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. 

CAUTION: SPOILERS LURK PAST THIS POINT.

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.

40 comments:

  1. Thanks for the insight, Jack.

    I'll admit, the truth about the Sheeda interests me more than the initial glimpse of them from Shining Knight's introduction. (Greg Bear's "City at the End of Time" has a somewhat similar human future, and I really enjoyed the first 2/3 or so of that.)

    It seems like there are quite a few people who got famous writing superhero comics, later grew to hate superheroes, superhero comics, and/or superhero comic fans, and who decided to express their hatred through the medium of ... yet another superhero comic. I think Garth Ennis' "Hitman" and "The Boys" are both supposed to be like that. TBH I find things like that hard to enjoy.

    Although here it sounds like he's criticizing obsessive nostalgia (and possibly obsessive rebooting and re-releasing of intellectual properties) moreso than he's criticizing superheros. Really what it sounds like he's criticizing isn't even us, it's the business practices of the big 2 comic companies (although maybe he holds the fans complicit?)

    The odd thing is, they used to let time pass. Robin got older, became Nightwing, and set off on his own adventures. Flash died, and Kid Flash took over as the Flash. Peter Parker stopped being drawn as a teenager, got married, and was allowed to become an adult. It didn't happen at the same pace as real time, but there was maybe a sense that these characters were being allowed to grow, change, retire, and be replaced by someone they mentored who would carry on their legacy.

    And then ... I don't know, they changed their minds I guess. They decided there was more money in rebooting and re-presenting what came before than in showing what comes next. Star Trek has the same problem, as the series keeps adding more and more detail to its own past, rather than showing us its next future.

    It's especially frustrating right now in Marvel's case, where they had temporarily let themselves pass on a lot of key titles to new characters, so there was briefly a woman Thor, and a Black Captain America, and a Black woman Iron Man, etc. But again, I don't know, they changed their minds. They got spooked by what they were doing and decided to return to an all-White all-male line-up. I'm really worried about their movie universe, because they've set themselves up to have a lot of White men retire and be replaced, and I'm worried they're going to get spooked again and change their minds again.

    I'll admit I have a fondness for the kind of nostalgia-adjacent re-imagining of the past that goes into something like "Astro City" or "Tom Strong" or Trey Causey's Armchair Planet ideas.

    My personal wish for comics would be for these companies to stop doing continuity. Make every "run" of a character stand-alone. Let multiple creators do completely different takes on characters at the same time, if the market will bear it. If I want to write Daredevil as a boxer and you want to write him as a ninja, then let's each do that, and neither of us feel forced to obsessively reference the other person's decisions, and definitely neither of us feel forced to wreck our own storylines because some previous writer unmasked him one time. Treat every series like it's one of DC's Elseworlds. (Or like it's the next actor playing James Bond.) I don't think I get my wish, but there it is.

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    1. Yeah, I get the feeling that Morrison truly loves the source material (who does the deep dive on Fawceett Comics to do a riff like Bulleteer otherwise?) but aspects of the culture that some fans embrace doesn't sit right with him.

      The way time doesn't pass can be really jarring in some titles. When you get a character who was a child all grown up...to be the same age as their parents...something has gone wrong.

      I'm an outsider looking in when it comes to capes comics, but Marvel seems nervous about change--probably because there is movie money riding on it. Lady Thor is 100% more interesting to me than Kirby's Thor or the cinematic space guy, but apparently they were worried about losing those fans. I dunno, they do some disingenuous things when testing the waters anyway.

      I still need to read Tom Strong, but there's so much of it that it's daunting in a way. And I'm with you absolutely about continuity. It used to be the case that Spiderman would show up in every issue #3 because they was a guaranteed sales boost, but...maybe building a big house is always already also building a tomb.

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    2. Unless comics had an overnight shift in decades long buisiness practices- the legacy characters Anne speaks of were never intended to last. They were a shallow marketing gimmik repackaging liberal politics in “hey you fellow kids way” and they were not original creations- they were derivative characters created by editorial mandate. You get sales by changing the characters, you get sales by changing them back.
      Doubt this:
      Ike Pearlmutter head of marvel entertainmentis a friend of donald Trump and serves as his off the books advisor:
      “In April 2017, Perlmutter was categorized by The New York Times as one of the "Clubgoers" among twenty people whom President Trump consults "outside the White House gates". He "has been informally advising ... on veterans issues [and] ... has been a presence" at Mar-a-Lago, according to the account” Wikipedia
      That’s the guy that runs the comics.
      Also the entire idea that comics lack diversity is dead wrong. The thing is, though, is that when Lee and Kirbyt created the Black Panther- they wanted to do it- and it took real balls- because they only had one title. They didn’t get a clap onthe back, they got hate mail. The reason the idea is being pushed is that the vast majority of Marvel’s strong female and minority characters are tied up in the x-men and until recently those movie rights belonged to Fox.
      Also making Sam Wilson cap is okay, but i like the falcon, thanks, and it misses the entire idea of Cap. CA was a fantaically egalatarian blonde aryan superman- created by two jews. That was and is a statement.

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    3. Only one title should be “pnly one hit” which is innaccurate anyway, they had two hits at the time. They were still nobody at all, though.

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    4. Oh, I don't doubt that there was a lot of calculated marketing that went into those characters (as opposed to more honest inspiration on a story to tell), it's just that the premise of Lady Thor is a lot more interesting to me than Verily Thor.

      I have no idea about the execution, I just know what I might read and what I absolutely wouldn't pick up.

      Tbh, from my outside perspective, Marvel has seemed really conservative since...well, whenever Punisher was popular enough to have two titles going.

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    5. I’m not really interested in Thor sans Kirby, so I give no fucks. Really, aside from the cosmic stuff from earlier this decade, I’m not interested in any Marvel- not even Spider-Man. Morrison is the only current writer who interests me in the mainstream.

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  2. i think that morrison is not only about transcending the past but about the ways in which new is not limited to the future. if you will sheeda are the past that we have to overcome yet they are from the literal end of time, farthest future there is. there is benjaminian aspect to morison's work. the sense that certain elements of the past are really future.

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    1. I'll have to think about that Benjamin connection; you're on to something there.

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  3. Love it. Casts it almost in the terms of a House of Usher type of project or some other kind of haunted structure of memory. For me (to dither with an anecdote) it was most exciting because the Guardian plot in particular felt fresh and current in a recognizable NYC that always seemed on the edge of flooding or blacking out and the pirate station was the green line stop near me I almost never used. Novelty of novelties sprouting from these mined-out trademarks.

    Which is a feint at the satire or sense of genre shame you feel in these. It's an interesting question who else besides No-Beard Grant identifies with throughout these and which outfits that forces "the industry," industry figures and Moore in particular to wear. There are many Grants in the haunted house. One of them is evidently the murderer or at least the problem, complicit in whatever is starting to make him frustrated.

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    1. Reading Seven Soldiers also made me realize that I am more interested in supers being grounded in a real place, like NYC. That did give those Guardian issues an edge.

      Ali Ka-Zoom is probably another Grant, right?

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    2. Yeah, the bookstore maps onto Shakespeare & Co., which has a pretty good "graphic novel" department. There are supposedly a lot of Unknown Men constructing the all the sub-narratives but I've never managed to get a firm count. Bad Dad and Good Dad in Zatanna might or might not be the same paternal gaze in different phases.

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    3. Are all the Time Tailors are bald?

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    4. I think *most* are but dammit need to go back and count I guess.

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  4. Good bloggin'
    We were just alarmed in our house at how Wally takes over the family business and Dick gets to design his own outfit but Vic and Gar stay the same age. Something weird and maybe even monstrous going on in this cycle of growing sidekicks and then comes the reaping and reset.

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    1. There's a Peter Pan riff in here that probably applies both to characters and the imagined audience. (Alice in Wonderland was a just red herring.)

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    2. Crap, I screwed up the threading, this should've been Tribute To Anne. He hits the Peter Pan thing a tiny bit harder when Multiversity lurches forward a decade later but at that point I can barely read it without fainting from the loathing of it all. He really needed a break.

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    3. The threading was a lie all along.

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    4. needs Official Suggested Reading Order

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    5. That's one thing I didn't mention in the blog post itself: I'm not sure that the reading order in the omnibus is actually the best order to read the issues in.

      There might not be an ideal coherent reading order, and that might be part of the point, but it would be interesting to shuffle the cards and see what emerge from the Celtic cross spread of issues. "Ah, Zatanna number three is exerting an influence on your hopes and fears."

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    6. That 7 Soldiers Tarot would be an amazing pitch for someone with free time to work on. I missed or "forgot" a few when they were coming out so there were productive holes in my experience too . . . if I recall correctly most of the third acts were mostly disposable self-contained side trips.

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    7. Tarot decks are ally big right now. DC might make more cred off of one than they did Batman vs. Superman.

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    8. If someone wants to work on that tarot (or given my addled Eno wave, an oblique cape strategy deck) let's talk. I have been blowing off another tarot for someone else for like eight years now so someone else needs to do it. Also the Whip really does need her own show. She was a badass. We were just crying here in the house that nobody really stepped up to take over all these great "new" characters . . . the Shining Knight in particular came gift-wrapped as an ongoing Buffy meets the Professional series and we would love to see it but none of the suits or creative were interested, etc.

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    9. The thing about Tarot decks: they are a punishing level of work for the artist.

      That's what my artist friends tell me.

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  5. Good review. Morrison's Multiversity and to a lesser extent Final Crisis have a bit of this indicting the reader or maybe problemitizing fandom aspect as well. I as a creator, fandom bugs him, but if he weren't a fan, he wouldn't be creating in this sphere.

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    1. Yeah, you don't commit to writing that many issues without actually loving comics. I find his conflicted relationship really interesting though. Even in the bits where he's commenting on the drooly bits of fandom he's still a showman saying "Look at the balcony fittings on this lady!" Inescapable, maybe.

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    2. I was going to bring up Multiversity because I think it explores a lot of the same themes (but I never actually finished Seven Soldiers, and it's been a while since Multiversity). I thought Multiversity was almost taunting in some places: "Look, here are things that could be different! Dare you to use them, you won't." It was also much more direct in its indictment of fandom.

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    3. Hah, I am so out of this game that today is the first time I've even heard of Multiversity.

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    4. It had a few "gimmicks" that really made the themes very clear, and probably were very divisive? So I don't usually go recommending it, except where it seems relevant. There's a whole thing in the second person where (IIRC), by reading the comic, you are causing the conflict to continue at the expense of the characters. Lots of people just bought the "Watchmen" issue, which, meh. It was similar to Seven Soldiers also in that it was a bunch of stories that only tie together sometimes, but it was shorter so I actually read them all (which again, thank you for the review, it was sharp).

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    5. I read the villains of Multiversity as stand-ins for fandom, maybe specifically internet fandom. Multiversity is more of a "traditional" superhero crossover ultimately, in that the characters actually crossover, but it has some other structural similarities to 7 Soldiers.

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    6. I agree with your read of the villains 100%. I was confused that anyone else thought otherwise at the time.

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  6. I do get that it’s stories about stories, curse you.
    As far as aging characters up and down- I just don’t care, because we’re in like gen 7 fan fiction territory during the most pronounced talent drought in Marvel/DC history- imo. Who cares what happens? None it will stick. I pay attnetion and read stuff- always- and the best marvel/DC comic I’ve seen recently is “not that bad”
    I can’t even enjoy watching it all burn down because it’s just a smoulder shit fire.

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    1. Haha, you just got Sandman'd biiiiiiiiiiiiiioooooooootch!

      Re: the aging thing, I think it would be ok to just..let things run their course. I dunno, who was the last new character that actually caught on? Deadpool, maybe?

      I think that's part of why things seem so stagnant. I think there are talented people in comics (maybe less that at other times in the form's history, I have no idea), but I have doubts about the project of continuing the same stories forever.

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    2. At least this "story about stories" has them working for a tough-talking drunk baby instead of an albino in a kimono. Something seems to be going on in the talent drought + the way Fraction and DeConnick stopped doing work for hire whereas Millar is theoretically publishing again to feed the Netflix pitches.

      Why do they even publish the ongoing series at all now? Make every book an event book or don't kill the tree.

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    3. Oh dear, I'm not sure event book is the way to go at all. Do they just promise a death a year until Robin turns out the lights in the Batcave on his way out?

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    4. I think you’ll see an ending when the movies stop making money.
      I have a whole shelf full of Donald Duck comics- they’re published by Fantagraphics, not Disney. disny cares about Movies, Theme parks and TV- not comics. They already have thousands more stories than they could ever put on film. Once the movie billions dry up, what need is there to keep the lights on? So over on Marvel’s side, likely or not, it’s a thing that could happen.

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  7. “The Boys” is the superhero equivalent of scat porn starring your grandparents.

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    1. I think the spring break miniseries actually has scat porn starring my grandparents right there as a plot point. But you don't dig the Stan The Man _homage_ in that one??

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  8. For the purposes of surviving the looming Pluscalypse, reposting my salient comments from there to here:

    I read Seven Soldiers years ago, I'm now tempted to do a reread and then selectively dig into some of Morrison's subsequent DCU work like Multiversity.

    Seven Soldiers is almost a Watchmen like sandbox for Morrison while remaining loosely attached to the DCU and using his reboot of prior DC character concepts.

    Thematically, Seven Soldiers seems almost diametrically opposed to a lot of Geoff Johns' DCU work from about Green Lantern: Rebirth onwards.

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    1. Johns’ work really is the opposite of Morrison in so many ways. If you want to be sad, think of Infinite Crisis as an attemptt o do a version of Watchmen with the DCU- becaue that’s what it is.
      Also in Johns- the threat always comes from within the ranks of the heroes. This is what IC is all about, but also his entire run on JSA is one threat after another all from wuthin the team. Even all the different kinds of rings are just variations on a theme. I hate the rainbow rings, btw.
      Anyway, Johns is a personified microcosm of silly post Watchmen stagnation and self-referential garbage.

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