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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