Mar 26, 2015

Common Criticisms Reconsidered: The Invisibles

Travis Hedge Coke

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen a fair amount of criticism before, be it reviews in a magazine, someone tweeting out a one-line takedown, or shooting the bull with friends and their friends (whose dumb opinions sometimes make you wonder about your friends and the friends they choose). And, when you like something, or when you hate it, or when it’s simply really popular at the moment, you’re exposed to a lot of repeated criticisms until those become things you just say without much consideration, like “Frank Miller can’t write a script without saying “Whores whores whores.”

So, let’s take some oft-repeated criticisms (this time, of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles) and see how they stack up. Bearing in mind that you're not actually participating (unless you write in!), I’ll try to be fair and equitable while I’m opinionatedly giving you my opinions in rhetorical structures based around my tastes.

It Starts Weak

“People think the best part, or the most important, is at the beginning or the end, but it turns out, it's in the middle.” Kiarna Boyd, Blessed and Cursed Alike

While I don’t lay the blame with the artist of the launch, Steve Yeowell, and I wasn’t feeling the same Vertigo-style burnout that some were when the series premiered, I wasn’t a fan of the initial storyline, composed of an extra-length one-off to get us going and then the part examination of the protagonist’s homelessness, childhood paranoias, and his indoctrination into the open secret order called The Invisibles. Looking at the pitch documents and the early goals Morrison had for the series, I understand why it opens with a very glib attitude followed by a note-for-note Hero’s Journey riff.

I’m not opposed to a conscious mimicry of the Hero’s Journey, just as I may like Don’t Stop Believing if it comes in the middle of a set, but I don’t want to own a Journey album. That initial storyline makes it seem as if The Invisibles is that kind of album; tired, twee, overly familiar.

The follow-up story, drawn by Jill Thompson, is one of my personal favorites out of the whole series, but it was very talky, much less shooty, and the second page is a drawing of a page of writing. As much as I may adore Thompson’s Mary Shelly or Fanny shoving her high heeled shoe into the eye of a faceless and sadistic demon, it was planned as a firewall, by the author, to let people who wanted a different ride off before the roller coaster stated going strong, and in that sense, it did it’s job. People did then, and still do jump off the ride somewhere in those early issues.

But, the comic has several other entry points. Some issues were one-offs that could be read on their own. There are like seven different trade paperbacks, comprising three “volumes,” each reintroducing the characters and with its own tone and style. Compared to a lot of comics, The Invisibles changed gears regularly, reintroduced everything at a new angle hoping for new or different readers. Volume Two was deliberately slicker, more Hollywood. Volume Three was talky and poppy with a cartoon aesthetic. “Royal Monsters” was class and family horror with a chase through the woods and a weird beast in a secret room of a castle. “Satanstorm” was detectives pursuing a conspiracy that goes to the top, while Mob goes about getting the band back together “Liverpool” was you-can’t-go-home-again with a young man on the run, visiting old friends and his mum and realizing what his child’s eyes and ears couldn’t catch the last time he was home. The final issue is, itself, a standalone story marked as issue one, taking place a decade after the previous comic.

Conclusion: True-ish.

Sex, Gender, and Fanny

Lord Fanny was the breakout character, the Fonzie of The Invisibles, but Morrison’s treatment of her gender and sexuality frustrated some readers from early on. Is Fanny a woman with a penis? Is she a man dressing in women’s clothes as an act? Is he gay or is she straight and transgendered?

Fanny is Fanny. She’s not allowed to be unsure or hypocritical or a little fucked up by her upbringing and friends like the rest of us?

Fanny feeling like a “she” for a bit, and a “he” some other times, or feeling that feminine attire is dress-up costuming aren’t contradictory. Fanny being into guys one minute and later, the comic telling us that she doesn’t enjoy sex with men, she’s all about sex with women, that would be contradictory. Life isn’t textbook or tumblr. Fanny is Fanny, fat or thin, young or old, man or woman, boygirl or magician or dancer or hooker or Morrison in a wig and cocktail dress or the person next to you on the sofa, Fanny is Fanny.

Conclusion: People are too uptight.

Love of Gold

“I fought in the Battle of the Somme. Summer of 1916. 42, 000 British troops died… I don’t know how many Germans and French… and believe me, the sons of the rich were ground into the mud just as impartially as the sons of the poor. Death doesn’t accept bribes. And… I fell in love with a rich girl.” Grant Morrison. The Invisibles, "Sensitive Criminals”

Even diehard Invisibles fans have asserted that everyone in the comic is either rich or wants to get rich. And, this is bad, of course.

Dane, the protagonist, is never wealthy, spending the series sleeping rough or at friend’s houses, but he is certainly enthralled by the glamor of money early in the series. King Mob, the other consistent face and proxy for the author has money, calls himself “rich” at some points, but his “rich,” as the son of two immigrant artists who writes scary novels, is not rich like Tom Cruise or Bill Gates is rich. He’s just not living in a shared apartment and eking it out paycheck to paycheck. Mason is a billionaire. His employees like Takeshi are not. Fanny grew up dirt poor and was a hooker on street corners before joining up with the Invisibles and basically living off their dollar. Mr. Six teaches high school in Liverpool. He has some fancy furniture, yeah, but having eclectic chairs or open-front shirts doesn’t magically give you money, it means, at most, that you put money you had into those things.

The Invisibles are glamorous. They’ve got style or eccentricity. But it’s mostly affected and it’s all communally pooled. The old set, who were in their prime in the 1930s, are mostly from rich families, but not all, and in the modern day and future, the rich are throwing in their wealth while the poor and working class contribute what they have, as well. Of Mob’s team, he’s the only one with a car.

Conclusion: Money’s useful if you want to buy things.

Past Its Sell-By

“Those who purchase it secure for themselves a piece of history. Who will buy, who will buy, who will buy? An historical dress going - such a bargain! Who, who will buy” - L.T. Meade, A Sweet Girl Graduate

2012 has come and gone. It won’t be back. So, is a series about the 1990s, in which a mythical and huge event scheduled for late 2012 worth reading after we know it won’t come to pass? Now that the calendar is a few years later and everyone wears different style jackets than they did then?

Not to rile the Matrix Warriors in the audience, but these things are never prophecy. Yes, now when you read The Invisibles the 90s don’t feel like today, the way they could when they were today. And, 2012 isn’t entirely like the one we actually had. But, as far as the big in-story events, while there was no nanite storm unleashed, we do have super-flus and kids sitting in beanbag chairs stoned and horny and talking shit. We can get TV in our cars and internet on our everything. And, you can’t prove we didn’t all have an incredible moment of understanding or empathy sometime, vaguely, around December 2012, or at some other point during our life. King Mob has a vivid hallucination during the event, but King Mob does a lot of drugs and probably has vivid hallucinations. Boy just crying and said, “Hi.” Dane saw Jesus. Audrey Murray or Mary the teacart lady from “House of Fun” probably just felt warm for a moment and laughed a little before rubbing a cat’s head and getting off the sofa.

The comic is very, very 90s in tone and execution, styles and affectations. It’s a bit more universal in concerns and characterizations. And as far as the big Event at the end, we just don’t know. We, as readers, put far more into it than we are ever given in the series. It’s left wide open and intriguing and we fill in the blanks. And, looking at it freshly, from this side of the deadline date, it might look different than it did while we weren’t counting up.

Conclusion: This is just silly.

Study Time!

“Some books you may have to reread more then once, since they have a lot of depth and other clues in other books are needed to understand what is happening. Understanding Grant Morrison's Batman is not going to be easy if you want to reach those deeper levels.” - Silkcuts, Required reading to understand Grant Morrison's Batman

And, what is this 2012 event? Do I have to read a book? On page one, Elfayed tells a story about a beetle carrying the sun, and Dane’s teacher talks about the October Revolution. “Ontic sphere”? “Mictlantecuhtli”? “Air Supply” and “Simply Red”? Should I know look these up on Wikipedia?

This is not an uncommon feeling when first reading the comic, or just approaching it. Mainly because there are annotations out there and explicatory books, there are a lot of fans who insist you know the ins and outs of everything mentioned in the comic. But, no, you really don’t. What’s important to the comic is in the comics. When Mictlantecuhtli is mentioned, what he is, is said immediately after. The guy at the lab is listening to Simply Red, so you can suss it’s music, because he wouldn’t be listening to flowers or a peculiar bird on his headphones.

The author was by no means an expert in most of the things mentioned or shown in the comic, from the cosmogonic to the mechanical, he probably never made a hand of glory or drove a car with a bomb installed in it. Morrison had not read much Philip Dick when he did The Invisibles, but there are shoutouts to Dick and his influence on others throughout because it’s the sort of thing you pick up talking to people who do read Dick. Iron Empires that never fell and divine visions and the importance of perspectives and empathy.

Conclusion: These same people think you need to have advanced physics degrees to read Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four or literary pedigree to enjoy the same issues of Sandman that hundreds of teenagers traced Death and Desire from in case mom and dad let them have a tattoo.

The Jam Failed
“There’s no way around it: the three issues of “The Invisible Kingdom” are artistically frustrating because of the decision to make them artistic jam sessions, with different artists doing just a few pages apiece. The concept may have been interesting in theory, but the end result is frustrating. An artistic jam can work when there’s logic behind the artistic changes. If One wanted an artistic jam, a better approach would have been to give perhaps the three biggest artists from the series (Jimenez, Weston, and either Yeowell or Thompson) one issue each, or to split up the various story threads between them, rather than using artists who didn’t make much of an impact on the series.” - Patrick Meaney, Our Sentence is Up

The Invisibles had a ton of different artists, pencilers, inkers, painters, letterers, and colorists. Mark Millar may have dialogued an issue or two. Cameron Stewart redrew a page or two when the series was collected and several of the collections feature minor art tweaks, including backgrounds, patterns, and at a couple points, the stars in the sky overhead. But, the last three issues just before the actual last issue had different artists contributing one or two pages at a time, in quick succession, which has become called in comics jargon a jam.

Did that jam story, “The Invisible Kingdom” fail artistically or aesthetically? Meaney believes so, many agree, and he cites Morrison as admitting it did. It’s one of my favorite bits in the whole thing, and that technique in particular is why. I like that it shifts style and techniques abruptly, that some of the clothing isn’t on model page to page, that some details get fuzzy. For them, it failed. For me, it justified the whole shebang.

“The Invisible Kingdom” is, as a surface story, a stop-the-bomb thriller that we’ve already seen and we’re rewatching. Dane narrates the thing and tells us it all worked out before we see it work. We know everything’s going to come off. Our peeps are too cool for it not to.

What makes “The Invisible Kingdom” crackle and sing for me isn’t the rush to hit a deadline, it’s seeing everyone from different angles, both narratively and visually. Helga looking lazy and smirky in her underwear or spiffy and academic. Mob under the gun, and Mob holding the gun. Etchy, dark, dense claustrophobic horror and vibrant, loud sound-fx-blaring excitement! A single penciler, even one doing different styles or indulging in homages or experiments would feel far too cohesive for the culmination of a comic about accepting alternate perspectives, a comic steeped in embracing variations and contradictions and the inexplicable.

Conclusion: The jam didn't fail. You failed the jam.

Indecipherable; Nonsensical

While there is a lot packed into The Invisibles, it’s not impenetrable or really all that difficult a comic. The ethical questions are probably more deserving of deep rumination than whose hand the Hand of Glory might have been or what the dead cow symbolizes. Sometimes surprising or beautiful or inelegant things occur, both in comics and in life. That does not make life or comics “nonsensical.” Nonsense is not another word for “I don’t like it” or “Not the way I see it.”

There has been some argument that the art obscures the meaning of the scripts or dialogue, or that the dialogue obscures Morrison’s meaningful points, or that slang or violence or sex, horror, dancing make things confusing, that there shouldn’t be aliens or ghosts or America, because those are just ridiculous and distract too much. It’s too easy to go online or to a comics shop and prod someone into saying eagerly that the comic is pure nonsense.

And, maybe there are points that are obscured by the art or overcomplicated by conversation or panel arrangement.

However, something like the King Mob fight from “The Invisible Kingdom,” which is repeatedly pointed to as being difficult to understand, quite clearly shows soldiers holding guns on King Mob, then Mob grabs his sharp-looking headdress, cuts guy's face with it, gets shot in the back, kicks the guy who shot him… and a few pages later finishes that fight before we see him stumble away and try to die in a phone booth.

I’m sorry, but the only way those pages are all that difficult to understand is if you’re trying not to understand them. Or skimming, in which case, well, you’re skimming. Skimming is fine, but you can’t fault any work of art or entertainment if you miss things because you were barely looking.

Other scenes are presented without answers, like what happened with John A’Dreams and King Mob in the early 90s, because it’s a mystery. They don’t know what happened. You’re not meant to have answers yet.

And, the dream sequences or trips are, well, dreams and stuff. They aren’t being related to us as stories (So what if they were?), but as experiences of the characters and they follow the logic and patterns one should expect.

Conclusion: Boys keep swinging. Boys always work it out.

You can get the Omnibus here:

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