I bought this on the strength of Neil Gaiman's name, knowing nothing about its contents. I read it. It baffled me. However I then read the fifty pages of additional material that came after it in the Marvel graphic novel and everything became clear.
If like me you've never heard of the Eternals, broach this book by reading Gaiman's interview at the end. At least that way you'll have a better idea of what you're getting into.
The key fact I didn't know was that the Eternals were created in 1976 by Jack Kirby. When his New Gods got cancelled at DC, he came back to Marvel and started doing something similar only for that to end up getting cancelled too. His Eternals were created by van Daniken-esque Celestials who'd visited Earth five million years ago to do genetic experiments on proto-humans. Well, I guess it was either that or just watch TV again. This might mean they're the creators of all intelligent life on Earth, but I'm probably wrong about that bit.
Anyway, the Eternals are immortal. This is, to put it mildly, a game-changer. Admittedly they have the usual superpowers and costumes, which you'd think might make them indistinguishable from anyone else in the superhero community, but they also have their own enemies, their own odd vulnerabilities and a time-scale that's different from anyone else's. When it comes to the Celestials, it turns out that they even have programming. There's an Odin-like patriarch called Zuras, an evil son of a bitch called Druig, a million-year-old kid called Sprite and more.
Gaiman's Eternals, though, have amnesia. They've forgotten that they have superpowers and that they used to be mistaken for Greek gods. The story begins here.
This is one of the more unusual cross-fertilisations I've seen recently. Jack Kirby's work is bombastic, lurid and exploding with wild spectacle and energy. He's probably the most revered artist in the history of American comics, although obviously as a writer he's of the pre-Alan Moore era.
Neil Gaiman though is an award-winning writer in multiple media, best known for dark fantasies and a skewed, often fairy-tale perspective on reality. Knowing nothing about this book except that it was written by Gaiman made it hard to get a grip on. You see, it's straightforward superhero stuff. The plan had been to set up the Eternals as functioning members of the Marvel universe once more, who could have their own ongoing book if they wanted. It doesn't feel self-contained. There are references to certain Eternals having previously been members of the Avengers and so on, which is brought up and then never explained in a way that makes me feel I'm supposed to know something. The ending isn't really an ending, but instead a lead-in to a hypothetical part eight.
Similarly it's getting excited about the chance to have fun like Jack Kirby. REALLY BIG aliens are sleeping under San Francisco, for instance. This is fun, but (a) Kirby was way crazier, and (b) it's confusing for anyone like me who's looking for the themes.
I might as well give my impressions from that first reading.
It feels almost like a new kind of deconstruction of superheroes. Moore and Miller theoretically did this in the 1980s with Watchmen
and The Dark Knight Returns, but this is gentler and cheekier. These guys aren't brooding sociopaths. No, instead they're doing cheesy promotional soundbites and appearing on America's Next Super-Hero. "We're not allowed. We signed these legal waivers." Superpowers are nothing special in the Marvel universe, obviously, and the best a lot of potential heroes seem to want is to be a celebrity, perhaps somewhere between game show hosts and second-tier movie stars.
This is interesting. Gaiman's realised that in the Marvel universe, the Eternals aren't inherently special. So people used to think they were gods? So what? There's Thor. In order to address this question, Gaiman's making connections between superheroes and real-life modern culture. Theoretically it's just a backdrop to the story, but it's also my favourite thing about this book... although a bit of reading around suggests that other creators have been doing similar things and that I'm simply out of date with modern comics.
This gets a further boost from then-current events in the Marvelverse. This was the time of the Civil War crossover storyline and the Superhero Registration Act, which adds darker real-world resonances. That's cool too. Iron Man is the main representative of superhero authority and he comes across strongly as an icon of weight and history.
As for the Eternals themselves, I have to say I only found them intermittently interesting as characters. They're okay. Druig looks as if he's going to be a lot of fun in someone else's book, since Gaiman is merely setting up his storyline for someone else to resolve. I liked him. He's a bad guy. They're usually entertaining. Of the others, Sersi is the sparkiest and you can always remember which one she is. Ikaris, Makkari and Thena have a lot going for them but end up largely indistinguishable, despite for Makkari's cool scene in the final chapter with the Deviants and Druig. Ajak is a null. None of those I mind, though. The damaging point I think is the way that Sprite's allowed to drift out of focus, despite his importance to the story, and with hindsight I'd have preferred to see him getting more to do.
As for the art, John Romita Jr is of course an old pro. At times it put me in mind of Frank Miller's Sin City, near the beginning in the scenes of trenchcoats, rooftops and fire escapes. And rain. Lots of rain. Ikaris's costume also reminded me of Miracleman, but of course that's just my brain being weird because they're just following Jack Kirby.
Overall this is solid superhero fare rather than anything you're going to be rushing out and pressing into people's hands. It's not Gaiman's best work, but it's good. My favourite episode is the last one, I think, because there at last it feels as if the book has found its groove. Mind you, I liked the occasional moments that reminded me of a broader range of sources beyond comics, e.g. possible parallels with H.P. Lovecraft, who also loved the weight of antiquity. If there were an eighth episode, would I read it? Yeah, sure. Would pay twenty quid to get my hands on this hypothetical book? No, probably not.
"Mine transforms into a truck. I like mine better."