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Graphic Novel Review: The Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.

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I always thought Jack Kirby’s series, The Eternals, was a cool idea. The premise was that all intelligent life on Earth was created by gigantic aliens that needed these massive inverse square law violating battle suits to move around. These Celestials accelerated the evolution of the Geico style cavemen that were running around doing whatever it was modern stone-age families did. To protect these newly mutated humans, the Celestials created another race, this time with superpowers, called The Eternals. The Celestials went back into outer space, and, as humanity matured, they modeled their gods off the Eternals, and they in turn helped us when we needed it. They kept us safe from harm, functioning as a kind of planetary immune system. It was a cool book. You could tell that Jack loved working on it, but then he always did grand, cosmic themed stories better than anybody.

Kirby’s Eternals series was a hard act to follow, and I was disappointed, but not surprised, when the first issue of Neil Gaiman’s restart was just this side of unimpressive. Oh sure, the Romita Jr. artwork was flat out brilliant, but it was the story that initially put me off. It was typical Gaiman, fantasy stepping on reality, but there was something about the way the characters interacted with each other and the way the plot of that first issue unfolded that bothered me. There was something oddly familiar about the scene where Mark Curry visits Ike in the hospital, after he gets attacked. There was something about the amnesia the main characters were suffering. I’d seen all this before. It took a few days to dawn on me that Gaiman was doing Nine Princes In Amber, something that I really didn’t want to see meshed with The Eternals. Somewhere in the interim that first issue was tossed into a long box and forgotten.

Cut to many months later, and I decided that if anyone can effectively pull off a Roger Zelazny story, It’s Neil Gaiman. I put some thought into this book before I bought it, and decided that at its worst it would be like Sammy Hagar replacing the Van Halen brothers with Joe Satriani and Chad Smith, and, let’s face it, Chickenfoot put out a great album. Needless to say, I bought it.

Story wise, there are indeed some vague similarities to Roger Zelazny’s work, but once you take in the entire series, you realize that it’s okay. Whether Gaiman channeled Roger Zelazny’s spirit or if it was purely unconscious riffing, the story works, and it’s better than anything Marvel has put out in a long while. I grabbed the hardback edition of this one because I wanted all the extras. It’s like an expanded director’s cut double disc DVD. Not only do you get the complete eight issue series, but you also get Gaiman’s original story proposal, a lengthy interview that Gaiman did for Marvel Spotlight, and a slew of Romita Jr.’s character sketches, as well as the alternate covers for the series. It’s a fine package, and well worth the 30 dollar price tag.

Neil Gaiman does channel Roger Zelazny with this story. While it’s not Nine Princes In Amber, it does have one big similarity in that they are both masterfully told fantasy adventure stories. In retrospect, I think the reason the Eternals series seems so similar is that Jack Kirby’s core concept is close to Zelazny’s. In Gaiman’s extremely skilled hands, the Eternals are given new life and more depth of character than they’ve ever had. He’s even updated them and progressed their story into the post Civil War Marvel Universe. Of all the myriad of Civil War tie-ins we’ve endured, including the Dark Reign follow-up, this one above all others seemed to flow naturally as a part of the story progression. Gaiman is fully able to make the worst intruder imaginable, (the summer mega-crossover) seem like an old friend of the family.

John Romita Jr., the other half of this stellar creative team, absolutely knocks it out of the stratosphere. He updated all the Kirby designs without really deviating too far from the master’s original design concepts. Romita Jr.’s art gets better with each project he takes on, and, with this Eternals series, he reached a pinnacle at which his design skills and line work nearly outshone his father’s. He turned in some brilliantly stunning pages on this book that would make both his father and Jack Kirby beam with pride. From the subtle scenes of Icarus always floating about six inches above the floor, to his powerful double page spread of The Dreaming Celestial reawakened, Romita Jr. proves that he’s a prodigious talent that will eventually surpass the master artists that taught him.

The Eternals is well done all around, and most assuredly a must read. In his interview at the back of the book, Neil Gaiman talks about how when he was writing his novel American Gods that he was thinking of his recently deceased friend Roger Zelazny, and how he hoped that he’d written a book Roger would have liked. He goes on to discuss a bit about his new Eternals series and how he hoped he’d written a story that Jack Kirby would have liked. The end result, I think, is a seamless blending of writing and art that both master creators would have treasured.

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About Dan T

  • http://runningbowline.com Chris Bancells

    Nice review, Dan. I was a little thrown at first by your contradictory feelings, but I understand where you were coming from; I’ve often had the same issue with books. This definitely looks like one to check out.

  • http://lunapath.net/popsnarkhooligan Dan Traeger

    Thanks Chris, it was a weird reaction for me. This one took a bit longer for me to warm up to it. Usually I’d say Neil Gaiman could publish his laundry list and I’d buy it.

  • http://DamianDaily.wordpress.com Lisa Damian

    I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan and appreciate the graphic novel medium for story-telling, but I hadn’t purchased this one yet. I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection after reading your review though.

  • http://lunapath.net/popsnarkhooligan Dan Traeger

    Thanks Lisa, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. :)