Review: The Invisibles Vol. 1: Say You Want a Revolution trade paperback (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

[Presenting a new series of guest reviews on Grant Morrison's The Invisibles by Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

It's all going to end next year, which makes now as good a time as any to reevaluate Grant Morrison's 59-issue magnum opus (collected over seven fairly weighty trade paperback editions) The Invisibles. As for what's going to be ending, it's not the series; no, that wrapped in 2000 after six years of publication. What's going to end, The Invisibles suggests, is quite simply everything as we know it -- the world, our own consciousness, and our conception of space-time are all going to come to some sort of end on December 22, 2012.

[Invisibles purists will know that the series was published in 59 issues dispersed throughout three volumes - 25 in volume one, 22 in volume two, and 12 in volume three. For the ease of the reader, when I use volume designations in the following reviews, I'm referring to the seven collected editions, not to the three volume divisions for the original issues' publication.]

"And so we return and begin again." For those keeping score, that's Issue One, Page One, Panel One, and already we're told what the central theme of the work is. In a way, this thematic declaration hints at the episode structure which divides this first volume, Say You Want a Revolution (quoting John Lennon, whose spirit is contacted for guidance in the first issue, "Dead Beatles"), neatly in two: the introductory tale "Down and Out in Heaven and Hell" and the team's first mission in "Arcadia." This first volume accomplishes much that a first volume should: it introduces a familiar concept and character-types in ways that feel fresh. But Say You Want a Revolution is not the best Invisibles volume, flawed in ways that suggest the series had not found its feet at that time.

Meet juvenile delinquent Dane McGowan, content to be a thorn in the side of his schoolteachers by lobbing Molotov cocktails into the school library. After being sentenced to a juvenile rehabilitation clinic, Dane finds himself torn between two forces fighting over him. On one side, the apparently soulless Miss Dwyer and Mister Gelt, bespectacled advocates of conformity at all costs; on the other, the ragtag Invisibles, a countercultural answer of sorts to the JLA. The Invisibles -- led by Morrison stand-in King Mob, with homeless shaman Tom O'Bedlam, transvestite mystic Lord Fanny, Raggedy Ann doppelganger Ragged Robin, and martial arts master Boy (actually an African-American policewoman turned revolutionary) -- insist Dane is actually Jack Frost, their newest and strongest member, contender for the crucial role of "the next Buddha." After Dane/Jack's initiation, the Invisibles time-travel to recruit one more member, the Marquis de Sade, while being stalked by the faceless demon Orlando.

It's evident fairly early in this volume that Grant Morrison knows what he's doing, though much of that isn't immediately apparent until finishing the series; Ragged Robin's introduction of herself by way of an afterthought ("I'm Ragged Robin, by the way. I'm nuts."), for example, actually tells us more about her backstory than Morrison initially seems to be letting on. Recently Morrison's found a good deal of critical approval for his dexterity with long-form storytelling on his Batman titles, but it's in The Invisibles that this skill really comes to life, more so than in his previous works (also under the Vertigo banner) Animal Man and Doom Patrol. Here Morrison plants seeds that will grow over the course of the seven volumes of The Invisibles. It's clear he knows where this is all going.

It's a shame, though, that the series itself doesn't seem to know how to get where it's going. It's a bit like preparing for a long trip out of state, planning every stage of the journey but forgetting to factor in transportation. It's here where Say You Want a Revolution fails to live up to the latter volumes in the work, suffering a bit from problems with identity, both of the characters in the series and (on a meta-level) of the series itself. While "Down and Out" is quite good, appearing less derivative when you recognize that it was published in 1994, a full five years before The Matrix did practically the same story, "Arcadia" is less fulfilling because its combination of historical fiction and literary analogy ultimately paints it more like a story arc from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman than anything else (the scenes with Orlando, however, are brilliantly disturbing and grossly original, in every sense of the word "gross").

Moreover, the greatest flaw in Say You Want a Revolution is the absolute dearth of characterization present. Aside from Dane/Jack, who is given (and given quickly) one of the richest voices in comicdom, none of the characters is really given a purpose or a personality. Indeed, they seem to be grounded primarily in compelling visuals; King Mob's catchphrase "Nice and smooth" seems to describe the way readers are meant to embrace him because of the sheer cool factor his aura reverberates, while Lady Fanny's transvestism seems gimmicky and Boy appears not to have much purpose at all beyond an apparent diversity requirement. There are hints of Lord Fanny and Ragged Robin as characters with fuller purposes and abilities, but for the most part the book relies heavily on Dane and, to a lesser extent, King Mob.

On the visual side, Steve Yeowell (on "Down and Out") and Jill Thompson (on "Arcadia") are two of the better collaborators Morrison had on a series that, near the end, was plagued with artistic misfires and imperfect interpretations of Morrison's script. Yeowell, Morrison's partner on Sebastian O and Skrull Kill Krew, introduces us to the world of the Invisibles with cartoonish but clear lines and King Mob at his coolest. Thompson, meanwhile, fresh off her stint on Sandman (collected as Brief Lives), draws what I believe are the definitive versions of Lord Fanny and Ragged Robin (not surprising, considering Robin was initially modeled after Thompson) until Phil Jimenez joins the series somewhere around the third collected edition; her lines, somewhat more realistic than Yeowell's, give historical authenticity to "Arcadia" while perfectly capturing the off-kilter nature of characters like Orlando and the blind chessman.

All told, the first eight issues (particularly the first, which functions as a distilled microcosm of the entire series) are not perfect or the best that The Invisibles has to offer. But Say You Want a Revolution represents something perhaps better (after all, it's a bit early for a series to peak) -- and that's potential. This first volume displays great promise and prefigures great things to come from the series. Say You Want a Revolution is filled with fantastic moments -- the discovery of the head of John the Baptist, the raid on Harmony House, and the subway encounter with Tom O'Bedlam -- that suggest The Invisibles is a series bubbling over with ideas. At times during the series, especially in this volume, the philosophy overpowers the narrative, but it's never as extreme as Alan Moore's Promethea, in which the plot was quite literally put on hold for many issues for the comic book equivalent of a philosophy lecture. But the dominating presence of the philosophy behind The Invisibles does overshadow its characters, a flaw from which the series fortunately rebounds in subsequent volumes.

[Contains full covers and an introduction by Peter Milligan. Printed on non-glossy paper.]

That's the first of seven reviews, loyal readers. Stay tuned for my reviews of the rest of Morrison's The Invisibles -- up next, it's Apocalipstick, in which Lord Fanny and several minor characters are given origin stories and Dane/Jack finally chooses a side.
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14 comments:

  1. Brian's covers to the series are terribly appropriate. The cover to the new printing is equally good. All of Morrison's books have fantastic artists (maybe except Igor Kordey on New X-men) as well as cover artists like Bolland on THE INVISIBLES, ANIMAL MAN & Bisley on DOOM PATROL.

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  2. Great to see The Invisibles getting some attention here. The guidebook for the series "Anarchy for the Masses" is well worth picking up too.

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  3. I'm a huge fan of The Invisibles, but if the inaugural arc were my first exposure to it, I'm not sure I'd keep reading it. Tom O'Bedlam's rants just stop the story dead for me. I liked "Arcadia" a lot better, even though that arc reportedly lost two thirds of the book's initial readership.

    Actually, my first exposure to The Invisibles was the first arc of Vol. 2, "Black Science", which DC/Vertigo collected in the Bloody Hell in America TPB. Even if I hated the story (which I certainly didn't), the gorgeous art by Phil Jimenez and John Stokes would have made me a convert. I wished they could have drawn the entire series.

    If The Invisibles got the Absolute treatment just like Sandman, I'd definitely buy all volumes, especially if they included the letter pages. I think the last page of Invisibles v2 #4 has never been included in a collection either.

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  4. I'll probably wonder this a couple times over the course of Zach's series: how can there be no hardcover, multi-book collection of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles? This would seem a sales lock, maybe in the same larger format as Vertigo has released some of their other series in hardcover.

    And so do I understand that there's pages missing from some of the paperback collections, too?

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  5. The Invisibles took a long time to get fully collected in TPBs. Years after releasing Say You Want a Revolution, which collects the first 8 issues of v1, DC/Vertigo skipped all the way to the beginning of v2 in Bloody Hell in America, which was a pretty thin book, collecting only 4 issues.

    They also cut the last page of The Invisibles v2 #4, which leads right into the next arc, in order to make Bloody Hell in America more self-contained, and then neglected to include it in the next v2 collection, Counting to None. As far as I know, it's the only story page in the entire series that remains uncollected.

    Back then, DC's trade paperback program was still in its infancy, and hardcovers were even rarer. However, once Morrison became one of the most popular writers in the industry thanks to his JLA run, they started collecting pretty much everything he ever wrote for DC.

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  6. Oh, great, the 2012 nonsense; I didn't realize that plays a part in this. Despite being a Morrison fan, I haven't managed to get around to The Invisibles yet. But man is that a turn-off.

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  7. Aalok - Brian Bolland's covers are indeed fantastic, but he didn't join until "Bloody Hell in America" (Vol. 4). The cover artists before that point were quite good, though - Sean Phillips especially does some solid work in "Entropy in the UK." (I did notice, though, that my Volume 1 trade cover is different from the one CEB posted here...)

    DavidTobin - "Anarchy in the Masses" is practically invaluable, such that I don't know how I ever read the series without it. In my last review in this series, I'll talk about my experience reading side-by-side with that book and with the Barbelith site.

    CE - I've been wondering about hardcover editions, too, especially since Morrison is arguably the only A-list writer at DC other than Geoff Johns (Straczynski and Robinson seem to have lost their sparkle, but I could be missing others).

    Shagamu - Right you are about the one page missing from "Bloody Hell," but to my knowledge that's the only page missing (and it's only an egregious oversight to completists like me, because I've read the phantom page online and didn't seem to have missed anything without it). I wasn't aware of the publication history of the trades, though; so I assume DC/Vertigo went and backfilled on the others? Just proves my theory that "Bloody Hell" is a perfect introductory volume, then.

    dl316bh - Haha, yes, there's 2012 "nonsense" afoot in The Invisibles, such that the last issue of the series takes place on 12-21-12. I'd argue, though, that the series is much more concerned with the advent of the year 2000, with its narrative climax taking place around there; the original publication tried to sync up with 2000 but, like everything Morrison writes, it got delayed (here, until April 2000).

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  8. DC only released the second collection of The Invisibles v1 (Apocalipstick) after they finished collecting v2. I guess they prioritized v2 because a lot of people must have been introduced to the series via Bloody Hell in America, like I was.

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  9. Erm, I didn't actually notice that. I just bought all trades of the following series at a 50% discount last week:
    THE INVISIBLES
    DOOM PATROL
    ANIMAL MAN
    THE FILTH

    and also a lot of other stuff, and I noticed there the cover you're talking about to V1 was there. It's a brian bolland cover, as are all covers to all collections of all the trades I mentioned above (except maybe THE FILTH). I have to accept that the earlier covers were breathtaking as well. I own the earlier edition of the trade, which has the cover featured here.

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  10. @Zack: Heh. Sorry. 2012 and all the assorted "apocalypse" BS has become my red button of late. I see it and just kind of bash my head against the nearest blunt object.

    A good review, regardless.

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  11. Wasn't the X-Files alien invasion supposed to be 2012? Neither here nor there; surely Chris Carter and Grant Morrison are both pulling from the same exterior mythos. Pretty sure Carter's was 2010 ...

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  12. @CE: I think that's when it was supposed to happen, but it's been a while since I watched anything regarding the show. I'll be kind of surprised if we ever get to see it, though. The franchise is supposed to have one last movie to wrap everything up and focus on the invasion, but whether we get said movie is another matter. I don't recall "I Want to Believe" doing very well.

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  13. "I Want to Believe" was not what any of us were hoping for, I don't think, but of late I've had a craving to watch it again. It was not the movie we needed to revitalize the X-Files franchise, but for a good stand-alone "episode" that uses the characters well, I've been thinking of giving the second movie another look.

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  14. Reading this series, I find it difficult to keep in line the historical allusions. I recognized the Beatles, George Berard Shaw, Shelley & DeSade but didn't actually get their purpose. Are they members of other Invisible cells or something? Also, was that a new recruit DeSade recruits in the end? Who was the guy talking to Raggedy Robin & earlier, Mary Shelley? Don't answer if this is something I'm supposed to understand reading the other volumes later on, but let me know if this is something meant to be gleaned from here. Besides, the cover featured here is by Rian Hughes. Pretty cool, as are Phillips' covers from the 1st volume at least.

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