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
It’s odd, but the two stories in Seven Soldiers that have most to do with the main story of the Sheeda are the ones about which I have the least to say as comics. The Manhattan Guardian and Shining Knight are exactly the kind of thing that, were I doing the standard comics-fan annotations here, I’d be able to milk for all they’re worth – Ed Stargard looks like Jack Kirby but his surname is very like Morrison’s fiction suit Gideon Stargrave! Is All-Beard Alan Moore?! – and to be honest I will probably deal with that kind of thing as this goes along. But…it’s too obvious, really. We’ve already had one essay that looked at Seven Soldiers’ place in superhero comics’ ongoing self-reflection, and I will definitely be looking at both Kirby and Moore’s influence on Seven Soldiers as we go along – but if all Seven Soldiers was was gesturing at works by Moore or Kirby, then it’d be a Geoff Johns comic, a collection of big moments from other comics removed from their context. Even were it to only be a critique of the two men’s respective styles and a synthesis of the best of both (as in some respects it is), then that would not make it of interest to anyone except the rapidly-dwindling group of people who are mainly interested in superhero comics and exactly how small one can make the differences in the narcissism of small differences before they disappear altogether.
So, with this ground-level superhero, let’s get down to earth.
Before I go on with anything, the science I’m talking about here appears to have taken a big hit experimentally in 2007 – some experiments suggest it’s incorrect. But as of the time when Seven Soldiers came out, one of the best guesses as to the origins of life (at least as far as pop-science books go – it was repeated in everything from The Blind Watchmaker to The Science Of Discworld) was that life came from clay.
The question of abiogenesis has never properly been resolved – we know that at some point a set of non-self-replicating molecules became a self-replicating molecule, from which all further life on earth evolved (at least all the evidence points to life having only arisen once on the planet, though it’s possible this happened multiple times). One of the neatest hypotheses that I’ve heard was one from the chemist Graham Cairns-Smith. He pointed out that clay has two interesting properties. The first is that it’s made of crystals – which grow in consistent shapes. If you break a crystal, but allow it to continue growing, you get two crystals with the same basic pattern.
The second is that silica – which clay is made of – is a catalyst for all sorts of interesting chemical reactions.
Now, the first of these things means that natural selection, of a sort, will act on clay – different shaped crystals will be more or less likely to be destroyed by weather conditions, and the ones less likely to be destroyed will be able to reproduce. Some of these shapes will also be conducive to the creation of some molecules than others. But those molecules cold, in turn, make it easier for clay to form the shapes which make it most likely for them to appear. Suddenly, those molecules are helping the clay ‘reproduce’, and so the clay which produces those molecules is being selected for. And the molecules themselves are being selected for – increasingly complex molecules that can produce increasingly stable clay formations, and play an increasingly important part in reproduction.
Until one day one of those molecules becomes so complex, and plays such an important part in the reproductive process, that it breaks away from the clay and carries on reproducing itself without any clay at all. The clay gets left behind, as organic matter goes on to become ever-better at reproducing itself, and the clay just stays clay. The pattern has moved from one substrate to another, and transcended its origins.
Of course, there are those among the transhumanist community who argue that we will soon be able to scan the patterns in our brains and remove our minds from these frail squishy organic bodies and have immortality as computer programs. From silicon we came, and to silicon we shall return – DNA-based evolution thrived because of substrate-independent patterns and will be destroyed by substrate-independent patterns.
Over and over in Seven Soldiers we have two questions – where does the boundary lie between human and ‘other’ (is Frankenstein human? Are the grundymen? Klarion?) and to what extent can we be said to have control of our own lives in a universe run by forces beyond our control (in this case the writer and artists, who control the universe in which these characters have to live). Robots, more than anything else, straddle this border.
Robots are mechanical, obeying precise, deterministic laws. Their minds are programmed into them. We often, in stories, have them obeying extra, programmed, ‘laws of robotics’. Their minds are just made up of computer programs – of, in effect, words. It’s possible to argue that human beings do or do not have free will, but robots can’t, by their very nature. They are purely deterministic machines.
And yet we can’t help but have them ‘break their programming’. I can’t think of a single story about a robot which hasn’t revolved around the robot in some way wanting to break the constraints programmed into it. Whether it’s Asimov’s friendly robots which still manage to bend the Three Laws, or Terminator’s killer cyborgs, or Data finally learning to show emotion, all robots in fiction want to do pretty much anything other than just what they’re programmed to do. It seems that if something is shaped like a human, we’re incapable of treating it otherwise (in fiction at least – would that it were so in fact). WE wouldn’t want to obey no stinkin’ Three Laws, so THEY won’t want to obey them either. We have to believe robots have free will. We’ve got no choice in the matter.
The word ‘robot’ comes from R.U.R., a play by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek about a company called Rossum’s Universal Robots which manufactured artificial humans (though the term was actually coined by Čapek’s brother Josef – Čapek had originally wanted to call his ‘roboti’ laboři). Čapek’s play is usually dismissed by science fiction fans these days, largely following the example of Isaac Asimov, who said the play was ‘a terribly bad one’, though quite what right Asimov had to make literary judgements about anyone else I can’t see (great, great ideas man, but utterly awful at the execution).
The play deals with a company that makes ‘robots’ – actually a form of artificial people:
“he eventually discovered a material that behaved just the same as living tissue despite being, chemically, quite different…Imagine him sitting with a test tube and thinking about how it could grow out into an entire tree of life made of all the animals starting with a tiny coil of life and ending with… ending with man himself. Man made of different material than we are…He wanted, in some scientific way, to take the place of God. He was a convinced materialist, and that’s why he wanted to do everything simply to prove that there was no God needed.”
All quotes from R.U.R. (which is public domain in its original Czech) are taken from the translation by David Wyllie available at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/rur/ . This is licensed under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial By-Attribution Share-Alike licence, which as far as I am aware doesn’t preclude the use of short quotes for review purposes in a commercially released work.
Rossum (whose name comes from the Czech for ‘reason’ or ‘intellect’) discovers how to create artificial life, but his secret is taken by his nephew, who uses it to make money instead. Many years later it becomes apparent that ‘robots’ are taking over from normal humans so it’s decided:
Domin There won’t just be one factory any more. Not just one universal robot. We’re going to start a new factory in every country of the world, and do you know what these new factories are going to make?
Domin National robots.
Helena What’s that supposed to mean?
Domin That means that each factory will produce robots of a different colour, different hair, different language. The robots will be strangers to each other, they’ll never be able to understand what the other says; and we, we humans, we’ll train them so that each robot will hate the robots from another factory all its life, all through to the grave, all through all eternity.
The Tower Of Babel parallels are definitely intended – much of the conflict among the humans comes from argument between religion and capitalism – but so is the idea of national boundaries being imposed by capitalists on the workers. It’s not exactly subtle when in act two everyone starts talking about “the means of production” and we get speeches like:
Robots of the world! Many humans have fallen. We have taken the factory and we are masters of the world. The era of man has come to its end. A new epoch has arisen! Domination by robots!
There might be a political subtext here…
Eventually, the robots take over and kill all the humans in the world, except for one who they let live because “He is a worker. He works with his hands like a robot.”
This one human eventually sees two robots each willing to sacrifice themselves to save the other, and declares them the new Adam and Eve, saying that even though humanity will be dead and gone, the best of it will survive in their love:
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes … for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation … seen salvation through love – and life will not perish! (standing ) Will not perish! (stretches out hands ) Will not perish!
Čapek was trying to find an alternative to unfettered capitalism which would still allow religious faith and nationalism, unlike Marxism, and was not militaristic and dictatorial, unlike Nazism (he was a patriot and anti-fascist who was named Czech public enemy number two by the Gestapo when they invaded, but died of natural causes before he could be arrested by them). Reading his work, e.g. Why I Am Not A Communist, one comes to the conclusion that he was something close to a Distributist, but without Distributism’s explicitly Catholic (and sometimes disturbingly anti-semitic) overtones – and definitely a Distributist of the Liberal type, closer to Chesterton and Belloc than to the BNP and National Front.
This lack of anti-semitism was very unusual in a writer of this time (and was, of course, one of the reasons the Nazis hated Čapek), especially for someone who was nonetheless a fervent nationalist (Čapek was a close friend of Tomáš Masaryk, the first (and only democratic) President of Czechoslovakia, who had argued against the truth of the Blood Libel at the Hilsner Trial, which was roughly a Czech equivalent of the more famous Dreyfuss Affair). And it is this lack of anti-semitism that led Čapek to be able to write his most famous play, for as Čapek himself freely acknowledged, he was inspired by the story of Rabbi Loew’s Golem, one of the most important stories in Middle European Jewish folklore.
Of course, for many comics fans, the first thing they think of when they see a Golem will be The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay, Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel which was about the Jewish creators of the Golden Age of comics. Based extremely loosely on the careers of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, Chabon’s book features as minor characters such real-life figures as Stan Lee, as well as events like the 1954 appearance by Bill Gaines, head of EC Comics in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. (Gaines had taken speed before giving his testimony, the frankness and lack of diplomacy of which eventually led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority and the ending of comics’ so-called Golden Age).
In Chabon’s novel (which you should read if you like novels about comics, World War II and/or the Kaballah – it’s one of the few mainstream literary novels of the last decade I enjoyed), before coming to Brooklyn and rescuing his cousin Samuel “Sammy Clay” Klayman from his inertia by working with him on creating superhero comics, Josef Kavalier escapes from Prague, taking with him the now-inanimate form of Rabbi Loew’s Golem (don’t worry, I’m getting to that if you don’t know about it) to stop the Nazis getting it. Together Kavalier and Clay create superhero characters – first The Golem and then later The Escapist.
To quote from Chabon’s novel:
“Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina’s delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital and kabbalistic chitchat — was, literally, talked into life.”
While Golems appear throughout Jewish folklore, the most potent Golem story has always been that of Rabbi Loew. While the story can’t be dated to earlier than 1837, Rabbi Loew was a real person, Rabbi of Prague from 1597 to 1609.
(FOOTNOTE – Little known fact – Loew was a direct ancestor of Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atom bomb. Oppenheimer lost his security clearance after a Senate hearing in 1954. Oppenheimer also once tried to poison his lecturer with a poisoned apple, did work on the gravitational collapse that causes black holes, and was turned in for his communist associations by someone called Chevalier. If I wasn’t aware that you can link *everything* to *everything* – and that a graph with every node linked contains just the same information as one with no nodes linked (it’s the things that *AREN’T* linked that are important) I would be starting to babble about synchronicity about now.)
His golem was a man made out of clay, with the word אמת (’emet’ – the Hebrew for ‘truth’ or ‘fidelity’) written on his head (Cameron Stewart in this comic has put יהוה – ‘YHWH’ or God on the Golem’s head. Unfortunately he’s written it left-to-right rather than right-to-left, and the corrected art didn’t make it into the finished comic. To power a Golem you need to use a Hebrew name of God – emet is a minor name of God, while YHWH is one of the seven major names of God in medieval Jewish tradition). This word gave him his power – at least until the א (aleph) was rubbed out, which turned the word into מות (‘met’ or ‘death’).
Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, was planning to kill or expel the Jews of Prague, so Loew created his Golem as a protector of the Jews. It grew steadily more violent, killing large numbers of gentiles, until Rudolph eventually gave in and allowed the Jews to stay in Prague, on condition that the Golem was deactivated. Rabbi Loew removed the aleph from its head, but kept it safe in a synagogue, where it remains to this day, ready to be reactivated should anything threaten the Jews of Prague again. (That sounds horribly, horribly flippant in light of the Holocaust, but that’s what the legend says).
This is the version of the Golem story that was widely known in Europe at the time Čapek was writing – especially thanks to Paul Wegener’s trilogy of films on the subject. An early example of the ‘auteur’, Wegener was co-writer, co-director and star of his three silent films, titled in English The Golem, The Golem And The Dancing Girl and The Golem: How He Came Into The World. The film which is now normally shown as Der Golem is The Golem: How He Came Into The World, the only one of the three which survives. It is one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, and is available for free download from http://www.archive.org/details/TheGolem_893. Watch it if you have any love at all for film.. However, ‘golem’ has a wider meaning in Jewish tradition, being Hebrew for both ’embryo’ and ‘unformed’. According to jewishencyclopedia.com:
In tradition everything that is in a state of incompletion, everything not fully formed, as a needle without the eye, is designated as “golem” (“Aruch Completum,” ed. Kohut, ii. 297). A woman is golem so long as she has not conceived (Sanh. 22b; comp. Shab. 52b, 77b; Sanh. 95a; Ḥul. 25a; Abot v. 6; Sifre, Num. 158). God, father, and mother take part in the creation of the child: the skeleton and brain are derived from the father; the skin and muscles from the mother; the senses from God. God forms the child from the seed, putting the soul into it.
This putting in of the soul is, by Kabbalistic tradition, a verbal operation, just as the adding of the word of power to the Golem was. And in fact Adam, the first man, is also considered to be a Golem according to tradition – in the Sanhedrin Adam is ‘golem’ for the first 12 hours of his existence.
(The Talmud also uses the word ‘golem’ to mean a stupid person:
“There are seven characteristics that typify the golem, and seven the wise person: Wise people do not speak in the presence of those who are wiser than they are; They do not interrupt their friend’s words; They do not reply in haste. They ask what is relevant, they answer to the point; they reply to questions in orderly sequence; of what they have not heard, they say, ‘I have not heard;’ They admit to the truth. The opposite of these typify the golem.”
I am growing ever more conscious that this appears to be moving further and further away from its ostensible subject matter of Seven Soldiers, but I beg your indulgence – we are as yet less than half-way through the story. Things shaped like people that aren’t really people, Golem-like creatures, issues of the creator and the created, creations turning against their creator, the Adam & Eve story, words of power – all these things are of course only minor themes in The Manhattan Guardian itself, but they’re themes that recur throughout the larger superstructure of Seven Soldiers. And while there are other themes that The Manhattan Guardian also touches on, it is the one which most explicitly brings these issues to the fore, with its Golem character and its robot rebellions. A lot of this stuff is infodumping for the second half. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.
Jake Jordan, like the Golem of Prague, is a protector of an area (the Manhattan Guardian). Like the Golem, he gets his power from words (the newspaper). He is suffering from depression and without purpose until he gets his Shem in the form of the advertisement his father-in-law shows him. Jake is literally formed from the words of others – from El Mar and Ed Stargrave’s words – and their lives in turn are formed by the words of the Time Tailor in Slaughter Swamp. But he is a self-made man, nonetheless. The only time the word ‘golem’ appears in the Bible is in Psalms:
your eyes saw my unformed body [golem]. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
The days of Jake Jordan’s life are written for him by Larry and Ed, whose lives are written by the Time Tailor, whose life is written by Grant Morrison. And yet, ultimately, Jake is a self-made man. His story, at the end, is driven entirely by his choices. But of course he chooses to be a hero – he makes that choice because that is who he is. He takes his predestined path of his own free will, cutting that particular philosophical Gordian knot like the man of action he is.
Jake starts the story unformed – golem. He ends the story as The Manhattan Guardian – a man.
Comic issues The Manhattan Guardian #1-4
Artists Cameron Stewart (line art), Moose Bauman (colours)
Other credits Pat Brosseau (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works This is very unlike much of Morrison’s other work, and is a far more straightforward superhero story than one would expect. Fantastic 4 – 1234 is Morrison doing Lee and Kirby in a very different way to his approach here, and some of Animal Man has something of the same feel.
Look Out For Hats getting misplaced, later to be picked up. People who look like comic creators.
Still to come in Seven Soldiers Werewolves! Frankenstein! And witches!