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LOOKING BACK AT SEVEN SOLDIERS WITH GRANT MORRISON
by Ian Brill

With Seven Soldiers Grant Morrison created a mini-universe inside the DC Universe of heroes on the fringe with a need for change in their lives. All seven stories lead up to climactic battle but the heroes never meet. Instead Shining Knight, The Manhattan Guardian, Zatanna, Klarion, Mister Miracle, The Bulleteer and Frankenstein overcome their obstacles, both internal and external, by themselves. All of these characters' own personal victories benefit the fight against Gloriana Tenebrae and The Sheeda, faeries from Earth's future who feed off history and raze culture. It echoes Joseph Campbell thoughts on how the hero's quest as a personal journey of self-improvement affects the rest of a person's environment "the influences of a vital personal vitalizes."

Seven Soldiers is not so much a crossover like Infinite Crisis or Civil War. It's more of a Homeric epic for characters who always lived a step apart from the superhero mainstream. The breadth of characters in Seven Soldiers ranges from Justina the Shining Knight a teenage girl trying to pass as a male knight of Arthur's Round Table (traveling through time she becomes something of a paradox, she is both one of the youngest and one of the oldest Seven Soldiers) to Frankenstein one of the most famous of monsters, whom in Morrison's hands is a brooding yet honorable defender of mankind. Morrison has utilized these characters' idiosyncrasies with all the intelligence and creativity they deserve so by the end of each tale the heroes have a gleam of both quirkiness and nobility rarely seen in superhero comics. The author reflects on the ideas and stories of Seven Soldiers.

Newsarama: One thing that I really enjoyed about Seven Soldiers was that even though all the heroes were on a similar quest to reinvent themselves all seven stories covered different aspects of superhero culture. On one hand you have Mister Miracle who lives a life of wealth and fame and on the other there's The Manhattan Guardian who is a working class guy trying to make an honest buck. Why was it important to explore so many different facets of the DC Universe in telling this story?

Grant Morrison: It just worked out that way. I get bored writing in one style or from one perspective so I've always preferred work which presents me with the opportunity to use multiple characters, preferably from different backgrounds. All the way back to Zenith, I've enjoyed working with an ensemble cast and lots of interconnected events over vast periods of time. And Seven Soldiers became a means of linking what were initially a bunch of completely disparate mini-series ideas into one big cosmology, which made it much more fun and challenging for me.

Mister Miracle allowed me to talk about a lot of things I've observed during close contact with celebrity - Jack Kirby had already given Scott Free (the original Mister Miracle) a Jewish/African/American apprentice and I loved the idea of seeing that kid, Shilo Norman, grown to be 21, at the peak of his success as a celebrity super escape artist. He's the big time showbiz XXL cover star type of character. He takes us from the soul vacuum of the celebrity lifestyle to a rich meaningful world of quasi-religious significance.

The Guardian, by contrast is a blue collar hero who takes a job which requires him to behave as a superhero so his story is about learning to live up to a challenging new role after you've outgrown an old one - which is of course exactly what Jake Jordan needs after the tragic events in his life. A few people have asked what role the Guardian really played in thwarting the Sheeda - forgetting that it was the Guardian who delayed No-Beard's train, which meant that Klarion escaped the Horigal and...well, it should be obvious how pivotal his role was, long before he led the charge in the battle of Manhattan,

Klarion is a rebel teenager with big dreams, Zatanna's a superhero who has a secret identity - as a stage magician - that's as interesting as her crime fighting side, as well as a whole raft of personal problems which get addressed in the series and so on.

My work is an attempt to reflect the diversity I see around me while at the same time emphasizing the things we have in common and the shared experiences that connect all our lives as human beings.

NRAMA: All the Seven Soldiers are on a quest for rebirth. There is never any repetition in the stories though. They're interesting throughout the series because all the journeys are coming from a personal place in all the characters. Zatanna starts out in a therapy group but eventually conquers her self-doubt and guilt on her own. Inversely Frankenstein is a loner but must learn how to team up with The Bride and the rest of S.H.A.D.E. That mix between spectacle and character drama is one of the real strengths of Seven Soldiers. How did you go about transforming these people's internal struggles into flashy superheroic battles?

GM: That's the great strength of superhero comics - internal psychological conflicts can become actualized. Inner dramas can be played out as literal, world-shaking battles. Impersonal forces like Greed and Guilt can be personified and metaphors can stalk the land wreaking havoc - so, in Seven Soldiers we have the Shining Knight's interpretation of Guilt as an actual monster, or Shilo Norman seeing his own life from the outside, in the form of an anthropomorphic shadow which surrounds him and limits his free movement and growth with its boundaries and expectations. 'Seven Soldiers', seen from that perspective, is all about superheroes on the couch, trying to deal with all the strange and unusual feelings they've been having these last few decades, and it's no coincidence that so many characters in the book are seen attending self-help groups or undergoing therapy. There's also the matter of my own tendency towards severe and crippling depression, and the way in which I use my work in comics to unearth, personify, and come to terms with a lot of painful and difficult emotions. I'd like to think that these comics allow us to discuss things like hope and failure, love and loss, confusion and certainty, by effecting the alchemical transformation of hurt and self-doubt into wonder.

NRAMA: When I listen or read you talk about your creative process a lot of it seems to come from an intuitive part of the brain, where it's not so much about structuring a concrete master plan as it about the improvisation that comes from sketching in a notepad. Seven Soldiers seems like a project that demands both sides of the brain to collaborate, the side that creates order and the side that thrives in chaos. How did you relate both sides as you wrote these individual heroes' adventures while mapping out a larger world for the soldiers?

GM: I've never considered Seven Soldiers in those terms, so it's hard for me to comment. I plan my stories very, very carefully, years ahead of completion but I l do like to let chaos and dirt into the proceedings, scuzz it up a little, forget the original intent, let new characters rise up and take over, cut stuff out, put new stuff in, add some NOISE. I've always preferred the Buzzcocks to Pink Floyd, if you know what I mean. I've spent 28 years in the comics business perfecting my 'sound' and it's been immensely successful for me but I don't really see it as two halves of anything and I'm not much of a one for duality so it's a more, dare I say it, holistic process as I see it.

All my work starts as sketches in the notepad - I have to have pages of visuals and designs or I can't get started. I then write a 'demo' of the first issue to music, in a fairly improvised 'Beat' way, just to get the tone, direction and energy down. This sometimes spills into a rough draft of the second and third and even fourth issues as well. The bulk of the original concept work usually gets done in a white heat over a few days - or weeks in the case of Seven Soldiers.

Then I fill up pads with notes and drawings. Seven Soldiers consumed several notebooks - I have the entire history of the Sheeda worked out, and the exact timing and days of the week on which the story happens. I know the entire geography of the fictional DC Universe New York. I know how every series could be developed into a long-running franchise and so on.

I work out most of the details to the very end then go to work in earnest - fleshing out the stories and drawing the connections between books takes as long as the comic takes to be published usually. I edit constantly; even at the very last moment before the book goes to print, I'm tweaking dialogue. I often write two or three complete drafts of an issue then throw them away (there are several unseen Bulleteer stories which were written as potential issues then discarded in favor of the stories which did see print. Guardian #3 was originally a completely different - and pretty good - story called 'King Cocaine!' until I came up with something that rang more true to me and fit more snugly into the ongoing development of the narrative. It can be an exhausting process but fortunately I work fast and reworking it in this laborious way means I get the material I like best on the page). Usually, the first drafts tend to come in around 40 pages which I then meticulously mix and re-mix until only the 'beat' is left and I have 22 pages of complete story. Every character requires a different storytelling style or rhythm - the Superman stuff I do is very tight and formal and magisterial, Batman is loose, pulpy and fast, WildCATS is remixed 90s New Rave and so on.

Once I get started on actual issues, I always find that the story and characters themselves take over and I generally wind up exploring completely different directions that often lead to a more organic ending. It's important for me to surrender completely to whatever the story and the characters want to do. I want to be surprised by my stories, to feel that I'm discovering them in a participatory way, rather than just 'making it up'. I like it when the stories and characters start to push ME around. The current 'Batman & Son' storyline in Batman is a demonstration of how this can work - I'd originally planned a heartbreaking death scene for the Damian character in that book. He was to save Batman's life then perish in what was a really nice and emotional conclusion...then I started writing the character and realized he was too good to waste. He started coming to life as I wrote and I soon realized there was too much long-term story potential in this kid, so I had to completely discard my beautifully-constructed ending and instead leave it open and inconclusive for Damian and Talia's comeback which now forms a major strand of this 15-part Bat-novel I'm planning. If I'd stuck to my original plan, I'd have had a more affecting conclusion to a 4-part story but I'd have lost a character that will now provide me with a much bigger and more powerfully resonant finale.

The structure of issue #1 of Seven Soldiers was partly intended as an update on the structure of those original wartime Seven Soldiers of Victory stories - in the Golden Age, the soldiers didn't meet either - they each had a chapter and each would defeat one aspect of the overall menace in a solo adventure before all meeting up for a big YO-HO on the last two pages. So I wanted to get a little flavor of that, hence the little title logos to introduce each character etc.

It's also an homage to Justice League of America #100 - #102, which was the comics story that turned me into a foaming teenage fanboy. That book was filled with dozens of unfamiliar characters from different Earths leaping willy-nilly through space and time while a giant cosmic hand closed around the Earth. I had 'no idea' what was going on but the thrill ride was incredible and by the end of it, I knew I wanted to dive head first into this dazzling alternate reality and find out everything I could about these characters and their world(s). Remember the first time you picked up an X-Men or Avengers book and it was stuffed to the staples with parallel universes, clones, alternate future versions of characters, and a continuity so dense you could stand a spoon in it? The chaos, confusion and excitement of being thrown without a guidebook into a new world was intoxicating to me and it seems that superhero comics only start to get boring when that sense of anything-can-or-can't-happen is replaced by familiarity. If JH and I managed to convey even a small percentage of the breathless head-whirl of the first comic that turned you into a fanboy collector, we'll have done our jobs.

Bit of a long answer to say that, yes, Seven Soldiers was very definitely 'intended ' to a very high degree early on in its conception. Every issue has a complete story as well as cliffhangers and ongoing threads and everything connects up. It didn't stop some people from being confused or at least talking themselves into confusion but that's generally what happens with my work when it's first released - hang on a year or two and all the work that was considered 'incoherent' suddenly seems to make perfect sense to readers who didn't get it the first time. New X-Men was hated by fans online, now it's considered a classic run. The Filth, which was torn to shreds on message boards, is one of my best-selling books ever. Go figure.

NRAMA: There seems to be meta-commentary on the superhero comic book industry in Seven Soldiers. The major example I can think of is The Seven Unknown Men, who are like seven editors arranging and rearranging these characters' lives. For these characters the importance of improving oneself by overcoming obstacles is given another charged meaning, that of why it is important to reimagine superheroes over time to keep them fresh. Why did you feel the need to comment not just on heroism but comic book superheroism?

GM: I've been earning a living in this field for decades so I guess, like anyone who loves their work, I'm fascinated by the persistence of the superhero concept and its amazing versatility. I see the need to constantly update, re-imagine and reinvigorate superhero characters as an acknowledgment that their stories inhabit timeless, Platonic space I like to relate the activity of 'revamping; to the work of the Aboriginal rock painter - each new generation of Aboriginals is expected to maintain and freshen the paintings which reaffirm the myths and stories of his people. The Aboriginal artist must honor the original work, which may have been created by an ancestor many thousands of years ago, while at the same time adding his own perspective, his own skill and his own fresh wet paint. That's what we do with these super-characters - like the gods or the Dreamtime spirits, iconic superhero characters live in an immanent world where they never grow old or die but must play out their battles over and over again for the education and entertainment of each new generation. Superman will still be fighting Lex Luthor long after we're all dead. Everything from the origin story to the 'Death of Superman' will be replayed and 'repainted' again and again by hands as yet unborn.

Bringing the Seven Unknown Men into it, there's definitely a level upon which Seven Soldiers can be read as a comics industry critique but that narrow view might not be as rewarding as reading it as a vast, interactive story of the DC Universe. I'm drawn to analysis myself so I understand how much fun it can be but it can also make you feel a bit queasy if you overdo it The more you dissect art to see how it works, the less magical it becomes, and from my own point of view sometimes it's best just to take the ride, have fun, and get off before you get too caught up in it. I love the films of David Lynch, and 'If...' and 'O Lucky Man!' are my two favorite movies - I don't feel the need to ask why Lindsay Anderson chose to have a character dead in one scene, then alive without explanation in the next. All I care about is the rich, rewarding feeling I get in my gut when I watch this stuff. I don't need art to be logical, just emotionally honest, in fact the more dreamlike, the more surreal, the more I like it.

So the Time Tailors /Seven Unknown Men, (whom I imagined to be all the DC writers who have appeared as themselves interacting with characters inside the DC Universe - like me, Julius Schwartz, Cary Bates, Elliot Maggin etc...) present a sci-fi take on the job of maintaining a comic book universe, repairing its plot holes, refreshing its characters and set-ups and generally patching it up, like tailors adding to an old, tattered quilt.

NRAMA: Three of the characters were created or co-created by Jack Kirby (Klarion, Guardian and Mister Miracle). Seven Soldiers #1 tied heavily into New Gods lore and J.H. Williams III did a fantastic job recreating that Kirby look. The project's format itself is similar to Kirby's Fourth World series of books. Why such a heavy Kirby influence on Seven Soldiers?

GM: The Demon was one of the original Seven also, until he was replaced by Frankenstein, so that would have been another Kirby character. Seven Soldiers was informed by the comics I read in the early 70s when I was starting out as a serious young fan. Not necessarily the books I liked at the time but the ones I didn't like so much - the supernatural books, the Kirby stuff (not just the Fourth World but the black and white magazines like Spirit World and In The Days Of The Mob), Len Wein's Swamp Thing, JLA and Phantom Stranger and Black Orchid and Captain Fear. You can see all these traces from DC's 'Weird' era in Seven Soldiers as well as influences from Warren's black and white horror books, Conan, Jim Fitzpatrick's Celtic Gods illustrations, Rodney Matthews, Brian Froud, Roger Dean, and James Herbert novels, Seven Soldiers was brewed in that part of my head where the 70s still has something to say.

And I love Jack Kirby's work, more and more as time goes by. As a working class kid from a rough neighborhood who grew up with a headful of magic nonsense. I find him a powerful role model. I'm just sorry I never got a chance to talk with him.

NRAMA: I must know, what happened to The Buleteer between Seven Soldiers #1 and 52 Week 24 where she goes from being a severely reluctant hero to someone who joins a version of the Justice League (a rather makeshift version, but still)?

GM: Beats me. She's found her way into the regular DCU as a kind of cipher who crops up when writers need a 'lame' hero to stand around in crowd scenes. 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.

NRAMA: On his blog, Dr. Marc Singer felt that Seven Soldiers displayed a change from some of your previous work. The original superhero Aurakles has the mission to "To bring order and meaning where incoherence reigns." Gloriana Tenebrae, The Sheeda and Gwydion find power in the shapelessness of words and twisting of meaning. This can be seen as a departure from past works where, to use Signer's examples, "Morrison...once presented languages with fixed meanings as implements of torture and control in The Invisibles...wrote 'Love means nothing at all. Life means nothing at all' as the most tender and romantic line in the entire run of Doom Patrol." Do you feel Seven Soldiers serves as a reinvention, to continue a major motif of the series, of your writing style?

GM: I don't know. It just seems like I'm trying to see the same thing from different angles to help widen my own perspective. The quote from Doom Patrol is actually the climactic line from the Jam song, 'Liza Radley', which I was listening to when I was writing those pages. The song makes me cry every time I hear it and this particular line, delivered near the end, takes on such a weight of emotion and meaning that it practically floors me with feeling. I put those words in Crazy Jane's mouth because they seemed to me to be genuinely tender and romantic - listen to the song and you'll see what I mean - and to say everything I wanted to say to the broken and the hopeful everywhere. When nothing means nothing at all...we still have all this.

I use as many different writing styles across the span of Seven Soldiers as JH Williams used art styles in the final issue so perhaps that's a reinvention in the sense that I feel confident enough as a writer now to dispense with my own 'voice' and do things like The Authority or Frankenstein #3, which was conceived as Warren Ellis meets Biff! In relation to the Sheeda and Shining Knight my idea here was that in Sir Justin's day there was no such thing as lying - a word was a bond, a magical thing. In our times, however, the word is no longer sacred or magical in the same way. A word can have many, many multiple meanings and interpretations. The Word can no longer be grasped and changes its shape depending on who chooses to use it and to what end.

I saw this myself when I was writing The Invisibles, in particular - what seemed to me to be very direct statements of intent were interpreted by different readers in a number of wildly contradictory ways. Some people have read Seven Soldiers as they did The Invisibles , and seen only chaos, others have discerned elegance and connection and meaning. The exact same words and images can have completely opposing meanings. Hence, the idea of the Word becoming shapeless and slippery, and whoring itself out to every stray ideology.

It seems clear to me now that words barely have any actual meanings at all - people project their own personalities, fears and desires onto everything they read and will argue black is white if need be.

NRAMA: Seven Soldiers is 30 comic book issues that will end up in four trade paperback volumes republishing the issues in publication order. Do you see any particular shortcomings or strengths for either style of presentation?

GM: I'm fine with it - in trade form it has taken on more of the structure of something like a Stephen King book, cutting from one character's chapter to the next, I quite like the dynamic of that and the way the tension mounts across all the books as a result. There are other ways to read SS, of course, and they'll all yield slightly different approaches and interpretations, I'm sure. I'd like to have them all released as a boxed set of issues that you can shuffle around and also as individual miniseries plus bookends in a sumptuous Absolute collection printed using the finest intelligent inks from Mars and Venus on paper so smooth and so sexy that one touch is like fortnight's worth of non-stop latex sex.

When Zatanna casts the cards in the final issue, she's making a connection with the reader, inviting us to join her in making sense of 'the passage of a few people through a very short space of time' as Guy Debord so poignantly described his life and that of his friends, and by extension the lives of us all.

Special thanks to Jog for his assistance with this article.

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