Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Eternals #1-7

I have come to the conclusion that two things need to happen on this blog: 1) I need to write more reviews, and 2) I need to write shorter reviews. I've got this thing in my head about needing to write lengthy reviews, it's almost a neurosis, but it's really unnecessary considering that the majority of books that I read are not worthy of extended critique (sorry, Bondage Fairies). So I am going to try in most instances to be less like Jog - I honestly have to wonder how he finds time to eat and sleep; I mean, I live alone with a cat and work nights and I can't imagine devoting that much time to writing about comics if I wasn't being paid for it - and more like Tom Spurgeon, able to encapsulate the virtues and vices of any given book in succinct and unambiguous terms, and not without a dash of elan, either. (of course, my favorite image of Tom remains the Sam Henderson illo on top of the Comics Reporter site - I like to imagine that Spurgeon actually does walk around town yelling at people just like that, maybe even while smoking a cigar and brandishing a rolled-up racing form, as if to smack his foe as he would a poorly trained dog.)

Anyway, with all this in mind, I am going to review Neil Gaiman's Eternals in bullet-points, as every time I thought about sitting down to write an essay about the series' merits, it occurred to me that it simply was not consequential enough to deserve that much of a time expenditure. That alone can probably be seen as a damning indictment, but it need not necessarily be . . .

- The series kept my interest enough for me to buy all seven issues more or less as they were released. Considering my emaciated buying habits, that in itself is high praise.

- At the same time, I think that whatever residual halo hung over Gaiman's comic work in the wake of Sandman has pretty much fallen away. For whatever its faults - and there are many - Sandman is still a very good comic, mediocre in many places but downright brilliant in a few spots. Perhaps whatever it was that enabled him to write that series has faded, because nothing since then has struck me as being anywhere near as good. What little I've seen of his prose strikes me as, well, workmanlike and more than a little plodding. The less said of 1602 the better - I stopped buying that, I believe, after only two issues. I still don't know how it ends.

- But as good as Eternals is, it's still only really at the level of a very good mainstream comic, which can’t help but be something of a disappointment for those few back-benchers for whom Gaiman's name was enough to sell the project. But for the enthusiastic acceptance of the Marvel Universe's fantastic elements (the type of which the likes of Bendis have never really been very comfortable exploring), this could easily have been written by any of Marvel's current stable of go-to guys. It holds up well, without any major plot holes or jarring tonal shifts - better than you'd expect from Straczynski or Millar or Bendis, but that says as much about the lowered expectations of mainstream comics readers as much as anything else. When competence is the benchmark, the benchmark has fallen low indeed.

- But for what it does, it does it extremely well. None of Kirby's 70s work has ever meshed particularly well with Marvel's broader cosmology, probably because it was never really intended to, but Gaiman manages to smooth over not only the source material's tonal inconsistencies, but a whole raft of subsequent bad stories that only served to further dilute what was already a tough sell in the context of the greater Marvel Universe. You gotta give Gaiman some credit: you don't have to know that Sersi's most recent prior appearance was as a screaming cosmic harridan in some horrible Ultraverse crossover to appreciate the story, but if you do, the way Gaiman confidently resuscitates the character - who was as close as it comes in comics to soiled beyond redemption - can't help but seem masterful. Similarly, you don't have to have read Mark Gruenwald's Quasar to understand the character of Makkari, but it's obvious that Gaiman has, and is wise enough to base his interpretation of the character on Gruenwald's previous work. In a day when superstar writers are more than happy to throw out decades of established continuity for the biggest characters in comics, it is refreshing to see a writer - especially a writer with the kind of clout that could easily have justified any changes he wanted to make - paying heed to the work that preceded him on a group of D-listers for whom, honestly, no one really would have cared one way or the other.

- But with that said, it’s also worth noting that the overall plot was kind of familiar. Something very much like it was done with the Eternals themselves in a storyline in the early 300s of The Avengers. (It was the one where Gilgamesh gets clobbered by a lava demon and ends up in a coma, so the Avengers have to find the rest of the Eternals only to find that they've disappeared.) Also, something very similar was done in Journey Into Mystery in the mid-90s when it reverted back to the original title during Thor's year-long sojourn in the Heroes Reborn universe. I even recall seeing Odin as a homeless man with a pet dog. So, eh, good execution but no points for originality.

- The best part of the series was undoubtedly John Romita Jr's art. For some reason Danny Miki's inks reminded me of Vince Colletta's inks on Kirby's Thor - not the erased backgrounds and awkward faces, but the sense of slightly rustic antiquity that resulted from putting fine linework over Kirby's powerful pencils. (Of course, in a perfect world Colletta would never have been allowed anywhere near Kirby, but for what it's worth his inks did add a bit of atmospheric detail that seemed especially appropriate for Thor.) Romita's art on the book seems both majestic and slightly gnarled, and it really works in terms of selling the reader on the massive time scales at work.

- This series offered a rare example of a final issue that really did improve the rest of the series. After issue six I was ready to dismiss the book as an enjoyable but resolutely lightweight confection, but with issue seven Gaiman actually pulled off the neat trick of using a quiet denouement to pull the previous events into much sharper focus. There were even a couple moments that caught me totally flat-footed, offering glimpses of the same potency that Gaiman was occasionally able to muster for Sandman. It's still essentially a reshuffling exercise, but damn if it didn't end on a much stronger foot than I would have thought possible. In any event, I'm actually interested to see where these characters go from here, which is something I would have imagined on the outset to be frankly impossible. So, yeah, neat trick.

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