Thursday, November 09, 2006

The bombastic mess of Seven Soldiers #1...

It’s difficult to assess the bookend of what what Morrison has dubbed a 30 issue ‘megaseries’ in isolation. Reaching through the seven mini-series of seven distinct characters in seven different generic forms of storytelling and vastly different styles of art, the challenge to somehow tie it all together was immense from the start. That this issue was about half a year late just compounds the anticipation and expectation of an already heavily invested readership - an impossible task becomes that much more daunting.

It’s even more difficult because Seven Soldiers #1 is an opulent, self-consciously bombastic, sometimes brilliant, and undeniably self-indulgent mess. Which is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect of Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III – especially if we take at face value the report that Morrison’s original script clocked in at something like 100 pages. This is a finale delivered at a level of narrative compression somewhere in the neighborhood of a black-hole-crushes-everything-into-oblivion type of density.

Any explication of Seven Soldiers #1 will suffer from one of two problems:

A concise but coherent review will suffer from a confusing and unfair reductivism that fails to address just how many narrative and thematic lines are being drawn in from the various minis. It would subsequently fail to address this conclusion’s undeniable complexity.

Case in point: you need to have a pretty keen eye to notice that Don Vincenzo from Shining Knight was Kid Scarface from the Newsboy Legion shown in flashbacks from The Manhattan Guardian. You’d need an even keener eye to catch that the dog who inherits the Don’s criminal empire near the end of this issue looks a lot like Millions, the same dog that died while briefly a member of the same Newsboy Legion. And you’d probably need to re-read your issues of Shining Knight in order to recall that Don Vincenzo was killed by the Sheeda because he controlled one of the Seven Imperishable Treasures, the Cauldron of Rebirth and Plenty – and then surmise that Vincenzo used it to return Millions to life. (A complete review would also point out that Grant Morrison appears to be the Unknown Gentleman on the first page, and so he’s writing himself into a comic…again. Who are the other six, though? Are they here to save the DC universe from itself?)

Conversely, a more detail-oriented review would suffer from precisely the same long and rambling tangents that characterize my previous paragraph. By the time we list all the connections and ask ‘what does it all mean?’, we’ve probably lost all perspective and forgotten that the Vincenzo-Scarface-Millions connection that I’ve made out to be so very intricate and ostensibly important occupies only three tiny panels on one page of Seven Soldiers #1. What do we make of the appearance of Ali Ka-Zoom, also from the Newsboy Legion, as a savior for Zatanna and some sort of mentor for the Shining Knight? Or the necessity of Mister Miracle’s death by gunshot so that he could emerge from the ground on the final page? Or, for that matter, of Klarion’s mad cackling as he becomes the Sheeda King – especially when he shows up in 52 with no suggestion that he still holds that power or authority? We could dissect any one of these or more, but where would it all lead us? And would each narrative line lead us in a divergent or even contradictory direction?

The great challenge, and great frustration, offered by Seven Soldiers #1 is precisely this sort of rampant ambiguity and failure to sate any conventional expectation. The narrative closure of the Sheeda Queen’s death is brief and cheap – first impaled on an arrow that’s not even fired by one of the Seven Soldiers, the Bulleteer finishes the job only by sheer accident. There’s something to be said about the way Morrison has weaved coincidence into a complex tapestry of fate, but the sudden and surprising resolution of the primary plot – especially when it’s further diminished by the rapid ascension of Klarion as a replacement baddie – leaves a sour taste after nearly three dozen issues of cataclysmic threat.

All this said, there’s a lot to like in the finale of the Seven Soldiers megaseries. At the heart of the story has been a crisis of genre, as each solo title has had a distinctive visual and narrative style and played up one of a number of generic approaches: The Manhattan Guardian, for example, features clean and crisp art and plays out as a nostalgic Daredevil-type vigilante story, while Klarion’s colors and line-work evoke a centuries-old aesthetic that’s much more typical of a Vertigo book. Tellingly, both styles are problematized by narrative shifts that disrupt their internal continuity: the flashbacks in the Guardian trace its artistic debt deeper to the naïve silliness of the Golden Age, and Klarion’s participation in a Newsboy Legion-like group in New York muddles his own participation in a distinct genre by tapping into the same retro sensibility. The importance of genre is foregrounded even more explicitly in Seven Soldiers #1, as Williams adopts the visual style of every other artist – including Jack Kirby, in a history of humankind and its encounters with the Sheeda – when he draws the characters that they helped to (re)define.

The revelation that the Sheeda are an uber-evolved race of humans from the future, feasting on their own history, resounds even more meaningfully in this context of genre and influence. The implication, I think, is that Morrison via the Seven Unknown Men and Seven Soldiers is railing against a comic book industry that feasts endlessly on the scraps of its own tradition, producing very little of value and certainly nothing new. The aforementioned ‘self-indulgent mess’ is at the very least disruptive of the mainstream approach.

Like Williams’ interpretation of each limited series’ artist, some of Morrison’s exercises are more successful than others – and a few are even baffling disasters. But as a structural reimagining of what a comic series can be in theme and structure – an 30 issue exercise in mass genre confusion and confluence – Seven Soldiers gestures away from the tired and the done, even if not clearly indicating a new direction itself. That final image of Mister Miracle tearing himself free of his own grave is apt, if not immediately apparent in its purpose. The superhero has been recycling its own tropes for so long that it might as well be put to rest. It’s about time for something else to rise from the grave and take its place, isn’t it?

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