Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution (Volume One) (Vertigo, 1994)

In the cold light of day, this is... a very, very flawed book. It's a story where I found myself apologizing for a full half of its contents for many years, assuring newcomers that it's "difficult" but it improves tremendously. That's not quite true. While Grant Morrison's Invisibles indeed improves hundredfold and presents some completely amazing stories by the time it winds its way to a remarkable conclusion in its seventh volume, this first book is more than difficult, it's a downright painful slog. Half of it is pretty good, a quarter of it is okay, and the last quarter is the pits, just dire. If I ever told anybody - oh, hell, I told many - to start reading The Invisibles with this book, I don't need to apologize for the story, I need to apologize to them.

That said, The Invisibles was a comic series written by Grant Morrison for DC's Vertigo imprint from 1994-2000. It ran for 59 issues which are collected in seven trade paperbacks with wildly divergent designs and no sense of uniformity, which I can't stand in book series. I suppose that puts me on the side of the villains in this tale. The Invisibles are a secret society of anarchists and chaos magicians who have been waging an underground war against... well, here it falls down a bit. Would it help if I explained that the villain in this comic is the same villain as in the TV series The Prisoner?

Mentioning The Prisoner is important, because much of The Invisibles' iconography is informed by British culture, particularly television culture. There are bits later on where we meet characters who are, effectively, Jason King and Detective Inspector Jack Regan, and a key moment in episodes two and three of the first story, involving baddies dressed like fox hunters, is pulled from the Avengers episode "Escape in Time." (The Invisibles is hardly the first comic series to pilfer Peter Wyngarde and Diana Rigg; just ask the Hellfire Club.) The first issue of the series, in which Dane McGowan rebels against his boring Liverpool life and vandalizes his school, features a teacher who echoes "Mr. Liberal" from a celebrated Grange Hill parody.

So there are lots of references which will appeal to fans of British TV, but readers unfamiliar with these programs will have a tougher time finding an entry point. Morrison structures this story in a very unusual way; the result is pretty tough to wade through. Having identified Dane McGowan, for some reason to be explored later, as their latest recruit, a British-based cell of magic-using terrorists and freedom fighters has to break him out of a sinister prison - slash - reindoctrination center and leave him on the streets of London for a few days in the company of a homeless magician. He gives Dane a crash course in a new philosophy before the cell is ready to take him on for his first assignment: traveling back in time to the Reign of Terror to rescue the Marquis de Sade from evil Cyphermen and bring him to the present.

To say that Morrison throws readers in the deep end is an understatement. The readers' identification figure, Dane, is a completely unlikeable jerk and most of the rest of the core cast don't even get introduced properly until halfway through this book and then this first mission is... well, it's a narrative mess and a huge miscalculation. That's a shame, because the series starts out pretty strongly, albeit uncompromisingly densely, before derailing.

The first four of the eight issues here are illustrated, gloriously, by Steve Yeowell. They contain some really amazing moments which are worth revisiting, and the fantastic way that Morrison uses foreshadowing and flashbacks means that readers who stick with the series do get to revisit them in surprising ways. There's a beautiful scene where Dane and his homeless mentor, Tom, are on a swingset and Tom sees a couple dressed in 1920s period clothing arguing. There's another great moment when a riot squad finds a grenade without a pin, and the whole series at its best is like this, a memorable story punctuated by unforgettable moments.

Yet "Arcadia," the four episodes illustrated, not as gloriously, by Jill Thompson, presents a mess that's far more dense than the story which preceded it, without the punctuations. The Cyphermen are groovy villains - like the Sheeda mentioned in this blog earlier this week, Morrison seems to specialize in creating Doctor Who villains for other projects - but the Invisibles' objectives in this story are muddled and unclear. Thompson's artwork - I won't criticize it overmuch as she's since developed into a quite remarkable painter - lacks the dynamics necessary to keep the events punchy, although she does create a really memorably grotesque image in the head of John the Baptist being used to power some phantasmagorial machine.

The problems here are mainly down to Morrison, who fails to sell what the purpose of the excursion is, and, among other things, what the darn head is doing as part of the narrative. While Morrison remains one of the most wildly imaginative voices working in comics, and often the most entertaining, he's inconsistent, and once in a while drops the ball badly when pacing a story's structure. During the climax of episode eight, bringing most of this book's events to some kind of resolution, Dane and his ally Lord Fanny are desperately fighting off an assassin in a fast-paced scene, while "simultaneously" in two other time zones, the other characters are involved in much slower-paced, almost languorous, dialogue-heavy sequences.

I certainly recommend The Invisibles as a whole; there are amazing sequences in the stories that follow this one. Honestly, though, I think newcomers might do better to start with book two, which I'll be rereading next, and plan to come back to this one after book four.

1 comment:

Bob Temuka said...

I got emotionally attached to The Invisibles in the 1990s. I'm not kidding. I was 19 when it started and 25 when it ended and this comic was my blueprint for those strange years.

I never recommend it to anybody. It's mine.