Reviews of the two latest chapters of Seven Soldiers.
Zatanna #4. Well worth the wait. Weak third issues and long delays are all forgiven with the arrival of this final chapter, in which Grant Morrison and Ryan Sook restage a classic forties comic battle and Morrison achieves a deeply satisfying emotional resolution for Zatanna, all while engaging in the kind of fourth wall breaking that he practically owns. When one of the Seven Unknown Men (these demiurges now drawn to resemble their bald, sunglassed Weegie creator) asks "Wow. You ever seen one of them do that before?" I wanted, desperately wanted another one to say "Yeah, once, actually."
He's entitled to his fun, though. He places many other amusements in this comic, starting with the tour of Zatanna's costume closet. In a series that has, as my esteemed colleague Jog notes, focused on transformation and reinvention, Zatanna has perpetually been in flux. She hasn't worn the same costume twice, and the past couple of issues she hasn't even worn the costumes featured on the covers. Sook continues to design ridiculously alluring outfits for her; if anything this is even more overstimulating than the overt fetishization in Bulleteer because the script never calls attention to it. No attempts are made at ironic commentary or self-aware critique--the comic just presents a series of unapologetically sexualized looks for its heroine, each one carrying us farther and farther away from the top hat-and-tails original.
This issue Morrison incorporates that fluid appearance into the story by showing us a closetful of outfits. It's surprising that Zatanna, who would seem to have the most well-established and therefore stable identity in comparison to all these new or minor characters, should be the one most in transition, at least in her outward appearance, but the costume closet makes that fluidity a major part of her stage/superhero persona. Does it reflect a deeper uncertainty? In issue two Zatanna tells us that magic is all about performance, misdirection, posture, surface, but in this issue she says "Magical battles happen where the inside meets the outside."
Zatara provides his daughter with some inward certainty--and a closure that's been denied her since 1986--when she finally meets him in a brief but emotional climax. His revelation may play as the kind of sentimentalism that only Morrison and a few other writers (eminence grise Alan Moore among them) are truly unafraid of, but the simple fact of this postmortem father-daughter reunion overwhelms any stylistic objections.
Not that I'd make any, since Zatara's explanation of the disposition of his books also provides a neat explanation and encapsulation of the books of this very series. Issue one is obviously fire and spirit (Gwydion's flaming appearance, the incineration of Zatanna's friends, and the subsequent sapping of her will). Issue two is air and mind (Gwydion's disembodied linguistic form--often seen as vapor--and Zatanna's sharp intellectual solution to his capture). Issue four is water and heart (the pervasive rain, the waters of Slaughter Swamp, and Zatanna's emotional resolution). That leaves issue three as earth and the body: it's the least obvious connection at first, but that issue centers around Ali Ka-zoom and Kid Scarface letting go of this world (and the Tempter, who tempts people into eating themselves to death) and it does feature the cauldron of eternal life. Maybe not the best fit, in that it's concerned more with abandoning the body and those concerns aren't centered around Zatanna--who already seems, shall we say, quite comfortable in her body--but it's close enough for metaphorical work.
Amusingly enough, that means Zatanna has revisited the same themes that drove an early arc of Promethea; in issues 5 through 8 she visited more abstract, more overtly metaphorized realms of compassion, intellect, and materiality before also reaching a fire/wand/spirit climax. So the slightly snide critique of Morrison's first issue has been sustained throughout the series, but demonstrated through action and plot rather than dialogue (which was always Promethea's biggest shortcoming). He puts his protagonist through the same journey, works in a few metafictional bits that are just as distinctively Morrison as Moore's lectures were Moore, but still manages to tell some ripping yarns along the way. (Three, in my opinion; the third issue seemed like a chapter of Shining Knight or Guardian in which Zatanna was just an observer. Still, a pretty good batting average.)
This issue should also provide plenty of grist for Seven Soldiers fans to pore over past issues and reformulate theories about the complete work. For example, we learn that Gwydion the Merlin is a living language (thus further insuring a big, meaty chapter on Morrison, language, and signification in comics) and one of the seven ancient treasures. I've been assuming that each title will feature one of these treasures: so far we've got the sword Caliburn, the cauldron of eternal life (I assume), and now Gwydion. Did anything seen in Guardian qualify? I don't recall anything vaguely Celtic or Arthurian in that series (save perhaps his own helmet or shield); oh well, it's back to the comics this weekend. You see how I suffer for my blogging?
We also get the revelation that the Terrible Time Tailor (aka old Spectre villain Zor) was once one of the Seven Unknown Men; but if there are seven now, does that mean there were once eight? Or were they reduced to six, and did they have to recruit/create a new member? Once again, no group can reach the stable, mythical number of seven except, perhaps, our titular heroes.
But it's the emotional journey of Zatanna that satisfies most in this series. As much as the final page seems to open back out into the larger storyline, it also provides a knowing, ironic, entirely appropriate capstone to her character arc. Zatanna, who got into trouble as a "spellaholic" by summoning her ideal man, asks for trouble again: "I deen a wen erutnevda..." Right on cue, Misty arrives to tell her that the Sheeda are invading the earth and to escort her into the final issue. Be careful what you wish for...
Frankenstein #1. We'll keep this one quick.
Loved the ludicrous, over-the-top opening action sequence, especially Melmoth's dispatch. (By the way, tell me that scene doesn't remind you of Swamp Thing confronting Arcane and his Un-men. Still more evidence for the Moore theory.)
Liked Doug Mahnke's scratchy skin-diseased art, moreso for the monsters than for the opening scenes of pristine teenagers.
Liked the refusal to make the geek figure a quietly heroic reader surrogate or an object of our sympathies, even though the geek culture/fantasy element (Excalibur Fantasy Butterfly World?) was strangely underplayed.
Thought the issue's climax and resolution unfolded far too quickly. How did Frankenstein end up under the school--was he buried there, along with the Sheeda larvae, in the train crash? What happened to wake him up? The issue gives us enough information to make inferences--that's not the problem--but these answers have potential as scenes in themselves. I'm not sure it was worth skipping the potential drama of a more gradual awakening so we could get three pages of abbreviated, listless battle scene in this issue. Then again, Morrison being Morrison, maybe he didn't have room to devote a second issue to this suicidal Northwestern town; the next one packs Frankenstein off to Mars and then he's on to some toxic spill for issue three and for all I know issue four features a devastating showdown with an army of wind-up dolls in the Sunken Bordello of Lost Lemuria. Morrison is one of those rare writers who makes me pine for a little more decompression; his material's good enough to warrant it.
Liked the actual awakening itself, though, in which a noble monster with a slow, ellipsized speech pattern arrives to save a frightened girl from a lascivious madman and his legion of maggots. Frank looks to be a little more vengeful than Swampy, but otherwise this series has firmly staked itself out in DC 70s horror comic territory. So far this looks to be the Seven Soldiers miniseries determined not to make us think too hard, just entertain us with the old ultraviolence. And that's just fine, even if the violence itself could use more build-up.
And on that thought--happy Thanksgiving!