Triumph of the Diluted Ambition (or: This Comic is Full of It!)

Wonders…” “Fairy tales.”

In my deepest, darkest moments at 3 AM, I imagine dying to save the universe.”

The person you’ll be helping us to kill… is yourself, Tom.”

Seven Soldiers #1

Isn’t it funny how everything connects?

- all lines from Seven Soldiers #0


I liked this comic. I liked its sound and its fury. I liked its confidence - how, in the event that it’s even aware of what a corner it has backed itself into, it simply doesn’t think the danger matters much. This comic genuinely doesn’t seem to mind that it’s like an old sweater unraveling as it’s put on; it only needs to last one more night, and it’s getting through it, come hell or moths.

Yeah. I think what I like the very most about this comic is that represents as graceful a compromise as ambitious, foolhardy writer/character/mastermind Grant Morrison could manage, given the baggage of the piece. Let’s get a few things out of the way right now - the book is entirely incoherent if you haven’t read the rest of the Seven Soldiers megaproject, it absolutely refuses to slow down for catch-ups or synopses of anything that’s gone before, it’s pretty evidently the product of a somewhat intense compression of a larger initial draft, and the issue #1 shield in the upper right corner of the cover doesn’t at all mean the book is going to behave like a beginner-friendly introduction to the delightful universe of Seven Soldiers, as if an ongoing series is poised to spring into action out of the comics Immateria. The issue #1 designation is superficially a joke -- ho ho, it’s actually the final issue of the 30-comic project, you see -- and thematically a signal of the completion of Morrison’s ongoing focus on transformation and wide-view superhero perfection.

But again, it’s a compromise.

Surely most of us recall those days back when Seven Soldiers #0 first hit the stands. We all rode our dinosaurs down to the comics store to get our copies and bask in the glow of multiple advertisements for the Keanu Reeves blockbuster Constantine. And Seven Soldiers was meant to be series of seven miniseries, four issues to each, with a pair of overall bookend issues. Each series would stand alone. No! Each issue would stand alone! The DC universe itself would spring to life (unless that was a prior project)! And there would be no metaphors at all! And they’d all juggle and sing!

And Seven Soldiers #0, as I wrote in my review back in February of 2005, “doesn’t work very well at all as a single story, and I’d hate to read it as an early indicator of the project’s ambitions not quite panning out.” And no, the project’s ambitions didn’t quite pan out. Hell, even the miniseries didn’t end in much of a conclusive manner, all of them culminating in some form of cliffhanger in anticipation of the grand finale, this very book we’re looking at right here, in November of 2006.

But that’s ok, you see.

It quickly became obvious that Morrison was either fooling around to begin with regarding his modular storytelling chatter, or had quickly decided that the plan wasn’t working well at all. So he switched approaches, and I think it can be felt when reading the megaproject all over again, free of the preconceptions of what the series was supposed to be doing, with all attention devoted to what it is doing: playing a little tune of evolution and intelligent design, in seven variations. I realize a number of people are waiting for the trade paperbacks to experience this series, but I really do feel it’s best absorbed as thirty separate comics. It’ll thrive in back-issue bins, unsuspecting folk stumbling upon whichever miniseries, since they heard it was good or want to complete an artist’s catalogue, and then leafing through the other series, uncovering all sorts of curious connections between them. And believe me, there’s an amazing amount of stuff to uncover after you’ve read it all the first time - Zatanna in particular is chock-full of passing comments and subtle asides that take on all new meanings after you’ve seen the big picture.

The big picture was Morrison’s fallback, if indeed it wasn’t his true intent from the beginning, and he’s served it richly. I’d rather he give up his initial modular plans to amp up the big picture as much as he does; better than staying the course with a faltering engine of self-contained storytelling. Seven Soldiers is rife with little failures, but they are instructive as the sacrifices one might need to make in pursuing a mad, towering construction. Take the flaws, the darkened bits, bury them in Slaughter Swamp, plant a black flower. Keep going, keep going. Don’t worry.

Haven’t you heard, Zachary Zor? They all live happily ever after.”

So, what about this megaproject anyway? How does it all end, and what does it add up to? Well, I thought it ended quite nicely from a simple aesthetic standpoint. And I’m not just talking about J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart and Todd Klein, though their contributions are excellent; a more surefire art team you’ll rarely find in today’s superhero comics. No, I mean the whole comic semi-coheres in the most interesting way. Scandalously, the book kicks off with a leisurely introduction featuring several moments of author-to-reader chit-chat and nine big pages of mythic backstory, before slamming on the gas and careening through the fates of all seven soldiers as they face off against the evil of the Sheeda, or maybe Darkseid (who, amusingly, is never once referred to by his proper name at any point in the project), or sometimes just their inner squeamishness over being a superhero. It’s hardly a smooth ride, with popular characters getting sidelined after little more than cameos, and more and more important information being left up to inference, as if important exit signs are whizzing by before anyone can see what they say.

But I loved the experience. I kind of got a buzz off of it, really, the wall of information Morrison just throws up in the reader’s face (and lord knows nobody can handle depictions of walls of info like Williams), making it all but impossible to entirely grasp what the fucking book is doing on the first read-through. Isn’t that a failure? I don’t think so - I guess if you value instantaneous clarity, you’ll be upset. I really do think enough of the story, the underlying emotional drive of it -- Guardian getting his girl back in the most rapturously cheesy manner, Justin sitting in the field in despair only to have her sword returned, the new Mister Miracle psychedelically exploding out of his grave -- comes through more than enough to please the senses with the broadest of movements. The subtleties can wait for future readings.

Morrison doesn’t cheat, by the way. Everything in this issue is somehow set up earlier in the megaproject, even the bits that seem obscure, or off-putting. I’m talking big beats; Aurakles is set up fairly early, and permeates pretty much everything once you connect the dots from his birth at the hands of the New Gods to his capture and chaining at the hands of Melmoth and the Sheeda to his sale to Dark Side to the fates of all the seven treasures to the origins of the Sheeda’s time powers. I’m also talking little things, like how the final 'Dogfather' gag synchs up with a fanboy conspiracy theory espoused in Bulleteer #3, or how the moment with Zor’s hat being taken away mirrors his cruel snatching of Ali-Ka Zoom’s whimsical headwear in Guardian #4, or how doomed Shelly Gaynor’s uncertainty-soaked words from Seven Soldiers #0 are extended into a triumphant form, or how gorgeously the ‘tailor’ motif concludes itself.

I’m even talking the whiplash conclusion of the main action, which I must remind you occurs when Zatanna casts a spell to resolve the plot and the lead villain is killed by being struck with an errant vehicle. Oh no, Zatanna doesn’t actually cry “TOLP EVLOSER!” (emphasis on the ‘loser,’ in my case), but that’s for all intents and purposes what happens, especially considering that Merlin/Gwydion is made of living language and has “been the story in a thousand books” and helpfully transforms into panels from the story thus far when Zee lets him loose; never mind that Zatanna has earlier done the Animal Man thing and become (vaguely) aware of what’s going on outside the panels anyway. Honestly, given the project’s overarching emphasis on metatextual concerns of how to handle a superhero universe, it’s a perfect, even inevitable climax that one of the characters would use magic to just conclude the plot because hey - everyone’s consciousness has been raised, and time and pages are running out.

Transformation and consciousness raising are generally Morrison’s stock in trade, and Seven Soldiers has given him his biggest stage yet upon which to present an overriding symposium on happy developments and personal improvements. That familiar-looking old man with the DC pin ain’t kidding when he says “it starts at the very beginning… and goes all the way to the very end.” Morrison wants to cover anything and everything this time around, which is why all seven miniseries tackle a different permutation of what the ‘superhero’ can be like - there is a need for change all around, the enlightened adulthood, and Williams’ art quite brilliantly conveys an absorbing sense of diversity on these pages. Implicitly, it’s shown that a superhero universe can hold all sorts of things, and the keepers of that universe must be mindful of what they do. There’s good tailors and bad tailors - the latter use the mechanisms of ‘maturity’ to gratify their own nasty urges. Indeed, Zor was revealed at the end of Zatanna’s series to have set humanity onto the path of becoming Sheeda - it doesn’t take much thought to grasp Morrison’s critique of the poisonous influence of shitty, shocking storytelling choices on a superhero universe, the result being a debauched state of strip mining the past forever with zero care.

This is all taking place in a book packed with old characters and older references, mind you, melting the ice under Morrison’s feet to a feathery thinness as far as I’m concerned. The argument can be made that the maintenance of a shared superhero universe of decades-old copyrights is inherently a plundering of older things. But Morrison seems to anticipate this; he doesn’t advocate a wholesale corruption in the system while profiting from it, but merely screams for better craftsmanship, smarter developments, healthier attitudes. Hell, Zachary Zor is ultimately smothered/transmogrified in a miser’s coat, “[t]hreadbare and ragged… the work of too many hands to ever fit properly… not much of a disguise, you’d think. But watch it fool the locals.” Is the multiverse of diverse tailor’s hands enough to drown out the nastiest storylines? Will the bad be saddled with the hell of their shoddy work and the good left to replace them when the people demand their tearing down? I don’t know, Grant - have you heard of Onslaught Reborn?

But it’s a nice tune. He sings it seven times, “making his point over and over again, in seven variations, as if he needs to continuing shouting it until he’s reached the number of god,” as I wrote a while back.

Although actually, was it only seven?

Witness poor Mister Miracle. Detached from the rest of the project. His segment’s very pacing was different, as if it was some extraneous New Gods idea Morrison had bouncing around that he opted to press into production by attaching it to his Big New Thing. I mean, Mister Miracle never even realizes the Sheeda threat! He’s the only one who meets Aurakles, yes, but he doesn’t quite know who the hell he is. His death sequence is well-handled, what with his simultaneous conversations with Dark Side and Darkseid as man and god at once, and the concluding headshot that almost seems like a homage to the Blue Beetle’s final exit in Countdown to Infinite Crisis.

But, why free Aurakles?

At heart, because it’s the heroic thing to do.

Why did a soldier have to die? Weren’t seven needed?

Sure - but there were only seven after Shilo got shot. It’s maybe Morrison’s best little plot gambit that he counted on us forgetting about I, Spyder, the golden boy of the Time Tailors. All through the project, we’ve seen gangs of six getting killed. Given that, and the convenient fact that there’s seven miniseries, it’s natural to presume that the seven soldiers we’ve been following were the seven soldiers of legend. But I, Spyder follows the rules as well. He never ‘meets’ any of the other soldiers (though he observes Justin and Alix, in the same way Klarion sneaks up on Frankenstein before stripping his free will). He appears to face a crisis, and apparently becomes renewed (several times, both through the Time Tailors and Vigilante, phantom of exposition). Indeed, one is left with the feeling that Tom Dalt had an eighth, shadow miniseries of his very own, paralleling everyone else’s, a weave of the cloth (strand of the web?) we were never made privy to.

But even detached Mister Miracle is a hero, an eighth soldier, and he comes back in the end. All the soldiers died in a way, confronting their problems over the course of the miniseries and becoming something else in the end, reborn. The choppy nature of Morrison’s writing even perversely seems to facilitate this - Frankenstein and Klarion have particularly abridged conclusions, and everyone’s final fate is left conspicuously up in the air, and I’m not so dizzy from my reading experience to suggest that this isn’t significantly due to Morrison’s having to ferociously edit down his original ten billion page draft of this last chapter, but I do insist that it’s fitting. These characters have to live in the DCU, after all! They need to be handled by others! They’re not given the burden of much finality, so others might easily slip in, and the current tailor might slip out. Like they said in connection-rich Zatanna:

Don’t forget to tell her about the last rule of magic. The one where the magician has to vanish along with his trick. Leaving the audience, and his beautiful assistants, to go on without him.”

And anyway, now the road is clear for that awesome Klarion/Frankenstein team-up book I’ve been itching for. And they have a time machine. These pitches write themselves!

So that’s the end, except it isn’t the end. Note a final time that #1 on the cover. It’s not a #1 in any normal way, but it fesses up to the fact that there’s gonna have to be a universe for these characters to run around in later, so they might as well be the best characters they could be. Seven Soldiers is like Grant Morrison own, private Infinite Crisis, except largely internal. The big upheavals and recreations are those of the self, not the universe. Let the other Events take care of that. If the lone writer is going to make it in these comics, maybe it’s better to fall back and look inward as Earths live and die, and trust in heroism and the grand weave to throw out the bad, with just enough effort. We might find something fresh out there in that well-charted world through exploration of the infinite depths of the person, the creator, the character, and all of the above.

But don’t forget… there’s a third road.”