Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Invisibles #1: 'Dead Beatles'

“And so we return and begin again.” That is the first line of The Invisibles #1, a sentiment that appeals to the rereader more than the first timer. If you’ve already read the series, you’re aware of the fallacy of linear time and also in tune with the meta commentary the line entails. This is Morrison speaking to you, aware that you are again embarking on a journey through the work.

One of the things I love about The Invisibles is the fact that it is so thoroughly developed in advance. Elfayed’s words in the second panel are as good an explanation for the Supercontext as anything we get later, and even beyond that, we get reference to King Mob’s trip to Paris, which will only make sense forty issues down the line. Particularly after his abduction experience, you get the sense that Morrison had the whole thing in his head, and it was just a matter of getting it down on the page. I think a lot of Morrison’s work is like that, he’s always one step ahead of the reader, and the actual finished product is less important than the mental image that informed it. This can lead to some sloppiness, as in ‘Here Comes Tomorrow,’ or the screwy art of ‘The Invisible Kingdom,’ but it also means the work functions well as a whole, not just individual pieces that are strung together.

The first page conveys the two simultaneous interests of the series, the philosophical evolution of man, and the fact that “some people will say anything to be thought of as clever or interesting.” Much of what these characters do is posturing, acting as ultra cool assassins to cover some internal doubts about their own purpose. This shows up most in Volume II, when the characters take on the persona of American action heroes, and King Mob finds his humanity slipping away. But, that statement applies equally to Dane in this issue, who has taken on the role of rebellious punk kid, and must suppress his own intellectualism as a result.

The dead beetle portent has a number of potential readings, obviously tying in to the Egyptian myth that Elfayed talks about. A critical idea that develops as the series progresses is the notion of time as soil for humanity to grow in. We must pass through the dark times because it is those times that give us the strength to grow and change. Much like humanity, the mummified beetle is in a state of stasis, not fully alive.

And that’s the first page. We next hop over to Dane, youthful rebel, and his gang. It’s jarring to return to this incarnation of Dane because he’s something of a bastard. On the first read, I took Dane as my point of view character, cheering on his youthful rebellion, his stand against the system. I was just as impressed as he was with King Mob’s ultra cool assassin posing. But, the whole point of the series is to force Dane to recognize that there is little moral difference between The Invisibles and the people of Harmony House, both are working for an agenda, and it is the conflict between order and chaos that ensures humanity can grow and change. Reading it the first time, you’re meant to believe in what The Invisibles are doing, and I think their world is still preferable to the Outer Church world, but I’m also more aware of the wanton destruction of their actions. Dane’s assault on the school is an act of petty rebellion that winds up destroying information about a real, meaningful revolution.

My mental image of Dane is the ‘little Buddha,’ conversing with the Chessman in Kissing Mister Quimper, the first really evolved human. That’s a character I like, this one, not so much. His talk about wanting an atom bomb to drop on Liverpool is adolescent posturing, perfectly capturing the self involved destructiveness of people at that age. I first read the series at seventeen, right around Dane’s age in the book, and I was just enamored of what he was doing, though not as enamored as I was with King Mob’s coolness.

Then we jump over to Paris for a brief conversation with King Mob and Edith. The obvious tie in here is to the events that will happen in ‘Sensitive Criminals,’ and it’s odd to think of Edith having lived seventy years while Gideon hasn’t aged. It also is the first hint at the true nature of time as revealed by the series. It’s not like King Mob goes into the past and changes it, when he goes into the past, it’s to fulfill something he’s already done, a mission that’s similar to what Robin must do during her time in the 1990s.

Over in the classroom, we get the first appearance of the man who will become Mister Six. One of the critical themes in the series is the idea of taking on roles, wearing ‘fiction suits.’ As a reader, I think we choose to experience the work from a different perspective each time. The first time through, I was wearing Dane, this time I tried on a more objective suit, trying to see what Six is saying here and even understand Gelt. In Volume II, I, like Morrison himself, got drawn into King Mob’s persona, even buying my own version of his target shirt and the round sunglasses.

All works of fiction allow engagement in this way, but rarely do we see the characters in the work actively taking on fictional personas. Malkie is a suit that Six wears because it is part of his job in educating Dane McGowan. In Volume II, King Mob wears the suit of ultra cool, ultra violent assassin until the morality of his actions punctures through the identity and he becomes a new more zen character. The ultimate fiction suit wearer is John a Dreams, who is outside the boundaries of three dimensional reality, able to insert himself in any guise at any point in time. But more, much more, on him later.

Malkie asks Dane about the anarchist who denounced the Bolshevik movement. I’m not that familiar with this period of history, but it is likely that this anarchist denounced the Bolsheviks because they got bogged down in violence and bureaucracy and lost sight of the real dream of revolution. The obvious connection is Dane as the one who will denounce the faulty, violent revolution of King Mob and co., and eventually save him from corporate enslavement in 2012. Malkie is subtly trying to make Dane aware of his destiny, despite Dane’s refusal to cooperate. Malkie gives Dane a typical teacher lecture, telling him “don’t let the deadweights drag you down,” further preparation for Dane’s role as something special in the overall scheme of things, but Dane is still at the point where a false sense of rebellion matters more than actually trying to change things.

The scene with Dane’s mother gives us some context for his rebellion, though it won’t become really important until his return there later in the volume. His encounter with the Beatles is more baffling. In this issue, we’re given indication that Dane can perceive outside of time, both this incident and his comment that he feels like he knows King Mob from somewhere. In the issues from prior to the abduction experience, there’s not the tight cosmological clarity the series would eventually grow into. This scene is cool, but its place in the series as a whole is not exactly clear. The critical line for me is this exchange:

Stu: We could be dead and not know it.
John: More like we’re fucking alive and don’t know it.

The obvious reading is that, to us, they are dead. But, for humanity in general we’re connected and alive in ways that we’re not aware. People who have died aren’t really dead, they haven’t even been born yet.

Next, Dane is menaced by the first appearance of an Archon in the series. In this case, the Archon has much in common with the guilt monster we saw in Shining Knight #2. He conveys a feeling of darkness on Dane, who is left feeling totally alone, not caring about anything. This encounter prompts Dane to engage in another act of youthful defiance, stealing a car and blowing up the school. It’s likely that the Outer Church is trying to woo Dane in the same way that King Mob and his crew are. They sent the Archon specifically to motivate Dane to steal the car and get sent to Harmony House. As we see in 3.2, Dane is a critical part of the overall plan, and throughout the series, they will try to claim him for their own and fail.

It’s important to view the Outer Church as not just a vague evil force, their actions have motivations, to take out elements that could be potentially dangerous to the status quo. The Filth is a work that takes on that point of view, following a guy who is trying to just keep things ordinary against revolutionary forces like The Invisibles. Ultimately, both works come around to the same message, that bad stuff happens so we can grow, but they begin with radically different points of view.

Dane assaults Malkie and in a fantastic moment announces that he did know the answer, he just didn’t say. Dane has taken on the role of delinquent, but he really does have so much more potential. However, society has taught him that he must rebel, that is the role of young people, that is what is cool, to destroy, rather than collaborate. On a larger scale, the whole team will eventually have to face up to this reality, that solely destructive acts are juvenile and must be outgrown.

Concurrent with this, we get the first real act of magic within the series, King Mob summoning Lennon as a godhead. It’s a fantastic couple of pages, opening up the idea of liberating magic from dusty old gods and embracing new pop gods. Few pages are more pop than the psychedelic craziness of King Mob’s séance, punctuated by a swirling mix of Beatles lyrics. While I may be taking issue with some of the characters’ practices in this issue, I still do think that their general priorities, of tearing down the old and replacing it with new, pop exciting life are good things and should be valued. I love that King Mob summons Lennon rather than an ancient god, and I love that Morrison recognizes the value of contemporary figures as much as traditional ones. I believe Morrison himself conducted a similar summoning of Lennon sometime before the writing of the series, the first of many examples of mixing his own life with the work.

Dane is sentenced, and taken by Miss Dwyer to Harmony House. If you listen to the speeches from the people there from an objective point of view, it becomes clear that their motivation is not just some wanton destruction of random people, it’s to create total stability in society by removing those things that cause trouble. As Gelt says, they want to create people who will serve society as cogs in the machine. We’re naturally inclined to hate this and want to assert our individuality, but isn’t it also true that asserting our individuality requires an environment that’s safe from the immediate danger that juvenile delinquents like Dane pose? If everyone was rebellious like Dane, society would descend into chaos.

At Harmony House, they remove peoples’ brains and sex organs, the things which make us essentially human. All of Dane’s rebellious actions are motivated either by a desire to impress girls or a kind of intellectual disdain for all that’s around him. So, take off the brain and the penis, and he’s got no reason to do anything other than go along as society wants him to. That is what has happened to Gelt, he has sacrificed his human organs and become a slave to the Archons. In his slavery he finds purpose, an easy belief in absolute control, but he has lost much of what makes someone human.

In the cafeteria scene, we see people playing a card game holding only two type cards, one labeled yes, the other labeled no. This perfectly sums up the Manichean worldview here, control and authority yes, individuality no. Similar in purpose is the poster with emotions, either happy or sad listed as bad, and neutral listed as good. While their goals in wanting to create a stable, safe society may be understandable, in doing so they cut out the humanity that makes society worthwhile. They want to remove the difficult parts of life, but it is that difficulty, that suffering that allows us to grow and eventually move on to a higher stage of consciousness. Time is soil in which we can grow.

Over with King Mob and Robin, we get a scene that further explores magic and its role in their everyday life. Having read so much about Morrison, this comes off as a bit expository. The entire series could be summed up as “The Darkness that gives birth to light,” though there are countless other lines we shall encounter that could serve as easy summation of the whole series. Another crucial line is when King Mob says he wanted to grow up and live in a 60s spy series, his wish has come true, much like Morrison’s wish to become King Mob became true. There is little distinction between fiction and reality, wish and intention.

Back with Dane, they pass an odd virtual reality machine. The red coloring ties it to the similar virtual reality that Robin experiences in 2005, though here it’s being used to turn people into just another cog in the machine. The fact that both groups use similar tactics in recruiting members is just another tie between them.

The King in Chains appears to Gelt, demanding Dane. As I mentioned before, the Archons have a purpose in mind for Dane, he will give birth to their new form, as we shall see in 3.2. They have literally taken away his eyes and forced him to view things only from their perspective.

Dane wanders into the embryo room, something right out of The X-Files. That’s a work that is critically tied to The Invisibles, both obsessed with government conspiracy and issues of freedom vs. security. Particularly in Volume II, The Invisibles will use a lot of the visual and conceptual language of The X-Files. To some extent, this emphasis on conspiracy paranoia is a distinctly 90s phenomena, in the 00s we’ve been made aware that the conspiracies aren’t secret and they’re not supernatural, they’re right there in the open, but the people are powerless to change. These are distinctly pre 9/11 works. Now, the Archon is on the throne and no one seems to care.

In the end, King Mob shows up and frees Dane from Harmony House. The first time I read this, I remember being in awe of King Mob’s ultra cool violent liberation, much like Dane is. When he says “So you just go around killing people and blowing things up? That’s brilliant,” I was right there with him. It is a cool scene, with all the snappy action banter we’ve been conditioned to associate with death.

However, after reading the whole series, and particularly after ‘Best Man Fall,’ it’s impossible to feel that way about the scene. He’s killing Bobby Murray here, a nice enough guy, and that’s nothing to feel happy about. Even if Gelt is decidedly evil, the people working for him aren’t, they’re just trying to help their families, caught up in a war that’s much larger than them. King Mob in this first issue isn’t nearly as sympathetic character as he’ll become down the line. On the first read, he’s the enigmatic embodiment of cool. On the reread, he comes across more as a cold killer, more concerned with image than humanity.

The next page gives us a moment that The Matrix homaged, our hero being led through a crowd of people by a bald trenchcooated mentor, being lectured about the nature of the universe. Dane asks why they’re called The Invisibles, but before he gets an answer, King Mob is gone and Dane is again alone. We know this is all a setup, so he can be trained by Tom, and grow into the person who can help them win the war, but it’s still pretty jarring for him.

Why are they called The Invisibles? The obvious interpretation is that they’re working behind the scenes, striking at the heart of the establishment and helping out regular people unbeknownst to us. I’m not sure of a deeper meaning, it’s something I’ll have to ponder as the series continues.

In Morrison’s canon, I would point to The Invisibles as the primary transitional work, from the more lowkey everday surrealism of his 80s/early 90s output to the hyperpop craziness of the latter days. The art here has little in common with the slick, pop spectacle of Jiminez or Quitely, who would define the latter days of the book. It looks more like Richard Case’s steady, workmanlike Doom Patrol renderings. Volume II is still right there with the defining idea of cool in the present, and we haven’t yet reached the coolness of Volume III, but this issue feels totally ordinary. That’s not to say it’s outdated, I think the ideas are still fascinating, and the narrative still works. It’s just that the aesthetic isn’t quite there.

On a narrative level, the issue packs a lot in, but does so in a linear, easy to follow way. By Volume III, Morrison began more narrative experimentation, presenting just the essential parts of the story and allowing the reader to build the rest on his/her own. This approach reached its peak in Seven Soldiers, where every reader can assemble their own master narrative out of the pieces we were given. There’s some obscure comments, but this is a pretty easy to follow first issue, pretty much following the three act narrative structure. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when setting out a cosmology as complex as this, it’s nice to have a base from which to draw from.

Going back into this work is always a daunting prospect. I’ve built it up to such massive levels in my head, the actual physical reality of it struggles to compete, particularly because this issue has a more conservative structure and viewpoint than what we’ll eventually reach. Having already read the series, I know the futility of this violence, but it’ll take a while for the characters to realize that.

But, it’s great to be back, exploring this universe again. There’s so much to analyze here, this is more than 3,000 words on one issue. And even though I’m trying to approach it from a more objective point of view on this read, there’s still moments of just unbelievable cool, when I want to be right there in the book with them, and that’s the best testament to Morrison’s hypersigil at work.

For more of my writings on The Invisibles, check out Our Sentence is Up, my new book, featuring issue by issue analysis of the series and an extensive interview with Morrison himself.


David said...

Isn't that Jack Frost that appears behind Dane, not an Archon? It seems clear to me, in context, and he's drawn the same when Dane calls on him later in the series to fight the huntsmen. (The Bomb annotators think so too.)

Patrick said...

Yeah, I picked up on that when I read the next issue, it does make more sense that way. Thanks for pointing it out though, I caught another error in my issue two review, when I mistakenly called the spiky haired girl Sir Miles' daughter, but if you catch more, let me know. It has been a little while, so I'm rusty on some of the details of the series. But, hopefully I'll get back into the swing of things soon.