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Exclusive: Kieron Gillen on his new 'Eternals' comic and making Thanos an all-out 'horror' character

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Dec 14, 2020, 2:54 PM EST (Updated)

Kieron Gillen is no stranger to the Marvel Universe. The Eisner and Hugo-nominated writer behind titles like The Wicked + The Divine and Once & Future has had major success outside the House of Ideas, but many readers first came to know him for his work on books like Journey Into Mystery, Uncanny X-Men and, of course, Young Avengers. He's dealt with a lot of major Marvel franchises, but when it came time to take on Marvel's Eternals, he hit upon a key dilemma.

"I take a look at it, think what the appeal is, what the themes are beneath the surface, what excites me about it and what could be made to work better than it already does with a few tweaks," Gillen told SYFY WIRE when asked about his approach to taking on new comic book properties. "In the case of the Eternals, they've been some of the best supporting characters in the Marvel Universe, and parts of their cosmology have been adapted to be absolutely fundamental to marvel as a whole. However, they've never quite taken a lead role. Why?

"I hit a few areas, some of which I can talk about before the book drops, and some which I can't. The main one is that they lack a niche that is their own. They were invented for their own universe, and only later added to the Marvel Universe. Their thing is that they're aliens who were mistaken for gods throughout human history. The problem there is that in the Marvel Universe we already have the actual gods. Who do you care about more? Actual Thor or someone who was mistook for Thor?"

Next month, ahead of the launch of the characters' first-ever feature film from Marvel Studios, Gillen and artist Esad Ribic (Secret Wars) will launch Eternals, a triumphant return for the title race of beings that aims to introduce a new generation of readers to their mythos. The book marks the first time a new Eternals series has launched in more than a decade, and because the movie will be coming on its heels, readers are going to be looking for a clear hook that makes them want to read on. So, how did Gillen solve his own dilemma? By crafting a compelling new perspective on the classic Jack Kirby creations.

"The core myth is a million years ago, the Celestials turned up and created 100 Eternals and 100 Deviants and then left. The Deviants breed, begetting monsters who threaten humanity," Gillen explained. "The Eternals are basically protectors of all of this. So… created by gods, to protect humans from devils?

"The Eternals aren't gods. They're Angels.

"That gives a core idea for them, and brings so many other things into focus. After all, 'Eternal' doesn't mean 'Immortal.' It means 'Unchanging.' So, like Angels, I have a species of 100 who don't breed, and don't change in their fundamental way. Which gives us a wonderful tragedy in their heart, which is absolutely another key thing they need to live in the Marvel Universe.

"There's a lot of joy in this book, but there's a real sadness too."

In an anticipation of what's bound to be one of Marvel's biggest new series launches of 2021, SYFY WIRE is pleased to present an exclusive look at Eternals in the form of commentary from Gillen on how the book came together, along with a sneak peek in the gallery below at February's issue #2, featuring Gillen and Ribic's terrifying new take on the Mad Titan, Thanos.

Gillen's approach to the Eternals had the benefit of a bit of a reboot, since the last time we saw the characters they were being killed off in the pages of Jason Aaron's Avengers run. As a result, we're rejoining the characters in this series beginning with Ikaris, who was the last to die and, therefore, the last to wake up in what Gillen refers to as something akin to turning a computer off and then on again.

"The Eternals are enormously difficult to kill, and when they [do die], the machine that is Earth resurrects them," Gillen explained. "The shock they faced was obviously huge."

It's in the wake of that shock that Gillen and Ribic's tale picks up, focusing primarily in the beginning on Ikaris and Sprite as the set out to solve the murder of one of their fellow Eternals. Though Ikaris and Sprite form what he calls the "heart of the book," Gillen also emphasized that he views Eternals as a "society book," meaning that there are "a lot of moving parts" focusing on the larger cast even outside the realm of the first arc's main story.

In discussing the larger cast of the book, Gillen hinted that we'll be seeing characters like Sersi, Druig, Thena, Makkari and Ajak along the way, but the key reveal so far has been an atagonist: Thanos, a character who's come to dominate pop culture over the past three years thanks to his association with Marvel's Avengers feature films and several key arcs in various Marvel Comics titles. Given the ubiquity of the character at this point, it might be reasonable to ask why Gillen and Ribic are putting The Mad Titan in yet another book, but it's important to remember that Thanos' origins are rooted in Eternals lore, and it's that lore that offers Gillen -- who calls Thanos the Eternals' "awful sin" and "monstrous child" -- an opportunity to show us a side of him we haven't necessarily seen lately.

"I've always loved Thanos. There's that old fan argument, comparing him with Darkseid, but bar the obvious, they seem entirely opposite figures. Darkseid is cold. He's maths, trying to negate life in the vice of numbers. Thanos burns white hot. He is poetry, setting fire to universes to woo and charm," Gillen said. He's the Marvel Universe's most Byronic figure, the mad, bad and dangerous to know Titan.

"That's an aspect of him which hasn't been so much to the fore, and there's not that much of mine to begin with either. Thanos is on his knees. This is about him getting up again.

"And it's not Byron who my Thanos will initially bring to mind, but another of those great, dark capital-R romantic myths. In short: my Thanos is absolutely a horror character, Giger's Alien aboard the ship that is Earth."

Through all of this — the large cast, the epic mythology, the horror and beyond — Gillen's script is guided by Ribic's visuals, and while we've come to expect epic scope from Ribic's work, the writer said his creative partner also delivers a few surprises in his emotional scope.

"He's the premier fantasy artist working in the American mainstream. I came to the project, wanting to bring that power to bear on those images – those moments when he does stuff with scale which makes things appear both huge and melancholic," Gillen said of Ribic. "I knew he's someone who brings a weight to his images which means that the commonplace things like hot dog stands and the impossible things like Godzilla-sized beasts rising from the sea all seem as real – as does the visions of the past. I knew I was getting so much. But the thing which is a delight to see is how good he is at the comedy. He's Shakespearean in his drama, but he's so good at the grotesqueries for comedy as well. I will write scenes where people threaten to beat up Druig and Druig cowers all day, just to see what Esad does with it."

Though he and Ribic are having a lot of fun crafting an Eternals story on their own terms, it's also not lost on Gillen that he's writing a property that's about to be a major part of a motion picture machine, something he already has experience with thanks to extensive work in Marvel's Star Wars comic universe. With the Eternals film on the horizon, Gillen is aware that plenty of readers who've never experienced the characters before will see his and Ribic's version first, but that's less of a concern and more of an opportunity to push readers deeper into the mythos.

"Did it have an impact? Sure, but it's only small things, like aligning characters' genders and ethnicity with the movie," he said. "Speaking broadly, I'm more excited than worried. Having a chance to be an entry point for people into comics is a huge opportunity. You're always wanting to take people who were attracted by the movie, and then take it further than the movies, push into more, more, more."

"More, more, more" is also a key component of Eternals in another way, one that speaks to Gillen's career as a comics writer so far. Though he's worked frequently on Marvel properties in the past, he describes many of them as more "supporting" books, and even called Young Avengers a title that was "designed to be hermetically sealed" in terms of its place in the larger universe. With Eternals, coming off creator-owned runs in which he's been able to open up vast expanses of narrative and worldbuilding, Gillen wanted space to run, and he got it.

"With Eternals, I've been given a clear stage and a whole lot of space, and I can go for it, and do what I've always done in my own work, with approaches I've pushed in recent times," Gillen said. "To choose one aspect, making mythologies from pre-existing ingredients, giving them scale beyond that of the page. WicDiv is a 6,000 year mythology, about art and artists, comprised of every single great artistic movement in history. DIE is a patchwork living critical essay of the ingredients that went into formation of Dungeons & Dragons. Once & Future turns Arthurian myth into a creature which haunts the British isles. With Eternals, I looked at all these separate events in their history and tries to work out how I can turn these stories into a proper Tolkien-styled mythology, all rise and fall and politics and people."

Eternals #1 debuts January 6, followed by Eternals #2 on February 10.