I have problems with Neil Gaiman. It's no secret. I thought Sandman was an interesting comic that it rapidly disappeared up its own cūlus aēnī. And if you think it's pretentious of me to use the Latin for "bronze anus" in that sentence... well, quite. Et tu, Brutus.
I also rapidly grew tired of the rock star cult that surrounded the writer. In my mind, I always picture him in a leather jacket riding a Harley. Though I can't ever find the photo that spawned this mental image, I know I saw it somewhere. I don't ever believe a writer should overshadow his writing in the way that singers can, and often do, overshadow their songs. But for a long time Neil Gaiman seemed to get off more on being Neil Gaiman... than actually writing any new comics.
But my biggest peeve was always Gaiman's obsession with "the power of stories". From Sandman onwards, a recurring theme of his work became "the mythical power of stories", "the healing power of stories", "the cultural power of stories" et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... I can't remember the last time I read a Neil Gaiman comic that didn't have this theme at its centre, and it often seemed he was so insistent on pressing home his love of stories... he forgot to actually write one in the process.
As a result, I rarely jump to read a new Neil Gaiman comic. However, three things persuaded me to give The Eternals a shot...
One: his recent script for Doctor Who was one of the highlights of the latest series. There's no doubt Gaiman is a clever, imaginative writer when he puts his mind to it and his dialogue often sparkles. That's certainly the case in The Eternals, particularly the early chapters which exile Jack Kirby's New (Marvel) Gods in mainstream America, unable to remember their divine providence. This is a book where the talking heads scenes shine even more than the superheroey stuff... from a writing point of view at least. Which leads me on to...
Two: John Romita Jr. Until Marcos Martin arrived on the scene, JRJR was my favourite mainstream comic artist - though one who causes controversy with many of my arty friends who are constantly telling me he's grown lazy in his old(er) age and his work's not a patch on what it was 20+ years ago. What do I know? I can't draw more than a stick figure. And, perhaps just as controversially, I was never a Jack Kirby fan either. Ditko, Romita Sr., Colan, Kane, the Buscemas... love 'em all. But while I can appreciate everything Kirby gave us, I always found his art blocky, chunked up... a little too larger than life. That said, there's no contemporary artist better suited to updating the HUGENESS of Kirby's Eternals than JRJR - and I fully accept the contradiction that the very things I enjoy most about Romita Jr.'s work are the exact same things I disliked about Kirby's. What can I say? I'm a comic fan - don't expect logic.
And Three, because this is Comics - On The Ration, after all: the price. This was the Panini / Marvel UK edition, but I picked it up on eBay for the bargain price of £2.49 - including p&p.
So... was it worth it? Well, yes. It'd be churlish to say otherwise, especially at that price. Still, much as I enjoyed JRJR's art and Gaiman's script (at least in the beginning), The Eternalsstill hasn't won me over to the Cult of Neil. Because, as a story, it makes for a great first act. The book is all about re-establishing the characters, giving them a slice more humanity and personality (injecting some of the Stan that was always missing from Jack's solo work), and setting them a distinct role and purpose within the 21st Century Marvel universe. And if this was the first graphic novel in an ongoing series, that'd be all fine and good. Yet it seems clear from reading the afterword (and from the fact that this book was published 5+ years ago) that Gaiman never intended for it to be any more than that. Which seems like a bit of a cheat to me. From reading Sandman, I remember Neil often did great work on the set-up... but ultimately fluffed the resolution. Here, he doesn't even attempt one. It's like he's done all the fun stuff then thrown his hands in the air and said "let someone else take it from here!" I know there's an argument that in mainstream superhero comics there's no such thing as "The End" - but someone tell that to Grant Morrison, whose climaxes are often so good nobody dares follow them. When it comes to the "power of stories", Neil, there's nothing more satisfying than a really good final page. Throw me one of those next time and you might just have a fan.