The comic book mausoleum: The Invisibles

Retrospective reviews of significant and socially relevant comic book cycles and their adaptations that every fiction fan should immediately consume.

Creators: Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, Jill Thompson, Chris Weston, John Ridgeway, Steve Parkhouse, Paul Johnson, Phil Jimenez, Tommy Lee Edwards, Mark Buckingham, Ivan Reis, Philip Bond, Warren Pleece, Sean Phillips, Ashley Wood, Steve Parkhouse, Rian Hughes, Michael Lark, The Pander Brothers, Cameron Stewart, Ashley Wood, Mark Buckingham, Dean Ormston, Frank Quitely
Publisher: Vertigo (1994-2000)

The Invisibles is many things—a call-to-arms for free thinkers, a radical literary experiment as its author dons a fiction-suit to enter his own creation like a 2D Jack Cousteau, the unacknowledged but undeniable inspiration for The Matrix, an intense conspiracy adventure and a rambling sojourn encompassing voodoun, hermeticism and Gnosticism (most “isms”).

Above all it is a memorable piece of work, its aspirations far outstripping most fiction irrespective of medium. It has been said that the best writing changes the way we see the world—this does so to a potentially unsafe degree. After a couple of hours in The Invisibles’ company I have been so absorbed in its perception-altering concepts I have put myself in serious danger of wandering into traffic.

The narrative is loosely tied to a group of anarchic and flamboyant guerrillas battling extra-dimensional Lovecraftian monsters, the Archons, for the soul of humanity (that old chestnut) with multiple tangents to many wonderful locations and characters. Flimsy structural concerns aside, The Invisibles transcends expectations of what a comic, or what fiction, can be. Of how it can affect our thoughts and creep into our actions.

Standout characters include homeless Merlin, Tom O’ Bedlam, randy kabbalist flapper Edith Manning and, my personal favourite, the fabulous Brazilian shaman Lord Fanny—a transgender role model 15 years ahead of her time. I should not overlook Mr Morrison himself in fiction-suit persona as groovy but conflicted assassin King Mob.

I do not propose to dissect this noteworthy experiment here, but for further reading, check out his excellent, semi-autobiographical Supergods which goes into detail from the only perspective that counts. I find, given the choice between accepting or rebuking Grantiac’s wilder claims about rewriting existence or communicating with extra-dimensional entities, it is better for all concerned to assume its all true. I have no interest in a world where this sort of fascinating humbuggery actually signifies cynical self-promotion.

Images courtesy of Vertigo

The Invisibles stand for hedonism, freedom and fun (the protagonists regularly find time to go clubbing) but what really sets this series apart is the sheer volume of new ideas fizzing off the page. Readers should prepare for their conceptual horse to bolt from their brain-stable with alarming regularity. Perception-altering interrogation-drug, Key 23, causes written words and objects they describe to become indistinguishable. Secret letters of the alphabet force the initiated to contemplate realities that feeble everyday vocabularies cannot perceive. Every film, book and song is loaded with hidden meaning. All of it good, strong, hallucinatory stuff.

Art: the first few issues could kindly be described as “patchy” but later story arks nail the psychedelic visual approach with a defining run from Phil Jimenez, ably supported by early work from Chris Weston, not to mention a revolutionary run of covers by Brian Bolland. A watershed moment, as the legendary artist makes full use of Photoshop, foreshadowing a direction taken by many artists and providing a suitably intoxicating visual motif for the series. I love the cover featuring a symbol-laden Ganesh.

There are holes to be poked—we could quibble about the coherence of the storyline, with hindsight, some references grate a little (Kula Shaker, anyone?) and admittedly trip-hop voodoo act “The Root Doctorz” are marginally painful. However, as a work that openly stated its intent to change the world, defiantly sought to inspire its readers to fight the powers of oppression and claimed it was poised to reveal the secret of the universe, these are mean-spirited criticisms.

It is probably fair to say that, from a narrative perspective, the story is at its strongest between issues 10 and 50 (“Apocalipstick” through to “Counting to None” storylines). I know some feel the story fizzles out somewhat towards the end; this is one view. Personally, I think it would be hugely disappointing had this twisted epic wrapped up neatly with a cliché McGuffin to answer our questions. The reader must draw his or her own conclusions about what it all means. If that isn’t actually the secret of the universe, it’s damned close.

Anyone who is interested in the concepts but dissatisfied with The Invisibles‘ somewhat inconclusive, um, conclusion would be well-served to explore later, thematically linked works by Mr Morrison, The Filth and Nameless, which boil similar concepts down into shorter, more potent brews (if The Invisibles is strong lager, Nameless is absinthe). Both should be acquired immediately. As a springboard for future reading, this series has some wonderful influences that it wears on its sleeve: Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs et al.

Images courtesy of Vertigo

20 years after its publication and five years after the mooted date of the apocalypse (22nd December 2012), how relevant does the story remain and how successful were its aspiration to change the world? The increasing prevalence of binary politics, nationalism, and increasingly stratified choices of media/propaganda might indicate that things are going depressingly well for the Archons. Who would have thought, two decades down the line, the somewhat heavy-handed motif of toffs in foxhunting regalia slicing up the homeless would still have resonance with current events?

Anyone who has felt they were staring into the abyss when confronted with pointless, vociferous hatred on internet message boards or at political rallies might be hearing the faint sound of The King of Tears’ mandibles clacking with joy. As methods of social control go, the Archons do not have much to offer that modern governments and multi-nationals haven’t already thought of. The threat to “turn your children into mobile advertising hoardings for corporations” loses much of its sting if we consider this is actually a direct aspiration of many young YouTubers.

Take heart though, friends, while, on the surface this story is about a binary conflict, it retains a comforting message: when questioned about the appearance of this enemies, proto-messiah Jack Frost responds, “I think they’d look like us – to the point where you couldn’t tell the difference.” Generally taking the form of authoritarian tropes such as schoolteachers, soldiers or members of the aristocracy, it is an understated fact that Morrison generally retains a degree of sympathy for his dastardly conformist villains.

These initially chilling fascists are inevitably revealed as beset by deep trauma, victims of abuse, crushed by the system they now protect; who, had things turned out differently, are potentially Invisible themselves. Some ultimately achieve a form of catharsis (a marginally comforting idea for anyone who ended up in a “proper” job). Significantly, Morrison’s Invisibles often find themselves questioning the righteousness of their cause, or, more disturbingly if they ever had a cause to start with. I regard this as the series’ most potent and relevant message.

Convincing humans that they have nothing in common with those of a different background, different skin colour or even a different opinion is big business. From either side of the political divide there are those with a vested interest in emphasising a divisive worldview, in promoting discord and turmoil. The Invisibles thrusts our faces deep into the subjective armpit of humanity. We should inhale, contemplate and acknowledge that when it comes to people, fundamentally, there is no difference; it just depends on our point of view.

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