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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


When we left off last week, we were talking about the work of the King of Comics, Jack Kirby, with a particular focus on one of his greatest creations, Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, and the ways he has been depicted, correctly and otherwise. To start off this post, I was going to talk about some of the things that have been done with another of Jack’s iconic creations, the uniform of the Fantastic Four. As I got into that, I realized that that really should be the topic of a separate post, as I have more than a little to say about it. So you’re just going to have to look forward to that for the time being. For this post, then, we stick with the subject matter originally intended for it: namely, the only two times that, in my opinion, anyone ever changed Jack’s work in a way that was either as good as what the King originally did, or actually improved on what Jack established. For your entertainment this week: the origin of Galactus according to John Byrne, and The Eternals as reimagined by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.

Now, for the origin of Galactus: It has been established in places like The Jack Kirby Collector magazine that Galactus’s origin was initially intended to be a part of his and the Silver Surfer’s intro story in Fantastic Four #48-50. It seems the part of that story that would have told us where the planet slayer came from was cut from those issues, but Jack saved the pages against the possible need for them later on. The occasion arose in The Mighty Thor #169. This issue came at a time when Jack was winding down his Marvel work. He was mostly not creating any new, major characters and concepts for Marvel because Stan Lee had more control over what Jack created than Jack did. So from about 1968 to 1970, Jack was concentrating more on reuses of material he had created in the prior seven or eight years, with varying degrees of cleverness. And in the case of his last work on Thor, that meant using some characters imported from The Fantastic Four; namely Him (the character we call Adam Warlock today) and Galactus.

The origin of Galactus, as Galactus himself revealed to Thor, concerned an ancient planet called Taa, which had the most advanced, enlightened, and wondrous civilization ever to have existed in the universe. But Taa, and its whole sector of space, were dying of some plague that somehow confounded the Taa’s attempts to cure it. So one Taa scientist, for obscure reasons, decided to mount a final space expedition into the heart of a star, to go out in a last blaze of glory, as it were. The radiation of the star killed everyone aboard the craft except for that one scientist, who somehow survived and evolved into a new form of life. Incubating for eons (during which a Watcher could have destroyed the nascent being, but obeyed his oath of non-participation in the universe and let it live), it finally emerged as the godlike and hungry Galactus we know today.

In retrospect, this origin story is really not Stan and Jack’s best work, and doesn’t really do justice to one of their greatest and most important creations. What was this plague, and why couldn’t the all-achieving people of Taa cure it? Why would members of a race facing extinction decide to commit suicide by diving into a star? If there were some cultural reason for it, or some facet of their race’s psychology to account for it, the story didn’t provide one. I would ask why the radiation of the star did what it did to this scientist character, but then this is the Marvel Universe, where cosmic rays turn astronauts into super-people, gamma ray bombs turn nuclear physicists into Hulks, and irradiated spiders bite teenagers and endow them with great power (and great responsibility). Still and all, Galactus should have gotten a better origin than that. Why didn’t he? I think it was because it was 1969, Jack was fed up with Marvel and about to jump ship to DC (taking with him a whole universe worth of new characters and concepts he had evidently been withholding from Marvel since about 1966!), and like a Rhett Butler with a pencil, he frankly didn’t give a damn. It’s pure speculation on my part, of course, but as speculations go, I think it’s reasonable.

Apparently, artist/writer John Byrne thought Galactus should have had a better origin too, because back in the 1980s he took what Stan and Jack laid down in Thor #169 and refined it into a more pleasing story.

In a one-shot special called Galactus: The Origin, we learned that Taa was not a planet of the Marvel Universe we know. Taa, in fact, existed in the universe prior to the present Marvel Universe. Byrne invoked the cosmological theory of “the oscillating universe,” the idea that a Big Bang is followed by eons of cosmic expansion, and then a collapse into a “Big Crunch,” from which another Big Bang follows, in an endlessly repeating cycle. (The “oscillating universe” theory is starting to lose favor today, supplanted by the idea of infinite expansion to the point of galaxies and solar systems flying apart and all matter being torn into nothingness; this is called “the Big Rip”.) The plague against which Taa and everything in its cosmos was helpless was, in fact, the physical force of entropy--the final decay of the universe. The onset of the Big Crunch was collapsing the universe into a singularity, and the noble scientist Galen decided to defy the Big Crunch by captaining a spaceship right into it. The singularity killed all hands aboard except Galen himself, who was protected by the living consciousness of the universe, selected out of all living creatures to survive through the next Big Bang. But the creature that had once been Galen would be changed in the process, born into this universe as Galactus, the embodiment of the balance of nature on a cosmic scale.

This rather more logical account of Galactus’s origin, derived from what were state-of-the-art theories of physics at the time, has become the official origin, repeated in The Fantastic Four and elsewhere. It overcomes the problem of (what I speculate as being) Jack Kirby’s final apathy about the Marvel Universe that he did so much to build, and handily fixes a story that I believe he just tossed off on his way out the door.

During his final stint with Marvel in the late 1970s, Jack made his final pass at the theme of what happens “When Gods Walk the Earth!” Jack meant The Eternals to take place in its own world, not the world of the familiar Marvel Universe. Marvel, however, insisted on weaving it into the tapestry that Jack had woven a decade earlier with the Fantastic Four, Thor, et al. You could tell from Jack’s other Marvel work during that period that he really wasn’t interested in going over all that old ground again; his revisits with Captain America and The Black Panther weren’t picking up on any continuity from his earlier work or that of other writers and artists. Jack just wanted to keep telling fresh stories, and those just happened to be the characters with which he was working. The Eternals, the original series, was dropped after 19 issues and an Annual. But these characters, like everything else Jack created, made other people want to play with them, so the Eternals cast continues to be a presence in the Marvel Universe in various ways, including a new series that started last year. That new series peels off from the story of what has become one of my favorite miniseries, The Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.

The Eternals is the story of the ongoing conflict between the different breeds of man, overshadowed by the creatures who experimented with prehistoric ape-men and created them. In Earth’s prehistory, the armored alien Celestials, who were big enough to spank Galactus, came to Earth and used proto-humans to bring forth two other species: the Eternals, who were generally beautiful, immune to natural death, and possessed superhuman powers; and the Deviants, whose inability to breed in a consistent form produced generations of endlessly varied, grotesque monsters. The Eternals became the basis for human myths about gods and angels; the Deviants gave rise to myths about devils and demons. Looming over all was the eventual judgement of the Celestials as to whether they would let their experiments--and the Earth on which they lived--survive. Derived in part from the writings of pop archaeologist Erich Von Daniken and his theories about “ancient astronauts,” The Eternals was otherwise pure, classic Jack Kirby storytelling of the most entertaining kind.

A few years ago, Marvel decided that it wanted to “bring the Eternals fully into the Marvel Universe.” This had been accomplished already with various stories in various books, including Thor, where the original Kirby storylines were concluded and integrated with established Marvel mythology (and Earth passed the Celestials' judgement), and The Avengers, where Eternal character Sersi became a member. The reasoning was a bit dubious. The opportunity to work with Jack’s last major Marvel creation went to writer Neil Gaiman and artist John Romita Jr., who proceeded to put their own stamp on Jack’s work. Unlike many other reinterpretations and makeovers of the work of the King, what Gaiman and Romita ended up doing was a truly wonderful seven issues’ worth of work.

The story for this 2006 miniseries hinged on the mysterious reason why all of the Eternals had been transformed into humans, their memories wiped, and other humans’ memories and records of them expunged. What was gradually revealed was one of the most truly ingenious, brilliant, and poignant motivations for an antagonist ever to see print in comics. It turned out that the enemy was one of their own, the Eternal known as Sprite, who had been mythologized in the writings of William Shakespeare and J.M. Barrie, among others. Sprite, unique among the Eternals, had been created as an eleven-year-old boy, and as the Celestials had made the Eternals unable to age and die, Sprite could never grow up! For all the eons of his Celestial-given lifespan, Sprite could never pass through adolescence and become physically, sexually a man! And he hated it! So he had clandestinely used the Eternals’ physical and mental gestalt, the Uni-Mind, to access the power of the Dreaming Celestial, a non-Kirby character that other talents (I think it was Walter Simonson) had left hidden on Earth.

With the Dreaming Celestial’s power, it was Sprite who had rendered all the Eternals human, including himself, so that Sprite could grow to maturity and experience a mature life! Restoring the Eternals to their true godlike selves would mean waking up the Dreaming Celestial, and resuming hostilities with the Deviants. You see, the Deviants worshipped the Dreaming Celestial as the only one who stood up against the rest of his kind for harvesting Deviants as food; that was why he was put to sleep! The Eternals was my first and so far only exposure to the writings of Neil Gaiman, but with his utterly brilliant use of Sprite and the Deviants he won my respect as a storyteller.

All of this was rendered in the luxuriously beautiful, awesomely powerful, and super-sexy style of John Romita Jr., who since the 1990s has risen to a position second only to George Perez on my list of favorite comic book artists. (I keep Jack Kirby in a class by himself; the King has no successor.) John Jr.’s revised character designs for the book hold as much of a place of honor with me as Gaiman’s story. I usually feel a knee-jerk hostility against people redesigning Kirby characters, but I absolutely love the things that John Jr. did with Ikaris, Makarri, Sersi, Zuras, and the rest of the Eternals cast. While the current Eternals book has restored Jack’s versions of the characters, I can pay no higher compliment to John Jr.’s work than to say I would happily have accepted his versions being made permanent and official. With artwork that made me want to linger and mentally drool over it (every so often I have to take out the hardbound collection of it just to admire it) and a story to make the brain cells do an intellectual tango, the Eternals miniseries of 2006 ranks with the 1980s Fantastic Four of John Byrne as one of the very best non-Kirby renderings of a Jack Kirby creation. It is sheer magnificence.

So, while as a rule I object to people rewriting or redesigning Jack Kirby (which is one my main reasons for not buying Fantastic Four books any more), it is possible, however unlikely, to make over the work of the King of Comics in a way that I’ll accept. It just has to be beautiful enough and inventive enough to match what Jack did (as in The Eternals), or an exercise of imagination that takes what Jack did and makes it better (as in Byrne’s origin of Galactus). It remains to be seen whether anyone will ever accomplish such a feat again.


  1. Now I have to go find a copy of The Eternals - it sounds like a fascinating story. And I have great faith in Gaiman's writing. He's really one of the best around these days....

  2. If you don't want to spring for the hardcover collection of The Eternals, there is a trade paperback. It's worth it in any format.

  3. Quick, FYI...
    Jack Kirby Collector #52 (due out, I believe, next week) will have an extended look at Thor #168-169. (Possibly #167 and #170 as well.) The piece was written by JKC editor John Morrow, with a bit of helpful input/insight from Shane Foley and myself. It will definitely be an elaboration on what I wrote way back in #44, and will have some more fully explored ideas on how those issues were developed.