Bulleteer #3, by Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette.
That's how long it takes Grant Morrison to turn one of the loopier tropes of Silver Age DC Comics--their propensity for undersea kingdoms and gorgeous
mermaids people of marine origin--into a full-fledged if still fundamentally loopy culture. Or, more properly, a subculture: the first page of Bulleteer #3 introduces us to Stellamaris, the "undersea diva" who talks like an activist but acts like every other wannabe, has-been, and never-was at the Zenith City superhero convention.
Morrison has typically avoided the "What would superheroes would really be like?" question that has dogged so many comics post-Watchmen. He takes superhero comics on their own terms, so that set-pieces like this issue's convention, which simply transplants the culture of comics fandom right onto the (lesser) objects of our adoration, can critique the genre (and the culture that has accumulated around it) without rejecting its underlying premises. What would superheroes really be like? They wouldn't exist and so we couldn't have any of these stories--the ultimate if rarely acknowledged end of most such attempts at superhero realism. Morrison asks, instead, "What would it be like to live in a world of superheroes?" and it furnishes stories like this one, at once hilarious and moving.
After a slight digression into the Seven Soldiers megaplot last issue, Bulleteer has returned to its critique of the warped gender politics and not-even-sublimated sexuality of comic book superheroes and comic book culture, and Yanick Paquette is once again let loose to turn out the cheesecake. This can only be described as playing to his and the series' strengths. And if the issue's main plot, such as it is, of murder, mystery, and assassination still gets short shrift it's because Paquette and Morrison are having so much fun with the scenery. (That plot isn't completely neglected, though, with a good appearance by "I, Spyder" and even a cute resolution to the mystery of who's poisoning Stellamaris.)
This issue is a treasure chest for comics fans, with references to bottom-of-the-barrel DC characters like Dumb Bunny of the Inferior Five (every bit as awful as she seems here--Morrison invented nothing) or the original Bulletgirl (who levels her own, much less sarcastic critique of the Bulleteer's cheesecake appearance). Morrison's references are perfectly chosen: Who better than perennial B-lister Booster Gold to present awards? He's as much a wannabe as the losers at Mind-Grabber Kid's table, albeit one who briefly made it big. And where better to hold the convention than Zenith City, which (Google informs me) only appeared in a couple of stories featuring the ultimate hero wannabe, the meta-hero wannabe, Robby Reed of "Dial H for Hero"? (Either that or it's a name-check to my old friend Radioactive Man.)
The issue is also, like most of the recent chapters, chock full of connections to other Seven Soldiers series. A reference to Kid Scarface locates Bulleteer #3 the day after Zatanna and Shining Knight #3, much as Shilo Norman wanders through the third issues of Klarion and Guardian in Mr. Miracle #3. If the first issues of each series began at variable and isolated moments--some of them, like Alix's, must have started weeks or even months before Seven Soldiers #0--then the third ones are roughly contemporaneous, lining up every series to end just in time for the grand finale. (Some odd spatial alignments are also coming into focus: Morrison seems to have divided his soldiers up into East Coast and West Coast groups, separated by gender, while Frankenstein gallivants around the solar system.) The timelines are condensing and converging, creating a sense of narrative acceleration.
The same is true for the interseries connections, the element that has recently generated the most narrative charge. The early chapters had so little to do with one another that some readers complained Seven Soldiers amounted to little more than a shared setting; now every chapter either adds a new piece to the puzzle or shows characters assembling the ones we've already got. In this issue Li'l Hollywood learns that her old buddy Kid Scarface is dead (and possibly shows some advance knowledge of the troubles to come? "Your time is coming, Lucian, love, sooner than you might think"?? Watch out, Mind-Grabber Kid!). Even better, as a table of reject heroes toasts the loss of their own Jackie Pemberton one character (a Blue Boy--any connection to Solomano's nephew?) exclaims, "What was she thinking? Nobody goes into battle with six in their team." Another voice--his fellow Blue Boy, if Paquette and letterer Jared Fletcher have mapped the table seating and the word balloons with any particular design--adds "Everybody knows it's unlucky. Five is good. Seven is better." It seems the loser heroes of the DC universe have always known what we Seven Soldiers readers took a couple of months to figure out.
I love this interpretive pile-up. I don't see it as redundancy or poor planning; quite the opposite. As the story nears its finale the characters combine more pieces to complete the narrative, and vice versa, so that every moment of in-story connection feels like one step closer to the inevitable, apocalyptic end. The characters' experience of the plot and their reading of the plot--and by extension our reading of the plot--are one and the same. To read Seven Soldiers is to watch a story put itself together chapter by chapter, like watching a scattered pile of cards fly back into a neatly assembled deck.
That assembly would mean nothing, of course, if Seven Soldiers existed only to tell a conventional story of invasion and heroism and sacrifice. Such tales might be well-told, and a great deal of fun, but why bother with the baroque narrative structure if it only leads up to another version of the coming of Galactus or the Skrulls? Fortunately, Morrison has also used that structure to distribute a number of more evocative and meaningful themes across the storyline, themes Bulleteer has accomodated better than many of the miniseries. The sexual ones simmer throughout this issue, of course, but Morrison also works the convention and its third-rate superheroes for some genuine pathos--nowhere moreso than Mind-Grabber Kid's two-page monologue, which viciously exposes the desperation that drives all the wannabes and never-weres, the fear that they've wasted their best years on idol-worship and nostalgia. It enmeshes this chapter in the project's recurrent fear of aging, with an amazing admission (or joke) carried by the art. Tell me I'm the only one who sees a connection between this:
For all the genres Morrison said he was going to tackle in Seven Soldiers, I never would have thought confessional autobiography would be among them.