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
We’re heading into the home stretch now, so hold tight.
“Fair was the woman’s face, and sweet
Her voice, and swift were her noiseless feet,
And kind her hands; but her husband knew
Full little of her the fair and true
To work when the dawn brake golden-fair;
At work when the stars of night shone there
Forewatcht, forwearied at night and worn,
Yet eager to meet his work at morn”
The Sculptor – Emily Hickey [FOOTNOTE No relation as far as I know, though this 19th century poet shares the name of my paternal grandmother.]
Over and over in this series of essays we have seen variations of the same story – the creator making something in the likeness of a human being, and that creature gaining life and sentience. Whether Frankenstein, or the golem, or the robot revolt, or Gwydion, over and over we’ve seen the creator/created conflict appear in Seven Soldiers.
Even the Snow White legend, which at first sight seems to be of a totally different type, fits into this pattern. Snow White’s mother wished for a beautiful daughter, but as soon as her daughter grew more beautiful than her, she tried to have her killed. (The Brothers Grimm only changed the mother to a step-mother fairly late on – in the original story it was the mother).
The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (rhymes, more or less, with Bulleteer) is another story of this type. According to the classical poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion was not interested in women, because they were all whores (who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?). So he decided to carve himself one out of ivory, because women made out of the teeth of dead elephants are somehow better than the kind made out of flesh. However, when he groped its breasts they weren’t soft, so he prayed to Venus, the godess of love, to turn his statue into a real woman. Rather than say “No, leave me alone you strange man” she granted his wish, and the next time he groped his statue’s breast she became human, and despite the fact that her very first experience of him, or indeed of life, was of him sexually assaulting her, the nameless statue (only given the name Galatea centuries later, when people realised that women mattered) agreed to marry him. Who says the ancient Greeks were misogynist?
This, incidentally, is another connection to the stories of both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, both of whom have to be awoken by a similar assault.
These days, this story is best known as the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which philologist Henry Higgins (whose self-description is “I do genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines”) attempts to raise Cockney Eliza Doolittle out of the gutter and into polite society by teaching her to speak ‘correctly’. Doolittle, of course, rebels against him and asserts her own individuality, though during Shaw’s lifetime he had continuously to fight directors who wanted to bowdlerise his work and have her fall in love with her teacher.
Cyn: I would not have thee find another head
That seemed as fair to thee for all the world!
We’ll have no stranger models if you please,
I’ll be your model, sir, as heretofore,
So reproduce me at your will; and yet
It were sheer vanity in me to think
That this fair stone recalls Cynisca’s face!
PYG. Cynisca’s face in every line!
CYN. No, no!
Those outlines softened, angles smoothed away,
The eyebrows arched, the head more truly poised,
The forehead ten years smoother than my own
Tell rather of Cynisca as she was
When, in the silent groves of Artemis,
Pygmalion told his love ten years ago:
And then the placid brow, the sweet sad lips,
The gentle head down-bent resignedly,
Proclaim that this is not Pygmalion’s wife,
Who laughs and frowns, but knows no meed between.
I am no longer as that statue is!
PYG. Why here’s ingratitude, to slander Time,
Who in his hurried course has passed thee by!
Or is it that Cynisca won’t allow
That Time could pass her by, and never pause
To print a kiss upon so fair a face?
Pygmalion And Galatea by W.S. Gilbert
So why does this story of the creature rebelling against the creator have so much resonance? I suspect it’s to do with our old friend entropy.
As soon as we’re born, we’re destined to die, and once we’ve got past about the age of eighteen our bodies are slowly starting to crumble. Our mortality is a fact that hits us every time we see a new grey hair in our beard, or notice that we can no longer hear the very highest frequencies, or have to have a tooth extracted. Pretty much as soon as everything in our body has started working at its full functionality, bits of us stop working, until eventually we stop altogether.
This is something very few of us actually welcome. The idea that the very best-case scenario for me is to spend fifty to seventy more years in slowly-increasing amounts of pain and disability, before ceasing to exist forever, is not a cheery one. So we look for ways to avoid this. It’s no surprise that one of our very oldest pieces of literature, the Epic Of Gilgamesh, deals with an attempt to gain immortality. It’s also no surprise that legends of a Golden Age and a Fall have such potency – I remember how in my late teens I would go to my lectures on the eighteenth floor of the Maths department and take the stairs, and how my hair wasn’t receding, and wonder what went wrong (I forget that in my late teens I was desperately lonely, physically unattractive and reliant on others for financial support, of course. There was never a Golden Age, our memories have just yellowed with age).
The two ways in which people have usually attempted to gain at least a metaphorical immortality are through their children and through their artistic creations, so it’s natural that we’d have stories develop about children who *are* artistic creations. The problem is, though, that as a method of gaining immortality, having children is a decidedly ambiguous one. Yes, our children carry our genes and often resemble us a great deal. We can even hope that our children carry on the best of us while leaving the worst.
But children are also the worst reminders of our own mortality – not only are they a reminder that we’re grown up, and an additional responsibility, but they’re our replacement. Once Us Mk II exists, it’s only a matter of time before Mk I gets taken off the market.
There’s also, for men at least, the additional possibility that our child is not really our biological child at all – that it’s not ‘me’ becoming ‘immortal’ at all, but someone else. That’s not a problem when it’s our intellectual, rather than biological, child. And men can make those all by themselves, without any of those icky girls being involved.
But if a child being a parent’s ‘replacement’ is hard for the parent, it’s hard, too, for the child. The child, after all, loves and respects the parent (assuming even basic competence in parenting – which is sadly not an assumption one can make all that freely), but is an individual herself who cannot be expected to want the same things her parents do. There’s a reason that one of the first words learned by all babies, after ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ or their local equivalent, is ‘no’.
(It may be significant here that work on Seven Soldiers started shortly after Grant Morrison’s father, who seems to have been a genuinely great man, died. See for example the obituary of Walter Morrison at http://libcom.org/history/morrison-walter-1924-2004.)
Seen this way, Pygmalion becomes a myth of defeminizing, in which the artist/scientist would ensure the male final cause (through which version of the myth the single man attains the state of God the father) by seeking to control, through this bizarre form of recycling, original female energy. Natural birth (as well as natural death) is recast as a fantasy of perpetual motion. The female body, seen as the source of entropy, is turned into a machine to defeat entropy. The benefit of this process ensues only for the male who manipulates this force to his advantage – a possible infinite extension of his single-willed life.
In Shaw’s play Pygmalion, the twist on the myth is that it is not a statue that is brought to physical life, but rather a lower-class woman made into a socially acceptable being. Through diction lessons, another’s words are in a sense put in Eliza’s mouth, and by the same token her own organic life drawn out. It is necessary to turn the woman into a statue before the statue can be made to speak the proper way, made into a work of social art, and thus into a person a male artist can not just love but “wed” in civilized society. Shaw, it seems, is equating here the creation of a statue with an act of male vampirism.
George Slusser – Last Men And First Women: The Dynamics Of Life Extension In Shaw And Heinlein, in Shaw, vol 17, Shaw And Science Fiction (Milton T Woolf ed.)
Alix Harrower, like Eliza Doolittle, is an almost entirely passive figure until the very end of her comic. Her husband decides her destiny is to be a superhero, and turns her into one without her consent. The only reason she survives is because she (unlike him) keeps her wedding ring on. She then fulfills his ambitions for her after his death even though she doesn’t want to – she becomes a superhero during a suicide attempt she makes when she discovers his infidelity. Everything that happens to her in the entire story is initiated by someone else, usually for reasons Alix never fully knows. The only decision she makes in the four issues of her comic – the one that truly defines her as a character – is to walk away and stop being a superhero.
Even at the climax in Seven Soldiers #1, she makes no decisions even as she ends up saving the day. She’s ‘the spear never thrown’ because she chooses not to throw herself into events. Instead, events throw themselves at her. She refuses to accept the fate which the entire world, from her genetic ancestors, through to her manipulative husband, through to the supernatural forces manipulating everything behind the scenes, has planned for her.
(It’s rather depressing how she’s been used in comics since Seven Soldiers finished. Turned into a generic superhero, she’s depicted in crowd scenes, usually flying, even though she doesn’t fly. Even after her story’s completely over, her decisions and her very existence are disrespected and rendered unimportant – though so too are the opinions of her male creator, which is on one level an appropriate response).
The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of “happy endings” to misfit all stories. Now, the history of Eliza Doolittle, though called a romance because of the transfiguration it records seems exceedingly improbable, is common enough. Such transfigurations have been achieved by hundreds of resolutely ambitious young women since Nell Gwynne set them the example by playing queens and fascinating kings in the theatre in which she began by selling oranges. Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it. This is unbearable, not only because her little drama, if acted on such a thoughtless assumption, must be spoiled, but because the true sequel is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular.
George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion (afterword)
Bulleteer has an odd position within the Seven Soldiers mega-story. The mini-series itself is one of the three (Shining Knight and The Manhattan Guardian being the other two) that provide the narrative throughline for the story, while the other four series flesh out the bigger picture, but the character’s own narrative ‘arc’ (I had hoped to get through this book without using that word, but it seems the only appropriate one) is almost entirely divorced from it. The rest of the characters in the story are concerned with superheroism, or with the Sheeda invasion, or with taking revenge on overbearing parents, but Alix herself is only after a quiet life. It’s notable that while the other characters are either born different, or become heroic when they gain their costume, the Alix before her accident is more confident, wittier, happier, and more secure than afterward. She’s also actually more heroic – she works with autistic children before the accident, while afterwards she works as a bodyguard for an unpleasant film star.
But like Jake Jordan, the other character who starts out the series as just a normal human being, her instincts are always good, even when she’s depressed and suicidal. She refuses to be a ‘hero’, but she takes the woman who tried to steal her husband and attempted to murder her to hospital without a second’s thought, because it’s the right thing to do.
Bernard Shaw eventually had to write a short ‘sequel’ to his Pygmalion (it’s a prose piece, printed as the afterword in most editions of the play now) giving Eliza Doolittle a happy ending, because the audience flat out refused to believe that the story ended with her walking away from Henry Higgins, and directors kept changing the ending to suit what they wanted. His sequel still wasn’t what the audience actually wanted – they’d been expecting a love story, and were angry that they didn’t get one – but it was an attempt to give them a sense of completion, of ‘closure’. Of course, after his death, it was turned into a musical and given a love-story ending (the same people also wrote Camelot, which had Arthur and Lancelot forgiving each other and surviving at the end, rather than going to war against each other as in their source material).
It may well be the fate of Bulleteer to continue appearing in crowd scenes, flying, and doing generic-superhero stuff for all eternity unless her creator gives her an ending that comes closer to the desires of the typical superhero comic reader than simply walking away and getting on with her life. There’s something sadly appropriate about that. The one decision Alix makes, her one bit of agency, is taken away from her by forces outside her control.
But it’s by fighting those narrative conventions all the way, by struggling to gain any kind of agency, that Alix fulfills her destiny and saves the world. Had she gone with the flow, had she been the superhero the entire universe seemed to be wanting to make of her, the world would have been lost.
Comic issues Bulleteer #1-4
Artists Yanick Paquette (pencils), Michael Bair (inks), Alex Sinclair (colours)
Other credits Phil Balsman (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works The Filth is very, very, very different, but has some connections.
Look Out For Millions The Mystery Mutt’s secret
Still to come in Seven Soldiers The time of your life!
I remember Bulleteer showing up in some of the crowd scenes of 52 and maybe Infinite Crisis, but that’s all I’ve seen of her outside SS (I generally skip mainstream superhero books). What other appearances has she made?
I’ve not seen many appearances myself, but I’ve seen lots of scans of panels on the internet (generally captioned things like “Bulleteer can’t fly, you morons!”). Looking at her wiki page, she’s been in Cry For Justice, World War III, the current Justice League run… basically any really bad comic, she gets a couple of panels in.
She is also in Final Crisis, flying. Issue #4 or #5, I think; Morrison talked about just going along with it, iirc.
Maybe she just has like a vehicle with a big catapult in the back, the Bulleteer-van.
“Fire me, boy!”
What is Millions The Mystery Mutt’s secret? I’ve read SS twice now (once in publisher order, once reading each miniseries whole) and I don’t recall seeing the secret.
Millions is immortal and controls the US banking system, as the ‘dog-father’.
Ah, OK. No, I got that — I thought you mere saying that something in Bulleteer explains how he does that.
The convention-goer in Bulleteer 3 suggests he’s immortal because of the Cauldron Of Rebirth – which would explain how he could previously have died aged 14.
Ah, yes, OK — that is the immortality taken care of. But what about the sentience, financial genius, and ability to communicate his wishes to his underlings?
Yeah, that’s never explained. But then, he *is* a Mystery Mutt…
Oh, two other things. First:
“Pretty much as soon as everything in our body has started working at its full functionality, bits of us stop working, until eventually we stop altogether.”
Is that that a tautology? If our bodies kept getting better then they wouldn’t have reached full functionality. Here you seem to be saying that after a local maximum, the curve begins to descend.
“The two ways in which people have usually attempted to gain at least a metaphorical immortality are through their children and through their artistic creations.”
I don’t know whether you’re aware of this, but Stephen Sondheim has often said “The only things we leave behind and children and art”, which chimes very strongly with what you’re saying here. Hence the song Children and Art in his show Sunday in the Park with George. Which, by the way, if you’ve not seen I very highly recommend. I think you’d love it.
It’s not a tautology – things could get to a peak and stay there, rather than start getting worse.
And no, I’d not heard the song, but I’ll check it out – I admire Sondheim but don’t know as much of his stuff as I should.
The song is good, but like nearly all Sonheim’s songs, makes much more sense and has much more impact in the context of the show where it appears. If you can possibly find a DVD of Sunday do make the effort — it really is unique.
(Perhaps even better: Into the Woods. But I must blog about that anyway, so I’ll say no more for now.)
All Sondheim’s shows have in common that they are tightly woven and self-coherent, much as you have shown is the case with Seven Soldiers, and very much unlike the shows of, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber, which are much more compilations of hits. Listening to a single Sondheim song out of context would be much like reading Klarion #3 out of context. Not without merit, but much less than it can be.
That’s the impression I’d got, which is one reason why I’ve never tried investigating Sondheim properly – because I know it would take a great deal of time.
Maybe if I sell enough books to retire ;)
(I’ll probably get into him properly at some point – he is on my list – but he’s too close to work for me right now.)
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