INQUIRE ABOUT ADVERTISING ON THE ADD BLOG

Trouble with Comics

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 #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