“What kind of prey do you suppose gods might lower themselves to hunt?”
Back in the crazy days of the early 2000s, comic book writer-extraordinaire and chaos magician Grant Morrison was more or less given carte blanche to do what he wanted in the DC universe. Being Grant Morrison, he turned his attention to a cast of c-listers that hadn’t been seen on pages for years. Seven Soldiers is a comic book event like no other, in which these nobodies all come together to stop an extraterrestrial crisis. Except they never meet. In fact, they don’t even know the others exist or that they’re part of a superhero team. It’s Morrison at his most…Morrisonian.
Basically, Morrison introduces us to these seven characters by giving them four issues each that effectively act as origin stories. At each end of these 28 issues are bookend issues tying it all together. So what you have is a 30-issue megaseries (in Morrison’s own words) that consciously defies and deconstructs the world of comic books. And I’m going to do my best to sum it up in this review. Wish me luck.
The seven soldiers of the title consists of a couple of original concepts, mixed with a few forgotten heroes of yesteryear. Some of these heroes have gone on to be more successful than others, but what’s important to remember is that in 2005, these guys were nobodies. With each four-issue arc, they never meet (outside of some Cloud Atlas like connections and small easter egg-like crossovers) and each character is drawn by a different artist, giving each one a different feel. Effectively, each one is a different genre. Let’s take a look at them all, one by one. (Note: I read them in the order presented in the two collected hardbacks; which is release order. So the miniseries were mixed together.)
A hero displaced out of time, the Knight is probably the one most connected with the looming crisis. Along with their trusty flying steed, Sir Ystin finds himself thrown from the last days of mystical Camelot all the way to the wondrous future (New York, circa 2005). Out of all of the mini-series contained within the collection, Shining Knight is the densest and possibly the most head-scratching. That’s because these issues set up a hell of a lot of backstory on the impending crisis, which also means there isn’t a lot of time to develop Sir Ystin as a character. And it’s also the strongest example of Morrison moving completely away from traditional superhero archetype; this is a knight and his trusty steed, not a person in spandex.
It’s all wordy prophecy and olde English, but as a part of the whole, Ystin’s personal connection to the threat is much needed. And there is a a great twist in one of the later issues too.
The Manhattan Guardian
Straight from Shining Knight, we meet the Manhattan Guardian. Working as an in-house superhero for the New York tabloid, these issues allow Morrison to really go off the deep end with some really great stories. The first two issues see the Guardian become embroiled in a battle between two crews of underground subway pirates. The third issue sees a robotic theme-park go awry, except this park is a a representation of the world as a whole. So the majority of robots are poor citizens of third-world countries. Both of these let Morrison do some really over-the-top comic stuff, as well as sneaking in a bit of social commentary too.
All comics seem to have huge arcs, except with Morrison. His trademark brisk pace and seeming disregard for exposition and transition let him pack so much into one issue. It’s what made his run on Batman so great, and it works just as well here with The Guardian.
Now, Zatanna is one of the more familiar characters here, having become a lot more popular in the DC universe in the past few years. These issues really give Morrison an excuse to dive into his other love; magic. See, Zatanna has lost hers after a spell went awry, leading to her falling in a spiral of self-doubt and low self-esteem. We first meet her at a therapy group for struggling heroes. And this is another big theme of the Seven Soldiers as a whole, the struggle of being a forgotten hero, one of the c-listers (more on that below). What Zatanna offers to the overall story is a touch of the mystical, the magical. Things get surreal in a really colourful way and it leads to some artwork and fourth-wall breaking that really took me by surprise. On top of this, Zatanna is just a really cool character. She takes all the wackiness in her fishnet stride and out of all the characters, it’s easy to see why she has endured.
Klarion the Witch Boy
Another thing Morrison seems to have an affinity for is Puritan-era America. The Return of Bruce Wayne delved into this period, but Morrison and Frazer Irving had already mined it here in these four issues. Klarion lives well below the earth, underneath New York (even further down than the train-pirates) in a village that hasn’t changed since Puritan days. Klarion wants adventure, but is warned about going above to the real world, or “Blue Rafters” as they call it. Once you wrap your head around this setting, you’ll quickly see that it’s one of the most original ideas for an origin story. It’s also in Klarion’s story where things start to come together. A monster squished on the subway tracks in issue two of Manhattan Guardian is explained here, a taxi Klarion is riding in appear later on in a different series. It’s these nods, these connected moments that really put a smile on your face and make you appreciate just what Morrison is attempting here, on a grander scale.
My only complaint with Klarion is that his ending in the final issue feels a bit rushed, like Morrison was hurrying to connect this version to the original Klarion from the 1970s – but it’s only a small complaint. Klarion is a really original tale that sees the writer and artist working together at their most gothic.
Perhaps the other famous member of the team, this is not the Mister Miracle you know and love. This isn’t Scott Free, it’s Shilo Norman, but he does more than just share the name. Like his more well-know counterpart, Norman is a super escape artist, thrilling people with his death-defying escapes; including from the event horizon of a black hole. It’s this trick where things go wrong for him and his four issues within this series are a cosmic trip, one that give Morrison the chance to introduce the re-imagined New Gods that will play such an important role in Final Crisis. But it never feels like quite enough.
It’s not that these four issues are bad, in fact Morrison is the perfect fit for the cosmic weirdness of the Fourth World. It’s just that it deals with certain themes – mental health, low-self esteem, what it means to be a hero – that I think have since been done better in the more recent Mister Miracle story by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. On top of that, it feels like these four issues are the most disconnected from the other six heroes, with little crossover and with Shilo not even becoming aware of the nature of the world-ending threat. On it’s own, it’s a trippy arc that’s well-worth the read. But as a part of a whole, it’s kind of an outlier.
Out of all seven stories in the series, Bulleteer is my favourite. It offers a great origin story about the most reluctant of the seven heroes, as well as being a really smart comment on the treatment of female heroes in the comicbook industry. When a scientist wants his wife Alix to look young forever, to never age, he builds an indestructible smartskin with the idea of turning the pair into immortal superheroes. But things go wrong, killing him and leaving her as the Bulleteer; a super strong and seemingly invincible hero. But that’s just the setup. Alix doesn’t want this and spends a good portion of the four issues actively rejecting this life.
Like with the Seven Soldiers story as a whole, Bulleteer deals with a less-than-conventional hero and with the idea of being forced into this life. These guys aren’t Batman and Superman, they’re ordinary folk with extraordinary gifts, struggling to pay the rent. The highlight of the series is when she visits a convention for c-list superheroes. It’s like something out of The Boys, just with more nostalgia for the golden age of superheroes and less swearing. People at the convention advise her on how to deal with male fans, how to get ahead in the game, as they all bitterly talk about Aquaman getting the “Comeback of the Year” award. It lets Morrison run wild and it’s just a really charming four-issue story.
The final “hero” is probably also the weirdest one. This is Frankenstein, as in the monster not the scientist. Here he’s a steampunk badass who travels the Earth (and Mars) dishing out justice and a soliloquy to anyone who’ll listen. It’s pulp fiction silliness and it’s really fun. Frankenstein offers Morrison a chance to go absurd, over-the-top with the action and writing. You’ll be reading it looking for his usual symbolism and hidden meanings, all par for the course with Morrison. But here, they’re absent. Frankenstein feels like a comic that is perfectly happy serving up cool moments of b-movie schlock and reminds you that at his core, Grant Morrison is just a big fan of goofy comic books – his Batman stories often veered into this territory too. The second issue even sees Frankenstein venture to Mars, to take on his immortal adversary. If he’s not tackling Lovecraftian threats, he’s going against aliens straight from the mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
As a whole, Frankenstein has the least depth out of all the miniseries. But it’s the most fun. And like the others, it whisks by at a whirlwind pace of sentient water, killer cows, and child mines on Mars. Morrison uses Seven Soldiers to demonstrate the very best that comics can offer. With Frankenstein, he proves they can be trashy and fun, by virtue of just how cool it is.
With these sorts of projects (not that there is anything quite like this out there) you’re bound to have some bits that work more than others. But Seven Soldiers is surprisingly consistent through it’s 30-issue run. Obviously, you’ll have your own preferences of which bits are best. But I think it’s important to recognise the sheer inventiveness that’s gone into each and every one of these miniseries – and how well they fit together, whilst also staying firmly apart.
What you have is seven wildly different origin stories featuring seven very different hero archetypes. Morrison spends a lot of the thirty issues deconstructing just what makes a hero, as well as considering what these forgotten heroes do when Batman and Superman is saving the world. In the ever popular DC “crisis” events you’ve probably seen a number of characters, low-detailed in the background. Well who are they? What are they up to? Seven Soldiers offers us a glimpse.
“There’s a whole class of people in hospital wards, Mrs. Harrower, people who’d do just about anything to hang out with the skintight crowd. They expose themselves to radioactive materials or drink home-made potions. They interact with venomous insects and dangerous animals in the expectation of receiving some totem power. There’s not a lot of sympathy among medical staff who have to clean up the mess.”
– Bulleteer #1
On top of all that, you have a meta thread running through the entire collection, as the “Time Tailors” set our heroes on their respective courses. There’s some argument that these guys are Morrison and his comic writing colleagues, tinkering with the lives of these heroes. But to really delve into that, we’d need another 2000 words. All I can say is give it a go. It’s a great, self-contained demonstration of what makes Grant Morrison so wonderful as a writer. Be that his dense, symbolic prose, or his silly action-packed stories. The guy does it all.