Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Invisibles: The Invisible Kingdom

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: The Invisible Kingdom (volume six) (DC, 2000).

This book remains a massive disappointment to me. About two-thirds of it are absolutely blinding, some of Grant Morrison's very best work. And then we reach the climax and it is a complete mess. Most of the time, Morrison handles his finales incredibly well. This is one of those rare instances where he fumbles at about the two.

This last book of The Invisibles is the longest, reprinting the series' final twelve issues. It's set a year after the events of volume six, and starts with the three operatives of Division X, last seen in book three, finally making a break in their investigation of Sir Miles and the royal conspiracy. However, what these super-agents don't know is that Mr. Six is in league with the opposing, Invisibles conspiracy. Things spiral crazily out of control as King Mob, Jack Frost and Lord Fanny return to England and one member of Division X - the one who bases his persona on John Thaw's character from The Sweeney - is kidnapped and wakes up in a burning wicker man...

Actually, that this incident is set almost two and a half years after the last Division X episode just drives home what an amazing, parallel, series we missed while the focus was on the main characters. If Grant Morrison and Philip Bond, who illustrated these four episodes, would reteam for a good twenty issue run with Division X, I would buy the hell out of that series. Forget the conspiracy and the metanarrative, I just want to see these guys busting heads and having weird adventures.

So the first third of the book, drawn by Bond, is amazing, and the middle third, drawn by Sean Phillips and centered on 99 year-old Edith Manning, is transcendent. The installment where Edith, having come to India to die, spends her final hours with King Mob, is one of the most brilliant things that Morrison has ever written. Reading it again brought new tears. It's absolutely heart-hammering work, and the tiny flashes from ten years previous, with a younger, twentysomething King Mob looking for some kind of meaning, looking at the river with The Smiths on his walkman, about to have his life upended by an eighty-nine year-old lady who met his future self in the 1920s, suggest just how wild and amazing Doctor Who could be in Morrison's hands. (You think time is wibbly-wobbly when Moffat writes it?)

And then things fall apart.

A big part of the problem is Morrison's decision to let a freaking pile of artists jam on the climactic issues, resulting in a schizophrenic mess, and key, critical moments undermined by huge shifts in style. The absolute worst moment comes when King Mob phones the old girlfriend that we met briefly in book five. She gradually realizes that he's been very badly injured as, going into shock, he starts reliving a childhood memory of the last episode of a kiddie puppet show. Steve Yeowell draws the sequence, and does it brilliantly. I'm a huge fan of Yeowell's, and this might be one of the best things he's ever done. But then it's completely ruined by giving the climactic page of the sequence to Rian Hughes. Normally, I'm a big fan of Hughes, but this splash page is so jarring a shift in style that it doesn't look like it belongs in the same comic at all. It looks like an ad for British Telecom.

This keeps happening, with key moments either interrupted by a change in artist, or assigned to artists who make a complete hash out of things. Characters change their appearance every few pages, even in the middle of scenes. Yeowell and John Ridgway are the only participants in these pages who seem like they have a handle on even how to stage some of the action. There are others who don't look like they should have been let near a mainstream adventure comic at all, let alone one as challenging as this. There's a parallel universe where I'm filthy, stinking rich, and in that reality, I've commissioned Yeowell to redraw everybody else's bungled work and make it look consistent and good. (Parallel-me has also hired Cameron Stewart to redraw all the godawful art of Morrison's JLA, and hired Tony Harris to do the same to Morrison's run on Batman. Don't you wish we could have those comics?)

But while the art jam is a big problem, the script really is a bigger one. On the textual level, the villains' plans have completely stopped making sense - it all seems to be built around coronating a squishy tentacle monster as the new King of England, for some reason - and the Invisibles are going to stop it by doing something, and Sir Miles has been disavowed but suddenly he's back at the reins of things. Divorced from the subtext, it's just a rotten piece of drama, with confused motivations, and once a reader puts the fractured narrative into a linear sequence to understand it, it still doesn't resonate because it's incomprehensible sludge with too many characters.

But the subtext, the suggestion that there's much more to this work of fiction than we can see, completely overwhelms what's going on, and that's why The Invisibles fails right at the end. It's been previously hinted that the events of books one through six were the events that Ragged Robin wrote in a book, and then, rather than traveling back in time to experience as we were told, she actually entered her own fiction and interacted with her characters. By the end, we've added another layer of metatext and pseudoscience, that even Robin's participation was just part of a larger game, that basically people ten or twelve years in the future who read New Scientist every month have built a video game called The Invisibles which features a character who thinks that she wrote The Invisibles, who participates in the events described in her fiction, and, through the use of fiction suits (which people used to just call "writing yourself into your story," and sneered at), other... people... do... too?

The narrative is lost in this. Fiction, even complicated fiction, is most effective when the reader can enjoy the narrative at one level without being sledgehammered by the complex ideas of the other levels. The big climax here is one where both the structure and the meaning are intentionally obscured by the subtext, by the fractured style of storytelling, and by the poor mix of artists, who mishandle the material. It is a massive disappointment as well as a breathtaking experiment, and honestly, while having the whole thing drawn by Yeowell would improve things, as long as we're fantasizing, I think I'd still rather see a Philip Bond-drawn Division X series than bother. Recommended, but only because the first two-thirds are completely amazing, and readers can stop reading when the Sean Phillips artwork wraps up and have a fine experience.


Shannon Smith said...

Hmmm... I agree that the jam issue would have been better if handled by just one artists. But I thought the real final issue, the one Quietly drew, is the best final issue of any series ever and maybe one of the best comic books ever. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

The Invisibles represents Logos (Heraclitus) As The Filth represents Law. The characters and text represent different language games (Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations), different interpretations of the same reality. It makes more sense if you read Deleuze and Guattari (Thousand Plateaus) and Henri Lefebvre (Production of Space). Most of the weird text is based on Modernist ideas about language, like Artaud.