Last week I exhumed my rant about digital comics and the state of the comic book marketplace. This week, Longbox Graveyard looks at DC Comics’ “born digital” Legends of the Dark Knight comic series. That’s right — Longbox Graveyard is reviewing a book from the present century. And it doesn’t even come on paper!
Despite my love for comics of the past, I help run an iPhone developer and I write this comics blog, so that kind of puts me in the bullseye for digital comics whether I like it or not. I’m enjoying Insufferable over at Mark Waid’s Thrillbent site, and even allowing for substantial interface issues, I remain a fan of Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service. I also recommend Operation Ajax for iPad as a “concept car” for the way technology and graphic story telling can come together.
I’d like to have a weekly comic book fix — I just don’t want to trek to a comic store and pay $3.99 an issue to get it. So my little bat ears perked up when I learned DC Comics was launching a new, out-of-continuity Batman series, to be published weekly in digital form, for .99 each. Weekly installments, low price point, a character I like, and digital delivery! OK, DC Comics, you got me back.
Now … can you keep me?
Legends of the Dark Knight on iOS is delivered via DC Comics’ own app, which is a branded version of the Comixology store app (Marvel uses the same platform in their own branded app). The DC Comics app isn’t a store so much as a storefront — all billing and downloads are handled through Apple’s iTunes, which means all the app has to do is provide a clear and attractive marketplace for browsing and placing orders.
In this the app comes up a little short. Having learned about the series from DC’s blog I came to the DC Comics app eager for some digital Batman. I didn’t come to this series in the first week and so missed any special banners or promotion that might have run trumpeting this new series, and had to search the book up on my own.
Searching for “Batman” didn’t do me a lot of favors …
That’s a lot of Batman, and the priority of the search results didn’t help. I’m a new digital customer, looking for Batman — I would expect DC’s new, digital-only Batman series to receive priority in search results. Certainly it should appear before hits for series that concluded in 1995 or 2004. Seeing that I was viewing just a fraction of the 46 series on offer and the 986 issues available, I was ready to give up on the whole enterprise, but instead went outside the app to DC’s blog, confirmed the title of the series, returned to the app, and then found it by searching for “Legends of the Dark Knight.” This brought up the title I wanted, though I still had to distinguish between this new original series and the digital version of a legacy print title with a similar name that breathed its last in 2007.
This is asking a lot of customers — someone vaguely hearing of a new digital Batman book would certainly be thwarted coming to the store and trying to find Legends of the Dark Knight by browsing. Search is complicated, and it’s a bugaboo for the whole Apple ecosystem, but the DC Comics app earns poor grades in this aspect. A storefront that can’t quickly and efficiently connect a customer with their product is failing its most basic function.
With the technology navigated I encountered my next problem:
Wrtitten by Damon Lindelof?
Having recently endured his instantly-forgetable Prometheus, seeing Lindelof’s name on the masthead did not inspire confidence. But the story proved better than I expected, though it was too reliant on a long, talking head sequence, and I didn’t buy the twist ending. The art was kind of sketchy but that’s down to taste rather than execution, and I know Jeff Lemire has his fans.
In all the first issue was a tightly-constructed and clever one-and-done story, and for all the ballyhoo of The New 52, as a lapsed Batman fan I found it a better jumping on point that the Batman Vol.1: Court of Owls graphic novel that I read last June. In fact I liked it well enough that I exclaimed so out loud, and my office partner, Chris Ulm, sitting just across the desk from me, overheard and we struck up a conversation about the book, and DC’s new digital initiative, and he was instantly eager to check it out.
Here I encountered another technology problem.
Short of my physically handing Ulm my iPad, there was no easy way for me to share Legends of the Dark Knight with him. There was a “Tap to Rate” option on the last page of the story, where I could give the tale between one and five stars, but no means of sharing this story via email or social networks. No Facebook or Twitter buttons, no “recommend to a friend” link, not even a URL that I could copy and paste and send to Chris. Nuthin’. As an evangelist who navigated the app’s search functionality to find the one book among thousands I actually wanted, I was provided zero help in sharing my enthusiasm with another likely customer.
As the kids say: FAIL!
At this point, though, I’ve paid the opportunity cost of hunting up the book, and getting it onto my iPad, and I liked it well enough. I was sold on the .99 price and weekly frequency, and so looked forward to sticking with the series, even if I wouldn’t be sharing it anywhere outside of Longbox Graveyard. The book wasn’t going to make me forget Frank Miller, and there weren’t a lot of bells and whistles in the way the technology was used to tell the story, but not everything has to be Operation Ajax. The lack of continuity with the rest of the DC line might be considered an inadequacy, but for me it is a benefit — and in fact at the first hint of a cross-over, reboot, or line-wide editorial mega-event, I’m gone, baby! No, I like Legends of the Dark Knight just fine the way it is — a bat-specific shaped-charge perfectly suited to penetrate my Armor of Jadedness and get me back into a weekly comic book habit.
Issue two was another entertaining one-and-done story, this time by Jonathan Larsen and J.G. Jones. This tale pit Batman against Amazo, a “sentient android possessing all of the (Justice) League’s superpowers.” A mismatch on paper, the story showed how Batman used brains and grit to defeat Amazo — and by proxy, prove himself superior to his superpowered Justice League colleagues.
Clever, groovy, well-told, and it didn’t overstay it’s welcome. I can already see that the reduced page count and single-issue focus of this series is forcing creators to produce crisp tales, with little of the decompressed, “write for the trade edition” pace that frequently reduces my enjoyment of modern comic books.
By the time the third issue rolls around, it’s fair to say I’m a fan. Legends of the Dark Knight has helped establish a little Thursday digital routine for me. Instead of spending my lunch hour with a Marvel digital moldy oldie, now I’m looking forward to a fresh new Batman episode on my iPad. Neat!
Except for one thing.
I do enough customer support for my own iOS firm to know that download errors rarely have anything to do with the app itself. They’re usually upstream at Apple. Still, it was disappointing to want some Batman on my lunch hour only to be thwarted by a vague download error message. An advantage of digital comics is that they should be available at any hour, instantly, and that they never sell out. We’re not there yet.
An hour or two later and my download was approved, and it was worth the wait. This third installment — by Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott — is a gimmick story, but it’s a good gimmick, as Batman (and Robin, yay!) do a little data mining to stop a crime before it happens.
I’ve always liked these street-level stories that try to get into the psychology of Gotham’s criminals, and in it’s tone this tale reminded me of the 1980s stories that Doug Moench used to tell so well. One jarring flaw was hearing Robin refer to “hiring” a car — we “rent” them over here in the States, but author Tom Taylor is an Aussie and can be forgiven that colliqualism (while we lay the body at the door of DC’s editorial).
Following these three single issue tales came two three-part tales. First up was “Crisis in Identity” by B. Clay Moore and Ben Templesmith, which has been my personal favorite arc of this young series. This was a lacanoic and darkly-humorous take on the Joker’s plot to unhinge Batman by hypnotizing select Gotham citizens into thinking they were Batman, then setting them loose to battle Killer Crock, with predictably fatal results.
Then came the three-part “Letters to Batman” by Steve Niles and Trevor Hairsine, which revolved around the tales exhumed from sacks of letters sent to Gotham City Hall by the city’s citizens, thanking Batman for his thankless service.
Author Steve Niles weaves his epistilary plot-lines together nicely and provides an unexpected judo-flip when one of the letters comes from an otherwise annonymous criminal opponent of Batman, but I found the final installment confusing — not understanding how Batman deduced where to find the bad guys from the letters he was reading — and I think this tale suffered a bit from also featuring the Joker, who maybe needed some time to cool down after having just been at the heart of the previous arc.
Calling these multi-issue stories “arcs” is a bit of a misnomer. Each installment of Legends of the Dark Knight clocks in at 22 pages … but those pages are formatted to fit the landscape orientation of an iPad, and so it might be more accurate to say that each issue is about eleven pages long, based on an equivalent print comic. That means a “three part” story runs around thirty print pages, which is longer than a single print comic, but still well short of a graphic novel or trade paperback. Actually this feels like a good length to let the story breathe a bit and permit creators to explore their idea while not being so long that the tale gets flabby or stale. The serial nature of weekly distribution also ensures each story hits a little climax every dozen “pages” or so.
On balance, Legends of the Dark Knight has been a bit better than I expected. I would likely hold a print book to a higher standard, but as an inexpensive and easy weekly Batman fix, this series pushes all the right buttons for me. Niggling technology issues aside, I expect I will keep my weekly lunch date with the Bat … so long as DC can resist rebooting or retconning the book! Kids these days may be all about the New 52 but I’m the Old 50 and I can only take so much change.
Enjoy Legends of the Dark Knight … and stay off my lawn, you rotten kids!
- Title: Legends of the Dark Knight
- Published By: DC Comics, 2012-present (ongoing) (Schedule through Fall 2012 HERE)
- Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: #1-9, June-August 2012
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-minus
- Read Online: DC Comics Online
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #62 Six Degrees of Jack Kirby
- New Batman Digital Comic Series Legends of The Dark Knight to Debut Today (firewireblog.com)
- Batman Battles Amazo in Legends of the Dark Knight (ign.com)
- Legends of the Dark Knight #1 (readaboutcomics.com)
- Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight to Debut Tomorrow (ign.com)
- Lemire Makes Batman His Own in “Legends of the Dark Knight” (comicbookresources.com)
- DC Announces Original Batman Digital Comics (With A-List Creators) (comicsbeat.com)
- 5-STAR REVIEW: “Legends of the Dark Knight” #1 (comicbookresources.com)
- REVIEW: Damon Lindelof & Jeff Lemire’s BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT: “THE BUTLER DID IT” (ifanboy.com)
- Funko’s DC Comics Mystery Minis (firewireblog.com)
- DC Announces 1966 ‘Batman’ Comic By Jeff Parker, Jonathan Case and Michael Allred (comicsalliance.com)
The Dark Knight Rises is in theaters this week, the third and final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, which with its bazillion dollars in box office has clearly become the consensus view. Few characters have sported as many different tones as Batman, and fewer still so successfully — between comics, TV, and movie series, there must be a half-dozen different versions of the Batman. The current grim-and-gritty motion picture Batman traces its roots to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though Nolan’s series has gone on to become a thing of its own, thanks to its not-a-superhero-but-really-a-crime-picture story beats, and a transcendent performance by the late Heath Ledger in the trilogy’s middle installment.
Batman wasn’t always this way, and the Batman of old didn’t become today’s Batman overnight. A couple weeks ago I spotlighted the late 1970’s Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run in Detective that arguably began Batman’s transformation into his modern form, but where was Batman after that series and before Frank Miller put his indelible stamp on the character?
The Batman of the early 1980s was defined by writer Doug Moench. Teamed with a number of pencillers — most notably Gene Colan — Moench’s 80-issue run, published twice monthly in the pages of Detective and Batman, gave us a final look at Batman before Crisis on Infinite Earths and Frank Miller’s vision helped bring down the curtain on the “Bronze Age” of comics.
Overshadowed as it was by the Dark Knight phenomenon, this Doug Moench era has been forgotten by many, and I think unfairly, as it has moments of rich characterization and a couple single-issue stories that hold up well today. To their credit, DC didn’t boot Moench to the curb, no matter how many times Dark Knight went back to press with the flavor fans clearly preferred. Moench’s run came to a celebratory end in Batman #400 … but then it’s like he was never there. Following Moench would be Batman: Year One, and then a run by crime novelist Max Allen Collins, and the modern age of Batman had well and truly begun.
nice cover by Don Newton, who did some of his final work on this series before his untimely death in 1984
So who was the Doug Moench Batman, this transitional shades-of-grey knight before the darkest dawn of our current era?
The familiar Bat-tropes are all on display. Bruce Wayne still moonlights as Batman, hangs around in a cave, and responds to Commissioner Gordon’s Bat-Signal. Gotham City is still menaced by the finest rogue’s gallery in comics, and Batman himself is obsessively driven to bring them all to justice. Batman roars around in his Batmobile accompanied by his young partner, Robin. There are plenty of fist-fights and shadowy show-downs with warehouses full of mooks up to no good, and one or two Gene Colan pages with costumes swirling all over the place.
yes, Harvey Bullock has three hands in that panel, but this is the masterful Gene Colan — just go with it!
Where this Batman most differs from the more recent vintage is in his humanity, or at least his emotionality. Far from the grim workaholic of contemporary Batman stories, Doug Moench’s Batman wrestles with his dual roles as Bruce Wayne and superhero, wondering if he can ever be happy so long as Batman is a part of his life. Themes of mortality and exhaustion are repeated throughout the run, as Batman comes to understand that he may be at his physical peak, but that he’s wearing down under the constant grind of battling Gotham’s crazies. He especially agonizes over whether he should allow Jason Todd to become his partner as Robin, and he gets positively tied in knots shifting his affections between four different women each appealing to a different aspect of his soul.
There’s plenty of crime, punishment, and superheroic punch-outs in this run, but it is in this handling of Batman’s interior life — and the lives of the book’s many supporting characters — where Moench is at his best.
Commissioner Gordon nurses a bad heart and works overtime to bear up under the gaze of his boss, the corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill, who makes Gordon’s life miserable by saddling him with the piggish and disgraced Harvey Bullock as his assistant. Alfred Pennyworth is distracted from pressing Bruce Wayne’s trousers when his estranged daughter, Julia, re-enters his life. Jason Todd has mood swings and generally acts like a little kid, earning him a contempt from the audience that would famously end in his death by popular demand in a DC Comics telephone poll, but also painting an emotionally accurate portrait of an insecure and needy young man.
Four women form the points of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s emotional compass in this series. Bruce’s relationship with Vicki Vale goes downhill quickly, with Vicki proving demanding and strident; it isn’t long before Bruce has thrown her over, first for a momentary infatuation with Alfred’s daughter, Julia, then for a more serious involvement with Nocturna, one of several new characters Moench adds to the cast in this run.
Nocturna is introduced as a tiresome emo girl, physically and psychologically altered by an astronomy accident (!) rendering her skin white … but she recovers from that ridiculous beginning, and does what many of Moench’s characters do: change and grow as the series evolves. Nocturna puzzles out Batman’s true identity, then tries to ensnare Bruce by mounting a custody challenge for Bruce’s ward (and Robin-to-be) Jason Todd, only to find that her emotional needs are better met trying to be mother to Jason than paramour to Batman.
Along the way, Batman discovers he’s interested in Nocturna only when she’s playing the bad girl, an obsession thrown into stark relief when Catwoman returns to Batman’s life, but our hero finds the old sparks aren’t striking, largely because Catwoman has reformed and the thrill has gone along with her villainy.
Catwoman’s return doesn’t work out so great for anyone
Supporting players get their spotlight time, too. He’s changed a bit since his introduction here, but Harvey Bullock is Moench’s signature and enduring creation in this run. Initially a foil for Commissioner Gorden, the incompetent Bullock changes his tune after driving Gordon to a heart attack, and seeks to atone for past sins by becoming a genuinely dedicated cop. He’s used for comic relief, storming in at the worst moment and trampling on evidence, but he proves to be a genuine and emotionally reliable character, even revealing an interior thoughtfulness through his love of classic film …
… and inspiring a boyish loyalty from Jason Todd, who might see in Bullock a surrogate father more approachable than the remote Batman.
The bad guys are appropriately street-level, with most of their darkness on the inside. There’s the cop killing (and ex-cop) Savage Skull, and the aforementioned Nocturna and her ninja henchman, Night-Thief. Black Mask goes whacko and fashions a mask for himself from his father’s coffin lid, which is pretty wonderful. Moench trots out Batman’s traditional villains, too, but at times this feels compulsory. Batman’s battle with the Riddler was an off-the-shelf tale (though it is hard to be anything but formulaic with a written backwards-by-the book Riddler story), and Moench’s Joker story was a feathered fish, with that villain incongruously trying to set off a Guatemalan civil war. Poison Ivy fared a bit better, as did Deadshot.
Moench’s take on Two-Face was his best of all.
This is a Batman book, so of course it has its gothic shadows, but they aren’t so front-and-center as in contemporary books. This is an old fashioned series, employing storytelling conventions long out of style — like compressed story arcs that rarely run more than an issue or two, and copious use of thought balloons. So, too, is Batman a bit old fashioned, at times daring to smile and even seem happy to do what he does. On his first night’s patrol with his new Robin, Batman is positively giddy compared to the grim Dark Knight of page and screen this past quarter century. Batman even works in a photo opportunity after he and the Boy Wonder clean up a den of inequity.
To be fair, this isn’t a classic run of comics. A few of the storylines overstay their welcome, and the Green Arrow back-up feature in Detective is forgettable, save for a two-part Alan Moore story, and a delightful turn in Detective #559 — a full-length tale where Batman and Oliver Queen go after each other harder than they do the bad guys.
Select single issue stories stand out, like Batman #383, where we see an exhausting night in the life of Batman, or the excusably heavy-handed Detective #550, where Moench tries to get to the heart of what led an otherwise ordinary street thug into a life of crime. A two-part tale in Batman #393-394 reuniting Doug Moench with his Master of Kung Fu partner Paul Gulacy has some tasty art, but the espionage thriller story is a bit muddled.
Moench & Gulacy bring some Master of Kung Fu-style to Batman
In all, though, this is an average run of superhero comics, nudged to just-above-average grade owing to its length, and consistency. I am a big Gene Colan fan, but even Gene is less than extraordinary here, possibly limited by inadequate inkers (the forceful Alfredo Alcala, especially, is a poor fit for Gene’s flowing fog style). Approaching the end of this run in my recent re-read, when the “red skies” of the Crisis on Infinite Earths meta-event signaled that the end was near for the old order at DC, I found that I didn’t sadly shake my head or mourn for what Batman was about to become. I enjoyed this run, and I rank Doug Moench among my favorite comic book authors, but Batman is one of the few comic characters that I think is genuinely better served by his current incarnation. The contemporary Dark Knight may be a little short on melodrama and self-examination, but we have plenty of other superheroes running that playbook. Batman has evolved into a remote and unapproachable legend, but he’s earned that status, and it’s a big part of what makes him unique. Despite my love of Bronze Age comics, I think I’ll stick with the current take on Batman …
… but if you want to see Batman before the legend overtook the man, you could do worse than to hunt down this particular run of Bat books, which do offer their own leisurely, introspective, and slow-burning rewards.
- Titles: Batman & Detective Comics
- Published By: DC Comics, 1937-2011 (curse you, “New 52” reboot!)
- Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: Batman #360-400, Detective #527-566, June 1983-October 1986
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-plus
- Own The Originals: Detective & Batman
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #58 Panel Gallery: Holy Hannah!
A trilogy of titanic mini-reviews in this week’s Longbox Shortbox!
#469-479, May 1977-October 1978
Batman is one of the most malleable characters in comics. The Christopher Nolan interpretation dominates the contemporary imagination, but Batman began as a grim, murderous pulp character, and served time as a whacky Silver Age science hero and as a sometimes cartoonish gothic screen vigilante before morphing into the current Dark Knight that audiences know and love.
While the flashpoint for Batman’s current incarnation was clearly Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 series Batman: The Dark Knight, the transformation from “Batman” to “The Batman” arguably started a decade earlier in this late-1970s run in Batman’s companion comic, Detective. This is a stylish series of Bat tales from several creators, including Len Wein and Walter Simonson, but the most lasting impression was formed by the team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, knocking over the first domino leading to the Batman of today.
Like many successful writers, Steve Englehart doesn’t shy away from claiming credit where it is due. Over on Englehart’s page you can read about how he feels this series reinvented Batman for modern audiences, shedding the image of the Biff-Bam Adam West/TV era and leading the charater into the Dark Knight era, later popularized by Tim Burton’s Batman (which Englehart notes is based on his run). I’m not enough of a Batman scholar to verify these claims, but reading these books in the late 1970s, they felt like a breath of fresh, gritty Gotham air.
Marshall Rogers’ pencils are thin, tight, and detailed, with a solid sense of draftsmanship that made the cars and buildings of Gotham City seem real. In an era where Marvel and DC really cranked them out, the work of detail-oriented artists like Rogers and George Perez popped off the page.
The look of the series is more modern than Englehart’s scripting, which on review seem more rooted in tradition than that author would allow. His Penguin story, in particular — with it’s museum exhibit robbery and wordplay clues left by the villain — feels very much a Silver Age story. But there are also emerging elements of the a more grim and gritty Batman, who runs afoul of Professor Hugo Strange, sending Batman on a bad trip and compromising his identity as Bruce Wayne.
The series is also notable for Bruce’s adult relationship with Silver St. Cloud, who intelligently recognizes Bruce beneath Batman’s cowl the first time she sees Batman in the wild.
It is the Joker story that is best remembered from this run — and the imagery is vibrant, with Joker-faced fishes showing up as the herald of the Joker’s crazy plan, and the Joker himself deftly cast as a deranged, murderous lunatic obsessed with his impossible, insane crusade to secure royalties on every fish in the sea (!).
But despite Englehart’s superior work, it was the two-part Clayface story by Len Wein and Marshall Rogers that most stuck with me when re-reading this series, with Clayface cast as a victim more than a villain, hiding like the Phantom of the Opera in an abandoned wax museum, and confessing his longing to a wax dummy. The fire at the end of the tale was an inevitable cliche, but it was a tragic turn and I still felt for poor Clayface.
This run of Detective presents stories that are solid and worth experiencing in their own right, whatever you may think of Englehart’s claims to framing the modern milieu of Batman. Rogers’ pencils are still a delight and the Joker story ranks among the best in breed.
Read The Reprints: Shadow of the Batman.
#1-15, January 1977-November 1978
Jack Kirby originally brought us the Black Panther in issue #52 of Fantastic Four, and this was one of the characters where he was handed the keys upon his return to Marvel in 1976. If you’re looking for the wordy and introspective Black Panther of Don McGregor’s Jungle Action, or the noble and intriguing supporting character from the Roy Thomas’ Avengers run, then look elsewhere. Kirby’s Black Panther is a costumed adventurer caught up in cosmic happenings from page one of this short-lived series, as wonderfully out-of-step with the rest of Marvel’s line as was Kirby’s equivalently bizarre Bicentennial run on Captain America.
Kirby’s later work is an acquired taste — and it is a taste that took me decades to acquire. Reading his books in the 1970s, I was attracted to the energy, and the action, and the familiar heroes, but put off by stories that didn’t follow the usual rules and certainly didn’t seem to reside in the same Marvel Universe as the other books of the time. This Black Panther run is no different — from the first page, we are through the looking glass, as the Panther and the comical “Mr. Little” encounter a victim of “The Brass Frog,” a time-travel device much esteemed by a mysterious society of collectors with which the Panther has somehow come to be involved.
I think that by this time of his career, Kirby was bored with drawing the usual superhero fist operas, and he pretty much abandons the formula here — his Panther is more a witness to events, rather than a protagonist, and the world unravels around him in sort order. Before two issues are through we’ve seen a grim vision of man’s future and had a punch-out with a psychic slayer from the 66th century. It all barely makes sense but many pages swarm with Kirby dots and I personally find it irresistible.
Kirby’s run lasts twelve issues on the book (which would be cancelled after issue #15), and splits into two story arcs — the Panther and fortune-hunters seeking treasures of the past, and a Wakandan civil crisis brought about when T’Challa’s half-brother suffers a demonic transformation from Vibranium exposure. I found the treasure-hunting story more engaging, with an Indiana Jones-meets-Erich von Däniken vibe (about which more below). The civil war series has its moments, but spends too much time with the well-intentioned but embarrassing-in-retrospect “Black Musketeers” characters that Kirby created to flesh out the Wakandan royal family.
yes, this happened
This is not the Panther’s finest hour — mostly he reacts to events, rather than driving things forward, but he’s kept plenty busy smacking the robots, samurais, aliens, and tomb guardians let loose by his “Collector” companions, Mr. Little and Princess Zanda. As co-creator of the character, Kirby is due his idiosyncratic take on T’Challa, even if it conflicts with every impression of the character we formed before or since. There’s magic here if you don’t take things too seriously, and for all that the stories are bizarre, the King gives it his all.
LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-Plus
Read The First Issue Online: Mars Will Send No More
Read The Reprints: Jack Kirby’s Black Panther
#1-19, July 1976-January 1978
If Kirby’s Black Panther dabbled in the cosmic, Jack Kirby’s original 1970s Marvel series, The Eternals, dove right into a cosmic Bermuda Triangle, leveraging the mid-70s fascination with ancient astronauts to spin a tale of space gods, demi-gods, mutants, and humans thrown together in a crucible of prophecies and end times. Even more clearly influenced by von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods than was his contemporary work on Black Panther, Eternals is a masterclass in world building from an artist who had for decades made his bones by capturing the cosmic with pencil and paper.
Judging by the pace of the story, Kirby must have intended this tale to run a hundred issues or more. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a scant nineteen issues, leaving behind scattered artifacts and clues as inscrutable as Kirby’s space gods themselves. Mostly what we get is Kirby deploying his chess pieces — but what pieces they were! Kirby set out to tell a big story here, and even the generous full and double-page panels he uses in this series aren’t big enough to contain his vision.
The series revolves around the Celestials — ancient, gigantic space gods who mysteriously return to earth to judge the human race. It was the Celestials who were responsible for life on earth, mutating primitive life forms to give birth to earth’s three races — we humans, the now-revealed demi-god Eternals, and the demonic Deviants.
In many ways this series feels like an extension of Kirby’s work on DC’s New Gods. It is less overtly superheroic and gonzo than that earlier series (no escape artists or Jimmy Olsens here!), and is maybe a bit less fun, but the concepts are stronger for all that the series lacks memorable characters. Kirby contents himself with Eternals that are paradigms for mythic heroes like Mercury or Icarus, and for his bad guys co-opts ancient Lemuria. His human characters exist only as viewpoint characters for the cosmic goings on initiated by the return of the space gods to earth. None of the characters really resonate — it’s as if Kirby was too intrigued with his cosmic canvas to do more than rough in the characters on his stage — and the series suffers for it.
The book is at its best when he concentrates on the enigmatic Celestials, and the human reaction to the “Fourth Host” in their midst. For me the series high point is when the Soviets set out to nuke a space god, with predictable results.
We’ll never know where the series might have gone if Kirby had a full run of issues to explore his concepts. Later writers would bring the Eternals more firmly into the mainstream Marvel Universe, but for such a personal work as Eternals, those books are at best non-canonical, and at worst another example of the commercial exploitation of Jack Kirby’s world-building genius. I prefer to think that the world of the Eternals is still out there someplace, balanced on a knife-edge as Kirby was forced to leave it, with Arishem’s thumb hovering between earth’s salvation and condemnation.
Read The Reprints: The Eternals Omnibus
That brings us to the end of another Longbox Shortbox! Thanks for reading, and please give me your reactions in the comments section below. And for more Jack Kirby goodness, please check out my review of the first Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. story over in my Dollar Box column debuting today at StashMyComics.com!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #52 Longbox Soapbox — Our One Year Anniversary!