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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.