Moving on with the reviews, we end up at the first issue of The Manhattan Guardian. Why not Shining Knight #2, you might ask? Well, I figure I should read these in the order in which they were published, and, apparently, it’s the official way to read them, according to The God of All Comics. It’s actually funner to read them this way, if you must know. So follow along!
Have I mentioned that there will be SPOILERS in these posts? Oh, I have? Well, there it is again!
The Manhattan Guardian is an interesting mini-series, as we’ll see. It starts off with a strange story, but slowly, it becomes clear that it might be the most important of all the series, or at least the most connected to the others. Unlike some of the other series, it becomes better as it goes along, which is nice to see.
We begin in a New York subway. A black man with dreadlocks and a tattooed face is reading The Manhattan Guardian, which, from the headline (“Headless Horror in Haunted Hospital”), is obviously a tabloid. Suddenly a train with a skull painted on the front pulls up, and pirates jump out. You’ve just experienced the wacky world of Grant Morrison, ladies and gentlemen! The pirates, whose leader is called No-Beard and who wears light bulbs as earrings, are after the man with the dreadlocks, whose name is Soapy. No-Beard is looking for a map, but Soapy tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. No-Beard, however, has insider information, and he finds the map … tattooed on Soapy’s back. Rather than, I don’t know, take Soapy with him, he rips the skin off of Soapy’s back with one (of his two) hook hands. Somehow this doesn’t send Soapy into shock, because he tells No-Beard that All-Beard is coming, and All-Beard will kick No-Beard’s ass. So what’s this map? Why, it’s the secret subway system of New York! Why on earth would No-Beard want this? All will be revealed!
We shift scenes to a supermarket, where Jake Jordan and Carla Marcus, a couple, are arguing. In a car, Carla’s parents, Larry and Lauren, look on, and Larry mentions that Jake needs his self-respect back, and that the Guardian has a job ad that might work for him. He tells Jake that the newspaper is looking for ex-police and military men for a position. We don’t know yet that Larry and the newspaper’s publisher, Ed Stargard, were both members of the Newsboy Army back in the day, fighting crime and getting into trouble. Yes, it’s a set-up! When Jake goes in for his interview, he passes a man getting carted out on a stretcher muttering about a golem on the third floor. When he mentions that he’s there for the interview, he’s attacked by the two people at the front desk. Suddenly an image of Ed appears above the desk, telling Jake that the two are terrorists, there to kill him. Jake gets to the elevator, where Ed tells him that he made it to the 23rd floor, but they’re coming to get him. When Jake arrives, the golem on the third floor is now on the 23rd. Jake knows to wipe out the magic word on its forehead, though, and does so, rendering the golem inoperable. He beats up the remaining two terrorists, gets into Stargard’s office, and finds out the whole thing was part of his job interview. The golem is part of a super-team of golems Ed created when he was ten. He’s apparently somewhat precocious. Ed asks Jake about the boy he shot when he was a cop – a boy Jake believed had just shot his partner, but hadn’t. This is why he quit the force and why his relationship with Carla is messed up. Ed tells him he’s offering Jake a new chance, and that the newspaper needs its own superhero. Hey, it’s the Guardian helmet from Seven Soldiers #0! Who woulda thunk it?
Morrison ties the Guardian thing into the Superman comics, where it showed up in the 1990s (and before, since he’s a Kirby creation from the 1970s, but I know it from the 1990s). Stargard bought the trademark from the Cadmus Project, which developed the technology. Jake gets his own car, which unfortunately breaks down. While he’s sitting in his car, he’s listening to the radio, which announces that Shilo Norman, Mister Miracle, will attempt to escape from an artificially generated black hole, which is where that series begins (behind him is a Pumpkin taxi, in which Klarion rides on his crazy trip through New York). It’s probably a coincidence (in a Morrison comic? never!) that our writer links the two series that have black men as their heroes. The idea of race is not brought up overtly in the series, but it’s something to consider, and I’ll give it a go at some point. Ed gets word that the pirates have shown up at 8th and Broadway, which is where Jake was supposed to meet Carla and Larry. We shift to the station, the same station where Soapy got his back ripped off, and now All-Beard the pirate has tied Soapy down and is about to set him on fire. Something tells me that Soapy should avoid that subway station. All-Beard is gripping Carla’s wrist while another pirate kicks Larry’s glasses out of his reach. But then the Guardian shows up, and Morrison does a nice job writing the narration like a pulp novel (or a Kirby comic): “Suddenly the sputtering barks of a dying engine cut through the chill-blooded, mocking laughter of more than a dozen sub-human killers!” You get the idea. As Jake is kicking ass, All-Beard sets fire to Soapy (who is chained to the subway train) and absconds with a hostage – Carla. Jake gets to Larry, who is dying, but who tells Jake to save Carla, no matter what. Jake manages to grab hold of the chain to which Soapy is tied, and the books ends with the train dragging both the Guardian and a blazing Soapy! Now that’s entertainment!
Morrison has always been fascinated by both the sensationalistic aspects and the mundane aspects of superheroes, far more than other writers. By “mundane” I don’t necessarily mean “What would it be like if superheroes existed in the real world?” I mean something like, “If superheroes existed, how would they make money?” Think of Buddy Baker and his domestic soap opera in Animal Man, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Here, he revisits both these themes, and it makes the first issue of this mini-series a bit disjointed, even though it’s enjoyable. On the one hand, it’s a pretty ludicrous conceit, even more so, maybe than the other series. Subway pirates? Really? However, on closer examination, Morrison is once again tapping into a theme of the series – namely, legends and myths, this time of the urban kind. How are pirates in the subway any more ridiculous than alligators in the sewers (which is referenced in this issue, by the way). The pirates speak to ages gone, and the subway, it is not to difficult to determine, is full of Freudian imagery that appeals to a twisted freak like Morrison (and I say that with all the affection in the world). The idea of these pirates, adrift in time (like Sir Justin), haunting the tunnels under New York, helps obviate the goofiness of the idea of pirates themselves. On the surface, they appear silly. But they are, after all, just symbols. Just as Sir Justin finds himself lost in time, so too are the pirates. They make good tabloid fodder, as well.
The problem with the book is that Morrison does show us the mundane, and it jars slightly with the silliness of the pirates (yes, I know I just said they’re not all that silly, but bear with me). Jake and Carla are having difficulties in their relationship, and it stems from Jake shooting (and presumably killing) an innocent boy. This cripples Jake to the point where he can’t get another job. Larry and Ed, old friends from the Newsboy Army (as we’ll learn, but don’t know yet), realize that Jake can make a good superhero, but he needs a push. Ed, presumably, knows about the threat of the Sheeda, and he also knows about the legends surrounding seven soldiers. This story takes place chronologically AFTER Seven Soldiers #0 (not all the issues in the mini-series do), and in issue #4 Ed mentions that Shelly Gaynor disappeared out in Arizona, so he must know that the Sheeda are back when he hires Jake. Jake is the kind of person who is built to be a hero, but unlike Zatanna or even Justin, he is crippled by self-doubt. Morrison, by showing the domestic problems that Jake and Carla are having, brings us back around to the ideas about what makes a person a hero – Jake has it in him, but he needs to clear his mind of the nagging doubts. One wonders if Larry, who was also part of the Newsboy Army, sacrificed himself to the pirates so that Jake would be forced to do something heroic. It would certainly mesh with the idea of heroism – Larry was a hero long before Jake was born, and he understands the meaning of sacrifice. The most interesting parts of the book are when Jake and Carla are interacting, because despite the presence of the Guardian uniform and their discussion about that, they could be arguing about anything that couples argue about. It’s not about Jake being a hero to the masses, it’s about him being a “hero” to his girlfriend, not by doing heroic things, but by regaining his self-respect and taking control of his life again.
As I mentioned, this juxtaposition between the fantastic and the mundane jars us somewhat. This remains the most “serious” of the seven mini-series, with the possible exception of Bulleteer, and Morrison will return to the theme of relationships and what they mean and how they are tested again, especially in issue #3, when he uses a relationship gone horribly wrong to show how Jake must change to regain his own relationship. This juxtaposition continues to be an uneasy alliance, and by issue #4, Morrison seems to abandon it in order to tell his Secret Origin of the Newsboy Army, which is a very strong story. We’ll get to that in good time; it’s just enough now to recognize that despite the presence of subway pirates, this issue is rooted in a real situation, which makes it, despite the weirdness, an excellent examination of why people split up.
Cameron Stewart’s art in not spectacular, but it is solid and well-suited to the material. Morrison, obviously, writes for a specific artist, and here he needed someone who could do a good job with the weirdness of the underground while making sure that Jake, Carla, Larry, and Lauren were, well, somewhat dull-looking. It’s not that they’re ugly or drawn poorly, but they’re just people. An artist with more stylistic flair would have made our heroes far too outlandish for the contrast between the surface world and the underground world work, but Stewart is adept at making the “normal” people look normal and the pirates look spooky. His art is far better, I think, on Seaguy, but that may be because the colors in this are deliberately muted. He’s a good choice for this book, though, because the other artists in the series are a bit too flashy for this kind of story.
I want to get into the idea of race and how Morrison addresses it, but not now. Suffice it to say that the four principal surface dwellers are black, as are the two pirate captains and Soapy. Ed is white, we think, but we never actually see his face, so who knows. It’s interesting to point out, but I’m not sure it means anything. We’ll see. In this first issue, at least, it’s not much of an underlying theme. Unless I’m missing something (which, admittedly, I certainly could be).
There’s a lot to like about this issue, and it does give you the feeling – more than Shining Knight #1 did – of being connected to the other stories, even if the reference to Shilo Norman is the only overt one (we don’t know the significance of the Pumpkin taxi yet). There are decent annotations here. And Jog, of course, has interesting thoughts on the issue. As usual, if you know of any other good links, let me know in the comments.