My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This will be a pitch. You should read The Invisibles. Certainly those of you who have been reading some of the other things I write about here: not only Alan Moore, but also Herman Melville, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Toni Morrison (no relation).
I had not read The Invisibles all the way through since about 2001 or 2002. I assumed, because it was so timely, almost reading at moments like a journal Morrison was keeping about 1990s cultural trends, that it could not possibly hold up. But rereading it over the last month, I was surprised to find that its time has come round at last. So what is The Invisibles? Why should you read it?
First, its author: Grant Morrison, a Glaswegian working-class magician, punk, and failed pop star, became one of the most notable writers of American comics during the late-1980s British Invasion. Morrison wrote a metafictional treatment of Animal Man and an avant-garde superhero saga in Doom Patrol; and, most consequentially on the material plane, also wrote the delirious Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, which, coinciding with Burton’s Batman movie of 1989, became a bestseller. The newly enriched Morrison traveled the globe, experimented with drugs, received the secrets of the universe from aliens in Kathmandu in 1994, and began a new creator-owned series for DC Comics’s adult Vertigo imprint about a cell of anarchist terrorists called The Invisibles who war against evil insectoid Archons bent on controlling the world.
Morrison’s series begins when The Invisibles need to add a new fifth agent to their cell, which consists of the glamorously violent Englishman, King Mob; the fragile psychic waif, Ragged Robin; the former New York City cop, Boy; and a trans magician from Brazil, Lord Fanny. This quartet tries to recruit a Liverpudlian teenaged delinquent named Dane MacGowan, who may be a new Buddha.
The 1500+ pages of the series narrate how Dane’s becoming an Invisible coincides with the mounting crises leading first to the millennium and then to 2012. On this date, humanity is due to ascend into what Morrison calls “the Supercontext,” or a matured experience of spacetime as an integrated simultaneous totality to which terms like good and evil will not apply. Early in the series, Morrison reveals that what looked like a “war” in the first few chapters, a cliched fight between rebels and empire, is in fact a “rescue mission.” Images of medicine and midwifery abound: our heroes aim not to kill but to cure and to convert the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend. Evil is just misrecognized good, usually misrecognized by itself.
While The Invisibles is, in practice, about as didactic as I’ve made it sound, its moral is nonetheless dramatized through a compelling and often very moving story: it is the tale of Dane’s growth from aimless violence to supernal serenity; of King Mob’s seduction by and then weaning from the habitual practice of brutality; of Boy’s quest for revenge against the racist powers-that-be who murdered both of her brothers and her slow realization, like Dane’s and King Mob’s, that force is not the solution; of Fanny’s endless initiation into her family’s matriarchal magical practice; and of Ragged Robin’s (bear with me here) composition of much of the tale we’re reading in a sensory deprivation tank in 2005 and her subsequent—or is it?—travel through time.
(Time travel is an important image for Morrison, since the time-suit Robin uses to navigate the temporal rapids is just a picture of ourselves as we would look sub specie aeternitatis: not only an extensive body but an unfolded life.)
There is more to the story even than the above, though, since Morrison creates an expansive and global story with a multitude of characters. The rueful story of a foot soldier shot by King Mob in the first chapter even becomes the series’ moral compass is the first episode in which we hear, albeit garbled, the crucial advice to call on the Buddha of compassion. Then there is Sir Miles Delacourt, an occultist who succumbs to the lust for power and control precisely because he, as he belatedly understands, lacks the compassion urged upon us at intervals throughout the whole epic.
Most movingly is the story of Quimper, a character who first appears as a nightmare villain; I might compare him to Robert Blake’s character from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Yet we learn that he was originally a kind of angel fallen into our dimension of matter and tortured and abused until he became evil. His plaintive whisper, “Once I was a little light,” is for me the most moving line in the whole series (because weren’t we all?), and the climax of his tale, when he is redeemed by a kiss, saved by love, is also the climax of Morrison’s evolving ethics.
Morrison recommends an evolution beyond politics, beyond violence, beyond us vs. them. This, like postmodernism in general (or even Romanticism in general), might be described as the internal conservative critique of the radical left: a warning of where the way of Robespierre and Lenin leads. (Hence the unsoundness of now-fashionable pronouncements that postmodernism is “cultural Marxism.” It would make far more sense to call it “cultural anti-Marxism”!)
Early in the narrative, The Invisibles travel back to the French Revolution and meet the Marquis de Sade as Byron and the Shelleys debate freedom and necessity. Sade is the hero of this tale insofar as his epics of degradation allegorize reason at its limit and thus tell the truth about the revolution’s sadism, while Percy Shelley’s idealism is humbled by the suffering of his family. At the end of the book, Sade reappears as a kind of Wilhelm Reich figure, trying to engineer sexual liberation, and he is rebuked in his turn for what we can only assume is a lack of love by another of the series’s heroes, Lady Edith Manning. Edith is an occultist of the modernist era who meets King Mob in 1988 and then later—yes, later: time travel, remember—in 1924. Morrison historicizes the series’ own aesthetics when King Mob proclaims the future to have begun with modernism, even though the narrative already showed it to have begun in 1792. Every era that opens itself to change prepares the way into the supercontext. King Mob tells Edith to tell Robin to call on Buddha, a message intercepted in infancy by the soldier King Mob kills, a plea for peace echoing through time and unheeded until the conclusion.
My pitch so far has been narrative and thematic, but what about aesthetics? How is this as a reading experience? I won’t, like other ad-men, lie to you: the quality is uneven, for reasons that have everything to do with the exigencies of comic-book serial publishing. The Invisibles has a revolving cast of artists, wildly distinct in quality, and even two different letterers, one of whom is the comics legend Todd Klein and the other of whom is, putting it politely, not.
Because Morrison writes in such various tones and moods, from Pythonesque farce to Lovecraftian horror, and even parodies with Joycean aplomb a host of comics storytelling styles, it is not necessarily a problem to have multiple artists. It only detracts from the book when they are not all as good as Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez, and Frank Quitely, who are the standout artists of the series’s three main divisions. Thompson’s sketchy somberness matches the brooding tone of the first third, Jimenez’s superhero art via fashion spread echoes the middle third’s themes of the temptations of glamor and violence, and Quitely’s lived-in Eurocomics futurism makes for a plausible conclusion in 2012. The rest of the many artists aren’t bad, and in fact Chris Weston is in his way positively good (though more appropriate, because disgustingly inappropriate, for Morrison’s later work, The Filth); but they aren’t quite up to realizing Morrison’s literary ambition.
The narrative, as well, is spread too thin in places: whatever anxiety of influence Morrison is working out with regard to British detective TV shows of the 1970s is lost on me and feels like an absurdly lengthy digression, for instance, though maybe it works better for British readers. In general, Morrison writes in a kind of cut-up style, raining content down on readers’ heads in what sometimes feels like random order, much of it cynical and ugly, and half the addictive pleasure is sorting through it all to find the moving lyrical grace notes that occur and then recur: the story’s threads, heart-red, binding it internally even when it seems to be a meaningless collage. Hence my recommendation for fans of Pynchon and Joyce. For all that, though, a tighter narrative might not have been amiss, especially when without it characters like Boy and Robin disappear for far too many pages.
All that said, I will, speaking only for myself, never understand people who think the recent spate of “literary” graphic novels from Chris Ware to Richard McGuire is the best the medium has to offer when they don’t seem aware that something like this, which recreates the whole universe to explain it anew, even exists. The Invisibles has not been without influence, but its influence has been too confined to an in-crowd and coterie, and their recent productions (I have sampled some of the Young Animal material as well as the works of Aleš Kot) seem to me like the attempts of a later generation to recapitulate an artistic revolution without having thought through whatever made it necessary in the first place and without trying to make their own advance.
Let’s end with politics. The Invisibles is a story about the simultaneous necessity and irrelevance—or even immorality—of revolution. It is also about conspiracy theories. I have not emphasized the latter enough yet, but Morrison does explain in the course of the book what crashed at Roswell and why the establishment killed Princess Di, among other things. Perhaps “this hasn’t aged well,” as the Twitterati like to say. Aren’t conspiracy theories the province of the MAGA/Brexit crowd nowadays? Doesn’t the present state of things necessitate a redoubled attempt at revolution?
One YouTube personality who began on the left and who now retails exegeses of QAnon flatters his audience by hailing them as “the conspiratorium clerisy.” He is friends, moreover, with Roseanne Barr, herself an adept of the same baffling oracle. On Roseanne in the mid-1990s, an Invisibles poster hung on Darlene’s bedroom wall, just as one was taped to my own. Who could have foreseen where we’d all end up? Then again, The Invisibles hasn’t aged a day, give or take a Kula Shaker reference; it is odd to read a book prophesying a future that is now past, when its depiction of the past as a time of befuddling and agitated complexity still feels like the present, only a bit heightened, a bit degraded, and, for now, less optimistic.
What if the comrades are correct and the simultaneity of time is not a timeless philosophical proposition but just a description of cultural arrest under the reign of the corporation? At the conclusion of The Invisibles, King Mob prepares the way for our ascension to the supercontext by the release of a game that is, transparently, The Invisibles itself. The allegory is plain, and Morrison in interviews made it clearer: we can get free not by fighting the power but by becoming the power. While the Battle of Seattle raged, our author told us to enter the boardroom rather than fighting in the street. Morrison was surely wrong—I think we see this now—to imagine liberation through the counterculture’s seizure of corporate control, to bank everything on feedback rather than opposition; this countercultural control is what has happened, and the results are mixed to poor, with liberal democracy hollowed out by Silicon businessmen and frightful insurgencies rising in reaction. DC Comics, in any case, isn’t publishing any new books this interesting, unless I’m missing something.
On the other hand, the comrades must be wrong, or else shooting one’s way out of this problem would have worked the last hundred times it’s been tried. If you fight the forces of repression, you become repressive; this is not a childish moral equivalence but a description of reality. War itself is the ultimate force of repression. Promulgators of salvation-through-arms from Marxists to neoconservatives rage so fiercely against “moral equivalence,” in fact, because acts that are phenomenally equivalent often are morally equivalent. It isn’t better or more justified when we do it, unless there is no such thing as universal ethics and/or unless they are not people. (This need not be a strictly pacifist credo, just an ethically rigorous one when it comes to violence of all kinds.) Despite superficial dissimilarities, Albert Camus is an author very like Morrison in that both oddly end up redescribing anarchism as the essence of political moderation; as the philosopher explains in The Rebel, once you have embraced a politics that postpones the ethical until after the millennium you are, for all practical purposes, already committed to the guillotine and the gulag.
Morrison makes this point not didactically, but through narrative structure, first inciting the reader to swoon at King Mob’s reign of terror by having it surrounded by pop culture and erotic imagery, all conveyed through Jimenez’s deliriously slick linework. But eventually we are repulsed and learn to love the arts of peace: King Mob becomes defined as Robin’s lover more than as a lone assassin, and we thereby find ourselves rooting for love not war. Such an investment in the personal pries us from our desire to be members of anybody’s clerisy. Horizontal, not vertical relations. “Once I was a little light.” How to be so again? Morrison mistook the economic for something other than war by other means (and I am sufficiently non-doctrinaire to think the question remains open, though I am also hostile to corporate monopolies and see no salvation whatsoever coming from that quarter) but also had the end (as in purpose) right and was moreover correct in warning that violent means will corrupt the end itself.
“Edith says to call on Buddha”: the moral buried in the heart of this vast, exhausting crypt and cryptogram, like those similarly encoded/entombed in the labyrinths and pleas for peace crafted/coded/cried by Joyce and Pynchon: “Love, says Bloom”; “They are in love. Fuck the war.” If that does not make you want to read The Invisibles, I don’t know what will.