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Ikaris and Makkari flee a Deviant army infront of three massive Celestials in Eternals (2006). Image: Neil Gaiman, John Romita Jr./Marvel Comics

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Marvel’s Eternals characters are best explained by Neil Gaiman and John Romita’s comics

The story most likely to have inspired the feature film

Few Marvel properties feel both like an integrated part of its sprawling saga and like a mythology on a different wavelength. But no characters have ever taken that juxtaposition to the extremes of the Eternals.

The Eternals are set to make their big-screen debut this November, are a pantheon of immortal deities introduced during comics’ Bronze Age, though they wouldn’t become a Marvel mainstay until their relaunch three decades later, in 2006. While Marvel had a smattering of cosmic stories at that time, the publisher had only just finished up the line-wide crossover Civil War, which had dragged almost every corner of continuity into a political saga of superhero registration (à la Watchmen). The moment was hardly opportune.

Writer Neil Gaiman and artist John Romita Jr. were tasked with bringing the Eternals and their enormous space opera back into the Marvel fold, at a time when the company’s centerpiece was Captain America and Iron Man’s ideological squabble and the ensuing hero vs. hero street fights. How would these two narratives, so vastly different in scope and scale, be made to co-exist? Well, they wouldn’t. At least, not in a traditional comic book sense.

When Marvel’s flagship heroes began crossing paths in the 1960s, their creators had no trouble explaining why. Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four all lived in the same vicinity and dealt with villains on a similar scale. Even when Thor was thrown in the mix, his monster-of-the-week stories were not unlike that of his fellow Avengers.

The Eternals, on the other hand, fought wars on par with religious epics. Right from the get-go, their stories dealt with the origins of life on Earth, and involved the gods and creators of the known universe, which handily dwarfed tales of mischief makers attacking Manhattan. With the Eternals set to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a looming curiosity about how these divine beings, whose time on Earth long predates the Avengers, will be made to blend with the ongoing narrative. This remains to be seen, but it has in fact been done once before, in a comic that re-framed the Eternals within existing Marvel continuity, and not only respected their history — their fictional history in-world, and their history as beloved creations of one of Marvel’s key artistic figures — but in many ways, enhanced it too.

After creating the New Gods at DC, legendary artist Jack Kirby returned to Marvel and poured his cosmic fixations into their more streamlined counterpart, the Eternals, in 1976. Part X-Men, part Chariots of the Gods, the series was Kirby’s take on Ancient Astronauts, the theory that cradle civilizations like the Egyptians and the Maya were helped by alien visitors. The concept would go on to expand Marvel’s history by several millennia, as the Eternals’ in-world creators, the vast, all-powerful Celestials, would eventually be used to spackle over cracks in the company’s continuity (on a long enough timeline, the Celestials are responsible for everything in the Marvel universe).

The Eternals #11, Marvel Comics (1977). Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics

Despite the roster’s widespread connections throughout the comics — from Thanos being a fellow Eternal, to the characters being framed as inspirations for the gods of human religion — the Eternals have often languished in the margins. Kirby’s original run lasted only 19 issues, a subsequent ’80s revival lasted twelve, and the characters would show up only for the occasional Thor or Avengers subplot in the early ’90s. By the turn of the century, they may as well have never existed.

However, in August 2006, one limited series found a unique way to re-introduce Kirby’s fantastical immortals to a comparatively grounded comics universe, in a tale of gods returning to pass judgement on their creations. The Eternals and the Avengers would occupy the same space and even interact on occasion, but they would part ways before long, acknowledging that they have no place in each other’s stories. The comics’ Civil War event, like the 2016 film, was meant to redefine the Avengers’ relationship to a world where security and accountability had become paramount concerns. But a story about human structures can only go so far, when one set of characters transcends those structures altogether.

The 2006 Civil War and Eternals comics most certainly overlap — Iron Man features frequently in both of them — but in order to reconcile the two, Gaiman and Romita Jr.’s narrative zeroed in on a couple of key questions. One, how could Marvel’s political landscape feel even remotely significant in the face of something so cosmically humongous? And two, how could these ancient demigods, who have existed for several millennia, suddenly be re-injected into Marvel’s continuity without completely upsetting its fabric?

These questions seem to hold true for the MCU as well — the trailer for the Eternals film reveals that they’ve been on Earth for centuries, but never intervened in major events like Avengers: Infinity War — though the answers, for all we know, may very well be the same as in the 2006. In Gaiman and Romita Jr.’s series, most of the Eternals have been living on Earth as regular human beings after having been made to forget their true natures, and after most of the world has, quite fittingly, been made to forget they ever existed.

The seven-issue story — which features haunting, gorgeous cover art by Rick Berry — begins with Mark Curry, a medical resident who has an unremarkable life, a crumbling relationship, and a fixation with fast cars. He dreams of ancient structures and cosmic wars, though he doesn’t give these images much thought. That is, until the day he’s approached by a blonde-haired, golden-eyed stranger, Ike Harris, who not only knows the contents of Curry’s dreams, but claims they aren’t dreams at all.

“Mr. Curry?” says Ike Harris, standing on the fire escape outside his apartment window, “We need to talk.” “How did you get up here?” Mark asks in Eternals (2006). Image: Neil Gaiman, John Romita Jr./Marvel Comics

They’re memories, according to Harris, of battles they fought together long ago, and Curry’s fixation with speed supposedly stems from his latent abilities. Mark Curry, it turns out, is the ancient speedster Makkari, while the flight-gifted Ike Harris is the Eternals’ de facto leader, Ikaris. They’re strongly implied to be in-world inspirations for Graeco-Roman figures Mercury and Icarus.

The first few issues are framed by Harris trying to gather a handful of former Eternals while himself being tracked by a pair of shadowy figures; it’s a mystery story that picks up the broken remnants of a long-lost cosmic opera. Harris has never been the most complex or interesting Eternal, but he serves a distinct plot function that helps establish their physical limits, and his exposition about their forgotten lives fills new readers in on decades of Marvel history while rewriting some of it along the way. One such retcon makes these characters millions of years old, dating back far before recorded history (instead of the several thousand years they’d been around in prior comics).

However, while this historical framework is alluring, the larger narrative, in which amnesiac demigods slowly recall their backstories, is rooted in their interpersonal relationships in the present, many of which are first formed before they have any idea of who they truly are. Curry, for instance, has a romantic (and seemingly psychic) connection with Sersi, an upscale party planner in New York City, who turns out to be not only an Eternal with the power to transform matter, but a former Avenger, who almost everyone on Earth except Iron Man seems to have forgotten.

Curry, troubled by Harris’s revelations, eventually seeks counsel with Sprite, a child celebrity whose wild success seems driven by more than meets the eye. The main cast is rounded out by Thena, one of Iron Man’s trusty assistants who lives a normal life with her husband and son, until one day, that normalcy is upended by a ruthless, manipulative fascist leader, Druig, who has his own secret motives. He also has the power to tap into people’s deepest insecurities using only his words (which expert letterer Todd Klein calligraphs uniquely to suit him, as he does for several other characters, a motif he employed to great fame in Gaiman’s seminal The Sandman).

A number of mysteries run throughout the story, mostly concerning who is responsible for erasing the Eternals’ memories (and more importantly, why). The answers at each turn are always surprising, because of how they play off the Eternals’ mythology; things aren’t nearly as black-and-white as prior Eternals comics would have you expect.

As Harris explains, the godlike Celestials — gigantic humanoid beings drawn in Kirby’s distinctive angular, biomechanical style — arrived on Earth in prehistoric times, guiding evolution as far back as the dinosaurs and eventually experimenting on apelike human ancestors to create three distinct species (or “races”). One of these were the humans. The second were the Eternals, a few hundred super-beings who protected Earth until the Celestials returned every few million years. And the third were the Deviants, thousands of monstrous, genetically unique shape-shifting creatures predisposed for destruction and war.

The grotesque forms of mutated Deviants paw at the windows of a vehicle in Eternals #8 (1977). “Each grotesque form is a living reminder of the threat within every Deviant’s body — unstable atoms, running wild in frightening patterns, producing frightening offspring!” reads a narration box. Image: Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics

This paradigm dates back to Kirby’s very first issue, in which Harris, disguised amongst a team of explorers, reveals to them that their ancient Incan discovery — a Space Jockey in the vein of H.R. Giger, albeit a few years before Alien — is actually Celestial in origin. However, these early Eternals comics present a number of uncomfortable optics within their larger mythology.

For one, the original stories, not unlike Kirby’s Inhumans, have an undercurrent of genetic essentialism, in which the heroic Eternals are heroes by blood — and are mostly chiseled, white and blonde, though the 2006 series is more diverse — while the Deviants’ villainy is similarly tied to their biology, and by proxy, to their grotesque appearance. For another, Ancient Astronaut stories, like the ones from which Kirby drew, are generally rooted in the colonial notion that non-white civilizations could not have built their pyramids and other structures without external influence.

The 2006 comic remixes this mythology in a number of interesting ways. The first and most apparent is that it treats the nightmarish Deviants with a deft and nuanced hand without entirely rewriting their lore. It tells the long and turbulent history of the Eternal-Deviant conflict from the Deviants’ perspective, in which they aren’t simply monsters, but a people with their own unique culture and religion, fighting for survival. They’re allowed to comment on the use of the word “deviant” to describe them (the term has its own uncomfortable, oppressive history in the real world) and they’re even allowed to claim their own title, “the Changing People,” a more fitting and descriptive moniker for their species.

Although, perhaps the most interesting wrinkle introduced by Gaiman and Romita Jr. was the relationship between the Eternals and the Celestials. The Eternals were, in the original comics, these gods’ chosen people, but the 2006 story offers an intriguing and at times tongue-in-cheek examination of what this actually means on a cosmic scale, what it means for the Eternals’ involvement with humans throughout history, and how much agency the Eternals actually have, which leads to the some of the story’s funnier panels.

The comic begins at the same level as the ongoing Marvel story, in which superheroes are both pseudo-celebrities and spokespeople for the Superhuman Registration Act. However, as the Eternals begin to discover themselves, and discover the scale of the oncoming threat — one so incomprehensible to human heroes like Iron Man and Yellowjacket (Hank Pym) that they eventually leave it be — the series evolves far beyond the grounded scope of Civil War, and it even uses this transition to enhance its character drama.

For the most part, the Eternals don’t magically regain all their memories at once. It’s a slow and uneasy process, and for characters like Makkari, Sersi and Thena, it means reflecting on their place in the universe and the relationships they forged during their brief time as human beings. Thena, for instance, now has a human son, though her calling is that of a warrior who was created with the express purpose of being superior to humanity (as her name suggests, she was the inspiration for the goddess Athena).

“It’s still Momma, Joey,” Thena says to her human son, dressed in full gold battle regalia. “Come to Momma.” When he does she picks him up by the back of his t-shirt collar. A narration box says “And even as she says it, she knows it isn’t true,” in Eternals (2006). Image: Neil Gaiman, John Romita Jr./Marvel Comics

While Civil War was being fought over secret identities — a central fixture of superhero comics, though the MCU has long since moved past them — the re-awoken Eternals found themselves wrestling with a similar duality, where the mundane and human were matters of comfort, but the revelation of their status as cosmic messiahs was a terrifying, lonely burden. It was, in many ways, the story of every superhero, refracted through a spiritual prism. The greatest of power, and the greatest of responsibility.

The series was originally set to last six issues but was eventually increased to seven, despite the sixth being expanded to a double issue. Most of this extended sixth chapter chronicles the arrival of one of the Celestials on Earth — a golden being so colossal that it dwarfs San Francisco — as the story departs from the on-the-ground goings on of Civil War, and from Iron Man’s trivial concern over whether these new immortal super-beings should be government-registered. In sharp contrast, the story briefly zooms out to check in on cosmic beings elsewhere in the universe, like the Watcher and Galactus, who tremble before the Celestials (the detour is as contemplative as it is wryly self-aware of the story’s ridiculous scale).

Romita Jr.’s artwork explodes with eye-popping color (with the help of inkers Danny Miki, Jesse Delperdang, Tom Palmer and Klaus Janson, and colorists Matt Hollingsworth, Dean White and Paul Mounts), and the way it portrays the story’s increasing scale is marvelous to behold. It’s intimate in the way captures a mix of awe and discomfort on the characters’ faces during their journeys of discovery, but it also captures the shattering enormity of Kirby’s Celestials as they envelop the landscape.

Their towering portraits not only reduce Hank Pym in his Giant-Man form to a speck in the foreground, but they reduce the largest dinosaurs who ever walked the Earth to mere insects in their hands. Kirby’s Celestials were designed not unlike children’s toys, like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and that sense of whimsy is carried over by Gaiman and Romita Jr., who treat them at once as something fantastical, and something so otherworldly that human characters can only conceive of them in simple, childlike terms. Conceptually, the Celestials are something unfathomable and Lovecraftian despite their friendly, familiar appearance, and the comic captures their unknowability whenever the Eternals are able to communicate with them. Makkari often comes away from these chats understanding as little as he did before, if not less.

A massive sauropod is no larger than a spider in the hand of a Celestial in Eternals (2006). Image: Neil Gaiman, John Romita Jr./Marvel Comics

What separates Eternals from most Marvel comics at the time — and what separates the Celestials from Marvel’s contemporaneous villains — is that the threat is entirely existential in nature. Any kind of traditional fight or attack is unlikely to make an impact in the short run, and if any other Celestials or Eternals villains are to arrive on Earth, it won’t be for a very long time. Even the Eternals’ Uni-Mind, in which three or more of them combine to form a powerful singular consciousness, is useless in the face of their creators. The Celestial on Earth doesn’t actually do anything of note, but his arrival is the final step in re-framing the Eternals’ mythology and re-introducing it to the Marvel universe at large.

The comic features plenty of conflict between Eternals and Deviants (not to mention, Eternals and other Eternals), and plenty of characters get physically hurt, so the story has no dearth of momentum and stakes. However, Gaiman and Romita Jr.’s masterstroke in reviving this mythos is the way they integrate the Eternals with the ongoing Marvel story, logistically speaking, while also setting it so far apart conceptually from the larger saga that the involvement of any mutant or Avenger would be utterly futile. What is an Ant-Man to a god?

The story’s conclusion is open-ended. The series mainly serves to bring an oft-forgotten roster of colorful heroes to the fore — it would eventually continue in a new comic in 2008, and a spiritual continuation from other creators this year — but its ruminations linger long after the final page. By the end, the focus isn’t on which alliances will be forged to fight which war, but rather, on how these characters will choose to exist after the lives and relationships they thought they had turn out to be mere blips on the cosmic timeline. In an era of splash pages and stories about the outward ripple effects of human action, Gaiman and Romita Jr. captured Kirby’s gods in isolation, and made them look inward in order to contemplate what matters.