This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide the gate, and broad the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.
Because strait the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Matthew 7:13 – 7:14 (King James version)
Note – the paragraphs of this essay before the first illustration contain discussions of stories which deal with abortion, in a quite unpleasant way. If you have strong feelings on this subject or are otherwise likely to be ‘triggered’ by this, please skip to the illustration. You should be able to pick up from there.
In 1975, Harlan Ellison wrote a short story called Croatoan. It came shortly after the Roe v Wade court decision which legalised abortion in the USA, and was part of a minor wave of anti-abortion Science Fiction that came out around that time – for years I confused it with Philip K Dick’s much better-written (and less nasty, though more misogynist) The Pre-Persons from 1974. Ellison, with his customary intellectual cowardice, said his story was neither pro- nor anti-abortion (possibly because of Dick’s experience, when he received a ton of hate mail, most notably from the feminist academic and SF writer Joanna Russ) but, well…
The plot of the story is that our narrator’s girlfriend has had an abortion. And the narrator flushes the aborted foetus down the toilet (apparently in Ellison’s world, it is common practice for people to be given the foetus after an abortion). His girlfriend, being a hysterical emotional woman, not a manly man like Harlan Ellison, starts screaming at him to go down into the sewer and get the foetus, so the narrator agrees.
He travels into the sewers of New York, where he finds ‘Croatoan’ written on the wall, a la the Roanoke colony. He also finds that the urban legend about crocodiles (which have been flushed down the toilet once they became bigger than babies) living in the sewers is true – but they’re pets. They’re being ridden by the aborted foetuses that get flushed down the toilet. It ends:
“I am the one they have been looking for all along…They call me father.”
Ellison claimed this was about ‘parental responsibility’, and to be fair it does seem to be about the search for a father-figure, especially in the flashbacks, but it’s really just a nasty little piece of grand guignol, albeit an effective one.
Missing or dead fathers appear all over Seven Soldiers, of course – Zatanna’s father, Klarion’s father, Larry Marcus, but also the missing or absent Gods that appear throughout the text. And one of the great works of English literature is about the search for God-the-father, even as it’s about a father who abandons his own child.
The man therefore read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully, said, Whither must I fly? Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto: so shalt thou see the gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.
The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come, John Bunyan
Like most of the symbolism in Seven Soldiers, the ‘wicket gate’ here has at least two meanings – one that will be noticed by ‘geeks’ of the type who read superhero comics, and one that will be noticed by others. I’ll talk about the first one first.
In the book Life, the Universe, and Everything, by Douglas Adams (part of the famous Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series), the English game of cricket turns out to be a folk-memory of an evil, genocidal race who come from the planet Krikkit. In order to prevent the Krikkitmen from escaping, they are locked away from the rest of the universe, unable to see the stars in the sky, in a bubble of slow time. While time passes by for the rest of the universe, they are stuck in the past, and unable to know about the rest of the universe, unless they can open the Wikkit Gate and escape.
Like most of Adams’ jokes, this works on a couple of levels. Most obviously, it’s a reference to the game of cricket, and the wickets that are used in that game. But it’s also a nodding acknowledgement to one of Adams’ influences.
Adams was, before becoming the writer of the Doctor Who serials The Pirate Planet, City Of Death and Shada (as well as some other, more minor, works), a student of English Literature at Cambridge, and his work often features obscure literary references. In particular, the main character of the Hitch-Hiker’s series is named after a 17th century writer of Puritan tracts.
Arthur Dent was the author of The Plain Man’s Pathway To Heaven, Wherein Every Man May Clearly See Whether He Shall Be Saved Or Damned, Set Forth Dialogue-Wise, For The Better Understanding Of The Simple, a catchily-titled Puritan tract. A cheery work, it has chapters such as “On Man’s Corruption And Misery”, “On Regeneration”, “On Contempt Of The Gospel” and “On Whoredom And Adultery” (the latter subdivided into “whoredom and the dangers thereof”, “excuses of whoredom”, “the fearful effects of whoredom”, “the punishment of whoredom”, “the causes of whoredom” and “remedies against whoredom”).
Written as a conversation between two rather earnest Calvinists (who are later joined by an atheist and someone who is ignorant of religion) the book sets out the basic theology of the puritans:
Phil. What reason is there that we should be thus punished for another man’s offence?
Theol. Because we were then all in him, and are now all of him: That is we are so descended out of his loins that of him we have not only received our natural and corrupt bodies, but also by propagation have inherited his foul corruptions, as it were by hereditary right.
Phil. But forasmuch as some have dreamed that Adam by his fall hurt himself only, and not his posterity, and that we have his corruption derived into us by imitation, and not by propagation; therefore I pray you shew this more plainly.
Theol. Even as great personages, by committing treason, do not only hurt themselves, but also stain their blood, and disgrace their posterity, for the children of such nobles are disinherited, whose blood is attainted, til they be restored again by act of parliament; even so, our blood being attainted by Adam’s transgression, we can inherit nothing of right, til we be restored by Christ.
(I find that this stuff becomes more readable if you substitute the names Vladimir and Estragon for Phil. and Theol.)
At the time, Dent’s book was a massive success, selling in excess of a hundred thousand copies – which in the largely illiterate society of the early Stuart monarchs was a huge number (and indeed would be a spectacular result for any book in the largely-illiterate society of the late Windsor monarchs). But these days it’s best known for its effect on one reader. Along with one other book, it made up the dowry of John Bunyan’s first wife (whose name history does not record) and became one of the principal influences of a book that influenced both Adams and, more to the point of this essay, Grant Morrison.
The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come by John Bunyan is one of the great works of English literature. Bunyan was a Baptist, one of the many religious sects which tend to be lumped in under the name of ‘Puritanism’ (along with the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Arian revivalists, the various Calvinist groups and others). These groups were actually more different than they were similar, but all were strongly opposed both to Catholicism and to what they saw as elements of ‘Popery’ within the established Church. Most also valued the conscience of the individual over any authority – at least as long as they were not the ones in authority.
For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.
But the path of the just as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.
The way of the wicked as darkness: they know not at what they stumble.
Proverbs 4:17 – 4:19 (King James version)
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan tries to set out his view of how to get to Heaven, which is represented in his allegory as a Celestial City.The story tells of a man called Christian, who leaves his wife and children to travel to the Celestial City and get eternal life, but who is beset by such characters as Mr Worldly Wiseman, Adam The First, Giant Despair and Ignorance. To get to the Celestial City one has to travel through the Slough Of Despond, Vanity Fair and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death.
After various travels through elements representing aspects of the Old Testament and Jewish Law, Christian finally reaches the Wicket Gate (a type of small gate set into a wall), through which one has to pass in order to get on the Straight And Narrow Path that takes one to the Celestial City. This Wicket Gate is opened by Goodwill, a fairly obvious representation of Jesus.
Having to stay on a straight and narrow path is, of course, one of the morals one picks up from fairy tales. As Chesterton points out in The Ethics Of Elfland (an essay everyone should read, in which he manages somehow to juggle Forteanism, anti-science Romanticism, literary criticism, arguments for Liberalism and democracy, and Catholic apologism), “In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken, for the definition of a law is something that can be broken.”, contrasting it to what he considers the false laws of science:
The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause.
We may come back to this fairy-tale lack of cause and effect, and arbitrary punishment, later. The point is that in Bunyan, like in Little Red Riding Hood, straying off the path leads to certain doom.
“Guide us along the Straight Way. The way of those whom You have bestowed Your Grace. Not of those who earn Your anger, nor of those who go astray.” (Qur’an, 1:5-7)
While it’s obviously inspired by other works of Christian art (notably the Lyke Wake Dirge), most of Pilgrim’s Progress’ influence has been on purely secular works – notably in Slaughterhouse Five or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or Gulliver’s Travels (and is it just me or is it striking that *such* a Christian book would be so influential on books with such a nihilistic worldview as those three?), but also on many fairy-tales and superhero comics.
Grant Morrison has referenced Pilgrim’s Progress many times, of course – it’s a constant theme throughout Seven Soldiers, but it’s also an obvious inspiration for the Limbo scenes in Animal Man. He’s also described Seaguy (possibly his most interesting recent work other than Seven Soldiers, and certainly his most personal), with its conflicts with ‘the Anti-Dad’ and chess games with Death, as “a sci-fi Pilgrim’s Progress”.
But I don’t think it’s just Morrison. The whole ethos and aesthetic of superhero comics fits perfectly with Bunyan. We have worlds with strictly demarcated good and evil, with a central character who goes through immense struggles, sometimes loses his (and it almost always is a he) way, and eventually overcomes it all with the help of his allies. So far so Joseph Campbell.
But the need to pitch the storytelling at small children in the early years of the genre has meant that all the characters in comics could come out of Bunyan virtually unchanged. One can easily imagine Christian having to deal with The Joker or The Riddler or Two-Face or Doctor Psycho or Mister Mind, and just as easily imagine him being aided by Captain Marvel or Superman.
Of course the king of this kind of naming, as of so much else, was Jack Kirby, the creator of Klarion (and the Guardian and Mister Miracle). His Fourth World stories, in which the good gods of New Genesis like Lightray and Highfather battle the evil gods of Apokolips like Darkseid and Desaad, are the ultimate in bludgeoning obviousness – but manage to go so far in that direction that they get immense power by that very obviousness.
Character names in superhero comics, for the most part, are simple labels – characters in superhero universes operate by a principle of nominative determinacy, so if you’re born Edward Nigma you’re going to end up having a supervillain career based on riddles and there’s nothing you can really do about it. The names of characters in superhero comics function as little more than labels saying ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’.
Almost five thousand years ago, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these as these two honest persons are; and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions seeing that the path of the pilgrims lay through this town of Vanity, set up a fair; a fair where they would see all sorts of vanity, and it should last all the year long. Therefore at this fair are all such things sold as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.
The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World To That Which Is To Come, John Bunyan
You may here be reminded of Sir Justyn being followed by the Monster Guilt in Shining Knight. Morrison has spun a much, much denser referential-symbolic web here than even the most dilligent of annotators have realised, and just because Klarion (with its references to the wicket gate, trip to Vanity Fair, and subtitle for issue one) is the only miniseries within Seven Soldiers to have direct references to Pilgrim’s Progress, doesn’t mean its influence doesn’t permeate everything.
I have argued before (in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! ) that Morrison is a modernist at heart, and while I hadn’t realised the connection until relatively recently [FOOTNOTE I am here indebted to Space, Time And The Pilgrimage In Modern Literature by K.M. Scheel, a PhD dissertation which can be found at http://ir.lib.sfu.ca/retrieve/2113/etd1745.pdf, which should be read by anyone who finds this and the next few essays interesting.], one of the distinctions between Modernism and the more conventional narratives that preceded it (and still dominate comics and the cinema) is that Modernism moved away from quest narratives (the type of narrative that tends to follow the Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell) and toward pilgrimage narratives.
To quote Scheel:
A pilgrimage is substantially different from a quest, offering a radically altered worldview…As mentioned earlier, pilgrimages are undertaken as a form of penance, as a devotion, to give thanks, to appeal for healing, or to re-enact a religious event. Where the hero of a quest is traditionally a warrior aristocrat who displays excellence in fulfilment of some idealized behaviour, pilgrims may be foolish, confused and uncertain of their identity…Further, while the quest is well characterized as a masculine enterprise, pilgrims are neither necessarily male, nor heroic. While knights traveled in a hierarchical organization, no class was excluded from the pilgrimage… the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales include among their professions, a knight, religious men and women, tradesmen, a doctor, the Wife of Bath, and a cook, to name a few. The quest is an individualistic enterprise – only one man can be the hero – but pilgrims often traveled together for protection, and, as we see in The Canterbury Tales, for the joy of companionship on what could be a long and tedious journey.
Modernism sees a turn away from quest narratives and toward a parody of the form – Ulysses recasts Odysseus as an advertising salesman from Dublin, The Waste Land has been described as ‘a Grail narrative with no Grail’, and as Eliot realised, Grail narratives with no Grail or hero come very close to pilgrimage narratives. Which is why The Waste Land starts:
April is the cruelest month,
breeding Lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing Memory and desire,
stirring Dull roots with spring rain.
in clear homage to the start of the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
In many ways Seven Soldiers is to superhero comics as The Waste Land is to epic poetry – the same dense levels of reference, the same multiple viewpoints – and while its stories might present themselves in the quest narrative format, reading them one can clearly see that rather than questing for an external goal, almost every character is either trying to change something about themselves (especially obvious in Seven Soldiers #0, where all the characters get themselves killed for no better reason than that they’re bored with the lives they’re leading) or has no goal at all. They journey for the sake of the journey, or because it’s their job, not because they are in search of a goal.
Partly this is astute commercial sense on Morrison’s part. The idea was to reinvent these characters and allow them to become serialised comics, and having the characters have a clear objective means that objective can be fulfilled – *must* be fulfilled for a satisfactory heroic quest narrative – and so having the goal of defeating the Sheeda being essentially incidental to the characters’ lives is a way of keeping each character’s story open.
But there’s also an aesthetic reason. The quest narrative is essentially linear – time based – this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens, and then the goodies win. The pilgrimage, on the other hand, is a space-based form – it’s about the places visited. The goal, such as it is, is merely to exist in one place at at least one moment in time. Given the way Morrison plays with time and space, taking perspectives outside time, implying an essentially cyclical time (the Sheeda feeding on the past from the future, the many falls of Camelot) and showing the same events happening over and again – and given that Seven Soldiers is so rooted in place, in a New York that both is and isn’t our New York (the “Cinderella city”), the pilgrimage narrative – and the choice of Pilgrim’s Progress as a source of inspiration – is far more appropriate than it may at first appear.
The Pilgrim’s Progress itself, of course, is in some ways closer to the Hero’s Journey than to the pilgrimage narratives, at least in its first part. But where a Hero’s Journey story would end with the hero having reached his destination, there is a whole second book of Pilgrim’s Progress in which Christian’s wife, Christiana, her neighbour, Mercy, Christian and Christiana’s four sons, and the four wives they pick up along the way all also decide to go to the Celestial City too. Bunyan wrote this second part – which unfortunately is not as well-known as the first part – in order to show that women could be pilgrims just as much as men could.
And this – carrying on after what would normally be the ‘end’, having multiple equally important characters of multiple genders – is a characteristic of both Modernism and the Pilgrimage narrative, but emphatically not of the Quest form. The Lord Of The Rings doesn’t suddenly switch half-way through to being about Mrs Baggins and the four little(r) Baggins going to Mordor because Frodo accidentally left a second ring at home. The quest narrative is about how the world is fundamentally right except for one thing that needs fixing, with one man who can fix it. For all its literal-mindedness, Bunyan’s work doesn’t make that obvious a mistake. Neither does Morrison.
Bunyan’s work was a fundamentally revolutionary one – as Bernard Shaw pointed out, all his representations of sin were in the form of the rich, while his good characters were uniformly poor, and Puritanism was bound up tightly with the revolutionary politics of the time. This is something William Blake responded to, more than a century later, when he provided his famous illustrations to Pilgrim’s Progress.
Blake is often talked about as a Romantic, but really he’s a man of the seventeenth century, born a century too late. His reaction against science is not, as that of for example Keats (one of the greatest cretins in English literature), born out of a desire to return to a simpler Golden Age, but out of a religious radicalism that is of a piece with Bunyan and Milton.
Which is why it’s a shame he was so blinkered when it came to Newton.
But we’ll come to that when I write on Frankenstein.
O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the Path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.
And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the Path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.
Comic issues Klarion #1-4
Artist Frazer Irving
Other credits Pat Brosseau (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works Marvel Boy has some of Klarion’s flavour, while he returns to big-hatted stern-looking Puritans drawn by Frazer Irving in Return Of Bruce Wayne.
Look Out For Missing fathers, parasitism on the work of previous generations, missing gods.
Still to come in Seven Soldiers More stuff inspired by 17th century religious literature!