Made it by a hair.

*New column. On photographs and realist art, and 1985. All is new. And a column. Read!

*Things I Stupidly Left Off of My 2006 Anticipation List Dept: Some news just came out today that’s sure to stoke the flames burning in every artcomics enthusiast’s belly - Kramers Ergot 6 is coming your way, Summer 2006, and now it’s apparently being co-published by editor Sammy Harkham’s own Avodah Books and the increasingly visible Buenaventura Press, with Alvin Buenaventura himself signing on as assistant editor. And best of all, Buenaventura has released a tempting (though NOT SAFE FOR WORK) 10-page preview. The full contributor list has not yet been released, but the preview features work by Matthew Thurber, Helge Reumann (of Elvis Studio), Ron Rege Jr., Paper Rad, Jerry Moriarty, Tom Gauld, Vanessa Davis, Chris Cilla, and Victor Cayro (UPDATE 1/23/06 2:31 AM: and, according to Brian Nicholson in the comments section below, Shary Boyle), so I guess it’s safe to presume that they’ll all be in there. The book will be in full-color, 300+ pages, in the usual slightly oversized format, and will feature “the first English translation of an influential work of manga.” I’m hooked! Kramers Ergot 5 was the best comics anthology of 2004, hands down, and I have only the highest hopes for this latest edition.

Seven Soldiers - Mister Miracle #3 (of 4)


The choice is simple. Free the bright ones or be slaves to the dark. Live and join us. Or die for Darkseid. Look for me when the roads cross.”

- Metron, to Shilo Norman, in the first issue of this miniseries

Situations recur throughout this project. The predominant theme in Seven Soldiers is transformation of the self, and it seems that each of the seven title characters arrive at their transformations in extremely similar, yet utter disparate ways, each issue’s storytelling ‘beats’ identically backing separate plot dressings. Each issue #3 features someone confronting a great, climactic challenge on their road to transfiguration: Justin’s capture by the Sheeda, the collapse of Guardian’s personal relationships, Zatanna’s stumbling onto a grand scheme that forcer her to question her young apprentice, Klarion’s realization that he must save his abandoned relations from yet another betrayer of a father figure. And accordingly, all of them are ultimately fortified and ready for betterment by the end of issue #4: Justin destroys her irrevocably lost love and proves to be quite a knight, Guardian’s faith in his own heroism is revitalized, Zatanna’s investigation into the big picture reveals almost everything she wanted to know, and Klarion defeats all anti-dads and maybe becomes a Witch Man - he even undergoes an impressive (if temporary) physical transformation in the process.

Thus, we arrive at Mister Miracle. I’m beginning to get the idea that Morrison knows this particular segment of the epic isn’t going to be overflowing with plot connections to the rest of the project (though do enjoy the special guest appearances of Guardian and Klarion, both of them as seen in their own issues #3), so he’s compensating by making the matching plot beats bigger. Shilo is not merely lost and sad at the beginning of his story, he’s a monied media superstar who can’t seem to find his place in life. He doesn’t just reach a personal crossroads in issue #2, he finds himself literally caught between a war of gods with his very personality on the line. And at the end of this issue, his challenge is far and away the most drastic of anything seen in this project: he’s blasted with the Anti-Life Equation, he’s made to beg for his life, his fame is usurped by a cynical knock-off, he’s thrashed with baseball bats, he’s doused in gasoline and lit aflame, he has certain portions of his anatomy forcibly extracted via bolt cutters - it’s really quite extreme, though I can’t say it’s all that worse in a ‘graphic violence’ sense than, say, Zor having his intestines exposed on-page in Zatanna #4. The kick is that this is the ‘hero’ of the book getting trounced in a decidedly permanent, physically destructive way.

Let me assure you, there’s not much suspense here as to the outcome - I think we can all presume that Shilo is going to do something to triumph next issue (not only because we’re aware he’s needed in Seven Soldiers #1, but because that’s how all of these miniseries end). It’s how writer Grant Morrison plans to get him there that holds my interest. Last issue, I noted that this particular appendage of the project wasn’t working all that well on its own terms; it’s gotten a little better this issue on that particular level. It’s smart of Morrison to transform the Anti-Life Equation into a state of mind, a destructive meme that paralyzes the victim into a mode of depression (not unlike that of Justin in Shining Knight #2, though her depression leads her to a crossroads rather than constituting her grand challenge) and forwards the agenda of evil. Certainly it’s no coincidence that Guardian and Klarion make their appearances during the Anti-Life sequence, both of them also caught up in their own struggles, Guardian’s significant other fighting with him, Klarion being dragged around on Melmoth business, and every one of those scenes marked off with the caption “Self = Dark Side.” It’s a great means of unifying the project’s ongoing concerns, tying this series to some superficially unattached chapters through common points of characterization. The villainy here is mainly psychological, for all the grotesque physical harms inflicted.

And then there’s the Kirby connections, that kingly credit offered in every issue. As reader RAB mentioned in the comments section of my review of issue #2 of this miniseries: “[t]he real story of Kirby's first nine issues was about this character, Scott Free, who escaped an absolutely horrific and soul-crushing childhood to become a figure of compassion and courage, and who then faced repeated threats from his past trying to drag him back down into despair.” Given this, and what I’ve learned about Kirby’s own Mister Miracle concepts, it seems that Morrison is paying a good deal of homage toward the conceptual aspects of the original character. If Scott Free’s real escape is his flight from Apokolips and his own upbringing, it makes sense that Shilo Norman’s greatest ‘escape’ is to be something similar. Indeed, he’s already managed one terrific escape in this very issue: “Behold. Unique among living creatures. Immune to the Anti-Life Equation.” If Kirby’s idea of escape was truly psychological, Morrison’s spin makes it explicitly psychological. Some have theorized that Shilo is actually still trapped in the black hole from issue #1, and that’s what’s coloring this series’ outlook on good stamped by evil - it’s a tempting theory, but I can’t sign on. I’ll agree that this Mister Miracle is still on Apokolips, but ‘Apokolips’ in this version is a state of mind to be escaped (but then, perhaps it always was?).

The life trap has you in its grip.”

And there’s only one way out…”

It’s not Metron that Shilo encounters at the end of this issue, but it’s clear that Mister Miracle will have to pull off an amazing escape to survive. First he must escape the confines of his now-crippled physical form. Then he must truly escape Apokolips, the perception of life as self-loathing, and all of the brutalities that accompany it (the inattentive conversation of the goons mutilating Shilo is a bit obvious - ha ha, they’re desensitized to violence! - but it conveys the point appropriately in the midst of a scene of a superhero having his man parts shorn). Can this material land on the non-acclimated reader? Maybe not as direct homage to Kirby, but I think the idea of ‘escape’ as a truly mental thing does register clearly in this issue, and it interacts nicely with the other character bits of the project as a whole.

Other aspects of the storytelling don’t go down as smoothly - the introduction of Shilo’s lady friend and her subsequent turn to (the) Darkside is kind of abrupt and only serves as thematic collateral. I sort of sniggered at the brief media painting of Shilo as a Tom Cruise-type suddenly eccentric superstar, though the bits about mass culture appropriating innovation and processing it into lesser commodity just seem kind of tired. The ‘glowing orb as drug abuse’ metaphor was just silly (though maybe that’s a plus…). Freddie E. Williams II’s art is an improvement on issue #2’s visuals, the plastic sheen of many characters taking on a more appropriate feel given the story’s revelations. One still can’t escape a notion of this miniseries pulling itself together almost in spite of itself, its individual parts not really holding up, but strengths ultimately overcoming weaknesses - escaping, I guess.

This is probably the most difficult of the Seven Soldiers miniseries to enjoy with immediacy, though it serves a useful purpose by coaching its progression of character transformation in cosmic terms, grand struggle and brutal violence, without toppling into obviousness. There’s not much doubt that Kirby fans might derive more pleasure from this than everyone else, though I think the rest of the readers out there will find this book to be an increasingly rewarding, if somewhat wobbly experience.