Friday, January 25, 2019

Seven Soldiers: Quicksand, the Rip Current, a Black Hole

The cover is a glorious
red herring.
Dedicated to Anne, who asked for my thoughts on Seven Soldiers. She surely deserves better.

I picked up the Seven Soldiers omnibus at the urging of Michael Gibbons, one of the few people I trust enough to take the recommendation of a capes-based comic seriously.

And it was a great recommendation; I can say that Seven Soldiers is one of the best superhero comics I've read.

Seven Soldiers has a lot going for it: the art varies wildly in style from series to series but it's uniformly quality stuff that reaches brilliancy more often than most, the plot is the kind of intricate maze of archetypes and ur-conventions and genre detournment that Grant Morrison is known for but it is rarely too pleased with itself, the story benefits overall from focusing on c-list and invented characters instead of DC's mainstays, and it mostly avoids the continuity porn that frustrates my enjoyment of a lot of superhero media.

Hawkman and Superman! Double reference!
We're comics now, bois!
But therein lies a central tension the book cannot resolve. Although Seven Soldiers mostly avoids being overly referential to DC's canon, already told backstories, or whatever Crisis they're pushing at the moment, there are a few moments in that vein that were mildly irritating to me as a reader. The Zatanna story line was one of my favorite pieces of the puzzle, but I could have done without Zatanna making jokes about the Flash or reminding us that she was in the Justice League. (Fair enough, of the titular seven soldiers she's the one with the most recognizable connections to the DC Universe, but come on.) 

That minor annoyance becomes a bit more pronounced in the Mister Miracle issues of Seven Soldiers. In those sections, the references to the New Gods and Kirbiana come fast and furious. Making matters worse is the unnecessary cruft that the Mister Miracle issues add to an already complex story that has a lot of moving parts; much of the Mister Miracle elements could have been excised without changing the overall effect of the story as a whole, so they're not really pulling their own weight. It tries a little too hard to bring in traditional DC elements into the picture.

Which is an odd choice, given the way Morrison develops a theme: delving into the past is regressive and fraught with danger. 


Looking back, in anger or otherwise, holds progress in check throughout Seven Soldiers. In the first issue, the Vigilante tries to assemble a new Seven Soldiers squad--he wants one more hit of the old glory before riding off into the sunset and there's unfinished business that has re-surfaced from the past to be dealt with. 

The team he assembles is a pale regurgitation of the past: I, Spyder is the son of the original Spider, Gimmix is the daughter of the Woman of a Thousand Gimmicks, Dyno-Mite Dan has replica magic rings that rip-off somebody else's powers, The Whip is the grand-daughter of another Whip, and Boy Blue has some unsavory connections to the DC rogue's gallery. This new crop of "heroes" is in every way as deficient as a fading echo; their trip into Miracle Mesa is a massacre--trying to relive the past was a fatal mistake.

Bask in this illustration
for a bit.
The next batch of heroes is more successful, but each of them must struggle against the weight of their pasts as well. Zatanna is cursed by the legacy of her father to the extent that self-doubt robs her of her powers--and the attempt to find her father's lost grimoires kills off her colleagues. The Manhattan Guardian bears the weight of his own tragic personal history; he only becomes a superhero in hopes of shaking off the memory of having killed an innocent kid during his tenure as a cop. Klarion must escape a moribund culture that is an endless nightmare of a twisted Puritan era that threatens to drown him in senseless inherited convention. Similarly, the Shining Knight's first real task is warding off Guilt--an embodiment of accumulated failures and previous defeats. Frankenstein grapples with his very origin as a creature--he learns that his existence was contingent upon the villains' meddling. 

What is the past? In Seven Soldiers it is quicksand, the rip current, a black hole. For Mister Miracle it is a literal black hole--a cosmic-level spectrality tied to the rise and fall of gods, entropy, and the crushing density of trying to live in the shadow of the world's first superhero. As a stunt, Mister Miracle attempts to escape an artificially generated black hole and ends up confronting horrifying visions of the future that are all predicated on past events over which he has no control.

Move over, Power Girl.
Although Mister Miracle's plot line has clear connections to DC's back issues--up to and included a gangsta-fied Darkseid--it is Bulleteer's story that sharpens the theme Morrison is working throughout Seven Soldiers. Bulleteer is a woman haunted by the past of superhero fandom. The marriage that she assumed was happy and fulfilling was troubled by her husband's fetish for superhero women. The fetish led to his experiments with a metallic "smartskin" that caused both his demise and her unwanted transformation into a seemingly indestructible superbeing. It's not a destiny she wants--the past intrudes on the present and forces the change upon her. The fantasy of the capes comic is a wraith that cannot be exorcised.

Even once changed against her will, the past still makes demands on Bulleteer. Unable to continue her career as a caregiver to autistic children (her altered form scares them), she is forced into minor-league superheroics. Her powers enable her to do good in the world, but they also land her the dubious honor of acting as a bodyguard to a personality challenged mermaid on the superhero convention circuit. Washed-up nobodies want to "team up" with her. The possibility of doing supers porn looms ominously. 

Bulleteer is impervious to most everything except the way past steers her life; ultimately, even her attempt to reject fitting the mold of the superhero archetype (as established by countless dog-eared and faded back issues) ends in triumphant failure--she's the Soldier who ends-up taking out the Big Bad, even though she emphatically doesn't want to. The past makes the present fait accompli and no one can swim against the tide.

Resistance is futile.
The villains of the piece, the Sheeda, are equal parts horrifying fey of legend and post-apocalyptic Borg-esque perverts. Frankly, they are great villains and Gloriana Tenebrae, the Sheeda Queen, exudes a palpable air of sexy menace. There's a touch of Baker-era Doctor Who here that thrill me. Of course, if you're going to work a theme fully you have to tie it to the villains' motivations as well.

The Sheeda, it turns out, are us. They're the humanity of the future, doomed to a ruinous world barely existing under the light of a vampire sun. The only way the Sheeda can survive is by pillaging the past. Their incursion in the main plot line of Seven Soldiers isn't their first rodeo; they've already strip-mined the neanderthals for sustenance, fed on the fall of Camelot, and generally bled reality dry. They leave just enough scrap for humanity to reestablish itself in a new age. The cycle has to repeat itself because even a harrower of worlds knows that you don't drink too deeply from the grail.

The Whip was the only one I was sad to see go.
When reading Seven Soldiers it's hard to shake the feeling that Morrison might actually detest a segment of his audience. Morrison knows that capes fandom has a strong element of continuity wankers too eager to riffle the past for nerd cred and commodity fetishists who cast a leering eye on the page without deeper appreciation. When the Whip admits to being a "crazy fetish person with a death wish," she encapsulates exactly why a certain kind of reader might want to see her on a splash page. Zatanna's Vegas showgirl get-up is part and parcel of employing her in your comic, of course, but Seven Soldiers adds a extra layer of Dita-derived pin-up to the depiction. Bulleteer, the most self-conscious and obvious strand of putting the libidinal comic fan on notice, is drawn in a Victoria's Secret pose in most of her panels. 

I mean, come on.
Grant Morrison suspects that you're hot for shapely lines, connecting the dots, and quoting chapter and verse volume and issue. The Sheeda are an indictment of that instinct. They are the modern repetitive and iterative superhero phenomenon as a murderous pathology. If the past is something to be escaped, to be transcended, the Sheeda are a warning against obsessively returning to the past and shifting through old glories as the foundation of the present. They are a cautionary tale about an industry that fears going forward. The comics fan who wants more of the same, endlessly repackaged, continuity resurrected and replayed again, is the enemy.

The irony, of course, is that as much as Morrison would like to critique that impulse, he cannot escape it himself. His cast of characters still bears the marks of what has come before; they have connections, there are clear reference points, and the story remains the same. Seven Soldiers draws on the tale of Snow White to give the Sheeda Queen an extra touch of drama, but that borrowing, like all the referential and allusional tropes we politely call "the greater literary conversation," is a rummaging through past stories to make sense of the present in way that condemns itself to a lens crafted by some unknown wordsmith lost to time.

Michael, if you've read this far, I hate to be the one to break this to you but: Seven Soldiers might be a story about stories. Or, at least, or inability to free ourselves from the story structures and archetypes we inherit and continue to use as we create.

To beard or not to beard? That
is the question.
One of the most exciting imaginings in Seven Soldiers is a sequence in Guardian where we learn of the existence of pirate trains operating on disused lines beneath the streets of New York. The idea of roving marauders riding illicit rails in search of fabled treasures is heady stuff. But even this carries a sad note: even though the ideas in this portion of the story are vital and fresh, the rivalry between the two captains illustrates how much Morrison is unable to escape the past. In this segment he relives his hoary feud with Alan Moore. One of the pirate train captains is named All-Beard; the other is named No-Beard. You may recall that Moore posses a prodigious beard, and that Morrison is circumspectly clean-shaven. The rivalry of the past is the rivalry of the story's present. The past derails us; not only does it cause a train wreck in the Guardian issues, we see that this has happened in the Frankenstein issues as well when our dead boy confronts the vile Melmoth. Returning to the scene of the crime feels inescapable and disastrous.

The past is quicksand, the rip current, a black hole. Not even a chaos magician has the power to swim against the tide.