When Words Collide: Ellison & Chadwick Vs. History

Mon, July 22nd, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
1

7 AGAINST CHAOS: ELLISON AND CHADWICK VS. HISTORY

I had no idea Harlan Ellison and Paul Chadwick were collaborating on an original sci-fi graphic novel for DC. Even when I saw the house ads in the spring of this year, I assumed it was an adaptation of something. Or a reprint of a series I missed in the lean years of the 1990s.

Nope, "7 Against Chaos" is all-new. And if it feels like a bit of a Helix Comics leftover, it also feels like it would be the most polished and interesting thing Helix ever released. But Helix had nothing to do with it. It's new! I said that already. I'll move on. (But, seriously, I was surprised.)

Okay, so here we have Harlan Ellison, who people love because he once wrote a story that was turned into a movie where Don Johnson wanted have a lot of sex after the apocalypse and because he scripted that Star Trek episode where Joan Collins gets run over by a truck. Ellison's a pretty big deal. (If you don't believe me, just remember that time he taught us how to wear yellow and pronounce Moebius's name properly.)

And Paul Chadwick used to draw Dazzler and Dr. Strange!

Oh, that's not why he's famous, is it?

He's also a big deal because he created "Concrete," which is one of my favorite comics of all time, even though the tone of this column makes it seem like I'm being sarcastic about that. But I'm not! "Concrete," if you haven't read it, is about a guy who gets his brain transplanted into a big rocky body and then he goes on adventures and meets famous people and tries to get jobs with his weird skill-set even though he's really just a political speechwriter at heart. Chadwick used the series -- or series of series -- to explore environmental issues, human relationships, social problems, Hollywood satire, and mostly just tell really compelling stories. "Concrete" deserves more attention than it gets, and I hope someday soon Dark Horse reprints the Paul Chadwick comics in a better format than the too-small almost-digest-sized collections they've given us recently. Oversized "Concrete" would be amazing. "The Concrete Library." Make it happen, world.

So!

Ellison on script. Chadwick on pencils and inks. Ken Steacy (!) on colors. And Todd Klein (!!) on letters. Not a slouch among them. And they're giving us a sci-fi hardcover graphic novel (well, not "giving" us -- I mean, you have to pay for it, sure, but it is a sci-fi hardcover graphic novel and those are in surprisingly short supply, compared to everything else in American comics).

What's it about, exactly?

It's about seven. Against, you guessed it, chaos.

It's like "The Dirty Dozen" except minus five. In space. In the distant future. And chaos is the problem. Well, not chaos, exactly, more like "crazy repercussions caused by some time travel shenanigans that they have to figure out and put a stop to so they can get some sweet, sweet reward."

It is a very straightforward premise, and it's told in a quasi-straightforward way, and there is an old-fashioned sturdiness Paul Chadwick's panel drawings and character design, but there's some surprising poetry in "7 Against Chaos" as well. It's a graphic novel that dabbles -- lightly -- in the realm of some thematic questions like "What would you do to get the thing you want most?" and "Are we all just the products of historical forces we have no way to change?" and "Which are better: apes or lizards? And why?" But it's really just a relatively straight-ahead dramatic action comic that takes itself just seriously enough to make the characters seem like they're in real jeopardy and there's something enormous at stake, but it also isn't so somber and moody that you can't enjoy the romp of a rag-tag team on a mission back to the beginning of time.

The space ship the team zooms through space and time with is shaped like a giant syringe.

And one of the captions, as the ship hovers over a long-ago version of Earth, reads, "When they inject themselves, they will be the foreign bodies. Pangaea invites them to adventure."

So it can't take itself that seriously.

What's odd about the book -- besides it's old-timey feel, like a "Weird Science" story expanded to novel-length using the swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas as a model -- is how much time Ellison and Chadwick spend assembling the team. A "Hollywood-ized" version of this comic would spend 15 or 20 pages setting the scene and pulling the team together and wrap up Act I about 1/4th of the way into the book to get into all the action pieces and silly romantic subplots and then lead up to a big climax about 1/4th of the way before the end of the book when everything would go boom and we'd get explosions and one-liners and a heroic finish.

"7 Against Chaos" doesn't completely abandon that tried-and-true audience-pleasing structure, but it approaches it more elastically. There is very little exposition early in the book -- apparently the original opening described the galaxy-spanning society of the future more clearly, but Chadwick pushed to abandon the stage-setting and just jump right into the first recruitment scenario. A good decision that helps make the setting of the book seem weirder and more alien. Which it is.

But even after dropping that exposition, the rounding-up-the-weird-rejects-who-will-be-heroes sequences take nearly half the book. The book almost completely forgoes Act II, really. The team is assembled and finds out their mission and…bam…we jump right into the build-up to the climax where they prepare to stop the time craziness by going directly to the source. Subplots are practically nonexistent. Sure, individual characters have their own issues, and the seven don't all get along with each other, but that's really just shading, not fully-developed plot machinery.

No, this is a graphic novel that seems really interested in each character it sets up as a concept and as a visual (one is an Amazonian beauty with giant metal pincers instead of hands, another is a literally faceless sneaky rogue type, while yet another is a Michael-Pollard-looking genius who lives in the center of a planet, etc.).

It's a strange Dungeons & Dragons crew in a game you've never played traveling through time to save a world that they actually completely hate.

So, yeah, it's the kind of thing that's going to appeal to me.

And Paul Chadwick gives it a human touch and Harlan Ellison gives it a heart that beats with an odd murmur.

"7 Against Chaos" is a bit too goofy to seem important or meaningful, and it's not insane enough to force people to pay attention to its weirdness, but it's like your favorite comfort food with something pleasantly surprising inside. Like macaroni and cheese with bits of chocolate. Or pizza folded with magic. I don't know what you're into. But I know I liked this book.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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