Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Success in Circuit Lies

The Eternals #3-6
'The Devil In New York!'; 'The Night of the Demons!'; 'Olympia!'; 'Gods and Men at City College!'

"Originated, Written and Drawn" by Jack Kirby; Inked by J. Verpoorten and Mike Royer; Lettered by John Costanza, Irv Watanabe and Mike Royer; Coloured by Glynis Wein; Consulting Editor: Archie Goodwin.

My first post on this series was all about gigantism, so let's start this one off with a quote from Michael Barthel on the subject:
We turn to music not for a depiction of the unknown, because we can experience that any time we like. We turn to music for an ordering of the unknown, an abstract explanation of vastness beyond our comprehension. The low end rumbles and one hundred people slowly build up a roar, controlled precisely by a person with a small stick. On a giant screen, one hundred people have worked for months to create a sequence that takes our breath away. That order rubs off and stays with us. And it's not just limited to that.

(From Barthel's Clap Clap essay on Spirited Away and hugeness in art)
In the essay I've just quoted from, Barthel argues that without the cute, kawaii characters Spirited Away's hugeness wouldn't be contextualised for the viewer. "Even hugeness accompanied by an expression of awe doesn't help us grasp it," he says, and I can't help thinking about those early scenes in The Eternals, with their constant exclamations from passive observers.

And now here's the interesting thing: issues #3-6 of The Eternals should be far less awe-inspiring than the first two, since they fall back on several stock superhero tropes. But actually all of the villainous schemes and dramatic face-offs end up making the cosmic stuff seem even bigger in comparison. This is an odd trick, but it works, partly because the generic nature of the main plot is regularly punctuated with glimpses of the Celestials, whose completely unreadable faces and high-Kirby designs loom over our costumed heroes and villains in a suitably bewildering way:

It doesn't hurt that these issues are also about the actual process of myth-making and myth-distortion. In these comics, Deviant warlord Kro decides to attack New York City in the hope that his classically satanic appearance will terrify its human occupants, leaving them fearful of the Celestials and prepped for destruction.

Like the man says, "Give the humans a real devil and they'll destroy the galaxy to be rid of him." The fact that Kro dresses up in a space-suit while leading this attack, and announces himself with the words "Tremble, humans! I've returned from space to reclaim this domain!" is intended to further the possible connection between Kro's attack and the spacey Celestials, but it's also goofy as all fuck. Similarly, the running gag that the names of various mythic figures' are mispronunciations of the names of individual Eternals (Makkarri=Mercury, Sersi=Circe, etc) is both stupid-cute and another neat example of the theme I'm talking about.

As the story plays out you see people both panicking helplessly and standing up to Kro and his army, and once all that wonderful kicking and punching and energy-throwing is over (via an intervention from the Eternals, of course!) our heroes make a deal with Kro. Y'see, our man Kro believes that the "Devil game" he's been playing has been enough to turn human society fighty and destructive, while the Eternals believe they can amply explain the situation by holding a Q&A with some Anthropology students(!).

The results of this little session are variable, which suggests a couple of things: that truth is difficult, sure; that it can be manipulated for an agenda, or misconstrued so frequently that a distortion becomes accepted as truth; that that Jack Kirby could draw the hell out of superhero action, but that he also had an acute eye for strange drama. Of course, as I've already indicated, he could also push all of those crazy lines together into something far less easily graspable too, and I love him for it. Because hey, if you find this story too old-fashioned then that's cool, but if you don't think that it doesn't serve a purpose (just like the kawaii stuff in Spirited Away) then we're going to have a disagreement on our hands!

The overall impression this story gives is not that there are some truths that can't be understood, but rather that there are some truths that are so big that you have to find another way to talk about them. Sometimes this means that you need to craft a goofy superhero story in order to suggest something far stranger and more unsettling, and I'm all up for that if it means more joyously busy pages like this:

Sorry for the crappy scan. Once again I fail to do Kirby justice! Please take this as an excuse to go read Kirby's Eternals stories, if you haven't already.

Next stop -- The Filth #6, 'The World of Anders Klimakks'. Can anyone see the bigger picture emerging yet? Or has it been crushingly obvious all along?


plok said...

"...Not that there are some truths that can't be understood, but rather that there are some truths that are so big that you have to find another way to talk about them."

Hear, hear! Nicely put, David: I believe this was RAB's point in the recent discussion about what the New Gods are supposed to stand for.

Bigger picture? Bring it on...!

David said...

I fear that my bigger picture ain't that big or exciting, but I'm going to hint at it anyway in the hopes that I can pull off some Seven Soldiers shit!

And yeah, I remember RAB's point, and I think that's what I'm getting at in this post. We're talking about real Kirby-tech here, about engineering so advanced that it can pack big questions into tiny, four colour energy blasts!

Wait... what time is it? Oh good lord I do believe that it's OMAC time! Now there's a book that takes this technology for granted. It's so busy doing stuff, it doesn't have time to talk you through it. Well, except for those bits where OMAC talks to Brother Eye, but those push way past exposition into something far more abstract, so... yeah, time for me to get reading.