Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry considers how Eternals vindicates Jack Kirby’s complicated legacy at Marvel Comics.
For a certain swath of fandom, Eternals is an extremely significant entry within the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a particular reason. It’s the first Marvel Comics adaptation to feature a solo creator credit by Jack Kirby, “The King of Comics.”
His name is featured front and center when the credits roll, no longer shackled with an ampersand to creative collaborator Stan Lee. It’s enough to make a few of us in the audience cry, never mind the movie’s actual content.
In 1961, The Fantastic Four #1 arrived on newsstands. Its impact was felt almost immediately, and it sparked the creation of the Marvel Comics universe, a realm where the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, and a thousand other spandex types would quickly populate and mingle within.
The comic’s creation is legendary, and getting to its truth is near impossible, as such documentation was nonexistent in those days. Marvel Comics (or Timely Comics, as it was known at the time) was making disposable stories for children. No one imagined that their creations would dominate pop culture in a few decades.
But just because we don’t know the whole truth doesn’t mean we can’t argue about it. As the comic is explained today, it’s credited as a joint venture between writer Lee and artist Kirby. The first issue was created using “The Marvel Method,” which meant Kirby cobbled together The Fantastic Four after Lee gave him a few ideas and an outline.
Kirby did a tremendous amount of plotting, which he was rarely given credit for. This practice allowed Kirby and Lee to crank out an insane amount of comics, permitting the Marvel Universe wildfire to spread rapidly.
As the years passed, Kirby and Lee’s relationship deteriorated. In 1970, the artist jumped ship and swam over to DC Comics, creating The New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Demon, Kamandi, and others. Eventually, frustrations with that company would send Kirby back to Marvel, where Kirby created The Eternals free from Stan Lee’s input.
These comics were wild, unfettered outbursts, Jack Kirby’s brain exploded upon the page. They looked like, sounded like, and felt like nothing else within the industry. As such, they confused and confounded the company and its readership. The Eternals was canceled after a year, and once again, Kirby’s partnership with Marvel crumbled.
Jack Kirby died in 1994. As the architect of the Marvel universe, his name is revered within both the fan and professional communities. With his passing, however, Stan Lee’s popularity dominated the conversation, and as more and more Marvel movies reached the screen, and Lee’s face littered all of them via cameos, Jack Kirby’s contribution was largely ignored by mainstream consumers.
The reality is that Marvel would not be what it is without either Kirby or Lee. The artist’s grand designs and trippy concepts are what made their comics pop on the stands. And no one could sell an idea better than Stan Lee. He was the ultimate carnival barker, hitting as many media outlets as he could, championing their work as “more than kids’ stuff” just as the medium was maturing and adults started listening, and more importantly, reading.
In recent years, Marvel/Disney and the Kirby estate have come to a financial understanding. While no sums were disclosed, we’re led to believe that the artist’s family has received a generous sum for Kirby’s creative contribution.
Since then, the comic book company has reignited its interest in crediting Kirby as the King. At every opportunity, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has found Kirby’s name on his lips, and it makes this fan typing quite happy.
One of the great joys perpetrated by Marvel Studios is watching how their movies validate the comics’ goofier concepts. Iron Man was nowhere near a household name until he was. No one thought Thor would work on screen, but he did. Guardians of the Galaxy made a talking raccoon and his tree friend box office gold. Clearly, nothing was too strange to be popular. You might as well make an Eternals movie.
From the moment they pushed Eternals into production, Feige has kept Kirby in the conversation. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the producer staunchly confirmed the film as a love letter to the artist. Feige takes the comment even further, expressing a profound regret that Kirby never lived long enough to see his creation in live-action:
“The other day I was like, ‘How cool that I live in the timeline where William Shatner went to space in real life?’ One of the bummers, you could argue there are many, of the current timeline that we live in, is that Jack Kirby passed before he got to see any of this.”
Feige’s producing partner Nate Moore has also been making the rounds, pushing Kirby’s legacy to the conversation forefront. When speaking to press on the set of the movie, Moore firmly stated that Eternals features a stronger connection to Jack Kirby than it does the more modern incarnation written by Neil Gaiman:
“We’ll probably borrow out from that. But the truth is we actually are more inspired by the Kirby stuff, so we’re kind of going back to the old stuff, both mythologically and how the movie lays out.”
Kirby’s Eternal Legacy
We’re living in a moment here. Eternals is a chance to reaffirm Jack Kirby’s legacy, establishing a larger significance in the minds of the majority. You love Marvel, and you love it because of Jack Kirby.
No one is erasing Stan Lee. He worked too hard and for too long to fade away. And no one wants that either. He was and always will be Mr. Marvel.
But, dammit, the characters you know came from Jack Kirby’s pencil, and it’s worth noting that when he left Marvel, Stan Lee never created another consequential character again (my apologies to Stripperella and “The Curse of the Werebeaver“). Kirby still had another dozen characters to manifest, and no doubt we’ll get that New Gods film someday and probably a Devil Dinosaur film soon after.
Jack Kirby’s name sitting solitarily as the creator during the Eternals end-credits offers a second for reflection. Who was that guy? The film is a massive canvas, introducing space gods, their demigod children, and a mythology so head-scratchingly weird that you’ll need a rewatch or two to make heads or tales of it. It’s bizarre enough that you may even find yourself reaching for a comic book, and what you’ll find there is even weirder.
Eternals lands in theaters on November 5th. Read our review of the film here.
Related Topics: Marvel Explained