“Where did free will run off to during all of this?” s?”
—Kid, Kid Eternity
Back in the early ‘90s, when Nirvana was assaulting the airwaves with angry, stream-of-consciousness sing-alongs and the dreary pastel-damaged fashion of the ‘80s was being sullied in favor of heroin chic and the culture of the “alternative”, a similar movement in comics was beginning to gain momentum at DC Comics, home to primary-color icons like Superman and Batman, with an adult-oriented line of comics that included now-classics like The Sandman, Hellblazer, and Swamp Thing. Targeting a more sophisticated audience and adopting more of a high-brow approach to both story and art, these comics tended to be cerebral, literate, and often employed fine art techniques, making them the antithesis of the run-of-the-mill superhero books of the day. Naturally, many of the most intelligent and forward-thinking creators at the time (often imported from the UK) were responsible for these groundbreaking comics, including a young writer named Grant Morrison, a Scot who has, ironically, become a virtual superstar of the mainstream superhero circuit over the last ten years (writing JLA, New X-Men, and All-Star Superman, just to name a few).
In the wake of this ever-escalating mainstream success, Vertigo, DC’s mature readers imprint, has recently begun to mine Morrison’s late ‘80s and early ‘90s work, formerly lost to the limbo of back issue bins and eBay, for the lucrative trade paperback market. Kid Eternity, a three-issue mini-series that first appeared in 1991, is the latest to be collected and repackaged, and while it was not technically a Vertigo comic when it was originally released (Vertigo was launched in 1993), it shares the same hybrid horror/fantasy sensibilities. So the real question is: Does this book hold up, 15 years later, now that the particular brand of gothic funny book that was in fashion during the early Vertigo and pre-Vertigo boom has sort of gone the way of grunge rock and the flannel shirt?
The original version of the Kid Eternity character was a fairly oddball concept birthed during the golden age of comics in 1942. The title character, a nameless teenage boy who was killed at sea when a U-Boat sank his grandfather’s ship, is told at the pearly gates of Heaven that he mistakenly died seventy-five years before his time. As compensation, he is given a few special powers (the most interesting being his ability to call upon famous historical figures to manifest physically and obey his commands) that are activated when he says the word “Eternity”. The boy is then sent back to Earth on a vague mission to perform good deeds, accompanied by Mr. Keeper, the spiritual clerk who made the big mistake responsible for Kid’s situation. Pretty kooky stuff, for the most part, although not without a touch of surreal brilliance.
Morrison’s reinterpretation takes that initial concept and radically transforms it into what is ostensibly a horror comic. The book is written in a non-linear style, not a surprise to either Morrison fans or regular Vertigo readers, where time jumps back and forth and scenes are cut and pasted wildly as the reader is introduced to our protagonist, Jerry Sullivan, a stand-up comedian who is critically injured in a violent car crash while trying to escape from a cadre of murderous demons. We find out that these demons are on the prowl for the title character, called only Kid here, who has just escaped from Hell through Jerry’s unwitting help and wants Jerry’s spirit to accompany him on a rescue mission back to Hell to save Kid’s mentor, Mr. Keeper, all while Jerry’s mangled body lies near-dead in a hospital bed. Here, of course, is where the real fun begins, as Morrison cleverly begins to unveil the pitch black and shockingly sinister web of truth behind Kid’s origin, much to Kid’s dismay. “This is the biggest pile of shit I’ve ever heard,” he says when his true origin is revealed to him by Mr. Keeper, who is not quite as heavenly as Kid had thought.
Duncan Fegredo’s dense, painted artwork compliments the freeform flow of the story and somehow manages to be simultaneously beautiful and horrific, although there are times when it can be almost too disorienting. Still, Fegredo conveys some truly creepy and affecting moments while the pair are in Hell, and his version of Kid is very sleek, depicting him as a cool blue-white mod angel with John Lennon sunglasses and a hairstyle that bears more than a slight resemblance to Robert Smith of the Cure (and, in effect, the title character of The Sandman).
It’s really hard to shake the comparisons to books like The Sandman and Hellblazer, unfortunately, since those comics more or less defined the general style and tone of DC’s mature line at the time and, therefore, causes this book to come off as slightly dated. There are also times when the story gets a bit weighed down with extended bursts of heady and self-consciously poetic prose, although this kind of verbal psychedelia was fairly common with Morrison’s contemporaries as well during this era and comes as no surprise here.
So we return to our original question: Does it hold up? Despite the odds to the contrary, Kid Eternity holds up all right, although stylistically it pretty much falls a bit too much in line with other early Vertigo and pre-Vertigo books and doesn’t quite match the brilliance and originality that Morrison proved he was capable of both before and after this series. Of course, these were early days, and, in the end, Kid Eternity is still a decent read and a pretty enjoyable metaphysical romp, and presents a fine example of how, in the right hands, an initially wholesome concept can be made over into something startlingly dark and nasty.