Friday, September 19, 2014

More Kirby: The Eternals #17

Last week, I looked at one of the more inspired issues of Jack Kirby's The Eternals, #13. Today I'm jumping ahead with another random copy that I've found:


This is issue #17, cover-dated for November of 1977. It's pretty much an all-Kirby deal, with a bit of inking from Michael Royer. The price has gone up, but we still get only seventeen pages of story. I'm not sure how upset pre-teen boys would be at the extra nickel, or if they are still the main audience at this point.

Man, those females and their wrath.

It seems fairly boy-ish to my eyes, with the introduction's implication of amazement that a woman will save the day. I'm sure that Kirby means to show Sersi as being the equal of the men around her, but making a big point about her being FEMALE kinda cancels that out.

He's thinking so hard that it crackles

This is the 1970s though, so there is more than enough macho to go around. The story opens up with our three male leads, Ikaris, Makari and Zuras, trying to foist a mind-control helmet on some guy in a cave. He calls himself Dromedan, which is a little odd in a book in which everyone's name is supposed to evoke an ancient deity. I'm guessing that Kirby was thinking of the Andromedan galaxy where many sci-fi stories are set (and where Marvel's race of Skrulls are from). It's also where many UFO conspiracists place the home of the alien race that watches over us.

The Eternals version of "Your Mama!"

Apparently, Dromedan is the villain because he's insane. ALL the Eternals have amazing matter-control powers, but it's OK because they practice a bit of responsibility. Obviously, Kirby doesn't follow the usual tenet of having the bad guy go crazy BECAUSE of the power. In this universe, personal morality comes first.

The latest in fetish wear

The boys get down and battle, and it doesn't go well. Despite trapping their adversary in a pool of molten rock, they all fall to mind-control, leaving Ikaris punching himself (sadly, Dromedan doesn't say STOP PUNCHING YOUSELF IKARIS HAW HAW!), Zuras sporting a nifty new clubbing outfit and Makkari sobbing somewhere to himself off-panel. Speaking of new outfits...

Here's Sersi's awesome introduction. In her recent appearances, she's drawn more like a typical comic-book woman. Perhaps a little taller than average, but conforming to a modern fashion-model aesthetic, and probably based on the modern idea of her mythical namesake being a great seductress. Kirby presents her as a stocky, yet curvy warrior-woman. Betty Brosmer, perhaps, with dark hair. There's also a nifty framing effect here, highlighted by Glynis Wein's coloring decision.

action figures attack!

Sersi's thing appears to be creating things out of thin air, so she comes up with a plan that starts with five Ikaris' attacking the Dromedan. The fight goes on for pages, but eventually our master villain disintegrates them all with crimson eye-beams. Lest we confuse this with Darkseid's Omega Effect, he espouses that "Eternals CAN'T die! But you shall live as FREE-FLOATING ATOMS!"

pfft, wisdom.

Yeah, what he said there, too. I had never noticed before, but in this panel we get to see that the back of Makkari's helmet has a wing design on it! What a neat little Kirby detail. How often do we look at the back of everyone's heads in a comic book?

The last sound he heard was TZAAM!

Of course, none of those Ikarisi were the real thing, but all clever fakes made by Sersi. And so the real Ikaris peeks his head out of hiding and disintegrates Dromedan with yellow eye-beams. Which brings up a question about the concept of the Eternals. They all appear to have the same powers of mind-over-matter, but only Sersi goes around making giant snakes and such. Is this an expression of their personalities that they do different things?

Polar Eternals: good at killing, not so much at light conversation

Because the implication of the next page is that there are some sort of tribal, if not racial, differences among them. His friends try to comfort Ikaris by raising him above his "FROZEN-FACED family of toughs," but the implication is that he's just a barbarian who instinctively fights rather than thinks. Much as Orion of the New Gods was always fighting his true nature, Ikaris has to fight his own pre-disposition.

Kirby machinery should not be operated under the influence of mead

This point is hammered home by a little coda showing us two of the polar Eternals being, well, sinister. The little techno-wizard Sigmar is being bullied by the constantly-drinking Druig into revealing the secret of an ancient super-weapon. So, we're back to another attempt to blow up the "space gods."

Besides the repetition of this old/new threat, Kirby just doesn't seem very inspired in this issue. The pages are mostly variations on the standard six-panel grid with some sporadic uses of the four-panel grid (for expanding fight scenes). It's mainly a big punching fest, with Sersi coming in to show the value of strategy. There isn't any of the usual cosmic grandeur; it's more like Jack Kirby filling up pages to meet a deadline. All right for a twelve-year-old probably, but very disappointing for an adult to look back on.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jack Kirby in the 1970s: The Eternals #13

As I've probably mentioned before, I didn't read super-hero comics as a kid. So, I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on Jack Kirby or pretend to always have the proper genre context. But I DO know the 1970s. And let me tell you, this is the most 1970s-ish comic book that I've read so far.

(The Eternals #13, July, 1977 "The Astronauts!" by Jack Kirby, inking & lettering by Mike Rover, colors by Glynis Wein, SPOILERS AHOY!)

Yeah, it's 1977. People are watching InSearch Of... and reading Chariots of the Gods? Paperback racks are filled with lurid titles promising photos of UFOs and maps of the true location of Atlantis. And a 30 cent Jack Kirby comic book gave you seventeen pages of story about space gods. Sixteen, if you count this double-page spread as one:

Well, giant god bombs shouldn't look NICE

Oh, the glory of Kirby machinery! And this is only the second page! One opens up the book confronted by a half-page of explanatory text followed by a half-page panel introducing our villain. And then you go right to this! It even seems to be designed in a way that mimics the shape of a stapled comic book held in two hands, starting out with a curve on the left and becoming straight as the image goes to the right (And note that reference to Lemuria, another big 1970s paperback subject).

ah, fascism

Much like the centerfold in a men's magazine, these giant images also work because they break our expectations of a regular panel grid. Kirby usually uses a three-tiered system, which allows him to expand some panels to “widescreen” length. Above, he uses one of the shorter panels to reveal the dwarven Deviant astronauts, who fit entirely in its height, as contrasted with other Deviants who can't be contained by the grid.

He also used an odd-four panel, two-tier layout; great for portraying space shuttles launching into orbit.

Some Kirby "reg'lar guys"

And how well-read WAS Jack Kirby? Here he is presenting us with NASA's planned shuttle program, followed by astronaut dialogue that could come from an Arthur C. Clarke novel. Of course he had previously worked on the adaptation of 2001, and there seems to be a bit of that floating around in his head, too.

Celestials love painting their ships in primary colors

You also have to love that “There's no turning back” dialogue being placed at the end. Not only is this a transition from page-to-page, but it's a transition to another sub-plot. We've been spending so much time with Deviants and humans, that the lack of titular characters has gone unnoticed.

Hello Dali!

We check in with Sprite, who has been left alone while the other Eternals are off forming something kinky called the “UNI-MIND.” He sets off towards an interesting skull-shaped building that resembles Salvador Dali's famous painting, "Skull of Zuburan." I wonder if he saw it when visiting Washington D.C. and kept it in mind for a few years...

The hero in darkness

And, so, Hercules! But Marvel already has a Hercules-based character, so this dramatic, shadowy hero must remain un-named (or perhaps to be given a Kirby-style variation moniker ala Sersi or Makari). Sprite makes Mr. No-name a spacesuit and ship and sends him up with the other two parties.

So, we have a crew of Deviants flying a space-bomb toward the Celestial ship, a rogue Eternal racing to stop them and a crew of Earth men recording the whole thing. Who are we missing? Oh yeah, God.

Kirby's God is a fair God. And he has crackly eyes.

Luckily for us, Kirby's God is a God of Justice, much nicer than that Old Testament guy who would have just flooded the planet by now out of sheer disgust with everyone. He makes a judgement, and his judgement is that everyone is in the wrong ship.

Kirby Klose-Up

So, the Deviants get teleported over to the Earth ship, while the Earthlings get sent over to the Eternal ship. Once again, the dialogue (“SEE FOR YOURSELF!”) encourages us to move on to the next panel. I'm starting to wonder if this is a regular Kirby technique.'re already there...

Our Eternal friend has been sent to the giant bomb, of course. He has just enough time to give us some badly-written expository dialogue before jumping in and destroying this huge, beautiful Kirby machine.

A rare, slow moment with Kirby

Of course, one could consider this whole comic book to be a beautiful Kirby machine. The parts work together so well, one can forgive the campy language that crops up in the dialogue and exposition. There's a lot of story to cram in here, but even with those long caption boxes above, he can still take time to give us a lovely fixed-camera sequence to bring those Earth men home. The Deviants don't fare so well, crashing their ship into the ocean. And our Eternal?

The scale of cosmic beings

He is WORTHY OF THE GODS! Unfortunately, the entire tone of the story is ruined by the promise of a battle against the Hulk in the next issue. I imagine the sales numbers on this title prompted some sort of tie-in to the proper super-hero world, but it just seems to cheapen the grand effect that Kirby was going for. If I ever find #14 in a thrift store pile, I may just leave it there out of trepidation. It's a sad thought that Jack needed a major publisher more than the publisher needed him.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Grand Inquisitor's Manual


This was kind of disappointing, but not because it's a bad book. Jonathan Kirsch seems to have written this with a low expectation of his audience's reading skills. Perhaps it's because he spends part of his time writing stories for NPR, but I found his chapters to be written as separate essays rather than as parts of a cohesive book. Certain facts and stories tend to be repeated over and over again, as if we haven't already read them. It was much like watching a modern TV show that shows recaps after every commercial break.

The chapters chronologically cover the major movements of the Catholic inquisition from it's origins in the 12th century to the recent and final official gasps in the 19th. Telling the history in this way allows our author to show the development of authoritarian technique throughout the centuries, rather than presenting the Spanish Inquisition, say, as a lone aberration.

And this is the book's theme, that these techniques developed by the church (torture, the use of informants, guilt by blood relation) still reverberate today in Western culture. He spends the last few chapters examining the Nazi and Stalinistic purges and methods of promoting fear, as well as our own “war on terror.”

Strangely, the book is a response to “apologists” for the Inquisition as well as to people who would generally support torture and the reduction of rights. It's one of those cases where you don't really need to make the argument. And I doubt that anyone who thinks that water-boarding is a valid method of information gathering, or who looks at the massive torture and murder of huge swaths of people in the name of control and can excuse it in the name of historical context, is going to be swayed by argument, anyway.

And so, this is a light history book written for an audience that already agrees with it's point of view. There also isn't a lot of first-person research, outside of references to the actual Inquisitor's Manuals which we can all now read in various archives online. Most of the writing is actually a survey of other books written on the subject, and sometimes resorts to quotations of yet other books from those.

If you're never going to read another book on the subject, this will give you a good, quick overview. It's an easy read; you'll have a fresh water-cooler discussion topic after a few days. But, if like myself, you want something with a bit more “meat” to it, I'd recommend going with something listed in the bibliography, perhaps starting with Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts and then moving on from there.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Complete Greek Tragedies, Sophocles II

I tend to pick up volumes of these Grene and Lattimore series of edited Greek Tragedies because they show up so often at garage sales. I'm assuming that they are, or were for a while, the standard text used for teaching these plays. The translations are from the 1950s and 60s, and I've somehow reached a point with this one, where it feels old-fashioned.

I've gone through Aeschylus' Oresteia, which I loved, and some of the Euripedes, which were mainly translated by Richard Lattimore. David Grene, while strongly expressing his love for Sophocles in the introductions, just doesn't have the same touch. Or perhaps it really is just the different voice in the source material.

(As an aside, all these books suffer from the odd editorial decision to render Greek wailing as "oh." C'mon, give us some ululation, some expression. One might as well have Elektra walking around saying "meh.")

Which leads to the double-edged problem of reading the "classics." Keeping up with the newer translations for (hopefully) better accuracy and new research, but also, bothering to read them at all if the key concepts don't translate to our world anymore.

And the key concept here is Honor. These four plays are pretty much four dialectics about preserving honor as it applies to various situations. There's no questioning that the situations of revenge or service may be wrong in themselves.

For out of our three tragedians, Sophocles appears to be the most conservative. Aeschylus celebrated the triumph of law over the old ideals of vengeance, while Euripides was a bit of a parodist. Sophocles seems to gravitate towards a romantic ideal of the heroic warrior, especially as contrasted against the newer breed of politician. Really, a formative version of the noble savage.

And this is why I can't really recommend these plays for anyone, outside of a need for context or curiosity. Honor is only necessary in a barbaric society that doesn't protect it's citizens with law. Pop culture criminals and corrupt politicians both revel in it, because they live outside the legal system. And when you apply it to modern problems, you end up getting mired in Vietnam or Iraq, because words and ideals become more important than people.

Perhaps if I run across a newer translation, I'll give them another try, but not before I read something else first that's a bit more civilized.