Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Seven Soldiers #1

Morrison's grandest storytelling experiment culminates with an issue that, much like the series itself, is rather obscure on the surface, but is absolutely packed with connection and content underneath. It's one of the most insular issues of all time, neglecting traditional narrative structure, instead exploring the issue of the nature of heroism, which has driven all the minis. I'm pretty satisfied with the resolution that all the main characters received, and I think everyone got their moment to shine.

The first thing that stood out to me on the first read through was the sheer amount of formal experimentation that Morrison and Williams engage in. I think this issue confirms J.H. Williams' status as the greatest artist in comics today, his work is aesthetically wonderful and he's able to move through so many different styles, it's absolutely awe inspiring. Here he's tasked with mimicking the style of the seven minis, and also doing newspaper stuff, storybook stuff and a retelling of ancient myth. He handles everything wonderfully, and the clarity of his art helps keep the issue comprehenisble. I wish he had been around for the end of The Invisibles, he could have made the final three issue arc into an unqualified masterpiece. He and Quitely are working on a whole different level than anyone else in comics.

Our setup is a narration by one of the Seven Unknown Men, speaking to Zor/Cyrus Gold/The Terrible Time Tailor. The identity of the Seven Unknown Men is never revealed, but with his bald head and control over the continuity of this universe, it's pretty clear this is an analogue for Morrison himself. I love the DC pin on his tie, and his knock to the audience on the first page. That said, I was pretty confused by a lot of the Seven Unknown Men stuff, and I could use another read of the issue to really suss it out. It's largely about the reinvention of heroism, GM establishing the paradigm for a new age of comics, much like in Flex Mentallo, erasing the conservative, darkness of someone like Zor with wonder and bright.

There's a lot of meta commentary here, but in the context of the story itself, we see Zor weave an awful future for the Newsboy Army and cause them to combust against each other. Then we see him attack Zatanna and try to remake her into the sadistic heroine, Zorina. However, she overcomes that darkness and reclaims her own identity. He is a virus in the universe, trying to push people into this highly sexualized darkness, while the Seven Unknown Men are trying to allow magic to prevail.

A critical component of Morrison's work within the DCU is the idea that the New Gods are the mythological ancestors of contemporary superheroes. They are the role model for people like Superman, and Auracles is the first hero, the model for all who will follow. In his line is the potential for world changing heroism that is so needed in this world. The New Gods give people the capacity to control the world around them, to understand the nature of the world and better it. In these panels, we can see Aurakles bright red hair, tying him in with Alix, who is apparently the end of the line for Aurakles.

At the end of the issue, Alix is told that she's free. The Sheeda are a force that will always come to raze worlds, reset progress and stop man from moving towards better things. Through this confluence of actions, the Sheeda are stopped and a more benevolent Sheeda ruler is put in place. This means that Aurakles' great failure is atoned for and his role of shepherding humanity to this place is fulfilled. Alix never wanted to be a hero, but unconsciously she has fulfilled her role as the spear that was never thrown. Her whole miniseries was about people trying to force her into the role of hero, a role she didn't want. Here, her basic desire to help people, even Sally Sonic who had attacked her, leads to her fulfilling her destiny and saving the world from Sheeda invasion, making it safe for humanity to move forward. That's something critical that's touched on in Bulleteer #3, her weakness is that she listens and cares about people, not just advancing her own career. However, that is a form of heroism in itself, and it winds up being her great contribution to the destruction of Gloriana.

From there, we move into the newspaper parts. I think this was an interesting device, and worked well to convey a lot of information, but it wasn't my favorite part of the issue. The crossword puzzle is the most interesting piece, I got the answers off Barbelith and they raise some interesting questions. Apparently Suzi did give birth, and her children are Ed's assistants at the Guardian. The toher cool one is six down, where he points out that Lance is a synonym for spear. Also, Grant establishes himself as one of the seven unknown men. Very cool. Ed gets to acheive his dream of having a super gang working for him, the wonder of the Newsboy Army is reclaimed. Also great is Shelly's letter, with the quintessential GM line "Every day is mythology when you use your X-Ray vision to really, really LOOK." And when people put on their 'hero costumes,' the line between herovestite and real hero disappears. That's one of the major themes from SS#0, and it recurs here, with Ed essentially saying that all it takes to be a hero is trying to be one and acting like it.

On this Barbelith thread, someone mentioned that the difference between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison is that Morrison is messier, but provides you with more FUCK YEAH! moments, and this issue is the perfect example of that. You may not always be sure what's going on, but I was constantly thrilled by what was going on. In experiencing fiction, what I'm looking for is those moments that just make my jaw drop from the sheer coolness of what's happening. This issue delivered those in spades.

One easy one was the return of Zatanna. I loved her mini so much, just getting a bit more GM Zatanna was cause for celebration. More than ever, Zatanna reads like Lorelai Gilmore as a magician, full of self deprecating humor and even dropping a Scissor Sisters reference. I love the page where Misty reclaims her position with the Sheeda. We finally see the meeting of Misty and Klarion, a family reunion I'd been looking forward to. Misty is someone who feels the weight of responsibility of her role with the Sheeda. She fears becoming Gloriana because she cannot see the third path. She thinks that becoming Sheeda queen means keeping the ways of the past.

However, Klarion is utterly rebellious, just enjoying things as he goes. So when he claims power, he does not take responsibility. He takes control of the ship, and presumably the Sheeda armies, but we have no reason to believe he will be malicious. Rather he will use his power to have fun and create chaos. He turned on the soldiers by joining the Sheeda, but he was only a hero when it was fun for him. He is too mischeivious to be a real hero. I love the final page with him juggling the dice, Sheeda slaves licking his boots. The blend of Bianchi style and Irving style is seamless.

Throughout the whole series, Zatanna has been, as she says, crippled with self doubt. She fears the consequences of using her powers and believes that she is unable to live up to the legacy of her father. However, empowered by her meeting with him at the end of Zatanna #4, she comes to terms with her past. A nice Ali Ka Zoom cameo prompts her to cast a spell to empower the Seven Soldiers. This page is arguably the greatest page of any comic ever. The art is so uniquely beautiful, images from the series spilling out on tarot cards, along with an invitation for the reader to fight alongside Zatanna. Much like her reach out to the reader in issue #4, this is a moment where she looks right at you and beckons you to join her in her magical act, "Let's save the world, you and me, together." Maybe she's talking to Misty, but the way it's presented, there's only one person she's looking at.

Gwydion's words prompt Zatanna to deliver a critical manifesto. The 'third path' was established back in SS#0, beyond the strict choice between good and evil, the near oppressive allegiance to one side, there is the ability to choose one's own way and trump destiny. For Misty, this means not becoming Sheeda Queen and instead continuing her work with Zatanna. This also ties into Alix, who rejects her destiny to be a certain kind of hero. Similarly, Shilo is able to reject death. This ties into the very end of The Invisibles, when Dane rejects questions of choice vs. free will, claiming that it's all the same, we're here and we have choices that create our reality. Zatanna rejects the limits that our roles place on us and invites to do the impossible, to wake the universe.

What does waking the universe mean? It likely ties in to Morrison's idea of the DCU as sentient entity. But, in the context of the story she is awakening the forces of good within reality and compelling them to help the heroes. Her spell is cast to the Unknown Men, to Morrison, to begin the phase of the story in which good happens. This is the turning point in defeating the Sheeda, and it's an astonishing moment. We don't see Zatanna again after this point, her work is done, she has set in motion everything that follows. That said, if I want to see Morrison writing any of these characters again, it would be Zatanna. Esaelp od a atanna dna ytsim seires.

Following this, we get a nice resolution for Guardian. His arc was basically done in his own series, it was only left for him to get Carla back. He does that here, and it's a great moment. Another fantastic Guardian tie in moment is the closeup on Ed, rebuking the Time Tailor. I feel like Guardian #4 affected me more than the rest of the issues combined, and I love the fact that we get a bit of resolution for that crew here. The flies around TTT here give the page such a nasty feel.

From there it's over to Ystina, who is totally resilient in battling Gloriana. She is unwilling to back down, even when it will mean her death, she proves herself to be a worthy knight of Camelot. She gets the most developed resolution in a scene that feels like Mathilda at the end of Leon. She is taken away from adventure and put into normal society. However, she is meant to be a knight and one day will take up the sword again.

It's a testament to the power of SS#0 that Spyder's shot at Gloriana feels so fulfilling. This guy was in one issue, but his prominence in the opening announced his importance in the narrative. I love the throwback to what prey would Gods hunt. His kissoff line to Gloriana is solid cool, as is Gloriana's techno eyepatch. That page features some of my favorite art in the issue, particularly the striking panel of Gloriana falling towards the apple.

Frankenstein doesn't get much to do this issue, largely because he already played his part in the final issue of his own miniseries. That crippled Gloriana's fleet and set her up for the finale here. I'm really happy with Gloriana's death, no standard battle could live up to it, and that makes the semi-ridiculous car crash the perfect way to destroy her. I really like the captions here, particularly "Prophecy moves in for the kill."

This leaves us with the most complex segment of the issue, the stuff with Mister Miracle. As I mentioned in my previous post on the series, that mini was all about a descent into absolute darkness as a way to discover the heroism within. His experience erased his fear and guilt, leaving him free to move on to a higher form of heroism. As we saw earlier, The New Gods are all about giving humanity the tools to move to the next stage of evolution, and his experience has left Shilo with the vision of another dimension of reality, as he says in an absoultely kickass moment "I come with God-Sight now." In his exchange with Dark Side, we simultaneously experience their actual speech and their God speech.

Apparently the guy who was called Omega in MM4 is actually Aurakles, the first hero imprisoned. He seems to have been tortured so much that he's lost touch with the heroism at his core. This ties into the whole purpose of Shilo's black hole experience. Metron told him that he was sent there because the New Gods were lost, they were training him for this moment, when he would sacrifice himself so that Aurakles could be freed and the powers of the New Gods could be recovered. Then, humanity can move on to the next stage of its evolution.

Shilo is the avatar of the life equation, freedom, choice, escape from the restrictions of human society. By killing him, Dark Side thinks that he will remove the rebellious streak from the human world and crush the spirit of heroism. His quick death takes you out of the superhero reality, villains aren't supposed to use guns like this, and there's no escape for Mister Miracle from the bullet. At the end, Dark Side believes that the triumph over the Sheeda is a hiccup against the progression of darkness.

However, his words are rendered utterly false in the final page, as Shilo bursts triumphantly out of his grave, infused with the power of The New Gods, he is the avatar of freedom and he returns triumphant. The return of this avatar fits in perfectly with the other theme of the third path. As Zatanna said, one of the critical issues in the series was the possibility of personal choice. For the characters here, fate is a jacket sewn by the Time Tailor, designed to hold them to a bad destiny. That is the essence of Dark Side, to trap. However, he did not count on the ultimate escape artist.

In the end, all the characters get what they want, the freedom to choose their own path. Alix was forced into the role of hero, but finds herself absolved and free to move on with her life. Klarion hated the restrictive world he lived in, but now finds himself free to rule over others. Zatanna was unable to live up to the memory of her father, but he liberated her from his legacy and gave her the courage to choose her own path. Jake overcame his malaise and found a way to be a hero and still be with Carla. Ystina found a way to overturn the fall of Camelot and rediscover heroism in the modern world. And Shilo overcame the hollowness of his life as a celebrity to become a God. And Frankenstein was liberated from the legacy of Melmoth by helping to defeat the evil that created him.

Some become heroes, but more importantly everyone gets what they want. And when Miracle rises out of the grave, he heralds a new age of heroism, the universal awakening that Zatanna summoned is beginning. He has moved beyond all the shackles of humanity, faced death and came out ahead. We can view Dark Side as an avatar of Zor, an outdated concept who is trying to lower the world to his level. However, the intervention of the Unknown Man puts Zor away, literally sealing his darkness out of the world and replacing it with the shiny, wonder that Shilo's rebirth promises. As Zatanna tells us, magic is about doing the impossible, bringing the ideal world we want to life by choosing the third path, our own path.

This issue is one of the densest works ever done in comics. On every page there's a crazy concept, and amongst all this is a generally satisfying resolution for all the characters. I'd have loved a few more pages, a glimpse of what's up with Frankenstein or Zatanna, but I came out very satisfied. Seven Soldiers is a distillation of so many different ideas and storytelling modes, it's astonishing to see them all collide here, and that collision underscores the basic themes that drive all the miniseries. This is Grant's second greatest work, behind only The Invisibles. In the same way that The Invisibles functions as a deconstruction of our own reality and offers the reader a way to discover the wonder within their own world, Seven Soldiers breaks down the DC universe and provides a model for its heroes to reclaim the magic within their lives. Flex Mentallo is an overture to this work, and though SS lacks Flex's tight cohesion, it makes up for it in stunning ambition and the sheer amount of dazzling moments. This issue had so many panels that made me smile, in a way that only Grant can do. He's working on an entirely different level than anyone else out there today and after 25 years in comics, he's still creating fresh, startlingly innovative works. This is one of those works that makes me priveleged just to have the chance to experience something so powerful and thought provoking. Thank you Grant and all your art team for creating such an ambitious, powerful project.

My Complete Seven Soldiers Post Index


RAB said...

One quibble: Omega in MM #4 is not Aurakles. Shiloh meets Aurakles, who first appeared in Justice League of America #100, the Len Wein story that really started this, while inside Omega. Omega is the personification of Darkseid's power, which was established in Kirby's Forever People as having the power to destroy or to banish people to other times and places. In this case, Darkseid was using the Omega effect to send Shiloh through an array of possible lives, in one of which he encountered Aurakles, whose captivity provided Shiloh with the perspective he needed to recognize that he was himself in a form of which point Shiloh began to perceive the very concept of imprisonment as a personification, just as Shiloh is the personification of escape. And meeting Aurakles in the pseudo-reality tipped off Shiloh to what he needed to do when he met Aurakles in reality.

Apart from that, nothing to argue with here. Many thanks for pointing out the resemblance between Ystina at the end and Mathilda at the end of Leon!

Patrick said...

Ah, that clears a bunch of things up. What had me confused was the fact that the Omega effect looked like a shadow version of the Aurakles beast in MM#4. It wasn't until SS#1 that I realized that guy actually was Aurakles. I don't have too many complaints about the book, but I wish GM had given a bit more info on the New Gods in the book. On the first read especially, I was baffled by a lot of the material in Mister Miracle. If he'd just said what you said here, it would be a lot easier to follow the mini.

Joe Rice said...

Great, great stuff, Patrick.