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Comic Review: Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos

7 Against ChaosHarlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos
Story by Harlan Ellison
Art and Cover by Paul Chadwick
Colors by Ken Steacy
DC Comics
Release Date: July 10, 2013
Cover Price: $24.99

Some time far off in the future, mankind has conquered the stars and utilized technology to ensure their unchallenged and unchecked dominance over everything they survey. Many planets in our solar system capable of sustaining life house decadent civilizations where the wealthy elite force those they consider genetic mistakes – known as “the reordered” – to work as slave labor and battle each other to the death for the amusement of their masters until they die.

A mysterious stranger wearing a hooded robe travels to several of these distant planets and moons to recruit six of these exploited beings for an enigmatic mission: Mourna, a beautiful, seven-foot-tall Amazon with metallic claws for hands; Hoorn, a cunning and dexterous thief who wears a cold grey mask where his face never existed; Lady Ayleen Valiante, a noblewoman from Venus and furthermore a Phoenix, a dying race of beings whose ability to control fire and deploy it as a weapon can also do greater damage to themselves and others with just a touch of their hand; Tantalus, an individual who resembles a praying mantis and possesses great physical agility and speed; Urr, a robot designed to be subservient to humans but who has rebelled against its programming and come to understand for itself that not all members of the human race are worthy of his protection; and Kenrus, a brilliant but obsessed scientist who has lived in seclusion for years at the center of a moon after being ostracized by humanity for his ideas, ideas which those who sent him into exile were more than happy to take full advantage of to suit their own materialistic ends.

Once this exceptionally diverse team is assembled their shadowy savior reveals himself to be Gerald Prokosch Roark, a legendary general and war hero in Earth’s military forces who was summarily sent packing by those he imperiled his life to defend incalculable times after he became a indefatigable advocate for the rights of the reordered. He explains to them that Earth and the human race itself are under attack by a strange phenomenon that reduces oceans to deserts, merges eras of history, triggers spontaneous combustion in the President, causes structures to collapse or vanish, and ordinary people to suddenly metamorphose into snake and lizard-like creatures.

Using the “crisis computers” that possess the power to deduce the course of history not just for the universe as a whole but for individual citizens, Roark has determined that the very fabric of time and space is under attack from some point in our distant past. The team must travel in a spaceship shaped like a hypodermic needle through a black hole to the Earth of the Mid-Pleistocene Era – over 1.2 million years ago – in order to investigate the root cause of this evolutionary chaos and save the universe. The mission is fraught with danger and psychological tension, and soon after they get underway Roark and the others discover that their minds are being manipulated to turn allies into enemies. Once they arrive on Earth they encounter deadly creatures at every turn and as the team’s numbers begin to dwindle they will find themselves with the adversary who holds the future of the human race in its bitter, scaly grip – the one known as Erisssa.

A match made in the cosmos: Harlan Ellison, the wonderfully imaginative and mercurial author of some of the finest speculative fiction of all time, has teamed with Paul Chadwick, the veteran comic artist and creator of the independent comic classic Concrete, for the new DC Comics graphic novel Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos that is hands down a breathtaking achievement in genre storytelling. Ellison and Chadwick have created a masterful epic adventure as wondrous, emotional, and relevant as the greatest science fiction stories ever told. Despite proving to be an initially breezy read (I completed reading all 193 pages of the main story and the back pages devoted to extra features in a matter of hours) 7 Against Chaos is a gripping tale that takes the seemingly hoary motif of a ragtag assembly of disparate individuals united for a common cause and makes it fresh and surprising again by crossbreeding it with a spectacular intergalactic quest and filtering it through Ellison’s gift for spinning brilliant yarns and Chadwick’s expressive character artwork and expansive cosmic visuals. The result was a book that was hard to put down from the moment I read the first page.

Chadwick’s artwork has always held a special cinematic quality, which is no surprise given that he once worked as a storyboard artist for films such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Miracle Mile. 7 Against Chaos gave him the chance to create astounding visuals of a future where humanity has become the masters of the universe at the cost of its soul, where the only lifestyle options available to those judged to be genetically inferior are slave or gladiator – two vocations that guarantee either merciless death or a life of solitude and misery. The reordered battle it out in great arenas in duels where they clash with their superiors using swords of flame or must think on their feet to avoid becoming a bedtime snack for a ravenous beast. Cold-blooded mercenaries prowl uninhabited moons hunting for their elusive prey and finds themselves the hunted in the process. The mission to Earth’s distant past that provides the substance of the narrative takes up little more than the second half of the story. Before then we get exciting escapes, daring rescues, vicious battles where the runner-up prize is dying to the applause of the universe’s upper class, close scrapes with the law, and an unstable moon getting the Krypton treatment. Ellison and Chadwick definitely know how to get their story off to a hell of a start.

In writing the story Ellison dispenses with the cliches of most ensemble adventures, including the requisite inter-team tensions, and establishes right from the start that each member of Roark’s 7 is bonded with the others through their mutual apathy towards the species that has subjugated them for their entire lives. Whatever tensions arise once the mission begins come mostly from the mental and physical toll the group’s perilous voyage into the past takes on certain members. Some of the hostility is alleviated in one of the best ways possible: sex. However, Ellison isn’t cynical enough to have these be mere booty calls that have no emotional bearing in the end. He crafts relationships among the members of the team that feel honest and poetic at times and in turn gives later tragic events additional dramatic heft. Plus the author makes each of the main characters a standout in the grand design of the story. No one is there strictly to serve as comic relief or to be crammed uncomfortably into another well-worn archetype; Ellison’s eclectic cast of galactic rogues, miscreants, and battle-scarred warriors are all three-dimensional and each offers a myriad of storytelling possibilities that contribute to the unpredictable nature of 7 Against Chaos, and memorably brought to life through Chadwick’s detailed and expressive character design work.

To reveal any more would be doing a great disservice. Ellison’s writing is unparalleled in any genre and his narrative for 7 Against Chaos unfolds beautifully with fantastic adventure and mystery on practically every page. The hardcore fan in me really appreciated the little callbacks to the celebrated author’s unused treatment for Star Trek: The Motion Picture that was discarded because overcautious studio executives considered it too esoteric and thought-provoking for thrill-seeking moviegoers to process at the time. His unconventional yet strikingly classical story arrives at a ambiguous conclusion that feels exactly right because it refuses to provide the reader with the typical literary closure. Chadwick’s art is a treat for the eyes and brings to mind the work of artists like Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin who were also at home creating spectacular tales of the cosmos on their canvases. His star fields sparkle with life, but he really shines once the team arrives on the Pleistocene-era Earth. Great battles with all manners of prehistoric flora and fauna are rendered with immaculate depth and wonder, all enhanced by Ken Steacy‘s vibrant coloring and Todd Klein‘s rich lettering.

Difficult to classify, hopeless to process in a single reading, and impossible to put down, Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos is a daringly original and provocative adventure to the stars and beyond that you may find yourself revisiting time and again. Bravo Misters Ellison and Chadwick, this is one of the finest graphic novels to come along in ages.

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