When Gods Walk The Earth! The Eternals (1976)
Story and art by Jack Kirby
Inked by John Verpoorten & Mike Royer
Lettered by John Costanza, Irv Watanabe & Mike Royer
Colored by Glynis Oliver
I've never liked the Eternals.
They're just one more group of generic Kirby super people, with ill-defined powers, personalities, and motivations. Ikaris? A poor man's Thor. Druig? A second-rate Loki. Ajak? A plot device. Thena? Inconsistently characterized. Zuras? Generic authority figure. Makkari? Cipher.
Having said that, I love The Eternals. Why? Mostly, it has to do with these guys...
Admittedly, the Celestials are not completely orignal creations - they're heavily inspired by the "ancient astronauts" theory popularized by Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? This is a point in their favor - because the underlying concept has been plucked from the zeitgeist, it's instantly graspable. No, what makes the Celestials unique is Kirby's willingness to take the ancient astronaut theory to extremes. Okay, he concedes, the gods are aliens. Does that make them any less godly? And that's the primal appeal of The Eternals - not first contact between man and alien, but the face-to-face confrontation between man and his creators.
It's a confrontation that would probably be less terrifying if our creators weren't alien in every sense of the world.
The Celestials are some of Kirby's true design masterpieces - awe-inspiring, powerful, and truly alien in every sense of the word. Others have drawn attention to their similarities to Hopi kachinas and other forms of pre-Colombian art, but at their heart they're 100% pure Kirby, composed from powerful gestures, iconic actions, crackling energies and geometric squiggles.
At first glance, the Celestials are roughly humanoid, but that's where the similarities end, because while the outline is right all of the details are wrong. Their forms are stunted, simplified, doll-like. Their order is asymmetrical, regimented but not organized, simultaneously technological and biological. Even the geometric squiggles which define their bodies seem structured at first, only to give way to total chaos upon close observation. Moreso than any other Kirby creation, they feel uncomfortable on the page, as if they were merely an approximation of something so complicated that it could never truly be understood.
Worst of all, they have no faces, only helmets - robotic, masklike, unfeeling, inhuman. Inscrutable.
I think at this point in our development, mankind could cope with the sudden appearance of aliens - it'd be a blow to our own sense of uniqueness, but it's not like we don't deal with existential ennui every day. We could probably even deal with space gods - it would involve an awkward period where all our religions had to reshuffle their beliefs, but mankind is nothing if not adaptable. We could even deal with angry space gods - anger is a very human emotion, after all, and it can be placated. But the Celestials aren't benevolent Space Brothers or avenging Martians. We've encountered the gods, and they turn out to be truly alien fundamentally unknowable.
And like all gods, they're here to judge us.
There is nothing man can do but submit to the Fifty Year Judgment. There is nowhere we can run, nowhere we can hide. We will be observed, weighed, and if found wanting, destroyed.
I have to admit, the Eternals and Deviants actually work well in the context of the Fifty Year Judgement.
On one hand, you have the Eternals. They are prepared to accept the judgment of the Celestials - they face them with their heads held high, glorious, majstic, and proud. They have nothing to fear. Or do they? What have the Eternals been doing with that power for millennia? They've been skulking on mountaintops, isolated from the world, drowning themselves in sensual pleasures and intellectual masturbation. They've been given a head start on the rest of humanity, and they've been coasting on that for centuries.
The Deviants, of course, are their polar opposites. They fear the judgment of the Celestials because they're crippled by guilt - ashamed of their actions, their beliefs, and their very nature. But unlike the Eternals, the Deviants have far more accomplishments to their credit - they've pulled themselves out of the muck developed fantastic technologies, even conquered the world. But confronted with the seeming perfection of the Eternals, they've become obsessed with surfaces. They'd rather place their trust in the Reject, whose perfect face masks the heart of a wild beast, than with Karkas, whose monstrous body hides a sublime soul.
And where does mankind stand in all of this? Why, man is the key. If the Celestials were going to pass judgment based on the actions of the Eternals and Deviants, they'd have done it millenia ago, for they haven't changed. No, the Celestials are here to observe you and I, to see how we live, what we make, where we've been and where we're going. Of course, we have no way of knowing their judgment entails. They could be basing it on our psychic potential, our environmental awareness, or even the quality of our puff pastries. Perhaps if we know what they wanted, we could never truly find it. Perhaps the Celestials themselves don't know what they're searching for.
I suppose it brings some small comfort that even if the criteria for judgment are fundamentally unknowable, we'll live or die on our own merit.
Here's the problem with The Eternals from Marvel's perspective - it cannot take place in the Marvel universe.
Certainly, Kirby never made any attempt to tie them to the Marvel universe. Yes, there are a few off-hand references to the Fantastic Four and the Eternals fight a cosmic-powered Hulk robot, but these are done in a way that suggests that they're pop culture references. Certainly, it's hard to imagine an army of Deviants attacked New York and the Avengers weren't called out to stop them.
But as far as editorial is concerned, these characters need to be tied to the greater universe if Marvel is going to exploit them financially. Roy Thomas certainly did his best to shoehorn them into the Marvel universe during his less-than-stellar run on Thor. The Eternals and Deviants make the transition more-or-less intact - they're forced to co-exist with the Inhumans and are retroactively inserted into the backstory of some other generic Kirby super people, but they've been allowed to carve out their own niche.
But the transition is fatal to the Celestials. Now they're no longer the gods, but just alien gods, in a universe teeming with both aliens and deities. Why should they frighten the average citizen of the Marvel universe more than Thor, the Skrulls, or Galactus? They can be fought off, driven back, even seemingly slain by lightweights like X-Factor. Their genetic experiments, inscrutable, unknowable, are duplicated (and in some ways, surpassed) by the stagnant Kree. Ouch.
The worst part of Thomas's resolution is that it turns The Eternals into a stereotypical Marvel comic. The male gods and the (out-of-character) Eternals engage in an utterly pointless battle until the female gods swoop in to save the day with love. And make no mistake, this is a war between gods - mankind itself has no place here. Our merits and sins are not weighed on some inscrutable cosmic scale whose judgement is impartial and immutable. Instead, the actions of few valiant, non-human exemplars saves the day, while the rest of the world is reduced to a impotent rabble, unable to understand or comprehend all that's happened.
A lousy lesson for real life, but business as usual in the Marvel universe.