Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The DC Morrisonverse Part 1: Seven Against Gravity

I'm sorry it's been a little while between posts here. I tried to write a post reviewing last week's comics, but junked it - I had nothing to say about most of them that wasn't just surface-level stuff, with the exception of Batman, and I want to wait until next issue before discussing that.

What I would like to do, though, is discuss Grant Morrison's DC Universe work.

Morrison is almost unique in his generation of comic writers (those who started in the late 70s and came to prominence in the mid-late 80s) in that almost all his significant work has been done in mainstream superhero comics. Morrison has been hugely prolific, of course, and worked in a variety of genres and for a variety of publishers, but while, say, Alan Moore has done almost all of his important work outside of the shared superhero universes, Neil Gaiman found his own little corner of the DCU and played there without interacting with the rest, and Dave Sim wrote his own indie comic and never ventured into the shared-universe arena at all, Morrison has produced a staggering amount of major work planted firmly in the mainstream DC (and to a lesser extent Marvel) superhero universe. If you read only Animal Man, Doom Patrol, JLA, Arkham Asylum, All-Star Superman, New X-Men and Seven Soldiers, and never read another word Morrison wrote, you'd have a fair idea of his strengths, weaknesses and preoccupation as a writer. Read The DC Universe Stories Of Alan Moore and Swamp Thing and you'll certainly be impressed, but you'd have no idea why their writer was considered the finest ever to work in the medium.

While this has caused any number of problems with Morrison's work - too much of his work shows the signs of editorial edict, and he has often been forced to work with unsympathetic collaborators - it has advantages. Working in what we laughingly call the mainstream means that Morrison has been able to expose a large proportion of the comics readership to his ideas in a form that makes them palatable. Morrison, for example, said that his run on JLA was intended as a 'Cliffs Notes' version of his creator-owned magnum opus The Invisibles, the action and concepts in the two comics often paralleling each other closely. (Personally I use them the other way round, finding the storytelling of Steve Parkhouse, Frank Quitely, Steve Yeowell, Phil Jiminez, Cameron Stewart et al much easier to follow than Howard Porter's Image-isms).

This also means that, at least to a greater extent than his peers, he is regarded as a 'good company man' and is given the keys to the company's most important intellectual properties on occasion. This is particularly true at the moment - Morrison is writing both Superman and Batman, and is in charge of two major crossovers (which will probably tie into each other) - this year's Death Of Ra's Al-Ghul running through all the Batman titles, and next year's Final Crisis (to which the whole DCU is patiently counting down).

Given that Morrison will effectively be guiding DC comics for much of next year, I think it could be valuable to look over some of his earlier ventures into the DCU and see what, if anything, we can glean from them.

To start with, I'd like to do a few posts about Seven Soldiers. I wrote quite a bit about this series when it first came out (some of you reading this will have read those posts) , and it's been talked about by some of the most intelligent commentators in comics criticism - Jog and Marc Singer in particular have done an extraordinary job of covering the themes in the series, and the annotations at Barbelith are absolutely essential. I also strongly suspect that Douglas Wolk's coverage in his book (which I have on order at the moment) will have much of interest to say.

I have no hope of bettering what those excellent writers have already said on the topic, but what I find fascinating about Seven Soldiers, and what I hope to show over the next few days (I've got a few days off work and some important procrastinating to do, so I expect to write several posts) is that no matter how much you write on the subject there's always more to tease out of it. Morrison's writing is hugely dense, with allusions to folklore, mathematics, physics, superhero comics, occultism and, for all I know, Belgian clog-dancing, and at times the writing in Seven Soldiers reaches that Finnegans Wake-esque state where there are so many references and allusions that connections that almost certainly weren't intended by the author become apparent.

I'm going to deal with those connections, and more, over the next few days, but in this post I want to focus on a theme that appears to have been ignored by most commentators on the series - gravity. (This will come back into play when I finally get around to writing about All Star Superman).

A lot of commentators on Seven Soldiers have mentioned the parallels with Newton's theories of colours that can be found in the comic, but something I found quite interesting is the role of gravity in the series.

The very first speech bubble in JLA: Classified #1 reads "F= γ(m1m2/r^2)" (allowing for my inability to represent formulae in HTML. This is also repeated as a thought bubble in Frankenstein #1 . Anyone who's studied any physics at all will recognise this as the formula for gravitational attraction.

Now, there could be several reasons for the prominence of this equation (which, as far as I know, has not been picked up by any other commentators on the series, which is why I'm leading off my analysis with it). It could be to make oblique reference to Newton, whose obsession with the number seven is well known (the reason why we differentiate between indigo and violet when looking at a rainbow, despite the two colours being almost identical, is so there would be seven colours to fit in with Newton's numerological ideas).

It could also be because Newton's ideas about gravity stemmed from Newton's occult investigations - the whole concept of forces acting at a distance is one that comes from Newton's magical beliefs.

But I suspect there's a deeper meaning. Gravity is referenced in many places in the story, but most prominently in Mister Miracle. On the first page of this mini we are told "nothing can escape the deadly gravitational pull of a black hole!" and asked "Can he cheat gravity itself and free himself from the crushing oblivion inside black hole X?!?"

The latter is, of course, the main question in the whole Mister Miracle miniseries. Gravity here is the life trap, a crushing force that we have to fight or die, a force that should by rights overwhelm us. In fact, much of the Seven Soldiers story involves the characters in orbit, sucked in by the gravitational pull of 'black holes' - absences (the missing god of the witch-people, the missing eighth soldier, Zatanna and Klarion's absent fathers) and occasionally pulled in by each other's force before swinging off in their own directions, their orbits perturbed by the presence of characters of whose existence they are unaware.

But I think there's a deeper meaning to gravity here. Much as Morrison used JLA to explain The Invisibles by paralleling it, I think gravity - a natural force against which our heroes have to fight - is being used for its resonance with a lesser-known concept in physics, one that I think is the theme - or at least one of the overriding themes - of the story.

I'm referring of course to entropy, and that shall be the topic of my next post.


No Radio said...

Good opening gambit. I had a lingering idea that there was something in Seven Soldiers of the sort of Derridean center, the thing that structures the rules for everything around it but doesn't participate in those rules, but never went back to really dig into it. Gravity's always seemed to me the physics analog of the same. It fascinated me partly because of the recurrence of benevolent/malevolent superstructural points in Grant's stuff (Barbelith, Solaris, Castle Revolving), which are all fairly analogous to the idea of the defining and non-participatory center (Barbelith sets up and is the point of contention for the forces of order/chaos but is neither ordered nor chaotic for example). Likewise, gravity bends/defines time and space but is neither definably spatial or temporal. Also interesting since, as you say, Morrison chooses to work within the structures of the Big Two's universes rather than setting up his own. Morrison uses this device obliquely in the earlies Doom Patrol storyline, destroying a universe by pointing out the logical flaw that allows that universe to exist.

Wow, just let my inner theory-nerd out for a bit. All caffeine and no sleep will do that.

Anonymous said...

Just out of interest, who were the unsympathetic collaborators that worked with Morrisson?

Andrew Hickey said...

Well, I know that several pages of The Invisibles were redrawn for the trades because the original art was felt by Morrison to be inappropriate.

There've been a few other cases, but I'd rather not single people out - it's in the nature of corporate comics that incompatible writer/artist combinations work together on occasion, and that isn't the fault of either party...

plok said...

Gravity, right! Can't believe I missed that, nice catch. And, you've got my attention for sure, now.