Review: The Invisibles Vol. 5: Counting to None trade paperback (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

[The fifth in our series of guest reviews on Grant Morrison's The Invisibles by Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

With the fifth volume, Counting to None, the seven-volume megaseries The Invisibles begins its road to the final issue. After the resounding success of the last two volumes, Entropy in the U.K. and Bloody Hell in America, Counting to None has a lot of work to do as far as living up to expectations. Fortunately, consistent artwork from Phil Jimenez and more of Grant Morrison's traditionally off-the-wall ideas make the book work, though it's not quite as good as what came before it.

"And so we return and begin again." Counting to None is fairly neatly divided into three sections -- an untitled arc which finally explains Robin's mysterious past; "Sensitive Criminals," in which we meet an Invisibles cell from 1924; and "American Death Camp," in which the Invisibles are betrayed by Boy, who steals the Hand of Fate, a mystical superweapon of great power. In the first, we finally learn that (in case you haven't figured it out already) Ragged Robin is from the future, as the Invisibles rush to defeat armageddon cultists and save Takashi, a scientist destined to discover time travel. In "Sensitive Criminals," King Mob travels back in time to retrieve the Hand of Fate while cooperating with a vintage Invisibles cell, meeting Edith Manning for what might be the first time (depending on your interpretation of "chronology" and "linear time"). Finally, in "American Death Camp," Boy's betrayal surfaces as she undergoes brutal deprogramming that unpeels the layers of her already fractured psyche.

Counting to None is an extremely unpleasant read, with some delightful character moments in the "Sensitive Criminals" arc, but overall the series is beginning to show signs of wear. The characters -- and, the reader senses, Morrison himself -- are all growing disillusioned with their lifestyle; the stylized violence, which had heretofore been as enjoyable as any Hollywood blockbuster (as in Bloody Hell in America, which showed no remorse for its action-hero goriness), takes on a level of grotesque and often senseless grittiness. Both the reader and the Invisibles are starting to realize the inherent ugliness in their world and their way of life, epitomized brilliantly by the "little sliver of Quimper" infecting Ragged Robin after the events of the last volume's raid on Dulce. The discomfort is accomplished largely thanks to artist Phil Jimenez's extremely nuanced pencils, which spare no corpuscle of blood but rather blast gunshot wounds and arterial sprays in lavishly ornate detail.

When even King Mob expresses discomfort with, for example, the psychological torture Boy undergoes, the series is headed toward a different kind of conclusion. It's not unlike the moment in the Star Wars trilogy when Luke Skywalker decides not to fight his father but forgive him; similarly, each of the Invisibles is beginning to realize that their approach may be all wrong, that physical violence may need to be subordinated to psychological warfare -- "ontological terrorism," as King Mob puts it. The effect is such that the trip to 1924 practically feels like a vacation; the Invisibles cell of that era is fresh and entertaining, and we finally get to meet some of the characters we've been hearing so much about (Beryl Wyndham, for instance, who's eventually central to the cosmology of the whole series).

But for readers who aren't accustomed to Morrison's esoteric style -- and even for those of us who've read nearly everything he's ever written -- Counting to None marks the volume at which the series begins to get very strange indeed. Almost as if he knows the end is coming (and perhaps the writer really felt this way, with the impending millennium and all its magical connotations facing his publishing schedule), Morrison begins to take stock of the cards still up his sleeve and throws them into the story without devoting too much attention to the details. On repeat readings, things like Takashi's time machine or the Harlequin -- mysterious figures in a variety of disguises, who seem to know everything there is to know -- don't make much sense, and Morrison doesn't seem too invested in unpacking them. Perhaps the best manifestation of this is the short tale which concludes this volume, "And We're All Policemen," which seems not to fit into Invisibles continuity and which remains, for me, entirely a mystery.

There are, however, answers in this volume -- the truth about the relationship between King Mob and Edith Manning begins to unwrap itself, and by the end of the volume there's no question to whom Boy owes her allegiance -- but increasingly they're no longer the focus of the series. Instead, Morrison seems more interested in interrogating our notions of how the world works, layering his own unique philosophy over our own and ultimately asking questions about the nature of reality itself. Diehards might not object, but less cooperative readers may find the series getting a bit too heavy. With Counting to None, The Invisibles is becoming a series about, rather than simply with, a message. This certainly isn't the series we began reading in Say You Want a Revolution . . . ,but at this point I'm not entirely convinced that's a bad thing. In retrospect, it's jarring, to say the least.

[Contains full covers and a "Story Thus Far" page. Printed on non-glossy paper.]

That's Volume Five, loyal readers. Up next: Kissing Mister Quimper, in which the series begins to conclude itself, but not before wading through some murky territory -- and bringing us back to that nasty diminutive devil, Quimper.

Read Zach's full Invisibles review series. Next week, join us as we begin to delve back into Brightest Day and its related tie-ins. Don't miss it!
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2 comments:

  1. I believe "And We're All Policeman" is set sometime after the end of the series, but I can't say why without spoiling the ending. DC/Vertigo sure chose an odd volume to collect it in, although that short story was originally published while Morrison was about halfway through v2.

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  2. The highly recommended Supergods, which is part autobiography, explains what Morrison was feeling in the second half of the run and why the changes. I won't spoil it for you.

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