Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Seven Soldiers in six words

The six words are at the end of this post. Before I get there, some musings that will make no sense at all if you haven't read the comics in question.

On first reading Seven Soldiers #1 my immediate reaction was mild disappointment. The promotional copy leading up to this denouement had been pretty specific about what to expect. The seven lead characters were all coming at the threat of the Sheeda from different directions and held different pieces of the puzzle, which might have something to do with the seven imperishable treasures; two of the seven would cross paths; one would betray the others; and one, as every issue reminded us until we were sick of hearing it, would die.

The issue delivered each of those plot points as promised. (With the slight fudge that while only two of the seven met per se, we also saw one of the remaining soldiers, Bulleteer, walk right past the Manhattan Guardian...though they didn't meet..) We got the betrayal and the death from the most logical candidates for each. Can something count as a surprise if you believed it was too obvious a choice and expected the author to surprise you with another choice, but he didn't? That death turned out to be pretty anticlimactic. And one of the seven lead characters disappears more or less between panels; we never find out what ultimately happens to him.

Beyond that, the supposed "main event" -- the attempted Harrowing of modern civilization by the time-traveling Sheeda -- seemed to be treated as merely a background to the stories of the lead characters. The Sheeda were much more vivid and in focus when they were introduced in Morrison's preliminary three-part story for JLA Classified. Here at their big finish, they were just sort of...around. No armies of normal humans turned to zombies by Sheeda spine-riders, nothing to rival the subversion of the Ultramarines in that earlier story. They might as well have been a swarm of mosquitoes.

The whole thing was elegantly written -- structurally, it leaves Watchmen in the dust, and it's about time -- but on the surface it delivered only what was expected in terms of plot mechanics, and I was hoping for something more. Something that would stun me and make me look at everything which preceded it in a different light. Not something that merely fulfilled my expectations...

...But then there was that crossword puzzle. At first glance it looks like a simple joke, along with the scene between Carla and her mom rendered as a newspaper gag strip. But there was this:

ACROSS 1 - One of dead Suzi's twins, hidden in the whole name at Guardian Heights

The answer is "Lena" -- literally hidden in the "whole name" but also hidden at Guardian Heights, where Lena works with her twin brother Lars as gun-toting assistants to Ed Stargard, formerly Baby Brain of the Newsboys of Nowhere Street. There was nothing in the Guardian miniseries suggesting that Lena was anything more than a minor supporting character, certainly nothing to indicate she was another supporting character's daughter. But it had to have been mentioned here for a reason. More than merely being mentioned, it was hidden in a crossword clue...and hiding something is a way of saying it's important.

So Lena and Lars were the twins born to Chop Suzi before she died in childbirth. The other Newsboys blamed poor Captain 7 for her death -- he would be guilty of statutory rape, an 18 year old boy having sex with a 14 year old girl -- and they beat him into Ali Ka Zoom's magic cabinet, never to be seen again. But as Cameron Stewart, the artist on the Guardian miniseries, pointed out here...there's something odd about that. Lars and Lena are blond and blue-eyed Nordic types; certainly not the children you'd expect from the pairing of Suzi with the African-American Captain 7. Whatever else Captain 7 did or didn't do, he did not impregnate Suzi. Ed, the Baby Brain, knows this all too well. He takes in Suzi's twins and shelters them...and as adults they care for their father in his old age.

(Yeah, ick, right?)

And since this was hidden, and must be of some import to be mentioned at all, it made me start teasing out what else might be going on here.

Here's my best guess: Morrison writes in the Zatanna miniseries about the essential role of misdirection in magic. What if that's the best description of Seven Soldiers itself? What if the story that's supposedly being told -- seven superheroes versus time-traveling evil fairies, with its preordained, almost mechanistic conclusion -- is itself sleight-of-hand to conceal the actual story he's telling beneath the surface?

Who's really to blame for the murder of Captain 7? Zor, the Terrible Time Tailor, who weaves ugly destinies and forces children to wear them. Suzi was already pregnant when the Newsboys went to the old Gold place in Slaughter Swamp, looking for an explanation to the Sheeda mystery many years ago...but Zor created her tragic fate.

The whole series is full of bad or absent parental figures. Melmoth is the literal father of Misty, the blood progenitor of Frankenstein, and the father of Klarion's whole race. Glorianna is a wicked stepmother to Misty and corrupts knights to serve her. Klarion is betrayed by his long-lost runaway father. Sally Sonic is driven mad by her mistreatment at the hands of Vitaman, an older man who exploits her. Alix Harrower is the descendant of Auracles, driven mad by captivity. Auracles is a human son of absent Gods, and a vanished god to the people of Limbo Town. Shiloh Norman is scarred by the loss of his older brother, a parental surrogate and authority figure. Jake Jordan's father-in-law, a good parent, is killed. Zatanna seeks her lost good father, Zatara, while Zor impersonates him and literally tries to make her his evil daughter.

There are bad children as well. The people of Limbo Town raise up their dead fathers to serve them as unliving Grundy-Men. Klarion is amoral at best, and falls in with the exploited Billy Beezer and the Deviants. Nepton gets back at his overbearing mermaid mother Suli Stellamaris. Sally Sonic is meant to be a Lolita-esque seductress (though the art in Bulleteer obscures that). Frankenstein meets Uglyhead, a boy who works with the Sheeda. The Sheeda themselves are the ultimate bad children: they're our degenerate heirs, reduced to periodically looting the riches we create and unable to make any wealth of their own.

Good adults (such as Giovanni Zatara, Larry Marcus, Aaron Norman, even Metron) nurture and guide the young, creating heroes. Bad adults (such as Zor, Melmoth, Gloriana, Ebeneezer Badde, Vitaman) use and exploit the young, creating villains.

So maybe all this stuff about time-traveling evil fairies at the end of the world was a ruse. The real story is about child victims of psychological abuse by a bad adult manipulating people and events to bring down their abuser. The wronged children, grown to be neurotic and guilt-ridden adults, finally redeem themselves for their past crime of killing one of their own.

And when Zor faces his final punishment, it comes in the form of being made into a simulacrum of the miser Cyrus Gold -- significantly described as an old pervert who murdered some children -- and being sent out to face a 19th Century lynch mob in Gold's place. (Even that won't be the end of it: Zor-as-Gold is fated to rise up from Slaughter Swamp as the undead Solomon Grundy...)

Adults have the power to do terrible things to the innocence of childhood -- not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps even in the way adults use or misuse the fairy tales and comic book characters of childhood -- but sometimes the memory of childhood idealism has enough power to fight back and win in the end. Morrison never puts this into the foreground, but I think that's what the real story was. Or, to condense all of the above into six words:

"Adults mess children up: favor returned."


  1. Nice. I missed a lot of the 7 soldiers series but will try to read in trades. I liked the summation. In spires me more to read the trades than the final issue did.

  2. Based on everything I've gleaned about your tastes in comics, Charles, I think you'll find the whole thing well worth your while.

    The following not directed at you, but a general complaint: I'm baffled by the number of comments I've seen online from people who say they only read two or three of the twenty-nine (!) comic books leading up to the conclusion, if any at all, and then complain that the conclusion made no sense to them. Hey, let's just go around grabbing novels off the shelves and read the only last chapters of each, then complain that they don't give us enough information to follow the story! Or walk into movies for the last five minutes and moan that we don't know what's going on!

    There are legitimate complaints to be made about this wrap-up...but fairness demands that we at least approach it on its own terms (all I mean is, like reading a novel or watching a movie all the way through) before arguing that the ending doesn't work. Love it or hate it, a lot of thought clearly went into this project and it deserves a fair shake before being dismissed.

  3. Ah, brilliant, Rab. Spot on. I'd definitely been working up a thesis on the parenthood angle (Morrison's own dad did die just prior to his beginning the project I think) but I'd not clicked the old miser Cyrus as the final key. I mean, it's also about 70's superhero books, but you're spot on. Who needs Jog, eh?

  4. Fantastic write-up.

    Totally unrelated... help me out here but we know each other yeah, RAB? if you're who I think you are I had no idea you've been blogging. Wow. :)

  5. Very very nice...

    I've been puzzling over 'Lena', thinking I'd come up with the wrong answer -- not being able to put it into a larger context.

    (I'm still stuck on completing 2-Down, 9-Across, and the 'Strangers in the Night' for 4 and 5-Down...)

    Now, if Morrison is the identity of the Tailors ("all is one") then he is both the creator and the progeny, both literally and figuratively.

    'Bad' children would also nicely fit Hanna of Century Hollow, as she turns against 'poor' Jorge.

    I'd throw in another point for Zor as a 'real' father, too -- didn't he confess to having created the Sheeda in the first place? Very fitting for his character, too, as his first appearance against the Spectre wound up with him paralyzed 'forever', holding the secret to creating life. Also appropriate given that his -own- creator, Jerry Siegel, is indirectly responsible for this whole thing.

    I'm still pondering what Morrison is doing with the Fourth World. Over on the Beastmaster's blog there was talk of Morrison mixing the Eternals themes with the New Gods. I always saw it the other way around, that the Eternals contained some ideas Kirby never got the chance to reveal in the New Gods. Most specifically, I'm thinking of the Eternals Uni-Mind, in that I always believed that New Genesis and Apokolips were not some planets you could fly to but were instead located in the collective unconscious of Mankind.

    There's more things worthy of pondering if we look back at the prologue to the story, in Morrison's JLA Classified arc which first brought back Neh-Buh-Loh and introduced the infant universe of Qwewq. There's the cube-shape of Qwewq, of course, as the cube is something that flits throughout 7 Soldiers. Although the Justice League acts covertly on Qwewq as they try to catch Black Death (and what's the story behind him, I wonder...) they end up sending the infant universe heroes who are not known much for their covert-ness, the Ultramarine Corps, who would probably behave much like the New Gods acted in the infant universe of whatever they're calling the DC earth these days.

    The Corps is described by Superman as "superheroes who don't mind killing to achieve their ends..." which also sounds like what's supposedly going on in Morrison's revamp of the Authority.

    We're told that they failed in their mission to Qwewq, but not how. And does anyone have any ideas where 'Qwewq' comes from? Has anyone started to compile a list of dangling plotlines, like Black Death, the Vigilante, etc. yet?

    One of the things that suprised me with the re-reading was how much stronger the Shining Knight book read after going back to it with more of the pieces in mind. Kind of like watching 'Psycho'the second time after you know what Norman Bates is all about...

    Anyhow, I was going to answer your previous question to me with "I'm fine" -- but re-reading the above I may have to get a second opinion...

  6. Duncan: many thanks for the kind words! And you're absolutely right about the series as a love letter to Seventies comics. Frankenstein as homage to Wein and Wrightson's Swamp Thing for example. Or the fact that Morrison revived and gave an origin to an obscure character from Justice League of America #100, also written by Wein. Not to mention all the Kirby content...

    Garrie: you gotta know I'm just dying to write another post about how Morrison used the Fourth World elements -- the stuff he got right that other writers have missed, and the stuff that he could have done better. Before this project started, I was dreading the titles with Kirby characters, but by the end Morrison convinced me he's the one guy who could actually do those concepts some justice. And that JLA Classified arc was the best Justice League story in decades -- I liked it better than what GM did in the JLA title -- so I wouldn't have minded seeing more of the consequences of that.

    Where the hell have you been, Dan? Yeesh!

  7. Garrie:

    "Black Death (and what's the story behind him, I wonder...)"

    Morrison mentioned in a Newsarama interview that the story was going to feature Black Hand, the Green Lantern villain. "Black Death" seems to be just a last-minute replacement, a new character (presumably because Black Hand wasn't available, as Morrison originally thought).

    "Frankenstein as homage to Wein and Wrightson's Swamp Thing for example. Or the fact that Morrison revived and gave an origin to an obscure character from Justice League of America #100, also written by Wein. Not to mention all the Kirby content..."

    Also, Cassandra Craft and (briefly) The Phantom Stranger. And speaking of Kirby content, did anyone catch the subtle "Kamandi" reference in "Klarion"?

  8. Rodrigo: you mean those chemicals getting dumped into the sewers, producing intelligent rats that buy and sell weapons beneath New York? Good catch!

    As I think about it, Klarion's whole premise owes a little bit to Kamandi as well: both are unusually canny and inquisitive boys who emerge from underground shelters where their kind have been hiding since a past crisis to find a strange new world waiting for them above. I guess that's just one of those archetypal stories that can be endlessly reused...

  9. Huh. Cool.

    You know, Seven Soldiers is another Morrison tale that I love when I first read it, but I don't really start to get it and understand it until I synthesize what other people have wrote on it (the perennial example of this is of course The Invisibles).

    For example(s): I completely missed Alix Harrower being a descendant of Aurakles. I don't know how, but I did. The whole Zor-as-Cyrus angle? Missed it. The crossword? Morrison replacing Zor as the Seventh Unknown Man (I think Morrison said in a Newsarama article recently that he sees the Unknown Men as comic writers who've shown up in their own comics--which explains an earlier comment he made about all Seven showing up in comics before)? All these things I missed. Heh.

    In the end, however, what I find most interesting is still the misdirection inherent in the series. You, rab, see the misdirection as the Sheeda story being a veil for the story about adults/children, but even within the superhero context the entire Sheeda plot can be seen as a veil for what's really going on--Darkseid pulling the ultimate cosmological coup (as another blog put it). I mean, if the "real" story is about Darkseid and the New Gods, then that whole Kirby sequence is a lot less out-of-place, right? The addition of this in-context misdirection makes the childhood theme doubly hidden, in a way.


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