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31 Days of Seven Soldiers, Day 1 – JLA Classified #1-3

Perhaps because I am insane, I thought I would try to break down each issue of Seven Soldiers, the recently-completed epic that has already been broken down in every corner of the blogaxy.  As December has 31 days, and there are 30 issues of SS, plus the prologue, what better time than now?  It’s not like I have any other pressing issues, right?  I mean, the kids are old enough to raise themselves.  Why should I have any responsibility for them past their first year, right?

I’m not sure what form these reviews will take.  I thought about doing annotations for each issue, but other, smarter people than I have already done it, so unless something really strikes my fancy, I’ll leave that be.  As for actually reviewing these, well, like I said, others have done it, and probably better, and if you haven’t already bought these, you’re probably not going to and nothing I say will change your mind.  But I do want to look at what this epic means, in both the context of simply existing as a story and in the context of the DC Universe, as well as how the issues relate to each other.  And that’s something we can all get behind, right?

I will say that I was ultimately a bit disappointed with the epic, but not enough to say it was a failure.  But that’s down the line a bit.  So if you’re sick of Morrison and all things related to him, you can just skip these posts.  That’s fine and dandy!  Oh, and there will be SPOILERS, naturally.  You should have already read these issues!

JLA Classified #1-3 forms the prologue to the entire saga.  In terms of story, it’s much better than the Seven Soldiers saga proper.  Morrison is extremely good at short, punchy stories with lots of crazy ideas that sound impressive, although occasionally it’s best not to think about them too much.  In this story, he gives us a lot of stuff to chew on, many of it mirroring the themes he will deal with in Seven Soldiers.

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The story begins with the International Ultramarine Corps, created by Morrison back in his JLA days, taking on Gorilla Grodd and his army of apes, who have destroyed Kinshasa and generally done lots of nasty things.  It turns out that Grodd’s entire swath of destruction was a plot to trap the Ultramarines for his ally, a strange creature called Neh-buh-loh, who springs from an infant universe to fill the form of the Master, perhaps the most powerful member of the group.  Grodd and Neh-buh-loh defeat the Ultramarines, but one of them – the Squire, a sidekick to the Knight – escapes and contacts Batman.  Batman, unfortunately, is the only member of the JLA still around, and he enlists the Squire to contact the rest of the Justice League, who are trapped … in an infant universe called Qwewq.  It is never quite explained how Neh-buh-loh could spring from the same infant universe as is currently at the JLA outpost on Pluto, which is where Qwewq sits.  I presume it has something to do with time travel, and that makes my head hurt.  Meanwhile, Batman goes after Grodd with robot versions of the JLA.  This doesn’t work out as well as he would have liked, but it’s just a delaying tactic anyway.  The Ultramarines who survived the initial assault have hidden away, but the Master is with them, and he is possessed by a spine rider of the Sheeda (more on them later, obviously, as they are the main villains of the epic), who control his central nervous system.  He convinces them to submit, and they become pawns of Neh-buh-loh and Grodd.  In the infant universe, meanwhile, the JLA is tracking Black Death, a supervillain who has led them to an Earth without superheroes, a place where they can’t reveal themselves as who they are.  The Squire finally makes contact with them, and they manage to get back to their dimension.  They save the day, naturally, and Neh-buh-loh makes some enigmatic statements before vanishing, and the Superman banishes the Ultramarines to the infant universe they just left in order to bring some justice to it.  So everything works out in the end.

Story continues below

It’s fairly interesting to read this mini-epic, as Morrison brings in many of the themes he’s worked with over the years and will bring into full force during Seven Soldiers.  The Ultramarines have far more members than seven, but in the initial attack, they use seven members – Warmaker One, the Knight, the Squire, Jack O’Lantern, Goraiko, Glob, and the Master.  The Justice League, of course, also has seven members – the seven members of the DC Pantheon, something I’ve mentioned before but don’t feel like going into here.  As archetypal as the Justice League is, the Ultramarines have a distinct “modern” feel to them – updated versions of the classics who don’t mind killing to get the job done.  In fact, Superman implies that it’s this willingness to kill that allows the Sheeda to possess them, although there’s no evidence of that in the book.  In the second issue (page 22) Neh-buh-loh says, “I come to strike down the seven; bred to hunt and kill supermen.”  He is searching for groups of seven, but neither the Ultramarines nor the JLA are the ones he is looking for.  We will have to wait for Seven Soldiers to begin to find out who the seven actually are.

Grodd’s plan is interesting, as well.  He wants to destroy human civilization and build his own empire on the ashes.  This is Grodd’s typical modus operandi, but here it takes on more significance, as it ties in closely with the plan of the Sheeda.  The Sheeda, as we’ll see, want to plunder civilization to sate their own yearning, while Grodd simply wants to destroy it, but it’s still something that foreshadows the main saga.  Of course, this is a standard theme in superhero comics, so we shouldn’t read too much into it, but it’s something to consider.

Another theme that comes up in these three issues and will come up again in Seven Soldiers is the idea of living up to a legacy, whether it’s a father figure who the heroes need to live up to or something tied into the larger DCU.  Beryl Hutchinson, the Squire, signifies the first kind of legacy – she is the Knight’s protégé, so of course she looks up to him as a father figure, but once she escapes, she finds Batman, who is father figure to both Beryl and Cyril, the Knight himself.  A teen sidekick is an archaic notion in comics, of course, but writers can use this archetype to examine the adolescence inherent in superhero comics.  Beryl, in this story, becomes the wide-eyed neophyte who is experiencing the glory and terror of superheroes for the first time, and is, in essence, our stand-in.  She manages to get Batman to tell a joke, and she keeps up with him to the extent that he trusts her to stay with the infant universe and attempt to contact the JLA while he fights Grodd with his robots.  Beryl is singled out by Superman at the end of the arc for her bravery in, well, running away.  But you know what he means!  The hierarchy in the DCU has been emphasized in recent years, with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman sitting on the top, but the rest of the Justice League – Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter – just a notch below.  Moving beyond Beryl’s need for approval, Morrison shows us the junior heroes failing in the eyes of the senior heroes and “paying” for their crimes by being given another opportunity.  This theme is most evident in the DCU in the Bat-verse, because any hero who happens to wander into Gotham City is immediately accosted by Batman and sent packing, but it’s also a standard theme with almost any new hero – his or her book is not validated until an established hero stops by and admires their work.  Yes, it’s a crass marketing tool, but it’s also a good way to induct the heroes into the fraternity.  Morrison did something similar in the original Ultramarines story, and here they fall from grace, not because of their failure to stop Grodd, but because of their methods.  They would never admit it, but the Ultramarines crave the attention of their betters, and even though they attempt to spin their failure, they know, deep down, that they have let down Superman.  And no one wants that.

Story continues below

How does this foreshadow the main saga?  The idea of living up to a legacy is present throughout, from the very name of the book to less overt references.  The seven soldiers know about the past, and especially in Seven Soldiers #0, are very aware of the legacy.  This theme, tied closely to the idea of pleasing a father figure, will re-occur throughout the mini-series that make up the epic, and I’ll get to them in time.

Of course, JLA Classified #1-3 introduces a certain plot element that is crucial to Seven Soldiers: the villains, Neh-buh-loh and the Sheeda.  Neh-buh-loh has been around the DCU for decades, but Morrison, as is his wont, revamped him for the saga.  I am, sadly, not the Cronin-o-matic 3000, so my knowledge of comics history is spotty, so I have no idea what his original origin is, but here he is the adult universe of Qwewq, as opposed to the infant universe of Qwewq.  He is the Celestial Huntsman, the vanguard of the Sheeda, and, in my mind, pretty freakin’ awesome.  He’s the kind of villain that Morrison does really well – utterly creepy, really powerful, seemingly unstoppable, and just weird enough to work.  He’s a freakin’ adult universe, for crying out loud!  He and Grodd get a lot of the great lines, too – say what you will about Morrison, but he knows how to write zingy one-liners that read great.  We learn quite a great deal from Neh-buh-loh, too, that only make sense in retrospect.  In issue #1 (page 18), we tells Grodd that a “great harrowing is coming.”  When Grodd asks him what he is, he says he comes from the “cold region of the vampire sun” and he’s preparing the way for the Queen of Terror.  When Superman beats him in issue #3 (page 17), he says, “When next my people come, it will be as whispers of death, unseen …”  A frontal assault has failed, so the Sheeda will come more subtly next time.  Morrison also foreshadows the fact that the Sheeda come from the far future, so of course Neh-buh-loh has all the time in the world.  Morrison has always been a bit obsessed with time travel (it plays a large part in Animal Man, for instance, and is what he based his mini-epic, DC One Million, on), so it’s no surprise that it should play a large role in Seven Soldiers.

The final theme that is present throughout JLA Classified #1-3 and the epic itself is the notion of heroism.  Morrison has shown his love for the Silver and Golden Ages before (especially the Silver), a love that stretches back even to the beginning of his American comics career.  He has always swung back and forth between a Silver Age sensibility and a brutally modern take on comics.  Animal Man was a love letter to the Silver Age.  Doom Patrol was not, nor were Arkham Asylum and his story in Legends of the Dark Knight (“Gothic,” which ran in issues #6-10).  Flex Mentallo was drenched in Silver Age goodness, but Invisibles was not.  JLA walked the line between the two, as did his Marvel work, Marvel Boy and X-MenAll Star Superman toys with Silver Age ideas.  With Seven Soldiers, he is balancing the two again, as he does in this prologue.  Grodd is a brutal dictator, eating the president of the Congo and several thousand people in Kinshasa, while Neh-buh-loh speaks of laying a carpet of skulls for his Queen.  But Batman dips into his science fiction closet and unleashes JLA robots to fight back.  These are just trappings of the Silver Age, however.  Morrison is far more interested in what makes someone a hero.  According to many comic book fans, the comics back in the “good old days” showed far more heroism than they do today.  Whether you believe it or not is debatable, but it’s a prevailing trend among comic fans.  I have no idea if Morrison himself shares these views (I really can’t be bothered to troll Newsarama to find old interviews – Ian might know!), but he is very keen on deconstructing and reconstructing heroes.  In this prologue, we see two sides of heroism – the Ultramarines and the Justice League.  The Ultramarines fail somewhat miserably, and this makes them suspect in the eyes of the Justice League.  They need to be rescued by the JLA, and then they are banished to the infant universe.  A cynic might say that the Justice League under Morrison’s stewardship were often duped and infiltrated from within, and in one instance, needed to be rescued by Connor Hawke, of all people, but no one suggested they weren’t true heroes.  But we’re not cynical here, are we?  What Morrison is suggesting is that the JLA wins because they are true heroes, acting in concert, focused on the goal, and don’t get overconfident.  Morrison makes it clear that the Ultramarines are far more confident than they have any right to be – on the very first page of the series, Warmaker One predicts that they’ll wrap things up in ten minutes.  Although the heroes of the Justice League are confident, they aren’t cocky.  These heroes have learned how to be truly heroic, and the Ultramarines have far to go yet.

This idea translates into the Seven Soldiers saga, as Morrison looks at people who have no experience being heroes and have to learn the way to go about it. These people make mistakes, pay severe consequences, and are forced to modify the way they act.  Unfortunately for them, the fate of the world is at stake, and when they make mistakes, the world might suffer.

JLA Classified #1-3 isn’t completely necessary to read in order to enjoy Seven Soldiers, but it does add some nice nuances to the main story.  It’s surprising that DC hasn’t included it in the trade paperbacks of Seven Soldiers.  It’s a definite link to the rest of the epic.  And it’s a hell of a fun read! 


You are absolutely insane for doing something like this, and it’s the best idea ever. First Joe Rice comes back to CSBG and now there’s going to be a month-long look at Seven Soldiers awesomeness.

Sorry wifey, but I’m going to be glued to my computer for a month.

Huh. I didn’t realize that this tied in to Seven Soldiers. When I reread it all together, I’ll definately start here.

It seems that the Grant work I like best is the stuff that, as you said, is a homage to the Silver Age. Most of the other stuff leaves me kinda cold. Wonder if that says more about me or Grant.

Good piece, Greg.

It just came to me after reading your article… the ending of these issues has the Ultramarines arriving in the universe without superheroes, right? Isn’t this the same thing Morrison is doing with The Authority?

OK Greg — not sure why you’re doing this during such a busy freaking month (damn you! why couldn’t you choose January?!) but this is just the kick in the pants I need to reread the whole series. One issue a day? I guess I can handle that …

Keen idea. Smart post. Fun stuff!

Excellent job. Here’s to 30 more days of unraveling madness.

Rebis – is December a busy month? I hadn’t noticed. But that’s why Our Dread Lord and Master has created a separate category for these posts, so they’ll all be together. He’s nice that way.

Dave – yeah, he’s revisiting an idea. But he never really went anywhere with the Ultramarines in the infant universe (except for the crucial plot point in Frankenstein), so I guess he figured he could do it with The Authority.

I’ve been thinking theres a continuity goof in Justice League now because of this mini-arc too. I will admit that I have done no research beyond issue 2 of the new JLA because I was bored by it, so maybe this has been answered, but wasn’t Vixen one of the Ultramarines that went into Qwewq?

Nicholas – On the final page of the JLA Classified arc, Vixen is not among them. 4-D and the Squire are the only females. She IS among the group that Superman chastizes, but maybe the JLA was selective about who they sent into Qwewq, and Vixen wasn’t one of them. I’m not sure why they didn’t send all of them, unless McGuinness just couldn’t fit them all into a small panel.

Interesting, as the Ultramarines were conceived as a very Ultimates/Authority style concept, or, rather, a send-up of such. Just another layer of hypertime interacting.

I just read the third volume of the Crisis On Multiple Earth trades. I don’t know if it’s his absolute original appearence, but Neh-buh-loh appears in the original Seven Soldiers story in Justice League of America 100, one of the JLA-JSA(Earth 1-Earth 2)crossovers… He was The Nebula-Man then, and one of the Seven Soldiers died trying to stop him. The two teams split up to find the surviving Soldiers (the Earth-2 Crimson Avenger, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Green Arrow and Speedy, Sir Justin the Shining Knight and The Vigilante) who had been scattered through time in the final battle with Nebula-Man. They eventually did, only to discover that the 7 ‘official’ Soldiers had all survived (which I thought was kind of weak). The one who had died fighting Nebula-Man was actually an eight ‘soldier’, the Crimson Avenger’s barely mentioned sidekick Wing. Anyways, the three teams team up to fight The ÃŒron Hand, an old villain of the Seven Soldiers who was supposedly responsible for creating the Nebula Man in the first place. Incedently this is the same Iron Hand that The Bulleteer breaks fingers off of in prison in the recent Soldiers series. To make a long story short, Red Tornado sacrifices himself to stop the Iron Hand’s new menace, and judging from the latest JLA series, that is still part of continuity too, so I’d say its definately all part of the larger tapestry. However The Nebula-Man is very undefined and vague and barely mentioned, and nothing in the recent series really contradicts it as far as I can tell.

I’m pretty sure that was his first appearance, Michael. Interesting to know these fun facts from the depths of DC history!

…And to push the continuity back even further, JLA #100-102 includes a faithful if brief retelling of the story from Leading Comics #1 (that’s back in the Winter of 1941!) which shows how the Hand brought together the original Seven Soldiers of Victory. Len Wein added both the Nebula Man and a mysterious character named Oracle to the mix in the JLA story, then it was left to Morrison to show who they were and how they all fit together. I was thinking of doing a “Seven Soldiers tie-ins” post on my blog to showcase some of this stuff…but, um, there it is.

Anyway…the JLA Classified story is an eye-opener in many ways. I found myself looking forward to seeing each issue appear on the rack in a way I hadn’t done in years…and for all that the story is so rooted in previous continuity and doesn’t even have the title characters appear at all in the first issue, it’s a remarkably accessible story. A new reader who only knew the JLA from the animated series, say, could pick this up and follow the story. I hadn’t read a single issue of Morrison’s JLA run when this was published, so I had never seen the Ultramarines or Qwewq before. As far as I was concerned, Morrison could have invented them all for this story — except for the heroes I’d seen before, such as Vixen, or the Knight and Squire — and it made no difference in following the action. In the same way All-Star Superman is a stripped-down super-accessible Superman comic, this is the totally accessible team comic.

I’d never heard of this story before and, quite frankly, I’m more than a little pissed off to find that the Seven Soldiers trades I’ve been buying don’t actually contain the full story.

A Morrisonian tidbit from an old Newsrama interview:

“Most of the opening act concerns the Ultramarines team I introduced back in JLA #24. They’ve come back for a brutal ass-kicking as a kind of cheeky analogue of the best Avengers/Ultimates team you could hope to imagine. I hope readers will have fun matching up the Ultramarines characters with their marvelous counterparts.”

Inspired by all the raving about Seven Soldiers done on this site, I have procured the entire series and begun work on reading it. My first few days of effort have brought me through JLA Classified 1-3.

I hope the rest of the epic is… well, better than this, because this was not really good comics from a reading point of view. I hope Flesh-Eating Grodd was not Morrison’s idea or revamp, because that was simply awful on par with the crassest gore of Infinite Crisis and 52. It makes no sense for his personality at all, and I’d expect a writer of Morrison’s obvious intelligence to realize this and find a less ridiculous way to make Grodd terrifying. I mean… Grodd ate over three hundred people off-camera? Really? And still had room for more? Absolutely ridiculous, even by superhero standards. I assure you any reader not used to these sorts of gory comic book antics would have been instantly put off by this and probably wouldn’t have bothered getting through more than the first issue. I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t read so many good things about it on this site!

There is way too much tell-don’t-show in this story. I know it’s compressed reading, but frankly it’s too compressed and is at points simply bad. It’s not demonstrated or shown clearly anywhere in the book that the Ultramarines kill their foes while the Justice League doesn’t. Finding parallels between the Ultramarines and the Avengers/Ultimates is a nerd puzzle at best; there’s no demonstrated resonance between the Ultramarines style of heroism and what goes on in those other titles. Apparently it is true because Morrison told us in an interview, but storytelling doesn’t work that way! If he can’t be bothered to work it into the text, then it is to my mind irrelevant.

Finally, this story did not leave me with the impression that the Justice League punished the Ultramarine Corps by sending them into Qwewq. Superman does chastise them, but it is Tasmanian Devil who points out that they can hardly expect to be allowed to stay as super-heroes in a world they’ve just ravaged. How the majority of the issue is sorted out is left frustratingly off-camera (obviously it was not much of a problem for Vixen joining the League on down the road!), but I was left with the distinct impression that the Ultramarine Corps wanted to go into Qwewq and try to continue being heroes in a world where they could have a fresh start. Superman suggests it, but he or the League is never depicted forcing the Ultramarine Corps into the infant universe. Interpreting it as such makes the ending bleak, and the League seem impossibly arrogant. I find a reading where the League gently suggests a path to penance and members of the Corps choose to take it far more constructive, and far more in keeping with the tone of the text.

I am not entirely sure that your comments about Beryl’s role in the story are at all germane to what she actually does in 7S. Morrison’s Batman cracks jokes several times throughout the story, of his own volition, and notably before he’s had any encounters with Beryl at all. She is depicted as brave and noble, perhaps recalling Wing’s sacrifice from the old JLA Seven Soldiers arc, but I hardly see her being motivated by approval in this story. The story itself gives the impression that she’s motivated by a desire to help take care of Cyril and help save others, not to impress Batman of all people. It is her strength that lets Cyril break the mind control, by reminding him of his admiration for Batman, and that seems to me to be key to deciphering her importance to the story (and perhaps what Morrison is saying about teen sidekicks). She is important because she cares for her hero and makes assisting and helping him her highest priority, and as no hero is truly invulnerable, this assistance proves invaluable when things are at their bleakest. It seems to suggest that the value of a hero is not their inherent powers or skills, but instead their wisdom and strength of conviction. I far prefer the idea that Beryl is acting on her own initiative and doing what she knows she must, rather than the idea that she’s more interesting in Batman’s approval than in saving her partner’s life!

Despite my points of disagreement with you, I would like to thank you for writing this; some of the explanations helped me unpack the significance of a story that was very dense and rough reading on its own. I look forward to finishing Seven Soldiers with your essays as something of a reading guide, and you will probably be hearing more from me as I go.

No problem, Lynxara! I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts, so I’ll check the older posts in case you have something keen to say!

JLA: Classified is pretty useful in terms of making sense of Seven Soldiers.

Plus, Morrison and McGuiness are a great JLA team. I like Morrison best when he is working with a really strong, clear story-teller on art. Ed McGuiness is that.

Dean: Where have you been? I love getting comments on 7-year-old posts, but where were you 7 years ago? :)

Yeah, I’m still not sure why DC doesn’t seem to include it in collections of Seven Soldiers. It adds a lot to understanding the saga, even if technically you don’t need it to read the rest. Weird.

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