Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Review: Seven Soldiers of Victory

by Charles Pooter

The Shining Knight, from Seven Soldiers of Victory

Grant Morrison has always liked to plant far-out, mystical and post-modern ideas in his comics. This is hardly surpising as he decribes himself as a magician (not the Paul Daniels kind), even claiming that he has used "sigils" in his fictional creations to imprint his desires on the universe. Sometimes this pretention and posturing detracts from the narrative, but occasionally he provides us with something gripping and original. My first memories of his work are from when I was relative youngster and they were both stories in his Animal Man comic. The first was about a Wile E. Coyote type character being removed by a vengeful God (the cartoon artist) from his universe and deposited in Animal Man's world of humans, cars and vaguely sensible laws of physics. The second was the last story in Morrison's run on the comic and involved Morrison inserting himself into the comic and preaching to Animal Man (and the readers) about his extreme opinions on animal rights. Even at the time I was disgusted by Morrison's abuse of power in the second story, but both tales fascinated me and stuck in my mind for quite a while. I guess they were my first encounter with an artist breaking the fouth wall, at least in any interesting and consistent way.

Page from Animal Man #5: The Coyote Gospel

After plenty of other work for DC on both mainstream titles such as the Justice League of America and on "mature" titles like the esoteric Invisibles for the Vertigo imprint, Morrison was given the task of re-imagining the company's 1940s super-heroes, The Seven Soldiers of Victory. For DC Comics this is a tried and tested recipe: take some old-fashioned, true-blue American characters (whose intellectual property value is current negligable) give them to suitably deranged British writer — mix, bake for three months and serve to your appreciative audience. In this respect Soldiers' antecendents are numerous: Alan Moore's transmogrification of the ridiculous Swamp Thing into a "plant elemental" appearing in deep stories full of magic and menace. Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which makes only scant refererence to DC's original mystery-man and James Robinson's excellent and respectful updating of DC's Starman character (which almost makes up for Robinson's terrible League of Extraordinary Gentlemen screenplay).

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

Unlike Swamp Thing and Sandman, Seven Soldiers takes place firmly in the DC Universe. This is the world of Superman and The Joker, of super-heroes and super-villains, but it is a flexible world which Morrison shapes with his dark and mystical aesthetic. Seven Soldiers was originally published as seven seperate titles featuring seven different characters. The titles interweave, starting and concluding in two stand-alone Seven Soldiers issues. The story can now be bought as a four volume set of graphic novels (see below).

The characters Morrison has chosen for his new team are: The Shining Knight, a knight who has crashed through time to the present day from a mythical "pre-flood" world-spanning Avalon; The Manhattan Guardian, a super-hero mascot for a New York newspaper of the same name; Zatanna, a previous compadre of top-rank heroes like Batman, now just a magician down on her luck; Klarion, a witch-boy descended from the lost colonists of Roanoke who fled underground, their puritan faith perverted by the black arts; Mister Miracle, an escape artist with visions of an eternal war of the gods; The Bulleteer, a woman whose husband's fetish for super-heroes leaves him dead and her with unwanted powers; and finally Frankenstein, the monster who has taken the name of his creator and stalks the Earth with a new vendetta.

Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory

The story and characters are tied together by the villains of the piece, the Sheeda. Here Morrison draws on the the old fairy-myths of Europe. The name Sheeda derives from the SĂ­dhe of Irish fairy legend. These aren't the faries of sentimental Victorian re-invention like the kind depicted in the forged photographs that so convinced Conan-Doyle. These are the fae of the Unseelie Court who stole people away to their otherworld and who planted changelings in babies' cots. In these instance they are not out to steal babies but to ravish the Earth, just as they did before in the time of King Arthur.

Each of the seven character's stories holds up well and I particularly liked the diverse artistic styles used in each story strand. Of particular note is Shining Knight. Grant's idea of Camelot as a forgotten world-spanning civilisation, completely destroyed long before the Bronze Age, is an inventive one, neatly avoiding the usual Arthurian anchronism of a chivalric age in anglo-saxon Britain, whilst still providing an appropriate origin for the hero. Simone Bianchi's art is epic and beautiful and Morrison adds to the mythic quality by avoiding Arthurian cliches — he uses the older name Caliburn for Arthur's sword, calls the Camelot's knights "The Knights of the Broken Table" and uses quotes from the ancient Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn.

Seven Soldiers of Victory is one of the freshest comics in years, combining elements of science fiction, myth, horror, magic and super-heroics. It makes good use of under-used DC characters, adding depth to their histories and back-stories. The Sheeda are a creepy and original concept and the art is mostly well-realised. If I have one major criticism it is that the ending is a little disappointing, but at least it's a lot of fun getting there.

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

No comments: