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Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory: The Bulleteer (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.

There’s a whole class of people in hospital wards, Mrs. Harrower, people who’d do just about anything to hang out with the skintight crowd. They expose themselves to radioactive materials or drink home-made potions… They interact with venomous insects and dangerous animals in the expectation of receiving some totem power.

There’s not a lot of sympathy among medical staff who have to clean up the mess.

The Bulleteer is a wonderful deconstruction of the superhero world we see so often reflected in the comics of Marvel and DC. These characters were created decades ago, in a different world. Writing elsewhere last year, I wondered if the very concept of a secret identity is outdated, a genre convention which doesn’t reflect the modern world. Clark Kent is a modest cover for Superman, a creation which afford him the opportunity to pretend to be normal, a humble camouflage that seemed perfectly quaint in the thirties. These days, I wonder if people would even bother. After all, in this era of instant celebrity and reality television, with the entire world aspiring to become “special”, why would you ever want to be normal?

What happens when the shine comes off?

Alix Harrower is cursed with her abilities, much like a lot of those early superheroes. Morrison has claimed that his writing here is heavily inspired by Len Wein, but there’s a definite trace of Jack Kirby thoughout these seven miniseries. As such, Harrower’s “secret origin” somewhat reflects the type of iconic heroes that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created at Marvel, like The Incredible Hulk or The X-Men or The Fantastic Four – characters that didn’t opt to become special, and never set out to don a cape or spandex, but became so accidentally (by birth or by science gone awry).

Alix’s origin is one of pure dumb luck. She’s married to a scientist who really wants to be a superhero (and really wants to sleep with a superhero), but she has no interest. “Your beloved husband told me everything about your bland boring life together,” her husband’s mistress gloats. “How you refused to dress up as a superhero for him, even at Halloween!” She can’t understand her husband’s aspirations or fantasies, and his own selfish, reckless experiment ends up transforming her into a strange genetic freak. He just killed himself.

Some heroes crash and burn...

Alix was a teacher. She had a life, one that she can’t go back to looking like she’d been “replaced by a robot.” She can’t wrap her head around why anybody would want something like this. Attending a superhero convention with the likes of (at the time) low-rent characters like Booster Gold and Aquaman, she wonders, “What is it with everyone here? Why are you all so obsessed with being special?”

Morrison offers us an idea of what life is like for a z-list superhero. There have been hints of this developed throughout Morrison’s entire Seven Soldiers event, with the roster of characters in Seven Soldiers #0 and the superhero support group from Zatanna, but here it’s pushed to the fore, as Alix christens herself “the bulleteer” and finds herself protecting a low-rent celebrity in order to make ends meet. We’re presented with the trashier side of superheroics, where bitter failures get together looking for some sort of mutual validation. “Aquaman just walked away with best comeback!” one sidekick protests during the awards ceremony. “All he did was shave!”

The gunman and the bulleteer...

It’s interesting that this allows Morrison the chance to play with various superhero conventions, in particular the concept of “legacy” titles, with new heroes adopting brand names associated with veteran characters. The widow of the original Bullet Man is somewhat offended by Alix’s choice of identity, in a great little moment. “Say, why not call yourself Missile Girl, anyway?” the old woman demands. “Does it even matter to you that you’re cashing in on someone else’s good name?” It’s a nice little self-aware acknowledgement of a lot of what Morrison is doing – a lot of these characters featured in Seven Soldiers carry on the name of an older hero, even if there’s little (or no) direct link between the old and the new heroes.

Alix finds herself in a world populated with superheroes granted a unique physical attribute. It’s interesting to see how the character is effectively pigeon-holed into being a superhero, even though she clearly doesn’t want it. The universe itself seems designed to take a person with those attributes and make them a hero – as her suicide attempt becomes her first adventure. Perhaps it’s a wry observation of the way that superheroes dominate the comic book industry, despite the range of stories that can be told. Alix wants to be the star of her own personal drama, but that isn’t the place for that sort of story. She has impenetrable skin, she’s in a comic book: therefore she’s a superhero. Whether she wants to be or not.

Stuffed in the fridge...

The Bulleteer also affords Morrison the opportunity to explore the exploitation that we frequently see in superhero comics, when it comes to female heroes. Alix’s husband had a superhero fetish, browsing websites for “Eternal Superteens” and carrying on an affair with a young homewrecker by the name of “Sally Sonic.” Sally herself is revealed to have found herself in the superhero trade in the same way that many young women find themselves in prostitution – a victim of childhood abuse in a home she left, befriended and offered a home by a seemingly charming man, who takes advantage of her and gets her addicted to drugs (“Mister Hyde’s Evil Serum”). Indeed, Dennis can’t wait to sell on pornographic pictures of the heroine.

Even Alix finds herself in a few awkward and uncomfortable positions over the course of the story, such as when another hero suggest using her cleavage to control the fans at a superhero convention. “If you want to speed up a line of shy fanboys, you unbutton and show more cleavage,” he advises her, which seems uncomfortably close to some of the disturbingly misogynistic practices I’ve heard about at comic conventions. Indeed, there an appearance of a superheroine calling herself “Dumb Bunny”, who parades around in a Playboy outift while describing her powers as, “My brain is totally made of solid muscle.” This, Morrison points out, is comic books at their most casually sexist.

Waiting for her big break?

The story is well aware of how cynical and exploitative these superhero comics can be on occasion. This is, after all, a genre where Batman gets to wear a suit of full body armour and Wonder Woman wears… well, very little. I’m not sure what to make of Yanick Paquette’s art, which features the Bulleteer time and time again in pants so tight that they seem uncomfortable, while the script takes every opportunity to feature the character in her undergarments. I guess it’s pretty self-aware and intentionally uncomfortable, seeing this kind of voyuerism while Morrison is attempting to draw our attention to it.

I have to admit, I am actually a little disappointed that the Bulleteer has shown up in a few DC comics down the line (as a minor reference in events like 52 or Infinite Crisis). It almost undermines Morrison’s conclusion here, that some out of the seeming millions of people who end up with superpowers in the DC Universe might reject that, and the destiny that comes with it. The superhero archetype is so firmly established in our mind – the flow which goes from “you got a gift” to “wear a costume and fight crime (or cause crime)” with such speed – that the ending of the story, with Alix “saying no” to her special destiny, is a shock to the system, a breath of fresh air. Even though the forces of narrative pull her back in one more time as a member of the Seven Soldiers, it’s still astounding to see a “gifted” individual reject that world so firmly, and it’s a shame to see she’s become yet another superhero used to fill out the background in panels for big events.

Get the point?

Still, even if the ending hasn’t stuck, The Bulleteer is a wonderfully cheeky look at the world of mainstream superheroics from the outside, from somebody with no interest or obligation or higher calling, somebody who just got caught up in something bigger and is trying to make ends meet. Despite her chrome skin, Alix is perhaps the most deeply human of the Seven Soldiers.

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

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