Seven Soldiers #1, by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III
Could Seven Soldiers #1 possibly live up to expectations? Not just the expectations created by the long wait for the grand finale, but the burdens its own author has placed upon it--the task of wrapping up a thirty-part story with seven different protagonists and supporting casts?
Paul O'Brien doesn't seem to think so. His comments on the final issue's pacing and narrative unity are sadly unarguable, but I don't think he gives the book or the project as a whole enough credit when he switches to its content:
But it's all form and very little substance. Or rather, the substance is all in the individual characters, conceived as pitches for solo titles. Sure, it's an incredible piece of planning, but what was it actually about? What are the themes of this story? What was the point? And how was this issue supposed to make it? You can't justify this story as a work of genius simply on the formal elements alone, but that doesn't seem to be stopping people from trying.
Paul is overlooking a number of themes that have cropped up throughout the project. Obviously there's the industry critique of comics that conflate cynicism with artistic maturity, and Morrison's call for a renewed belief in heroism--which becomes so overt by the final issue that it hardly deserves the name of "theme" anymore. "Lecture" might be more like it. (Whatever happened to "It's so like, down-to-earth and non-preachy"?)
Even that manifesto relates to other themes whose scope mercifully extends beyond the confines of the comics industry. The anxiety about genre maturity reflects a general preoccupation with physical and emotional maturity. Most of the project's antagonists and failures, from Gloriana Tenebrae to Don Vicenzo all the way down to Lance Harrower, are deathly afraid of growing old or dying. A few of the friendly supporting cast can't or won't grow up, like Ed (Baby Brain) Stargard or the gestalt child Leviathan. But other villains like Solomano or Zor try to make the heroes more "mature" by casting them in grim and gritty character revamps, turning them into racists or child murderers. Morrison confronts his heroes with two equally unpleasant options, the stasis of permanent childhood and the degradation of false, forced maturity. The Seven Soldiers have to find ways to grow without giving in to nihilism, despair, and the death of a thousand cuts that all too often passes for our experience of adulthood.
And what is the recurring anxiety over the influence of Alan Moore on the superhero genre if not another facet of the project's fascination with absent or evil fathers? Morrison's always liked to write avatars of youth who rebel against evil patriarchs and faceless authorities (Zenith and the Many-Angled Ones, Jack Frost and the Archons, Noh-Varr and Midas, Seaguy and Mickey Eye); Seven Soldiers provides plenty more examples of both. Klarion, the most classic of these Morrison rebel youth, is such a wild card he refuses even to pick a side in the grand struggle. Instead he dispatches multiple progenitors--the crossword puzzle is quite clear on this--and supplants Gloriana.
But Morrison adds a number of benevolent if absent fathers and father figures, no strangers to his earlier work, but usually less common than they are here. Zatara is only the most obvious; Larry Marcus, Metron, Arthur, and Aaron Norman all fill the same role. Even that eternal brat Klarion wants to follow in his missing father's footsteps. (Oh, the irony!) Aurakles is the prototype for all these vanished dads, his appearance recalling God, Urizen, and of course Alan Moore. If Moore is one of the writers getting stitched up inside the DC universe/Cyrus Gold (where he's doomed to die in a swamp and be reborn as a swamp-creature... oh, the irony!), he's also one of the benevolent progenitors being freed by good son Shilo Norman. That creative tension has been one of the mainstays of this project, as Morrison alternates between criticizing or parodying Moore's recent work (Promethea) and citing or imitating his older material (Swamp Thing, especially the end of "American Gothic"). Both constitute a kind of literary one-upsmanship, the fealty no less than the open critique. Morrison rebukes the recent Moore by going back to the classics--in some cases all the way back to the Len Wein Swamp Thing that started it all--and choosing them as his templates. Nor is the "wretched, mindless" Aurakles the most flattering portrait of one's literary ancestors.
Okay, so Seven Soldiers can't really escape the metacommentary, but the project applies it to some larger purpose. Both Morrison and his characters have to retrieve or preserve the legacies of the good fathers while resisting the dead hand of the evil ones. Morrison won't let them settle for mere nostalgia or repetition of the past, which has run its course and entered its twilight; they have to find a third path of change, which sometimes involves violently overturning the very legacies that have produced them. None of the Seven Soldiers illustrate this better than Ystina, who kills the corrupted Galahad and an undead Arthur himself in the halls of Castle Revolving so she can preserve their ideals--and, we're told, establish a new golden age in their place.
Substance has never been lacking in Seven Soldiers. The question is whether the final issue brings all these themes and character arcs to a successful resolution, or whether the stylistic experiments--and the extreme formal constraints of wrapping up seven plots in just forty pages--overwhelm them. The results, unfortunately, are a mixed bag.
p. 1: A DC logo pin? In case the previous appearances of the Seven Unknown Men were too subtle?
p. 2-7: Already commented on these pages. I have to say, I wasn't expecting those preview pages to be the first seven pages in the actual order--what's that Shining Knight page doing up here, away from the rest of the story?
p. 8-11: I also have to question why, in an issue that's so pressed for time it can barely squeeze in all seven of the Seven Soldiers, Morrison treats us to a nine-page flashback. I can see the need for the five-page Kirby tribute, which unifies the project's mythology, but did the Arthur stuff need four pages when it totals seven panels?
p. 12: For a scene that's calling for the end of brutal, cynical superhero revamps, this scene is pretty brutal itself. The Unknown Man has drowned Cyrus Gold and is preparing Zachary Zor to take his place, to be killed by an angry mob that thinks he's a child-killer. Poetic justice, given what Zor did to the Newsboy Army, but I'm not sure the Unknown Man is in much of a position to criticize Zor's "nasty game."
And that's the saving grace of this whole sequence... (please see p. 37)
p. 13: The Guardian photographs, especially one remarkably callous caption, remind me of the infamous Mars Attacks! cards.
Is Guardian riding Harry the police horse? And what are the chances that this valiant steed is a distant descendant of Pegazeus and the winged horses of Gorias?
p. 14: GUARDIAN CRYPTIC X-WORD! Maybe this is a coincidence, but if we look to p. 28 for answers to today's crossword we get the first page of the Mister Miracle scene--the cosmic substratum that underlies the entire project. And some of the crossword answers (full answers here) link up with the Mister Miracle/Dark Side confrontation.
The last answer, 8 DOWN. ONE, completes Dark Side's new slogan. 1 DOWN. LOA suggests the New Gods have been moving through the story in human bodies, much as we see the real Darkseid inhabiting Mr. Dark Side through Shilo's god-sight. Is the crossword telling us that the real action, the real war has been happening on this remote plane all along?
Other clues point to the various patriarchs or evil authorities of the project, especially those that Klarion overthrows. I'm not sure why the third Submissionary, 2 DOWN. ABEDNIGO, warranted inclusion, but they're the first group Klarion challenges. 4 ACROSS. BADDE tells us the atrociously-named Ebeneezer Badde was Klarion's real father. That explains his little chuckle when Klarion tells him he's the son of Mordecai and Charity of Limbo Town, and it makes me read the end of Klarion #2 in a new light--perhaps Badde really is trying to save his son from Melmoth's agents, and Klarion kills him without realizing who he is. Then he fights off Melmoth, who doesn't rate a space in the crossword, before supplanting 7 ACROSS. GLORIANA as the ruler of the Sheeda. These characters share a thematic connection to Darkseid, DC's ultimate bad dad. The real question is whether Klarion will become the tyrant he replaces, or look for a new path as he did after assuming the power of the Submissionaries...
6 DOWN. LANCE implies that the symbolism of the spear really does pass down to Alix through Lance Harrower. Rather strange since she's the descendant of Aurakles, but then she gets her powers and her Aurakles-like appearance from Lance as well.
And finally, the left-field revelation of the series, 1 ACROSS. LENA implies that Lars and Lena, Ed Stargard's assistants, are the twin children of Chop-Suzi of the Newsboy Army. It makes sense that the dutiful Ed would raise his dead friend's children. But here's the question...
Consensus after reading Guardian #4 was that Captain 7 molested/impregnated Suzi and either killed her or led her to die in childbirth (after Zor writes his grisly suit/life). The Captain is black and Suzi is Asian. Lars and Lena are as Nordic as anybody on this earth.
Who was Lars and Lena's father?
Did the Newsboy Army kill the wrong person?
(RAB identifies the next most likely suspect, although I'm not sure if that character was physically capable. He also has some great material on parenting and misdirection in the Seven Soldiers project.)
p. 16: The second greatest disappointment of this issue. The last issue of Bulleteer presented a wonderful dilemma: the person destined to save the world is so soured on superheroics that she doesn't want any part of her destiny. This set up a perfect resolution for Alix's arc (rekindling her compassion) and an opportunity to tell a classic Marvel-style story of redemptive heroism. The final issue truncates all of that, giving us an Alix who's already regained her compassion and who never takes an active role in saving the world.
p. 17: Zatanna sports her costume from Zatanna #1. This is the first time we've seen her wear the same costume twice. Does this indicate that she's stabilized her external identity after settling her internal doubts in the final issue of her miniseries? Or did Morrison just not specify in the script that she get another new look, and Williams went with an old model?
p. 18: Misty/Rhiannon's real name is Errrhiahchnnon, per Frankenstein #4. We might just as easily call her Arachne (note her spiderweb loom in Zatanna #3), which would make her the source of the eponymous 13th month of the sorcerors' calendar mentioned in Zatanna #1. Every ordering scheme in this project has been either incomplete or overcomplete--sixes and eights, but never sevens--so why not an extra month that's not mentioned on any calendars?
Unfortunately, Ali ka-Zoom's reappearance undercuts the finality of his exit in Zatanna #3. Maybe Morrison should have tapped someone else to deliver the expository dialogue--Ed Stargard, the Vigilante (where'd he disappear to?), somebody who would let him tie in another strand of the narrative. Ali didn't really need another appearance, although his detailed knowledge of the plot and his general appearance (top hat!) have always suggested that he might be one of the Seven Unknown Men. Perhaps the one who replaced Zor (unless that's Morrison himself)?
p. 22: Is that Jorge and Hannah Control? Does the talking head mean that Hannah was another robot? Belittled and rejected by one of his own androids... no wonder Jorge flipped out in Guardian #3. Note that they're standing in front of the United Nations building, which Morrison has juxtaposed with their Century Hollow project once before. This single panel creates a nice metonymy for the whole world falling apart.
p. 22-23: The similarities to the final arc of Promethea are overwhelming--the apocalypse comes to Manhattan and the President wants to nuke the place. Both stories also culminate in fourth-wall-breaking addresses to the reader. And, of course, Morrison has snagged the Promethea artist to illustrate it.
The human resistance hardens around the Manhattan Superhero Museum, which has already helped Shilo Norman shake off the Anti-Life Equation. The museum reminds people of humanity's best traits, traits Morrison finds embodied in the meaning-making forms of the superhero.
p. 25: "I have been a story in a thousand books." The Merlin has been DC continuity; perhaps he becomes it again on this page as Zatanna wakes up the universe. Zatanna's spell doesn't seem to contribute to the death of Gloriana, but it may affect the metaphysical levels of the plot: the rescue of Aurakles and the imprisonment of Zor, both of which Morrison means to signal a new direction in the writing of superheroes. (Somehow I doubt it will amount to that anywhere outside Morrison's own work, but All-Star Superman is good enough for me.)
p. 28: Here begins the issue's greatest disappointment. I loved the final issue of Mister Miracle, but Shilo's appearance here doesn't do anything that issue didn't already do better. Do you get the feeling this issue only had space for about five soldiers? (please see p. 39)
p. 29: "When the harrowing is done we will hunt the living gods themselves through the ruins of paradise." Like Adam Strange, Starfire, and Morrison's old friend Buddy Baker in 52?
The thought that this whole project has been building up to a 52 tie-in depresses the hell out of me.
p. 33: "You're free." Having fulfilled her destiny--in just about the most passive, accidental, narratively unfulfilling way possible, might I add--Alix is now free from destiny. It's a lovely little panel to end her arc (I like the way Dave Stewart uses grays and spot color to play up her similarity to Aurakles). I just wish this issue had given that arc more than eight panels to build to its climax.
p. 34-35: More painfully overt metacommentary, although I do like Morrison's description (and we are literally reading Morrison's description here, in-story as well as out) of the DC universe as "Threadbare and ragged... the work of too many hands to ever fit properly..." He clearly loves it, though, in all its patchwork glory. Zor is stitched into a heteroglossic universe that can never be standardized into a single genre, tone, or narrative.
Also interesting to note that Morrison is only doing to Zor and the cynics what he's already done to himself: he's sewn himself into the story as the Seven Unknown Men and Mind-Grabber Kid. Though I'd much rather be Lucian Crawley than Cyrus Gold.
Finally, the first-person viewpoint of these scenes means that we're sewn into the coat along with Zachary Zor, just as we're part of the spell Zatanna casts on p. 25. We helped tarnish the heroes through cynicism and we help refurbish the universe through self-awareness; we're implicated, too. (please see p. 37)
p. 36: I find I like Ystina more now that she has a Linda Lee-style secret identity. Her miniseries also reads better now that the whole project is finished and its overarching themes are more apparent; perhaps it simply suffered from being first in a project that depends on interconnection for its charge. Shining Knight still had that unforgiveable lapse in showing the destruction of Caliburn, though.
p. 37: The third road was first mentioned by one of the Seven Unknown Men back in SS #0: "There's a third road... Slaughter Swamp is one of those in-between places, where solid things turn soft and change." Real change is the third path that avoids the false binaries of cynical maturity and arrested development.
But Morrison may be breaking down other binaries here, including the relatively straightforward good and evil morality that has structured the Seven Soldiers macro-plot until now. The Sheeda are our own descendants, consuming us as we consume the planet; Misty says that defeating and becoming them is as bad or worse than being defeated by them. And lest we feel too cocky about sewing those bad "deconstructionist" writers up in the miser's coat of DC continuity, Morrison commemorates the event with a black flower--one more guilty secret floating up to the surface of Slaughter Swamp. If the awakening of the DC universe weren't founded upon a couple of murders, if the "good" Unknown Man weren't implicated in a little violence himself, this metacommentary might lapse into a saccharine call for nostalgia that would completely contradict Morrison's point about growth and change. Instead he accepts the evil along with the good, the grim with the playful: both have a place in Morrison's post-Seven Soldiers universe.
Not unlike the ending of "American Gothic"...
p. 38: Are we meant to read this lovely image of a cackling Klarion as a response to the previous page? Is Klarion following a third, independent road between righteousness and wickedness? His people back in Limbo Town are a fusion of both. This may be the best possible resolution for the human race, one that breaks outside the binaries and avoids simply replacing Gloriana with a copy.
The page also serves as a nice counterpoint to the image of the terrified Whip that closes Seven Soldiers #0.
J.H. Williams III's remarkably adept pastiche of the other Seven Soldiers artists is the saving grace of this issue; love that Frazer Irving Klarion being... er... waited on by those two Simone Bianchi Sheeda, with a Dave Stewart color scheme that unifies the looks of those two miniseries. Everything about this page reconciles opposites, doesn't it?
p. 39: One of the fans in Bulleteer #3 mentioned a rumor that Millions the Mystery Mutt is immortal and secretly running the U.S. banking system. Now we discover Millions is alive, even though a caption in Guardian #4 (the suit Zor sewed for him) said he was dead at 14. Bear in mind that Millions' pal Kid Scarface discovered the Cauldron of everlasting life in Slaughter Swamp. And now Millions the Mystery Mutt is immortal and running a nationwide organized crime syndicate. Possibly in addition to the U.S. banking system.
p. 39: "All is one in Dark Side." An odd note for Morrison to sound at the end of this project, especially in conjuntion with the crossword clue 8 DOWN, "And all is this, seven into seven." Seven Soldiers has previously made heroes out of characters like "Sky-High" Helligan who can assemble its disparate pieces into a single story, but the slogan and the clue imply that Dark Side lies at the end of the project's drive for narrative unification. Dark Side certainly thinks he's won on the penultimate page, when the narrative is as complete and unified as it ever will be.
The Dark Side scenes hint that the whole Sheeda plot has been a misdirection, just as RAB says (please see p. 14). Dark Side has pulled off a cosmological coup d'etat while everybody else was distracted by the pyrotechnics, much as the Sheeda threat itself is presented as the more serious threat brewing while all the big-name heroes are distracted by Infinite Crisis (a template lifted from "American Gothic" and its arm's-length relation to Crisis on Infinite Earths). The real struggle is for the possession and execution of the first superhero and the avatar of freedom, a struggle Dark Side wins until the final page and its unfortunate retread of Mister Miracle #4. Still, it's surprising that Morrison would cast his own narrative completion as a sign of victory for one of his antagonists.
Surprising, but not inconsistent. This isn't the first Morrison work to associate the push for narrative order or clarity with tyranny (I'm thinking of Sir Miles in "Entropy in the UK"), and Seven Soldiers has always been a glorious mess, much like the miser's coat. This is a project that defiantly refuses to complete any of its organizing groups of seven, and it preserves that anarchic confusion right up to the end. (Is I, Spyder the eighth of Seven Soldiers?) That makes for a chaotic, frequently frustrating final issue, but Seven Soldiers #1 is true to its story and its author.