“The atom display is not mindless illusion / At master control, assessment will not be by humans / There’s no turning back”
7 Against Chaos feels like total critics’ catnip. It’s written by Harlan Ellison, drawn by Paul Chadwick, colored by Ken Steacy, and lettered by Todd Klein. That’s some top-level talent there. It’s published by DC. It’s edited by Bobbie Chase herself (and Peter Hamboussi). It’s a fancy hardcover and it costs $24.99. It’s been out a while, yet I haven’t seen too many people writing about it. I wonder why.
Whether it’s good or not, it seems like the kind of prestige project that would get more press, especially as it’s been in the works for a while (in the back of the book, Chadwick drew very similar versions of the characters in 2005, but I also saw something about it being around for 20 years). But fret not, dear readers, because I will review it!
Well, it’s a weird comic. It’s creaky and old-fashioned, which is not something you usually hear applied to Ellison’s writing. (I’m not familiar with Ellison’s writing – I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his novels, and I’m not even sure I’ve read other stuff by him. I’m most familiar with him as the grumpy cartoon who presumably got busy with Velma’s mom on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.) It’s more thoughtful than you might expect, but it’s also somewhat clichéd. Chadwick’s art is the major selling point, as he and Steacy do a very nice job with portraying this world. But it’s still … odd.
The basic plot takes us to the 22nd century, when humanity has spread out across the galaxy, terraformed several planets and moons, and created a bit of a paradise. It’s built on the back of slaves, though – “reordered” humans who are bred to work and are supposed to have no real souls (which they do, of course). A disgraced general gathers six unusual people from across the solar system and tells them he has a special mission for them. Apparently some horrible things are happening on Earth, destroying cities and killing people and basically making things awful. The general, Roark, tells them that time itself is being twisted, and they need to go back in time to fix things.
Obviously, there’s a very “superhero” vibe to this, as Roark gathers people with odd abilities (Ayleen can create and shoot fire), cast-offs (Mourna is a slave on Callisto, and she has metal pincers instead of hands; Tantalus is a “reordered” person who looks like an insect), and criminals (Hoorn is a master thief).
He enlists a robot with human emotions and a genius whose inventions have been stolen by an uncaring bureaucracy. It’s a standard Justice League kind of group, down to the number of people in it, and a good deal of the early part of the book simply shows Roark scooping them up. This allows Ellison to show what kind of galaxy it is, which is part of the point, as it makes the villain’s reasoning in the book a bit more compelling, but it does tend to drag a bit. Then Roark and his group go back in time to the Pleistocene Era, where they fight Erisssa (yes, three of them), a reptilian creature. Erisssa wants to change the future so that reptiles rule the Earth, and he makes the argument that humans have had their chance, and they squandered it by enslaving others to build their paradise. He has a point.
I mentioned that this is more thoughtful than you might expect, and it is. Yes, there’s a lot of violence and punching, but Ellison tries to make some cogent points about how societies are built and whether those who build those societies deserve them or not. It’s not too deep, but he does make Erisssa less of a one-dimensional villain than we think. Plus, he doesn’t just have his group jump in and fight the lizard dude and his minions, as they try to convince him to take a compromise path to his world. Even at the end, Ellison doesn’t wrap things up definitively, which is interesting. It’s nice to read a comic like this with some ambiguity.
Unfortunately, part of the problem is that the characters just aren’t that interesting. Ellison spends a lot of time creating this society, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time making the characters compelling. The two women end up in bed with the two men who are most likely to be bedded, because of course they do.
Character deaths (and some do die) aren’t as devastating as they should be, because we don’t really know who these characters are. Ellison even wipes out the personality of one of the characters and then asks us to care about the new personality that emerges. Only one death is even particularly interesting, and one is downright ridiculous. Ellison takes this all very seriously, but his heavy-handed narration tells us what to feel too often without really backing it up with good characterization, so it doesn’t work. While the idea of the book is interesting, it’s not that great, so the lack of characterization is really felt when we reach the climax. Some of the things that happen at the end would have been more powerful if the characters were better, but they feel strangely enervating.
Chadwick and Steacy, however, do quite a nice job. Chadwick’s bulky art helps make the characters feel more real, as we see their scuffed faces and their wounds and their scars, and it feels like they’ve been through a lot of horrors. Chadwick’s depiction of the solar system, like the story itself, feels old-fashioned, with baroque splendor on Venus and architecture on Earth that looks like it’s from the 1970s. He does a nice job with the chaos, though, and the group’s trip through a black hole is really well done. Steacy’s lush coloring job gives us a good feel for the deep cold of space and the vibrancy of the Pleistocene. Chadwick isn’t great at action, but he does a good enough job with it, and there’s not so much of it that it becomes too noticeable.
This is just a strange comic, one that feels like it should have come out 20 years ago (which, as I noted, was when the project was first conceived). It feels like a relic, and not in a great way, either. There’s some stuff in here that works nicely, but it’s too bad that Ellison didn’t do as much with the characters as he did with the world they inhabit. 7 Against Chaos has some interesting themes in it, but it never quite all comes together. Nice art, though.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆