Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
As we move into the endgame of the first batch of mini-series, we live in hope for resolutions. Will we get them? Ha! It’s Grant Morrison, people!
This issue, like all before them, contains massive SPOILERS! I mean, remember who shows up on the last page????? SPOILERS aplenty, people!
Justin really doesn’t look happy on this cover. I’m still trying to figure out why some of the Sheeda are really small and some are normal-sized. Do we ever find out? And I like the Sheeda hanging off his tongue. Nice touch.
We begin in the past, again, 30 years after the fall of Camelot, at the dawn of the “Terrible Age, when Mordredd the Dead ruled without mercy.” Three knights come from lost Ysse (which has to be related to the “Ys” that we saw in Zatanna #1, I would imagine) in the chariot of Mananann, an Irish ocean god. They came to the City of the North Wind, where the Dwarrow-men lived. “Dwarrow” basically means underground, and these people are obviously “lesser” than the knights who lived during the Golden Age. The knights – Bors, Peredur, and Galahad – bear “three imperishable treasures” of the ancient world. We have already seen that this saga revolves around treasures – the cauldron, the sword – but we are not told which ones the knights carry. Galahad is called the “accursed,” because, the narrator tells us, he came up with the idea that the dwarves should “break an ancient, dreadful covenant with nature.” Eight miles below sea level, they decided to split the atom. They all stand around the anvil, but Galahad chickens out at the last minute (note the plant elemental standing by as well). So Bors gleefully takes up the hammer and forges “a weapon even unstoppableÂ Mordredd might fear.” We turn to Mordredd’s capital, where the dead king sees a “clear light, like the light of the sacred grail” along with “an echo that sounded even through time.” The narrator tells us that the “war to end the world began that day as the bright Age of Avalon reached its furious conclusion in fire” and “the knights of Arthur succumbed to the evils of a dreadful new millennium.” This is an interesting segment, as Morrison draws parallels to our modern world and our own splitting of the atom. The knights are desperate, so they invent a whole new mode of warfare, and it leads to the end of everything, even though Mordredd, if we believe the Mood 7 Mind Destroyer, ruled another 500 years. I suppose he ruled a wasteland, so what’s the point? What’s interesting is that it appears the knights did not die in the initial Sheeda assault, and the narrator implies that others beside Bors, Peredur, and Galahad also survived. I haven’t found much to indicate that Bors would be so full of mirth over unleashing this new weapon on mankind, but perhaps Morrison knows something of his character that I can’t find. And we get to see Mordredd here for the first time, wearing a Sheeda crown and attended by the Sheeda riding their insects. I can’t find it in the annotations, but isn’t Mordredd really Melmoth? I thought it was revealed in Seven Soldiers #1, but possibly elsewhere. I guess I’ll find out as I go through these more carefully.
So then we’re back in Los Angeles, and two women are talking about Justin. One of them is saying that he walked into the precinct headquarters and turned himself in. The older one checks out the sword as the younger introduces herself as Helen Helligan, FBI metahuman specialist and the older woman as Dr. Gloria Friday, an antiquities expert. Raise your hand if you didn’t immediately know that this was the Sheeda Queen. You people with your hands raised need to stop reading comics immediately, because you’re not worthy! Dr. Friday looks at the sword and gives us a short history of iron smelting (there’s iron again), which the sword predates, of course. She even pegs it as being made during the first Arthurian Epoch, 10,000 years before, sometime in the 81st century B.C. She says that there have been several Arthurs, but this one has hieroglyphics that speak of a proto-Arthur. She explains that some people believe that the rise and fall of great civilizations is cyclical, and that there are many civilizations before our own. Again, this is a theory that has been around for a while, and I mentioned some points about it before. If you’re interested, here’s a page with various links about the theories. Agent Helligan asks why these civilizations expand indefinitely, and Dr. Friday says that, speaking hypothetically (of course), once these civilizations reach a peak, there comes a time of harvest, an inevitable decay, which has dire implications for Agent Helligan’s civilization – you notice that Dr. Friday specifically does not say “our” civilization, but Helligan misses it. She mentions that even if she believes Dr. Friday, the sword is new, but Dr. Friday says it’s not new, but indestructible, as it is one of the four imperishable treasures that Arthur and his knights stole from “Otherworld.” Again, we get the idea of four treasures, even though on the next page we find out that there are seven of them. And the fact that Arthur “stole” the treasures is, of course, one person’s opinion. We’ll learn more about these treasures later. Dr. Friday also says that only the pure of heart can draw the sword, and Agent Helligan is able to after confessing her one little crime. Dr. Friday warns her to put it back, because it is something “forged at the dawn of time to endure until the last black star swallows it whole.” Dr. Friday asks Helligan, “Have you considered what this young knight might have surrendered to you in token of his trust?” This is a small thing, but considering that in the next issue of Zatanna we meet the Tempter, a crucial thing. What is the Queen doing here? She is tempting Helligan with power, as whoever wields the sword could use it as a terrible weapon if they so chose. Why would the Queen put that thought into Helligan’s mind? It’s an interesting little thing that goes nowhere, but it’s fascinating toÂ recognize another subtle maneuver of the Sheeda. The Queen, after all, has already corrupted Olwen, and we find out soon that even Galahad could not resist, so this is just a throwaway attempt to destroy another one who is “pure of heart.” The cops interrupt, however, telling them that Justin is ready to be interrogated. As they walk to see him, Helligan tells Dr. Friday that she was called in because of the metahuman aspect, but she doesn’t think Justin is a metahuman, and she’s hoping Dr. Friday can prove he’s from the past, because then he would be out of her jurisdiction and she can make it to her sister’s wedding the next day in New York. She really should be there, as her sister is, after all, about to marry a werewolf. Helligan mentions that Justin speaks an unknown language that’s somehow familiar – which means he comes from a pre-Babel time, and therefore speaks an “uncorrupted” natural language that is familiar to everyone on earth. Dr. Friday is skeptical of time travel, but Helligan says it’s pretty common – she even mentions that “king under the mountain” legend I brought up before. Dr. Friday laconically tells Helligan that she once dreamed of interacting with living specimens from a dead world. This makes me wonder if the Queen of the Sheeda is buried so deeply in the Dr. Friday persona that it takes seeing Justin to snap her out of it. It’s a weird thing to say, unless she has a sense of humor. When they reach the interrogation room, she immediately begins speaking to Justin in his language, which is kind of a clue to her identity, I should think.
Justin tells her that he knew the cops were representatives of the law, and that he has come to gather champions to fight the Sheeda. Dr. Friday, of course, doesn’t translate this, but she does say that something bad is going to happen. But they give it a go, and after several hours (I suppose), Agent Helligan has the gist of the story, but she still wants to know if he’s a metahuman or not. Justin asks how they can doubt his word, and why they “grunt like beasts and speak some mangled human tongue?” Justin needs some cultural sensitivity training, I think! The Queen tells him that in this age, words can mean anything and everything, and truth is pliable, untrustworthy, and slippery. Justin is beginning to figure out who she is, and Helligan has been able to catch the word “Sheeda-Queen.” Dr. Friday tells her that the Sheeda plundered the earth and left it in ruins, and now they’ve come to do it again. She then tells Justin that they broke Galahad using Guilt, and they’ll do the same to him. She also scoffs at his attempts to warn this world of their coming, because they’re already there. She attacks Helligan as the Sheeda swarm over the police station, and one of the cops makes an interesting statement: “They’re here! Warn the don!” Apparently Don Vincenzo has connections deep inside the police (not surprising) who have been told to notify him if the Sheeda show up. Considering what we saw at the end of last issue, he doesn’t need to be told. As Justin fights, one of the Sheeda comes up and tells her that they have retrieved the sword of Aurakles, one of them losing his arm in the process of sheathing it. This is the first mention of Aurakles, who becomes more important as the saga goes on. We’ll get back to him. They take Justin away, and Gloriana bites Helligan on the arm, which makes her a bit nutty. The Sheeda flee in a very familiar helicopter with a black widow mark on its bottom. You don’t suppose …
Why yes, it’s our old friend Tom Dalt, apparently corrupted by the Sheeda and now working for them! That big jerk! He tells Gloriana that he shot Vincenzo with an arrow fitted with a bio-tracker virus, and it should have killed him instantly, so if he uses the cauldron, it will show up on his monitor. We should have known that Dalt wasn’t as evil as we though, because we’ve already seen that the arrow did not, indeed, kill Vincenzo instantly. But maybe that was too subtle. Gloriana is after the seven treasures, and wants the cauldron next, unsurprisingly. But, like a good Bond villain, she likes the finer things in life, and therefore wants to “set the corrupt against the virtuous for our entertainment.” So she calls up Galahad, who is in a pit filled with blood, and tells him to kill for her. As the issue ends, Tom’s monitor goes off, indicating that Vincenzo is alive, and therefore the cauldron is theirs. Let the final act begin!
There is a lot of exposition in this issue, and a lot of it is simply reinforcing what we’ve already discovered so far and expanding a bit on it. It does, however, bring back I, Spyder, who becomes a much more important player as we go along, and it begins to link these early mini-series to the later ones, as Helligan reappears in Bulleteer and Aurakles takes on more significance. The main theme of the issue, obviously, is corruption. In the first few pages, we see the corruption of the knights of Avalon – not even their defeat could do that, but their obsessive desire to reclaim their lost kingdom can. Presumably Lancelot, who might have stood fast against unleashing a doomsday weapon, is dead, and therefore the remaining knights do not see the horrors they are unleashing. Galahad is the knight who comes up with the idea of splitting the atom, and this idea is, I suppose, the way that Gloriana was able to corrupt him – she sicced Guilt on him and drove him mad. Bors is even more corrupt, because Galahad at least stays his hand, but Bors is enthusiastic to split the atom. The knights fall into corruption, perhaps, because of their failure – there is nothing noble about the way the Sheeda defeat them, and so they cannot find a purity in their defeat. In Arthurian legends, defeat doesn’t mean failure, necessarily, because there is always redemption. The arrival of the Sheeda, however, does not allow for any redemption, and so the knights feel they have nothing left to lose by creating this horrific weapon. This is the great tragedy of Arthur’s knights.
Justin, of course, remains incorruptible (for now), and one is drawn to both Justin’s and Helligan’s ability to draw the sword. We do not know yet that Justin is (ick!) a girl, but Morrison is making an interesting comment about gender roles. This is something we’ll get into when we look at the oversexualized Bulleteer, but it’s interesting to note that Galahad, the “perfect knight,” is turned, while Justin and Helligan are not. Justin is a knight who does not believe in himself, but tries to do the right thing. Justin wants to achieve, and Galahad has achieved. We want to believe that a “perfect knight” like Galahad would not succumb to the machinations of the Sheeda, but perhaps it’s a question of Galahad being so sure of himself that he arrogantly believed he could fight the Sheeda on his own. Justin isn’t like that. Helen Helligan believes she is impure, but when she confesses to her “crime,” she is cleansed of her sin. We don’t know much about Galahad, but is he so perfect that he has lost humility? Justin hides serious issues underneath his (her) armor, and maybe that allows him to overcome Guilt – he has beaten himself up over Guilt already, so the Mood 7 Mind Destroyer might not have as much impact on him as it did on Galahad, who believed himself perfect. Similarly, Helligan is a typical, overworked cog in the machine, and from this issue, we get a small sense that she is jealous of her sister and has issues with her mother. So she believes that she is impure as well, and it’s this humility that allows her to draw the sword.
Tom Dalt shows us another aspect of corruption. Using hindsight, we can see that the Sheeda’s corruption didn’t work completely, but perhaps they corrupted him so much that they can no longer rely on his loyalty. After all, is Tom doing the right thing in Seven Soldiers #1, or just the selfish thing? Corruption leads to disloyalty, and this is why the Sheeda fail – they can’t trust their underlings.
What do we make of Morrison’s ideas about the death of civilizations? Avalon was at its peak when the Sheeda attacked. Morrison, despite a love of freaky technology, seems to be yearning for this pre-technological Golden Age. Arthur’s court was truly a high civilization (done in by corruption within, of course), one that was far above our own. The people back then were “optimum humans,” where disease was practically unknown, and even the “microscopic races owed allegiance to Camelot at its zenith, and did no harm to man,” according to Gloriana Tenebrae. This is the civilization the Sheeda attack, and only after it falls do the knights discover (or, I should say, utilize) the secrets of the atom. Morrison explicitly links this grand civilization to ours, which is a bit weird. The Queen tells Justin what a horrible world this is, the kind of place the Sheeda love, and that his world is gone. How is our civilization as “high” as Camelot’s? We have come nowhere close to what Arthur achieved, have we? Our civilization split the atom to win a war, sure, and you could make the argument that the Sheeda are as bad as the Nazis, but it wasn’t after the Nazis had won. So I’m not entirely sure what Morrison is trying to say. Is our civilization, where we split the atom and use it for energy (horrors!) and have not conquered all disease and we live a paltry 70 years or so, really as impressive as Arthur’s? Again, I’m not really clear what is going on. I’m sure it’s something.
The annotations are good but jump a big part of the book. There are a couple of very interesting theories about Morrison’s ideas about the death of civilizations and how it relates to comic books, so read them if you like.
Next: Jake gets tough and beats on robots! Good stuff!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.