Oct 7, 2015

Seven Soldiers: Spinback and Synthesis

Spinback and Synthesis
Travis Hedge Coke

“Some have seen the book as an ode to the King, Jack Kirby, and in so many heartfelt ways it is, but Seven Soldiers is also my personal hymn to the poetic imagination of Len Wein, whose 70s work turned me into a teenage fanboy. A great deal of Seven Soldiers – as with so much of the work I’ve done for DC – relates directly to, and expands upon, continuity established by Len.” - Grant Morrison from an interview at the Comics Bulletin


A strong percentage of superhero comics fandom measure the success of an Event or tentpole situation by how many spinoffs there are and how many threads spin out into new comics. Seven Soldiers of Victory, seven four-issue miniseries bookended by two oneshots, and released parallel to the much more hyped and “integral to the universe” Infinite Crisis, did launch a few new miniseries, eventually, and an ongoing long down the road, but its biggest followups weren’t in to come after the last issue was released, but came out thirty years beforehand.



Seven Soldiers is a tribute to 70s DC Comics. 70s DC, the so-called Bronze Era, is made of Jack Kirby, Len Wein, 100-page giants with new and reprinted material, anthology books, and backups. Marvel Comics had long been in the business of one story per issue, with only the rare exceptions, but DC liked to load their books up with shorter stories and more of them. If you didn’t have four stories in one issue, at least there’d be a five page backup story with a secondary character, the Young Gods of Supertown or showbiz sorceress Zatanna, intrepid young reporter, Melba.

And, so Seven Soldiers mimics this model and loads us up with “main” stories and “secondary” that count just as much, with variety that then-current DC didn’t really have in their monthly publishing line. And, Seven Soldiers is explicitly a time travel story, showcasing the far future, ancient past, and stories that take place in the neverland of just a few years ago. When all is said and done, when the dust settles, characters are not only primed to move forward into new stories, but the scene is set for early Klarion, Silent Knight, Justice League of America and Frankenstein appearances from the 70s. We can follow up on Seven Soldiers by reading those comics anew, unchanged from their original releases, but now infused with new perspectives, new information that change everything.

Seven Soldiers, also, is a synthesis of these different stories, these varied threads, being sewn together into something broader and prettier and like any good superhero universe, probably seeming a bit impenetrable on first glance from outside of it. In Seven Soldiers, the writers of DC comics who have entered the comics, themselves, are presented as a kind of ultra-cosmic tailors, and that’s what they do, really, the artists and writers, the inkers and colorists and editors of the DC Universe, they stitch it up, they sew it pretty. So, too, in this comic, Grant Morrison and his collaborators stitch in bits from various comics and turn out new patterns, patching continuity and extending the cloth to new lengths. The ongoing saga of Qwewq, from the 90s JLA, a baby universe that is probably ours, is sewn into the fabric of the 70s Justice League of America villain, the Nebula Man. The twenty-seven (rough count I just made up) Camelots of the DCU are synthesized into Camelots of many eras, into recurrent motifs of history and our future.



None of this happens one thing at a time. Like any good tailor, the seams are hidden, the repairs are subtle, and often the thread dips below the surface and breaks back up a multitude of times, so tightly, so fluidly, we notice the effect, not the artistry or the stitch.

One funny upshot (for Morrison) of this is that many innovations of other talent becomes attributed to him. In the 90s, Rachel Pollack and Tom Peyer did excellent work with the New Gods as avatars, inhabiting human bodies, inhabiting weather or situations in life, and they were riffing on Jack Kirby, himself, who did a bit of this in his 70s New Gods comics. But, Morrison does it in Seven Soldiers and, more people, probably, saw it there first, if anywhere, so when it’s discussed today (usually to criticize it as being out of the spirit of earlier New Gods/Fourth World stories) it is Morrison who gets the recognition.

See, also: Zatanna in San Francisco; comics talent in comics stories; multiple threads dovetailing into a larger story we barely saw forming; Zor’s beard being a beard (because Alan Moore has a beard and no one else in history, so it makes beards a reference to Moore, always, obviously). While, for better or worse, such witty allusions as Ebeneezer Badde’s name inverting the Shamen’s song, Ebeneezer Goode or the various Welsh legends and poems adjusted to DC Universe superheroic counterparts often go uncommented on at all.

“It’s completely baked.” - Elliot S! Maggin’s response to Green Arrow calling his story “half-baked,” from inside the DC Universe, in Len Wein and Dick Dillin’s “Where Am I?”, Justice League of America #123


Slaughter Swamp

The most obvious followup-in-reverse is the origin of Solomon Grundy, the zombified supervillain. We learn, in Seven Soldiers, how he is resurrected, but also that Solomon Grundy may not be, as previously thought, a miser or pedophile or murderer named Cyrus Gold, whom the good townfolk hate so much they murder him, but in fact, he’s probably Zor, an old Spectre villain who is also, secretly, a writer of DC comics who has inserted himself into the DCU and gone bad, the way Cary Bates did in Justice League of America #123 and #124 in the early 1970s.


Slaughter Swamp is a magic, cursed place where “time has no meaning,” just like some other places we’ll discuss in a moment, and really, the DCU itself, which resets constantly to maintain a forever-now youthfulness on the edge of eternally-renewing crisis. Slaughter Swamp’s perverse and infected waters turned someone in Solomon Grundy, made manifest a bog god called, at times, the Swamp-Thing, housed the sometimes-there/sometimes-out-of-continuity Hall of Doom that housed a grand supervillain collective, and may be where Batman first encountered the sorceress, superhero, and stage performer, Zatanna Zatara, and where her father died. A lot of people, really, have died in Slaughter Swamp, and only roughly most of them have since come back talking and aware. It’s a weird space, Slaughter Swamp.


Camelots

Another kind of eternally-returning place, is Camelot or Avalon. Like the Arthurian court, this place has been more than once in the history of the DCU. Every so often, be it after tens of thousands of years or a billion, another Arthur, another Camelot, the whole shebang replayed with variations. Sir Ystin, the Shining Knight of Seven Soldiers comes from the First Arthurian Epoch, in the 81st Century BC. The Silent Knight of Ystin’s era is lost in battle and to time, and his armor may very easily be the armor that mysteriously shows up for the original Silent Knight to find whenever he most needs it.

While Ystin is left, at the end of Seven Soldiers, in a private school in the modern day, he is told that there are recently uncovered artifacts from just after that Arthurian Age, of a queen who ended an age of darkness, named Ystina the Good. For that matter, with not too much adjustment, really, most of the original Shining Knight appearances might actually be an older, more mannish Ystin.

But what of the other Camelots, other Arthurs and his knights, his Merlins, his enemies like Mordredd and Morgaine le Fey?

Morgaine, as designed by Jack Kirby for The Demon, bears some strong resemblance to our major villain in Seven Soldiers, the evil queen of Fairyland, Gloriana Tenebrae. Kirby’s seems masked, the tendrils part of that mask, but how close are they to the fleshy tendrils of Gloriana’s own head? Quite a bit.

And, Mordredd is almost explicitly Melmoth, husband of Gloriana, sometime King of Fairyland. (And, Melmoth is, too, both an eternal wanderer as his literary namesake, a riff on if not the inspiration for the Wandering Jew, and probably the original Shining Knight’s occasional villain, the Red Dragon, who shares something of the bald, destroyed face, pettiness, and obsession with getting what’s his.)


Merlins

The Merlins of the DCU, seem just as varied as their Arthurs, but with Seven Soldiers we see that they can all be a one, and that one, also called Gwydion, is a homunculus and a dragon, a thing made of language and seeming, which led the original Arthur to Unwhen, aka Fairyland, aka the very very very far future, and who, to combat Morgaine, bound the demon, Etrigan, to Jason Blood, whose descendant or copy, with facial hair almost identical to that of Zor, and other Zatanna enemies, the Tempter and Tannarak (and her father, Zatara, for that matter), attacked Zatanna in a Supergirl backup written by Len Wein in the 70s. And, as Seven Soldiers climaxes, Zatanna, having already used the Merlin to mimic Zor and defeat him, frees the Merlin to expand and become, in essence, the entire DC Universe.

In Forever People #7, Big Bear, is thrown back in time to play the Merlin to Arta, a Roman soldier left behind in Britain, who becomes another Arthur inspired by the magic and advice of this New God he mistakes for a warlock. That same issue is the first time we see a mortal human subjected to the Omega Sanction of Darkseid, God of Evil, and thrown around time to live a happy life in spite of this life trap that haunts and humiliates until you die. In Seven Soldiers, it will be the human avatar of the New God of Escapes Shilo Norman (aka Mr Miracle), who makes it out of this life trap happily only to be shot in the face by Darkseid with a plain ol’ reg’lar bullet and buried.

Echoes inside echoes. Spinback. Bass drops. God may not be a DJ, but the authors of the DC Universe, they’re scratching, playing, and remixing tracks.


Ys

Ys, or Ysse, is a sunken city and unsunk, a realm in all and no time. The drowned land of Ys. “The other side of the world,” “an ageless land,” “came into being by a ‘steady state’ flow of primal matter in the form of a cosmic cloud. There is no time in that world, only a constant ‘now’ - an eternal present.” (Quotations via Zatanna’s Search, Gardner Fox, et al.)

When we come to Ys in Seven Soldiers, both when Arthur and his knights journey there to die, and when Zatanna leads a cabal of mystics and cynics in, it’s the same Ys, the same moment she and Green Lantern journeyed there in her recent past and Arthur’s far future. The Red God of Ys, the Warlock, is eternally paralyzed and not paralyzed, he is forever being paralyzed. And, because Ys is the other side of where we are, where these characters always are, so too, is it that metaphysical aspect of the eternal recurrence, the small and grand echoes of narrative that become so crystalized in serial stories like these superhero comics. Battles are perpetual in Ys, death is forever, and lessons are constantly relearned.


Klarion

And, what of Witch world, where Klarion, in the Bronze Age of the 1970s hailed from?

At the end of Seven Soldiers, Klarion, who hasn’t come from a weird other dimension, but from a small, repressed village vaguely underneath New York City, is given a major power upgrade and is now the ruler of a weird otherly dimension that just happens to be the magic-infused and mad mad mad fairyland of Earth’s own far future. He’s got time travel, he’s got bags of tricks, he’s got teleportation and creepy magics, and “"DC continuity freaks may also see how easy it is to imagine Klarion proceeding from the finale of SEVEN SOLDIERS and heading back in time to make his first appearance in Kirby's THE DEMON issue #6,” as Grant Morrison says in the backmatter of Seven Soldiers vol 2. (Though, Klarion doesn’t seem to show until #7.)

Yup, Klarion, that weird outsider boy, has made Fairyland, as made The Future into Witch World, because of course it is. The quieter, slightly more mature, just as unnerving and gothy Klarion of early The Demon is Seven Soldier’s Klarion, pursued by the Judge and his Draaga, gone back in time to have some laughs.



Teekl also seems to have had a sex change in the far, far future, but magic cats always will do what they will.


Aurakles

Aurakles, also called Oracle, is in a sense the hidden hero of Seven Soldiers and the classic Justice League of America three-parter (vol. 1, #100-102) that brought the original Seven Soldiers of Victory back into the world. In 40,000 BC, the New Gods descend to Earth to give humankind “fire inspiration, and magic,” and to transform a man into Aurakles, the first superhero, a mighty god-king with seven treasures, four wonderful cities (including Gorias, which will become the golden city, Ta Ming, and the final resting place of the Seven Soldier’s eighth soldier whose self-sacrifice saved the world in the 1940s), and the first human-made time machine. His actions result in conflicts with the 666 Monsters of Chaos (of which, only Nebula Man is pictured, and as a universe with limbs, he may be all of them) and the Sheeda, who use his people’s time machine technology to go back to that glorious time and raid it.

The Sheeda king, Melmoth, locked Aurakles away below what would become New York, in the guts of a time machine integrated, much later, into several generations of subway systems, where he became known as Croatoan. He is, eventually, unchained from this prison and sold by the now-despised Melmoth to Darkseid, who at the time is inhabiting a human body and life, as a high end gangster. The broken, tired Aurakles will be pitted against other man-gods or god-men, to gamble on them like abused dogs.

But, Aurakles is freed by Mr Miracle, a man acting as an avatar for the God of Escapes/Freedom. Free walk with planets as his stepping stones, free to travel in space and time in all directions, settling in a “place beyond all places.”

Eventually, he is called back in time to stop the Sheeda invasion we never knew was happening in Justice League #100-02, by fighting, again, a maturing form of the Nebula Man, along with the combined efforts of the Justice League, the Justice Society, and the original Seven Soldiers.


Nebula Man

And, the Nebula Man whom Aurakles comes in conflict with so regularly? The huntsman of the Sheeda? The nebuloid monster? What is this beast?

Qwewq is the youngest form of what will become the Nebula Man, a baby universe first seen in JLA #12, and later in early Justice League Classified, we see a larger, cube form of Qwewq which is revealed to be, not any universe but, ostensibly, ours. Simultaneous to that, the mature, damaged form called Neh-Buh-Loh is attempted to soften up the DC Earth for another razing by the Sheeda, for whose queen, Gloriana, Neh-Buh-Loh works.

Birth of a Universe

Neh-Buh-Loh had, just prior to this, in his experience, let Gloriana’s step-daughter, Princess Arriachnon (or Errrhiahchnnon), escape into the “modern day,” into a quiet life as Misty Kilgore, apprentice to Zatanna.

But, the modern-day immature universe, Qwewq, infected by rogue supervillains who entered our world/Qwewq from the DCU, and the inoculated by superheroes, is growing and changing, too. Qwewq is brought in by the Sheeda to be Queen Gloriana’s general, a huntsman, a leader of her hunts, an advanced scout, called the Nebula Man.

This is the form that is called to Earth by the Hand’s trumpet in Justice League #100-02, to come raze the Earth and destroy the Hand’s enemies, the original Seven Soldiers, long before he has sympathy enough to let Arriachnon go, and - because time travel - before his eldest form of Neh-Buh-Loh fights with Aurakles in 40, 000 BC, making this, perhaps, the first time he and Aurakles have come into confrontation, from his perspective.

Every form of the Nebula Man, as he matures, seems preceded by penetration. Superhumans entering Qwewq results in his shift from a cube of starry black mass to the humanoid Nebula Man. Nebula Man’s impalement by a high tech spear wielded by the robotic Red Tornado precedes his shift in appearance to the horned hunter called Neh-Buh-Loh. And, at the seeming end of his life, he is shot in the face and then impaled again, this time by Frankenstein in the year One Billion CE (give or take a few years), but a very similar-looking representation of our universe appears, again within the DC multiverse, as the mysterious fairy god in The Multiversity that also seems to be a cosmogonic suit for our-world author, Grant Morrison, to enter this DC comics story.


Author Insertion

Grant Morrison is also, undoubtedly, contained in one or more of the Seven Unknown Men of Seven Soldiers, the physical representation of all the authors who have inserted themselves into the DC Universe over the years, most notably the collective of men and women in the Justice League of America story directly after the one featuring the return of the Seven Soldiers of Victory, in Justice League #103. An unofficial, cross-company crossover with Marvel, comics talent Len Wein, Steve Leialoha, Gerry Conway, Glynis Wein, and (an “off camera”) Julie Schwartz are embroiled in an attempt to use costumed Halloween celebrators to attack the Justice League. Wein, herself, in costume as Supergirl, is possessed by a demon and does battle with our superheroes.

Something about the DCU, it seems, can make villains out of the nicest writer or colorist. In Justice League #123-24, Cary Bates enters the DCU and becomes, almost immediately, a bloodthirsty villain set on destroying the Justice Leaguers.

Are all these the same man?
Perhaps coincidentally (but I doubt it), Bates sports a very similar beard and mustache to the Seven Soldiers villain, Zor. Zor is revealed to be one of the Seven Unknown Men, the eighth, the excised for being such a villain one. Bates doesn’t have to be unconsciously mimicking this Golden Age villain’s beard, which is also approximately Zatara’s beard, the facial hair of Tempter (from the Seven Soldiers Zatanna miniseries), the same one sported by Tannarak in the earlier Zatanna miniseries Come Together (written by the exceptional Lee Marrs, and featuring some visuals echoed throughout her Seven Soldiers mini, though it’s about the ghost of her mother as opposed to her father as SS is).

Like the similar top hats of Zatara, Zor, the Merlin of the Ghetto, and the Red Dragon, it may be an echo without connective tissue. (It’s probably not.) It’s not an uncommon style, but given how many people thought that the beard meant this was an Alan Moore stand-in, I always feel it’s worth pointing out that it looks nothing like any facial hair Alan Moore has ever been photographed with, but does look like Tannarak’s, Zatara’s, the Tempter’s, and so on. And, it looks like Melmoth’s.


“Read a mediocre book, and you come out knowing exactly what the author intended, and hat she wanted you to know. Read a great book, and you come out thinking things neither you nor the author ever thought of.” - Andrew Hickey, An Incomprehensible Condition


Phantom Stranger

The Phantom Stranger was there when Glynis Wein entered the DC Universe and became a possessed villain. The Phantom Stranger was present when the spawn of Frankenstein, disheveled and aged beyond himself in his primal Seven Soldiers appearances, wandered through a scene in Dr. Thirteen’s life, in The Phantom Stranger #26 and then disappeared. The Stranger was there to deliver bread and warnings to Cassandra Craft’s shop in Seven Soldiers.

The Stranger shows up all over, when needed, sometimes without seeming need, and disappears just as mysteriously. Why? If we knew, it wouldn’t be mysterious, would it.

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