by Matthew Peckham
Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers is being marketed by DC as "the most ambitious new storytelling venture in
modern comics history," an attempt to "redefine the concept of the super-hero," "a colossal tale unlike any seen in comics before."
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Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers is being marketed by DC as "the most ambitious new storytelling venture in modern comics history," an attempt to "redefine the concept of the super-hero," "a colossal tale unlike any seen in comics before." Think that's just typical corporate shilling? Morrison himself has described it as "the most intricate and ambitious single superhero story anyone's attempted" and suggested that "no one has done anything like it before." Given Morrison's respectable track record (Arkham Asylum, The Filth, WE3, The Invisibles, and many more), there's certainly margin for boasting.
Seven Soldiers is an attempt to re-imagine obscure elements of the DC universe in view of contemporary superhero brand-stagnation, e.g. Superman, Batman, The Justice League of America, etc. Morrison was handed several mothballed heroes and a blank slate to work a recent batch of his story pitches into a revivalist, modular yarn perhaps best summed as "underdogs against the apocalypse." Here's the catch: it's set in the mainstream DC universe, as opposed to DC's Vertigo ("mature, literate") line, which means swearing gets bleeped and violence is full contact, but without the bloodletting and heads-a-flyin'. Can a writer like Morrison deliver on his and DC's lofty rhetoric without the mature-content shield?
The narrative structure of this project is inarguably epic: seven four-issue minis and two bookend specials -- all written by Morrison -- totaling thirty issues and releasing over most of 2005 and early 2006. The mini-series are designed to be read either as independent tales, or part of the underlying narrative, which involves a destructive civilization-enslaving force called the Sheeda that choose the 21st century as their present hunting grounds. For reasons unclear, only a select team of seven costumed heroes can stop the Sheeda. In other words, this isn't going to be a job for Superman and pals, nor will any of the popular "tights" or "capes" show up in these books.
Seven Soldiers #0 lays the stage and begins the mystery hint-dropping, but doesn't do much that's terribly gripping or novel, save for the opening and closing pages. Seven no-name heroes are gathered together by Greg Sanders (aka "The Vigilante"), a Wild West throwback looking to wax a gigantic mesa-roaming killer-spider, apparently alive despite Sanders' belief he'd destroyed it in 1875. Greg Sanders is a legacy DC character who appeared in several golden age titles, mostly Action Comics, between 1941 and 1954, before time-traveling to the present courtesy the JLA. His recruits include Gimmix, a sort of superhero-groupie whose "powers" involve gimmicky James Bond-type accessories; Boy Blue, a kid with a special protective suit and a horn that emits sonic blasts; Dyno-Mite Dan, a hero-obsessed civilian who managed to get his hands on a few nuclear-power rings vis-à-vis the DC universe equivalent of Ebay; The Spider, a master bowman with various cool gadgetry; and The Whip, the lash-wielding granddaughter of a golden age Zorro knockoff. Mathematically inclined readers will note that totals just six soldiers, not seven. The seven in fact refer to the protagonists of the seven mini-series, none of whom appear in this special (unless you count the cover).
How does Seven Soldiers #0 stand on its own? After the hype (see opening paragraph), most of the story feels underwhelming, a pseudo-introspective tale about wash-ups getting together to go after a giganto-arachnid. There's very little that's allusive or cryptic, and we've seen this "charge-of-the-underdogs" story dozens of times before. So much space is given to updating hero origins that there's little left over for nuanced insight into the superhero motif itself, and we're only allowed glimpses of these heroes' personal lives before the ride's over. The trippy material is reserved for the opening and closing pages, and it's here that Morrison's deliciously crazed conspiracy theories about dark cults and inter-dimensional reapers peeks through, with a brilliant two-page spread that delivers a horror-twist near the end, depending more than ever on J.H. Williams art to corkscrew the otherwise sedate tone of the prior several dozen pages.
I'm mostly familiar with Williams' ground-breaking work through Alan Moore's Promethea, so it's fascinating to see him reaching in such curious directions with a mainstream title. It's no secret that Moore's scripts tend to read like architectural schematics, making it difficult to say how much of Promethea's innovative layout designs are owed to Williams as opposed to Moore himself. With Seven Soldiers, and based on a sampling of Morrison's scripts, Williams is likely more on his own, incorporating multiple styles, including several pages of tribute to Jonah Hex and Weird Western Tales in which Williams' signature is (brilliantly) virtually undetectable. Near the end, it is in fact Williams' horror-collage that Morrison's text is supporting. Williams uses unsettling hard-angled panel ligature to structure the bookend pages, then plays with the layouts through each of the story's three parts, moving from hard vertical or horizontal panels to more of the decorative geometric work he perfected in Promethea. This is a book that wants multiple reads, just to savor Williams' structural refinements in terms of their effect on the narrative. The only problem with the art is a bit of splotchy color work by Dave Stewart in "Big Time Country" (part two) which, whether the effect was intended, ends up looking a tad sloppy, especially in wide shots requiring extensive color gradation.
Seven Soldiers #0 isn't as absorbing as The Filth #1, or the heartbreaking WE3 #1, but it's well written, if a bit slow-paced, and the end bits certainly look promising. It's wise to tread cautiously when a writer proclaims s/he's trying to tell a fresh story, which just happens to include the launch of at least seven new character franchises (intended, depending on the success of this project, to launch ongoing books for the characters). Morrison's off to a worthy start, and I'll have more to say when the first of the four minis, Shining Knight, wraps in August.
If you're interested in following the whole thing chronologically, here's the release schedule for the entire project through April 5, 2006.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa, and is currently at work on his first book. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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