Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume One

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Seven Soldiers of Victory Volume One (DC, 2010)

When DC first announced Seven Soldiers of Victory, a proclaimed "mega-series" written by Grant Morrison, I was equally excited and skeptical. The superhero publishers often promise that their big crossover epics will be both self-contained and understandable, and they invariably disappoint. The notion here was that, over thirty (!) chapters, Morrison would tell an intricate, interweaving story across seven 4-issue miniseries and a pair of bookend specials. The plan was that readers who only wished to try out one or a couple of the miniseries could have a fully-told experience with no loose ends or confusion, but readers who bought all thirty chapters would have a really amazing read, seeing plot strands from the various stories weave in and out of each other.

There was very little reason to think that this could work. Even accepting that this was Morrison, writer of most of the best superhero titles of the last twenty years, DC Comics just isn't set up to succeed on this level. Whether through poor editorial control or last-minute artist swaps or unannounced tie-ins forcing readers to buy extra comics just to understand what the heck is happening in the funnybooks they've already paid for, this publisher repeatedly drops the ball. Morrison was the architect for just about the only line-wide crossover that I can remember ever enjoying, the high-concept One Million, and DC couldn't even compile a collected edition of it without leaving out a chapter necessary to understand the story's epilogue.

So it was both a relief and an absolute shock to watch Seven Soldiers unfold and it turn out to be one of Morrison's five or six best stories, ever. It's amazing, wild and wonderful, and I find more fantastic connections and hidden treasures each time I read it.

The story takes its title from a 1940s DC trademark, in which seven wartime costumed heroes would beat up Nazis and protect the homefront from spies and saboteurs and fifth columnists. Over time, nostalgia-minded writers and editors would revisit the concept - Geoff Johns seemed particularly interested in it - revising the lineup and the details to fit the ongoing DC continuity.

In the one-off issue that kickstarts the epic, one of the aging, surviving Soldiers assembles a new team of seven wannabes to revisit an old case that his fellows had tackled in the '40s. (There's some comic book hocus-pocus explaining how said Soldier isn't well past "aging" and into "ninety-some years old," but don't worry about it.) This new team of Seven Soldiers meets a spectacular, unbelievable end at the hands of a brutal and amazing foe, a timejumping race of extradimensional insect-riders called the Sheeda. It's a terrific issue, illustrated by J.H. Williams, which does a great job setting up a new group of engaging and entertaining characters as the heroes and then one-ups them with the half-seen, stunning villains of the piece. Somewhere, there's an alternate universe where Morrison has been writing Doctor Who and using the Sheeda as the villains there and the whole planet is enthralled.

So, humanity's salvation comes down to a new team of Seven Soldiers, who (a) do not know that there is a mutual threat against civilization and (b) do not know that they are a team and (c) do not meet each other. Morrison's new Seven Soldiers are a mix of new characters who take the names of older DC properties, revamped versions of older characters and, at least in the case of the stage magician Zatanna, slightly new takes on existing continuity. Each gets a four-issue miniseries to tell their tale.

This new hardback collection of the first half of the epic reprints the Shining Knight and Guardian stories in full (illustrated by Simone Bianchi and by Cameron Stewart), as well as most of the Zatanna and Klarion stories (drawn by Ryan Sook and by the awesome Frazer Irving), along with the one-off introduction. It's incredibly fun. I had always reread each miniseries on its own between the bookends, but coming to them in staggered order like they are printed here reveals patterns and repeated memes between the adventures, tying things together masterfully. Zatanna and her apprentice visit the scene of a battle staged in the Shining Knight's adventure, and meet a man who is referred to in the Guardian's tale, which literally crosses paths with Klarion's during a chase scene on a New York subway line. This is perhaps my fifth time reading it, and I'm still finding new details that I'd missed before.

This is the third publication of the story, which originally ran as thirty single issues published in 2005. There was a four-volume trade paperback collection in 2006-07, which, in a rare attack of common sense, your favorite Hipster Dad did not purchase, and now this very nice hardcover. DC chose an unfortunately thin paper stock, but it's otherwise a nice-looking book, with a small section of design sketches rounding out the fifteen chapters. It's great fun, and ranks between All-Star Superman and New X Men as my pick for Morrison's most engaging and wild work of the last decade. Of course it is highly recommended, but now the next question is whether to dig out the next fifteen issues from their comic box, or wait until the second hardcover is released later in the year. Decisions, decisions.

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