Thursday, December 28, 2006

Seven Soldiers Of Victory

Action Over Reaction

In the glorious age of technological marvels, one of the oddest things about receiving comic books long after they are released is that you get to see the reaction to a work long before you get to read it yourself.

Usually, this isn't much of a problem, a little bit of self discipline can keep away the most obvious of spoilers and discussion of a specific comic can often be almost incomprehensible without actually reading it.

So when the final issue of Seven Soldiers came out a while back, it was easy enough to read the huge amount of criticism and analysis that inevitably followed on the internet. Comments about Aurakles and the New Gods were almost nonsensical without having read the issue in question, while the ultimate fate of many of the characters, including the death which was always breathlessly promised at the conclusion of each mini-series, were also surprisingly easy to avoid.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of online writing about the comic and the series as a whole quickly fell into two painfully predictable schools of thought. Obviously, there is always the odd notable exception such as the usual wonderful ramblings from the likes of Jog and Mark Singer, as well as Greg Burgas' current, commendable and almost courageous attempt at posting daily thoughts on every single issue in the project at Comics Should Be Good.

However, much of the discussion sadly soon settled into one of two patterns:

The first is one that Morrison must be incredibly familiar with, one that will always give him credit for his mad, wonderful ideas, but then remains certain that there is nothing more to it than that, usually resorting to the infuriatingly bland assertion that he is being weird for the sake of being weird.

That’s okay, a lot of people want their narratives simple and clean with no hint of anything like subtext or metaphor. But to simply say that Morrison’s work, and Seven Soldiers in particular, doesn’t make any sense is just wrong. There is a bit more substance in criticism that the sheer amount of material in each issue can sometimes overwhelm the story, but this, like everything else on Earth, is more than a little subjective.

Besides, anybody who doesn’t like Morrison’s work because of this is missing out on something wonderful. Shame.

The second pattern is much better, if not half as funny. The analytic approach always has its merits, but how much fun is it? Elaborate decoding of the text, reading a universe into each stray word balloon, a puzzle box just waiting to be open.

That’s all right for some, but you don’t have to decode the crossword in SS#1 if you don’t have to. It doesn’t matter who Aurakles is, you don’t need Wikipedia to get what Morrison is on about. Not if you don’t want to.

It all gets a bit dry, endless analysis, accounting for everything. All well and good, but what happens when you finally solve the puzzle? What then?
It’s no fun doing the same game twice, not until you forget how you solved it.

So what’s left?

Dry, hard facts: Seven Soldiers was a really big story composed of two bookends and seven four-issue limited series. It was written by Grant Morrison and drawn by a whole bunch of people. A lot of the readers liked some series, but didn’t enjoy others so much. Most of the time they gave good reasons for doing so.

The last issue was labelled #1, and was a bit late.

Is that it?

Fuck, no!


They keep telling us, we need to listen more. Modern media is saturated in it, from the Muppet fuckin’ Babies to the glory of Promethea: Imagination is the key. For everything.

So why not apply it to comics? Look at it this way: If you’ve got no imagination, that’s okay, there are 70 years worth of these four-colour adventures to fill the gaps in your head. Most of them are rubbish, but get them all and you’ll be happy. Just like you were when you solved that puzzle.

But it’s worth it to apply just a little effort. Don’t worry if your favourite sports team is playing the biggest game of the year this weekend, just for a moment. Put a little thought into it and you’re plugged in. It doesn’t matter if you miss an issue here or there, your brain will fill in the gaps. Chances are it will be more impressive than what actually happened. One day you’ll read that issue, and you’ll see for yourself.

Put it under the microscope and you’ve got Seven Soldiers. The first issue was the last and that wonderful geek consensus has it that it if you’ve read the whole mini-series, it’ll still be baffling and will take a long time to figure out. If you haven’t read the mini-series, any of them, than you’ll never understand what is going on.

Fuck that.

Ian Brill conducted a marvellous interview with Morrison for Newsarama, where the big fella made it quite clear why Seven Soldiers #1 was the perfect first issue, not just a high climax, but the place to start. He wanted to create that sensation you felt when you picked up your first comic and realised there was a huge, gigantic backstory.

Unless you were born more than fifty years ago, there has always been a Spider-Man. We are rapidly running out of people who were alive when Superman was first created. The only way to start right at the beginning with any of these comics is to belong to these groups, if they even care at that age what the Penguin’s first appearance in Batman was like.

Nearly all of us reading comics today had to start somewhere. Could have been anything. Picking up that Cockrum issue of X-Men with all those crazy aliens in the Imperial Guard, or trying X-Factor in the early nineties because you heard Peter David made it funny. The mythical jumping on point never fucking existed. There is always some backstory.

So bring on Seven Soldiers #1 as the starting point. Even better, give it to little kids. It will be a bit scary and scar them for life, but in a good way. Imprint this vast, colourful world on hungry, growing minds. Then give them an issue of the Frankenstein series when they turn seven. Biff, zam, POW!

Why not? Everybody has to start somewhere and we never really grow out of these sort of things. Nostalgia can be a bitch, choking the present under the weight of the past. But what if Seven Soldiers was your first comic?

Would you wonder who these odd heroes are, what they’re doing here? Imagination kicks in: The Manhattan Guardian is a World War Two soldier, who outlived all his peers on pure spite, while Klarion is off to rumble with Peter Pan. Why the fuck not?

The most obvious connection to all this is in the Zatanna series, where she breaks out of the comic page itself, with the gap between imagination and the reality on the page twisted beyond belief. She reaches out twice to the reader, it’s up to you to make the connection back. This is an old trick which Morrison has had a lot of fun with in the past, and fun is the name of the game!


A short while back DC released a six-issue limited series called The Battle For Bludhaven. It was absolute rubbish.

Clumsy stapling of the superhero ideal onto modern politics, events happening for no reason other than they have to, absolutely nothing resembling an ending, a ham-fisted attempt to re-invent old characters for a new century using the same old clichés. The awful interpretation of Seven Soldier’s SHADE as just another black-ops government with no regard for innocent life is a bit much, but even that is not as bad as the relentless carnage.

When there is a pretty crass use of suicide bombers, it’s hard to tell if the fact the bombers are beautiful, scantily-clad girls who are willing to lay down their lives for some drug dealer makes it better or worse. The very first page of the mini-series sees the death of, at the very least, thousands of people, but the loss of these people is barely touched upon. There are no relatives trying to live with their grief, their deaths have almost no impact. Even worse, the Teen goddamn Titans, DC’s occasionally successful super-team composed of kid sidekicks, has a killer who strikes with no mercy working with them. Ravager puts her blade into the back of Lady Liberty (the second to to die in this series) without a thought.

Is this what passes for heroism in the new millennium? Characters like the Punisher have enjoyed huge popularity with their willingness to kill people, but what makes Frank Castle almost morally acceptable is that he only kills really, really bad guys. People who absolutely deserve their fate: murderers, hitmen, rapists, child pornographers, the world will never miss these people. Sad, but true.

But there is absolutely no indication that Ravager’s opponent has done anything worthy of dying in a ruined city like she did. In a somewhat disturbing turn of events in the last few years, death has become the ultimate marketing tool, with Dan DiDio in particular riding the vulgar train with a breathless promise of more death and destruction in the future.

But when it is used in such a clumsy and random way, where is the concern?

Where is the impact?

The most obvious impact is, sadly, in the sales figures. DC have seen a significant number of sales jumps in killing characters ever since the Death of Superman, an event which might have seen the big man return after a few issues on the slab, but had to move on to the death of millions in Coast City to give his return any impact, even if the immediate affects of such a significant tragedy were limited to Green Lantern going mental for a while.

Even a character like Ted Kord has its fans and while they piss and moan about his death kicking off the whole Infinite Crisis bollocks, they still brought the fucking issue it happened in.

Random, meaningless death might seem like the current plan for the DC Universe, but over in the Seven Soldiers corner, the very opposite is happening. Life is celebrated in every aspect of the series, and the death of any person has profound impact.

Would Sally Sonic have gone wrong if she hadn’t lost her parents, or even the King of Teddy Bears? Would Jake permanently take over the Guardian identity if Larry had not died?

And just when this celebration of life gets a bit cloying, there is Mister Miracle, transcending that shit to lift himself up out of the Life Game. He dies with a smile on his lips and is reborn as the Newest God of all. Just next door, Zatanna pushes herself past her own boundaries and gets her own glimpse behind the curtain. These people will never die, even Bulletteer will survive me. It really doesn’t get any cooler than that.

The celebration of life is a recurring theme in Morrison’s work and the aging fan boys glee at their childhood heroes killing their opponents is mocked in the JLA: Classified series that served as a prologue to Seven Soldiers. Superman says death is a simplistic solution that creates more problems than it solves and if you can’t trust Superman, who can you trust?

In SS #1, the Newsboy Army know they’ll beat the bad guy, somehow. There is no doubt there, from the sureties of youth to the wisdom of age, the winning answer is always there, death solves nothing, life wins out. It will always win.

They’re not called the Seven Soldiers of Victory for nuthin’.


There is more to it than just that, of course. There always is.

The history of heroism, from the dawn of man to the death of the world, the importance of growing up and leaving childish things behind you, the plasticity of modern consumerism, the eternal dilemma of destiny versus free will, the importance of heritage combined with the shine of the new, bloody top hats and love and death and hate and all that.

So get comfortable and dip in. When you come back up for air, be grateful we live in this modern age where you don’t have to be alone with your thoughts on something. You can go online, follow up on the opinions of others, let them do the decoding if they want and use their own findings to enrich your own experience. It all melts together in the head, new observations mixing with the damned obvious. What difference does it make in the end.

Anyway, even if you just want to leave it all up to yourself, it’s all there in those 30 issues, there for the taking. Seven Soldiers was a really big story composed of two bookends and seven four-issue limited series. It was written by Grant Morrison and drawn by a whole bunch of people.

It was also really fucking good.