Solving the Eternals Problem

The Eternals have long been a question mark in Marvel’s robust lineup of heroes. The latest volume has found an answer.

Back when the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out and it proved to be an enormous success, Saturday Night Live had a skit with Chris Pratt that Marvel simply couldn’t make a movie that wouldn’t succeed. If Guardians was a smash, this fake trailer suggested, then they could even make a movie about random words selected from a dictionary and it would be a hit. It’s an amusing bit, 1 but it had one major problem.

It hadn’t considered the Eternals.

Jack Kirby’s forever people 2 that were created by my beloved Celestials to protect the Earth from their enemy and opposite number the Deviants have long struggled to connect with comic audiences, let alone those interested in superhero movies. This isn’t to say that I’m out on Chloé Zhao’s upcoming adaptation, though. With an Oscar-winning director, an exemplary cast, and a potentially massive scope and scale to offer, Eternals could be great. It also in all probability will be a success, even if that might be muted by the ever-present pandemic. But telling an Eternals story is a challenge unlike any the architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have taken on, 3 if only because of that lack of success they’ve had since they were created in 1976.

I know what you might say: the Guardians hadn’t seen exactly thrived before their movie proved to be a blockbuster either. The difference there is the Guardians of the Galaxy had the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning run, a crowd-pleaser with an establishment of relationships and identities, to act as a playbook. Eternals, on the other hand, doesn’t even really have that, at least not since Kirby’s initial run. As much as some might enjoy certain runs with the characters, 4 they have struggled to connect with readers in a substantial way or to even have a sustained run over their decades of existence, with their titles averaging barely an issue per year over the five volumes they’ve been around.

The Eternals have long been a problem, and one in search of a solution. How do you make these effectively immortal, unchanging characters not just worth reading, but something to be excited about?

While the film may get there, the first arc of Kieron Gillen, Esad Ribić, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles newest volume of Eternals already has. This story 5 tells the tale of Ikaris, Sersi, Sprite and the rest of the Eternals attempting to stop a murderer of their people, a role played by none other than Thanos himself, while trying to uncover a larger mystery of betrayal at the same time. While that’s an accurate description of what it’s about, what it does is so much more, taking the blockbuster elements of superhero comics and giving it real depth and weight in the process.

It results in one of the finest superhero comics of the year, a fusion of the strengths of this exemplary creative team and a singular vision of how to unlock the greatness within this idea.

But how did the team accomplish this? The real answer is contained within the six issues that comprise that story, so if you haven’t read it, do that. For my money, though, there are four main elements that helped solve the Eternals problem. And today, in a review that’s definitely not a review, we’re going to examine what those are. 6

Of the many weaknesses from the history of the Eternals, and the many probable reasons for this group’s long-standing inability to connect with readers, a lack of style probably wouldn’t be high on anyone’s list. I mean, they were created by Jack Kirby. The guy had style for days, at least in his art. There are few cooler visual ideas than a Kirby Krackle, and the Eternals are no stranger to those.

And yet, here I am, saying one of the most crucial components to this recent arc has been just that – style – even if I mean it in a slightly different way than you might expect. It’s a little bit of swagger and a pinch of braggadocio and a surprising amount of humor but also, yes, that original word, style. I suppose what I really mean in the end is it has personality, a vivaciousness of life that is often missing when your cast is comprised of superheroes that are especially famous for being unable to truly die. 7

This is central to the title’s success. After all, while style might have been ingrained into the identity of the Eternals, fun has not been. And this comic is a heck of a lot of fun.

It helps when you have Esad Ribić as your line artist. The key to making any action comic work or funny comic work or really any kind of comic work is having an effective visual storyteller onboard. And there are few better at making each type of story beat pop than Ribić. A key metric for explaining just how on point he was throughout this first arc is the rate at which I screenshot pages as I reread the bulk of the series on Marvel Unlimited. I only do this when I come across something that makes me say “Wow!” in my head, or something I know is cool enough I know I might want to reference it in my feature. The rate in this case was “near constantly,” and it didn’t matter whether the moment was big or small. They earned that “Wow!” all the same.

From Eternals #3, art by Esad Ribić and Matt Wilson

Two moments stand out above the rest here. We’ll start with the small one. It’s a little moment where the Eternal Thena is being interrogated in a way by her people, and she realizes why this is happening over a two-panel sequence. Now, for many, this would not be a two-panel sequence; it would be one. But it’s two here, and regardless of whether it was Gillen who originated that idea or Ribić himself, the artist was the one who executed it, and my god, did he execute it. The first panel 8 is Thena giving a searing look of “What the hell are they on about?” and the second is her realization that her family thinks she killed her father. It’s both perfect character acting and exemplary comic timing, as we expect from the artist.

This moment is worth mentioning because it’s an explanation of what this creative team values within the story. Eternals have long been treated as hammers looking for nails, or in the parlance of this series, arrows looking for their target. But within this series, Ribić is given the space to make moments breathe, letting their weight hit in an appropriate pace, elevating the drama or, in this case, humor in the process.

And I do want to stress one important thing here: this comic is genuinely funny. I previously compared some of its story beats not to other comics, but to how the sitcom Arrested Development uses flashbacks to set up jokes. That’s not universally true, but it’s one tool in the team’s bag. One of many. 9 Comedy is not often something we think of when it comes to the Eternals, let alone a multi-faceted approach to it. It is here, and Ribić sells each joke perfectly.

Attribution is important, though, because if there’s one thing we know about this first arc, it’s that a lot of its fizzy energy and surprising laughs come from Gillen. The writer is well and truly vibing with everything Eternals. I say this with plenty of expectation of people saying “You’re wrong” in response, but this feels like Peak Gillen, as it has everything we love about the writer but at a high across the board. Mythology. Humanity. Humor. Tragedy. Style! All the flavors we love from Gillen are found in one place, and like with Ribić’s art, it succeeds at the largest of the scales and the smallest.

Let’s talk about the bigger moment now, as it perfectly marries the strengths of writer and artist. If any superhero title emphasizes the Voltron-esque powers of a great creative team, it’s this one, and they are on display here. It’s the above three-page sequence from issue #2, showcasing a fight between the Eternal paragon Ikaris and the family member the Eternals prefer to forget, Thanos. It’s one of many action sequences in the book, and shocking no one, Ribić and Wilson bring each to life in the most electric fashion possible, with plenty of energy beams and removed heads to go around. This part has all of that, but it also exemplifies the depth that comes with the punching.

Within this section, we’re given some of the finest wordplay you’ll find in superhero comics – I live for Thanos saying things like, “Ah. A fellow poet of annihilation. Fantastic. Let us trade verse.” – a demonstration of just how enormous the scale of these characters can be, 10 a look at just how fatally human they can be at the same time, and a perfect exemplar of how dang cool this comic will prove to be. There are more ideas and finer execution in these three pages than you’ll find in the majority of superhero titles on the stands each month. I don’t even say that as a way to diminish the peers of Eternals; it’s to say this comic is a blast.

Beyond the dueling powerhouses and the Eternal Sprite that’s in the background, there’s one other character in this scene that doubles as the one I’d wager Gillen loves to write the most. That’s the narrator, the Earth itself, the Machine that is breaking throughout this arc. The Machine is what the Eternals are born to protect, and its slow-burn destruction is at the center of this whole story, with its consciousness of a sort chronicling this arc for readers.

From Eternals #2, art by Esad Ribić and Matt Wilson

While narration wouldn’t typically be something you think of when you’re considering the immense style of a comic, it very much is in this case, as the Machine feels like Gillen’s muse throughout. It’s where the writer has the most fun, with this faltering, insane omniscient narrator acting simultaneously as the title’s guide and RiffTrax host. It even allows for Gillen to get meta in an effective and amusing way, whether it’s the scribe injecting an Editor’s Note from Marvel into the narration organically, a fun little twist on two ideas at once, or the Machine straight up roasting characters throughout.

In a title filled with the next generation of Marvel movie stars, it isn’t this crew of heroes that stands out the most, but the very Machine they’re designed to protect. That it’s their failing at that task that acts as both the catalyst for the whole story and the reason for the Machine to be such an incendiary character makes it all the more tantalizing.

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  1. And one that is bizarrely difficult to find five years later?

  2. Not Forever People, though! Lower case!

  3. At least since the first few films when they were still proving themselves.

  4. In my mind I really like Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr.’s run, but I also haven’t read it since it was initially released.

  5. Collected as Eternals Vol. 1: Only Death is Eternal and arriving in comic shops tomorrow!

  6. Spoilers for the first arc of this title will be prolific from here on out, so watch out!

  7. Which is saying something, because superheroes are rather known for their resurrections!

  8. Or third in the image above.

  9. Maybe my favorite joke from the run so far: when both a key character’s mother consciously and Ikaris subconsciously dunk on the Silver Surfer.

  10. Having them fight through time is a phenomenal idea.