Friday, November 03, 2006

The Comics Page #7: Seven Soldiers #1

Grant Morrison's SEVEN SOLDIERS #1 officially came out last week, but didn't arrive in some areas until this Wednesday- I got it, but any excuse to procrastinate. The long-delayed capstone to the most exciting comics "event" of this year and the last (which isn't as high praise as it should be, given my general distaste for these things) is, as expected, dense, mind-boggling and full of weird ideas. It is also beautiful, sophisticated, and a brilliantly experimental approach to comics storytelling. It is unlikely to make any sense to anyone who hasn't followed the series, and even for those people, it's probably not going to be easily understood until maybe the third reading. This makes it accessible by Morrison-standards. And for anyone else that would be a substantial negative, but- well, read on. (Mild spoilers within.)

Okay, for those who weren't on board for this, the bulk of SEVEN SOLDIERS is comprised of seven four-part miniseries each revolving around a different character- all of them B-list-or-below on the scale of superhero popularity, most new incarnations of old concepts. Frankenstein (more accurately his monster, but I suppose only folks like me still care to make the distinction), Zatanna, the Manhattan Guardian, Shining Knight, Bulleteer, and Klarion the Witch Boy all become embroiled with the schemes of the Sheeda, a race of evil fairy creatures who can control humans and plan to consume the world. Also, they never meet. (Well, not all of them, never at once anyway.) Instead their stories subtly intertwine and destiny causes them to each play a role in combatting the Sheeda invasion. Look, the whole thing has been collected in three lovely trade paperbacks, with a fourth on the way, and it's great reading- Morrison likes to tell fast-paced stories full of weird ideas that don't quite make sense the first time, but are cool enough that it doesn't matter.

Anyway, here we are at the climax. The Sheeda arrive in their timeship in the middle of the city and prepare to do some serious Harrowing. The Manhattan Guardian does most of the fighting on the ground, protecting the innocent populace as shown in photographs and columns from the newspaper that gave him his name. Bulleteer, occupied with trying to save her nemesis Sally Sonic, careens into the middle of the fray. Zatanna tries to cast some good mojo for the team, while Klarion wanders the streets and decides to use a magical talisman to his advantage. Shining Knight confronts the Sheeda queen. Frankenstein has commandeered a Sheeda flagship and is contemplating destroying the entire race when fate intervenes. And Mister Miracle is hunting down Dark Side (aka Darkseid), who has bargained with the Sheeda to gain possession of what's left of Aurakles, first of the New Gods. Meanwhile, one of the soldiers trapped and seemingly killed in SEVEN SOLDIERS #0 turns out to play a key role.

Here's the thing about Grant Morrison. Well, one of the things. He's willing to write stories so dense and bizarre that they don't quite make sense the first time you read them. But one comes away thinking not "what a cheat, can't he tell a good story?" but "I'll have to read that again." And one of the reasons for this is that comics are one of the most easily re-readable media out there- especially in the American "short magazine" format. It's easy to flip back, let the eye wander, and find important information- even more so than in prose, as the pictures provide convenient memory anchors. So Grant Morrison knows you can and, if he doesn't lose you from the start, will look back and get the whole picture. Or at least he acts like he does.

This has two benefits. One, he can write in a compressed style that delivers more story-per-page than most American comics do; I understand that the "widescreen" style can produce some good effects and work for certain kinds of stories, but too often it seems to be used to make sure a story's long enough to be collected as a trade. More importantly, though, Morrison's approach means you get a story that reveals more with each reading. There are layers of plot and symbolism and theme that slowly unravel themselves as you go back and forth over the panels.

One criterion I've slowly been developing for evaluating a work of art or entertainment is how well it exploits the possibilities of its chosen medium. CITIZEN KANE is a great movie because it uses every cinematic trick the filmmakers could conceive of to tell its story, without obstructing that story; Ray Bradbury's stories resonate with a love of language and a fast, ephemeral, flash-of-lightning quality; Monty Python took a 25-minute block of television and filled it with whatever was funniest. It's not the only criterion, nor is it a necessary one per se (a movie can be play-like and still be good, for example), but it helps because it reminds the reader of the fundamental excitement of the activity itself. SEVEN SOLDIERS #1 is a very playful, experimental and above all comic book-y sort of comic book. There are a variety of layout styles and art styles used to convey each of the different worlds the soldiers come from and move in; the Guardian's adventures are presented as a newspaper (complete with a British-style crossword whose answers are apparently derived completely from the series; I'll have to get to that at some point), Aurakles' story is brought to us through a series of extremely Kirby-esque panels, and Shining Knight's Arthurian history is rendered in rich static drawings, almost like a tapestry. A key moment between Klarion and Misty, Zatanna's ward, is presented with both pictures and prose text, almost like a children's book. Zatanna breaks the fourth wall like she did in her eponymous SS series, in a very "do you believe in fairies?" moment. This is a story that could only work as a comic book, and it reminds you of just what the medium can do.

The highest of high praise must also be given to J. H. William III's art. Lush and complex, it encompasses a wide variety of styles, effectively recalling each of the seven miniseries leading up to this. It's eye-popping stuff, and the layouts are just as wildly intricate as the story. (I must also credit Dave Stewart on colors.)

This comic is incredibly smart and incredibly fun, a beautiful and wholly satisfying topper to a great project. Normally I despise the lax schedules of the comics industry, but I'll make an exception when something's this damn brilliant. I look forward to rereading the entire saga. I don't know what's going to come next for the Seven Soldiers and how they'll fit into the DC Universe as a whole, but they've already taken their place as legends.

Grade: A

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