Just presume that there's ***SPOILERS*** running throughout this whole Seven Soldiers post.

*Lovely, very chummy Howard Chaykin/Walt Simonson interview up at Newsarama. Lots of neat tidbits on their upcoming Hawkgirl run, though my personal favorite part was the revelation that the book would be scripted in the Mighty Marvel Manner (writer does outline, artist constructs pages, writer fills in dialogue), as that suggests that Chaykin will be handling the page designs largely on his own, which is one of the keys to his style’s visual impact. Also - Chaykin is working on some sort of Guy Gardner project, though I don’t know if he’s only scripting it.

*Also found at Newsarama - apparently, Duncan Fegredo is now the artist for the upcoming Hellboy miniseries Hellboy: Darkness Calls. He will replace Lee Bermejo, the original artist slated for the series, which will be the first ‘major’ Hellboy storyline to not feature creator Mike Mignola on art. The whole thing has accordingly been pushed back to a September 6, 2006 release.

Seven Soldiers - Zatanna #4 (of 4)

Ooooh, so maybe that’s why the metafiction elements of Mister Miracle #1 got cut - they’ve been moved to over here!

Upon completing this issue, my first thought was that it’d be utterly incoherent for anyone not closely following the entire Seven Soldiers project. Actually, some might find it incoherent anyway; this is writer Grant Morrison working fast and loose with logic and/or explanations, and getting especially high on image and exclamation - this sort of thing can easily lose readers not inclined to embrace a certain degree of peculiarity in their superhero clashes. But then I pulled out the other three issues of this particular miniseries, and I now realize that there’s been as definite a character progression throughout these four books as there’s been in each Seven Soldiers title; taken as one unit, Zatanna is at best a series of anecdotes, vignettes intended to present moments in the title character's journey to a greater self-confidence, but the 'transformation' theme as present throughout this entire project is clearly here as well.

I think what I now like most about this miniseries is the visual highlighting of Zatanna’s uncertainty, her inability to make peace with her memories of her father - she’s been searching for his four lost books, after all, as if collecting them can offer her the sort of security in her powers (as the carrier of her father’s formidable legacy - again, the motif of newer heroes affected by those from the past arises) that she can’t always produce on her own. Thus, most of the villains in this title sport a visual design that mocks the image of her father: the mustache, the long face, the magic. Gwydion’s pre-capture form, The Tempter, and this issue’s Zor, an old foe of The Spectre - all of them reflect Zatanna’s interior struggle. “...I guess you could call the whole experience a confrontation with my own guilt and self-doubt,” Our Heroine helpfully notes at the conclusion of this issue, and it seems to me like a valid analysis.

Of course, things are hardly self-contained here on the whole: Zor is apparently also the Terrible Time Tailor from Guardian #4 (various characters’ commentary and the twin references to black flowers here and in that earlier book seem to confirm such a guess), and there’s also plenty of references to Shining Knight, and the Seven Unknown Men make another appearance. The latter is most noteworthy, and not only because penciler Ryan Sook opts to draw the Seven as far more explicitly resembling the project’s writer than average (one of the niggling issues with this project is that the various art teams apparently can’t settle on a single set of character designs for the ‘shared’ members of the cast - at least the ever-thoughtful Morrison gave most of these characters special attributes that could explain their varying forms, like the slightly amorphous body of Neh-Buh-Loh, the skin-swapping nature of Melmoth, the outside-time status of the Seven Unknown Men, etc.). Here is where the project makes its (heretofore lightly lobbed) commentary on the revamping of superheroes extremely explicit.

It’s already been established that Zor is in the business of watching and altering realities - in other words, he’s a writer of established universe superhero comics (stay with me). But his motives are decidedly impure: “I will make playthings of you all! You will love and kill and die at my command!” He’s also interested in introducing only the most foul strains of ‘maturity’ into the places he views: from Guardian #4 - “My world has no place for smart-ass kids... now go try on the clothes I’ve made... I make special clothes, see. Suits you’ll wear when you’re older.” The revamping writer as ‘tailor’ metaphor is a potent one - see the various costume and equipment upgrades the Seven Unknown Men brandish in Seven Soldiers #0 as they prepare for the miniseries to come - and the image of a Terrible Tailor creating oppressively heavy garments, seemingly out of sheer self-indulgence, works well. It’s no wonder that he’d loose the culture-razing Sheeda on his poor subjects. Ah, but the Seven Unknown Men are here; but though they’re a group of seven, that Sheeda-hated godly number, they will only set events in motion, allowing pre-existing characters to grow, to develop more gracefully - Enlightened Maturity.

Perhaps this all ties back to Morrison’s occasionally stated theory of superhero universes as living entities (amusingly, the conflicted villain Neh-Buh-Loh actually is a living universe, though one devoid of superheroism in anything but the most nascent sense, from what we know), free to develop on their own and survive past whichever creative teams are currently tending to them - the crux of Seven Soldier’s conflict thus tellingly rises from an evil creative, one who threatens to destroy everything through his arrogance and vanity (“Liar! It’s a magnificent beard and I know you want one!”). And, if we’re in a particularly playful mood, we might want to compare this project to the DCU’s other current big deal, Infinite Crisis, which is also concerned with the current status of superhero storytelling (ain’t the era of decadence grand?).While Morrison approaches matters through layers of metaphor and analogy and citation of parallel heroic themes and, yes, the occasional burst through the fourth wall, Infinite Crisis has thus far literally brought back an old Superman to literally chat about the DCU's status whilst literally viewing scenes from stories past and literally suggesting that past worlds be revived. Meanwhile, the Seven Unknown Men work (mostly) through more indirect means, as does the One Known Man pulling most of the strings. But Morrison is no citizen of Earth-2; he does not desire a return to the past, only a more richly-considered future.

That’s what I found most interesting about Zatanna #4, in both the self-contained and macrocosmic senses, although the actual plot of this issue mainly features evil magicians firing bullets from their eyes and Our Heroine sneaking around behind panels like it’s a Harvey Kurtzman gag page and heated narrations and the like (Barbelith tells me that the big fight here is apparently an extended homage to an old Spectre battle of issues past). Eventually the magic gets so intense that Zatanna breaks through the very boundaries of fiction, and she even gets what she’s been spending the whole miniseries searching for - and while the resolution of what exactly happened to Dad’s books is decidedly cliched, the character’s journey still feels authentic. And then, the concerns of the project at large drop from the sky, and we’re off again. Because newly enlightened heroes need something to do with themselves, after all.

Seven Soldiers - Frankenstein #1 (of 4)

But as one 'ends,' another begins. I notice that the exclamation point that used to be found at the end of the title has been jettisoned from everywhere but the information page in the back. And since we’re discussing details, does anyone else get the feeling that the '1955' caption on page four was supposed to be on panel four rather than panel three? Because the page would make a whole lot more sense in terms of both narrative and design that way.

Anyway, this series looks to be largely Sheeda-focused, based on this issue and the solicitations (and Morrison’s stated plans) for later installments. The book opens in a nice, catchy manner, with the title titan blowing recurring Seven Soldiers villain Melmoth’s head off with an enchanted gun (he’ll be back, as we know), but we soon delve into the exciting world of Sheeda breeding mechanics, as utilized as a metaphor for teenage insecurity. In short, a woefully unattractive kid is twisted by the Sheeda into exploiting his slightly better-adjusted classmates’ secret doubts, reading their minds (cutely conveyed by having him spot thought bubbles floating above everyone’s heads) and transforming them into quivering fodder for spine-riding metamorphosis (first sign of trouble? excessive Internet use!). Only the nice girl who cares for him can... er... wander around screaming until Frankenstein rises from the ground to stab that nerd in the fucking neck with a goddamned broadsword. One to grow on.

This particular plot pulls off the impressive trick of fitting in perfectly with the Sheeda’s backstory and accompanying themes, while still feeling like a slightly weary stock plot rolled out to fill time as the project hits issue #20. The execution seems weirdly tossed-off, from one character’s half-sniggering death scene (“I love you. In a totally doomed way that you’ll never forget.”) to the utterly bizarre background locale of ‘Excalibur Fantasy Butterfly World,’ which has an awesome name but... what is it? A butterfly supply store? A butterfly-themed fantasy/comics shop? I get the 'bad maturity v. good maturity'/'Sheeda-as-evil-butterflies' metaphor, but this is just awkwardly positioned, as if Morrison just liked the name and decided to roll with it for better or worse.

Still, there’s something to be said for a high school outcast story that ends with no forgiveness, no understanding, only the realization that some situations are so irrevocably poisoned that one can only burn down the school and move on. Doug Mahnke (veteran of a lot of DCU properties but still best known to me as the primary artist for The Mask) provides some decently grotesque visuals; his talents with the humorously vile are well-utilized on this subject matter, with our awful high school antagonist serving as a particular standout. There’s still a long way to go with this title, and I expect matters will level out soon.