Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Retro Review: Seven Soldiers

Superman presents a certain kind of challenge that minor superheroes do not. That sentence describes an observation made by both the writer and the villains of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers. A writer can change the small facts of the Man of Steel's life, place Superman in any of countless scenarios, put many words in his mouth, but the character must stay true to certain established truths, and there are limits to what a new story can get away with. A minor character, on the other hand, may be molded and manipulated to a far greater extent. That is what motivated Morrison to give the starring roles in his series to characters who had appeared in DC Comics before, but whose prominence ranged from second-tier (Zatanna) down to several tiers below that. Accordingly, Morrison was able to redefine the characters substantially, changing two of them from men to women, mutilating and killing another one, and so on.

The villains in the story, the murderous, gleefully corrupt Sheeda from Earth's future also decide not to include the leading figures of the Justice League in their plan. In a prequel printed in JLA Classified #1-3, the Sheeda attempt a frontal assault on the year 2005 and it does not go well. Neh-Buh-Loh, one of the Sheeda's warriors, stands atop a tall building and dares Earth to send its "world's finest" champions to fall at his feet, whereupon Superman flies out of the sky and effortlessly punches out Neh-Buh-Loh twice, unfazed by the villain's best blow. In response, the Sheeda retreat, with Neh-Buh-Loh warning "I have seen enough… I have tested my prey… When next my people come, it will be as whispers of death, unseen… goodbye, Superman…" This is, indeed, similar to the way Morrison kept the DC's heavy hitters out of his lineup, and it is more than that: Planned less than three years after the September 11 attacks, Seven Soldiers is the story of how a despicable enemy bent on the destruction of our civilization decides to strike by surprise in New York, wreaking havoc on the island of Manhattan. Sound familiar?

Seven Soldiers is thus a parable for our times, utilizing seven… actually, quite a bit more than seven… of DC's minor characters. The sprawling story is set in the DCU, uses DCU conventions, began with a prequel involving the DC's biggest stars, and has a menace that threatens the DC Universe, but with its focus on minor characters, was able to take risks that a series starring flagship characters could not. Morrison used that freedom with virtuoso skill, and crafted, in Seven Soldiers, one of the finest works that DC has ever published.

The structure is without an obvious peer. Morrison told the story in 30 issues consisting of single issues (Seven Soldiers #0 and #1) that bookend seven miniseries of four issues each. A reader may like one of these miniseries and dislike another, or like five and dislike two… but is likely to admire most of them and love some. Any of these miniseries can be read or re-read alone, but they are intertwined, and they work together to tell the story of one existential threat to the world.

Seven Soldiers and its various prequels present seven teams of seven: The original Seven Soldiers (1941), a Silver Age revival including Spider instead of Green Arrow, the Ultramarine Corps and the JLA in Morrison's JLA Confidential story, a lineup that fights and dies in Seven Soldiers #0, the Newsboy Army seen in flashbacks, and the lineup that defeats the Sheeda in Seven Soldiers #1. A shadowy group called the Time Tailors make an eighth group of seven – or group of eight – the number in these groups is also sometimes six, which is bad luck and portends defeat.

The fundamental inspiration for this series goes back to Mort Weisinger's introduction of the Seven Soldiers of Victory in Leading Comics #1, in 1941, when the seven heroes from five solo features joined forces to fight a master criminal named The Hand. A 1972 story in JLA #100-102 scripted by Len Wein revived the Seven Soldiers in a new battle against their first enemy, who, aided by a cosmic threat named the Nebula Man, made himself into a powerful force named the Iron Hand. Morrison pays homage to the original team by basing several members of his two lineups of Seven Soldiers upon the originals or their legacies. To complete the lineups, he uses or invents characters whose origins, in almost all cases, can be traced to other Golden Age characters or Jack Kirby inventions:

Seven Soldiers of Victory, 1941
Crimson Avenger
Shining Knight
The Vigilante
Green Arrow and Speedy
Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy

Seven Soldiers #0 team (Golden Age inspirations)
Vigilante (himself)
Gimmix (Star Spangled Kid's stepniece)
The Whip (The Whip's granddaughter)
I, Spyder (Spider's son)
Boy Blue (imitator)
Dyno-Mite Dan (imitator)
Bulleteer (imitator, not by choice)

Seven Soldiers #1 team (Golden Age inspirations)
Shining Knight (retcon of original Shining Knight, now a woman)
Guardian (retcon of original)
Zatanna (daughter of Zatara)
Klarion (retcon of original)
Mister Miracle (successor to the original)
Bulleteer (imitator, not by choice)
Frankenstein (DC character adapted from the novel)

One immediately notices an overlap in the starring lineups – as Zatanna says, "it's like there's mystery string holding everything together." Greg "Vigilante" Saunders is a member of the original and SS #0 lineups, while Bulleteer is a member of the SS #0 lineup (though absent) and the SS #1 lineup. But there are also overlaps in the supporting casts. Many of these come from a group of child crimefighters called the Newsboy Army (patterned closely on Jack Kirby's Newsboy Legion). Their heyday was decades ago, but many of them survive and surface throughout Seven Soldiers, having aged enough that their reappearances as adults make the reveals of their identity surprising. Another form of string holding things together are cameos that the cast of one miniseries make in the others. This includes the stars, the bystanders, and especially the villains.

Morrison's villains, as in several of his other works, arrive via a time loop: From Earth's future, the Sheeda prey on their world's own past, targeting the best and most prosperous eras, using evil magic and science and mind control powers – tiny fairies who ride mosquitoes like winged horses, and attach to a good person's spine in order to turn them bad. We see them topple Camelot and make small raids on other times leading up to a full assault on 2005 and the era of superheroes. They use a giant spider as bait to attract one lineup of Seven Soldier to Miracle Mesa, Arizona, and then wipe out the group that Vigilante had recruited for the purpose. Aware that they cannot defeat the Justice League, the Sheeda plan a sneak attack on New York, and are on guard watching out for any group of seven heroes who might organize to stop them. Along the way, in the seven miniseries, we see how seven heroes – some of them old, some new, and many of them very unlikely – take their places in the battle to come.

Shining Knight is Ystina, a young woman posing as a male knight named Justin, who sees her Camelot in the final stages of its fall to the Sheeda. She enters their time machine, Castle Revolving, and in her escape, inadvertently ends up in modern-day Los Angeles. Don Vincenzo, a mob boss, who is one of the Newsboy Army grown up (and turned bad) ends up with Ystina's winged horse, Vanguard. At the end of her miniseries, she is in combat with the Sheeda queen, Gloriana Tenebrae, who does not fear Ystina because she is only one, and prophecy says that seven will defeat the Sheeda.

Jake Jordan is a "big, tough" former police officer who is haunted by a deadly mistake that he made on the job. He applies for a job as a hero/journalist (a la Clark Kent?) with the Manhattan Guardian newspaper, whose boss happens to be another of the Newsboy Army grown up (or, to be precise – grown old, but not "up"). Donning a costume and shield as the Manhattan Guardian, he soon finds himself fighting pirates who live in the tunnels under the New York subway system, and ends his miniseries protecting his boss from the Sheeda.

Zatanna is by far the most famous of the characters in this series. A former member of the Justice League, she is psychologically broken and lacks the confidence to use her spellcasting power. We see in flashbacks that she has killed several people close to her in a mystic miscalculation, and the guilt of her role in Identity Crisis is also haunting her. She acquires a young sidekick named Misty, who is as mysterious as her name indicates, and who proves to be, unwillingly, heir to the Sheeda throne. Zatanna is being stalked by a magical villain named Zor, a Golden Age villain powerful enough to challenge the Spectre ("he brags that he brought the wrath of God to its white and wobbly knees," a feat he achieved in More Fun Comics #55 way back in 1940). Zatanna overcomes Zor with cleverness and boldness, so she and Misty can prepare for their key roles in fighting the Sheeda.

Perhaps Morrison's greatest invention in Seven Soldiers is Limbo Town, the world of Klarion the Witch Boy, where an isolated, underground community displaying puritanical severity (and fashion) follows black magic instead of Christianity. They are the Lost Colony of Jamestown, whose mysterious word "Croatoan" scrawled on a tree is the name of their new god. In the centuries since their disappearance, they have lived and bred underground after an early generation was raped by the Sheeda king, Melmoth. In a stroke of brilliance, Morrison concocts an army of zombie laborers who are the revived ancestors of Limbo Town residents, called "grundies," and possessing the general traits of longtime DC villain Solomon Grundy. Klarion, the quintessential small-town boy dreaming of a larger world, escapes upwards from Limbo Town to the subways of New York, where he almost meets the Guardian, and then spends some time in the surface world, known as Blue Rafters to his people, attracting the attention of his ancestor Melmoth, and setting the stage for Klarion to join the battle against the Sheeda.

Mister Miracle, like the Guardian, is a Jack Kirby character whom Morrison recast with an African American man instead of a white man. Shilo Norman was a youth serving as a minor character in Kirby's original stories, but in Seven Soldiers has grown up to adopt the identity, not as a superhero, but as a super celebrity escape artist. We see him at the top of his fame and renown, making his greatest escape ever from a miniature black hole, before things start to go wrong. We learn, and then he learns, that the people around him are the living embodiments of Darkseid and his cronies, living on Earth in human bodies. Darkseid tries to break Shilo Norman, but finds it more difficult than he imagined, and Shilo is still intact, a few lifetimes in alternate timelines later, and ready to fight Darkseid and his allies, the Sheeda.

Of all the Seven Soldiers, none is less enthusiastic about being a superhero than Alix Harrower. At the age of 27, Alix found out the hard way that her husband was living – at least in his own mind – a double, or perhaps triple, life. His attempt to give himself superpowers cost him all three of those lives, and gave Alix a super-hard metallic coating that she didn't want and couldn't undo. Thus, her husband's dream of imitating the Golden Age's Bulletman and Bulletgirl left her an unhappy widow who had no choice, medically, financially, or spiritually, but to begin a new existence as Bulleteer. As her miniseries ends, she is driving with her husband's psychotic cyber-girlfriend, ostensibly to a hospital, but unbeknownst to her, right into the middle of the battle with the Sheeda.

Frankenstein – or rather, Frankenstein's monster – is a cultural icon greatly predating superheroes. Morrison's version of Frankenstein, however, is a gun-toting badass who has been fighting crime for over a century, and is soon recruited by S.H.A.D.E. to fight as a government operative. On Mars, Frankenstein learns that he is immortal because his blood contains the essence of Lord Melmoth, which makes him the third major character in the story to owe his life to that villain. Less than grateful to Melmoth, Frankenstein leaves him to be eaten by monsters and excreted, still sentient, as their dung. Then, sent by S.H.A.D.E. one billion years into the future, he attacks the Sheeda capital and goes into the series finale mid-battle with Gloriana Tenebrae.

Seven Soldiers borrows several elements from Wein's JLA #100-102, including the fact that someone among the heroes must die at the end – a promo line echoed at the end of each miniseries' issue #4. In Wein's story, Crimson Avenger's sidekick Wing had died in the past and Red Tornado dies in the present. In Morrison's epic, it's Mister Miracle who dies, being summarily executed by Boss Dark Side after giving his life to rescue the ancient superhero Aurakles – a clever fusion on Morrison's part of the cosmic being Oracle from Wein's story (Oracle being highly reminiscent of Marvel Comics' The Watcher) and Greek mythology's Hercules. Fortunately, being the greatest escape artist ever, Shilo Norman escapes from the grave just as readily as he did from the black hole, and he's alive again in Final Crisis; it fits his showman shtick that we have no idea how he performed either of those impossible escapes.

In the battle of Manhattan, every member of the Seven Soldiers plus an ally or two plays his or her part, even though they never meet together as a group of seven in one place and one time, which is what allows them to avoid being detected as a threat by the Sheeda. And this is the essential, ironic, and heroic triumph of the story: Just as the Sheeda can attack our civilization so effectively because they launch a sneak attack and thereby avoid the Justice League, so the Seven Soldiers can attack the Sheeda so effectively, because the Seven Soldiers launch a sneak counterattack against them! In the years soon after September 11, this is nice spiritual salve for having, ourselves, suffered a sneak attack.

The finale is beautiful, chaotic choreography. Some of the Seven Soldiers have weapons drawn, Zatanna casts a spell to unite their actions, many spring into action though they have little idea what they are doing, and finally, Bulleteer is a weapon, and the Sheeda are overthrown, saving the DCU from them, for now. Darkseid skulks away to launch the threat in Final Crisis, which preserves the essential dynamic that runs through Seven Soldiers – nothing is ever really over, and a mystery string unites one team and one battle and one enemy to the next. The Seven Soldiers move on, the Sheeda move on (now led by Klarion), and the stage is set for the next big story. Morrison gave his Mister Miracle and Frankenstein significant supporting roles in Final Crisis, and Zatanna retains her stature as a fan favorite, but otherwise, the Seven Soldiers have remained obscure.

The story has a higher level, seen at its beginning and end as well as in the Zatanna and Guardian miniseries. As a means of explaining the mystery string that ties everything together, Morrison shows us a group of seven Time Tailors, the Unknown Men of Slaughter Swamp. These are comic book writers, and putting the writers themselves into the story is something Morrison has done in Animal Man and elsewhere. Though they all look alike – somewhat like Morrison himself – they represent all the writers over the years, certainly including Len Wein, Jerry Siegel, Mort Weisinger, and all the rest who number far more than seven. Morrison shows the Time Tailors doing what writers usually do – using their godlike powers to change characters, often to the characters' dismay. They make I, Spyder more interesting for this story, but doom him to an unpleasant fate. They ruin the Newsboy Army, giving them adult vices and killing most of them off. Zatanna manages to pop out of the story to interact with them directly, which helps her orient correctly for her place in the final battle, and they reward her by disposing cruelly of Zor in the final issue – as it is explained that Zor's vast powers are because he is really one of them, a Time Tailor who exists in the story itself.

Seven Soldiers is a triumph because Morrison capitalizes on its characters' statures as characters that are interesting within the DCU, but are obscure enough that he could do just about whatever he wanted with them. He ties Golden Age stories together with current-day big-time events and works his post-modernist magic into a sprawling 30-issue epic that flies in many different directions before all coming together at the end. Most of these characters are unlikely to headline again on a front cover anytime soon, if ever, and seen in that respect, Seven Soldiers is an epic and a mini-universe that had a definite beginning, middle, and end and is now over and done with. It showed that a respectably large audience will pay attention to obscure characters if their story is handled with care, even if that is not a potential that has not been realized again in the decade since Seven Soldiers ended.


  1. Rikdad -- Glad you wrote this one. Seven Soldiers is a remarkably sophisticated ride, and one much more adult in its themes than the typical comic book (maybe too much so given scenes I recall from Mister Miracle). It is so evocative that I've forgotten half the plot but think of some of the characters and settings nearly a decade later. It is that rare mega-story that I've set aside to read again someday, yet realize it won't be until after I retire and I can attack it with vigor. There no doubt is much for me still to discover there.

    As for the potential involving obscure characters being realized or not, I'd say "52" qualifies. It published around that time, I believe. And Multiversity at its best accomplished this, particularly with the Society of Super Heroes issue. No A-listers there, but the characters in that story still kick around my mind on occasion. Clearly, it takes a special type of "Time Tailor" to give minor characters the TLC they need to blossom. Morrison certainly qualifies!

    Thanks again.

  2. ManWithTenEyes,
    Seven Soldiers is indeed a major endeavor to read, but I've gotten through it about three times; many times, I've re-read one of the miniseries or another, particular Mister Miracle when it became known that the Omega Sanction was part of Morrison's Batman work.

    You're absolutely correct that "52" and Multiversity were based on minor characters, and for that matter, so was Countdown. But I see a difference: the characters in Seven Soldiers are much more obscure to modern readers than most of the stars of those series; they generally hadn't been in regular use and had rarely, if ever, served as the title of a series. Moreover, in Multiversity, Morrison was working with other worlds, and therefore completely disposable versions of Al Pratt, Kyle Rayner, etc.

    But, the effect was similar: Morrison gave himself a best-of-both-worlds situation where the characters were both familiar and malleable. I hope other Time Tailors due some similar sewing in the near future. One might say that Johns' use of the Crime Syndicate (most of whom he's killed off) qualifies as well.