality of Jack’s recent work has been below par—for Jack. I would like to see either a stronger outside editorial influence or a writer who could work with Jack’s plots.

Secondly, the times have changed. Although Jack is deservedly called the King, it wasn’t until the sixties that his bold and dynamic style really emerged. His earlier work was good, but not as stunningly great. In the sixties and early seventies Jack used large, bold panels in comics that were blessed with twenty to twenty-four pages. Economic pressures have brought about a reduction in pages. Writers have compensated by putting more story in each page, and artists have used imaginative layouts and more panels per page. I feel that Jack has not adjusted to these limitations. His writing is paced for pages that no longer exist, making his stories appear skimpy. Jack the artist also has a style that works best with larger panels. His explosive style loses something in small panels. When given more pages to work with—as in the larger comics formats— Jack has produced his best work at Marvel since his return. Although I don’t think that Jack should change his present layout, I do feel that Jack the writer needs to pace his stories to give the reader more substance in the script. As I stated earlier, a co-scripter might be the answer if egos don’t get in the way.

I hope this will all be taken as constructive criticism, since I admire Jack’s work a great deal. I also admire him for something that is easily overlooked by most fans: Jack meets his deadlines! And considering the number of pages of art that he keeps turning out, that really gains my respect.

The very positive editorial response:

Val, never let it be said that Mighty Marvel has steered away from controversy—especially on letters pages! That’s why we’re presenting your letter nearly in toto for the perusal of Marveldom Assembled. And we’ve got a hunch that this will trigger a bigger batch of pro and con mail than these halls have seen in many a day.

And by the by, Mr. E, we appreciate the constructive tone of your criticisms immensely. Thanks for caring to comment.

To be honest, I can’t disagree with the basic sentiments expressed in this letter. I think Kirby’s work was better when done in collaboration with another writer. But at this point in his legendary career, the man certainly earned the right to do things his way if he so chose. Sadly, he wasn’t given the respect he’d rightly earned from the Marvel bullpen. As Sean Howe recounts:

None of [Kirby’s] books had sold as well as hoped, the reaction from readers was less than enthusiastic, and even his supposed autonomy had been undermined. “The editorial staff up at Marvel had no respect for what he was doing,” said Jim Starlin. “All these editors had things on their walls making fun of Jack’s books. They’d cut out things saying ‘Stupidest Comic of the Year.’ …This entire editorial office was just littered with stuff disparaging the guy who founded the company these guys were working for. He created all the characters these guys were editing.”

Tensions were now worse than they’d ever been in the sixties. Kirby reportedly received hate mail on Marvel letterhead and crank phone calls from the office. (Howe, p. 207.)

The last issue of the original Eternals series was The Eternals #19 (Jan. 1978). Kirby would finish out his last days at Marvel working on Black Panther, Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, and a Silver Surfer graphic novel in collaboration with Stan Lee. When his contract was up, the King moved onto greener pastures in Hollywood and never worked for Marvel again. As Kirby recalled it:

“I didn’t really get a shot,” Kirby later said of his 1970s work at Marvel, pointing to professional jealousy. “A guy will create a book, another will fill his book up with knock letters—he’s off in five months, or three months, and the other guy’s got his spot… I see it as a serpent’s nest. And in a serpent’s nest, nothing can survive. Eventually all the snakes kill each other. Eventually they’ll also kill whatever generated them.” (Howe, p. 208.)

The Eternals in the MCU

Some of the bigger problems with The Eternals comic should prove much smaller in the MCU version; but conversely, some of the smaller problems in the comic become far larger for any potential film.

The only mythical pantheon attached to the MCU is the Norse one—no Greek gods, nor any gods from other pantheons, have shown up to this point. So the problem of the Eternals co-existing with established mythical beings is somewhat lessened. The greater difficulty is explaining why it’s taken them this long to appear, since, as immortal beings that have lived on Earth for centuries, they would have been around when Loki led that alien force to attack New York City in the first Avengers movie. They also would have been around when Thanos started making trouble—which is an even bigger problem if Thanos is going to be attached to the Eternals race, as per the later retcon in the comics.

Then the biggest challenge of all is that this potential Eternals franchise will essentially be replacing the Avengers one, which is going to be one hell of a tall order. They’ve certainly got the star power, with Angelina Jolie and GoT’s Kit Harrington (among others) onboard, but the public has virtually no sentimental attachment to (or even basic awareness of) the characters they’ll be playing—certainly not to the extent they were attached to the all-time classic characters that comprised the Avengers.

Now by the time the movie gets released, the public might be so MCU starved (and generally entertainment starved) in the wake of the ongoing quarantine that none of these things will matter and it will still be a huge smash. But even if this does happen, I’m still not sure how sustainable such success will prove.

Final Judgment

The Eternals was set to open in February, but with the pandemic pushing back other MCU films, I imagine this one will be pushed back as well, though it seems likely it will still come out sometime next year. The summer, perhaps?

Meanwhile, according to the original comics, the Celestials would have been due to pass judgment on Earth just six years from now, in 2026. But based on the state of the world these days, I gotta tell ya, just making it to 2026 feels optimistic.

 

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