Zatanna Zatarra! Klarion the Witchboy! Jake Jordan – the Manhattan Guardian! Ystin the Shining Knight! Shilo Norman, aka Mister Miracle! Alix Harrower – the Bulleteer! Frankenstein! The Seven Soldiers of Victory!
Believe it or not, this is one of the series I was looking forward to least in this little project of mine.
Not because I don’t like it, mind, but because I’ve really, really loved it. It’s got everything I love about Grant Morrison’s superhero stuff that’s not All-Star Superman: big ideas, weird adventures and a feeling of slight dissonance with reality as he starts playing with how you can play with time in the context of a superhero comic and the way the pictures and speech bubbles interact with the people reading it.
Heck, now that I think about it, it’s not even that much of a superhero comic. More a weird urban fantasy yarn with superheroes in…
Anyway, after going back through it, I realize that it’s another of Morrison’s noble failures. A failure not of scope or, I maintain, ability, but a failure in that it doesn’t really work. But nonetheless noble because for all it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work with more style, swagger and ambition than a large number of pieces that do work even come close to.
Again, it’s the Project Runway-inspired rule I have over here: ugly beats boring. That is to say, if it fails because it tries to do too much, it’s finer than a thing that fails because it didn’t try to do anything at all.
But why does it fail? Why does it not work?
The answer is frustratingly similar to the discussion of Final Crisis I had earlier: it doesn’t work because it’s trying to do too much.
Reading the foreword at the start of the editions I have (the early paperbacks they released; I may upgrade to the hardcovers someday…), Morrison himself lays it out:
Each character was awarded a four-issue introductory miniseries, with a first issue origin story, a well-defined opening character arc and enough conceptual fuel to run for years, in fan support demanded an ongoing title.
Once I had chosen the seven characters I wanted to use, I couldn’t help but think of ways to link all the titles together. I started to think of the seven as a team, and imagined a superteam whose members never actually meet one another but who still must work together somehow to save the world from a devastating, well-prepared and seemingly unstoppable threat.
Either of the story’s stated goals would have been a worthy endeavour for any writer to undertake; a well-written, self-contained apocalyptic superhero epic or seven self-contained miniseries introducing new characters (or, at least, a couple new takes on old ones and a couple mainstays besides) to a market which was already starting to feel the pressure of low interest in the new. In attempting to do both while keeping the protagonists apart AND keeping an overarching story going, Morrison entered into the Mad Ambition zone.
But, again, did not quite stick the landing.
The problem comes from the fact that while the Sheeda (the apex predators who come from Sheeda-side billions of years in the future to plunder human achievement in age after age after age, their dramas echoing back in time as fairy tales) are some of the neatest antagonists in quite some time and their origins are ripe for all kinds of dissection, expansion and investigation, their presence as the Seven Soldiers’ diffuse monsters-of-the-week is never given enough space to stretch, seeing as much of the development in any single title will only have major consequences in one of the other titles.
Worse, their menace—and menacing it is—is diluted somewhat by the presence of two other threats: the mystery of Slaughter Swamp, played out in fits and starts in Zatanna andthe Manhattan Guardian; and by the war in heaven, won by Darkseid of the New Gods of Apokalips, explored as the majority of Mister Miracle’s run.
And with the Slaughter Swamp story (which is good) and the War In Heaven story (which, to my Kirby-worshiping brain, is great) going on with their tenuous-at-best connections to the Sheeda’s attempts to find the team of seven who will defeat them, the whole thing loses focus.
But, y’know, there’s a lot to be said for taking a scenic route when you go somewhere.
This is, of course, where we run into our old friend “format” again because on this note, the fact that the trade paperbacks (at least the ones I have; I can’t vouch for the later hardback collection… yet) chose to play things out in publication order (aka “the Morrison Method”) rather than by miniseries does make the connections and subtle crossovers reflective of the cast living in a connected universe feel a lot tighter. Indeed, I think it’s the thing that keeps me thinking of Seven Soldiers The Series as one of my favourite ambitious superhero works as opposed to, say, Grant Morrison’s Mister Miracle (part of the Seven Soldiers event/series/thing) as being one of my favourite ambitious superhero miniseries.
That said, how do the individual series play out?
Seven Soldiers of Victory #0: The first of our bookends; the first feels like an homage to the Black Freighter story in Alan Moore’s Watchmen– a story reflecting and anticipating the thematic beats in another form, taking the superhero story and turning it into an old cowboy rounding up a new posse for one last ride – only they’re missing their seventh member. It’s lucky, we’re told, for heroes to ride out in teams of seven but terrible for them to ride out in six. Here we are introduced to the Harrowing Of Man as the Seven Unknown Men of Slaughter Swamp, the Time Tailors, prepare to marshal a new team of seven to ride out in the old cowboy’s place.
Shining Knight: Shining Knight opens with a bang: in some impossible age tens of thousands of years ago (in, perhaps, Kirby’s X AGE!!!), King Arthur and his Knights of the Broken Table are slaughtered by Gloriana Tenebrae the Sheeda-Queen to reap the harvest of this mythic age and only Sir Ystin (actually Ystina who pretended to be a boy to become a squire to Galahad and later the Shining Knight—but that’s not learned until later) and his winged horse Vanguard are left to put a stop to it! But it’s not long before Ystin and Vanguard find themselves trapped in the modern age where words are weak and virtue in question. Ystin is taken into the police and Vanguard is taken in by an immortal gangster as the Sheeda hone in on the modern day – Ystin makes his way back to Castle Revolving to show the Sheeda that virtue will not die while one knight of Camelot remains!
This one is the most focused of the lot, at least as far as the main metaplot goes and also for playing to Morrison’s strengths as a guy who loves him some big ideas. It goes a tad rapey (not actually there, thank goodness, but the threat and implication of it is present with the scenes of the corrupted Galahad) here and there but by and large it does the most to really play to the menace of the Sheeda and what’s at stake should they win. On the other hand, though, I really find the whole weeping for a fallen world trope to be grating in the extreme. Even if we accept the idea that Ystina comes from a world of superhumans or whatever, narratives which hinge on “people were better before and we’re all just so FUBAR here in the present” just make me itch.
Special mention should be made for the art team of Simone Bianchi and Nathan Eyring, who do a wonderful job of giving the whole affair a kind of insectine grime while still making our Shining Knight shine.
Zatanna deals with the titular hero, who has had a crisis of confidence and identity but who must, nonetheless, teach her new apprentice as much as she can about magic while stripped of her own magical powers. Her protogé, as it turns out, is the Snow White to the Sheeda-Queen’s Evil Stepmother and after a battle against the antithesis of her saitned father in Slaughter Swamp, Zatanna makes contact with the Seven Unknown Men above her plane of reality and makes ready to fight the Sheeda for the fate of tomorrow.
It’s impossible for this book to not get compared to Gaiman’s Books of Magic, with an established magician taking a young magician-in-training around the magical world and fighting off strange menaces all the while. So the comparison is there and… well, it doesn’t shine when compared to it.
But, then, Gaiman had space and a focused story where Morrison… does not so let us say no more about it.
Zatanna is one of the most fun but at the same time least-focused of the minis and suffers most from the fact that Zatanna herself never quite becomes the star of the book; her (dead) father hovers over everything. The opening story is a doomed trip which is itself a callback to 1985-86’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, where her father died and ends similarly disastrously. The second issue is an entertaining battle introducing what I can only imagine would have become her supporting cast. The third finishes off an aspect of the Slaughter Swamp story and the fourth finishes off another aspect of it while also playing with Morrison’s much-beloved themes of characters from the 2-D world on the page reaching up to the readers.
But precious little Zatanna herself, which is the book’s major failing for me. Even the Zatanna/John Constantine crossover Zatanna: Everyday Magic gave her a bit more space to breathe.
Not to say it’s not one of the more fun bits but… it’s that whole lack-of-focus again.
Klarion the Witchboy: Klarion’s story is pretty straightforward: he’s a weird, selfish Puritan kid who lives underground with his familiar/draaga cat Teekl and his twisted Puritan-inspired witch-people (the descendants of the “lost” Roanoke Colony who went underground and not to nearby Croatan Island) and dreams of the weird world above, Blue Rafters. Finding his way up, he meets Mister Melmoth who takes Klarion in, gives him a gang of youths to hang with and the promise of eventual employment on Team Red in the Red Place (a gold-mining chain gang on Mars—read all about it in Frankenstein) even as he plots to go underground to become the new king of the underground. Oh and he’s also the former Sheeda-King and he’s the progenitor of the witch-people line. Klarion goes back home to warn and save his people before returning to the surface to become a soldier.
Klarion started as a monster-of-the-week in Jack Kirby’s the Demon, itself a story of a knight in King Arthur’s court and this series could work reasonably well as a prequel to that appearance.
In this series, the Witchboy plays out like an off-kilter Peter Pan knockoff—there’s not a lot of resolution except in Klarion himself who wants to avoid becoming a grownup even as he becomes the master of the childhood society he stumbles into.
Honestly, it’s one of the more straightforward stories in the series because it knows what it is: a coming of age story. Sure, some of the beats are played out in weird ways, what with zombies, digging machines and Erdel Gates to Mars but in the end Our Hero reconciles with his parents and changes from a wide-eyed, drifting youth into a determined, driven youth.
Which is all the more growing up the character can stand. Klarion the Witchman doesn’t have near the same ring to it, does it?
The Manhattan Guardian: Jake Jordan is an ex-cop who once made a terrible mistake that destroyed his sense of self but when he’s given the opportunity to work as the figurehead for the Manhattan Guardian (“We don’t just report crime—we fight it!”), he dives headfirst into aggressive weirdness which threatens to destroy his life, just as the exaggerated, heroic life once destroyed the lives of the Newsboy Army!
Another new spin on a Kirby idea! And, honestly, one of the best ones I’ve seen in a long while; to say nothing of how it’s one of the best things in the whole Seven Soldiers series. In fact, The Manhattan Guardian is the first of the titles that I feel actively suffers from its inclusion in the series. The Sheeda plot, okay, does a decent job in providing impetus for Ed Stargard’s story of the Newsboy Army’s lives being ruined by the Seven Unknown Men and the Sheeda but really, that only means that a side character took an issue to offer Jake a decision of whether or not to keep being a hero.
A decision I don’t think I ever saw him not making because, gosh darn it, there might not be a lot of amazing massive metastory throughout this one but the smaller, more grounded metastory of the conflict between his new life and his girlfriend is really a ton more interesting because it’s something a lot more relateable.
Also because another issue of Jake on his own going out to fight another weird threat that could only exist in this superhero universe take on New York would have been just the thing.
As it is, though, the concession to the metastory works, just that I can’t help but think it would have worked better without it.
Mister Miracle: Shilo Norman is the world’s greatest escape artist, but after a quasi-religious experience in the heart of a black hole, he’s left shaken and feels as if something divine is reaching into his world. What follows is Shilo’s journey into himself, into the Anti-Life Equation and through the Omega Sanction!!! The trap that is life!!!
Rounding out the Kirby characters, Mister Miracle is one of the first times when the New Gods has felt as if it might have a religious angle to it. Where the original was mythology (and let me not be misunderstood: I love the original in ways that are perhaps improper to discuss in mixed company), this one feels magical, a weird spandex-clad shamanic trial for Shilo.
Sure, there are concessions to the Sheeda plot; Aurakles is mentioned in a couple panels in some other titles in the metaplot and the dark god Darkseid (Kirby didn’t do subtle) makes passing mention of a deal he made with the Sheeda but other than that this one is pretty self-contained but for its final resolution happening on the other bookend of the metastory
Which brings us to how this, also, was a story that would have worked just fine on its own. It’s expanded upon (briefly) in Final Crisis and I’m glad that this story got told… but it just doesn’t fit very easily with the other books save for the constant theme of people growing up in weird, unexpected and wonderful ways.
Bulleteer: Alix Harrower has a job she enjoys and a super-genius husband she loves. Her super-genius husband has a fixation on eternal youth and superheroines as well as an experimental “smartskin” that makes someone allegedly immortal and their skin into gleaming invulnerable chrome. He puts the smartskin on during what appears to be a fetish-masturbation session with the superpowered porn star with whom he’s having an internet affair; the smartskin covers every inch of his body and kills him; when Alix tries to save him, it covers her as well – only she survives (I think they say it’s because it covered every inch of his skin but she was wearing her wedding ring so it didn’t get that bit of hers? Only you never see a bit of her finger that’s flesh-coloured, so…) and after losing her job, tries her hand at superheroing (after a false start that would have put her in the cowboy charge in Seven Soldiers #0) before being confronted with the woman who encouraged her late husband’s fixations and deciding that being a superhero just is not for everyone.
Speaking of growing up in weird, unexpected and wonderful ways, the Bulleteer is a comic about someone, in a perfectly reasonable way, hearing the call to adventure, going along for a while and then just realizing it wasn’t for her. This run is, as much as anything, a story about picking apart a lot of the assumptions of the superhero genre and looking at them through the lens of someone who’s generally well-adjusted and not burdened with glorious purpose and would really rather not spend her days intimidating old supervillains, hanging out with people who wish they were Aquaman (or who worship same) or trading blows with people whose grips on reality seem a bit… strained.
I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a commentary on fanboys, on the industry or the genre so it all comes out a bit muddled. Which doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of it, just really throws some things off for me ‘cause Alix is really one of the most likeable people in superhero comics. Just a shame she’s not around more.
But I feel like I’d be remiss not to mention Yanick Paquette’s pencils here. It’s all very good and well-done except for this thing where it seems that the women at all times are standing on the balls of their feet. It’s a little detail but it really took me out of things. I’m not sure if it’s a sexualization thing or the guy just didn’t like drawing people standing like people stand or a commentary on something but it just really irked me.
Frankenstein: Decades after his last fight with Mister Melmoth, Frankenstein’s Monster (now taking the name of his benighted father), arises to do battle with the Sheeda threat and take his revenge on Mister Melmoth! Along the way, he’ll be reunited with his intended Bride (now with twice the arms and eight times the coolness), meet the SHADE agency and slaughter countless strange threats!
There’s not really much to say about Frankenstein. Frankenstein hates the Sheeda so he murders the crap out of them and anyone who helps them. Doug Mahnke’s pencils and inks combined with John Kalisz’ colours make this a particularly gritty series which, while not deep, is some of the finest pulpy comics I’d seen in quite some time.
Seriously, I want to say more, but for all this one is closer to the Sheeda story, a lot of the times it feels like filler. Awesome, pulpy filler, but filler nonetheless.
Seven Soldiers #1: IT ALL LEADS UP TO THIS! The Sheeda are driven off! Earth isn’t destroyed! The Seven Treasures of the Ancient World are named! Klarion uses his familiar to usurp a magic die from Zatanna’s apprentice and his apparently royal blood to usurp the throne of the Sheeda with his witch-brand-power turning Franenstein into his ferryman! The Shining Knight does battle with the Sheeda-Queen and is victorious, particularly when the Bulleteer accidentally runs her over while trying to take her nemesis to the hospital! The Manhattan Guardian saves his girlfriend from the Sheeda and gets a great story for the paper! Mister Miracle faces Darkseid, dies and escapes—defying Death Itself! Zatanna casts the backwards spell that will arrange all the pieces to have led up to this point! The Seven Unknown Men, the Time Tailors, sew up a miser’s coat for one of their own who lost his way and tried to attack Zatanna! Slaughter Swamp’s black flowers bloom, as they must, but the day is saved! JHWilliams III and Dave Stewart bring the noise, doing not just poppy colours on gorgeous art but doing poppy colours on gorgeous art in the style of numerous other artists.
DOES IT WORK??!?!?!?!?!
Seven Soldiers #1 really does play out the only way a book where the protagonists never meet would have to; a lot of coincidence caused by the actions of one of the characters to justify it happening this way.
And even if you can say your characters created the coincidence (or, I suppose, synchronicity if that’s the case), your story’s still relying on coincidence instead of direct action on the protagonists’ part.
I’d call it an afterthought but there’s a lot of effort here but, again, it’s all let down by the lack of focus. I know that the thing where Seven Soldiers serves two masters (Seven self-contained series! A weird, fun, sprawling metastory!) is part of where it shines, I do. But it’s also where the biggest problems lie because the threats really do lose a lot of their weight in the narrative because so many other, less well-explained and, frankly, less interesting, threats are also weighing down on our heroes without much in the way of direct resolution because, well, they’re less well-explained and therefore less possible to bring to a really, truly satisfying conclusion.
Now, even as I tear it apart, I still love the work because it’s fun and all about trying to find new ways to use the monthly comic book to tell stories and while there are cracks, they’re not so big I can’t spackle over with my own ideas and interpretations. And for all the failures, it succeded, more than anything, at creating (or at least setting scenarios for) a lot of characters I, to this day, would love to read more about.
And if the worst thing I can say is that in spite of it’s failures, I still want more of it, I don’t think we can say it’s too bad.