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Trouble with Comics

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