Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Invisibles by Grant Morrison et al

Sorry for generic pics lately - scanner broken!
It’s taken me a while to get around to reading The Invisibles. At the time it started I was getting a bit burned out with comics in general and in particular with the boundary busting work of the Vertigo crowd. The Invisibles sounded like the worst kind of self-indulgence to me at the time and this put me off.

However, a few years back I began getting interested in Grant Morrison again, and I started to think that maybe I should read The Invisibles. I was put off now by the wallet-busting seven volumes, even despite my healthy budget for pamphlets. What finally swung the deal was the new library in Deptford, the Deptford Lounge. It’s a smart modern library with a swish coffee bar and computers and wifi and most attractively a huge selection of brand new graphic novels including all seven volumes of The Invisibles.

Needless to say, after all these years avoiding it I loved it!

Reading The Invisibles at fifteen year’s remove and being of a certain age brought back days of the mid to late 90s. Sometimes it’s like leafing through old copies of Fortean Times or Nexus Magazine or Mondo 2000 mixed with an issue of Skin 2. The neo-psychedelic rave culture visuals and character design evoked memories of late nights in smokey basements with pounding music and uncertain psychic states.

That’s the 90s I remember! The Invisibles is driven by that decade’s obsessions with the hidden and the transgressive. It was the decade when the underground went overground, when John Waters and David Lynch and Nick Cave and all the formerly dark and obscure creators of the previous decades were dug up and celebrated. It was also the era of alien abductions and conspiracy theories, the metaphysical works of Terence McKenna, of Masons and Templars and the Blood and Grail, and of new styles of occultism that dispensed with ancient masters and admitted it was all made up by calling on pop culture demons of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Expressing this Zeitgeist is one of The Invisible core elements. It underlies the occult conspiracies, hidden history, unexpected twists, transsexualism, drug culture and S&M stylings, as well as more traditional standbys like swearing, nudity and graphic violence. It’s self-consciously ‘of its time’ in the same way as the great 60s masterpieces by Moebius, or the writing of Robert Anton Wilson, or films and TV like The Man Who Fell to Earth, El Topo or The Prisoner. It’s of its time in that it’s a work that could not be created at any other time in quite the same way.

It starts off like a particularly warped kids TV series. The story of Dane’s initiation on the streets, feels more like it’s been written for young adults. After this, though, the story changes tack dramatically, with the introduction of King Mob and a time travelling storyline featuring Byron, Shelley and the Marquis de Sade. This dragged a bit for me – a lot of talk for a visual medium – but the pace quickly picks up in subsequent series as the philosophical ideas meld more intimately with the action. It still has issues that focus on ideas but these are powerfully dramatised through character origin stories (of Boy and Lord Fanny, for example) or sci fi maguffins – the time machine plot is a particularly great example.

There’s an amazing sense of consistency across the longer story arc of The Invisibles that saves it from feeling like a load of random old bollocks. As bizarre and far out as it seems, beneath it all is a core of recurring protagonists and antagonists with comprehensible and consistent goals. The way they clash as they attempt to crush each other is what prevents this story from getting bogged down. Few of the individual stories quite end as one expects, but during the build-ups, at least, Morrison is happy to use the basic plot mechanics of goodies versus baddies to keep things moving.

Phil Jemenez, is the stand out artist on this series. He gives the psychedelic visions dreamed up by Morrison a wonderfully weighty and realistic feel by mixing the cinematic American hero style with the surreal visuals of the great European artists of the 60s like Moebius, Duillet and perhaps especially Enki Belial. In addition there’s the fantastic Bolland covers to enjoy, and plenty of other great artists at work in the series. I particularly enjoyed the cycle of artists used in the final story arc – a simple but effective device that worked brilliantly to emphasise the destruction/deconstruction going on in the story.

The series ends just at the right time with a suitably audacious climactic final arc. He’s always had a bit of knack for a handy exit; other writers run their concepts into the ground, but Morrison has so far been pretty canny about moving on to the next thing and not looking back. It’s amazing how much he manages to tie it all together, in fact, bringing back characters and sub-plots you thought were long ago concluded.

Sure, there are some problems. Sometimes it doesn’t make much sense and the characters can be a little bit smug about their jet-setting lifestyle and recreational drug use. In addition there’s a difference between transgression and gratuitously freaking the norms, and Morrison falls prey to the latter at times. Plus, of course, large dollops of Morrison’s eccentric philosophical views which sometimes tried my patience.

That’s Morrison for you, however. As I discussed in my review of Supergods, I don’t think the story could have been written any other way than warts and all and the overall effect makes it worth forgiving these indiscretions. There’s not a dud issue in this terrific run, and more than a handful of real stand-out issues and story arcs.

In a way I’m glad it took me so long to get to The Invisibles. I got to read the whole thing in a big hit over a few months, more or less for free. I think it would have been a different, less enjoyable experience getting it a drip at a time over a period of years. It’s like the switch from watching regular weekly TV and getting the boxed set. You can read them more like a proper book, without the long waits wherein you inevitably forget what happened a year before. Maybe this is the one that’s convinced me that trade paperbacks are the way to go... wait, give up my pamphlets? NEVER!

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