Sunday, January 04, 2009

Alas, Eternal Optimism

What's it say about a series that starts out as a 6 issue limited series but ends up as 7? I'd say that, for one, it speaks of a problem with planning. I'm not a big follower of industry trends or even the previews. In fact, my exposure is largely limited to what Jim and Lee touch on. Too many other things on my plate to delve that deeply into it.

But I digress. Today the Comics Cabinet opens to find The Eternals, published by Marvel a mere two and a half years ago. I wouldn't be looking into something this recent but for two things. One, someone else, possibly several someone elses, brought it up not long ago. Two, it's one of the few Neil Gaiman efforts with which I haven't been totally impressed. And that's disappointing.

True, it's not strictly within the baliwick of that with which Gaiman has succeeded so well previously. Yes, Sandman was sort of loosely based in the DCU, what with its tie to the Golden Age Sandman, but really it was a very broad examination of the universe, particularly our little corner therein. I don't recall any Gaiman work that I read that was as directly tied to a sort of superhero mileu as the Eternals. And maybe there's good reason for that. I think it's too restrictive of Gaiman's abilities, and the scope with which he likes to work.

Admittedly, the Eternals seems like a good choice for Gaiman if he's going to write superheroes. They are, after all, supposed to be the basis on which nearly all the pantheistic faiths are based, having taken the guise of various gods throughout the centuries. This leaves a wide field with which to work in telling a story. But this one is set in the rather pedestrian present of the Civil War era MU. As a result we have the ever present Iron Man in the story, mostly to tell the Eternals they have to register with the government. The utterly useless Wasp and Hank Pym also show up.

Otherwise, the story is about the best known of the 100 or so Eternals. These are Zuras, his daughter, Thena, Sersi, Ikaris, Druig, Makkari, Ajak and Sprite. A little background, almost entirely from what I read in this series. The Eternals were created from early hominids by aliens called the Celestials and are immortal. The Eternals were created to protect the Earth. The Celestials also created the Deviants, who aren't immortal, but have a lot more numbers, and in fact once ruled the Earth, before they were decimated by the Celestials, leaving the planet open for the development of humans. The Deviants genes are a wild card so that whatever form or ability a set of parents might have, there's no telling what the child will have. As a result, no two Deviants look alike or have the same abilities. One Celestial opposed the decimation of the Deviants and, as a result, was buried near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and put into something analagous to a dream state. As a result, it's referred to as the Dreaming Celestial and is something of a godhead to the remaining Deviants, who are still warring with the Eternals.

Sprite is dissatisfied with being forever 11 years old. Of course, this is because Jack Kirby created the character for comic relief and light mischief, but really, logically, what's the sense in one out of a hundred being a kid and no one else? Moreso, how is it that Thena is Zuras's daughter? I suppose she could have been his daughter in their early hominid state, but it doesn't say so in the story, and I guess it doesn't in Kirby's original stories, either. So, if Zuras, post being turned into an Eternal, has a daughter, and she's now an adult (has been for many thousands of years), then why is Sprite stuck at 11? I guess Kirby never addressed this, and Gaiman doesn't either. It's a logical problem that interferes with my willing suspension of disbelief.

So, Sprite's peeved about being forever 11. He hatches a plot to use the Dreaming Celestial to cause all the Eternals to forget they are Eternals and turns them into normal humans. This way he can grow into adulthood. Sure, he'll eventually die, but he'll get to be an adult and have sex, which seems to be the most important thing about becoming an adult, to him. You'd have thought that after half a million years he'd figure out there's more to being an adult than just sex, even if he couldn't ever get there himself. You'd also think that he would have figured out the free market of sex and hired someone for it, regardless of how old he appears. I suppose it could be argued that he's not seeking sex but love, but that doesn't seem valid somehow. It's not like the other Eternals wouldn't recognize his situation. Certainly some amongst them might love him in a mature fashion (with or without sex). Of course, the fact that he behaves like an annoying pest might be his real problem. Doesn't seem like that would change with him being a mortal. It doesn't in the story.

It takes a long time to get to that, though. Normally, I like Gaiman's pace of character development, but telling this through each of the celestial's POV, except Zuras, just befuddles the matter. Makkari's a med student who has no idea he's an Eternal until Ikaris shows up and tells him. He doesn't believe it even then and it takes awhile to convince him. Thena is a weapons developer, married with a kid. Druig is a functionary in some Eastern European nation who's plotting to take power even before he figures out his powers. Sersi is a party planner. Zuras is a babbling homeless guy. Ajak just sort of shows up out of nowhere when he's needed to move the plot forward, evidently completely aware of the fact that he's an Eternal.

Here's the thing. Sprite's plan is all about turning all the Eternals human, though only he knows it. But Ikaris, Makkari, Thena, Sersi, Druig and Zuras all seem to spontaneously turn their powers back on. Ajak doesn't seem to have ever lost his. Ajak has hired a couple of Deviants to keep on trying to kill Ikaris, just so when he finally gets dispersed to molecules by a cyclotron he's reformed in the Eternals' Antarctic home and gets more memories back. Why doesn't Ajak just talk to Ikaris and take him to Antarctica, where the central computer can get Ikaris up to speed? Ikaris already knows he's an Eternal and is trying to convince Makkari. If all these Eternals are spontaneously getting their powers back, how's Sprite's plan going to work? I really just didn't grasp the plan.

And for some reason Sprite tricks Makkari into waking the Dreaming Celestial. That didn't seem to make any sense, either. Why do that when it the Dreaming Celestial is just going to kill everyone on the planet in retribution for his entombment? Kind of defeats the purpose of the plan to reach puberty.

I guess it seemed that too much was being shoe horned into too little space. I think Marvel figured that out, too, when they suddenly expanded to 7 issues when issue 6 came out. But even before that, the page count varied wildly from 22 to almost 40. Each issue was $3.99, but you never knew how much was going to in it. How do you go into a miniseries scheduled for 6 issues and end up with 7? Isn't the story already written and ready to go? It's not like it's an ongoing series where there's a constant need for new story. This kind of thing you should be able to have all lined up and ready to go before the first issue hits the stands. Maybe they were pressing so it would come out around the same time as Civil War, but really, why? It wasn't anything that had an impact on Civil War. It could as easily have come out now, 2 years later, and been stated to have been set 2 years back. The kinds of stories that can be told with immortal characters certainly leave a lot of leeway.

And that's really the thing. Sure, there has to be some set up to get a story running, but a narrower focus probably would have helped. A lot of what moved Gaiman's large stories along in Sandman were the small stories. Characters were developed in some small stories, and those smaller stories would come back later in the greater story. Almost the inverse of the canard regarding the whole and the sum of the parts, the little parts in Sandman were actually greater than the whole.

If the goal is to tell the story of the Eternals in such a way that they're reintroduced into the current MU, something other than the deus ex machina of Sprite seeking adulthood would have better served. In the end, Thena's son is apparently going to be raised by the few Eternals we have while they search for the other 90 or so Eternals. Druig is given his own country to abuse to his heart's content. The Deviants reach a sort of detente with the Eternals because of Makkari. Oh, and Sprite ends up dead. No puberty for him. And the Dreaming Celestial, that was supposed to rain death down on the Earth? He's just standing in Golden Gate Park, the newest tourist attraction. There's no actual end to the opening story arc, let alone the story as a whole.

I think that if Gaiman had a free hand, he could do a lot with these characters. They're less superheroes than gods, which is right up his story telling alley. But, I don't see that happening. Too bad, really. There's a lot of potential for a writer like Gaiman with these characters. And I like the art by John Romita Jr, too. I read of a lot of Spider-man stories with his art when I was a kid, so he holds a place of fondness with me.

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