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Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory (Review/Retrospective)

December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium. We’ve got a special treat for you this week, which is “Seven Soldiers Week”, so check back each day for a review of one of the Seven Soldier miniseries that Morrison put together.

Seven Soldiers of Victory is perhaps the strangest comic book “event” that we’ve ever seen. It’s essentially two issues, with a series of seven four-issue miniseries unfolding between them. The idea is that the seven books each follow one of the eponymous seven members of the superhero team destined to save the world from an evil invasion. Of course, this is a Grant Morrison story, so there’s far more to it than that, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the crossover is that (with one exception) none of the seven members of the team actually meet each other.

Seven is a magic number...

The story is fairly straightforward. The Sheeda are a race of strange beings that plan to destroy our civilisation as it reaches its peak. There’s more to it than that, but it’s a suitable starting point. However, prophecy foresees that the invasion will be foiled by seven soldiers – which naturally has the invaders a little bit on edge. So, using all their knowledge of genre conventions, these beings plan to selectively target groups of seven superheroes. “So what kind of prey do you suppose gods might lower themselves to hunt, hmm?” one character wonders. “Rabbits? Or superheroes?”

However, after several attempts to stop these creatures end in complete and utter failure, the Seven Unknown Men of Slaughter Swamp decide to get a little bit clever, obviously familiar with the conventions of the genre. After all, as Morrison has suggested in interviews, these are apparently the writers (including himself) who have written themselves into the fictional universe of DC Comics:

So the Time Tailors /Seven Unknown Men, (whom I imagined to be all the DC writers who have appeared as themselves interacting with characters inside the DC Universe – like me, Julius Schwartz, Cary Bates, Elliot Maggin etc…) present a sci-fi take on the job of maintaining a comic book universe, repairing its plot holes, refreshing its characters and set-ups and generally patching it up, like tailors adding to an old, tattered quilt.

As such, it’s only appropriate that the group is savvy enough to create a team of seven individuals who don’t even realise that they’re part of a team, moving on their own little plots with rare moments of intersection (often without realising). Each of the seven miniseries reveals a part of the tapestry, a hint of the mystery, and moves a little closer towards the goal.

City within a city...

I’ve talked about the individual stories separately, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the core themes that Morrison suggests. The first is the rather fascinating way that Morrison is continually reinventing these concepts. None of the seven characters in these stories were created entirely from scratch. In fact, each character’s code name has a long history within the DCU, even if it was never that of an “a-list” superhero. While Morrison will occasionally adopt a concept he likes (such as the Newsboy Legion), the writer is just as likely to create his own entirely new concept around these titles (The Bulleteer and Shining Knight are perhaps the best examples of this).

It’s part of a conscious effort on Morrison’s part to create something new with the DC Universe, while still anchored in the long and rich traditions of the publisher. “Same old universe,” his introduction suggests, “All new heroes.” Although each of the seven characters serves a part within the story Morrison is telling, the writer has a clear secondary goal: to create a bunch of new heroes that respect those that came before them. I’ve remarked in my review of Geoff Johns’ Blackest Night that I really appreciate when the company attempts to showcase less prominent characters (in the case of that event, the Flash, the Atom and Mera), and that’s really what this event feels like.

Tailored to accomodate new heroes?

It’s a chance to get to know a bunch of new characters while taking a look at the long-established DC Universe from an entirely new perspective. It’s not just about new characters, either. Sometimes it’s about reinventing old ones. “We’ll get you some cool new clothes, Tom,” the Unknown Men boast to I, Spyder as they give him a revamp, and the event offers new takes on established heroes like Zatanna and Mister Miracle. Some times a fence just needs a new coat of paint, and Morrison works hard to re-establish their character and set them up with some interesting character arcs.

Of course, not too many would go on to greater things. Zatanna has an on-going series written by Paul Dini, but which likely would have happened regardless of her involvement in this event. Frankenstein has popped up from time to time (most impressively in a recent Flashpoint miniseries). Still, the vast majority of these characters and concepts remain relatively unused, just sitting on the shelves – barring an occasional appearance where a background needs filling. It’s a damn shame, especially when Morrison’s Guardian is far more interesting than the one James Robinson would use for New Krypton.

This is, of course, the world as populated by Batman and Superman and all those popular characters, but Morrison is more interested in examining the less successful heroes, the sort of underbelly of superhero culture. This is, after all the story where “tenth-rate, second-generation costumed *%!@-up, Tom Dalt finally gets his starring role in the end of the world drama.” It’s a recurring element running through these stories that not all superheroes get to have massive roles in the big “event” comic of the moment, and that some wind up lost and abandoned, taking low-rent jobs off the back of ads placed in specialist magazines.

From first to last...

As the characters frequent support groups and tell “stories about the time [they] ran into Aquaman”, while working the convention circuit and desperately looking for an angle, one wonders when putting on a costume and doing this sort of stuff becomes legitimate. For Batman or Superman, it’s obvious, it’s their superhero origin – that big moment which establishes and defined them. Deprived of that, one might be forgiven for wondering what a third-rate hero winds up doing. “How do you know when you’ve become a superhero and not just a crazy fetish person with a death wish?” It’s a tougher question than you might think, especially if you aren’t headlining your own monthly book.

So the heroes assembled are not quite your typical DC icons. Indeed, they seem to created more in the mould of those characters that Jack Kirby fashioned with Stan Lee over at Marvel. They have feet of clay. Zatanna is full of self-doubt. The Bulleteer doesn’t want to be a superhero. The Guardian is just doing his job for a steady cheque. Mister Miracle is trapped by existential angst. They’re all uncertain and, to be honest, they aren’t necessarily “hero” material. Indeed, one of the refreshing aspects of Morrison’s project is that his cast isn’t really composed of conventional superhero archetypes.

Plain sailing ahead?

Along the way, of course, there’s room for Morrison to hint at and develop his ideas. It’s quite something to say that a writer has enough ideas to pack a thirty-issue “mini-“ series to the brim. There are wonderful moments of meta-awareness, with Zatanna chasing Zor through the panels, or the Bulleteer working the convention circuit. Each miniseries has similar core themes about how difficult it is to be a second-stringer and the impact that stories have on one another (as well as more basic Morrison themes like the idea that superhero stories are a modern mythology), but they all have their own particular “vibe” to them. Morrison is never short of ideas or concepts, and it’s to his credit that nothing feels dull or repetitive.

It’s interesting that I singled out the Kirby influence on Morrison’s style. It’s definitely there, from the choice of characters (including the New Gods who would play into Final Crisis and Anthro, the first superhero) through to the artistic style adopted by J.H. Williams in Seven Soldiers #1. Morrison also credits Len Wein (the creator of Swamp Thing among others) with inspiring the project:

Some have seen the book as an ode to the King, Jack Kirby, and in so many heartfelt ways it is, but Seven Soldiers is also my personal hymn to the poetic imagination of Len Wein, whose 70s work turned me into a teenage fanboy. A great deal of Seven Soldiers – as with so much of the work I’ve done for DC – relates directly to, and expands upon, continuity established by Len. I owe an immense imaginative debt to Wein, who is humble, bemused and patient every time I collar him to tell how much his work meant to me. The way a hero ought to be.

The book is populated with affectionate homages and references to the rich shared history of the DC Universe, none of which intrude upon or disrupt the story that the writer is attempting to tell. In particular, I like Morrison’s choice of Slaughter Swamp as a location, and repeated none-too-subtle references to Solomon Grundy (including the “golem” in The Guardian and Grundies in Klarion). Even when Morrison makes veiled references to “Cyrus the miser”, it creates a sense of history around the story, without overwhelming it. I’ve never read a Seven Soldiers story before, and I feel welcome – the Grundy links were only uncovered after some googling, and it’s not necessary to understand the story.

It's not the end of the world if they fail... oh... wait...

However, it’s fascinating how strongly linked the series feels to the works of Alan Moore. The death of Zatara, as scripted by Moore in Swamp Thing, is a huge factor in the Zatanna miniseries (indeed, this story seems intent to provide closure for that loss). The Guardian miniseries offers us a confrontation between two underground pirates, Nobeard and All-Beard, who we might consider to be Morrison and Moore. Indeed, there’s a wonderful line from the “rogue” Unknown Man of Slaughter Swamp, where he protests, “It’s a magnificent beard and I know you want one!” Is it wrong that I can easily imagine Moore saying that?

I initially considered this an affectionate homage, retroactive recognition of the role Moore played in defining the DC Universe (which is coming to the fore with both Blackest Night and Brightest Day among other things), which was long overdue (if only because characters like Swamp Thing and Constantine were isolated in Vertigo limbo). I don’t believe Moore ever wrote himself into his comics (and so couldn’t really be one of Morrison’s Seven Unknown Men), but – if he were – he’d certainly be the one to go “rogue”, as it were. And it is a magnificent beard. Unfortunately, a bit of research informed me that the two are not on the best terms – so it was unlikely to be as affectionate as I might have hoped. It’s a shame, because they’re two great writers.

The cast is on a collision course...

JH Williams is always worth a look, and his work here doesn’t disappoint. It’s a shame that he only did the bookending chapters, but he’s perfectly suited to it. He can emulate anybody’s style (while putting his own mark on it) like nobody’s business, and his artwork here is certainly highly impressive.

Seven Soldiers is a comic book experiment like I’ve never seen. It’s a crossover that isn’t really a crossover, where the events ripple across the seven miniseries like stones skipping across the surface of a lake. It’s bold and ambitious, but – more than that – it’s successful. It’s perhaps the most impressive major crossover than either of the two big companies has put out in quite some time.

Check out our complete collection of reviews of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series:

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