The first volume of Eternals by Kieron Gillen and Essad Ribic is a revelation in a couple ways. For one, it manages to completely reorient the Eternals’ relationship with humanity by revealing that their signature immortality comes at the cost of human life, the very beings they believed they were intended to protect, a revelation which led the core cast of the series to cast their lot with the Eternals’ previously-sworn enemies, the Deviants. For another, it had us all going “hey, there’s an Eternals comic that’s actually good and fun?” for the first time in a long time (possibly ever).
That’s a tough act to follow. Though Gillen and Ribic (along with a few other artistic collaborators) are back for the follow-up second volume, Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos (comprising issues #7-12 of the series but not, curiously, a trio of one-shots released to help spell deadline issues which delve into various tidbits of Eternal backstory), they understandably aren’t able to completely recreate the highs of that first book. Yet Eternals in its second volume nevertheless remains a top tier Marvel book, packed with intrigue, action, and even laughs aplenty, all while elegantly setting the stage for Marvel’s next big crossover event. That it fails to live up to the truly revelatory first volume is hardly the worst sin, as what remains is still plenty engaging and entertaining.
The original Jack Kirby Eternals series which set much of the template for how the Eternals would be used going forward establishes the Eternals as part of a triad of Earthbound-beings. The long-lived, god-like Eternals battle the monstrous, deformed Deviants with ancient humanity caught in the middle. If Eternals vol. 1 was a story that focused on the Eternals’ side of that triad, then Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos is more about exploring Gillen and Ribic’s vision of the Deviants. And, just as the first volume builds to the revelation of the truth behind the Eternals’ longevity, so too is volume 2 built on the back of a mystery, one which, appropriately enough, concerns the Deviants.
With the first volume concluding as the “heroic” Eternals (Ikaris, Sprite, Thena, Sersi, Kingo, and Phastos) removing themselves from Olympia and seeking refuge in the Deviant city of Lemuria, this second volume provides an opportunity for Gillen and Ribic to explore that world, something they do with aplomb. Far from a metropolis simply filled with violent monsters, their Lemuria is presented as a thriving, multifaceted society vastly different from that of the Eternals (something underscored by a sequence in which Ikaris, no longer content to let himself simply be killed in battle and resurrected, trains to fight like a Deviant, something which requires him to learn the concept of “dodging”).
Classic Deviant warlord Kro appears, of course, but the wider society of Lemuria is represented in the form of Tolau, a Deviant artist who is also Thena’s lover (Thena’s affection for Deviants despite the historical animosity between the two races having been long-established). Through him, readers see that Lemurian society contains all sorts of professions and social strata, figures who exist beyond the needs of superhero punch ‘em up comics. It is through Tolau that the tragedy of “excess deviation” and the Eternals’ biological imperative to stamp it out, is highlighted, first obliquely, when he unveils a sculpture in which he’s rendered Thena in adamantium and himself in meat, and then more directly when Tolau experiences the excess deviation as a disease akin to the onset of cancer, which strikes randomly and without warning. And it is, appropriately enough, with the Deviants that the big revelation at the heart of Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos is concerned.
In the course of the plot, the Eternal Ajax communes with the ghost of a dead Celestial and learns a shattering truth about the Deviants: they, not the Eternals, are the most important figures in the Celestials’ Eternals/Humans/Deviants hierarchy. The larger explanation, detailed via a data page, is somewhat complex, involving the toxicity of the Celestials’ “necrofluid,” the means by which they alter life, with the Deviants intended to serve as a medium for the “proofing” of that fluid; stable, beneficial deviations are passed on to humanity, while wilder, more monstrous changes (the “excess deviations” Eternals are genetically compelled to destroy) would be stamped out by Eternals. The Deviants, then, are responsible for the dawning of superpowered beings on Earth and the current “Age of Wonders.” The Eternals are merely the safeguards to keep their unconscious genetic work from raging out of control, less gods than Celestial custodians.
It is presented in the story as a revelation with the same impact as the previous volume’s “Eternal immortality comes at the price of human life,” but it doesn’t quite land as hard. While nearly as devastating to the Eternals themselves (while it was classically-heroic Ikaris who suffered the biggest blow-by-revelation in volume 1, here, devout Ajax is most shattered by the truth underpinning her steadfast service to and faith in her gods), for readers, this second revelation simply isn’t as compact and easy to conceptualize. “When an Eternal is reborn, a hero dies” is straightforward; the notion that Deviants are meant as a kind of genetic filter to allow only the most beneficial of evolutionary changes to peter down to humanity from the Celestials’ genetic space goop is a tougher thing to wrap your head around, thereby lessening the impact of the reveal.
Of course, Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos isn’t just about Deviant society and the big revelation; as with volume one, there’s plenty of action and intrigue in its pages as well, with the core cast of Eternals drawn into conflict with two different foes. After using him as a kind of red herring in the previous volume, Gillen and Ribic continue, as the title of the volume suggests, to feature Thanos, moving him into the frightening position of Prime Eternal through the machinations of Druig, who remains at Thanos’ side as a seemingly obsequious toady. Gillen’s Thanos continues to be a delight, serving as both a scary force of nature and a fleshed out character. Using the snarky narration of the World to establish that at least some of Thanos’ attitude is mere posturing, the result of him playing the role he believes is expected of him, along with putting him in close proximity to his (resurrected) parents doesn’t exactly make Thanos feel human, but it adds necessary complexity to what can often come across as a one-dimensional villain motivated by simple nihilism.
At the same time, Thanos remains a significant threat and a powerful foe; the attack he orchestrates against Lemuria midway through the volume, with the full support of the vast majority of the Eternals at his back, is devastating because Gillen and Ribic did the work of making Lemuria and its inhabitants feel lived in and more than casual bystanders. When Ikaris and his allies are finally in position to attack Thanos directly in the volume’s closing pages, the result is cathartic; Ribic rarely crafts the most fluid of action scenes, but he renders the sequence of the renegade Eternals finally unleashing their power on Thanos with verve and force, thick, solid chunks of characters careening into one another on the page. Colorist Matthew Wilson deserves a shout out here as well, rendering each of the combatants with a distinctive color palette as they zip through the panels. The final twist, which leads to Thanos’ ultimate defeat as Druig reveals he’s been playing him all along in order to elevate himself to the position of Prime Eternal, is ultimately more satisfying (and, perhaps, even as impactful) as the revelation involving the Deviants.
The other standout sequence in this volume is the Eternals’ battle with the Avengers. In order to defeat Thanos, the Eternals need information known only to the Celestials, and the only Celestial on Earth is the empty body currently serving as the Avengers’ headquarters. The Eternals being the Eternals, they don’t just ask their erstwhile allies for help (in part because this would mean admitting Thanos is A. back and B. the Prime Eternal), and so we get a Classic Superhero Misunderstanding Fight.
But rather than stage the conflict as a straightforward “two teams line up and trade blows” affair, Gillen taps into his experience as a gamer, rendering the conflict across three issues via a series of moves and countermoves, as the Eternals do their best to keep the Avengers at bay while probing the memories of the dead Celestial and protecting humanity from a series of cataclysms rent by Thanos in an effort to distract them. This sequence also includes some of the best character bits in the volume, such as Sersi and Namor spending the entirety of the Eternals/Avengers fight sexing it up in a hot tub, or Kingo’s enthusiasm at the prospect of, in his words, starring in a Die Hard remake as he takes on the Avengers by himself.
AXE to Grind
The battle with the Avengers is, ultimately, a prelude of things to come. As with the conclusion of volume 1, Gillen ends Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos by setting up the next storyline, which is the multi-title crossover event “AXE: Judgment Day.” With Druig now Prime Eternal, he believes he needs an external conflict to solidify his power base, and so he decides to pick a fight with the X-Men. Based on the notion that mutant are deviants (an idea first raised during Steve Englehart’s run on Silver Surfer) and prompted by their recently-revealed-to-the-public ability to resurrect themselves, Druig determines that the X-Men are suffering excess deviation and targets the island mutant nation of Krakoa for extermination. He thereby sets the stage for a three-way conflict between representatives of the original Celestial triad of humanity: the Eternals, the X-Men (Deviants) and the Avengers (regular humanity). It’s technically a cliffhanger, but as with the Ikaris and crew showing up on Lemuria’s doorstep at the end of volume 1, it serves more as a teaser for what’s next; the immediate plotlines of the volume are satisfactorily resolved.
Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos is, in the end, an engaging and satisfying read. it suffers from sequel-itis: by trying to repeat the trick of building the arc towards a stunning revelation but then failing to have the reveal hit nearly as hard as the first revelation did (in part because the new one is significantly more complicated and its impact more interwoven in the Eternal’s complex lore), this volume ultimately comes across feeling the slightest bit warmed over in comparison. It’s also worth noting that Essad Ribic doesn’t provide the art to the entirety of this volume, with Guiu Vilanova pitching in on issue #9 and drawing the entirety of issue #11. Vilanova’s work is more than satisfactory, but it does lend a visual inconsistency to the volume that volume 1 lacks. Yet for all that, there is plenty to like: the depiction of Lemuria, the menace of Thanos, the classically-comic book Avengers/Eternals fight, and the scheming of Druig all make for a stirring, engaging read. If Gillen and Ribic don’t quite live up to the impact of the first volume’s revelation, they succeed by doing what the next chapter in an ongoing serial narrative must do: expanding the world of its characters, pushing them in new directions, and challenging expectations. If Eternals volume 1 left us asking “can an Eternals book really be this good?”, then Eternals vol. 2: Hail Thanos responds by saying “yes, yes it can.”