Review: Harlan Ellison’s ’7 Against Chaos’

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You know that old saw, how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? How about when the cover both does and doesn’t tell you what the book is about? Since December 2012, DC Entertainment has provided pictures of the cover to “7 Against Chaos”, depicting three disparate people–a robot, a woman, and a scarred man–in the foreground, with toppling statues, crashing subway trains, nuclear explosions, and people running in panic crowding the back. While the picture–drawn by the redoubtable Paul Chadwick (“Concrete”) and colored by Ken Steacy (“Astro Boy”)–is jarring and interesting, it doesn’t really tell the scope of the story, the magnitude in which Harlan Ellison, Chadwick, and Steacy bring in this 200+ page opus.

WRITTEN BY: Harlan Ellison
ART BY: Paul Chadwick, Ken Steacy
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
PRICE: $24.99
RELEASE: July 16, 2013

Originally planned as a 4-issue series, “7 Against Chaos” is a Chinese puzzle-box, opening slowly for the reader, telling the story of seven incredibly disparate individuals drawn together by a mysterious robed man in order to save time-space. Reality is ripping and, on Earth, it’s leading to almost Biblical disasters. The robed man collects his group–the enslaved Mourna, the scarred and masked burglar Hoorn, the empathetic robot Urr, the beautiful and imprisoned Lady Ayleen, the disgraced genius Kenrus, and the insect-humanoid Tantallus–and offers them a choice: Help the people who ruined you, save creation, and be rewarded…or don’t.

And that’s really the lynchpin of “7 Against Chaos”–these seven (counting the robed man, who I won’t name) individuals. Ellison has always been known for his characters and, here, he is at the top of his game, fleshing out each character’s story–one-third of the book is focused on just getting this group together. None of them feel particular love, loyalty, or respect for the ruling parties of the civilized cosmos and we understand why, but we also understand why they make the decisions they do.

The entire story can be broken up into three parts–the collection, the hunt for the source of the reality tear, and the battle for creation. Ellison has said in numerous interviews that this is his swashbuckler and it feels that way. His attention to the characters in no way detracts from the overall scope of the conflict or the sting of the ending–a surprisingly powerful sting that the reader isn’t even aware of until he/she closes the book. Ellison, as well as his characterizations, has always been good at ambiguous endings. Stephen King said it best when talking about Ellison’s stories: “Sometimes there are survivors. Sometimes there are no survivors.”

The only misstep in the writing comes in the beginning. The robed man saves each one and when they escape, they ask what this is about. The robed man doesn’t tell them–all the better to build the suspense, m’dear–but they accept it, willing to wait for the unveiling. Mourna comes closest to explaining why–the man saved us and we are in his debt–but it feels flimsy. These are people who distrust others, who are loners. Would they throw their lot in with a stranger so easily? But this misstep–and that’s all it is–is minor, and quickly forgiven with the intelligent pacing and sharp writing.

Paul Chadwick brings everything to life with his detailed pages. Ellison said, “[Chadwick] doesn’t just do electronic backgrounds and fill in the foreground figure, which is like phoning it in. You get a full panel….you’ll be amazed at the amount of detail work and the fullness of it and the depth of it.” For anyone familiar with “Concrete”, Chadwick is a feet-on-the-ground type of artist and, while he’s said that the cosmic breadth of the story intimidated him, he comes through brilliantly here.

Rounding out Chadwick’s work is Ken Steacy who brings a whole new pallet to the art and making every single character, scene, detail, feel distinctive. It’s easy in space operas to get lost–it all winds up feeling like the repetitive backgrounds used in cheap cartoons during chase scenes–but Steacy keeps that from happening handedly.

Together, Ellison, Chadwick, and Steacy create an epic story that feels both progressive but also a callback to any fan who started reading comics prior to the 1990s, when computers helped shape the look and feel of books. But, in spite of this, it is not a homage to those comics, nor “retro”. “7 Against Chaos” pulls the reader in from the first panel, and lingers long after the ending lets them go.

4.5/5 Skulls

Reviewed by – Paul Anderson

Paul Anderson is the Acquisitions Editor for Post Mortem Press, edited the acclaimed anthology TORN REALITIES, and acted as creative consultant on the FEAR THE ABYSS anthology. Primarily a short story writer, his work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including INTO THE DARKNESS, by Necro Publications, NECROTIC TISSUE, STORY TIME AT THE WICKED LIBRARY (audio), and THE NEW BEDLAM PROJECT.