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Trouble with Comics

Grant Morrison’s Eroding Significance Apparently Bothers Him Very, Very Much

I understand completely why Grant Morrison is so insecure about his place in comics history in comparison to Alan Moore, but someone should really explain to Morrison how much weaker and more inferior he ironically makes himself appear with such verbose defensiveness. The work of the two writers should speak for itself, Grant, and let history decide how much you did or didn’t matter. This piece reminds me, more than anything, of Straczynski’s desperate, pathetic need to justify his participation in Before Watchmen by tearing Moore down, despite the fact that the worst thing Moore ever wrote is twice as interesting and enduring as the best thing Straczynski ever did. The last couple sentences of this article at The Comics Reporter really say all that needs to be said.

Alan David Doane 

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #7

"Arcadia Part 3: 120 Days of Sod All"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Jill Thompson

Vertigo Comics, from The Invisible Omnibus $150 USD

I have to hand it to Morrison: only half a year into the series and he spends a issue on Sadeian cruelty and depravity, challenging material for a publishing imprint very early in its lifetime, its “edgy” material thus far mostly to do with extreme but not overtly sexualized violence. The title is an English pun on the Marquis de Sade’s famous, unfinished novel, 120 Days of Sodom, in which four rich noblemen in an inaccessible castle commit unspeakable acts of depravity on teen girls and boys, with the assistance of brothel keepers and studs, servants and others. The book was only found in 1904 and almost destroyed by the French government in 1955, though it has come to be respected by some as a satire on the lofty goals of The Enlightenment.

King Mob, Boy and de Sade himself, who we saw plucked from his timeline and plunged into their time machine, find themselves observing this fiction, which, while not part of the plan, is according to Mob unavoidable. They just have to get through it until they find the exit, or the next stage on their journey. And yes, I’ve already forgotten just what the journey is about, but I think it had to do with getting away from the murderous Orlando, who had appeared in their time. They’re only metaphysically successful, as Orlando has found their corporeal forms, and has cut off the pinkie of the awakened Jack Frost. His protestations awaken Lord Fanny, who fights Orlando to no avail. He seems beyond physical pain, a malevolent force. Again, he appears like a dark half of King Mob, also bald and fashionably dressed. 

We also find Ragged Robin on her own, meeting a man at Rennes-le-Chateau who tells her of the church’s history, explored in 2003 in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code but long before then legendary for various conspiracy theories relating to treasure and certain odd features of the church, such as the Devil figure supporting the holy water stoup (rare but not unique) and a Latin inscription Morrison translates as “This place is terrible,” but is more accurately, “This is a place of awe.” As I’ve written before, I find Morrison’s knowledge dumps pretty entertaining, and I like his enthusiasm to try to tie whatever he’s been reading into this work, though he is starting to build up enough of a Jenga of famous people and places that it seems in danger of falling apart if he can’t pull it off.

We catch up with Lord Byron and The Shelleys, Percy mourning the death by dysentery of his daughter and speculating that Byron should be proud to be proved right, his cynicism trumping Shelley’s idealism and naivete. But Byron takes no pleasure in this, and attempts to take Mary Shelley’s mind off her grief with talk of his new romantic poem, Mazeppa. an interesting choice, as the poem is a transitional one for Byron, marking an uneasy end of his romantic period and the start towards the irony of Don Juan. It will be interesting to see where Morrison’s sympathies lie most, as so far, The Invisibles has been mostly earnest, with humor not generally of the ironic type.

Mary is here made of sterner stuff than Percy, but at the same time a staunch defender of the right of the poet to suffering (essentially, navel-gazing and obsessing), as, “They steal the power of creation from the gods. They remake the world with words and in the image of their dreams.” Through Mary, Morrison is giving himself license to embroider his growing tapestry of conspiracy, philosophy and sexuality as much as he wants, as it’s nigh unto a holy calling. And, you know, what writer wouldn’t agree?

The degradations of Castle Silling take up a large portion of this issue, and they’re about as unpleasant as intended, though it’s still probably PG-13 or a soft R. There’s an interesting decision, presumably by colorist Daniel Vozzo, to render most of these scenes in browns and tans, thus muting the impact of the cruelties performed. That is, it’s all still there, not obscured, but the coloring fits Morrison’s idea that these noblemen, trying to push the limits of Reason, reach a creative dead-end. Perverting or willfully disintegrating their humanity, they lack the necessary tools (love, compassion, imagination) to reach true Enlightenment. Their stagnancy is represented in rather simple visuals as a harsh winter giving way to the Spring flowers emerging from the snow, the true Enlightenment that The Invisibles represent. 

We end with Robin seeing the mole-like Ciphermen again, who, while ostensibly enemies when we first met them, nonetheless lead her to something they believe she wanted to find: the head of John the Baptist, lost treasure of the Templars.

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #6

"Arcadia Part Two: Mysteries of the Guillotine"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Jill Thompson

Vertigo Comics, from The Invisibles Omnibus $150 USD

As with the middle of the first story arc, Morrison gets a bit jammed up with a multitude of ideas and attitudes he wants to get across, leaving artist Thompson with some crammed pages she does her best to make interesting. The Invisibles are in Revolution-era Paris, looking for a local agent who will take them to the Marquis de Sade, whom they will then transport back to their timeline, presumably to help counter enemy Orlando, who we find at the end of the issue going on a kill spree. Why de Sade? Who knows? He doesn’t know anything about The Invisibles, but perhaps Morrison is choosing historical figures (artists and authors—creative types—it should be noted) who thought outside the box relative to their era, so maybe the idea is that free thinking is a kind of superpower.

Jack Frost is sick, which King Mob says shouldn’t be happening, as they aren’t even corporeal, so maybe there’s some kind of psychic malaise which affects neophyte Jack more strongly. We meet Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of Percy from last issue, and a mysterious, unaging man boards her carriage and expresses admiration for her work as well as the work of her mother, a suffragette. He’s creepy but again, on the right side of supporting the power of the intellect vs. traditional notions of the way the world works, what women can achieve, etc.

There’s a new menace introduced, The Ciphermen, which sound quite a bit like the Cybermen from Doctor Who and aren’t thematically that different. They have lost their humanity, in this case by subliminal transmissions, though why that causes them to dress up in leather and gas masks and create illusions, Morrison doesn’t explain. They look good, though. But of course, King Mob is prepared, with a weapon that disintegrates the illusions, called the Ghostbuster. There’s a bit of action, and then The Invisibles meet de Sade, who is obese and useless, self-pitying, and nonplussed at seeing the Ciphermen feed on a female corpse, even though he has imagined and written about various outrages on female flesh. They grab de Sade and hightail it back to 1995, whereupon Orlando is waiting, taking Jack’s pinky finger off with garden shears for fun.

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #5

"Arcadia Part One: Bloody Poetry"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Jill Thompson

From The Invisibles Omnibus, Vertigo, $150 USD.

The issue opens with King Mob witnessing an Indian puppet show, the Dalang (puppeteer) depicting a battle from The Mahabharata. Mob’s friend, Agus, tells him that the Dalang is more than just a puppeteer. He makes you believe you are witnessing a war, but there is no war, only the Dalang. It’s a testament to Morrison’s belief in the storyteller as God, or how a man—not just a writer, any man—can will their own reality into being. 

He follows this with a full page of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo, a naturalistic, conversational poem/dialogue said to be inspired by the different viewpoints of Shelley (optimistic, Atheist) vs. his dear friend Lord Byron (cynical, raging). We then see Byron and Shelley holidaying together, drinking wine on a beach and then in a gondola, Shelley claiming that the present is not important, because their words will live on, will make them immortal, and that man can make his own utopia if he doesn’t succumb to despair, while Byron argues that all utopias (Arcadia is another word for paradise) are built on human suffering. If you’re wondering what happened to The Invisibles, well, we’ll get to that, but these sections are vital to the series even if they don’t necessarily move the plot forward.

There’s nothing writers hate worse than critics trying to discern their motives, but I’ve read enough of Morrison’s own words about himself in countless interviews to have an idea what’s going on here. Now, while this section reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in how Gaiman opened the book up from horror and fantasy to bring in real-life dreamers like Shakespeare, I have no idea if Morrison was inspired by that. At the least, though, it’s probably reasonable to assume that the wide-ranging Sandman (and Morrison’s editor, Stuart Moore), let him know that virtually anything was fair game for The Invisibles, as Gaiman had already found success with the approach.

I recall that somewhere around this time, Morrison was traveling a lot, doing drugs, and searching for knowledge. That’s what this feels like, a writer being very open to all sorts of stimulus, reading a lot, trying to find kindred spirits. I don’t know that Shelley and Byron are integral to the Invisibles concept, though later in the issue there’s a mention of the the Invisible College, not an actual college but a group of philosophers in the 1600s, a couple hundred years before Byron and Shelley. In the dialogue between the two, one might see a battle between two sides of Morrison, the utopian and the opportunist, but I think most of us have similar battles. For anyone paying attention, it’s difficult not to try to put oneself in Morrison’s shoes, but without coming down on either side we can fairly say that his curiosity and willingness to ask some of the big questions (or is it more that he starts throwing out some answers here and the questions are inferred?) make this issue stand out as more progressive than the previous arc.

We do catch up with The Invisibles after this, and not to pick on poor Steve Yeowell again, but damn, it turns out Boy is an attractive woman when Jill Thompson draws her, not a man at all. She and Dane (Jack Frost now, though he dislikes the codename) have an exposition-laden conversation while doing yoga, no doubt another thing Morrison was into at the time, and also a decent way to make a lot of talking look not so boring. Boy explains that each Invisible sect has just five members, based on the five elemental symbols of earth, air, fire, water and spirit. Seems kind of limiting to me, but we’ll see how it goes. She says Jack has some latent psychic ability, too, so there’s that to look forward to, and that Jack needs a haircut, as it will get in his eyes while fighting. There’s the same old homophobic antipathy to Lord Fanny from Jack, which is annoying, but I guess it’s necessary that there be certain negative traits hanging on that he’ll have to shed later. Jack does seem to be on the right track of questioning his surroundings, asking Boy how he really knows he’s not on the other side.

We return to King Mob in Egypt, meeting a scrawny friend and her cyclopean, mutant baby. When he leaves, she calls out that he reminds her of Gandhi. Maybe it’s the bald head and round glasses. I’m not sure what the baby was about, other than maybe it represent’s one’s third eye, that ability to see different realities than the one seen by our other two eyes.

We kind of get into either Gaiman or Moore territory with a man in a park who is approached by a shadowy man in a white suit, who then seems to somehow become the first man by putting his parchment-like skin over the man’s face. It’s all well and good, though it would seem that early on, Morrison has realized that pitting The Invisibles against groups of people with the exact opposite mission—trying to spread lies and illusions—would get pretty boring, so instead, let’s keep a steady stream of monsters coming.

Just as King Mob is Morrison’s comics avatar, so too is Ragged Robin the spitting image of Jill Thompson. Unfortunately, he still hasn’t given her much to do yet but talk about King Mob and how great London shopping is. There’s some more exposition, needlessly explaining that the villain from Harmony House, Mr. Gelt, was a myrmidon on the side opposing The Invisibles, and that there are badges and other ways to identify allies. King Mob shows up for dinner with a ridiculous crop top mock turtleneck with plastic rings over the nipples, explaining that they need to make a trip through time, as the enemy assassin, Orlando (one of The Fleshless, so I guess he’s the guy we just saw with the white suit) is in London. Why they have to run away isn’t clear, but nonetheless, Jack has to hold Fanny’s hand as they all concentrate and leave their bodies. They arrive in what appears to be Bastille-era Paris, just as a man is beheaded on the guillotine. What better way to inculcate Jack in the need for a revolution than by exposing him to the one carried out by the French?

Although it’s hard to imagine many people preferring this to what Thompson’s art style would develop into, the storytelling is quite good and she doesn’t take any shortcuts. Morrison throws a lot at her in this issue, and under all the changes in scenery it’s a very talky issue, but the enthusiasm with which Morrison tries to share everything he’s been learning about is infectious.

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 Interlude: “Hexy”

"Hexy"

Absolute Vertigo 1995

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Duncan Fegredo

Vertigo Comics, from The Invisibles Omnibus $150 USD.

"Hexy" is a short King Mob solo adventure, from an anthology special highlighting then-current Vertigo series with exclusive original material. Fegredo has a much more aggressive style than Steve Yeowell’s on the previous Invisibles story arc, changing the position of the "camera" with every panel and using black borders around each panel, sometimes changing to a full bleed page with panels inset. Morrison has talked about King Mob being his avatar, the man he would will himself into being, and one has to believe Fegredo gets closer here than Yeowell did, as this Mob is more overtly violent and sexual, crotch thrust forward in tight trousers, torso exposed under open spiky leather jacket, and Mob is completely comfortable speaking with dominatrix Joni.

The reason he’s speaking to her is that someone has left him a fetish, a cursed object that will bring a bad hoodoo on him in short order, and he thinks Joni might have some answers. The story is packed with magical details, as if young magician Morrison is breathless to tell readers everything he’s learned so far. I found it kind of charming, but some might find it show-offy. 

Joni says he could reverse the hex current if he found the appropriate sigil of his antagonist, the implication being that when you’re an Invisible, you’re attuned to this kind of thing and will certainly find the right sigil eventually, but it just might not be in time to save you. Mob takes a drive, offering Morrison the opportunity to make a nice point in a radio broadcast Mob listens to about how easy it is to erode civil liberties when you get the public scared enough of boogeymen in their midst. Points for prescience.

Morrison also has Mob making an assertion that the English have a kind of inherited sadomasochism within them. It’s not explained, but really just serves as an aural trigger for the observant Mob to realize that his tormentor was actually Joni all along. He finds her torturing a politician and confronts her, her reason for betrayal simply money, in true ’40s film noir femme fatale fashion. Slipping down the wall, her hands staining it with her own blood, Mob finds in the blood the sigil he was after. He kills the dangling politician after finding the same sigil on his person, so apparently he was the one trying to kill Mob, not Joni? The politician weakly threatens that they’ll get Mob and the Invisibles in the end, before Mob suffocates him in his gimp mask. 

It’s a good-looking, moderately successful story that could, for all I know at this point, stand as a microcosm of The Invisibles series: lurid sex and easily justified ultraviolence against faceless villains mixed with esoteric philosophies and sparse social commentary. It will be interesting to see the comic’s battle between big dick and big brain.

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #3

"Down and Out in Heaven and Hell Pt. 3"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Steve Yeowell

Vertigo Comics. From The Invisible Omnibus $150 USD

The first story arc of the series concludes this issue, with few surprises but it’s executed well. After a sweet scene of Dane and Tom O’Bedlam tossing the ol’ Frisbee around like best mates, Dane bids goodbye to his angry, ignorant childhood by firebombing his last stolen car. Tom, as expected, is ready to move on or die, having taught Dane as much as he can, but there has to be one very real leap of faith to complete the journey to becoming Jack Frost, his Invisibles codename.

They ascend to the top of a London skyscraper, Dane having already smoked some more of that magical blue mold, and then Tom grabs Dane’s hand, imploring him to trust him. And down we go. Dane lands alone, in the park, a huge red sun seemingly floating just above him, showering him with transforming radiation. It then changes colors and seems to follow him, reminding me of that horrific white ball from The Prisoner, before it finally changes into a facsimile of Saturn, burning orange and rainbow-ringed. 

Tom left Dane an address, and he finds the place, an empty schoolroom with a pink grenade with “Smile” on it sitting on the teacher’s desk, so much more useful than an apple. King Mob reappears (presumably the teacher), as does Ragged Robin, and the rest of the team is introduced: Boy, an African-Briton who so far only stands out for having one or two more earrings than King Mob, and the much more flamboyant Lord Fanny, the transvestite from issue #2 who gave Dane a five pound note. 

It’s kind of fun that King Mob says, “It’s a man’s life in the Invisible Army,” because having one woman and one transvestite (could be transsexual, not sure yet) on the team announces that we’re going to be handling superheroes and espionage and whatever kind of typically-macho genre story material in a different way, that the notions of what being a man is will go deeper than being virile and brave and being good with one’s fists or a gun. 

There’s also more interesting coloring in this issue, the lavenders offsetting the Saturn carrying over to the walls and signage on the next page as a sign that Dane has truly crossed over. Yeowell’s art looks about the best it has on the series, not so much that he’s changed much, but Morrison has given him more things to draw on each page. What I mean is, a page of Dane reacting to this moon/planet following him is more difficult, as it’s different angles of basically the same thing. But a page with Big Ben, then a close-up of a gold phone on a table with bloodstains, then a shadowy figure using that phone, with candelabra behind him, then a shot from outside the window looking in, and then outside the door—that’s diverse. Things are moving and changing. It gives Yeowell a better chance to succeed. When you give him a page that’s mostly talking, interest flags, because his staging is flat, he uses very ordinary grids, and they’re not always well-chosen, often leaving lots of negative space that drains the life from the panel. 

Anyway, the rest of the issue is mostly exposition and little teases of information. We find out the fox hunters were actually King Mob and the rest of the Invisibles, which I didn’t catch before. The shadowy figure name-drops Rex Mundi (which translates not so different from King Mob). We find out Harmony House was connected to this bad guy, so there are apparently some evil things they do that are pretty out in the open in the so-called real world. The bad guy (who is also, like King Mob, bald) dispatches agents Ragged Robin refers to as Myrmidons (which basically just means minions) to get the Invisibles. Dane is given a choice of taking off with the team or trying to survive on his own, and of course he makes the choice to go with the guys from the title of the book. We see Tom walk off down a darkened subway tunnel, and then the myrmidons show up, finding the Invisibles gone, but having left behind the Smile grenade with the pin pulled. Win. It’s not an elegant or startling issue, but everything in it was intriguing and the issue was much better paced than the previous two.

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #3

"Down and Out in Heaven and Hell Pt. 2"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Steve Yeowell

Vertigo Comics. From The Invisibles Omnibus, $150 USD.

I noted that the second issue seemed to be a sort of rethink or regression from the first issue, a way to approach neophyte Dane’s entrance into the world of The Invisibles from a different angle. I suspect that part of the reason may be because Tom O’Bedlam makes for a better tour guide than King Mob, as a) he can couch his truths in enigmatic verse, and b) he’s old and probably expendable, his death showing Dane that the world beneath the world he knows is very real, and very dangerous.

Now, Tom is very much alive here, and as I’ve said, this is all new to me, so I could be wrong. This issue is relatively free of action and conflict, as the cliffhanger last issue regarding the evil men in fox-hunting garb is resolved for the moment with them capturing Dane but letting him go, telling him they can kill him any time they want, when he least expects it. Tom isn’t there to protect Dane, leading to an argument, but soon Tom starts to show Dane more of the power and knowledge at his fingertips, and this lasts the rest of the issue. Tom touches Dane, giving him black eyes like a pigeon, telling him that he and Dane are like the pigeons or rats, small, scurrying creatures who can get around because they’re hardly noticed. Not seeming to pose a threat is the essence of subversion, the foot in the door. He then puts Dane through a kind of primal scream therapy, removing the emotional dampeners “they” give us so we don’t feel anything and don’t question why things are the way the are (or seem to be). Dane is returned to a state of grace and innocence and awareness. 

Although not much happens in terms of moving forward the plot, this transformation is obviously important enough to Morrison that he even uses a full page of whiteness to depict it, a real luxury for a 22 page comic book. Yes, we do get a few bits filled in, such as confirming that Tom is an Invisible and a peer of King Mob, as well as hints that Dane’s father’s disappearance may have more to do with an evil plot than irresponsibility, but it’s enough that we finally break down Dane enough that maybe he can accept what he’s been shown and taught and then become a force against evil. I still have my misgivings about the artwork, but while it’s not all it could be, it works.

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #2

"Down and Out in Heaven and Hell Pt. 1"

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Steve Yeowell

Vertigo Comics. From The Invisibles Omnibus $150 USD.

This issue feels like the first episode of a television series after the pilot, when some changes have been made. That’s not what happened here, of course; this issue was probably written before the first issue was drawn and it came out a month after the first issue was published. Still, after the first issue introduced Dane McGowan and got him together with King Mob, his would-be Invisibles mentor, one would expect that issue #2 would pick right up from there.

Instead, we find Dane a little older, homeless and begging on the London streets. King Mob did disappear at the end of the first issue, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that he’s been on his own since then. Before long, he meets a middle aged bum named Tom O’Bedlam, who’s prone to reciting verse—classics, limericks, and original rhymes that may or may not be meaningful or germane to what’s happening—and Dane follows Tom on a tour of a London he’s never seen, after Tom proves his credentials by somehow making Dane invisible to a policeman. During this, we see a young woman hunted like a fox by red-jacketed hunters, apparently murdered. 

Tom tells Dane that there are layers to London, different Londons than the one he sees, and he helps him see this when they smoke some blue mold growing in an unused underground train line. Up to this point, Steve Yeowell’s art has been suitable, as we’re still dealing with the mundane world of right angles and rigid lines that we think of as reality. But Morrison has written a drug trip scene here. While it doesn’t have to be swirly and psychedelic, necessarily—this hidden London is after all said to be as real as the clearly visible one—it nonetheless must be a revelation to the reader, a dazzling invitation to a deep, fascinating world that Morrison is going to be realizing and developing from here on. We get a sufficient, intentionally confusing sequence of small panels, in which it seems that Dane goes through some kind of initiation involving being scarred on the forehead by an alien. It’s okay. Having it as small panels makes them harder to stand out or have much detail, but making them small makes you look closer at them, studying, so it works as storytelling rather than attractive art. It’s functional. But when druggy Dane marvels at the colors emanating from a streetlight, and to us it just looks like any other streetlight, something is wrong. When they pass a statue of a bearded, sitting, crowned man named Urizen floating in the harbor, that needs to stand out as unusual, marvelous. I don’t know London, but it wouldn’t be hard to convince me that this statue actually exists. Again, something is wrong. It reminds me of a couple weeks ago, when I wanted to show someone Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is a visually stunning film that also has some challenging sound design, with long stretches of operatic music and some almost whispered, extremely important, voiceover. We were at a house she was watching, and since they didn’t have a blu-ray player, I brought the dvd version that came in the blu-ray package. So that’s a slight downgrade right there. But then, since she hadn’t played a dvd on this setup before, we were somehow only getting sound through the TV speakers or the middle channel or something, barely audible. It just wasn’t going to work until we finally figured out the right button to press. I just didn’t have the right method of delivering this experience properly. That’s what Yeowell’s art is here, the wrong method of delivery for Morrison’s ideas. It’s not that he’s bad, but he’s not up to the task. 

The issue ends with the fox-hunting villains finding Dane, imploring him to make a run for it so they can have a bit of sport. There are two more issues to go with this storyline, in which I’m guessing Dane will find out not only more about these hunters, but that he can’t make it on his own without the help of The Invisibles. One thing I did like about the issue was a bit where Dane is selling a newspaper and gets a fiver from a transvestite. He makes a homophobic comment to Tom, who seems to be beyond such things, so it looks like Morrison will be exploring this subject as well, like if you’re an Invisible and see beyond the illusions meant to keep us in line and unquestioning, you’ll evolve beyond these limiting prejudices. Again, though, even beyond the artistic shortcomings, it felt like Morrison has sort of lost the momentum of the first issue for what amounts to not a continuation of that story but more of just another version of the same story—the punk kid being taken in hand and shown there’s more to life than what he sees. It’s doubly odd that the events in the first issue—the horror at Harmony House—took place in the “real” world, and yet was much stranger than the fox hunters or anything else seen here in the unseen London. 

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen on The Invisibles Vol. 1 #1

"Dead Beatles"

Writer - Grant Morrison

Artist: Steve Yeowell

1994. Vertigo Comics

From The Invisibles Omnibus. $150 USD.

A shameful secret, but I sort of never read The Invisibles. Actually, maybe worse, I read the first nine or ten issues when they came out but dropped the book. Sometimes you’re ready for stuff and sometimes you aren’t. I think a lot of it had to do with being in a serious relationship and thinking that meant cutting out the comics. That was seventeen years ago? Now, we’ve gone through the cycle of Morrison being a comics messiah to maybe a semi-embarrassing egotist, a shameless self-promoter who doesn’t have a lot of kind words to say for many others, and what was considered his masterwork, this lengthy series, is now just a thing that happened to some, part of a career arguably built off the efforts of folks like Michael Moorcock and Robert Anton Wilson. Could be. I haven’t read either. My thing has always been that artists are going to disappoint you now and then, and that’s just part of being an artist. Look at Martin Scorsese, not just his filmography but the way he studies other filmmakers. He’s effusive in his praise for Elia Kazan. Others may discredit Kazan’s work due to his shameful naming of names during the ’50s Communist witch hunt, but Scorsese focuses on the work. Anyway, I waited long enough for some sort of hardcover reissue of The Invisibles and finally got it in a huge one volume omnibus tonight, so I figure I might as well get started and see what all the fuss was about.

This first issue is relatively straightforward, focusing on one Dane McGowan, a Scottish teenager who’s bright but burning with anger at the world he finds himself in. He’s on a bad path, throwing Molotov cocktails with his friends, but people are watching him, people who need him. These are The Invisibles, a secret society led by King Mob, a bald man in leather modeled on Morrison himself, but cooler. Morrison’s 1994 editorial, as well as his memoir/comics history Supergods, let me know this was a kind of magickal act, depicting a fictional avatar having adventures he wanted to have, meeting women the Morrison in our world wanted to meet, and lo, it worked.

Dane is a special young man, and likely the reader’s entry point into the weirdness behind our everyday illusions. Interestingly, Morrison doesn’t give him that special girl to love or lust after, that symbol of innocence or unattainability. Dane really has no interests other than destruction. He’s a hotheaded blank. One night, on a Liverpool pier, he spots young John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe smoking and discussing their futures, before they disappear. Dane tries to deny what he’s experienced, but we know he’s probably in for a whole lot worse and more amazing than this. We get a psychedelic scene, with a sort of prime-era Lennon being summoned in a magic ritual by King Mob. Seems he wanted some advice about Dane. 

After getting caught trying to firebomb his school, Dane is sentenced to Harmony House, a grim reformatory, where we soon see the headmaster serves some horrible dark god. We’re more in Clive Barker territory than Dickens or Orwell. All the kids in Harmony House have their individualism, their souls, burned out of them, leaving just a servile shell. I thought it was interesting that Morrison also has them all neutered (“made smooth down there”), and I’m expecting maybe there will be more examples of sexuality being an aspect of personal power and identity. We may have already seen another example in Ragged Robin, another Invisible who looks to be traditionally attractive but makes up her face like a doll or female clown.

Steve Yeowell has always been an underrated artist, with not the most attractive style but distinctive. He’s quite good at hair and body language, not bad at body language and drapery, but not very exciting at page design/composition. As with the recent Flex Mentallo collection, the colors here are not just gradated but in a cooler palette than the originals, but the choices are more effective here, the gradations adding richness without diluting power. The first issue cover, redone here for the omnibus cover, is still one of the more effective, striking comics covers I’ve ever seen, a simple image of a hand grenade framed by bright colors to make it pop, a promise of a mental explosion within.

Double-sized, it’s a very effective introduction to the series. Young Dane, a boy of promise who needs a guiding hand, rescued from certain death by a future mentor in King Mob. It’s true, Morrison might have come up with some other ways to foreshadow and build interest for King Mob aside from just having his name show up as graffiti several times, and maybe he could’ve held back that appearance longer, but it works pretty well. We get just enough of Mob and Robin to be intrigued, and enough of Dane to at least be interested in him finding a better outlet for his anger. There are some signs and portents, such as an explanation that beetles are symbols of death and rebirth, but Morrison takes a sound approach of establishing the characters and the grim real world before unloading all the crazy ideas, theories and conspiracies. He could have justified Dane’s anger by having all the adults around him be horrible, but he is more balanced and mature here. Dane’s mom is the main problem, but there’s a caring teacher who goes out of his way to help Dane, and Dane rejects him. Obviously he’s got a ways to go before he becomes what he’s supposed to. 

More to come.

—Christopher Allen

My Comics July

I’ve been doing more of my own fiction-writing these days, as well as a lot of reviews of movies and other things at my other blog, so it really seems like a modest but achievable goal is to do maybe one or two comics posts here every month. Thus, since I’m going on vacation this weekend and not likely to write anything else for a week or so, my Comics July.

It’s just under a year for DC’s New 52, and despite trying at least the first issue of about 49 of them, the only ones I am still reading are Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., The Shade, Action Comics, Batman, and Batman Incorporated (this last one having only relaunched in the last month). What you can infer from these is that I still have some affection for Grant Morrison’s writing and will see his exit from superhero comics (Batman Inc. is fun, Action more miss-than-hit, and the upcoming Multiversity stuff sounds interesting). I also somewhat enjoy Scott Snyder’s writing, though I’m not that interested in tying in old business like Arcane to the somewhat fresher Red/Green/Rot stuff. I guess it’s fair to say that’s just an expansion of stuff Alan Moore came up with many years ago when he wrote the series, but at least it’s a little new and not something that has been explored much before. I am pretty tired of the whole Court of Owls stuff on Batman, but you know, I like Batman and it’s not a bad book, though not a good one.

Jeff Lemire has done all right on Animal Man and Frankenstein, though the art on the former, while distinctive and great at the weird, disturbing scenes, is also distancing for what seems to be a comic that wants to be about familial strength and those bonds being stronger and more important to the lead character than doing superhero stuff. Frankenstein started with some interesting ideas but seems to be treading water, or maybe it’s more accurate to say it has digressed into the Rot stuff when it should be working more on making its characters distinctive. I still don’t really get Frankenstein, much less the rest of his groovy ghoulies. Overall, even with just two writers on these three series, I think tying them all together with the same menace has made each book less special.

I still read a lot of Marvel, though not much has stood out. Daredevil has regained some of its footing with Chris Samnee on art, a good choice, and Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, though unfortunately uneven artistically, has been consistently entertaining and presented a recognizable but more mature Spider-Man. Avengers vs. X-Men has improved of late, with nice Olivier Coipel art and a few chunks of issues that made sense, though a lot of the plotting is stupid and/or redundant. Why would godlike X-Men fear Scarlet Witch so much, and why is essentially dressing up some Avengers to look like her a good idea when the X-Men have telepaths who should be able to figure out who’s who?

I’m reading more Image books than I have in maybe ever, mostly creator-owned stuff. I can’t confess to loving any of it, but Saga has been imaginative and amusing if not immensely engaging yet, and I’ve also enjoyed the sort of arty take on superheroes and apocalyptic sci-fi in Glory, Prophet, while The Manhattan Projects feels so far like Jonathan Hickman going back to the well and getting S.H.I.E.L.D. right. I was into Hickman’s Secret at first, but the second issue was kind of insulting, with a cliched gangster scene and an obvious reveal stretched out to the end of the issue with four panel pages of not much going on.

I suppose, given how much his work has meant to me, that I should write more about the latest Alan Moore League of Extraordinary Gentleman book, Century: 2009, but it was just okay. Some lovely ideas, typically good Kevin O’Neill artwork and of course, it feels like good value because you read it slowly, trying to pick up on all the pop culture references. But while I appreciate that pretty much all of Moore’s work has some terrific layers to it (I’ve not doubt there’s a great story behind even garbage like Deathblow: Byblows), here, the meta-story about Moore’s disillusionment with the comics industry and the rest of popular culture is more interesting than the plot. Making fun of Harry Potter should have been more fun, right?

Having boycotted Darwyn Cooke’s latest Parker adaptation, The Score, and with no really memorable Hellboy or B.P.R.D. books this month, the only book to really excite me was IDW’s Artist Edition of David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. I’m not like ADD—I don’t read even my favorite comics over and over again, so it had been probably 20 years since I read this story. It still holds up very well, with an absolutely bulletproof first issue, although I think once it gets to the Nuke/Captain America issue, Daredevil is kind of a guest star in his own book. But while you can see some signs of writer Frank Miller’s eventual shock and awe style, he keeps things relatively restrained here, relying on Mazzucchelli to convey Captain America’s disgust and shame and the mental breakdown of Nuke. The main story of Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s ruination by the Kingpin and subsequent rebirth is not perfect, either. Matt’s flirtation with paranoia and despair is a little too brief, and how does he survive for so long on the streets? Was he homeless? And sure, seeing old girlfriend Karen Page now a junkie whore may have seemed like a progressive move for superhero comics then, but now feels a little cheap and mean. Of course it’s the woman who wrecks things for the hero. Since there was nothing to really be done with Karen once she came back to Matt, better to maybe have left her out entirely and make Matt’s downfall come from his own hubris. I don’t know, maybe I’m just blaming a lot of lesser grim and gritty comics on this early example, which doesn’t get nearly the blame as Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Moore’s Watchmen and The Killing Joke. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the better superhero stories ever written, and Miller and Mazzucchelli work so well together they can pretty much pull off anything they try here. The presentation of this book is exquisite, with oversized, heavy-weight black and white pages and a few vellum overlays to show the reader some of the more complex effects Mazzucchelli used on covers and some interior pages. Seeing what amounts to faithful photographs of the original boards makes this not only the most exciting way to experience the story but also the most intimate. Without distracting from what is a real page-turner, one still takes away the immense effort, the will to do something memorable, on the part of the artist. I can’t really imagine reading this again in the small, color format.

—Christopher Allen