Of the big three “non-human races” of the Marvel Universe, the Eternals have long been playing catch-up. The X-Men are, well, the X-Men. While the Inhumans have a rich and varied history interwoven into the fabric of the larger Marvel Universe dating back to the Silver Age (to say nothing of a failed TV series and that time when Fox still owned the X-Men movie rights so Marvel tried to position them as their new, more cinema-friendly, version of mutants).
The Eternals, while of a similar pedigree (all three share an artistic creator in Jack Kirby), have long existed on the fringes of the Marvel Universe: various artists and writers, often top-notch ones, step-up and present their take on the long-lived demi-gods secretly protecting humanity from the monstrous Deviants in the name of the cosmic Celestials, and when they’re done, the Eternals quietly fade once more into the background of the Marvel Universe.
Eternals: Only Death is Eternal is the latest such creative effort. Collecting the first six issues of a new ongoing Eternals series from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Esad Ribic, the book is clearly being positioned to capitalize on and contribute to the Eternals’ upcoming moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe zeitgeist, with their feature film (after a lengthy pandemic-induced delay) scheduled to premiere just a scant few months after the publication of this volume. In Gillen & Ribic, Marvel has again entrusted top-tier talent to this effort, and Gillen and Ribic, to their credit, reward that trust. Every iteration of the Eternals attempts to put a new spin on the concept in some way, and the inaugural launch of this series is no different.
Gillen and Ribic don’t just put a new spin on things; they do so in a way that contextualizes and synthesizes all of the previous versions, creating a kind of grand unified theory of the Eternals that honors what’s come before in the Eternals history while breaking new ground. Along the way, they also tell a densely-plotted, gorgeously-illustrated, rip-roaring tale filled with moments of fist-pumping excitement and tragic heartbreak alike. The end result is the best possible entry point into the Eternals for a new reader.
Ed. Note: Story Spoilers Follow
Only Death is Eternal starts off with a death, and at its core, it is a murder mystery. Only the murder being investigated isn’t that of Zuras, Prime Eternal, who is killed in issue #1 (by issue #2, his murderer is revealed to be everyone’s favorite genocidal Grimace, Thanos). Rather, the murder being investigated is that of immortality itself. The Eternals have always been long-lived; it’s right there in the name. But here Gillen makes that fact literal, their constant rebirths after death the product of a literal Resurrection Machine. Shortly after Zuras’ murderer is revealed, the real crime emerges: the machine itself is broken. If the Eternal die, they will not be revived.
This kicks off a story-long murder mystery in which a core group of Eternals – Ikaris, Sprite, Sersi, Phastos, Kingo and Druig – work to figure out who broke the Machine and set Thanos loose on a killing spree, all as the clock ticks down on the destruction of the Earth. The Resurrection Machine is inextricably connected to the Machine which powers Earth, and with it damaged, the Earth’s days are numbered.
Meanwhile, in yet another mystery, Ikaris is determined to protect a seemingly-normal human boy named Toby Robson after he experiences a vision of himself sorrowfully standing at the boy’s grave. This trio of mysteries – who destroyed the Resurrection Machine, who set Thanos against the Eternals, and what is the importance of Toby Robson – makes for a dense story, but by keeping the focus on a core cast of characters, Gillen helps keep the reader grounder. Each Eternal is defined by a set of characteristics – Ikaris is an action-oriented arrow deploying himself against threats, Sersi is a schemer, Phastos fixes things – and that allows Gillen to tell different facets of the story through each of their unique perspectives.
The consistent voice and action of the Eternals, rather than stifling the story, helps propel it and underscore its themes: each issue of the story puts the focus on a different Eternal, each coming with a “fable” of sorts, a tale from the past showing the Eternal’s interaction with the human world which informs both the present day happenings and their driving characteristics.
These fables, rather than sideline the main narrative, are seamlessly integrated into the story, as each Eternal steps into the spotlight and the mystery widens as they get closer and closer to the answer, from learning Thena threatened to kill Zuras shortly before his death, to Druig surviving a massacre of his fellow “Polar Eternals”, to Gilgamesh the Forgotten being lured out when he appears to have sabotaged the Machine in the past.
In addition to the core cast, Gillen uses the broken and failing Machine itself as the narrator of the story, which not only provides the opportunity for a step back into a more birds eye view of the plot, but also adds some levity into the mix. Because the Machine is broken, it sometimes says things it shouldn’t; any time things gets too stuffy or bogged down by the minutiae of Eternal society or the character’s personality tics, the Machine’s narration is there to take the piss out of it a bit and lighten the mood (such as when it winkingly assures readers that while it looks like Phastos is just hitting the broken Reality Loom component of the Machine with his hammer, he’s actually delivering complex debug code into it with each strike).
Similarly, the mood is occasionally lightened by the fact that the Eternals – at least this group of them – simply aren’t very good investigators, with the central issues featuring the investigation unfolding a bit like a game of “Among Us”, in which new evidence leads them to a new suspect, whom they all immediately declare to be the real villain like so many protesting would-be Imposters, until they’re (usually quickly) proven otherwise. It’s all deeply in-character for everyone involved, but the fact that we’re not dealing with a bunch of immortal Sherlock Holmes helps keep things a tad light while playing fair with the readers.
Meanwhile, Esad Ribic absolutely kills on the art, bringing his now-standard “Frank Frazetta by way of Jack Kirby” style to the proceedings, presenting updated looks for the Eternals that still feel of a piece with their classic designs while alternating the action scenes between traditional sequential comic book action (such as the fight against Thanos in issue #4) and more representative depictions, such as in issue #5 when Icaurus attacks in a Superman-like streak of red-and-blue lines. He injects the story with an appropriate level of grandeur without ever losing track of fundamental storytellings (his biggest failing is, perhaps, his occasionally lumpy and inconsistently drawn faces, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t the worst or most unique of flaws).
Furthermore, Gillen and Ribic are joined by equally-adept collaborators in colorist Mathew Wilson and letter Clayton Cowles. Throughout the story, Wilson uses colors to inform both setting and plot, such as the way he renders the polar city of Polaria in cool blues while using an orangish-red for scenes set in Olympia, only to have that same orangish-red spill out into the rest of the world in issue #6 as the Machine draws ever-closer to apocalypse. Cowles, meanwhile, contributes to the book’s sense of lived history by utilizing hand-lettered sound effects, which create both the necessary visual pop to punctuate the action while also feeling of a piece with the overall design of the story.
In fact, there is a sense of overall design to this series which sets it apart. In the same way that the Eternals resurrection machine is rendered in parallel to the similar process now at work in the X-Men titles, introduced by Jonathan Hickman in his House of X/Powers of X miniseries, Eternals takes another cue from the Hickman Era of the X-Men by featuring a series of data pages in each issue. Like the X-book data pages, these pages can offer additional background information to happenings in the main narrative, flesh out a bit of lore, or tease potential future plotlines for the series.
By the climax of the story, Gillen and Ribic deliver on the inherent promise of the murder mystery, revealing “whodunit” in a satisfying manner, one which is both surprising but also fits with the clues sprinkled throughout the story’s six issues. But as much as this story is seemingly intended to serve as an entry point for new readers, it is only the first volume of an ongoing series, and there is more to come. In much the same way the data pages, in part, tease potential future plotlines, the conclusion of the story sets up the next arc.
And because this is a Kieron Gillen comic, it also punches you right in the feels. In the end, the resolution of the Toby Robson mystery, the question of why Ikaris saw himself mourning at the boy’s grave, completely upends the Eternals’ entire existence. When an Eternal dies, they are resurrected. But it turns out there is a hidden cost: a human soul must be taken to imbue into the revived Eternal. For an Eternal to live, a human must die. And when Ikaris dies helping save the world, Toby’s life is taken to restore him.
It’s a devastating ending, a heartrending case of defeat being snatched from the jaws of a victory which saw the restoration of the Machine and the survival of the planet. It also upends everything about the Eternals – revealing that these beings gifted with immortality in the name of protecting humanity require the lives of humans to maintain themselves – something which builds directly on the themes Gillen explores throughout the story’s six issues. More than any other take on the Eternals, the relationship between them and humanity lies at the core of this story, from Ikaris’ protection of Toby to the fables showcasing the Eternals throughout (human) history to the way each of the Eternals approach to/outlook on humanity informs their actions.
The other theme running through the story is that of purpose, with each Eternal imbued with a specific role and way of thinking that only allows so much latitude with how they react to events, a purpose the story is careful to highlight for each character. To deviate too much from that purpose is to be, well, Deviant, sworn enemies of the Eternals for whom abidance is everything. Yet when Ikaris and his companions learn the truth about Toby – and learn that they’ve learned it before, and been forced to forget it because Eternals consistently vote to keep things going the way they are despite that knowledge – they deviate, and end the story at the doorsteps of their former foes. For a race defined by their adherence to systems, both personal and political, this particular assortment of characters have finally reached their breaking point: it’s time to work outside the system. It’s a resonant ending to a story that both clarifies and upends everything previously understood about the Eternals, and a captivating hook for the series’ next story (and beyond).
All in all, it’s hard not to read this inaugural volume as anything but a success. Whether as an introduction to the Eternals for new readers or a compelling twist on the concept for diehard fans, as a satisfying “murder” mystery or exciting superhero action story, as a well-scripted narrative or a series of gorgeous illustrations, Only Death Is Eternal works. That it does all that while also elevating a group of third-tier characters into must-read territory is all the more impressive.