Books are fun. This is WordPlay, where I’ll talk about what I’ve read, what I’m reading, what I’ll read.
A few months back I read The Disappointment Artist, a series of essays by Jonathan Lethem that run the gamut from memoir to cultural crit. It’s a bit hit and miss, but it’s engaging. One of the pieces, titled “Identifying with Your Parents, or, Return of the King” was a long riff on his youthful disconnect from much of his own youth’s popular culture, save his time logged as a comic book fanatic and devotee of the work of Jack Kirby.
Jack Kirby was the guy who, along with Stan Lee, created most of the Marvel universe. Fantastic Four? Hulk? X-Men? Captain America? Jack Kirby. Oh, and he drew and wrote most of them and essentially defined the Marvel aesthetic in the process. No small cheese, this Jack Kirby.
After some business troubles in the early 70s his work began to take on a cruder, more primitivist streak. This is when he dreamed up The Eternals, a series about a warring pantheon of cosmic gods that apparently “abandoned or distended traditional storytelling to such a degree that the audience was baffled.” For one of the most innovative and historically important comic artists to take such a bizarre and abstract turn was, Lethem says, “as if Chuck Berry had evolved into Sun Ra.”
Obviously I had to track down The Eternals. But who wants to pay full price for fun these days?
I’d figured I’d browse the comics at Half Price until I spotted one of the Kirby omnibuses. I never did, but I did find Neil Gaiman’s attempt to pick up the Eternals ball and run with it.
Neil Gaiman is a famous dude and his Sandman series is one of the most revered in the entire history of comics, frequently showing up alongside Watchmen and The Dark Knight on All time Best Of lists. I got really amped when I picked this up because I figured: abstract weirdo mythos created by The King of Comics being taken over by one of the Greatest of All Time? It’s gotta be gangbusters, right? It turned out that the equation wasn’t quite as simple as all that.
In Gaiman’s vision Kirby’s cosmic beings have all forgotten their own identities and been trapped in human form, leading human lives for an undetermined period by the time we join them. As the book jacket says:
- Mark Curry: a city emergency room doctor?
- Seri: a scatterbrained party organizer?
- Sprite: a precocious TV star for th teenybopper set?
- Zuras: a gin soaked Bowery bum?
Are these really The Eternals? And who is the mysterious man named Ike Harris, intruding into their lives and attempting to convince them they are indeed something more than the normal people they know themselves to be?
For the first hundred pages the story shapes up to be just the fascinating exploration of identity that the book jacket promises. Gaiman’s dialogue is sharp and polyphonous, and the art by John Romita Jr. is effective and well-imagined if not overly stylized.
About halfway through the book, though, Gaiman seems to feel rushed and decides to start wrapping things up as quickly as possible, even when doing so makes the story less resonant and more featherweight. What might have been a really moving miniseries on figuring out who you really are turns into FIGHT THE GIANT ROBOT. Let me clarify something too–I am a dude that was raised on this:
Give it 10 minutes of your time. It could be the most awesome 10 minutes of your day!
I have absolutely no problem with FIGHT THE GIANT ROBOT cartoons, but given the respective reputations of Kirby and Gaiman I wanted something more out of this book. I didn’t get it, and that’s a damn shame. I guess I’ll have to shell out for the Kirby if I really want to get what made The Eternals so compelling for Jonathan Lethem and a whole generation of discerning comic fans.
And I guess it all comes back to Lethem anyway: he managed to make his experience with Kirby’s Eternals into the most compelling and funny and interesting essay in that entire book. It’s not what you get, or even what you get out of it. It’s what you do with it that matters. Gaiman didn’t do enough.