In his long career, Grant Morrison has written many different types of comics in numerous genres, but he is most known for his work on mainstream superhero titles. This article will attempt to explore Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, specifically the way that Morrison presents in Seven Soldiers an archetypal comic book universe, from the protagonists—seven largely unknown characters who are a collection of tropes and archetypes commonly found in superhero fiction—to metafictional concepts and characterizations included to show how comic book continuity is similar in many ways to the archetypal universe represented by Jorge Luis Borges in his stories “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Seven Soldiers of Victory is a story that ultimately exists to show how comic books work, both in the fictional universe that is comic book continuity, and metatextually, from creator to audience. With Seven Soldiers, Morrison shows that the fictional universe of comic book continuity can be seen as a kind of Borgesian hypertext, which is itself an archetype that has become a very recognizable element of the postmodern cultural landscape.
Beyond the Big Three
Seven Soldiers is the story of a team of super heroes but with one important difference that sets them apart from other superhero teams: the heroes never once meet, yet their stories are tied together and it is only together that they can defeat the threat of the Sheeda—a fierce race that is all that is left of humanity one billion years in the future who survive only be traveling back in time and devouring human culture. As a story, it is composed of equal parts traditional comic book action and strange concepts and ideas. As a reading experience, Seven Soldiers is similar in many ways to Joseph Campbell’s description of the flow of dreams: “the images range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The mind is not permitted to rest with its normal evaluations, but is continually insulted and shocked out of the assurance that now, at last, it has understood” (231).
Seven Soldiers exists firmly within the DC Universe, but is distinct from other major storylines in that all of the characters are either unknown or revamped versions of long forgotten characters from the 1940s. Douglas Wolk says that “Seven Soldiers is deeply immersed in continuity, full of little allusions to obscure old comics. But they’re transparent allusions, designed not to be noticed at all by readers who aren’t wouldn’t catch them”(280). Characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are nowhere to be found, nor are they even mentioned. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are the three most popular characters in the DC Universe, and among the most popular of all comic book superheroes as well as being among the first superheroes ever to appear in comics. They are recognized the world over because of their appearances in other mediums, especially film and television. Collectively, they are often known in fan circles as The Big Three, and within the DC Universe itself they are often referred to as the Trinity. They are iconic and exist apart from their comic book origins and monthly stories. Jason Todd Craft, in his dissertation Fiction Networks: The Emergence of Proprietary, Persistent, Large- Scale Popular Fictions, talks about the limitations inherent in using an iconic character like Superman, saying “Superman must make progress in time to hold the attention of an existing audience, but he must also maintain stasis in time in order to remain accessible to new audiences” (101). Morrison gives the reasons behind his choice to use little-known characters, saying “I was just finishing up my long run on New X-Men, which was an interesting experience but quite restrictive because so much has been done with that concept and the fans have so many ideas about what the X-Men should and shouldn’t be. It makes it quite hard to move or innovate without offending somebody”(Morrison Suicidegirls).
The Seven Soldiers “team” consists of The Shining Knight, Klarion the Witch Boy, Frankenstein, Bulleteer, The Guardian, Mister Miracle, and Zatanna. The one aspect all of these characters have in common, apart from being largely obscure compared to other characters in the DC Universe, is that they are all reluctant heroes. All of them are broken in some way, but as their stories progress, they gradually become great. They become great by confronting their innermost fears and doubts, what Jung calls the Shadow. Betts says “the shadow is the repository of all that we find shameful or unpleasant about ourselves and we try to hide from others”(Jungian Podcast). Betts goes on to say that “[u]ntil we have come to terms with the shadow, we are at great risk of projecting the shadow onto others”(Jungian).
The first of the seven to appear is The Shining Knight, Sir Justin. Sir Justin comes from “[t]he first Arthurian Epoch, 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the 81st century BC” (v.2 39). As a character, Justin is overwhelmed by a severe case of survivor’s guilt. Sir Justin is the last survivor of the first invasion of th Sheeda. After all of Arthur’s knights and even Arthur himself had been killed by the Sheeda, Sir Justin and the winged horse Vanguard make one last attempt to attack the Sheeda queen’s castle, a massive, floating structure the size of a city that can travel through space and time. Sir Justin is then wounded and escapes through a time bubble to land in present-day Manhattan. Along with guilt, sir Justin carries a secret, which is that Justin is actually a young woman named Justina who disguised her sex in order to join the knights of Camelot. Jung says that “in the unconscious of every man there is a hidden feminine personality, and in that of every woman a masculine personality”(Jung 284).
With Justina, Morrison seems to be playing with both reader expectations and the masculine and feminine archetypes, which Jung calls the “Animus” and “Anima”(284) respectively. Justina is not revealed to be a woman until the final issue of her miniseries, when she confronts Gloriana Tenebrae, the Sheeda queen, and a twisted malevolent version of Galahad, the knight she loved. The Sheeda queen remarks, “our little knight is not what he seems. Blood. I smell the blood of a womb”(v.2 112). The reader discovers the truth about Justina at the same moment as Gloriana. Up until the truth is revealed, Justina is portrayed as a young, is somewhat effeminate young man. Once the truth is revealed, Justina is seen for who she truly is, both a strong, proud young woman and the last Knight of Camelot.
Justina’s shadow is the guilt she feels for being the last surviving member of her era. In issue #1, she is wounded when she confronts Gloriana Tenebrae, and it is only through the aid of her horse Vanguard that she is able to escape, by diving through a liquid “that flows through time itself”(v.1 62). She escapes one invasion of the Sheeda and finds herself at the beginning of another. Justina’s Shadow is the guilt she feels from believing she abandoned her fellow knights. Her shadow manifests itself as an actual shadow of sorts, a monstrous creature called Guilt, “a Sheeda Mood 7 Mind destroyer” (v.1 152).Guilt comes very close to destroying Justina, but she regains her self-confidence and pledges once again to destroy the Sheeda. In the final issue of the story, Seven Soldiers #1, Justina appears inside Castle Revolving and stabs the Sheeda Queen through the chest with Calibern, Arthur’s sword.
Klarion the Witch Boy is one of three Seven Soldiers characters to have been originally created by Jack Kirby, a man Morrison refers to in his introduction to volume one of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus as “the greatest writer/artist the comics have ever produced” (7). Klarion first appeared in Kirby’s The Demon #3 in 1973. Unlike Kirby’s original version, who was from a place called Witch World, Morrison’s revamped Klarion is descended from the lost colony from Roanoke Island who, in an effort to escape a minor Sheeda invasion, moved deep into caverns under New York City, and established a new colony called Limbo Town. Now, centuries later, their descendants spend their time resurrecting their dead as slave labor and worshiping a Witch-God called Croatoan. Klarion decides that he wants no part of that life and leaves for the surface world, along with his cat Teekl.
Klarion is a perfect representation of the trickster archetype. Jung says that common trickster characteristics include “his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and—last but not least—his approximation to the figure of a saviour” (Jung 255). All of these apply to Klarion who is seen by the elders of his community as possessing “a mocking tone”(v.1 128). Like the others of his race, and like many comic book superheroes, Klarion has a close relationship with an animal familiar, his cat Teekl; a familiar from which he can draw great power. At one point in his story, in an effort to fend off invaders to his home, Klarion uses magic to bond with Teekl to become a demon called the Horigal. This connection to an animal is important both for the strength it gives as well as its power as a symbol.
After leaving his dark cavernous home, Klarion has a few adventures in the surface world (Manhattan), Klarion is taken in by Mr. Melmoth, a Fagin-like character who runs a gang of child thieves. Melmoth is actually the one-time King of the Sheeda who, after being banished by Gloriana hundreds of years ago, invaded the Roanoke colony and impregnated most of the women. As a result, all of the residents of Limbo Town are now all partly Sheeda, and Melmoth desires to take over Limbo Town. Once Klarion discovers Melmoth’s intent, he reluctantly returns to Limbo Town to warn them. The witch-folk however, decide to burn Klarion at the stake as a heretic. When Melmoth and a group of soldiers reach Limbo Town and attempt to take over, Klarion is freed and he and Teekl go deep into a secret temple to learn the secrets of the Submissionaries, the clerics who, in the past protected Limbo Town. Klarion then becomes bonded with Teekl and transformed into a demon called The Horigal and destroys Melmoth’s soldiers, while Melmoth, who is immortal, escapes only to appear in the pages of Frankenstein.
The Horigal seems to be a manifestation of Klarion’s Shadow, in that it is a pure representation of authority in Limbo Town, a place that Klarion has always despised. Now though, he finds himself in the position of highest authority in Limbo Town. For a brief moment, Klarion seems to revel in giving in to his Shadow, but soon it becomes unbearable. Von Franz says “[w]hen an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in other people (174). In the end, Klarion is able to overcome his Shadow with the aid of his mother who tells him “the witch women know secrets the men never learn”(v.3 21). Klarion’s trial with his Shadow prepares him for the next stage of his journey. When Klarion’s mother asks him if he will stay in Limbo Town and become the Submissionary, Klarion Replies “I would like to see many things before I die. Today…I shall be a soldier”(v.3 23).
Like so many other Superheroes throughout the history of the medium, for example Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Atom, The Flash, and many others, Frankenstein is a product of science. In fact, Morrison’s Frankenstein, being an interpretation of Mary Shelly’s creature, is the foundation of the archetype representing the consequences of unrestrained science. In Seven Soldiers, Frankenstein, who in issue three explains that he took on his “father’s” name because “I was his great work, I will bear his signature into the future where it may perhaps be honored”(v.4 95), moves with a single purpose: to destroy Melmoth, his enemy for centuries.
Frankenstein, like Melmoth, is immortal. In fact, Frankenstein’s immortality comes from having some of Melmoth’s blood running in his veins. Melmoth tells Frankenstein that in 1816, he gave some of his blood to young Dr. Frankenstein in exchange for some scientific secrets (v.4 24). Being immortal, Frankenstein has no fear of death, however, he knows that he is a creature of science, but at the same time, he is also a sentient being possessing free will. Frankenstein seems to hold his will sacred and fears losing it. Frankenstein’s Shadow then is related to the loss of will, and being nothing more than an object. For a brief moment, in his final confrontation with Melmoth, Frankenstein loses his will and falls under Melmoth’s control. Frankenstein is able to regain control of himself with the aid of one of Melmoth’s slave workers and he then disposes of Melmoth once and for all, in a fairly grim fashion. In Seven Soldiers #1, Frankenstein’s will is again overcome, this time at the hands of Klarion, who, like Frankenstein has a blood connection to Melmoth. Unlike Klarion who emerges from his confrontation with his shadow a stronger person, Frankenstein is a victim of his Shadow.
Like Frankenstein, Alix Harower, AKA The Bulleteer, is the victim of a science experiment. Alix, however is also a victim of anima projection on the part of her husband Lance, a scientist who is trying to develop new metal alloys that act like skin. Lance, secretly desires for he and his wife to become a superheroes. For him, being a superhero is is the key to immortality and fortune, “I just worry about growing old before we’re…well, famous…youth doesn’t last forever unless you’re a superhero”(v.3 80) For him, being a superhero is also a sexual fetish. He spends long hours in his basement laboratory chatting on a superhero porn site called “Eternal Superteens.” Alix’s husband becomes so consumed with the idea of being a superhero that he injects himself with the smartskin alloy. Alix sees what he has done and tries to help him, but he dies. Alix is saved when doctors are able to remove her wedding ring and inject stabilizing chemicals into her bloodstream. The result is that she is now covered head to toe in an indestructible metal alloy. Talking with a therapist, Alix remarks that her condition makes it impossible to continue with her job, which is a teacher for autistic children. Soon after, she contemplates suicide, but being that she is indestructible, she is unable to kill herself. Instead, Alix finds herself in the position of saving people who are in a fiery train wreck. Accepting her situation, Alix puts on a skimpy costume, most likely purchased by her husband, and looks into the mirror and says “you got what you wanted, Lance”(v.3 91).
The Bulleteer miniseries is all about projection. Lance projects his anima, which takes the form of an eternally youthful super powered goddess, onto his wife, literally. Alix, however accepts her role, but decides to make it her own. At the end of her series, Alix confronts Sally Sonic, the woman who runs the “Eternal Superteens” site. Sally too is a victim of projection. As a teenager growing up in Britain, she discovered that she cannot grow any older, nor can she be hurt. She takes up with a shady former wartime superhero who ends up convincing her to star in a series of pornographic movies. Her degrading experiences destroy Sally’s spirit and she ends up creating the “Eternal Superteens” site, where she met Alix’s husband Lance and encouraged all of his superhero fantasies. Sally attacks and wounds Alix, but Alix finally subdues her and, feeling both pity and a certain level of kinship with her, takes Sally to a hospital.
Mister Miracle is another character originally created by Jack Kirby. The original Mister Miracle was part of Kirby’s Fourth World mythology that he created during his tenure at DC Comics in the mid-1970s. Mark Evanier, in his book Kirby: King of Comics, describes Kirby’s vision for his Fourth World:
He imagined up a new order of gods. A second generation to the kind he’d left behind in the Thor comic. In this new mythology, they dwelled on a planet that had split asunder. Thereafter, the good ones lived (or left for earth from) a world called New Genesis. The bad ones inhabited the dank and foreboding Apokolips, the domain of an intergalactic Hitler known as Darkseid. (172)
Kirby’s original version of Mister Miracle was a New Genesis god named Scott Free who takes up residence on earth and divides his time between fighting the forces of evil and performing as an escape artist. In Mister Miracle #15 from 1973, Scott Free takes on an apprentice, a young teen named Shilo Norman, and it is Shilo Norman who Morrison uses as Mister Miracle in Seven Soldiers.
Morrison’s Mister Miracle is a story of transformation and rebirth. Jung says of rebirth that it “is an affirmation that must be counted among the primordial affirmations of mankind. These primordial affirmations are based on what I call archetypes”(116). Jung goes on to say that rebirth and transformations occur when “the individual undergoes an indirect transformation through his participation in the fate of the god”(128). In that regard, Mister Miracle is a thorough illustration of the archetypal initiation as described by Jung. Issue #1 opens with Shilo about to perform his newest stunt, escaping from the gravitational pull of an artificial black hole. Shilo instead ends up in the event horizon of the black hole where he meets Metron, one of the gods of New Genesis. Metron tells Shilo “we are absolute meaning! We are ultimate being! But we are lost. We need you” (v.3 30). Metron then goes on to show Shilo a series of images explaining what has happened to him and the other New Gods: “there was a war in heaven. The wrong side one. The dark side won”(v.3 33). Shilo then frees himself from the black hole and discovers that the New Gods, both the good gods from New Genesis and the evil gods from Apokolips, are now on earth and have taken on human form. Darkseid, the leader of the gods from Apokolips wants Shilo Norman because he is the only human who can control the Anti-Life Equation, mathematical proof of the futility of existence: weaponized mathematics. When anyone comes into contact with the Anti-Life Equation, it acts on the mind like a meme and destroys all free will. Shilo is unique in that his mind can transmute the Anti-Life Equation into the Life Equation, a meme that completely frees the mind of anyone who comes into contact with it. Darkseid captures Shilo and attacks him with the Omega Sanction, a god-weapon that causes someone to live out an infinite number of alternate lives, where “each new existence is more degraded than the last. More hopeless. More meaningless. Neverending” (v.4 118). One of the lives that Shilo experiences while trapped in the Omega Sanction is that of a guard at a prison for superhumans where he meets a demigod named Aurakles, who is about to be executed. Shilo agrees to trade his life for the life of Aurakles. Carl Jung speaks of this idea of death and resurrection of gods as a reflection of humanity’s desire to evolve and change, saying: “the connection between the suprapersonal or collective unconscious means an extension of man beyond himself; it means death for his personal being and a rebirth in a new dimension…It is certainly true that without the sacrifice of man as he is, man as he was—and always will be—cannot be attained” (Segal 103). Shilo then comes into contact with the Omega Sanction entity and recognizes that the entity, because it also has to live out an infinite number of existences, is suffering as well. Shilo says “I gave my life over to representing something that’s in all of us. So whatever’s holding you down, wherever you are, however hard it seems…How about you and me escaping together?”(v.4 122), and both escape from the control of Darkseid.
In Seven Soldiers #1, Shilo once again confronts Darkseid who has made a bargain with the Sheeda, he will give them his assistance in destroying the earth in exchange for the man-god Aurakles, the first superhero in human existence and the first to ever take on the Sheeda. Just like in the Omega Sanction, Shilo offers his life in exchange for Aurakles, which Darkseid happily accepts, because “It was you we wanted all along: master of the life equation, avatar of freedom”(v.4 206). Shilo’s sacrifice allows Aurakles to complete his mission and destroy the menace of the Sheeda. Sacrifice is something expected of all heroes. So often the ultimate sacrifice, death, is called upon for a story, but true heroes hardly ever stay dead. Occasionally a hero will die and pass their legacy on to another, but more often than not, the hero simply rises from the dead and continues fighting. Shilo Norman inherited the name of Mr. Miracle, and in his story he makes the ultimate sacrifice for the good of humanity, only to rise again in the last page of the story, because that is what heroes do.
The Guardian is the third character originally created by Jack Kirby. The Guardian first appeared in Star Spangled Comics #7 in 1942. In Kirby’s original incarnation, the Guardian was a policeman named Jim Harper who fought crime with the help of a group of kids called The Newsboy Legion. For Seven Soldiers, Morrison takes the basic concept of the Guardian and changes it into a marketable brand that has been recently bought by a newspaper publisher called The Manhattan Guardian, whose masthead reads “we don’t just report crime, we fight crime!”(v.1 88). The paper wants their own in-house superhero to become “a living masthead, a breathing embodiment of the Guardian creed”(v.1 87). The Manhattan Guardian chooses as their new hero Jake Jordan, an ex-cop who once shot a boy by mistake. Like The Shining Knight, Jake Jordan is consumed by guilt. His father-in-law remarks that Jake “just needs his self-respect back”(v.1 78) and introduces him to the Guardian job ad. Although Jake is a man haunted by the actions of his past, once he accepts the role of the Guardian, he works tirelessly toward redemption and gradually gains back his self-respect.
Unlike the other characters, whose actions all result in the defeat of the Sheeda, Jake Jordan’s importance to the Seven Soldiers storyline is more metatextual. As a character, he serves no real purpose in ending the Sheeda invasion, yet his role in the story is indispensable. Jordan’s role is that of legacy, history and memory. Jake is a trope in the way that Klock uses the term which is “an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (12) which is largely unique to DC Comics: the idea of a character inheriting the mantle, taking on the identity of an older hero. This goes back to the 1950s and the birth of what is often known as the Silver Age of comics, where writers and artists took old characters from the 1940s like Green Lantern and Flash and updated them into the forms that are most widely known today. Jake Jordan, with his alliterative Silver Age name and Kirby costume is in fact the Guardian of the DC Comics legacy.
Like the first Guardian, Jake finds himself allied with a group of child heroes, after a fashion, called the Newsboy Army. The Newsboy Army exists as a trope of child heroes as well as the innocent and light-hearted comics of the 1950s and 60s. The owner of the Manhattan Guardian Newspaper is Ed Stargard, a one-time child hero who went by the name Baby Brain, and was the leader of the Newsboy Army. Ed is gifted with a genius intellect, but is permanently the size of an infant. In issue #4, Jake meets Ed face to face for the first time, and Ed tells Jake the story about the first time his Newsboy Army met the Sheeda as well as the character known as the renegade eighth Time Tailor.
In Seven Soldiers #0, Morrison introduces the characters known as the Terrible Time Tailors, of which there are seven. The Terrible Time Tailors exist as fictional representations of comic book writers and editors who measure, cut and refit both time lines and characters. Ed tells Jake that after a few years of adventures, the Newsboy Army were set to grow up and move on with their lives. They decide to go on one last adventure in order to investigate the Sheeda threat. While inside a cabin in a place called “Slaughter Swamp,” a place described earlier in Seven Soldiers #0 as being “one of those in-between places, where solid things turn soft and change”(v.1 10), the Newsboy Army confronts the renegade Time Tailor who destroys the innocent Newsboy Army by making “special clothes…suits you’ll wear when you’re older”(v.2 171). These special clothes the Time Tailor makes are grim endings for the once innocent heroes: “guilt-ridden undead mass murder, faded alcoholic, homeless schizophrenic, reclusive freak, child molester/murder, and dead at 14 (v.2 171). The “clothes” reflect the dark and gritty turn that comics began taking in the 1980s and 1990s. Ed sees in Jake Jordan a chance for the hopes and ideals of the Newsboy Army to live again, and by extension, Morrison seems to be saying that even in a time when comics are often overly grim and realistic, it is possible for silver age ideals to return to the medium, that the often neglected silver age can get back its self respect.
Of the seven, the character Zatanna, a magic-user who casts spells by speaking backwards, is arguably the most powerful, both as a character and a metatextual representation. She is also the most well-known, having been a member of the Justice League for a number of years. Also, of all of the characters in Seven Soldiers, it is Zatanna who has changed the least, appearing in Morrison’s story more or less as she appeared in the pages of Hawkman #4 from 1964. In Zatanna #1, Zatanna is at a support group for heroes with low self-esteem. At the meeting she tells of her years as an assistant to her father Giovanni Zatara, a stage magician who also fought crime. After her father’s death, she continues in his footsteps as both an occasional stage magician and as a crime fighter. Her appearance at the support group is the result of being the only survivor of a group who, sensing impending danger, travel to another dimension, “a place where all human thought is remembered” (v.1 110), in an effort to retrieve her father’s lost books of magic. Her failure to save her friends results in Zatanna losing her magical abilities. Soon, Zatanna joins up with a teen aged girl named Misty who knows very little about herself, but who seems to have all of Zatanna’s magical abilities. By helping Misty discover the truth about her past and her destiny, Zatanna regains her magical abilities.
In Seven Soldiers, Zatanna is representative of the Jungian “Great Mother” archetype. Jung says that “[t]he qualities associated with it (the great mother) are maternal solicitude, and sympathy; the magic authority of the female; the wisdom and spiritual exaltation that transcend reason; any helpful instincts or impulse; all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility” (82). Zatanna’s story is one of redemption and self-forgiveness. She appears in the beginning as a once-strong woman who has lost all confidence in herself. As her story progresses, Zatanna gradually regains not only her abilities, but also her self-confidence. Zatanna’s transformation brings about two very important sequences in the story. The first happens in Zatanna #4, when she finds herself in battle against a renegade member of the Terrible Time Tailors, the same one who destroyed the Newsboy Army in the Guardian miniseries. At the climax of her battle, Zatanna sees her reality as existing within a completely separate reality, and reaches out for help, saying “If I could reach out through all this weird machinery, this scaffolding stuff that was holding all our lives together…I knew I could contact them” (v.3 62). The scaffolding and weird machinery that Zatanna sees are the gutters that exist on the page between comic panels. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, says that the gutter of a comic page “is the place where human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (66). McCloud goes on to say that “comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure (the gutters) allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality (67). Zatanna, then, sees her world as existing within the pages of a comic book. Zatanna’s perception goes even further “[t]here were eyes, tens of thousands of eyes in different times and places all converging on me”(v.3 64). She sees, for a brief moment, that her story is being seen by other beings and not all at the same time, thus showing that her universe exists within a separate space time continuum. In an interview, Morrison talks about this space time:
Continuity in comics takes the place of what we call “space time” in the real universe (or multiverse!) and is something that’s under constant revision by diverse hands across decades of duration. Comics’ time is clearly not much like real time as we know it, since none of the major characters age… And yet it’s a kind of time that exists inside our own. (Morrison Wired)
The second important result of Zatanna’s transformation occurs in Seven Soldiers #1, the final issue of the story. In the issue, Zatanna becomes the force that organizes the others when is shown reaching through the comic panel and into another plane of existence. she speaks directly to the universe and says “Awake Universe! Strike Soldiers Seven” (v.4 201). It is through not only her magic, but also her awareness of the true nature of her universe, that Zatanna is able to direct all of the other characters to appear exactly where they are supposed to be and complete their predestined tasks, stopping the Sheeda once and for all.
The Archetypal Hypertextual Universe
The universe that Morrison presents in Seven Soldiers of Victory, that of DC Comics continuity, shares a number of similarities with the cosmology that serves as the foundation of Jorge Luis Borges’s stories “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In “The Library of Babel,” first published in 1941, Borges uses an unnamed narrator to describe “the universe (which others call the library),” saying that it “is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts in between, surrounded by very low railings.”(51). The narrator goes on to say that “from any of the hexagons one can see interminably, the upper and lower floors”(51). Borges’s description of the library is not unlike that of the comic book page as seen from the outside by the reader, with enclosed, geometrical spaces connected by walls and shafts. Zatanna, being the only character in the story who, for a brief moment catches a glimpse of the architecture of her universe, is similar in certain respects to the unnamed narrator in “Library of Babel.” Bettina Knapp, in her book Archetype, Architecture and the Writer says :
The narrator in Borges’ tale is introduced and begins to recall his past youth and idealism, his ambition to increase his understanding of the world by making his way into deeper folds of the library; those archetypal architectural constructs—fronts for a hermetic level of being—for a whole universe (self). (103)
Knapp’s description of Borges’s narrator applies equally to Morrison’s story arc for Zatanna who, in the first issue, talks about the idealism she inherited from her father and then “journeys beyond the unknown…the Imaginal world, lit by a green six-sided sun”(v.1 103) in an effort to retrieve her father’s lost books of magic. At the climax of her story, Zatanna meets a spectral form of her father who tells her the truth about the four books: “the book of water is a kind heart. The book of earth is a graceful body, the book of air, a keen mind, the book of fire is strength of spirit. Do you understand? I wrote my books in you, Zatanna. You were my greatest spell, my gift to the world”(v.3 66). Zatanna ultimately learns that the entirety of her universe exists within her as well as outside of her. Morrison goes on to explore this idea further with the Infant Universe Qwewq and the Sheeda character known as Neh-Buh-Loh The Huntsman. Qwewq, the Infant Universe is a universe in the form of a cube that appears in several stories by Morrison, most notably in JLA: The Ultramarine Corps, a three-issue story that serves as a prequel to Seven Soldiers. Qwewq is described in Ultramarine Corps as being a universe “without wonder or magic” (31), a place where super powered beings exist only “in dreams, or movies comic books “(32). It follows then that Qwewq is the universe from which the DC universe originates and exists both inside the DC universe and outside, in the world that Zatanna glimpses at the end of her story.
Neh-Buh-Loh is a demonic figure whose body seems to be composed of dark matter and stars. In Frankenstein #4, Frankenstein confronts Neh-Buh-Loh and learns that he is the matured form of Qwewq. Neh-Buh-Loh then, as a sentient being composed of the universe that spawned the fictional universe of DC Comics continuity, exists as a means to provide the heroes in the DC universe with an adversary. Zatanna, however, because of her ordeal with the renegade Time Tailor learns from the other Time Tailors that they have “set seven hidden warriors in motion” (v.3 65) in an effort to combat the Sheeda. As stated above, the Time Tailors are fictional avatars of writers and editors, “we patch and we sew: we make sure the fabric of your universe is kept in good repair” (v.3 65). By telling Zatanna about the seven warriors, the Time Tailors are giving her the means to defeat the Sheeda, thus completing the story. The universe that spawned the DC universe and sets itself up as the adversary also provides the means to stop itself, at least until the next threat emerges, whatever that may be.
In Seven Soldiers, Morrison presents the eternal struggle that exists between heroes and villains as being a conflict between creators. On one side there is Neh-Bu-Loh and the Sheeda, who, as stated above, are humanity from one billion years in the future who travel back in time to devour culture, and opposing them are the heroes aided in part by the Time Tailors. Presumably, this struggle will continue for as long as comic books or at least superheroes exist. What’s more, the struggle exists independent of any time, since the story could be read as the stories were coming out or later in collected editions.
Time plays an important role in Seven Soldiers, with the past, specifically the past as it pertains to storytelling style. The Sheeda travel back to various points of earth’s past to cannibalize culture because they are unable to make their own. Most of the heroes in the book must overcome regrets over past actions before becoming true heroes. Also, Morrison presents a great deal of information to the reader by way of having characters tell stories to each other, and these stories are always concerning events in the past. Morrison also uses time as a way to show the uniqueness of comics, compared to mediums like film, especially at a time when so many comic book characters have been adapted into summer blockbusters, “comics for me have always been this really interesting model of how things might work—the way we can manipulate time on a comic page by looking at page one and moving to page 22 and then jumping back to page eight, at an earlier point in the characters’ lives” (Meaney 291). As a story, Seven Soldiers can be read either linearly or non-linearly. For example, it is possible to follow just one or two of the individual miniseries and have a complete story. The miniseries can also be read in any order with almost no change to the basic storyline. The nonlinearity of comic book storytelling in many ways is similar to the maze and book of Ts’ui Pen in Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” “The Garden of Forking Paths” is told from the perspective of Dr. Yu Tsun, a spy working on behalf of the German government who is attempting to send an important message to his superiors before he is discovered and executed. He makes his way out to a house in the country where he meets a man named Stephen Albert. Albert is the caretaker of the book and maze of Ts’ui Pen. Ts’ui Pen is a decedent of Dr. Yu Tsun, however, Yu Tsun does not hold Ts’ui Pen in high regard. When he was alive, Ts’ui Pen withdrew from his family and responsibilities to write a novel and to “construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost” (23). Ts’ui Pen was murdered before he could complete his work, and all that remained were “chaotic manuscripts” (24). Soon, Yu Tsun learns that what he originally believed to be “an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts…in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive” (24-25), is actually “[a] Labyrinth of symbols…An invisible labyrinth of time” (25). Yu Tsun discovers the truth, “[e]veryone imagined two works, to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing” (25). In The New Media Reader, Nick Montfort draws parallels between Borges’ concepts and hypertexts:
The concept Borges describes in “The Garden of Forking Paths”—in several layers of the story, but most directly in the combination book and maze of Ts’ui Pen—is that of a novel that can be read in a number of ways, a hypertext novel. Borges described this in1941, prior to the invention (or at least the public disclosure) of the electromechanical digital computer. Not only did he invent the hypertext novel— Borges then went on to describe a theory of the universe based upon the structure of such a novel. (29)
While Borges’ description of Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth does seem to presage hypertext, it is also an accurate description of Seven Soldiers, which, like Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth can be read any number of ways and can have different meanings depending on how much understanding the reader has of past comic continuity, as Wolk notes above. Morrison also incorporates elements of Borges’s concept in Shilo Norman’s ordeal with the Omega Sanction, where he lives out an infinite number of alternate lives, “[i]n all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses…all of them. He creates, in this way diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork” (Borges 26).
Both Borges and Morrison construct elaborate and intricate worlds that exist within the confines of standard genre stories. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is ostensibly a spy story that becomes about the discovery of a map of the universe and Seven Soldiers of Victory is an exploration into the complexities and potentials that exist within comic books that uses comic book continuity as a metaphor for the universe in the guise of a standard superhero “team-up” book. Borges and Morrison act as both architects and explorers of the intricate worlds they create. They concern themselves with setting up and then exploring fictional universes and the physics and metaphysics that make up these universes. Knapp says of Borges that “it is through his writings that he shapes his personalities, establishes his situations and identities, constructs edifices and objects that he can view and penetrate with his inner eye” (112). Both writers draw upon esoteric and occult elements to give their work depth and perhaps to connect with readers on a deeper level. Knapp talks about Borges’s fascination with the Kabbalah, saying “Borges was drawn to Kabbalah because of its symbolic and analogical approach to words, letters, and numbers”(Knapp 104). Morrison, in interview with Publishers Weekly, talks about his ideas on the relationship between magic and comics:
Comics specifically seem quite magical to me—in the sense that they are directly drawn onto paper. They relate back to the very first drawings that people did on cave walls, and people believe now that those things were meant to be magical, that by drawing and creating a model of the bison, you could affect what happened to the real bison. Your hunt would be more successful the next day. So the idea of drawing and creating representations is the very first notion that we had of magic, that you could make an image of something and affect the image and, in turn, affect the reality of the thing…So that idea of representation, I think, is the first magical idea and comics is very close to that. (Morrison, Publishers Weekly)
Like Borges, Morrison seems to believe strongly in the significance of images and symbols. Perhaps then, these hypertextual universes are meant to be symbolic, archetypal. Knapp says of the galleries in “The Library of Babel,” that they “represent a union of contraries, a totality, a microcosm of the macrocosm” (107). With regard to his own work, Morrison says “I’ve been trying to make superhero comics which draw attention to that aspect of participation and collusion between character, creator and reader”(Morrison Wired). With Seven Soldiers, Morrison is showing that the fictional universe that exists within the pages of a comic is in some ways as real or perhaps even more real than than the real world. In the book Our Sentence Is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, Morrison talks about this
what’s really interesting is the fact that these long universes…Marvel 40, DC 70. They have a weight and reality of their own, which is bigger than mine. As I said, I wasn’t alive when Superman was having his first adventures. I’ll be dead and he’ll still be having adventures, so there’s a certain element of that continuum we’ve created which is more real than the one we live in. (Meaney 291)
Knapp also remarks on Borges’ ability to challenge his readers by blurring the lines between fiction and reality: “[w]hat (readers) believe to be their reality is being progressively effaced and undermined by Borges, the psychopomp who takes them into forbidden territories where all rests on quicksand and speculation” (Knapp 101).
The concept of an archetypal universe is not new. It is an idea that goes back thousands of years, to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and perhaps even earlier. In Seven Soldiers of Victory, Morrison, like Borges before him, designs and constructs an elaborate universe, an archetypal reality. He then then populates this reality with strong archetypal characters with whom readers can easily identify and understand, regardless of whether or not they have had any prior exposure to these characters, in order to shape a kind of hyperreality. This hyperreality exists to draw attention to the relationship that exists between fiction and reality and to question preconceived notions on the part of his readers about what “reality” means. The worlds that Morrison creates could be called “HyperWorlds” (33), to borrow a term from John Tiffin. A HyperWorld, according to Tiffin, “is not only one where what is real and what is virtual interact, it is where human intelligence meets artificial intelligence” (33). For Morrison, the human intelligence is the reader and the artificial intelligence relates to the characters as well as the story continuity. Tiffin also says that a HyperWorld blurs the line between what is ‘real’ and what is virtual and make it appear ‘natural’” (31). Morrison sees the archetypal characters he writes as being something more than two-dimensional constructs: “[i]magine being possessed by a meme that uses writers and artists to sustain its existence before moving into the next host, the next generation!”(Morrison Wired).
In the twenty-first century, where online role-playing games transport players to fantastic and immersive realms, giving them the chance to take on any number of villainous or heroic personalities, and films are no longer confined to the two dimensions of the screen, Morrison, with Seven Soldiers of Victory along with his numerous other writing projects, is showing that the medium of comic books also has the potential to challenge readers, forcing them to ask questions about their own perceptions while at the same time enjoying a fast-paced action packed adventure where good ultimately triumphs over evil. What sets Seven Soldiers of Victory apart from other comic book stories is that this triumph comes not though physical strength, but rather through hyper-awareness and understanding.
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That thesis sounds awesome by the way.
Thank you very much. I really enjoyed your article on Frankenstein and shouldn’t have waited so long to say so.
Really? I kind of feel like it’s a baby book compared to something of this scope and depth.
Thank you though.