Marvel's new Eternals comic is even better than the movie
The Eternals have had a strange history. Though these comic book characters who bridge the gap between god and superhero were originally dreamed up by Marvel heavyweight Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and so many other icons), they've never achieved the mainstream fame of their colleagues — until now, that is.
Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao's 2021 Marvel movie Eternals is now available to stream on Disney+, and if that brings even a fraction of the new viewers that Encanto pulled after switching to streaming, soon a lot more people are going to know who Ikaris and Sersi are. Anyone whose appetite is thus whetted to learn more about these cosmic champions is in luck, because Marvel's current Eternals comic by writer Kieron Gillen, artist Esad Ribić, and colorist Matthew Wilson is shaping up to be the best use of these characters ever.
Kirby's original Eternals comics from the '70s are a heady brew: The titular characters aren't heroes so much as angels in service to the silent space titans known as Celestials, who originally seeded planet Earth with life and will return one day to pass cosmic judgment on the results. Before leaving, the Celestials tasked the Eternals with protecting the fledgling human race from the monstrous Deviants, so that we could continue evolving and fulfill whatever purpose the Celestials had in mind for us. In Kirby's telling, humans have ancestral memories of the Deviants and Eternals that manifest in religious iconography of demons and ghouls (Deviants) and mythological gods and heroes (Eternals, who bear quasi-familiar names like Zuras and Makkari).
But despite those interesting ideas and eye-popping visuals, Kirby's Eternals comics were stuck in a simplistic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys setup, and the series was canceled before the master could finish his plans. In the years since, subsequent Marvel creators have struggled to find good uses for the Eternals — culminating in a 2018 Avengers comic by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness that killed them all off in one fell swoop.
The new Eternals comic by Gillen, Ribić, and Wilson opens with that mass death being reversed. Ikaris, the most prominent Eternal hero dating back to Kirby's work, awakens in a crypt hidden beneath the South Pole. He and his fellow Eternals are part of a great Machine that can bring them back from death, but its power is finite. Soon after returning to life, Ikaris finds himself investigating the murder of the Eternals' leader, Zuras. It would be easy if Zuras could just be resurrected and immediately reveal his killer's identity, but it turns out the Machine is starting to break down. Did I mention that the Machine, which may or may not be the consciousness of the planet Earth itself, is also the narrator of this comic? In short order, Gillen and Ribić imbue the Eternals with a pressing problem, real stakes, and an unreliable narrator!
Perhaps you see some similarities to Zhao's film, which also begins with the Eternals investigating the murder of one of their own. Another similarity between the movie and comic is the adjustments to certain characters: Sprite, Ajak, and Makkari are all female now, which brings a more welcome gender balance. But where the movie tries to humanize the Eternals, giving both Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) loving relationships with ordinary humans, the comic emphasizes their alien nature, which is exactly what makes them so interesting.
Ribić and Wilson don't depict Ikaris as a contemporary pretty-boy leading man like Richard Madden, but as a rough-hewn warrior whose immortal purpose in life is to find and destroy enemies like a heat-seeking missile. As the comic goes on, it's revealed that the Eternals' relationship to humankind is much more tragic and harmful than they had realized, which provides some truly compelling dramatic momentum. The Eternals want to protect humans, but are they really just making things worse? Now that's an interesting dilemma!
It helps that Gillen, who knows a thing or two about writing the human-god relationship after The Wicked + The Divine, isn't afraid to take inspiration from other good comics — namely the post-House of X X-Men stories. Like the Krakoan mutants' resurrection protocols, the Eternals' Machine makes death reversible (most of the time), which provides refreshing honesty since everyone knows superhero characters never stay dead anyway. The problems they face therefore become more interesting: If a character dies, how many memories do they retain upon return? What happens during the time they were gone — did they miss a pivotal moment of crisis?
The X-Men comics revitalized by Jonathan Hickman are also full of "data pages," well-designed infographics that convey complicated information in a readable way that adds to the story without requiring actual art panels to be suffocated in exposition. Eternals uses similar graphics and charts (designed by letterer Clayton Cowles) to help readers digest the complex cosmology of these characters and convey interesting plot mechanics (one in particular explains exactly how a leadership election is about to be rigged). As Hickman explained to EW in 2019, these days pages also give comic readers more bang for their buck in an age when all kinds of different media are competing for readers' attention. Indeed, Eternals feels like a richer meal for them.
One element those graphics explain is the Eternals' relationship to the supervillain Thanos, who has emerged as the primary antagonist of the comic. Viewers of Zhao's Eternals may have been delighted by Harry Styles' post-credits arrival as Thanos' brother, Eros, but that cameo also raised questions about what exactly connects these characters to the Mad Titan. Well, this book has answers!
Through the use of these infographics (as well as an informative one-shot prequel issue, Eternals: Thanos Rises, illustrated by Dustin Weaver), they reveal why Thanos resents the Eternals, why they feel guilty about his existence, and why their connection could be dangerous for the whole planet. The groundwork is thus laid for a fascinating saga that's still in progress (though a collection of the first six issues, Eternals: Only Death Is Eternal, is available now, with new installments coming to comic stores monthly).
On top of all that, the most intriguing aspect of this Eternals comic is how it rethinks the characters' dynamic with their opposite numbers, the Deviants. Zhao's film tries to change up Kirby's simplistic good-evil axis too, but unsuccessfully; the movie's many twists end up leaving the Deviants in an undefined liminal zone. By contrast, the comic portrays them not as inherently evil monsters but as a race of shapeshifters cursed with the possibility of experiencing "Excess Deviation," wherein a Deviant's body evolves out of control and turns them into a raging monster that must then be destroyed by Eternals like Ikaris. Here the Deviants are known as the Changing People, and though change brings the possibility of chaos and destruction, it also a provides the opportunity for redemption and betterment. Even the Eternals come to realize this. When their investigation into Zuras' murder uncovers deeper crimes that they refuse to condone, they find themselves asking the Deviants for answers.
"Help us be the Changing People, too," Ikaris asks his longtime enemies.
It's never too late to evolve.