Or, Marvel’s Cosmic Clusterf@*#.
Hello there, Bloggers. Let’s talk comics.
I recently acquired and read Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr.’s six-or-seven issue miniseries Eternals. Some parts of which I had read before, as some of you may remember; and I liked it then, but I like it a lot more now.
Mostly, for the simplest of reasons.
I’ve read a lot of reviews of this Eternals, and I understand that I like it a lot more than many others do. Moreover, I think their complaints are mostly well-founded, so let me acknowledge something that bothered me about it myself: in many places it does seem like a rush job. We never do get back to Thena’s remarks about the Eternals liking mountaintops, the most promisingly Gaimanesque meditation in the series; neither the intent nor the frustration of Ajak’s machinations is made particularly clear; and even JRJR’s consistently stellar pencilling falters mysteriously in a place or two. Enabling features of the plot jump in and out a little bit, seeming to owe something to Grant Morrison’s insistence that the reader run faster to keep up better. And in the end, most damningly, it turns out that this is to be neither Kirby’s Morpheus nor Gaiman’s Mister Miracle — because although those expectations most definitely come into play, six issues is not enough for them to come to fruition.
Now I’ll drop in a couple positives, which I think most critics have acknowledged, but underrated. The art, outside of those incredibly strange and un-JRJR-like hiccups, is out-and-out fantastic. Also, the framing of the story of the Eternals within the amnesiac-protagonist scenario is on the surface very pleasant and stimulating, and down a little deeper is just a damn well-chosen approach all around, with a lot more sophistication to it than meets the eye on first reading. The dialogue is of course beautifully-written, and the primary ambition of the series is I think realized very well…so well, indeed, that many who read through it, seem to have found this accomplishment easy to brush aside.
But the simplest thing, though it is far from unconnected to these other things, is this:
Marvel’s worldbuilding sucks.
By which I mean, it may be to your taste, but it isn’t to mine any longer. And it would be easy to blame it all on Jim Starlin’s Thanos — love Starlin, but so sick of Thanos! — honestly, I hunger for new Thanos stories about as much as I hunger for new Star Wars sequels! — except even Thanos isn’t the problem with this taste. Thanos, you see, is only like pepper — and no one just wants to eat frickin’ pepper all day every day either, but there’s a limited amount of damage that overseasoning can do to taste.
More significant than seasoning, you see, is what the food’s actually made out of.
In the great Kevin Bacon game of Marvel’s cosmic characters, the degrees of separation are all going down, down, down, as the parade of anthropomorphized abstracts grows longer and more childishly completist. Heck, I just found out that there’s something called Anthropomorphos, which is the embodiment of the cosmic force that causes cosmic forces to be anthropormorphized! Which as I hope you can see is not like having everything you eat taste like pepper anymore, it’s like having everything you eat taste like mango — mango spaghetti and mango steak, and mango scrambled eggs and mango mashed potatoes! Mango baked beans! Washed down with a big foamy glass of mango root beer!
For Christ’s sake, take it away…!
…The central problem being, that in Kirby’s hands “cosmic” stuff — cosmic power, cosmic energy, as he used to like to say! — stood for something quite specific, in a storytelling sense. In Ditko’s hands, too, the world of magic he created in graphic form was meant to evoke a particular thing, a particular philosophy to be included or referenced in the handling of particular characters. And Stan Lee, for all or any of his other failings, got what all this was supposed to be about, and ploughed it into his own worldbuilding strategies. Those who followed these guys, then, were sufficiently influenced by them in a direct way that they got it too: in my beloved Seventies, they inflected it all in different ways, but they had a firm grasp of the implicit rules of that game.
In the Eighties, this changed a little. New creators came to the fore, who inflected the shared-universe concept, that went all the way from Spider-Man up to Eternity — I’ll return to that in a moment — in yet another way. But too, in the Eighties, new creators came to the fore who did not get the implicit rules of that game, and in the fullness of time they became influences themselves. And that’s when things really started to go off the rails.
The Kevin Bacon game gets vicious on Wikipedia — if you start with the entry on, say, “Eternals”, you’re only a couple of clicks away from concluding that Marvel has just plain lost it, and then just to make sure it never gets found again has covered it in about a thousand tons of the smelliest garbage they could scrape off the bottom of the barrel. The incestuousness of the Cosmic Powers grows and grows, until it takes on a genuinely unsavoury aspect…not to mention, an unsalutary one. And is there no other approach to a shared universe than this one, one wonders, helplessly staring at screen after screen full of unsightly, unimaginative guck? Is there no mystery, no magic anymore? Is there no room to move at all, in this overcluttered attic of a Grade C sci-fi poseable-toy Heaven? Abraxas and Vance Astro stand within spitting distance of each other; Gwen Stacy, Mr. Sinister, and Eternity are practically roommates, close enough to argue about the dishes and the laundry. Between every meaningful worldbuilding concept in Marvel’s universe lies miles of pointlessly stringy connective tissue, good for nothing except making Stan’s Pop Art eat itself…and the original wide-eyed import of the Kirby dots and the Ditko ribbons is left far behind.
For, again, the simplest of reasons: because it seems to have been forgotten, at Marvel, that the cosmic stuff is not sufficient by itself to build anything like a world.
Because all real worldbuilding is local.
I said I’d get back to Spider-Man, so here I am. I think I read it on Warren Ellis’ site, a quote from someone or other that went something like, “all good science fiction is the triumph of character over worldbuilding.” A valuable thought, indeed — who cares about the worldbuilding, if it’s got nothing to do with the character? But of course we might flip this principle inside-out, to have it say: “the only worldbuilding that even really exists, is properly called character development.” Which is something that was never lost on any of Marvel’s more talented creators, from Kirby to Claremont (although Claremont, too, ended his Eighties experiment by going more than a little off the rails). This is the kind of thing that gets you as close as comics can to a Sistine Chapel, or a Jacob’s Ladder: a hidden order to the universe. But the instant you forget it, all you produce is a bunch of bathroom-stall graffiti, that to any outside observer just looks like something that would be better painted over. Not order, at all. Much less beauty, charm, or glamour. The urge to play with the big cosmic pieces of the puzzle has turned Marvel’s cosmic landscape, in my estimation, to a choked stream that carries no water; as a backdrop to character it’s worthless, even counterproductive, and as a springboard for imaginative flights of fancy it’s been thoroughly neutralized. Pretty far from stone soup at this point, it’s more like a big pot of cement — and no one wants to eat cement. It should probably just be thrown out.
Enter Gaiman and Romita.
Much of what Kirby adorned his Eternals concept with is gone from their effort, of necessity. Can’t help that: neither of them is Jack. Over at DC, you can see even more clearly that Kirby’s latter-day work had become so much of a personal statement that an equitable assignment of legal rights in the property was almost superfluous, at least in terms of keeping other people’s hands off it: has anyone but Jack ever written a Darkseid or an Orion that was more than a cipher, when compared with the genuine articles? No, of course not, and it’s no knock on anybody to say so — how could they, after all? They don’t have the same things invested in Orion that Jack did. It isn’t their story. Maybe they just weren’t born in the right time, or the right place…and that isn’t their fault either, it’s just the way things are.
Over at Marvel, the Eternals are similarly too hot to handle — to even begin, you either have to peel them away from their own story, ignoring the concept behind them as best you can (what an indignity!), or you have to jettison the parts of their story that resist anything but an authentically Kirbyesque treatment in order to get at the concept in the first place.
Gaiman and Romita get rid of an awful lot of Kirby’s own handiwork; but they do get back down to the core concept.
More importantly, they blow off a lot of non-Kirby stuff that got glued on to it.
And most importantly, they manage to make me care about the shared-universe concept at Marvel more than I have in decades. Seriously, I’m not joking, in decades: because they offer something as a side-dish to the mango-cement soup of Marvel’s infernal, interminable slurry of worldbuilding.
That is: realizing that all worldbuilding is local, they make it local. By 2007, the “realistic” elements that always provided the unique tension of Marvel comics had been transmuted to the “realistic” elements that operate best in other companies’ riffs on Marvel: super-powers as ubiquitous, superheroes as measurable segments of populations…all the long-underwear stuff taken out of the realm of the psychological, and into the realm of the sociological, with subcultural praxis and governmental juridiction created and apportioned, “as if superheroes were real”. Real, and almost obnoxiously familiar. Quotidian. Which can certainly make for interesting stories…
But perhaps not so much at Marvel, eh? I mean, the sociology of the heroes is bad enough, but when you start getting into the group dynamics of the cosmic folks…!
But note Gaiman’s clever opportunism, here, his casual virtuosity: using the old amnesiac “Nine Princes In Amber”-type F/SF plot, he inverts the whole thing, and I do mean the whole thing. And, sure…I guess that looks like a pretty simple trick, but could you do it as slickly as he does? Maybe we don’t quite get the Eternals out of Neil that we might have, in this case…and we certainly don’t get Kirby’s Eternals…but when critics of this series note that its chief goal seemed to be a simple refurbishment of an old concept, I believe they speak truer than they know: because what’s really being refurbished here is the viability of Marvel’s shared universe itself. And, not before time! My God, how refreshing it is to take the sociological superheroes out of the spotlight, if only for an hour or two! That I’m far more interested in Mark Curry, M.D., and Sersi’s friend Abi, than I am in Iron Man or Yellowjacket, is something I think Gaiman and Romita and I evidently share…all too often this new Marvel, the one that riffs on itself, does so with such a heavy hand and such blunt fingers that it actually becomes rather revolting. Boring, too. But Gaiman and Romita, even operating in what I can only assume was an unusually cramped compositional space, know better than to use a heavy hand. Because they’re aware that all worldbuilding is local, see? And they’re also aware of what the Kirby dots and Ditko ribbons are supposed to be for. Well, those are both the same thing, really…
And so in a way it’s as though they heard my plea: if I must have this neo-Marvel thing that borrows so heavily from Astro City and Ultra and Top Ten and Invincible and all the rest of it that it forgets those things are borrowing from it…then can I at least be permitted to understand how things are structured in it? Can it at least be apparent what things are important in it, and what things aren’t? You may not have liked it as much as I did…you may have felt as though it would’ve been irresponsible for you not to point out its shortcomings…but I endured Mark Gruenwald’s refurbishing of Kirby’s Eternals the first time Marvel tried this, and let me tell you frankly: these are Golden Days, my friend. Golden. DAYS. And I still miss the old familiar super-types of my youth, but Gaiman and Romita have made the Eternals into the superheroes now, at any rate what the superheroes used to be, and so I miss my old days much less: because no matter how sophisticated the storytelling, this kind of thing has a kid’s pure need for identification down at the bottom of it — and how can my inner kid identify with Iron Man or Mr. Fantastic any longer, when they just don’t care about the same things I do? The Eternals, however, do — manifestly, obviously, clearly and concisely. The Eternals are the wise-children here, and it’s their world — the ordinary Marvel superheroes are just grown-ups stuck in their jobs, trying to shake off anaesthesia — perhaps even, amnesia? — long enough to figure out how to navigate this fantasy wish-fulfillment scenario in the first place. Which used to be such second nature to them. But at which they now suck.
The Eternals, of course, have never sucked. But now, they not-suck in a compensatory way.
And I have to tell you: whew, I needed that. Neil and JRJR have worked a wonder, here. They’ve accomplished something I thought was impossible. They’ve made me interested in this game again. So, imperfections aside:
Astonishingly good job, there! And actually, if you think about it for more than ten seconds…quite bloody clever, too.
(Was going to post a GIGANTIC long ramble about Alan Moore here, specifically on Lost Girls and Black Dossier, but it’s so damn huge I don’t know when I’m going to manage to finish it off in good condition. But this one was lighter — as its subject is lighter — so here it is.
Subject, I suppose, to some revision…)