My Misspent Youth — The Eternals by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Jack Kirby, who you must remember was the King, had a central role in the creation of most of the characters, costumes, concepts, weapons, vehicles, and crackling powers that put the marvel into Marvel Comics. After departing the publishing house at the beginning of the nineteen-seventies to spend a few years blasting out doubly dynamic pages for the distinguished competition, Kirby returned to the House of Ideas a few years later. By that time, the universe he helped bring into being simply wasn’t big enough for his vast imagination. Sure, he wrote and drew the adventures of Captain America and Black Panther, but the true expression of his storytelling ambition was a brand new series he created entitled The Eternals.

Although the series was an original creation, it had distinct echoes of the work Kirby did for DC Comics that became collectively known as the Fourth World saga. He was deep into crafting modern myths, which was the next logical step from the superpowered beings streaking across the sky that populated the countless comics he’d penciled previously. Taking further inspiration from the bestseller of crackpot speculation Chariots of the Gods?, written by Swiss petty criminal and hotel manager Erich von Däniken, Kirby concocted a tale of warring beings that had roamed the earth for millennia. Directly conveyed exposition was required.

As is customary for such stories, Kirby ensured there were a few everyday folks among the cast, allowing for handy information dumps. Whenever Kirby felt the need to spell out the colossal complexities he’d conjured up, and he didn’t want to be overly reliant of verbose captions, he could simply have the immortal beings explain the mind-blowing happenings to the milquetoast meanderers in their midst. At times, Kirby seemed barely interested in even doing that. Like most of the comics he worked on after his initial departure from Marvel, the King came as close as could to being a one-man show, handling both writing and art duties (which wasn’t particularly common at the big two publishers at the time). Kirby the writer served Kirby the artist, instilling the slenderest narrative logic required to draw scenes that melded historical ornateness with futuristic gizmos.

Kirby was plying his own four-color version of science fiction, adhering the adventure-story demands of the superhero comics that The Eternals slide next to on the spinner rack. It is grandly loopy stuff, and yet not that far off of the off-kilter inventions of the wildest nineteen-seventies writers, such as Steve Gerber. Bucking the mix of the fantastical and mundane that made Marvel comic series distinct in the first place, there is barely any discernible humanity to Kirby’s work on the title. The humans are ciphers, the Eternals are conduits for booming majesty, and the villainous deviants are mostly an excuse for Kirby to draw a series of his trademark giant-mawed, blocky monsters that, in turn, petrified citizens can gape at.

Even at a time when iconoclastic creators were branching the mighty Marvel river into a series of unpreditable tributaries, The Eternals carved out unique territory. Under Kirby’s guidance, the comic was bold, brash, and free of boundaries. The norm still called for heroes to bop from one villain to another from issue to issue, in relatively self-contained stories that had some ongoing, soap opera–like elements. Kirby’s run on The Eternals feels more like the comics of today, dispensing chapters in one long story that changes shape depending on whether sales justify a continuation of the series. It’s difficult to imagine what the devoted fans of Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk really thought of it, if they ever even had a change of making sense of its slippery sensations. The Eternals was, as much as anything the King signed his name to, the kind of comic book that only Kirby could deliver.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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