Review – The Eternals by Neil Gaiman

Witness a new beginning for the Eternals

Eternals cover

Overview

Synopsis Once a race of powerful demigods created by interstellar behemoths, the Eternals have integrated into human society after losing their memories. But the time has come for the Eternals to remember who they once were, what their purpose is, and how to fight their dreaded foes, the Deviants, as that villainous horde seeks to wake a sleeping Celestial.

Author Neil Gaiman

Artist John Romita Jr.
Publisher Marvel Comics
Genre Superhero

Length 256 pages

Release Date August 2006-March 2007

Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals, 2021’s third Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, bears the distinction of being the lowest scoring film in the franchise’s history, currently sporting a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie compiles thousands of years of human history as it tries finding the Eternals’ place in the universe… as well as humanity’s.

Jack Kirby, co-creator of characters such as Captain America, Black Panther, the Fantastic Four, and DC’s New Gods, invented the Eternals in 1976, trying to solve the same riddles posed by the film. Inspired by the book Chariots of the Gods?, which posited that aliens jump-started human development and civilization, Kirby constructed his Eternals series to answer the questions of where we came from and how we got to where we are. With this foundation in place, Kirby crafted a saga where superpowered, god-like beings mingled with humanity and fought their monstrous counterparts, the Deviants.

Originally, the Eternals were meant to appear in our world, not the mainstream Earth-616. Over the decades, they were seamlessly drafted into a burgeoning Marvel Universe. Despite never gaining the popularity of several of their contemporaries, the Eternals have been a consistent part of Marvel’s lore, courtesy of writers such as Roy Thomas, Mark Gruenwald, and Peter B. Gillis.

Fantasy author Neil Gaiman was responsible for ushering the team into the 21st Century, joined by John Romita Jr. on art duties. The pair crafted a story that bumps against then-current Marvel history while also diving into the same philosophical meanderings both Kirby’s series and Zhao’s film tried answering.

Eternals versus Deviants
A female warrior, a guy who can fly and shoot lasers, a speedster…are we sure this isn’t the Justice League?

Content Guide

Violence: We’re told early on that Eternals are indestructible, but that doesn’t mean people don’t try to harm them. One Eternal is injured in an explosion and is later tortured; his captors try murdering him via drowning, smelting, and atomization. We’re also told they tried to crush him and drop him in acid. Characters are punched and kicked in fights; a small brawl sees characters thrown and crashed into the ground. Several Deviants are killed, typically by bladed weapons which see them cut down or chopped into segments. A man is shot in the back. Someone cuts his own throat; another character shoots himself. A woman chokes. A man is hit in the eye with a fork; another is clobbered with a dish. Someone’s neck is broken.

Sexual Content: Someone mentions a gay character. A woman tells a friend she’ll probably steal her boyfriend a second time. Someone is called a drag queen. One character tells another they make a delightful bedmate. Someone suggests a character has a history of cheating. Someone says a female Eternal had “relations with all the straight male Eternals.” A man remembers wearing his mother’s clothes as a child. A character threatens another crudely.

Drug/Alcohol Use: We see a drunk man passed out. Someone smokes. Characters drink at a party. A doctor administers drugs he’s not supposed to. A drunk character takes a sip from a bottle.

Spiritual Content: The Eternals are said to be immortal; they achieve this by putting their consciousness in new bodies when old forms die. Godlike giants called the Celestials, we’re told, appeared on Earth at various stages, experimenting on early proto-humans to create Eternals, Deviants, and modern humans. Over the centuries, Eternals took on the forms of various “gods,” such as those from the Egyptian pantheon. Deviants read from their own scriptures or recite verses. A Celestial is said to be “pretty definitely God.” References are made to the Bible, and verses are taken out of context. When enough Eternals are together, they have the ability to merge their consciousnesses into a Uni-Mind.

Language/Crude Humor: God and Jesus’ names are taken in vain. H*** and d*** are used multiple times.

Other Negative Content: A character possesses the ability to manipulate others. Someone lies.

Positive Content: A character risks their life and future by helping during a hostage crisis. Various characters put themselves in harm’s way to help others. One character shows mercy towards an enemy.

Celestials and a giant robot
These gods are a little too big for a chariot

Review

Where Zhao’s film introduces the world to the Eternals, Gaiman’s series reintroduces the Eternals to the world. Zhao is largely concerned with establishing an entire group of superhumans and tethering their history to the breadth of humanity’s past. Gaiman is more interested in exploring the Eternals’ present state. He dips into the past, but these are mostly nods towards Kirby’s saga, bolstered by fantastical character recreations courtesy of Romita Jr.

The series’ focus lies in the modern day, where the Eternals wander the world in human identities, a heretofore forgotten event stripping them of their memories and repressing their abilities.

Ikaris and Mark Curry
Door-to-door salesfolk coming to our windows now?

Gaiman’s premise allows him one distinct advantage over Kirby and Zhao: unique character growth. In Kirby’s original series and Zhao’s movie, the Eternals are introduced as fully-fledged demigods, with centuries of backstory waiting to be unveiled. Gaiman takes a different approach, unpacking his characters as if they’re brand new. By removing their pasts, Gaiman forges the Eternals through triumph and tragedy, giving them a distinctly human side while they find their godhood again. The Eternals aren’t just superhumans who have long defended the planet. They’re people, humans who suddenly have their personal worlds turned upside down.

Speedster Makkari, a former med student (“Mark Curry”), contends with a new purpose and new powers as well as the loss of a future career. Thena has a human son to care for after the death of her husband, wrestling between her allegiance to her Eternal father, Zuras, and her child. Sersi abandons a fledgling business and leaves a human friend she can never contact again. These characters make sacrifices as they embrace their true natures and potentials. The human lives they created, though not wholly unimportant, are subservient to their true natures.

Thena lifts her son with one hand
A single mother (literally) raising her son
Children of the Gods

Gaiman straddles a bizarre line between philosophy and mythology as he crafts this narrative about identity. He takes Kirby’s suppositions – the extraterrestrial origins of man and the relationship between humans, Eternals, and Deviants through this shared starting point – in a different direction. He treats the Eternals and Deviants as if they are two warring factions within the same, or at least similar, religion. Creations of the Celestials, the Eternals, and Deviants share common mythological ancestry; yet they view their origins and cosmic patriarchs through diverging lenses. Eternal Ikaris tells a story where Celestials returned to Earth to end a reign of terror the Deviants imposed on humanity. The Deviants later share the same story, twisting the Celestials’ motivations to be less philanthropic and implying their massive masters merely munched the mistreated monsters like hors d’oeuvres.

Through this conflict, Gaiman injects nuance into both races. Suddenly, the physical conflicts between the Eternals and Deviants achieve a more cosmic, almost spiritual, dimension. Their unending (eternal?) war isn’t just over defending or enslaving humanity but over which philosophy is the correct belief system. While the Deviants attempt to wake a sleeping Celestial they believe was betrayed by its brother Celestials, the Eternals try to keep the behemoth from rising, fearing it will doom Earth. Gaiman deals with two opposing philosophies based on the same source and wonders which side actually believes the truth. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? And is the line between “good” and “evil” more blurred than originally believed?

Thena versus Deviants
Thena: Warrior Princess

While Kirby’s series, harmlessly, sought out potential connections between different religions, Gaiman’s narrative is more dismissive. Christian readers will most likely understand that Kirby’s intentions were not to deride religion; he merely noted the engaging similarities between belief systems and chose to thread them together, with some alien sci-fi thrown into the mix. Fiction, plain and simple.

Gaiman’s intentions, through dialogue and narrative, seem more complex and slightly more derogatory. As stand-ins for God (or perhaps even “gods”), the Celestials are opaque, distant, unknowable. The Eternals follow Celestial commands merely because they’ve been programmed to – they can’t even hurt a Celestial because of how they’re hardwired. The Deviants, presented in a more empathetic fashion than other versions, bristle when they make the cosmic finger foods claim. How dare some god create them just for sport or as a midday snack?

Celestial experiment on dinosaur
The Celestials were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should (cue Jurassic Park theme)
A Deviation from Truth

“It is not a good thing to be a prophet,” a Celestial tells Makkari as it assigns the speedster the role of mouthpiece. “Read your Bible.” According to Scripture, prophets were hunted and murdered for messages viewed unfavorably by powerful people. The Celestial leaves Makkari with this charge, the promise of more sacrifices after Mark Curry, former med student, already gave up the life he thought was normal. The excitement of embracing the unknown and supernatural comes with a cost.

Gaiman, unfortunately, seems a little more concerned with the cost – and the kind of God who would require it – than the love from which sacrifice should flow. The Celestials demand obedience, programming subservience into the Eternals’ DNA. You obey because you must; if you don’t, the gods might gobble you up like a handful of popcorn.

Celestials vs Deviants
Tonight’s special: Fried Deviant

As the series winds down, Gaiman is not given the chance to pursue this line of thinking more deeply. He dedicates page space to juggling a subplot dealing with Marvel’s Civil War crossover, which was in full swing while he wrote Eternals. Gaiman handles the pieces with aplomb, even calling out the event at one point, keeping any distracting elements to a minimum. But these pieces, plus the scope of Gaiman’s story, unfortunately means that his series ends on a narrative cliffhanger of sorts.

Gaiman promises a lot by the end of his seventh issue and runs out of time before he can deliver a thoroughly engaging conclusion; ninety or so Eternals remain unaware of their abilities and memories as the last issue closes. Though I believe a sequel series explored his plot points more in depth, I am a little disappointed Gaiman could not remain at the helm longer to at least flesh out his concluding comments and concepts.

Zuras and Iron Man
The Eternals wish to remain civil during this war
The Eternals (plural) vs. The Eternal (singular)

Man, fashioned by gods, instructed to obey cosmic creators. The plurality of deities aside, the story sounds familiar. Yet the Celestials appear almost aloof, their interest in their “experiments” extending little beyond their infrequent visits to Earth. Gaiman paints a picture of distant gods who judge on a whim, their creations merely hardwired to obey on pain of death, bickering amongst themselves over philosophical notions.

The Celestials never indicate any interest in healing the rifts between factions, doling out actual truths, or engaging with humanity through means other than mere observance until they move on or condemn the world to a fiery doom. Here, humanity was not created as an extension of a personal God’s love but at the whims of impersonal deities. Blame Kirby for that original notion if you like, but Gaiman draws more critical attention to the concept.

The Sleeping Celestial
“I’d like to thank the Academy…”

Eternals is an incomplete jigsaw puzzle trying to find its own pieces. The characters are clever, and Gaiman and Romita Jr. work wonderfully together to envision the Eternals in a manner different from Kirby. The story, however, buckles a little under the weight of its existential philosophizing. Scrambling at the end to wrap up narrative beats and seed future ideas, Gaiman leaves us on a narrative, philosophical precipice.

Interestingly, Kirby’s original series was left unfinished too, requiring later writers to wrap up his dangling plot and character threads. Though I would argue the cliffhanger endings weren’t intentional, I find it amusing that Marvel canceled two Eternals series struggling to find answers to the inception and meaning of life. Perhaps when you cast your omniscient gods as cold, metal giants who demand fealty and offer little in the way of love, their reasons for creating life don’t matter as much.

Positives

+ Unique, engaging update on Jack Kirby's original pantheon
+ Fun story about rediscovering identity
+ John Romita Jr.'s fantastic illustrations

Negatives

- Jaded take on God and religion
- Feels incomplete

The Bottom Line

The philosophical notions posed by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.'s series are frustrating but worth wrestling, even if the narrative sometimes feels like a prologue to a larger story

 

Story/Plot 7.0

Writing 8.0

Editing 7.5

Art 9.0

7.5

Nathan Kiehn

Nathan has loved comic books and graphic novels for as long as he can remember, ever since his father handed him a digest sized volume of "Marvel Age: Spider-Man." He's dedicated a lot of time and effort to exploring the far reaches of the Spider-Verse, but he's also been known to dive into other corners of the Marvel Universe and maybe even stuck his nose in a Batman story arc or two (just don't tell Spidey).

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