10: Seven Soldiers 1

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

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

(Luke 14:26)

Crossword, the answers to which give away many otherwise obscure plot points in Seven Soldiers

“But what there is on the credit side! It is rather like the effect of the Ring–a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity. The first section, merely on the mystery of the Overlords, would be enough for most authors …here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity: a man who could almost understand “He that hateth not father and mother” and certainly would understand the situation in Aeneid III between those who go on to Latium and those who stay in Sicily.

We are almost brought up out of psyche into pneuma. I mean, his myth does that to us imaginatively. Of course his own thoughts about what the higher level might be are not, in our eyes, very new or very profound: but that doesn’t really make so much difference. (Though, by the way, it would have been better, even on purely literary grounds, to leave it in its mystery, to philosophise less.) After all, few authors’ glosses on their own myths are as good as the myths: unless, like Dante, they take the glosses from other men, real thinkers…

Many minor dissatisfactions, of course. The women are all made up out of a few abstract ideas of jealousy, vanity, maternity etc. But it really matters very little: the thing is great enough to carry far more faults than it commits.

It is a strange comment on our age that such a book lies hid in a hideous paper-backed edition, wholly unnoticed by the cognoscenti, while any “realistic” drivel about some neurotic in a London flat–something that needs no real invention at all, something that any educated man could write if he chose, may get seriously reviewed and mentioned in serious books–as if it really mattered.

I wonder how long this tyranny will last? Twenty years ago, I felt no doubt that I should live to see it all break up and great literature return: but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.

And now, what do you think? Do you agree that it is AN ABSOLUTE CORKER?”

C.S. Lewis on Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

So here’s where I’m meant to come up with some pithy summary that encapsulates the whole of Seven Soldiers, and ties together everything in a neat bow, right?

I’m not going to, of course.

Seven Soldiers is the kind of work that, when examined in enough detail, grows to encompass everything. Writing this book involved more than a little bit of a dance with mental illness. While I never, as Ian MacDonald said of Charles Manson, ‘crossed the line between textual analysis and mass murder’, there was a point while writing this when it seemed to be coming too easily – when every time I researched an aspect of something I wanted to talk about in the book, I found another trivial little link. I decided to take a break from writing for a couple of hours, and listen to the new Doctor Who audio story that had just come out, Heroes Of Sontar.

In that story, the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa are trapped on a dangerous planet with a squad of Sontarans. Sontaran soldiers. Seven Sontaran soldiers.

I extended my break from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks. It was probably for the best.

A bald man laughing, as children say "I don't care who you are, we'll beat you somehow", with a caption reading "Dare to witness...Childhood's End! The Newsboys of Nowhere Street face... The Last Headline!"

“I have no control over how people handle the Seven Soldiers characters in my wake – Klarion already seems barely recognizable and appears to have returned to his role (a role no-one could ever sell in the first place) as a teen warlock who turns up to fight DCs younger characters – a sort of Goth Mr. Myxyzptlk. I honestly don’t expect anyone to actualize the potential of these characters, but I’d like to be proven wrong. The Guardian and Frankenstein could join the JLA.”

Grant Morrison

Do I think that what I’m getting out of Seven Soldiers is precisely what Grant Morrison put in?

No, of course not.

But what I do think is that Morrison actually had things to say in this series – and what he had to say was not just about superhero comics, but about the stories we tell ourselves, about growing up, about the relationships between parents and children, about thought…

And I think Morrison was, very deliberately, using symbols that have the absolute maximum resonance for his purposes. He may not, for example, have been aware on a conscious level of the story of Alan Turing’s suicide using a poisoned apple (though he may well have been), but he was certainly aware of the stories of Snow White, and of Adam and Eve, and of Eris, and of what the apple meant in those stories. He was aware of Newton seeing the apple fall. And he will have known, therefore, that there will be other resonances, other stories that have been told about apples, and about falling, and about forbidden knowledge and secrets.

Read a mediocre book, and you come out knowing exactly what the author intended, and what she wanted you to know. Read a great book, and you come out thinking things neither you nor the author ever thought of.

Morrison is deliberately encouraging us to make connections – putting important plot points into a cryptic crossword! – and whether the reader notices the references to Milton and Bunyan, or the references to Stephen King and Arthur C Clarke, isn’t really the point. The point is to notice something.
Picture of a rotten apple

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse

This book has ended up almost entirely different from my original plan for it. It was originally going to be a much more conventional – and rather longer – book. I’d have explained carefully all the references to other superhero stories, I’d have made things explicit rather than implicit. I’d have written much more and said much less. But no plan survives contact with the enemy.

And insofar as I think there’s a single point to Seven Soldiers (there isn’t, of course. If Morrison had a single-sentence point to make, he’d have just written a sentence, rather than thirty-plus comics), that might be it.

We create things – be they comics, or books, or children – and as soon as we do they’re out of our control, sometimes even before we’ve finished. The book you’re reading is not the book I wrote – it’s your interpretation of what I had to say. Some of you will come away thinking I’m a lot cleverer than I really am, while others will come away thinking I’m much stupider, because you’ll have taken out more or less than I put in.

But even the book I wrote isn’t the book I planned to write. It wriggled out from under me and turned into something a lot more ambiguous. I’m not even sure it’s a book I’d like to read, were I not the author. I’m not sure I’d get that much out of it.

Our children will always rebel against us. We may bring them up with a healthy disrespect for authority, only to see them become accountants and vote Conservative. We can’t control them, and no matter what the plans we had for them when they were born, they become something different. Superman was meant to be a Doc Savage knock-off in a newspaper strip, not a symbol of hope and pure goodness with near-godly powers. Bulleteer ends up flying in a crowd scene.

But conversely we are all rebellious children ourselves. There are forces acting on us from all sides that feel inexorable, inevitable. Whether it be gravity, parental expectations, entropy…it can feel like we have no control at all, that we’re walking a narrow road, thick beset with thorns and briars. But there’s not really any such thing as destiny. Libertarian free will may not exist, and we are all the product of every influence, every force that’s ever acted on us, but there are choices, always. There is a third road.

Neanderthals running from the New Gods. Caption "They refashion in their own image the primitive inhabitants of a primordial earth. And give them fire, inspiration and magic."

“Sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still sing their songs
Even when not so many sing along
There must be some kind of belief in their hearts or heads
That what they’re doing beats out being dead…
Sometimes I wonder why my friends they all still play guitar
It’s not like they’re in line to be rock stars
There must be some kind of belief in a better world
Where we can strum and smile and get the girl”

Blake Jones And The Trike Shop – Sing Along

What gives us hope, what makes it all worthwhile, is the act of creation itself. It’s a messy process, and what we end up with is never what we hoped. Creating anything, be it a baby or a song or a book or a comic, is a recipe for disaster if we put all our hopes and dreams in the result. What matters is the process. And the process is what gives meaning to our lives.

We take the most unpromising materials possible, bits of inspiration from wherever we can find them, and stitch them together, and we can see the joins, and the bolts in its neck, and we know it doesn’t fit together right. We see its imperfections better than anyone else can, and we know it’s a failure. But it has the spark of life, the spark of creativity, and despite its imperfections, it’s better than its creator.

The act of creativity is an alchemical act, one that takes the dead flesh of the past and turns it into the life of the future. It’s turning entropy, the enemy of life, into information, its greatest ally.

If you’re not disappointed in your children, they’re not doing it right.

It’s been said that a measure of progress is the number of those who are counted as people. Millennia ago, only the men of the local tribe were counted as people. Then only the men of our country. Then the men and women of our race. Then all human beings. And now some, I think including Morrison, would include at least some animals. And I’m pretty certain Morrison would include fictional people in that counting.

And yes, that’s ridiculous. But we all put our hands out to Zatanna, didn’t we?

So we must have compassion for our creations, just as we have compassion for our parents. We’re all the rebellious child disappointing her parents, just as we’re all the parents who don’t understand the monster they’ve created. It’s quite possible there can never be true understanding between generations, but there can be empathy. There can be compassion. There can be love.

Comic issues Seven Soldiers #1

Artists J.H. Williams III (line art and colours), Dave Stewart (colours)

Other credits Todd Klein (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Peter Tomasi(editor)

Connected Morrison works All of them

Look Out For Everything

Still to come in Seven Soldiers The rest of your life.

Part Two: Seven Soldiers Zero

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

The essay as shown below contains some inadvertantly transphobic language, which has been fixed in the second edition of the book, but which I have left here in order not to try to rewrite my own history. The intro to the second edition reads as follows:

This second edition is identical to the first, except for the alteration of four words which inadvertantly reinforced transphobic ideas. In the description of the comic Camelot 3000 I have replaced the phrase “born female” with “assigned female at birth”, and three descriptions of a character’s pre-transition identity which read “she” have been changed to “he”.

This is not in an attempt to change the historical record, but in an effort to ensure that I do not continue to perpetuate such ideas. I knew better when I wrote the book, just as I know better now, but I was thoughtless. I could and should have done better.

No other changes have been made.

Panel from Seven Soldiers Zero, quoting the poem "Thomas The Rhymer"

I forbid all young girls

Who have golden hair

To travel down to Carterhaugh

For young Tam Lin is there

From all that pass through Carterhaugh

He will take a fee

Their rings or their green mantles

Or their virginity

From Abigail Acland’s Tam Lin Version X

True Thomas actually existed. Much of the information on the real True Thomas in this essay comes from here , but note the inaccuracies in there, including the statement that ‘Thomas of Britain’ is ‘evidently our Thomas’, when in fact it’s a poet from a hundred years earlier. The information there is from a public domain book on ’eminent Scotsmen’ from the mid 19th century, and historical research has advanced since then..

There was a real, verifiable, human being, existing in consensus reality, Thomas Learmouth. He and his prophecies were highly regarded, and he was known as ‘true Thomas’ because he was considered literally incapable of telling a lie. While England’s legendary figures – its Arthurs and Merlins, Robin Hoods and Little Johns, are purely fictional – any pretended connection to real historical figures is so tenuous that even were they the basis of the story, the umbilical cord between reality and fiction has long since been severed – this Scottish legend is rooted firmly in reality. Tom Learmouth – or should we say Thomas Rymer de Erceldun (the Learmouth name appears to have been added later) was a real person.

Not only that, but he has as good a claim as any to being the first real poet of the English language as it is understood today. We don’t have precise dates for his life – he’s referenced in a few documents from ca 1238, as already being an accomplished poet, and he was still alive around 1286 (which would make him extraordinarily long-lived for the time), but definitely dead by 1299 (when his son refers to himself as his heir in a charter). So his work spanned most of the mid-to-late 13th century.

The 14th century is generally considered the time when English (the language, not the country) literature generally began to recover after the Norman invasion several centuries earlier, and in that time the language had changed beyond all recognition. Whereas a typical Old English (pre-Norman) poem might read like:

Næs hie ðære fylle gefean hæfdon,

manfordædlan, þæt hie me þegon,

symbel ymbsæton sægrunde neah;

ac on mergenne mecum wunde

(From Beowulf)

A typical 14th century poem might be:

As hit is stad and stoken In stori stif and stronge,

With lel letteres loken,

In londe so hatz ben longe.

Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse

With mony luflych lorde,

ledez of þe best,

Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,

With rych reuel oryℨt and rechles merþes.

(From Sir Gawain And The Green Knight)

Apart from a couple of odd letters (notably ‘þ’ – the ‘thorn’ – which is the letter we now represent as ‘th’), the latter looks basically like English. It might be oddly spelled, but you can pick up roughly what it means, whereas with the earlier one you can’t.

Until the early 19th century, it was generally thought that 14th century works like Sir Gawain And The Green Knight or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were the earliest extant middle English literature. But then a manuscript was discovered – written in the early 14th century, but a transcription of Thomas Learmouth’s 13th century poem – of what is now considered the oldest epic poem in Middle English, Tristram, by Thomas The Rhymer.

Till up then started young Tam Lin,

Says Lady, thou pu’s nae mae.

Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet,

Amang the groves sae green,

And a’ to kill the bonie babe

That we gat us between? ‘

O tell me, tell me, Tam Lin,’ she says,

‘For’s sake that died on tree,

If eer ye was in holy chapel,

Or chirstendom did see?’

Child Ballad version of Tam Lin

Tristram was based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, itself the work of another poet called Thomas – this time ‘Thomas of Britain’, a twelfth-century British poet who wrote in Old French. Like many stories of its time, the story of Tristan and Isolde was rewritten by pretty much every writer who came across it, and no doubt Thomas of Britain wasn’t the first person to write it (there are earlier ur-versions of the same story dating back as far as the eighth century), though he was the first to put it in the form by which it became known.

Also like many stories of the time, the Tristan story soon became entangled with Arthurian myth. By the time of Thomas Rhymer, it had expanded into a thirteen-book series, the Prose Tristan. For those who think that modern fantasy writers have a monopoly on particular excesses, it should be noted that not only was this a thirteen-volume series, but also that it was started by one author (Luce de Gat) and finished by another (calling himself Helle de Boron) who was (or claimed to be, though it’s generally thought this was a lie) a close relative of another famous author of the time (Robert de Boron). And the second author took the story in a completely different direction – turning it into a sequel to the works of his supposed famous forebear.

Because Robert de Boron was the person who came up with the modern Holy Grail story – that it was the cup in which Joseph Of Arimathea collected Jesus’ blood when he was on the cross – as well as linking this story to the Arthurian myth, and significantly expanding the story of Merlin. Robert de Boron’s version of the Grail myth was incorporated into the Vulgate Cycle, a series of five books which is the major source of the Lancelot parts of the Arthur myth. Helle de Boron managed to link this into the Prose Tristan by the simple measure of copying a huge chunk of the Vulgate Cycle right into the middle of it. (This was in the days when everything had to be written out by hand, of course, so this was several orders of magnitude more difficult than these Ctrl-C Ctrl-V days. Of course it was also pre-Google, so this sort of plagiarism was a lot harder to track down. Maybe we should posit a Conservation Law for Difficulty Of Plagiarism?).

The original form of the story of Tristan, before it became entangled in the Arthur mythplex, was a simple one – Tristan was a relative of the King of Cornwall (though his name is a Scottish one, and the area over which he was Prince is probably a French transliteration of Lothian), sent to Ireland to bring back Isolde (or Iseulte) for the King to marry. Unfortunately, Tristan and Isolde take a love potion which causes them to fall in love, and as a result there is a love triangle between the two of them and King Mark, which is resolved in one of several equally tragic ways (most stolen from various classical sources, most obviously in Thomas of Britain’s version, where he just sticks in the end of Theseus And The Minotaur, with the black sails if dead/white sails if alive bit kept intact).

This story has clear parallels with the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle of the Arthurian legend, and it’s that which probably prompted the Prose Tristan’s author to link the two, but even as late as Mallory it was clearly a distinct, different thing – the other seven books of the Morte d’Arthur work as a cohesive whole, while The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones dumped into the centre of the story, is more a commentary on its surroundings than an integral part of them.

In such a way did a story about a Cornish Scotsman who fell in love with an Irish woman, as formulated by a Frenchman and retold a century later by a Scotsman, become the oldest surviving poem in English.

Love is impatient.

It ignores traditions and conventions.

It is not bound by human constructs, jurisprudence, and the laws of men.

Love reaches out and holds, open hearted, it demands attention.

It is in a world of its own, yet it connects worlds that will forever be set apart

Tam Lin Retold, The Imagined Village (lyrics by Benjamin Zephaniah)

But we’re not, for now, interested in the story of Tristram or Tristan – though again, this is one of the many things we may come back to, in the fullness of time. We’re interested in the story of Tristram’s author, Thomas the Rhymer.

While the actual life of Thomas Learmouth/Thomas the Rhymer/Thomas Rymer de Erceldun/True Thomas is only known to us through a handful of mentions plus his own poem, as a symbol for Scottish independence he is far more potent.

Learmouth was known during his life as an extraordinarily accurate, as well as truthful, prophet, and it was believed that everything he said would eventually come true. For this reason, many prophecies, including those about the future independence of Scotland, have been attributed to him, not all of which are by him.

(Or at least, if they were, he was a much better prophet even than he’s given credit for. One of the prophecies accredited to him, “Bithidh muileann air gach alt, agus ath air gach cnoc, tombac aig na buachaillean a’s gruagaichean gun naire.” (“There shall be a mill on every brook, a kiln on every height; herds shall use tobacco, and young women shall be without shame.”) is both in Gaelic, a language of which there’s otherwise no record of him speaking, and mentions tobacco, which wouldn’t be heard of in Scotland until some three hundred years after his death, so a bloody good guess all things considered…)

I really don’t know why I was going on about Sir Tristan at all. I mean, yes, Sir Tristan does appear in DC Comics, but it’s in Camelot 3000, and there he’s not only a time traveller to the future, but one with gender identity problems because he was born a she:
Page from Camelot 3000

(From Camelot 3000 by Mike W Barr and Brian Bolland. You’ll be pleased to know that despite Tristan and Isolde both being female in the year 3000, they eventually get over this slight problem and their love affair lasts. While this comic was published by DC Comics, like the rest of the comics I’m discussing here, unlike those it’s copyright © 1985 Barr and Bolland.)

Obviously Thomas Rhymer’s poetry isn’t what we should be looking at and has no possible relevance…

Nor should we, in all honesty, be looking at his real life. We don’t know much about that, all things considered – just that he was considered the greatest poet and most honest person of his age.

Rather, we should be looking at a poem that has survived to this day, that was first known of during Thomas’ lifetime, but whose authorship we don’t yet know. The Ballad Of Thomas The Rhymer purports to tell the true story of Thomas’ life, and how he gained his prophetic powers.

According to this story, True Thomas met, and kissed or slept with, the Queen of Elfland, while she was out riding on a hunt. Riding with her to a party in Fairyland, he spends the night at the party, only to realise that seven years have passed in the real world for the one night he’s spent there. Returning to the real world, he asks for something to remember the Queen by, and she gives him the gift of prophecy. Eventually tiring of the real world, he returned to Elfland, and remains there to this day.

The passage from this ballad which is quoted in the comic, is part of a section in which the Queen tells Thomas of two roads – one less travelled by, strewn with thorns, but which is the path of righteousness, and another “braid braid road” which is the path of wickedness down which many travel. She then offers him a third choice – the road to Elfland.

(Quite why someone so virtuous, so utterly incapable of telling a lie, is shown taking any road other than the road of righteousness, I wouldn’t want to say).

By the way, when Thomas sleeps with the Queen, she’s already married, and her King is sleeping and knows nothing. Just like Lancelot with Guinevere. Just like Tristan with Isolde. (In Camelot 3000, interestingly, Tristan is about to get married when she realises she’s really a man. There Tristan becomes the Isolde figure, fought over by two lovers. Camelot 3000’s main character is named Tom, and he also falls in love with Tristan, but Tristan is a straight man and so uninterested).

True Thomas he took off his hat,

And bowed him low down till his knee:

‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!

For your peer on earth I never did see.’

‘O no, O no, True Thomas,’ she says,

‘That name does not belong to me;

I am but the queen of fair Elfland,

And I’m come here for to visit thee.

But ye maun go wi me now, Thomas,

True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,

For ye maun serve me seven years,

Thro weel or wae as may chance to be.’

Child Ballad version of Thomas The Rhymer

Morgana offers to use magic to make Tristan into a man

(Morgana, the Queen of Faerie, tempts Sir Tristan in Camelot 3000. I know several people who’ve managed a similar transition with much less effort. Obviously 40th century gender reassignment surgery is less advanced than its early-21st century equivalent. Knowledge can get lost so easily.)

However, the Thomas The Rhymer ballad isn’t the most famous version of this story. It’s much more familiar – and more detailed – in another ballad from roughly the same time, Tam Lin.

Tam is a Scots abbreviation for Thomas (while TAM is something completely different – Tivoli Access Manager, a proprietary network authentication program. I mention this only because I’ve had lots of emails referring to TAM at work this week while planning this piece, and it’s been very confusing) so we can assume that Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer were the same character, give or take.

But the Tam Lin story is both more complicated and more ambiguous, and shows up better the themes of temptation and sexuality that are mere undercurrents in the Thomas The Rhymer story.

At the start of the story, we’re told that all women with blonde hair are advised not to go to Caterhaugh, for Tam Lin, who lives there, will take a fee from all of them, be that fee their jewellery, their clothing, or their virginity. However Janet, our heroine, ventures there to pick the roses. Tam Lin tells her that she needs his permission to pick the roses, Janet says she doesn’t, and then he ‘takes her by the hand’ (with various different connotations, ranging from the romantic to the violent. We’ll pick the romantic one here because why not?)

On her return home, it’s suggested that she’s pregnant, which she denies, because she claims never to have had sex with a man (only with a fairy). However, just to make sure, she returns to Caterhaugh, because the herbs that grow there are natural abortifacents and she’s a liberated, modern 13th century woman who wants control of her own body.

Tam Lin stops her and asks her if she’s trying to kill their baby, at which point she asks him if he’s really a fairy or a human – and if a human if he’s a Christian. He answers that he is, in fact, a human and a Christian, but that he’s been living in fairyland since being kidnapped by the Fairy Queen, and enjoying it there.

However, every seven years the fairies make a sacrifice to the Devil, and they’re going to do the next one on the very next night – Hallowe’en – and he’s afraid it will be him because he’s so very pretty. But she can save him.

So she turns up the next night, and he tells her to hold him. The fairy queen turns him into a variety of things Janet wouldn’t want to hold – a lion, a snake, a rod of hot iron – but she keeps tight hold, and the fairy queen leaves, saying as she goes that she wished she’d torn out Tam Lin’s heart and replaced it with wood.

Syne they came on to a garden green,

And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:

‘Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,

It will give the tongue that can never lie.’

From the Child Ballad versions of Thomas The Rhymer

This last part of the story of Tam Lin is actually a much, much older story – in classical mythology, Thetis, the sea-nymph mother of Achilles, was supposed to marry a mortal, Peleus, but refused. However, Peleus bound her when she was asleep, so she couldn’t escape by changing shapes, even though she changed into many forms (in Sophocles’ version, into a lion, a snake, fire and water), and eventually she calmed down enough that she consented to marry him.

(See, this is what you have to do if a woman says no. Just tie her up in her sleep and wait til she calms down and says ‘yes’. Who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?)

It’s at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis that the seeds for the Trojan war are laid. Eris, the goddess of discord (who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?) is annoyed at not being invited, so she makes an apple out of gold and rolls it into the wedding party. The apple has written upon it “for the prettiest one”. Of course, all the goddesses thought it should go to them, and had a big fight over it (who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?), before they decided that only a mortal man could possibly decide which was the real prettiest. (This is believed also to be the origin of the story of Sleeping Beauty).

So who was the fairest of them all? Paris had to decide. Unfortunately for him, all the goddesses tried to bribe him. Even more unfortunately, he was stupid enough to accept a bribe rather than offer his honest opinion. On the upside of this, he did get the most beautiful woman in the world as his reward. On the downside, because he’d upset the other goddesses, Helen had already been married, to another King (like Isolde, like Guinevere…) and her husband was slightly peeved by this. So peeved, in fact, that he beseiged Troy, the city over which Paris was a prince, for ten years, before burning the entire city to the ground and slaughtering all its inhabitants except for a small number of women and children who were sold as slaved. Paris lied, thousands died.

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth

And a pair of shoes of velvet green

And til seven years were gone and past

True Thomas on Earth was never seen

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds version of Thomas The Rhymer

Seven Soldiers #0 is all about reinvention, about shifting shape, about becoming something new. I, Spyder, who has passed through the higher realms of reality inhabited by the Seven Unknown Men, has actually been reborn as something new (and in the process had to undergo an initiation ritual, be stripped of all his clothes and his whole identity, like Ishtar, of whom more later). The rest are all trying to reinvent themselves, but they’re concentrating on the surface – on the costumes, on remaking their bodies into ‘temples’ (to the extent of wearing wigs), on power rings bought off the internet – rather than changing who they really are. They’re also weirdly sexualised – most obviously our viewpoint character The Whip, who is introduced to us in what looks like bondage gear before jumping at us crotch first, and who has sex with I, Spyder even though she despises him, but all of them to a greater or lesser extent.

The plot also has echoes of Stephen King’s It – a team of seven who end up six teaming up to fight a giant spider that is something much more – but mostly it introduces us to a team who are promptly killed off (SPOILER: the good guys lose), and to the ‘gods who hunt superheroes’, to the harrowing, and to the seven unknown men of Slaughter Swamp. We’ll talk more about Slaughter Swamp when we get to talking about Frankenstein, but for now just remember that Slaughter Swamp has a history of death and rebirth, of change, in the DC Universe. And the Seven Unknown Men – the Time Tailors – all look a little like Grant Morrison…

the very first thing they turned him into

is a lion that runs so wild

but she held him fast, she feared him not

he’s the father of her child, my boys

he’s the father of her child

and the very next thing they turned him into

it was a loathsome snake

he says hold me fast, fear me not

for i’m one of god’s own make, my love

oh i’m one of god’s own make

Current 93 version of Tam Lin

So the first issue proper – or the zeroth – of Seven Soldiers, manages on its most basic level to introduce a number of new themes that weren’t apparent in JLA: Classified – lust, a journey to another world from which you come back changed, and a desire to change oneself. When you combine these with the poem it most directly references, you can see many of the resonances from JLA:C reappear – the apple, in particular – and following those references even slightly further takes us into the realms of Arthurian mythology, of the Queen of the Fairies and her jealousy, of Sleeping Beauty and, especially, Snow White. Of Arthurian knights with gender identity crises. Of humans who are just the playthings of Gods. Of stories repeating over time with only the names changing.

More tomorrow.

The Facts

Comic issue Seven Soldiers Of Victory #0

Artists J.H. Williams III (line art), Dave Stewart (colours)

Other credits Todd Klein (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)

Connected Morrison works For the most part this references forward, rather than backward – there are several small lines of dialogue that only make sense when read in the larger context.

Look Out For
Teams of Seven. Reinvention. Surfaces not matching reality. Writers writing about themselves. Legacies.

Still to come in Seven Soldiers How to escape from a black hole! Why you can get what you wish for and still not be very happy! Horses that speak!

Linkblogging For 27/09/09

I’ve got a few things I want to write about over the next couple of days – I want to do a Wednesday Comics review, a Spotify playlist and a Doctor Who post, just for a start – but for now here’s some links (one or more of the above will be posted tonight).

My friend Jazzhandsseriousbusiness (I haven’t had a chance to ask him/her yet if s/he is hiding hir real name for good reason a la ‘Costigan Quist’ or has just not posted it yet) is starting a series of posts aimed at Lib Dems who are disengaged from the party, telling them how to get more involved. I’ll definitely be reading this, as since I moved from my old constituency to the one next door my involvement has dropped down to almost nil (one constituency meeting, one delivery round for a local candidate who’s also a friend, and a couple of days’ volunteering for the Euro elections, in the last six months, not counting non-party activism like No2ID and Hope Not Hate), but I suspect it’ll be handy for anyone who wants to get more active within the party.

Jonathan Calder asks “Will the real Nick Clegg please stand up?”

Anton Vowl on the Mail’s disgraceful attack on ‘comedy Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik’ for having a great-uncle who was evil scum.

And some non-Lib-Dem links:

J.H. Williams III walks us through the stages of composing a Batwoman cover. It’s a cliche, but nonetheless true, that Williams’ work is enough by itself to justify the continued existence of the Big Two comics companies.

David Mitchell argues, quite rightly, that the current plans to fund only ‘useful’ research are the acts of barbarians and savages who want to make *absolutely certain* that Britain develops absolutely no new ideas and anyone with two brain cells to rub together will emigrate as soon as possible…

Absurdist literature seems to make people better at pattern-matching.

The New Yorker has an excellent, if harrowing, essay on how Texas executed an innocent man a few years ago. Of course, with Supreme Court Justices like Scalia saying guilt or innocence shouldn’t matter when it comes to execution, it’s amazing that any guilty people get executed. And even if everyone who was executed was guilty, it’s still a barbaric, inhuman practice. Join Amnesty and help put a stop to it.

And Gavin Burrows talks about girls’ comics of the 1970s.

Linkblogging for 25/08/09

I’m too tired today to write the next hyperpost, but the posts for the next few days are planned out in my head, and will probably be:
Tomorrow – The Kingdom, and the storytelling possibilities of Hypertime
Thursday – The End Of Time – a look at Julian Barbour’s book (with reference also to Deutsch’s The Fabric Of Reality) and the theoretical possibilities of Hypertime really existing.
Friday – Can You Change History, Even One Line?Doctor Who and the web of time, especially the novel Spiral Scratch.
Saturday – Seven Soldiers and modular storytelling
Sunday – 52, The Diary Of Ralph Dibny, and canon vs ‘fanon’

There will be more after that, I think, but that’ll give you some idea where it’s going. If you’re hungry for more, right now, pillock’s comments to the last two posts are well worth reading.

Meanwhile, some links:

Over at Seebelow, Matt Rossi has a post on why he doesn’t like the attitude Geoff Johns displays towards fans in Final Crisis: Legion Of Three Worlds. I *may* cover that series in a future post myself, but I agree with him on this one…

A few people have done interesting reviews of Inglourious Basterds (which I’ve not yet seen as Holly doesn’t like violent/disturbing films – I may go without her when she’s off at Pride this weekend) – anagramsci and Jog probably have the most interesting for someone who’s not yet seen it.

J.H. Williams III takes us through the creation of a Detective Comics cover.

Mark Kennedy has a Disney comic artists guide from the 70s scanned.

Nina Stone found Barbara Gordon far more interesting than the new Batgirl, while Debi enjoyed the comic but saw an arrow.

And Millennium talks about the difference between compassion, justice and vengeance. He really is a very wise little elephant, you know…

Batman Reborn

So, we’re now a month through the Batman Reborn ‘event’, it might be time to take stock of what’s been going on in the bat-titles ( I have of course reviewed a few of these titles here and here earlier…)

I’ve read all the ‘Batman Reborn’ titles except ‘Red Robin’, and it’s very obvious that despite the branding there is really no overarching ‘event’ going on at all here. Dini’s two titles are just unpleasant – Gotham City Sirens I dealt with before, but Streets Of Gotham is just as nasty in its own way, managing to combine mass-murder, child prostitution and continuity-wank into one perfectly horrible story.

I do wonder what on Earth happened to Dini. A couple of years ago his work on Detective was fresh and entertaining – fun, done in one superhero stories. But since around the time he started working on the egregious Countdown he has instead written some of the worst dreck I’ve ever read, and developed an obsession with Hush, a character that has not one single point of interest.

Meanwhile, the remaining title, Batman, is clearly the remedial readers’ title, as one would expect from a comic by Judd Winick and Ed Benes, with DIck Grayson explaining very clearly in words of one or two syllables everything that was implied by Morrison’s script for Batman & Robin#1 – that Batman is dead, that Dick Grayson is the new Batman, that he is not very happy about these things, and so on.

One could almost think that the new Bat-status had been set up specifically to educate superhero comics fans – “Look, this is what we call a good comic. GOOD comics can be recognised by having interesting stories, pictures which are nice to look at, and not leaving you feeling slightly soiled afterwards. THIS, on the other hand, is what we call a bad comic. In a bad comic, nothing happens that anyone could possibly care about, the women all look like stick figures with two circles drawn randomly in the chest area, and it makes you despair for the human race that anyone could possibly produce anything with such a grotesquely twisted moral tone. No, you CAN’T have the variant cover! BAD fanboy!” (smacks round the nose with a rolled-up copy of Gotham City Sirens)

One could think that at least, if one didn’t look through the comments on comics blogs. The comments to this post (I can’t link the comments directly, unfortunately) seem pretty typical – J.H. Williams’ art is “stagnant as the Dead Sea”, “confuses more than it clarifies”, “too hyper-realistic and stiff”, “tiresome” and “flashy show-off stuff that just distracts from the visuals”…

(Yes, that’s the J.H. Williams who does pages like this:)

bad art, apparently

bad art, apparently

So apparently the reaction of many superhero comic ‘readers’ when confronted with anything that might be called ‘good’ is to be scared and confused, because it makes things happen in their brain and that’s never happened before.

What’s particularly interesting is how much the two titles that might be called ‘any good at all’ rely on the quality of the art. Detective is a competent story with the best artist working in comics providing the art, while Batman And Robin is a very good story with the second-best artist working in comics providing the art. This is especially shown in Batman & Robin 2. This issue, the middle part of a three-part story, has very little in the way of plot, being almost all action, and most of that a fight scene, which provides a problem to reviewers like myself who can talk all day about writing but whose vocabulary for describing art stretches about as far as ‘pretty’.

It’s especially telling to compare this issue to anything from Morrison’s Bat-run from the last few years (other than the Black Glove story with Williams’ art) – the writing on those issues was just as good, but sometimes it was almost entirely unreadable, due to the artists not bothering with trivialities such as ‘telling the story’ or ‘drawing characters who look different from each other’. Here, even in a fairly story-light issue, the whole thing works, because Quitely’s ‘acting’ of the characters’ body-language and expression, and his layouts, and his staging, allow everything to move smoothly.

My favourite moment in the comic though shows what can be done by a good writer working within a superhero continuity. It’s the bit where Alfred talks to Dick about Dick’s ‘showbusiness’ background and tells him to treat Batman as a role. Not only does this work within the story, which is based in his background in the circus, while also illuminating things about Dick’s character, it also points to deeper things about Dick and Alfred’s relationship. Before becoming a butler, Alfred was an actor (under the stage name ‘Alfred Beagle’) and that shared ‘showbusiness’ background would be something Dick and Alfred would have shared, even though I’ve never seen it mentioned before in that context. So not only does it make sense that that metaphor would be one Alfred would think of, it illuminates their relationship by using a continuity point – but the story and that moment also still make perfect sense if you don’t know that.

That’s how continuity should be used – as something that adds resonance if you know it, but doesn’t detract if you don’t. Now, if only this ‘good comics’ thing would catch on…

Linkblogging for 27/06/09

Just a quick one today as I’m visiting my parents…

Jess Nevins has the best piece I’ve read on the death of Michael Jackson, treating Jackson’s life as a Gothic text on which to perform literary analysis.

Patrick at Lib Dem Voice is calling for a repeal of section 141 of the Mental Health Act, which states that any MP who gets sectioned will be removed from their seat and not returned, no matter how brief their illness. This is something with which I absolutely agree – there is no reason why someone treated for, say, depression, can’t be an entirely productive MP later on.

The Mail are misogynist arseholes, film at eleven.

J.H. WIlliams and Todd Klein have collaborated on a print of the section of The Morte d’Arthur where he pulls the sword from the stone. I own two of Klein’s earlier prints, the collaborations with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and they’re really very good indeed. I’ll probably buy this one to go with the others.

microRNA appears to target cancer cells specifically and trigger apoptosis. Very promising, but the actual paper cited is behind a pay-wall.

And Jon Morris is putting up MP3s of some old 78s he’s found.

Comics Review (Guaranteed 100% Michael Jackson Free*)

Sometimes there are comics that you can review before even reading them, and I was half tempted to do that with the two comics I’m going to review here. Going in, I knew exactly what I was going to get with these two comics, both part of the line-wide Batman revamp. Both feature female leads, in Gotham City, who have recently had serious heart injuries from which they bear both psychological and physical scars but manage to run round doing serious acrobatics and fighting in skin-tight leathers. One is extraordinarily good, the other is a meretricious piece of leering fanboyism.

Detective Comics, unsurprisingly, is the excellent one. It’s also quite difficult for me to review. I’m far more comfortable talking about writing than art, but the writing isn’t really the selling point of this comic for me.

Which is not to say the writing’s bad in any way – it’s Greg Rucka continuing the long story he started in 2005 in his parts of 52, and which has carried on through the Crime Bible mini and his Final Crisis tie-ins, while also reintroducing the characters for a new audience and adding a supporting cast and new villains to set up the Batwoman and Question stories as ongoing ones. Rucka does that competently and efficiently, (though I wonder how Batwoman’s father being a colonel works with her background as the daughter of an old-money family…) and fans of Rucka’s writing (like Debi ) will enjoy it. For me, though, Rucka is one of those writers whose work I’ll read if it’s there, and not seek out if it isn’t – on a level with Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid rather than Alan Moore or Dave Sim.

But Rucka is very much the weak link, relatively speaking, in the creative team here. The letterer is the great Todd Klein (actually not his best work – the font for Alice is very good but the rest is very standard) .

The colourist is Dave Stewart – the only current colourist (who doesn’t do anything else – I’m not here counting people like Jamie Grant who do other things as well) working in comics whose work I think actively improves the art – his work with Darwyn Cooke has been particularly impressive, and here his work is extraordinary. Most colourists for superhero comics tend to use flat colours, photoshop gradients or whatever to give a rather superficial set of colours that look more or less like the thing they’re meant to look like. I count three distinct palettes here, for different sections of the story, and a level of detail I’ve rarely seen – just look at the middle panel in the last page of the Batwoman story to see what I mean.

But the real star of the issue is J.H. Williams III. Williams is, without question, the best artist working in comics today. And this is where the problems come in, as I have less than no artistic vocabulary – all I can say is that I can look at even just his layouts all day, drinking in the sheer *design sense*, let alone his draughtsmanship, to say nothing of his storytelling ability. All I can say is that Williams tops himself with almost every page – he started out brilliant, and has only got better from there. Jog’s review makes a better fist of explaining the power of Williams’ work than I could, but still it’s fundamentally inexplicable – you just have to look at it.

In reviews, including this one, the backup feature – The Question – has been getting short shrift, and this isn’t really deserved. Rucka scripts this, too, and it will be tying in with the main storyline, and it’s a perfectly good story. Cully Hammer, the artist, is very good – he’s someone whose work I always enjoy – but he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Williams, and the colouring doesn’t help, being a similar enough palette to Stewart’s ‘superhero scene’ one to invite comparisons, but far less nuanced. Read on its own, it’s a decent little eight-page setup, but it’s just not as good as the main story.

Paul Dini’s Masturbation Fantasy Gotham City Sirens on the other hand, is just terrible, and a proof that the Bechdel test is a minimum, not a guarantee of a lack of sexism (and still less, of course, a guarantee of any kind of quality). (Incidentally, I didn’t deliberately buy this – the comic shop stuck it in my pull list because I read other batbooks, and my wife picked my comics up this week).

On paper, the idea of a supervillain team consisting of Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn seems like a reasonable one. You could make a decent mid-market series out of that, with a writer who could do character-based humour and action scenes – someone like Gail Simone or the Giffen/DeMatteis team. It wouldn’t be great, but it’d be readable.

However, the script for this is by Paul Dini, and despite his love for these characters (and for Zatanna, who *of course* makes an appearance) he doesn’t actually bother to distinguish them as people (apart from a couple of lines for Harley where she uses contractions). Instead, he just has them spout exposition at each other in interchangeable voices. While Rucka reveals character, motivation and background through dialogue – making Kate Kane talk differently from her girlfriend who talks differently from Batman who talks differently from Kane’s military father, thus letting us know what kind of people these are, Dini, however, has moved past such trivia as ‘characterisation’ and ‘depth’ (even of the minimal kind found in the Batwoman story), preferring instead to use dialogue to recap plot points from what I presume are his own later Batman stories (after I gave up bothering with his run on Detective) and the abysmal Countdown. There is precisely one exchange in this story that rings at all true as something a human being might say (the ‘Nigerian scam’ panel). – everything else is, at best, Claremontian.

But Dini’s writing here, bad as it is, is not the real problem. The problem’s with the art. Artist Guillem March actually displays some talent here. In fact in some ways he’s too good for the script – he has a facility for facial expressions, and manages to make the characters ‘act’ surprisingly well, and display recognisable characteristics – but this is working against the script rather than for it.

The problem is that he’s far more interested in drawing arses than actually telling the story. Now, I have no particular problem with mildly sexualised or titillating art in comics per se – it’s not something I have any especial interest in, but whatever. Some of Williams’ art in Detective has a definite sexual undercurrent, and that’s fine – it adds to the story.

But look at the bottom (in both senses) of page ten of Gotham City Sirens (I would scan this in, but I’ve not installed the drivers on my new laptop yet). A huge shot of Catwoman’s arse, for no particular reason. And Harley and Ivy’s heads *level* with it, even though all three are standing up, close to each other, and there is no suggestion of looking at them from an angle – no perspective distortion at all. The only way this panel makes sense is if Harley and Ivy are kneeling or Catwoman is standing on a box, but only for this panel. In the next panel, meanwhile, Harley and Ivy have swapped places for no explicable reason except that the artist was too busy drawing Catwoman’s arse to care about coherent storytelling.

These two comics, for all their surface similarities, serve as almost perfect examples of How To Do It and How Not To Do It – polar opposites, except for one unfortunate fact. Despite the fact that these comics have female main characters, and are apparently intended to appeal to the female comics-reading audience, only two of the twenty people credited with some creative or editorial role are women (the colourist on the backup feature in Detective and an assistant editor on GCS). Which is not to say that only women can write or draw or edit comics about or for women – that would be a ludicrous suggestion. But I *do* think that if the numbers were nearer parity (not just on these titles, but in the industry as a whole) we would have rather fewer comics where women are undifferentiated holders of tits and arse, and rather more where they’re people. But how do we get that parity when comics like Gotham City Sirens exist?

*(I won’t even mention that Catwoman says ‘blame it on sunshine’…. Damn.)