Friday, September 30, 2011

The Seven Soldiers of Victory - Part 3 (Manhattan Guardian)

The Manhattan Guardian series is probably one of the more quirky stories of the Seven Soldiers of Victory series - but grounded itself with a personable tale of a disgraced and unemployed police officer given a second chance to rebuild his life and regain his self confidence.

The Guardian originally is an old concept. Jim Harper was a police officer who made himself into a vigilante to take care of criminals the law couldn't prosecute. He helped a group of scrappy kids known as the Newsboy Legion -- he wasn't the biggest hero in the 1940s, but he had a lot of prestige as a character, being created by the creators of Captain America, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Despite simply dressing in blue and yellow and wearing a helmet, the Guardian was also somewhat notable for being a little bit like Captain America - wielding a shield similar in shape to the shield Captain America had when he first debuted.

The Guardian was revived many years later when Jack Kirby worked at DC Comics and was writing the title Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy being a journalistic photographer, Kirby keenly took the opportunity to re-introduce the Newsboy Legion, along with the Guardian again. Yet unlike the on the street ruffians in the 1940s, this new group where different, as they where revealed to be clones of the originals. The crazy mad-scientist outfit of Cadmus Labs was developed in the pages of Jimmy Olsen, and provided all manner of science fiction craziness. Later on the Guardian became the de facto representative of Cadmus Labs in the pages of Superman for many years.

The Manhattan Guardian

The Guardian concept was completely over-hauled for Seven Soldiers - but Grant Morrison kept enough elements of the original concept that it never felt a betrayal of the concept. This new Guardian was also notable for being African-American, instead of Caucasian. What struck me about this new Guardian was how authentic he was written. Usually when comic companies change the race of a character, it can be an honorable attempt to increase diversity; but also can easily become a needless change, with little creative integrity in the development of the new character. For a man from Glasgow Scotland, Morrison really writes black characters very well, without falling on too often used cliches when white people develop black characters. I could be wrong through - I'm whiter than white bread; it's just my impression.

This new Guardian is named Jake Jordan, who is struggling with depression because he can't find work, and it's putting a tremendous strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Carla. Carla's father, Larry, points out an ad in the paper to Jake - the Manhattan Guardian Tabloid Newspaper - where the readers are the reporters. It was a real on-the-streets grass roots publication - and they wanted their own Super Hero to represent them. The idea was that the Manhattan Guardian didn't just report on crime - it fought it! Jake doesn't know entirely what to make of this, but Larry urges him to go and try it.

Jake arrives at the offices of the Manhattan Guardian for his interview with the publisher, Ed Stargard. Immediately upon entering the receptionists draw guns on him, with a television monitor of Mr. Stargard's face warning that terrorists where trying to capture him. Jake does what comes naturally to him, going into action he grabs riot equipment off of a passed out security guard and fights his way to Stargard's office to try and save him. People are shooting at him - it's complete madness - and only gets stranger. A gigantic clay golem confronts Jordan. There are words in Hebrew draw on the golem's forehead, and taking a cue from the legend of the Jewish Golem, Jake erases the markings, taking the animated life away from the creature.

Finally Jake gets into Ed's office only to find a darkened room with a TV screen. The madness has finally subsided as the video-face of Ed explains that this was all a test - this was the interview, and Jake performed well. Jake is confused and upset, but Ed said this was the interview of a lifetime for the job a lifetime. Ed then confronts Jake with his past from when he was a cop - footage from the night he had accidently shot an innocent kid, who Jake had mistakenly thought was a young perp who had just shot his partner to death. This was why he was kicked off the force - and the trauma of having killed an innocent kid had sent Jake into a deep depression. Jake tells Ed that he wasn't going to put up with mind games - but Ed convinces him that this is an opportunity for a second chance; a chance to regain his self respect and turn his life around.

Jake takes the job - and becomes the Manhattan Guardian. Ed's newspaper had apparently bought the rights for the Guardian-costume from the government - so right away this new Guardian interweaves with the old continuity of the old character, without destroying it. Jake is trilled to be working again, and is outfitted with equipment, support, and even a high-tech car for him to act as a full fledged super-hero. In a very funny bit it becomes painfully obvious that a super-powered automobile was not going to work in the congested streets of Manhattan.

While on patrol Ed contacts Jake, being in touch with him through a communicator, and tells him there's breaking news on the subways. Jake isn't able to get there with his car, so suddenly a kid pulls up on a messenger bike, showing him an ID as a member of the Newsboy Army, and gave Jake his bike as transportation, per Ed's instructions. Not the fanciest mode of travel, but it got Jake to the subways.

Another insane abandonment of logic is presented as it's revealed there are Pirates roaming the subways of Manhattan. Using subway trains as their pirate vessels, two rival pirate factions are warring against each other for a legendary secret treasure - and innocent bystanders are getting caught in the cross-fire. It turns out Carla and her father where on the train platform when the pirates where attacking, and Jake only makes it in time to help Larry - who tells Jake to go after them and save his kidnapped daughter.

Jake valiantly tries to peruse the pirates, but reaches a complete dead-end. Jake then is met by the rival pirate gang, who Jake joins with - since they want the treasure, and Jake wants to get to Carla. Turns out the subway tracks beneath Manhattan go off the grid into secret tunnels, behind a fake wall, described by the pirates as their underground world, where they make themselves into pirate kings - turning their backs on the surface world that had rejected them. It's utterly insane drivel from insane subway-dwelling pirates - and it's simply fun! The whole idea is just so bizarre - but made fun by the smart and deft writing of Morrison.

Jakes manages to reach the other pirate train and rescue Carla - while the two pirate leaders continue to pursue the fabled treasure they where both so intent on. The two pirates reach a room filled with green sewage (described as radioactive), with an alter on a small island in the middle of the pool. The two pirates plunge head-long into the filth, and reach the treasure - said to be a powerful weapon of the gods. What they find, though, is a single six-sided throwing die. The pirates laughed -- this was the fabled treasure of the god these two madmen had risked their lives and killed to find? So in the end neither of them really wins, and eventually die from the radiation.

While Jake had did all he could to save Carla, it turned out not to be enough - because Carla's father Larry had died from injuries suffered at the hands of the pirates. Jakes relationship with Carla completely falls apart, as she keeps asking if Jake is a super-hero, why couldn't he have saved her father also.

The next issue proceeds on a completely new story line, as special scientific exhibit is being shown on Ellis Island. A multi-cultural map of the world is made into a tourist exhibit, where apparently it's suppose to show the disproportionality of the world's citizens, as it reduces the population of the planet to a more manageable 100 people - and show where most of them, statistically, would be living. Only a few people live in the North America, showing the divide of prosperity. It's really, really high-minded stuff -- and is really just another insane setting for another insane mission. All the 100 representative-people are automated robots - and because the creator of the exhibit is mad at his wife, he orders the robots to go on a rampage.

Cue Jake parachuting into the exhibit to help save the people there. There's a lot of action and fighting -- but it's really all window-dressing for the scenes shown inbetween, about the troubles Jake is having with his personal life. It's a while since her father's death, but Carla is still upset about it, and Jake, having built up his confidence once again, is prepared to propose marriage to Carla - which really was bad timing. Carla left him - and today Jake takes out his frustration on the robots in the exhibit while he gets the tourists to safety. Soon enough SWAT teams also arrive on the scene, retaking the command center for the park - where the scientist is ranting and raving about how his wife would rather sleep with the robots instead of him. Here's a fun secret - she's actually a robot too, that he had built and had rejected him; so he's completely off his rocker on multiple fronts. Luckily, because of Jake, no one was hurt; but that doesn't stop the robotic wife from chewing Jake out, now that she knows he's just a sleazy tabloid reporter, instead of a SWAT officer like she had thought.

The issue ends with Jake going back to the Guardian Offices to confront Ed - to tell him he's going to quit, as he can't keep doing a job that has destroyed his personal life. Ed, to explain and convince Jake to stay, opens up the secret room behind the TV screen to reveal who he really is. Ed is a huge elderly baby, having controlled the Manhattan Guardian operation with his superior mind alone. While freakishly weird, Jake is gladded by this revelation, as he can at least look Ed in the eyes, instead of talking to a machine. Ed tells Jake that he can't quit - because the greatest story of them all was about to break -- the Story of the Seven Soldiers of Victory who where going to save the world!

This is perhaps the first time the Seven Soldiers are explicitly stated as a concept outside merely the title of the series. Ed apparently knows about the approaching Sheeda invasion, and knows the legend that Seven Soldiers where destined to defeat the Sheeda. Ed says that they don't believe the Sheeda are actually aliens - but know that they appear throughout history, tearing down humanity whenever human civilization reaches its peak. It's explained that, because of the seven warriors legend, the Sheeda always attack groups of Seven. The original Seven Soldiers, where were originally attacked by Neh-Buh-Loh, and the recent group of heroes roped together by Greg Sanders - where the Manhattan Guardian lost one of their star reporters (Shelly Gaynor). Ed says that it's the Seven Unknown Soldiers, warriors who have never even met each other, who would finally overthrow the Sheeda.

This, quite frankly, was the most exciting chapter of the entire series - as it revealed so much, in a more clear manner, what our heroes where facing - and what they where destined to accomplish. Yet that wasn't the most exciting part -- the both exciting, yet terribly terrifying revelations where revealed when Ed explained his past.

During the 1940s Ed was part of a group of young adventurers who joined together to be the Newsboy Army. You see, this scrappy little dog in their group, named Millions, the world's richest dog, helped fund a printing press they helped put together. It's all very child-like kid-detective type stuff, as this group of assorted characters all have different skills they brought to the team. Ed acted as the leader, as he was the smartest - named Baby Brain, because of a condition where his body simply never developed, and remained an infant forever; though still aging. They show a delightful and just utterly charming adventure they have, with an Indiana Jones-style getaway on a self-made airplane, escaping from angry jungle natives.

The transition from charming scrappy child-like adventures to a more grown-up and terrifying world simply felt jolting when I read it - but it made this weird little chapter in the series one of the best parts. See, the kids in the Newsboy Army where growing up -- but they go on one last adventure together when a local friend of theirs randomly goes on a murdering spree, subsequently being shot to death by the police. Apparently the kids knew this man very well, and knew he would never do anything like this -- and found a possible answer in a mosquito-like Sheeda spine-rider attached to the man's neck. Being kids, pointing this out to the police wouldn't lead to anything - so they investigate the situation themselves and discover a link between the case and a notorious swamp outside of Gotham City: Slaughter Swamp.

The kids all decide to go on one last adventure, braving it all going into this dangerous swamp - not knowing what they would find. They reach the old shack in the swamp, the Gold Place. Inside they find an erie sight - the Sheeda Queen inquiring about her future fate, and how Seven Soldiers are destined to kill her. In the rooms sits a lone sewing machine and a creepy old man who turns his attention towards the children. This is the Terrible Time Tailor, a fallen 8th member of the Seven Unknown Men - who instead of repairing and re-stitching reality together, was actively working to tear it apart. He tells the children that he makes very special suits - suits you wear for the rest of you're lives.

Suddenly the scene shifts to a board, denoting the paths all the kids would take in their lives. Two of them where marked as "Dead at 14". One, who would grow up to be Vincenzo the Undying Don, was labeled "Guilt-Ridden Undead Mass Murderer." The young boy in the group noted for always wearing a top hat and knowing magic is labeled "Homeless Schizophrenic". Ed Stargard was labeled "Reclusive Freak", and the most horrible one of all was the football star who was suddenly labeled as a "Child Molester and Murder" - suddenly flashing forward to a scene years later where he's telling the others "No. She wanted it" - and the top-hat kid and others in the group where killing their friend for his crimes.

This was what was so terrifying about this issue. The idea that you're fate and destiny can be robbed from you, rewritten, and made to be any horrible fate the Terrible Time Tailor choose. It was jarring, and frightening when compared to the happy kids depicted at the beginning of this issue. The Newsboy Army fell apart, and because of their newly written fates - they where driven away from learning more about the Tailor - or the Sheeda Queen they had seen.

Ed, though, had used his fate to build his Manhattan Guardian Newspaper - to bring the news to the masses while also finding out all there was to know about the Sheeda and their terrible plans for humanity. The battle was already beginning - the raining and thundering storm-swept streets of Manhattan suddenly had Sheeda Soldiers flying outside the windows, riding on the backs of gigantic flies, read to assault the building. Ed wants Jake to fulfill his destiny, and Jakes does just that - but picks up Ed to go along with him and keep him safe. The story concluded here, to be continued in the final issue of the Seven Soldiers of Victory.

I really cannot express how mind-blowing this issue seemed to me. Maybe it was just because it was revealing so much information, or that it showed the dichotomy between the care-free adventures of Newsboy Army, against their forced-upon horrible fates later in life. Maybe it's because of my religion - where free will is such an important and integral part of my beliefs - that the idea of you're fate being stolen from you; I just kept imagining if you where suddenly labeled a murder and child molester - and then before you even blinked you're eyes several years have passed - and you've become just what you where labeled as. That's just scary. Not monstrous scary - but theologically and intellectually scary.

After the Seven Soldiers Series...

The Manhattan Guardian didn't gain much prominence in the DCU after the series ended; which is really a shame considering how great the character of Jake Jordan was depicted. He faced pure-crazy in every issue, but the humanity of the character shined through and kept the story sane. Cameron Stewart did such a terrific job drawing this world - it was cartoony, which played well with the craziness going on, but was ridged enough to depict things in a serious light when needed.

The Manhattan Guardian showed up a few times as background character - especially in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis mini-series.

The older Guardian, though, came back instead. Maybe the reversal of replacing the original Guardian with a new character, and a black man, didn't go over with fans as well as was hoped. Yet there where some meaningful connections made to Jake Jordan when James Robinson wrote some issues of Batman, and later Superman where he had the Guardian team up with Mon-El.

With the DCU Reboot that happened recently, the history of Cadmus Labs has been completely changed -- which unless he shows up, a new version of the original white Guardian doesn't seem to be in play. I think next time they need a Guardian to appear in comics in the future, they should go with Jake Jordan instead; as his connection to the changed Cadmus Labs wouldn't effect his origin story quite as much as it would effect a revival of the cloned Jim Harper.

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