”The argument goes like this: Words are good. You can win the Nobel Prize for words. Pictures! Pictures are good. They hang in a museum. BUT, if you combine words and pictures you’re automatically doing something intended for children or sub-literates.” -Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman and Coraline
(Jared Thomas is back with the second installment of his column Words & Pictures, a regular look into the best of the world of graphic novels. See his previous work here.)
Let’s get something settled at the beginning. Grant Morrison is a magician. A proper one. He does magic. He summons strange Gods to do his bidding. He’s been abducted by aliens in Kathmandu. He wrote a play about Aleister Crowley. He got thousands of people to masturbate on a certain day while focusing on a sigil he’d created to help keep The Invisibles from being cancelled (November 23rd, 1995 for anyone who’s curious). He has stated in several interviews he intended The Invisibles (in all 3 volumes) to be one giant super-sigil which would hasten all of our transformations into some sort of higher dimensional thought forms. Obviously, it hasn’t happened, but we’ll see what’s what after December 22nd of 2012. So, when I say the man’s a magician, I mean what I say.
He is also one of the most dynamic and influential living comic book authors, and The Invisibles is his definitive book. Along with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, it is one of the defining pieces of literature for the nameless morass of time we call the 1990’s. Those were optimistic days, if you’ll remember, when the internet was just beginning to eradicate the very notion of nations and cultural walls. Post-Modernism had done its work and left only the structure of things with the content To-Be-Announced. For a brief moment of millennial euphoria, we were all going to be beautiful alien drag queens speaking telepathic Esperanto, taking long walks in virtual rainforests, communing with our inner Buddhas. Like I said, they were optimistic times.
But out of that colliding light show of fractional notions came The Invisibles. In its easiest guise, it details (or at least psuedo-accurately attempts to transcribe for human senses) the war between The Invisible College and the Secret Kings of the World, as represented in this particular volume as Lovecraftian Archons from “The Outer Church” (“God of the Endless Iron Room” Issue 22 House of Fun). On its face, it seems a basic good versus evil set-up. The “Bad Guys” are alien Kings from a diseased dimension along with telepathic English aristocrats who hunt homeless people for sport. The “Good Guys” are bad-ass psychic superspies (King Mob), cross-dressing Brazillian Brujas (Lord Fanny), and anarchist teenage thugs/messiahs from Liverpool (Jack Frost). That being said, this is only Volume 1 and the reader would be wise to keep in mind the conversation between the tough as nails Harlem street cop turned Invisible called Boy and Jack Frost (Issue 5, Bloody Poetry):
Jack: “So, like, I was one of The Invisibles before I even knew about it? Well, how do I know I’m really one now? If nobody knows who’s working for who, how do I know I haven’t joined the other side?
Boy: “Jesus! Good Question, Jack. Good Question.”
There are other signs too, that things aren’t as simple as they seem. Take for instance, a wonderful bit of monologue (also from Issue 5) in which King Mob is watching a puppet show in India:
“The Dalang. He makes the voices and moves the puppets. He directs the Gamelan musicians. His job is to make us laugh and cry. Very clever man. The Dalang is MORE than a puppeteer. His skill makes us believe we see a war between two great armies, but there is no war. There is only the Dalang.”
The Dalang, of course, could be Grant Morrison himself (a self-referential post-modern twitch which has since become trite but in 1994 was like wearing sunglasses inside). Or, it could evoke the future as described by King Mob himself (when he asks the Marquis de Sade to help build a blueprint for the new world in issue # 8, H.E.A.D.):
“We’re in the final furlough in a race between a neverending global party and a world that looks like Auschwitz. We’re trying to pull off a track that’ll result in everyone getting exactly the kind of world they want. Everyone including the Enemy.”
Or, The Dalang could represent a more simple profundity; the necessary unity of all things. It is Grant Morrison trying to clue King Mob into what Jack Frost seems to instinctively already know; there are no ultimate winners or losers in war, only a changed totality. Throughout the first Volume, King Mob revels in his role as anarchist superhero, gleefully wreaking havoc on the established order, but it is Jack Frost who is the true anarchist. He thinks both sides are shite.
Jack Frost is, for all purposes, the protagonist. Also called Dane McGowan (his Christian name), the first volume of The Invisibles spans his recruitment to his ascendance as foul-mouthed Buddha of the Future.
In between, we get a bit of everything; from learning what cities really are to venturing into the Voodoo Scorpion Palace with a rapper named Jim Crow. We go into the past and pick up the Marquis de Sade, on the way home finding ourselves inside Poussin’s painting Les Bergers d’Arcadie, Sade’s own 120 Days of Sodom, and the mysterious chapel at Rennes-le-Chateau.
John Lennon invoked and communed with as a Godhead.
The friendship between Byron and Shelly.
An extra-dimensional “satellite” called Barbelith hidden behind the Moon which humans may or may not have created to save us from ourselves.
A mysterious masked dwarf named Mr. Quimper making pornography with aliens.
“The London Hive hums and resonates, jamming radio wavebands with highspeed digital transmissions. Deep in its gothic honeycombed core, in a candelit eggchamber of stained glass, the vast and immobile genetic factory-thing, which once upon a time was the young Victoria II, releases weatherfronts of ultrapheromones, summoning her legions to swarm.” (Issue 17 “Dandy”)
Morrison practices a pure form of Pop storytelling which can be absolutely dizzying. He is the perfect beast for our accelerated age. His ability to synthesize and re-weave vast threads of psychic material into startlingly new tapestries is a central feature of The Invisibles. Take the very first issue, called “Dead Beatles”. It opens with a a monologue about Egyptian beliefs concerning scarabs (rebirth) but King Mob invokes John Lennon using the repeated mantra “Number 9”, which is also the sacred number of Ganesh, the Hindu God who breaks down obstacles. Or issue # 14, “Day of Nine Dogs”, where the headless Aztec version of Satan, Tezcatlipoca, shares the story with an old French woman smoking hashish remembering the glory of 1920’s Paris, a tarot reading fueled by Smart Drinks in a San Francisco night club, a UFO conspiracy theory involving product placements in our dreams, and an ill-advised hookup in the bathroom of a gay bar.
(The Tarot reading, incidentally contains my favorite exchange from the whole first volume. Ragged Robin, another one of The Invisibles crew who may or may not be from the future, pulls The Death card out of her Tarot Pack.
Boy: “Death doesn’t necessarily mean like, well…DEATH, does it? It can mean other things.”
Ragged Robin: “I suppose so. A Tarot card showing a skeleton with a scythe, mowing down kings and commoners alike can be interpreted in any number of ways by people who don’t dare accept it at face value.”
Sensible advice, that.)
In less capable hands, The Invisibles might descend into a sort of amalgamated cut-up, fueled by the speed of internet culture and peyote. But Morrison knows what he’s doing. He is, first and foremost, an exceptional storyteller. These are not the ramblings of a gifted, erudite, outsider artist. Morrison’s grasp of story structure, particularly as it pertains to the episodic comic book medium, is both profound and…well, invisible. And though The Invisibles is filled with, in Alan Moore’s words, “mad and beautiful ideas”, Morrison is no Huxley. He tempers his intellectualism with fully realized human drama. He gives us real people on the page then lets us hear what they’re saying.
Without the beauty and detail of Lord Fanny’s journey from sheboy in the slums of Rio to fabulous transvestite fighting against the Forces of Darkness and Order, we might have a hard time accepting when extra-dimensional “magic mirror” spews out of her nose in a drag club bathroom. But the real allows for the fantastic. Or the single issue story (Issue # 12 “Best Man Fall”) in which the life and times of one of the nameless “bad guys”, shot and killed much earlier in the series by King Mob, is laid out for our inspection, so that we, the reader, are confronted with the real human consequences of the war these people are fighting.
For every Barbelith and humming London Hive, there are a half dozen moments of true human pathos, without which The Invisibles would descend into baffling, esoteric, Pop-tainment vaguely disguised as a James Bond novel.
The art goes a long way towards keeping the whole thing straight. While the practice in the first volume of bringing on a new art team for every story arc keeps The Invisibles from having a definitive visual aesthetic, Morrison’s voice is so specific as to render this a non-problem. The artists wisely avoid expressionism. While this often means realistic renderings of utterly unreal visuals (case in point, Jack Frost falling off a bicycle in issue 4, “Down and Out in Heaven and Hell part 3”, and seeing what appears to be a miniature Saturn floating less than a foot above his head), if the art were too cartoony or evocative, The Invisibles would become easily dismissible as the comic equivalent of a black light poster; fun to look at but not terribly edifying.
And The Invisibles is edifying, make no mistake. Hidden between the action, drama, and the super-cool is a practical education in esoteria. Morrison understands the central tenet of all Mystical systems is the transit from crude matter to the world of pure spirit, not in some vague afterworld, but in and through life. He takes this understanding and hardwires it into an action movie. In doing so, he manages to capture that first blast of 21st century anarchic, synthetic possibility.
And though it remains to be seen whether or not The Invisibles will go down as what Harold Bloom calls with typical disdain a “period piece”, it should, at the very least, be viewed as a testament to cultural globalization, a primer for Gnostic Spiritualism, an important writer’s most important work, and a comic where people get shot in the head with a Voodoo bone gun by the Haitian trickster God of the Dead Papa Guede, among other things.
Jared Thomas is a playwright, novelist, and scriptwriter. He writes sneaky trash fiction. His works include Sandoval, The Raven King, The Last Amesha, Street Dreams of Electric Youth, Dog Eats Human, and The Rose Garden.