Earth’s mightiest heroes — sort of
A mythical warrior wielding armaments of legend. A hero encased in metal who becomes a living weapon. A normal man thrown into extraordinary circumstances armed simply with a shield. A big green monster caught in the crosshairs of a secret government agency. All told, seven soldiers out to save the world from an incursion too great for any one of them to handle alone.
Sound familiar? It should, but it’s not what you think.
Five years after completing his epic run on the Justice League of America, writer Grant Morrison set out to reimagine Marvel Comics’ Avengers in the DC Universe with 2005’s mega-series event Seven Soldiers. Seven 4-issue series, each starring a different character in a solo tale, were bookended by two specials that tied them all together — without ever having any of the heroes meet each other. In a distinctly post-(post-)modern take on the super-hero team, Morrison gave each protagonist an individual and specific role to play in the defeat of a common foe, but maintained each hero as a solitary, often self-conflicted figure. Long gone is the round table of Arthurian legend that most Golden and Silver Age teams found themselves encircling at times of crisis. These seven heroes — The Shining Knight, Bulleteer, The Guardian, Frankenstein, Zatanna, Klarion the Witch Boy, and Mister Miracle — all play an integral part in the defeat of invading hordes of fairies from our own future, descendants of the very culture they wish to strip apart and destroy. Nevertheless, their conflicts of character reflect a millennial vision for super-heroics as much as the Avengers themselves reflected a post-1950s mentality of the Cuban Missile Crisis era, when patriotic teamwork and the dangers of nuclear power drew heroes together, not apart.
An underlying theme to nearly every character is that self-questioning that heroes rarely had, even in the much more introspective era of the Marvel hero forty years earlier. Klarion the Witch Boy lives in an underground village, deeply hidden from the rest of the world since its inhabitants left the 13 colonies with a single word (“Croatoan”) marking their departure. Part of a society not unlike that of Logan’s Run, where men and women practice Salem witchcraft only until reaching a certain age, Klarion begins his journey wistful for any sort of meaning when everyone’s ultimate fate — to be killed and become a mindless slave zombie — is predetermined. But once he finds his way to the great blue rafters of legend, and out unto the streets of New York City, his own sense of power grows exponentially and leads to a greater coup than the boy could have even dreamed.
Before putting on the helmet of the Manhattan Guardian, Jake Jordan was a broken man, having left the police force in a shooting scandal that claimed the innocent life of a young boy. With no job or way to support his fiancée, Jake was plummeted into a deep depression until the city’s greatest newspaper offered to make him its trademark super-hero/reporter. And Jake isn’t alone in his self-doubt, as two other protagonists — Zatanna and Mister Miracle — each spend a considerable amount of time engaged in the ultimate post-millennial activity, therapy. The daughter of one of the greatest sorcerers of our time, the powerful-in-her-own-right Zatanna can’t seem to raise her own self-esteem, much to the chagrin of her much less famous group therapy peers. And Shilo Norman, the escape artist known on every stage as Mister Miracle, would feel better about his fame and recognize his true power if he wasn’t undermined at every turn by the dark god DeSaad masquerading as his empathetic psychiatrist. These heroes, riddled by a psychosis only cured through glorious super-human action, may represent an even greater accomplishment to modern day readers than their heroes of old, for it is not only their physical enemies that each must overcome, but one’s own inner demons as well. Shades of Iron Man famously facing his own hazy alcoholic self in the mirror, their ultimate revelations become cathartic for all those who have ever overcome the life trap themselves and risen to fight again.
The Shining Knight’s journey too, while representing the complete opposite of doubt and shame, runs a road rarely taken in comic book form. Today, DC Comics’ most prominent transgender character, Sir Ystin is initially depicted as a girl masquerading as a man to earn his seat at the actual Round Table aside Galahad and the others. That said, his “truth” never seems as revelatory as one would presume, and to later creators’ credit, he stands as one of the most well-rounded depictions of the LGBT community in comics today. An honorable hero with bravery to spare, the Shining Knight isn’t confused about his gender identity as much as earning his place among the heroes of old, one battle at a time. It is in that sense that he has unsure footing along the path, refreshing in contrast to the lovely Bulleteer, the accidental hero who quite literally stumbles into her own destiny without desire or drive.
Truly, the monster Frankenstein may be the only hero who has no compunction about who and what he truly represents. A genuine product of mad science, armed with a sword and body parts from a dozen soldiers of legend, Frankenstein cuts a swath across the invading fairies, the king Melmoth and the queen Gloriana herself in the far flung future. He drags them back through time to face justice at the hands of S.H.A.D.E., the federal agency his own Bride operates. He is brute force, but not without the heart of a poet, and in that sense, poses a curious counterpart to his forbearer (and literary descendent, technically), the Incredible Hulk. Subject of the original science fiction novel, Frankenstein is precisely the hero our twenty-first century needs, despite his Victorian origins — a self-assured man visibly stitched together from many cultures and influences, a true melting pot of backgrounds while remaining stridently individualistic in nature. There is no cure for his condition, as Bruce Banner may seek, for he always already was the monster, just like the rest of us — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Ultimately, for a tale broken into seven pieces and centered on the conceit of never meeting, Seven Soldiers is a deeply interwoven narrative, with details and motivations overlapping with increasing frequency as the series reaches its conclusion. Morrison layers time on space, different sets of soldiers upon those at the story’s lead, until you feel like an entirely new universe is being born right inside your hands. One of the few instances of a rich chronicle that implies deeper meanings and history without alienating one’s understanding of the current story, these vignettes and bookends all stand as a testament to the new century super-hero tale. Gone is the formulaic (ironic given the initial inspiration for the series) concept of the strongman figure in a cape, and in its place is a wicked boy and his cat, a self-aware monster with a broken heart, a young woman who grew up in lights on the stage, the embodiment of life housed in a celebrity performer, a good man down on his luck, the unwilling beauty queen, and a young champion choosing to not be confined by his own gender identity. Together they represent everything our culture needs to avenge on today’s terms. It’s about time our heroes caught up.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He is an art director for several non-profit organizations, senior editor for Comicosity.com, and still manages to find the time on dark nights and weekends to fight the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.