Seven Soldiers is Grant Morrison’s latest project, a massive thirty-part storyline comprised of seven linked miniseries and two bookends. Now just over one-quarter completed, with four of the miniseries at their halfway points, the project has built up enough of a critical mass that some of its intersections and larger preoccupations are starting to become apparent.
But who am I kidding? It’s been running for four months now; anybody who’s still interested in reading this post probably doesn’t need the introduction. This is both the blessing and the curse of jumping in late in the game, so I’m going to dispense with the summaries and jump straight into my comments. But just in case you haven’t read them already, spoilers follow for all of the series.
Seven Soldiers Special #0: This bookend special sports typically accomplished art by J. H. Williams III, who adapts himself perfectly to Morrison’s metatextual style by drawing in a pastiche that ranges from Frank Miller gritty urban vigilante to John Severin western. I also wonder if the jagged cascades of the opening pages aren’t a visual quotation of vintage Bissette/Totleben Swamp Thing; the script references a later Swamp Thing issue, a deliciously nasty little Solomon Grundy story from Mark Millar’s run on the title.
Actually, Swamp Thing seems to pop up all over this project, and not just as the one notable source for continuity in a crossover that otherwise is perfectly happy to play fast and loose with history. It’s also relevant as a guide for revamping characters. "The Anatomy Lesson" is comics’ most successful reinvention, one that indirectly spawned an entire publishing line and a new direction in comics scripting: in other words, it unintentionally accomplished what Morrison is perhaps trying to do with Seven Soldiers. And so echoes of those old Moore Swamp Things will resurface throughout the narrative, possibly as reminders of how to remake company-owned superheroes without forsaking any of their outré elements.
The more violent, earthbound revamps of the eighties are exhausted and rejected by the Whip in her opening scene - "I’ve taken this whole morally ambiguous urban vigilante thing about as far as I can. And now, God help me, I want to visit other planets and dimensions and fight rogue gods" - and both she and Morrison are looking for other options. Morrison finds them in the Seven Unknown Men, who appear to be agents of retcon, in-story explanations for the changes he is about to unleash. One of them tells the Spider, "You shouldn’t be seeing any of this, but sometimes, in an emergency like this one, we have to let you locals into one or two of our secrets." And so the Spider is ushered behind the scenery to witness his own renovation, just like the beginning of another Moore series, Supreme.
As for the Whip, well, she gets her wish, too, to her regret. The end to this first special is shocking not because so many of the protagonists die - we’ve all seen plenty of that before - but because of the Whip’s expression of sheer madness and terror at the end. Superheroes die all the time, but they aren’t supposed to lose their shit! I’m hoping (possibly against all odds) that at least some of these characters survive their apparent end; their hooks, especially the Whip’s, are too good to lose. In any case, the issue culminates with a bunch of superheroes (or superhero imitators) utterly failing in their mission – Morrison makes it clear that a different kind of hero will be needed.
Shining Knight: Unlike most of the other Seven Soldiers series this one doesn’t reach a stopping point with the second issue, taking a comparatively lackadaisical four issues to tell a complete story. It’s been great so far, with lush art by Simone Bianchi, but the half-finished plot means there’s less to discuss. I can say that Morrison’s scripting is excellent, whether he’s writing Sir Justin’s dialogue in almost-understandable mock Celtic (another Moore hallmark, reminiscent of the Rannian language he invented for Swamp Thing) or transliterating it into English for us. Morrison’s Celtic/English fusions are strangely pregnant with sinister meaning; my favorite so far is the name for Gloriana Tenebrae’s home, "Unwhen," which connotes both Annwn, the Celtic land of the dead, and Justin’s time-traveling ordeals. All in all I’m more interested in Morrison’s dark-fantasy take on the Camelot mythology than the fish-out-of-water time travel story, but we’ll see where this leads.
Guardian: The most accessible series for fans of standard superhero comics, although it works an odd twist on its inspiration. Morrison has updated the superficial trappings of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion for an age of private security forces, tabloid journalism, and online news, but at its heart this is fundamentally a Kirby comic.
Not the Simon/Kirby feel of the original Guardian, though, nor the 70s Kirby of Cadmus and Jimmy Olsen, but the 1960s Marvel Lee/Kirby at their prime. It’s offered a rollicking story about angry golems and subway pirates, albeit with a tragic undercurrent that’s never far from the surface. More tragic than the typical redemptive deaths of Stan Lee - this is a world where innocent people sometimes die for no reason. But the second issue closes with a lovely little moral-cum-exegesis that captures the feel and summarizes the ethos of the old Marvel at its most grandiose: "We’re telling stories about human dignity, Jake. Stories of how human beings make culture and meaning for ourselves, even down there in the garbage." Or in the Bullpen?
Zatanna: A lot has been written about this series’ apparent response to Moore’s Promethea, and the similarities aren’t exactly subtle. Both comics feature female protagonists who venture into dimensions of "crystallized thought" and imagination given form; both of those protagonists lecture the readers on magic.
But most of the criticisms of this series stem from one line near the end of the first issue, where a would-be sorceror’s apprentice tells Zatanna, "I love the way you write about magic. It’s so, like, down-to-earth and non-preachy." Presumably this is meant to contrast Morrison’s writing on magic with Moore’s, a contrast that didn’t endear Morrison to anyone despite Promethea’s lackluster ending.
What interests me is that while Zatanna chastises Promethea it’s also restaging, you guessed it, Swamp Thing - dragging Moore back to his roots, as it were. Morrison revisits the climactic chapter of "American Gothic", quoting a line of dialogue, duplicating its setting in Baron Winter’s home, and repeating its fatalities. If there is a criticism of Moore here it’s done by paying homage to his older material while snubbing the new. I’ve always thought Morrison had the most interesting anxiety of influence vis-a-vis Moore of anyone in comics (certainly moreso than that faithful but pale imitator, Neil Gaiman); Zatanna offers plenty more fodder for it.
The second issue has been much better received, partially because it contains no self-aggrandizing comparisons, though it quietly delivers on the promise of Misty’s comments in the first one. Zatanna gives Misty a lecture/demonstration of magical technique and legerdemain, demonstration being exactly what was missing from so many of those Promethea issues. Morrison’s lessons are simpler - though also more appropriate for the character, given her background in stage magic - but he encodes them in plot and action, drastically curtailing the didacticism. It’s less theologically ambitious but more narratively satisfying (and depending on who you ask, both of those may be good things).
All magical business aside, Zatanna is the Seven Soldiers series most tied to its character’s pre-Morrison history. The revisions are limited to Zatanna’s costume, which gets a minor, faintly gothy redesign through the simple addition of garters and fingerless fishnet gloves. The garters are almost too much, utterly exploding the plausible deniability that lets readers pretend superheroines aren’t sex objects. (The Whip’s fetish outfit in Seven Soldiers #0 does much the same.) Morrison is so smitten with this new look that he has one of the other characters tell Zatanna it’s sensational; normally I hate that sort of thing, but damn it, he’s right. The costume displays Morrison’s admirable knack for finding a concept’s core appeal and unabashedly amplifying it.
Klarion the Witch Boy: The most untapped potential, with a fascinating world it barely explores. I was fully prepared, until I reread these issues, to say that Morrison’s much-vaunted “supercompressed” pacing is sometimes a little too compressed – a complaint I never thought I’d make in this age of attenuated six-part arcs gasping out their two-issue plot for the trade paperback. One of the weaknesses of Klarion, and to a lesser extent of Seven Soldiers in general, is that Morrison throws out concepts so quickly he doesn’t have time to develop them all; some good ones die on the vine.
For example, I was surprised that we never actually see the High Market of Vanity Fair in Klarion, especially after all the build-up; it would make the perfect way station between Klarion’s underground civilization/penal colony and the fabled homeland of Blue Rafters, which could sensibly be reserved for the final issue. Instead we skip it entirely. (This presumes Morrison isn’t saving the market for some later Seven Soldiers issue.) Klarion has the richest and strangest terrain of any of the series thus far, and I wish he had given us more time to explore it.
But some of the details I thought were missing turn out to be there after all, lurking in the compression and waiting for later issues to explain them. After the first issue, I had thought the clash between the Witch-men’s Parliament and the Submissionaries was more explained than shown, and ended before it had been given a chance to develop.
Now I’m not so sure. We know the Witch-men are initiated with a trip beyond the Wicket Gate to see the god Croatoan and "find out the sad, miraculous truth behind all the old stories." Their new Parliament threatens the Submissionaries, who want to keep the town safe and pure by sealing it off from the upper world, who interpret orders from Croatoan by staining the iron pages of his book with their own blood, who rule through the fear of outside enemies and the fear of their god. Obviously a commentary on the fundamentalists who attacked America and the fundamentalists who run it (though it’s leaps and bounds more effective than the Iraq commentary in something like Phil Jiminez’s The Return of Donna Troy, proof that sometimes agreeing with the politics just isn’t enough).
But this conflict deepens once we read the second issue and discover the big secret, the thing that has the Witch-men inventing democracies and steam engines and the Submissionaries closing the gates: Croatoan is gone, and the Witch-men know it. Suddenly Klarion’s society seems much more carefully developed, if only glimpsed briefly, and Klarion itself seems less rushed than dense with meaning.
Two other quick notes on Klarion, both trivial but both signs that I’ve invested more time thinking about this series than any other. First, Jog was right - that really needed to be a Twinkie wrapper. It’s even called a "cake of light," for God’s sake! If executed, this simple revision would allow Morrison to claim Seven Soldiers intersects with the entire Hostess advertisement oeuvre to form a multi-universal hypersigil, so you know he's up for it.
But I have to take exception with Ebeneezer Badde: great foil for Klarion, horrible name, and what I can only assume is a reference to possibly the most precious single of all time, the Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode." I'll let Simon Reynolds explain:
...the song anthropomorphized Ecstasy as a Dickensian scoundrel who always livens up the party. Despite a chorus of "‘eezer Goode, ‘eezer Goode" that sounded suspiciously like advocacy ("Es are good," get it?), the Shamen disingenuously insisted that the song wasn’t about drugs at all.
And you thought "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was pretentious twee shit, didn’t you? Anyway, if Morrison is now naming characters "‘eezer Badde" then he’s gone even more straight-edge than I’d imagined.
Interconnections: I’ve resisted blogging about Seven Soldiers until now because if Morrison’s pronouncements were accurate (and that is always a big if) much of its innovation was supposed to lie in the interconnections between the various series. The relatively flat reception of the first four issues wasn’t surprising, given that at that stage the interconnections amounted to little more than a shared setting. (It also wasn't that surprising given the staggered bimonthly release of each of the series, which can’t have been good for sales.) But now that they’ve reached their halfway point it’s become clear that not only are the individual series becoming more complex, the connections are increasing exponentially.
Some of those connections are fairly shallow, just elements of a shared continuity: Klarion moving through the underground world shortly after the events of Guardian #2, Cassandra Craft revealing who the old man at the bus stop in Shining Knight was. Others are hidden jokes: I guess now we know why Dyna-Mite Dan didn’t do anything in the bookend if Cassandra has been selling forged TNT rings. Others are pure plot speculation: was that Zatara returning for his books? Has he become one of the Seven Unknown Men? Are all the Seven Unknown Men old, dead, or transcended superheroes/magicians like Ali ka-Zoom?
But some of the intersections are starting to approach shared themes, ones that Morrison has enough subtlety to leave unspoken anywhere but the intersections. There are the fish out of water, strangers to the modern world (Shining Knight, Klarion); there are the abandoned children, searching for missing fathers or trying to complete their legacy (Klarion, Zatanna); there are the fallen heroes, looking for a second chance (Zatanna, Guardian, Shining Knight). Weirdest of all, in a project called Seven Soldiers, there are the sixes: groups of six heroes, abandoned by their sevenths, who meet terrible fates, and the strange dice that control fate, all that remains of the absent gods and Philosopher’s Stones the characters seek. The project has been built so much around absence, I wonder what Morrison is going to do when he finally starts that seventh miniseries.
Dispersing themes across different stories may be an effective and enjoyable narrative tactic but, contra Morrison’s own ceaseless hype, it’s hardly innovative. It still remains to be seen if Seven Soldiers is going to amount to anything other than seven well-conceived character revisions, delivered through seven well-executed miniseries, and united to develop a few common ideas about power, authority, and heroism.
But isn’t that enough?