Few people fully understand just how much Jack Kirby did for Marvel.
Even fewer people fully understand The Eternals, Jack Kirby’s 1976 creation that came at the tail end of his career. It was published by Marvel, yet The Eternals is entirely Jack Kirby’s creation. I quote his wife, Roz, in an interview published by The Comics Journal when I say that his Eternals was “an afterthought… an anticlimax.” She puts it best by saying, “After he did The New Gods, what more could he do?” Never has a question been more poignant, as Jack Kirby really had done everything before making The Eternals. The man was creatively spent; his resume exceeded comprehension. Kirby either co-created—or just outright created—most of Marvel. By this fact alone, the MCU is entirely beholden to Kirby. He co-created Captain America alongside Joe Simon back in 1941; at that time, Stan Lee wasn’t even a footnote in comics history. Kirby went on to co-create The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, The Avengers, The Black Panther, and the list goes on. You could write an entire book about what Jack Kirby means to comic books, and if it were 2,000 pages it still wouldn’t be the full story. The man was born for comic books, and Marvel knew it. Then he left for DC.
Despite having worked in the industry for 3 decades prior, The New Gods’ creation in 1971 marks the climax of his career. Finally free of Marvel’s constraints, Kirby delivered his aforementioned magnum opus right to DC’s front door. It’s chock-full of mythology, science fiction, philosophy and unbridled creativity; it’s about God and man. It’s more than just a comic book. It demands answers to questions such as what it really means to be a God, to be a man, to be a hero. Then, it ended. Kirby packed up and went back to Marvel. He created a few things, the most notable of which has retroactively become The Eternals, and then he drove off into the sunset. Nobody considers The Eternals his greatest work, but it has recently been given the MCU treatment. The film is vastly different from Kirby’s original comic; it’s obvious even at a first-glance. Kirby’s art and storytelling was epic in every sense of the word. Kirby understood what God meant, he translated that in his powerful artstyle. His writing on The Eternals evokes Shakespeare, it’s a grand-stage drama that expresses his viewpoint on what Gods really are. Yet, he already did something similar in The New Gods. In fact, comic historians and readers alike would find that The Eternals seems a spiritual successor to The New Gods.
It’s a distinctly odd comic for Marvel to have under its banner, especially at that time. The appeal of their characters comes from their creators’ humanity: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and everyone else at Marvel during its foundational years crafted human characters with extraordinary abilities. That’s the core philosophy behind their superheroes: though they’re larger than life, they’re still human, like us. Spider-Man is the tried-and-true example of this, and as a result, he’s Marvel’s flagship character. Peter Parker was a nerd before the spider bit him, that reflected the readership at the time. What then do Jack Kirby’s Eternals reflect? The perfect, undying beings seem like black sheep at Marvel, and for many fans of Kirby’s, The Eternals pales in comparison to his other work. It has a reputation of not being as good. And perhaps the MCU film doesn’t do much to prove those perceptions wrong.
The film neuters the sheer awe and cosmic scope that Kirby’s Eternals set out to provide. The film is more narratively sound, albeit with a few plot holes—an imperfection that can be blamed on the movie already being stuffed with characters and themes. Yet, there’s not any strong themes in either the film nor the comic. The film delves into what it means to be human, not necessarily what it means to be a God. This is where Kirby’s Eternals outshines the film, its self-described Chariots of the Gods? structure screams Gods. Kirby’s Eternals—especially Ikaris—have distinct visual flair. The way characters interact in Kirby’s The Eternals matches up to the grand scale of the story. Furthermore, The Eternals has the added benefit of Kirby’s art: his larger than life figures, dynamic poses, powerful faces and awe-inspiring color work. Kirby’s artwork is genre-defining: inferior artists who replaced him have been accused of copying his style. Kirby also invented many different techniques, strategies, and conventions to help convey the unfathomable scope of his cosmic stories, including the Kirby Krackle—a collection of different sized black dots that he’d use in explosions, ray-blasts, cosmic energy, and general depictions of space. Kirby’s spectacular visual style gives The Eternals gravitas that the film sorely lacks. Visually, the film pales in comparison to the comic; though the film Thor: Ragnarok has adapted Kirby’s visuals to the big screen, an effort passionately undertaken by the film’s director, Taika Waititi. Though Eternals does translate Kirby’s beautiful, awe-inspiring Celestial drawings to the big screen rather well, the awesomeness—for a lack of a better word—just doesn’t feel as strong as it does in the comic. That being said, the comic isn’t exactly what one would consider narrative gold. The classic Kirby art carries the sometimes lacking plot and dialogue. This translates to the film, where its plot is also a bit lackluster.
Kirby had a penchant for stories featuring Gods, the cosmos, and larger than life superheroes—his career was built on it. Though The Eternals isn’t anywhere close to as good as his New Gods, nor any of his previous work, it has been given the blessing of the film adaptation. To some, it would be considered a curse: seeing Kirby’s vision pulled apart and watered-down is the unfortunate consequence of adaptation. His plethora of characters have been adapted before, of course, but something truly feels off about his Shakespearean Eternals being twisted around into another group of MCU superheroes. There’s no easier way to say it, but the film is definitely different than the comic, for better or for worse.
Even if The Eternals wasn’t well-received during its release (Kirby’s run was effectively cancelled at issue #19), the run should be regarded as a monument to its creator: a man who created entire worlds that we could only dream of. A man who, for many, is regarded as the forgotten Godfather of modern-comics. And a man who would agree with his wife, saying: “[The Eternals] is an anticlimax.” But, that’s okay. After all—he was only a man. What more could he do?