Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Invisibles: Counting to None

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: Counting to None (volume five) (DC/Vertigo, 1998).

Four volumes of pretty darn good, if sometimes flawed, comics build up to this one. Holy freaking anna, this is an amazing read, and it starts filling in the gaps left in the previous editions to turn those into something wild.

The action this time out - the book covers eight episodes of the original run - centers around a magical device called The Hand of Glory, which the Invisibles' various conspiratorial allies have been passing around for years until it lands in the company of our heroes. Finding out how to activate the device, and what its powers actually are, require King Mob to travel back to the 1920s, the last known time that any Invisible had seen the Hand at work.

It's not just that writer Grant Morrison uses time travel here so interestingly, stitching together incidents from previous volumes that have their origins in the 1920s adventure, it's that he's able to make the characters so achingly human that some of these revelations just pounded me in the chest like a hammer. There's an amazing bit where one of the characters looks to one side and notices an old man and a teenager on a swingset, tying back to an incident in one of the series' opening episodes. The whole scene where twentysomething Edith enjoys some private time with King Mob, away from the rest of her gang, is absolutely beautiful, especially when he realizes what is about to happen based on what the ninetysomething Edith of the present day had told him some years previously.

When everything is in sync between his ideas and his artists, and that doesn't happen nearly often enough, Morrison executes his ideas better than anybody else in the medium. There is a really stunning moment when the 1920s gang activates the Hand and there's a sudden cutaway from what the reader expects to see to what would become of these characters over the course of the next few years. Instead of showing us what happens next, Morrison shows us their fates. The effect is a jarring thwack, akin to that heartstopping thundercrack in the middle of St. Etienne's "Avenue."

And heck, that all's just the middle of the book. When King Mob awakens in the present, the Hand is gone again. One of his associates has stolen it, hoping to trade it with the conspiracy of the other side for information about a missing relative. At this point, the plot gets deliciously twisted, with counterbluffs and double agents and suddenly, one of the book's original sales lines, "Whose side are you on?" seems like a newly naive question every third page.

Most of the artwork in this volume is provided by Phil Jimenez, and it is completely terrific. Well, I suppose I could quibble that he seems to give King Mob unusually large ears to show off his piercings, which Chris Weston, in the next volume, would really make look ridiculous. But Jimenez is given one challenge after another to draw, from glimpses into other realities to nightclubs in the 1920s to a gunfight with the returning villains the Cyphermen, and he knocks them out of the park. Jimenez is one of my favorite of Morrison's many collaborators. I look at how gorgeous the artwork in this book is, and can't help wishing he could have drawn all those Morrison superhero books that ended up looking so awful.

Anyway, this book is the point where The Invisibles really starts paying off. As much as I enjoyed the first four books, and said when they were being released how great it was, this is the point where it goes from very good to amazing. It's absolutely wild and wonderful, and flatly the very best long-form work to ever be published under the Vertigo banner. Pricelessly good and absolutely recommended.

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