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
Where to start when reviewing a modular work, one that has no clear place to jump on or off?
Several months before the beginning, of course.
Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers Of Victory is, to my mind, the great superhero comic of the last decade. While Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman might beat it for emotional power and sheer joy, Seven Soldiers offers more room for analysis, more ways of interpreting it, just more, than any superhero comic since Watchmen.
Announced as seven four-issue miniseries plus two bookends, Morrison intended, when this was announced, to make it a completely modular story, which could be read in any order and still work. Of course, this was impossible, but Morrison seemed to take Richard Herring’s attitude (“I don’t know the meaning of the word hubris! Which is a shame, because I’mn entering a define-the-meaning-of-the-word-hubris competition. It’s OK though, I’m definitely going to win…”). What Morrison did manage was, in a very short period of time, to release a 33-part story that could be read in a number of different orders, and in many, many different ways.
Yes, because before the official ‘Seven Soldiers’ started, there was a three-part story in JLA:Classified, not included in the Seven Soldiers trades, but which features many of the same themes and the same villain.
But the JLA: Classified story is very much a false start, a dead end in Morrison’s thinking. Where Seven Soldiers is revolutionary, JLA:Classified 1-3 is probably the most conservative thing, thematically, that Morrison ever did. And what’s odd is that it actually functions as an argument – albeit not a very good one – against Seven Soldiers itself.
In JLA:C (as I’ll call it from now on to avoid getting RSA from what will be an already overly-verbose piece), everything is set up to emphasise that there can be only one real Justice League, and that any inferior imitations cannot possibly live up to their standard. First we have the Ultramarine Corps, a set of generic cultural stereotype superheroes from Morrison’s earlier JLA run, brought back as an analogue of the Ultimates who are…
OK, let’s back up.
This is the problem with so-called ‘mainstream’ superhero comics. They’re written for a fanbase so small, so insular, that everything’s now a meta-commentary on a meta-narrative on a meta-commentary. So let me explain, as succinctly as I can, the sheer depth of up-its-own-arseness that is encapsulated in the characters of The Ultramarine Corps, for those of you who don’t have advanced degrees in comics ‘culture’.
The Justice League are a team of, ostensibly, the most powerful superheroes in the DC Comics ‘universe’. I say ostensibly, because their membership usually consists of some combination of the most popular characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern) and some less popular characters that DC want to give exposure to. They are generally regarded as a fairly clean-cut team, due to most of the characters having their origins in a time when comics were mostly read by very young children. They usually, but by no means always, have around seven members.
The Avengers (not to be confused with the TV show of the same name) are a superhero team in the rival Marvel Comics ‘universe’. They consist of ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’ and, in their ‘classic’ form (I’m simplifying things here, please don’t write angry notes) have exactly seven members – again consisting of a mixture of very popular characters like Captain America and Iron Man, along with less popular characters who can’t consistently sustain comics of their own, like Ant-Man and The Wasp. Because Marvel’s characters started a little later than DC’s, there is a slightly more ‘realistic’ tone to their stories, which is to say they have soap-operatic subplots. While the Justice League might go out and stop Starro The Conqueror from taking over the world again, The Avengers would go and stop Kang The Conqueror from taking over the Earth, but *also* worry about Ant-Man’s alcoholism. Whereas the Justice League were originally aimed at ten-year-olds, The Avengers were originally intended for boys in early adolescence.
By the late 1990s, however, the audience for superhero comics had dropped to a few tens of thousands of people – mostly men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five – and there was no longer such a thing, for the most part, as a straightforward superhero story. Instead, due to periods of ‘deconstruction’, ‘reconstruction’, ‘post reconstruction’ and the like, every superhero comic consisted, at least in part, of a comment on other comics. Rather than being defined by the stories and characters, they were gesturing at positions in an argument-space. Superhero comics had gone the way of other formerly populist, mass-market artforms like jazz and rock and roll, with the difference that a viciously conservative, anti-intellectual streak in the fanbase (and among some of the creators) refused to acknowledge that a debate was taking place, even as they were among its most vociferous participants.
This was the climate in which writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch created The Authority. Published by DC Comics under their Wildstorm imprint, so not part of the DC ‘universe’, The Authority was a team of seven superheroes who were explicitly modelled on the Justice League, but who were all in some way more ‘adult’. Ellis, while he has done most of his work in the superhero genre, has always been contemptuous of it, and his choices (having two male characters be lovers, having another be a heroin addict), while not intended to shock per se (Ellis is not someone who finds the ideas of homosexuality or drug use especially taboo), certainly appeared so to the conservative superhero comics audience. Ellis and Hitch made The Authority have the feel of an action movie – far more violent and action-heavy than the rest of the superhero comics on the shelf.
Ellis and Hitch were followed on The Authority by Mark Millar (a much less subtle writer than Ellis) and Frank Quitely (a much more subtle artist than Hitch), who made the fascism that was implicit in Ellis’ portrayal of the characters explicit, and amped up what was already a violent comic to absurd proportions.
Millar and Hitch then moved over to Marvel Comics. Marvel had started the ‘ultimate universe’, which contained new versions of their characters, and Millar and Hitch created The Ultimates, a new version of The Avengers, which featured a Captain America who was a jingoistic psychopath, a probably-insane Thor and so forth. This new team was *very* heavily inspired by The Authority.
And finally Grant Morrison, a former friend of Mark Millar who had recently fallen out with him, stopped working for Marvel Comics and started working for DC again, where he wrote this Justice League story in which the Ultramarines (a superhero team he’d created many years earlier) are re-characterised as being very similar to the Ultimates (with some elements of other Marvel characters thrown in), before being comprehensively shown to be gullible, violent, simplistic thugs who very nearly allow the whole human race to be destroyed and have to be rescued by the Justice League.
The whole thing might just as well have been called “Mark Millar Smells Of Poo And Marvel Smell Of Wee”.
However, a second superteam also gets destroyed in this story – Batman’s robot duplicates of the Justice League, which he keeps in his ‘sci-fi closet’ in case of emergencies. Batman does actually have something for every eventuality, including a Dalek
(We can presume this comes from the never-seen except in my head crossover The Dalek Invasion Of Gotham, which is possibly the most exciting story of all time, and certainly better than Aquaman Versus The Sea Devils, though possibly not as good as J’Onn J’Onnzz, Ice Warrior. I’ll shut up now).
But these robots do get beaten, and rather quickly. Which of course means that we’ve had two separate derivatives of the JLA beaten, only to see the real thing triumph at the end (SPOILER: the goodies win). So we get the most conservative of all comics messages “This is the real thing, accept no substitutes, and this is why the original superheroes are better than these modern upstarts”. It’s doubly troubling, in this context, that the Ultramarines are an international organisation while the JLA are the Justice League of AMERICA.
(Of course the JLA include two members of foreign royalty – Wonder Woman and Aquaman – plus two aliens, but they’re all, very definitely, still American).
This is odd only because the whole of the rest of Seven Soldiers can be seen as an argument *against* this form of comics-conservatism and *for* the ‘Prismatic’ view so ably outlined in, for example, this piece by Botswana Beast. I can only suspect that Morrison was so glad to be
finished with Marvel that he imposed this on the story, his first superhero work since leaving Marvel.
But enough of this ‘plot’ thing… what about that first panel?
The first part of the first panel, shown at the top of this essay, shows one of the Ultramarines quoting the Newtonian law of gravity, F=(gamma m1 m2)/r^2 . This crops up time and again over Seven Soldiers, but is quoted here with no real context, no reason for being. Or is it?
I’ve talked before, in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, about some of the resonances that the universal law of gravitation has in this story. I’ll make reference to some of that again, when we get to Mister Miracle and we get back into the Pop Science stuff. But it’s not just the law of gravitation – it’s specifically NEWTON’s law of gravity.
Now that’s very interesting when we talk about sevens…
We all know the colours of the rainbow, don’t we? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. ROY G BIV. Seven colours of the rainbow. Everyone knows that.
But how many of us can actually distinguish between indigo and violet?
By any rational (and hold on to that word for now) reckoning, there are six colours to the rainbow. There are seven because Newton regarded the number seven as having magical properties, and it was Newton who first described how light refracted through a prism gives us the colours of a rainbow (and how the same prismatic colours, refracted through a prism of opposite rotation, give us pure white light again). Newton regarded the number seven as being a number of God, and God created the rainbow, therefore God must have given the rainbow seven colours. So indigo and violet must be two different colours.
(Six, on the other hand, would be the number of the devil. The devil certainly couldn’t have made something so perfect).
A ray of light going through a prism and becoming seven rays, seven rays going through a prism and becoming one. That’s something else to hold on to. We’ve got a lot of pieces of the puzzle already, if we just look closely enough.
The seed of evil Black Death planted bore fruit in me! I am Neh-Buh-Loh, the adult universe of Qwewq!
Now, let’s keep hold of that name, Neh-Buh-Loh, for one moment. Put it aside. Certainly we don’t want to think about how similar that name is to the name Jah-Buh-Lon, which is *DEFINITELY NOT* the name of a secret God worshipped by Freemasons. There’s nothing that could possibly be connected to that here, and Freemasons almost certainly don’t have any special thoughts about the number seven, after all. So put all that out of your mind. There is no verifiable record of Newton being a Freemason.
Look instead at those other words. A first seed of evil, planted in the universe, that grew fruit. Sounds like the Adam and Eve story, and the Garden Of Eden, doesn’t it?
But that’s just a myth. After all, we’re all good evolutionists here…
OK, so Grodd isn’t, but who trusts him, anyway?
Of course, the fruit that Adam and Eve ate wasn’t the fruit of evil – it was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But for some reason that became associated over the years with the apple – quite what the humble sky potato did to deserve such a thing, I’m not sure, but the apple became associated with both evil and with knowledge.
after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.”
Of course, it’s thought that Newton was playing with his friend, here – the apple being such a symbol of knowledge. Much of 17th century thought is opaque to us unless we realise that Biblical allusions were the common currency of speech.
On a completely different note, Alan Turing, when he killed himself, did so with a poisoned apple. He’d apparently been mildly obsessed, some years earlier, with Disney’s film of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.
Hyperboloids of wondrous Light
Rolling for aye through Space and Time
Harbour those Waves which somehow Might
Play out God’s holy pantomime
But all of this obviously has no relevance at all to anything that’s going on in these comics, does it? They’re just a silly superhero story about Batman and robots and flying saucers and talking gorillas.
So let’s have a look at that story, at the basic plot…
A serial killer called Black Death has entered the Infant Universe Of Qwewq, a baby universe the JLA have been given to take care of. They keep it on Pluto for safe-keeping. The JLA, minus Batman (who grumbles about them having “got lost saving someone else’s universe”) go into Qwewq to track him down. Qwewq turns out to be a universe very like our own, one in which there are no superheroes at all. In fact we’re meant to infer that Qwewq *is* our universe (and this is made explicit in Morrison’s All-Star Superman).
Not so much breaking the fourth wall, as opening a window…
However, Black Death has only entered Qwewq as a distraction. While six of the seven Justice Leaguers are in this miniature universe, Gorilla Grodd has launched an attack intended to wipe out the whole human race, with the assistance of Neh-Buh-Loh the huntsman (formerly just known as The Nebula Man, a foe of the original Seven Soldiers). Using ‘Sheeda spine-riders’ (tiny little fairy parasites… and between the ‘fairy’ and the ”fruit’ we’re seeing quite a bit of gay subtext here, aren’t we? Although the LGBT rainbow flag only has six colours…) they manage to take control of the Ultramarines, except for The Squire, the ‘British Robin’ ( who looks more than a little like British kids’ comic character Beryl The Peril, and shares a name with her).
The Squire contacts Batman, who takes her to Pluto, where she manages to contact the JLA in Qwewq while Batman activates his robot JLA doubles (referring to himself as ‘knight’ and the rest of them as ‘pawns’ in code. Whether this is how he views the real JLA is left open). The robots keep Grodd and Neh-Buh-Loh occupied long enough for the rest of the JLA to get back from Qwewq and (SPOILERS!) save the day. But The Black Death has planted a seed of evil in Qwewq… a seed that will grow until the end of time, the ‘vampire time’ at which point it will come back as Neh-Buh-Loh, to try to kill ‘the seven’.
So the JLA have been fighting *our universe* all along…
Because the idea of a universe with no superheroes is, of course, intolerable – and to redeem themselves for their violent, unthinking behaviour having led to Grodd and Neh-Buh-Loh having killed huge numbers of people – the Ultramarines go into Qwewq in order to try to save it. The fact that they’ve already seen its future doesn’t matter – they’ve become heroes, and heroes fight whether or not they can ever win.
And that’s basically that.
So, before I wrap this up (at around four thousand words, rather than the five thousand I’d planned – there’s just not as much to say about these three comics as there is about some of the others) – let’s have a little bit of a talk about Seven Soldiers proper. Because Seven Soldiers started out as a JLA project too…
In fact, it started out as Morrison trying to do a DC equivalent of The Avengers, to be called JL-8:
Dan Raspler asked me what I’d do with the JLA if I came back and I had no idea at all, which kind of nagged at the back of my mind until it came out as drawings and notes. My original intention was to do a team comic called JL8 which would be a Justice League book with no big icon characters at all. I figured, however, that if the Authority could work instantly with a bunch of new characters, wouldn’t it be possible to take a bunch of old characters, polish them up,‘re-imagine’ their origins, powers, look and motivations and pass them off as if they were new guys too. Additionally, as a way of giving the JL8 roster a hidden backbone of familiarity, I based the whole thing on the classic membership of the Avengers and went looking for obscure DC character analogues to loosely fit the bill
In this original idea, we would have had the following characters:
The Guardian – included as a parallel for Captain America, both characters created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, both be-helmeted and shield-wielding.
Mister Miracle – a Jack Kirby creation, Mister Miracle comes from the New Gods, who came along ‘when the old gods died’ according to Kirby – those old gods including, in Kirby’s mind, the version of the Norse God Thor that Kirby had co-created and which appears in the Avengers.
The Spider – a villain who pretends to be a hero, who is good with a bow, The Spider is an obvious analogue for Marvel’s Hawkeye – a hero who pretends to be a villain, who is good with a bow.
Etrigan The Demon – another Kirby creation, this man who at times of stress swaps places with a demon is a good analogue for Bruce Banner/The Hulk.
Enchantress – a parallel for The Scarlet Witch
Manhunter – a dark reimagining of J’onn J’onnzz, the Martian Manhunter. Presumably as an analogue to Quicksilver, though I can’t see any obvious link (except that Quicksilver is another name for Mercury, and Mercury and Mars are both planets. Too distant though…)
And The Atom – a scientist who can shrink and grow in size, to replace Ant-Man, a scientist who can shrink and grow in size.
These plans changed, but it’s interesting that even that early on, Morrison was thinking about analogues of analogues and connections between the JLA and the Avengers.
Comic issuesJLA: Classified 1-3
Artists Ed McGuinness (pencils), Dexter Vine (inks), Dave McCaig (colours)
Other credits Phil Balsam (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Mike Carlin (editor)
Connected Morrison works
Morrison wrote the JLA comic through much of the 1990s, and a version of the Ultramarines appeared in that, notably in the stories DC: One Million and Justice For All. Morrison plays with alternate versions of the JLA in the JLA: Earth Two graphic novel, drawn by Frank Quitely. Morrison deals with The Authority coming to our earth (in much the same way the Ultramarines do here) in The Authority: The Lost Year (a story that Morrison started and Keith Giffen finished to Morrison’s plot).
Qwewq first appears in JLA: Rock Of Ages, which of all Morrison’s JLA work is most relevant here.
Both Qwewq The Infant Universe and Superman appear in All-Star Superman by Morrison and Quitely.
Look Out For
Teams of Seven.
Hands… touching hands… reaching out… touching me… touching you…
Still to come in Seven Soldiers
Why writers should never insert themselves into the story
The life trap!
Pirates! In Manhattan!
And a cameo from Booster Gold!