Words and Pictures: The Invisibles

I am not a deep thinker. I am not given to profundity. I am that classic trope, the academically gifted Gen X underachiever. Because I am smart, I tend to grasp concepts quickly, and because I grasp them quickly, I never have to do the deep dive. I never have to struggle with them, pick them apart, see how they work. I get it and I move on. Or, if I don’t get it, I shrug and give up, because I have that intellectual laziness that comes with being gifted as well. Still, I expected that somehow when I got to college I would stay up late at night arguing with my fellow students about the Big Questions – who are we, where are we going, what does the future hold, what is the nature of reality? But no. We drank a lot of beer and watched the Star Wars trilogy instead.

But while I was getting drunk and seeing who among my friends could recite the next Star Wars line faster, Grant Morrison was thinking big thoughts. His series The Invisibles, aided and abetted by a murderer’s row of artists, premiered in 1994 and ran through three volumes until finally wrapping up in April 2000. I didn’t realize that we’d reached the twenty year retrospective period when I hauled out my trades a few weeks ago to do a reread of the series, but I guess that’s just one of those coincidences that tends to crop up around The Invisibles.

I remember reading this book for the first time as a wet behind the ears college graduate, not understanding half of it, but vibing utterly off of it, and feeling there was a lot going on between the panels that I should have been able to decipher. Two decades on I feel like I must have done the reading somewhere along the line, because much more of The Invisibles is hitting me square between the eyes. There’s a certain jealousy too, knowing that Grant is not much older than I am, but was able to not only think these thoughts and process these ideas but put them down on paper and get them out into the world to affect people over two decades ago.

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The Invisibles occupies that twilight world between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror. Cults and conspiracies and aliens were the rage. With the Soviet Empire a moribund relic and modern Russia our new best friends, Western Civilization had to turn to cannibalism to find enemies. For the Invisibles, a team of terrorists fighting to decide the fate of reality itself, those enemies are figures in authority. The government, the police, the British aristocracy, anyone in a position of control. In the world the Invisibles inhabit, the cold technical ordered environment of the mid to late 90s was the enemy. Hunter S. Thompson saw the wave of the 60s crest and recede into the 70s, but Grant Morrison wanted the Invisibles to bring the 90s into the oughts with both barrels cocked and two fingers thrust aggressively.

The series starts with Dane McGowan, a Liverpudlian juvenile delinquent who appears to be a pawn between two warring secret societies. Indoctrinated into the Invisibles by King Mob, Morrison’s blatant alter ego, Dane is hard to like at first, a street kid graduating from “boys will be boys” behavior into “boys will be lifelong criminals” before King Mob intervenes and rescue him from a Dickensian juvenile prison.

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King Mob abandons Dane on the streets of London where he meets another Invisible, the wizard Tom O’Bedlam who actually oversees Dane’s initiation into the secret world. It is from Tom that Dane learns how to use his own magic abilities and how to travel through worlds and how to connect to the big red dot called Berbilith. Only afterward does King Mob return to bring Dane completely into the fold. The Invisibles run on cells of five people and King Mob’s cell just lost one. Dane is the replacement. He then meets the rest of the team: an African American ex-cop martial artist named Boy, a psychic time traveler with frizzy red hair and clown makeup named Ragged Robin, and the best character in the series: Lord Fanny.

Fanny was controversial at the time, a transvestite hooker sorceress, one of those push-the-envelope concepts The Invisibles was able to explore under the Vertigo imprint (the series would also be free to explore sex and violence to a graphic extent). Fanny is probably even more important in the present (and full disclosure, my opinion is that of a cis het white guy): a positive portrayal of a trans person who is at once fiercely sexual, ever optimistic, incredibly powerful, and a total badass. She gets most of the big wins against the series’ big bads, almost always single-handedly. Dane gets whatever the reverse of the “save the cat” trope is when he initially reacts terribly to Fanny, recoiling from her and using slurs at first, but before too long they’re best friends. It’s an easy way to show Dane’s growth from shallow delinquent to world citizen.

I think one of the purposes of fiction is to provide a place we can encounter the things we might be uncomfortable with or just not understand in the real world, and to help us explore it and find some understanding or become comfortable with it. I don’t think Lord Fanny made me trans-positive; I like to think my parents raised me to treat people like people, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give Grant (and Fanny) a little credit.

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“Tolerance” is a pretty big idea, especially these days. But it’s not the only big idea that The Invisibles really grappled with. The central conflict of the series was the war for the nature of reality itself. The Invisibles stood for freedom and tolerance and revolution and wonder. The other side stood for shutters and atrocity camps and enslavement and murder. But as the series progressed, it began to play with the idea that the two factions weren’t opposed at all. They weren’t two sides of the same coin – maybe they were just the same coin period.

Take King Mob, for example. Super-cool badass with a gun, James Bond by way of Jerry Cornelius and Grant himself. Has sex with all the pretty ladies, survives torture and gunshot wounds, wades through armies of foes with quips on his lips and two guns blazing. But then there’s issue twelve of the first volume, a twenty-two page biography of just one of the security guards that King Mob killed on the night he rescued Dane. He’s a complex person, this guard, with a lot of failings but a lot to live for, and the reader comes to understand why he would end up where he was that night when King Mob passed through and also to sympathize with him. And maybe wonder about all the other poor faceless bastards that King Mob shoots between the eyes through the course of the series.

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And what about the Harlequinade? They’re a mysterious triptych that is initially encountered when Dane and Fanny have to recover a powerful artifact in the middle of the series, but they appear again at the end in a position that suggests they are behind the Invisibles organization. Or maybe running the supposed opposition. It’s all a bit like the last episode of The Prisoner to be honest. That’s intentional, I believe, and not just because the most famous lines of Patrick MacGoohan’s masterpiece are called out in the series; there’s a lot of pop culture filtered through the adventures and apocalyptic imagery of The Invisibles. So much Lovecraft, for example. A lot of Moorcock. Callbacks to Doctor Who and Quatermass and UFO and The Wicker Man and Life on Mars and the death of Princess Diana and a Voodoo rap artist named Jim Crow (which only a European would even attempt to pull off) and David Icke and bits and pieces of every other conspiracy popular in the late 90s. And there’s even a character who likes to dissect movies, like something out of a Tarantino script.

There’s so much packed into the seven trade paperbacks that it’s impossible to catch everything on a single read. This is a story that invites frequent returns. I honestly had forgotten most of the series in the intervening decades and found myself simultaneously being drawn in as if it were all new and wondering what would happen next. And there are so many layers, so many things laid down unsuspectingly in the beginning that pay off further down the road. And so much – so very, very much – still unexplained.

But I guess that’s part of the fun. The Invisibles isn’t meant to be understood, not entirely. It is meant to be experienced and digested and discussed and picked apart and marveled at. It’s ambitious comic-booking, grappling with the big ideas and not willing to spell it all out for you. The Invisibles is the sort of thing I would have enjoyed talking about with my friends in college, long into the night.