In the midst of the Knauf’s slow-moving domestic god epic (or whatever the opposite of epic is supposed to be), we get this: a one-shot story of the Eternals written by rising star Fred Van Lente. Van Lente can write circles around the Knaufs, and in this issue he tells the story of Eternals vs. Young Gods, as the island nation of Madripoor suffers under the yolk of transcendent human hubris. In other words, it’s a more appropriate kind of story for these cosmic Jack Kirby creations than the kinds of “plots” we’ve seen in the current ongoing “Eternals” series (which, from what I recall, seem to center around which nearly omnipotent being is babysitting what child, and the methodical revelations about which Eternals are waking up).
Van Lente certainly brings the Eternals into their element here, and draws upon a possibly-better-forgotten bit of Marvel continuity to do it. The central conflict in this issue is based around the return of the Young Gods — a group of humans who were elevated to godhood by the Celestials in a Bronze Age issue of “Thor.” As far as I know, the Young Gods haven’t done all that much since, but here they are in “Eternals Annual” #1, returning to Earth in an attempt to generate the birth of a new Celestial. The ins-and-outs of their plan don’t matter so much, but their attitude, and their lack of regard for humanity, really gets the goat of the Eternals, who work together to put a halt to the plan.
Van Lente, aided by artist Pascal Alixe, provides more plot and characterization in his single story here than we’ve seen in the entire Neil Gaiman mini-series and the half-dozen ongoing “Eternals” issue thus far. Van Lente uses captions to quickly establish who’s who and the essence of their character (no small feat when you’re dealing with a large cast like this), and then demonstrates the shifting alliances between the Eternals throughout their combat with the Young Gods.
But here’s the problem: even with Van Lente doing all of that, the story still isn’t very good. Thematically, it’s fine, and it explores the nature of transcendence and emphasizes the relationship between humanity and its notion of the gods. But while Van Lente brings a sufficient amount of Kirby cosmic, he also interjects far too much cornball humor. Thena, a goddess, worries about getting back to help her son with “his fractions.” A magical duel becomes a three-dimensional rock-paper-scissors match, for example, culminating in a giant foot descending from the heavens, because one of the characters hung out with Terry Gilliam one time (that’s actually explicitly stated in the dialogue.) And there’s more jokes and gags like that throughout the issue. None of them help the story at all, and the tonal shifts between slapstick and groan-inducing humor and cosmic fisticuffs and transcendent ideals is jarring at best. As an attempt to humanize the Eternals, or to make them more “relatable,” it fails, because it turns them into just another jokey superteam.
And Alixe’s art is a vast step down from the work of Daniel Acuna on the main title.
This issue is also padded with back-up material, like a hideously drawn series of “fact pages” about the Young Gods, presumably penciled by Mark Bagley back in the 1990s. And we get an entire Jack Kirby “Eternals” story too, from issue #7 of his original series. But Kirby’s “Eternals” doesn’t work particularly well in single-issue format, and all #7 does is give us plenty of powerful art to look at which just helps to emphasize how poor Alixe’s art looks in comparison.
Even with the flaws in Van Lente’s script, I’d like to see him tackle the ongoing “Eternals” series. He would be a great match for the dream-like wonder of Acuna’s artwork. As long as he can cut down on the painful gags and one-liners.