Guardian #4 takes us to the midpoint of the Seven Soldiers storyline with a brilliant episode that offers equal parts of revelations of the past and tantalizing hints of the future. The comic sports some of the best art I've seen yet from Cameron Stewart, and it's one of Grant Morrison's finest single installments of this series. But others have already praised the masters or sifted through the entrails to divine plot details (Jog and the people over at Barbelith do their usual excellent jobs) so there's no need to repeat that. Here instead are the thoughts that linger, the discoveries made, the reasons I so love this issue.
The comic opens with a magnificently loopy Golden Age adventure sequence, dialogued as only Morrison can ("And look what's up ahead! Wouldja believe a land of golden top hats!"). He hasn't mined that vein as richly since the glory days of Flex Mentallo ("Think as hard as you like, Earthman, you'll never be my intellectual equal! I, the Counting Tree!"). Bonus points to Stewart and colorist Moose Baumann for the scratched, faded art reminiscent of an old and forgotten film.
The revelation that Ed Stargard is stuck in a state of permanent infancy is a little more biting than these Kirby tributes usually turn out (although not moreso than Mark Millar's Dr. Krigstein in The Authority, a twisted dwarf creating concepts for his masters' misuse, to whom Ed bears a strong physical if not moral resemblance). As one commentator on Barbelith notes, it makes Ed "the spirit of superhero comics made flesh," a perfect hypostasis for superhero comics: aged and matured but still eternally youthful (or, depending on how you want to look at it, developmentally arrested). The hypostasis and the Kirby angle really work, though, because Morrison's essential affection for the character, and the artist and genre he embodies, outshine the insulting implications. Morrison recognizes the genre's flaws but he loves it anyway, warts and all. That doesn't mean he won't subject it to some dramatic changes.
(Pedantic obsession alert: Speaking of literalized metaphors and the symbolic order, Cameron Stewart confirms that in his vision of his ideal state, Baby Brain is reading a book labeled "LACAN.")
((Incidentally, did the extranarrative panels divulging the fates of the Newsboy Army remind anybody else of the extranarrative "interview" panels in Eightball #23, especially the ones where Andy's victims speak? I don't know if Morrison or Stewart planned any conscious homage--we do know Morrison liked "The Death-Ray"--but the connection appeals to me because it would mean that, as with We3, Morrison and Stewart are willing to pinch any trick from any comic to spice up their superheroic storytelling. This is Morrison's preferred path for changing the superhero genre, the heteroglossia of technical homage and not the imposition of cruel or tawdry realism. Speaking of which...))
Morrison also works an interesting twist into the Kirby kid-gang homage of the Newsboy Army. Obviously they're based on the Newsboy Legion template, with Baby Brain as Big Words, Kid Scarface as Scrapper, and Captain 7 and Ali-ka-Zoom can fight it out over who gets to be Flippa Dippa (I'm thinking the loser). They're also every other Kirby kid gang, even the worst of them, the "Newsboys of Nowhere Street" coming straight from the Dingbats of Danger Street. Contary to my earlier comments about the Stan Lee-ness of the Jake Jordan headliner and his adventure in the subways, the Newsboy Army is Simon/Kirby all the way.
But Morrison takes them beyond mere homage when he shows us their origin in the shadow of the United Nations. The multicultural assembly of kids vaguely recalls last issue's Century Hollow, a tourist attraction in which one hundred animatrons form a demographically accurate representation of the world's population. The Newsboy Army is that project of miniaturization rendered even smaller, a "United Nation of Kids."
Both groups break down into murder; both times the violence is sparked by sex, or anxieties over sex (Jorge Control tells the police his wife has sex with the animatrons); both conflicts are played out as struggles of sober adult responsibility vs. childlike pleasure. (Jorge says "The world is not a playground, my dear, it's a battlefield. Century Hollow was to be my 3-dimensional map of political and social reality, not your tawdry theme park!") That's also a conflict between realistic art and fantasy, a point Jog makes well in his review. In both issues would-be realists try to punish those who create or dwell in worlds of fantasy or pleasure. (And yet, and yet... Jorge's revenge takes the form of a world in miniature of terrordroids and the Newsboy Army's destroyer is named the Terrible Time Tailor. Is Morrison covertly tilting the scales towards fantasy after all--with the understanding that "fantastic" doesn't have to mean "nice"?)
These binaries of child and adult, pleasure and control, fantasy and realism resonate throughout Seven Soldiers. But more than just demonstrating some higher meaning, the correlation between the Newsboy Army and Century Hollow appeals to me because it illustrates how Morrison imparts meaning--by distributing it throughout each individual part of the narrative.
Early reactions to Seven Soldiers were characterized by disappointment that the crossover wasn't living up to Morrison's much-hyped claim that each miniseries, nay, each issue would be a standalone story. That claim was pretty much shot to pieces by the first installment of Shining Knight. Plotwise, most of the issues aren't self-contained and it's starting to look like most of the miniseries won't be, either--not that this necessarily lessens the quality. But the issues might possess an even more important kind of self-sufficiency if even a throwaway story like "Siege at Century Hollow" can dramatize some of the larger questions that dominate the narrative. It's a classic Morrison technique of holographic distribution in which each individual part reflects the themes of the whole. He's done this many times before, transparently or subtly (I really should write sometime about how every issue of Animal Man ties into the plot or themes explicated in the final, transcendent arc), but he's never done it quite like this before, breaking the hologram across so many different narrative arcs.
More links, more contradictions: "Sex Secrets of the Newsboy Army" is another story of summer's end (the name, of course, of the Sheeda homeland), of kids who force one last childhood adventure when they should all be moving on to college and sex and adulthood (or at least late adolescence). When the group threatens to split ("two teams"?) the case for youth is made by Baby Brain, naturally, and Kid Scarface (who will find eternal life of a different sort, and horrible stasis, in the cauldron of Unwhen). But to judge by their costumed identities, these kids already wanted to be adults, or at least a child's vision of adults. They're all junior versions of glamorous adult careers: quarterback! movie star! magician! gangster! Not a remotely realistic vision of adulthood of course, but their own guises betray Baby Brain's desire/biological imperative to remain young. The conflict is interesting because it exists within the heroes, not just between them and their elderly enemy; if it didn't, the horrible crime that sunders the Newsboy Army could never have happened in the first place.
And after their story ends (too quickly--my only complaint) we have the beautifully ominous final pages. I love the moment when the lights go out as the rain beats down and the Sheeda assault begins; it's the first time the crossover has felt truly momentous and truly scary since Gwydion destroyed Zatanna's group or maybe since J. H. Williams helped Morrison finish off the first, flawed group of Seven Soldiers. (And, to follow my personal Swamp Thing obsession, I look at that panel of Jake against the window and I think: "It's raining in New York tonight." But that, I concede, is only my reaction and not anything the story appears to be signalling. At most a mood it tries to recapture--but it nails it.)
Really, a perfect issue and one of the finest chapters of Seven Soldiers thus far; certainly the one that's got me most eager to see what happens next.
Postscript. TypePad informs me that this is my 100th post. Which goes to show just how much time I've put into a blog I started back in March of 2004.
Actually, that's deceptive. I've put a hell of a lot of time into it, mostly because I keep crafting long exegeses like this post instead of those short, sharp bursts I somehow never acquired the knack for. I love writing for this blog: it's led to a great sense of community with many people I've never met and it's even generated a few pieces that have led to more professionally beneficial works. Since I clearly can't let go of the ruminations on figuration and symbolism in comics I think I may need to work it up into a proper book: Morrison alone rates at least a chapter.
But there's the rub: the time I spend blogging is time I can't spend writing academic articles or books or fiction or novels or anything else. As I've put my writing priorities on those, where they belong, I've let I Am NOT the Beastmaster dwindle into near-silence. In the interest of freeing up still more time, I need to do a lot less blogging.
This isn't the end of this blog. In order to consolidate my time, though, I've decided to step down from The Howling Curmudgeons. I wish them well and I appreciate having had the forum. But the separation may be for the best; exporting all my posts on crap comics over there always was, in part, a doomed attempt at making this site something other than "just" a comics blog, a craven bid at exactly the kind of respectability I think comics don't need. Besides, some of my favorite posts here contain insane rants about Thanos and "Disco Madness with Mysterio." Perhaps this will be a homecoming of sorts.
So face front, True Believers! I am, and ever remain,
NOT the Beastmaster.