Retrospective analysis: Seven Soldiers by Grant Morrison

We live in interesting times, facing an unprecedented pandemic, or depending on how deep in the conspiracy rabbit hole you are willing to delve into – you are an every-man trapped in an elaborate maelstrom of a conspiracy to topple our way of living, liberty and sovereignty. This post is not about that, although certainly there is consonance between some of the themes explored here. There is a call for collective cooperation without directly controlling or knowing each other, and the collective mitigating effect being intangible.

While ours is a less proactive role in comparison to how this plays out in the stories collected under the Seven Soldiers umbrella, this is a theme that is the primary premise of Seven Soldiers by Grant Morrison. This is a run that ran across 2005-06 in parallel to (in the wake of) DC Comics’ line-wide event Infinite Crisis. A re-reading of this had me feeling the urge to pen my thoughts and highlight the emergent themes from this brilliant collection of stories, and why this story stands head-and-shoulders above regular cape-fare.

The Seven Soldiers, with additional characters of the meta-series, depicted by the brilliant Ryan Sook. Also the wrap around cover art for the hardcover of the Seven Soldiers omnibus.Left bottom: Shining Knight, Zatanna; Klarion the Witchboy. Left Top: Gloria Tenebrae and to her right, Zor and Melmoth; Nebuloh the sentient universe. Center: Manhattan Guardian; Mister Miracle; Frankenstein & Bulleteer. Top left of Frankenstein: Darkseid, the (New) God of Evil

Modular storytelling: Seven Soldiers begins with Seven Soldiers #0, runs through 7, four-issue miniseries, and concludes with Seven Soldiers #1. Each miniseries has our Seven Soldiers playing within their own sand-box, yet in parallel inevitably converging towards their shared concomitant crisis. Each of the parallel runs/storylines are modular in nature – in that they can be read by themselves, but the true reward for this comes with the convergence of these narratives like pieces of a puzzle. The reader itself plays an active role in stringing the threads together. They are a team that never really meets each other, and even in the culmination are not fully aware of each others’ roles and existences in this obscure crisis. I use the word obscure, as our regular pantheon of heroes, with their colorful capes, archetypal and statuesque presences are out of commission, which makes this set of characters all the more interesting – both in isolation and the way they proverbially cross paths.

Each book also has distinct, stylistic art befitting of each character. Shining Knight has a gouache/watercolor style by Simone Bianchi befitting of its Arthurian origins, while Klarion the Witchboy has very somber, stylized, negative-space/shadow-dependent art by Frazer Irving. Similarly, Frankenstein has the intricate, scraggly lines characteristic of the prolific Doug Mahnke that adds a dimensionality to the horror-adventure vibe of the character.

Each issue is stand alone, each miniseries can be read complete and the whole thing assembles like a jigsaw into one huge epic with multiple, criss-crossing storylines, ranging across a swathe of genres and human emotions.” – Grant Morrison

My personal copy of the Seven Soldiers omnibus – a pleasure to own for the oversized artwork, prestige hardcover format and additional material

Timorous heroes each embodying a specific hero archetype: The Seven Soldiers are The Shining Knight, Klarion the Witch Boy, Frankenstein, Bulleteer, The Manhattan Guardian, Mister Miracle, and Zatanna. The Seven Soldiers are not your traditional, enthusiastic superheroes – they are apprehensive heroes, yet at their core out to do good.

For some heroism is their penance (Zatanna, Frankenstein) for others it is a destiny that was otherwise obscured to them amidst their fantastical but shallow lives (Mister Miracle), a second chance at making an impact (Guardian), something they fell into entirely under non-ideal circumstances (Bulleteer) or driven by an unfulfilled call to duty riddled with survivor’s guilt (Shining Knight). Shining Knight, who is arguably the most traditional hero here is a time-displaced individual from the first Arthurian Epoch, 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the 81st century BC. Klarion is barely a hero to begin or end with, with his trickster, impish, self-serving ways. The Witchboy nevertheless plays a pivotal part in the tale and is a testament to the legacy imprint that the Sheeda left with the limbo-town puritans, who are eventually revealed to be half-Sheeda, descended from Melmoth – the former king of the Sheeda. So who are the Sheeda?

Frankenstein realizes he’s up against evil dystopian Fairies from the future. Isn’t that a trip?

The Sheeda as the logical extreme conclusion to humanity’s self-devouring nature: The Sheeda are essentially an inversion of the traditional changeling or fairie mythological trope. A “fairy-harvester” race from one billion years into the future, described as a ransacked, hyper-dystopian planet earth, tumbling on slow, wounded spirals towards a blistering, undead sun – a half-life existence, a claustrophobic imitation of culture at the end of all things. Which is precisely why the Sheeda thrive on travelling to various segments of the earth’s history and feeding on the cultural achievements of past civilizations. It is eventually revealed that the Sheeda are the evolutionary logical end of homo-sapiens, a metaphorical reflection on the self-devouring nature of our species to meet the primordial survival-of-the-fittest criteria to its perverted extreme.

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Sheeda harrowing of Camelot, 10000 BC – depicting their insectoid associations and fairie-like appearance

Civilizational cycles (Non-linear history): Shining Knight (Sir Ystin/Ystina), one of our core characters, is a time-displaced knight who serves as a squire of sorts to Sir Galahad – a name that should be familiar to those familiar with King Arthur’s round table. The narrative eventually reveals she is a young woman posing as a male squire, who rises to the occasion when their era is faced with the Sheeda harrowing (the Fall of Camelot).

However, the more interesting implication here is the cyclical nature of civilizations and non-linear historical timelines. Allusions of multiple Arthurs – a pagan general in Roman Britain, a medieval Christian mystic and the proto-Arthur from Sir Ystin’s era in the 81st Century BC, imply that Arthur is not a singular individual but a man-myth, a recurring archetype. The rise and fall of civilizations being a cyclical occurrence is a mind-tingling prospect – what with our world being six billion years old and our current version of history being only 6000 years old. History is not as linear as we see it, tying into similar concepts across cultures (eg. Yugas in Dharmic theology).

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Gloria Tenebrae and the Wicked Stepmother archetype: The Sheeda are ruled by the Dark King Melmoth, who is usurped by his Queen Gloria Tenebrae, in a proverbially named place known as Summers End, additionally known by other names such as Unwhen, The Otherworld and Land of the Vampire Sun. Gloria Tenebrae is clearly modeled after the Wicked Stepmother from the Snow White fable, even asking a mirror on the wall for information pertaining to the Seven Soldiers (Manhattan Guardian #4). Self-referential statements about being the “Fairest of them all” (Shining Knight #1), and the appearance of the apple motif (Shining Knight #1 & Frankenstein #4) reinforces this. A step-daughter also plays a pivotal role in the story, with Neh-Buh-Loh (a literal sentient universe) ordered to kill her daughter by Melmoth, in Eternity’s dark woods.

Seven: Quite obviously, the number 7 is a recurring motif throughout the story, with Ali Kazoom (The Merlin of the Ghetto) even alluding to it being the mystery thread tying things together. From the oldest point in history (10000 BC) where Seven Score, soldiers are slain during the Fall of Camelot; to the Seven that set the story in motion.; to the seven Time Tailors who stop the renegade time-tailor Zor; to the unwitting “team” of Seven Soldiers – the motif is clear as day to see. Seven Soldiers #0 reflects on the 7 being the count of the days of the week, virtues, sins, seven champions of Christendom, seven spirits at the throne of God, seven sleepers, seven wise masters etc (Seven Soldiers #0) and in line with the aforementioned Snow White/Wicked Mother themes – the 7 dwarves are our 7 Soldiers.

Shilo Norman confronting the human manifestation (Boss Dark Side) and abstract gestalt entity (True Form Darkseid) simultaneously

Simultaneous deconstruction and elevation of Jack Kirby’s New Gods: Jack Kirby’s New Gods are easily the most interesting part of DC cosmology. Morrison simultaneously deconstructs and elevates this part of the DC mythos. The iteration of Mister Miracle here is Shilo Norman – who first appeared as Scott Free’s protege in Kirby’s original early 70s series, has now taken on the mantle of Mister Miracle as a celebrity escapologist, post-his apprenticeship under Scott Free – the original and a God of New Genesis who grew up on Apokolips (see: Jack Kirby’s Fourth World). Through the course of the story, it is revealed that an incomprehensible War in Heaven (the Fourth World) has led to the New Gods manifesting in three-dimensional human forms as a Fall from Heaven of sorts. The manifestation of higher-dimensional Gods in lower planes of existence.

Shilo, stuck in the Omega Life-Trap, confronts and overcomes various possible false versions of his life and escapes as he is (unbeknownst to him) the manifestation of Scott Free (the original Mister Miracle) – the God of Freedom, granted Godsight by his ordeal(s). Norman trades in his life and frees Aurakles – the original superhero made of splicing Neanderthal and New God DNA. There are many fantastical implications here too, with the red-haired Aurakles being the progenitor of Bulleteer (also red-haired), who was his symbolic secret spear against the Sheeda. Ultimately, despite trading in his life, as the last panel of the story reveals – he escapes this trap still, cementing his significance as the ultimate paragon of perseverant freedom. This interpretation of the New Gods also sets up the mega-epic Final Crisis.

The original Sheeda harrowing as faced by Aurakles (the original superhero), depicted in classic Kirby style by the brilliant J.H Williams III

Underappreciated DC lore: Seven Soldiers is exceptionally literate and full of rich themes at its core. It uses lesser-known pieces of DC lore (original Seven Soldiers, Jack Kirby’s Newsboy Legion etc.) and puts a beyond-fresh twist on them while still referencing the original concepts as being the precursors in the DC meta-timeline. In this sense, the allusions and easter-eggs are clear to see for those who pick up on them, but non-essential and melds into the narrative for fresh readers. This is Morrison’s elaborate homage, a love-letter to influential figures like Len Wein and Jack Kirby.

Meta-textual literary devices: Fiction cannibalism is one of the prominent themes that arises from Seven Soldiers. Static, degenerating creative organizations (i.e comicbook companies) stealing from their own history to infuse a new (albeit disingenuous) life into their creative IPs is one of the implicit themes. One of the eight Time Tailors (who look like a group of bald men, in Morrison’s likeness), charged with keeping the fabric of the universe, named Zor, eventually goes renegade. Zor infects the timestream with the Sheeda virus in Zatanna #4 but is eventually stopped by his fellow Time Tailors who deem him to have gone too far. This occurs outside conventional linear time and even pops out of panels, reinforcing its meta-textual nature, with the author himself in a sense participating in the narrative’s progression, in-panel.

The ultimate jolt to the story’s conclusion is Zatanna’s incantation/command to her universe to wake up for its own self-preservation and asking the seven soldiers to strike (read the dialogue backwards). This is essentially Morrison himself casting a spell on the DC universe, congregating all the narrative threads into the “final battle”, if it can be called that in any conventional sense.

While there is much more to be said about this book, its future-setups (Final Crisis) and sigil-magick, those are topics for another time.