Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Seven Soldiers: #0

With the final trade getting released in July, I decided it was time to begin reading Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers series. Morrison's probably the best creator working now in any medium. The Invisibles changed my life, and every book he's done is completely pop, full of crazy new ideas and concepts.

With one issue, Grant creates a fully realized superhero team, and then tears them down, setting the stage for the events of the maxi-series. This issue is one of the most convincing takes I've seen on the reality-based superhero. However, rather than being set in our reality, this story examines what it would be like for an ordinary superhero in the DC Universe. This is a world where the JLA are like gods, Superman isn't your average hero, he's someone who's really special, like the best baseball player in the majors, while these guys are people who've been kicking around single A level minors. They have the fundamentals, but are all aware that they're never going to be getting the headlines.

The first couple of pages are a throwback to Swamp Thing, Alan Moore's legendary series, one of the first really notable revamps of a character to change him from a children's book hero to a more adult character. Tommy goes through a similar revamp, controlled by these mysterious bald guys, who seem to be some kind of cosmic agents, controlling reality from behind the scenes. So, they're like John a Dreams in The Invisibles, manipulating reality from behind the scenes to bring about a specific end. Here, they're locked in some kind of eternal battle with the forces of darkness who turn up later in the book.

The two page sequence with Tommy's transformation is classic Morrison. The colored liquid is a lot like the stuff that turned up in The Filth, which woke Greg up from his cover identity and turned him into Ned Slade. On a narrative level, the bald guys are rebuilding Tommy to serve in this superhero team, on a meta level, Tommy is going through the process of reinvention that countless superheroes have gone through, getting updated to be cooler, with more attitude. So, his old personality is washed down the drain and he's got a different temprament when we see him later in the book.

Next, we meet up with the main character, The Whip. She went into heroing as a gimmick to get a book written. I love the title: "Body Thunder: How I Turned My Body Into a Weapon to Beat the Twenty-First Century Blues." If you're living in a world where someone like Batman exists, clearly there's going to be imitators, and every person bored with their mundane life is going to long for his exciting existence.

There's a lot of references to previous superhero comics in the issue. The Whip herself is clearly a Frank Miller heroine, "the girl with no fear" being a direct reference to his Daredevil. She's a masochist, dressed up in a full on fetish outfit, but the pain just isn't enough for her, she needs something beyond just day to day crime fighting. Grant frequently talks about wanting to restore the cosmic grandeur of the Silver Age to contemporary superhero titles, and her line about exhausting the possibilities of the "morally ambiguous urban vigilante" is a clear reference to this.

She goes on to talk about how she needs more, she wants a memorial to her carved into the side of the moon. This seems to be a throwback to the Phoenix saga, she wants a grand sacrifice that will make the world remember her forever. This is tragically ironic in light of what happens later on, when she dies out of the spotlight, likely forgotten soon after.

The whole theme of the issue is contained in the line "How do you know when you've become a superhero and not just a crazy fetish person with a death wish?" In their world, you can dress up in a costume and fight crime, but there's always the spectre of people like Superman, you'd just come off as a pathetic echo. That's why she wants to save the world, doing so would prove her legitimacy.

This theme also ties into the very reason why we read superhero fiction. Reading these power fantasies is a way of transcending the "twenty-first century blues." Rather than the conformist, structured world we live in, superhero fiction is a place where people can dress up in crazy outfits and battle all manner of cosmic foes. It's that search for meaning, if your day's work is saving the world, you can go home happy, if it's just working in an office, or busting a couple of petty crooks, it's tough to consider yourself fulfilled.

Thematically, this ties back to Watchmen, particularly the stuff from Hollis' book. He talks about how it was only when the criminals started to dress up that they felt comfortable, if you're the only one in costume it seems ridiculous. There's an inherent self consciousness for these people, and for Shelly, that insecurity leads her to try to find a team of people, a place where she can feel comfortable.

If The Whip is the archetypal 80s heroine, Greg is a throwback to the Golden AGe. He's inherently outdated, a cowboy hero in today's world does not fit. He's a guy who felt more comfortable in 1875 than in the present. I love the idea that the JLA would go track this guy down from the past and bring him back, a mere chore for them, but a huge event for this guy. That's the essence of the miniseries, on the cosmic scale, these characters are unimportant, but because we get into their lives, their triumphs seem massively important, and their demise is disturbing.

This goes back a fiction theory that I've talked about before, the "Personal Apocalypse" concept, which was basically that a work needn't exist on a cosmic scale to feel important, what it needs to do is focus on the most important moment in the characters' life, the moment where the world as they knew it ends and they come out reborn. Magnolia is a great example of this, are nine random people in the Valley important on the grand scale of things? No, but because we care about them, it feels more important than an asteroid hurtling to destroy the whole world in Armageddon.

The heroes on Greg's team all draw on archetypes from superhero comics past. This is reminiscent of Warren Ellis' Planetary series, which functions simultaneously as a great adventure series in its own right, and as a history of genre fiction in the twentieth century. Gimmix is a throwback to 50s female heroines, most notably with her "Everything a Girl Needs" spray, Boy Blue is the post comics reader, who experiences superheroes via video games and movies, and Dan is a prototypical fanboy. His character design is basically the stereotypical "fatbeard." Most interesting is Tommy, who's come back in the style of late 90s Authority superheroes, a guy who's so cool he doesn't even know what he's doing with this bunch of losers. The transformation process with Tommy earlier in the book is designed to resemble the way that writers can remake characters to suit their own ends, modernized to suit the new times.

To some extent, they're all hero-vestites, except for Greg, but he's clearly too old to fight at the level he used to. In the page where they're asleep, both Gimmix and Dan look utterly mundane stripped of their hero gear. They're dressing up as heroes, it's not something inherent to themselves. Shelly's got some masochistic tendencies, and sleeping with Tommy, a guy she hates, is part of that. She likes to put herself in danger to feel alive.

Because they're only "playing" superheroes, there's always a self consciousness to their behavior. However, when they take on the spider, there's a collective transcending of this mental state, and for a moment they become real superheroes. Fighting as a team, they defeat the spider, and in those moments of fighting, they lose touch with all their earthly worries and become something greater. They are no longer self conscious about it, they have become real heroes.

After that, it's quickly down to Earth, realizing how close they came to dying, and the scars left by the battle. And after this momentary peak, they are quickly reminded of their utter insignificance. Some kind of superior force breaks through reality, and in a harrowing double page spread, everyone's killed. I love The Whip, screaming as she looks straight out at the reader. I'm not really sure what's going on here, but it's definitely disturbing. From there, the mysterious bald men pack things up and prepare to assemble another seven to fight this threat, which presumably leads in to the seven individual mini-series.

I think this issue is a masterpiece. Basically everything Grant writes is great, but this is his most insightful exploration of superhero archetypes since Flex Mentallo. That book dealt more with our perception of superheroes in the real world, this is all about how the average superhero lives in the DCU, toiling in the shadow of the big guns like Superman. I love the ways that the superheroes themselves are equated with superhero fans, Dan is like the fanboy who got a chance to write the titles, and Gimmix is the writer who wrote a couple of issues back in the 70s and is trying to live on that fame for the rest of her life. The whole book has that sort of run down, sleazy vibe that's present at a lot of cons.

Morrison writes superhero fiction better than anyone else, even Moore. Moore can do great work, but recently is often too eager to go towards pastiche over real emotional involvement. I've said it before, but with stuff like Tom Strong, Moore writes Silver Age comics as they actually were, while Grant's Flex Mentallo is like your nostalgia altered memory of a Silver age comic. This doesn't reach the manic pop heights of Flex, but it's a fantastic, more subdued exploration of similar themes.

Aiding Grant in this is the brilliant J.H. Williams. His work on Promethea is arguably the greatest comics art of all time. Here, his work is essential in establishing all these characters in such a short period. He's able to handle the Morrison craziness of the opening, as well as the kinetic action with The Whip. I've heard that Grant and J.H. are working on a creator owned series soon, and I'm eagerly looking forward to it. J.H. is one of those artists like Frank Quitely who's so good, I feel like he's wasting his time if he's not working with someone as good Alan Moore or Grant Morrison.

So, this was a great opening to the series, and I'm looking forward to the rest. I'll be doing in depth reviews as I go through, perhaps not this in depth, but if you've read the series, you'll have plenty to ponder.

Related Posts
Promethea (2/22/2005)
Seaguy (4/22/2005)
We3 (6/22/2005)

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