Grant Morrison's Invisibles trade review series wrap-up (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

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

"And so we return and begin again." For those of you just joining us, we've been looking at the seven-trade collection of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles since March. Now that I've reached the end of my seven reviews on a trade-by-trade basis, I'm left with the question -- what do I do with all of this?

Is The Invisibles a must read? It's a difficult question, but for the most part the answer is "No." It pains me to admit it (for reasons which will be made clear below), but The Invisibles isn't a groundbreaking landmark series that changed comics forever. If I were to draw up a list of the ten most important trades, I don't think The Invisibles would even crack the top 25. Morrison has said on several occasions that the entirety of The Invisibles was intended as a hypersigil to "create more Invisibles" and push the culture in a new direction post-2000, but he's admitted almost as frequently that the spell didn't produce the desired results.

Whether you believe in the magical underpinnings which Morrison has always claimed for his work -- from the infamous Kathmandu abduction scenario to the encounter with the "real" Superman outside a comics convention -- the gist is essentially undeniable: The Invisibles hasn't had the impact on comics that its contemporaries have. The Invisibles began in 1994; that same year, Metropolis was falling in the pages of Superman, Jack Kirby died, and Frank Miller's second "Sin City" storyline was just getting warmed up. Elsewhere in the Vertigo marketplace, The Invisibles had to compete with names like Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Peter Milligan (Shade, the Changing Man), and Garth Ennis (Preacher), not to mention the whole Image Comics boom of the '90s. So for whatever reason -- poor sales, too much else going on, exponential weirdness by comparison -- The Invisibles never really took off, and it's almost never cited outside of Morrison 101. The Invisibles is inevitably going to be picked up by anyone who's enamored with Morrison after his recent work, but the average comic book fan unfortunately won't quite know what the series is and might not give it a try -- or might give up after being totally unprepared.

Which is a damn shame. It's not a "must read," but is it a "should read?" Absolutely. The Invisibles represents Grant Morrison's first major long-form work (Animal Man and Doom Patrol dabble with long-form but tend to be dominated more by smaller arcs than by one large story), and we can see from this first outing with the style that his work on New X-Men and Batman wasn't just a latter-day Morrison phase; it's been a style of his for many years now.

As far as writing goes, Morrison is doing good work here; although it's not perfect -- there are a few bumps, pacing issues, and moments of unadulterated confusion -- Morrison never drops the ball and never loses sight of his ultimate endgame. Not everything is answered, true, but no question is raised that isn't significant regardless of the possible answers. In the case of Ragged Robin, for example, whether or not The Invisibles exist in a story is not as important as what that metaphor means for us as readers -- which is about as genius as the ever-meta Morrison has been. Of course, I'm writing from the subjective position of someone who believes Grant Morrison is a better writer than Alan Moore (deliberately provocative statement), but I don't think that The Invisibles deserves the critical disregard that it's received thus far.

For one, The Invisibles is the first mainstream creator-owned work by Grant Morrison, at once wildly original, smartly crafted, and disarmingly entertaining -- dismantling the supposed disconnect between "serious" literature and "fun" literature. If it's entertaining, The Invisibles suggests, it can mean a whole heck of a lot, too. And after re-reading it one more time in a decade different from the one where I discovered the series, I realized that The Invisibles hasn't failed as much as it seemed. While it's true that we haven't heard anything about an Invisibles movie (seriously, DC, get on that!) and while the series hasn't been reprinted in more permanent hardcover (more on that later), I think The Invisibles has meant more than we recognize -- meaning it deserves another look. But if you don't have the time to read seven trades, take another look at 1999's The Matrix.

Now, I'm not the first to suggest a connection between The Invisibles and The Matrix -- Morrison himself has claimed that you can rearrange the panels of the first issue and come out with storyboards for The Matrix -- but if there is such an influence, what does that say about the wildfire appropriation of Matrix-esque iconography in the culture? If we idolize the bald, bespectacled, gun-toting, leather-garbed, philosophy-quoting Morpheus, aren't we the grandchildren of King Mob? Or if that's too much of a stretch, take a look at the latest volume of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which the villains call themselves "an invisible college" and attempt to create a moonchild to end the world. Sound familiar?

So maybe The Invisibles aren't as absent as they seem. Maybe, appropriately enough, we just can't always see them unless we're looking -- unless we too are wearing the white badge. And in a way, this is the perfect time to rediscover The Invisibles. With the publication of Supergods in July 2011, Morrison explained a bit more about what he meant behind the series. I won't spoil any of the fun, because the book is one of the most compelling prose pieces I've read in a long time, but suffice it to say that more of The Invisibles makes sense to me -- including, finally, the fiction-suit device.

And there are a wealth of resources available to help new inductees navigate the world of The Invisibles -- on this last outing, I had a copy of Anarchy for the Masses (a book of annotations by Patrick Neighly and Kereth Cowe-Spigai) handy and found it to be a major help, assisting me in connecting a lot of the pieces where the text gets a little murky and pointing out recurring symbols that have an unconscious effect on the reader (especially the "universal stop light" which is never fully explicated in the series proper).

Indeed, with December 2012 -- and the advent of the Supercontext, whatever that really is -- just around the corner, we're only missing one more important piece of the puzzle: beautiful hardcovers of the original series. It's eminently doable -- three hardcovers collecting two trades a piece, with the brief volume four (Bloody Hell in America) collected in the second hardcover. Given the right treatment, republished with new introductions and afterwords that make clear the influence The Invisibles has actually had on culture, and tossing together all the bits and pieces of the series that didn't make it into the first trades (including the final page of Bloody Hell in America and the original Ashley Wood pages from The Invisible Kingdom), The Invisibles might finally take its place as the great "undiscovered" Grant Morrison text.

Who knows? With the Flex Mentallo trade finally emerging from the ether in February 2012, The Invisibles may be right around the corner. And what better ad copy than "DECEMBER 2012 -- THE SUPERCONTEXT IS UPON US!!! FIND OUT HOW IT ALL BEGAN -- IN THREE TITANIC HARDCOVERS!" Slap a "From the writer of All-Star Superman and Batman and Robin" onto the trade dress, and we might have a hot seller. I know I need a new edition, because the glue on the later trades isn't spectacular.

That's the end of the road, loyal readers. There have been whole books written on The Invisibles, but I won't take up more of your time. Now that I've said my piece about the series and drafted the fan letter I could never send to Grant Morrison (mostly because I'm not cognizant of his address), I've reached my own personal Barbelith and am ready to move on. But as I enter the Supercontext, don't be surprised if you hear from me again. If this site is willing, I have a few more reviews up my sleeve. [Any time, Zach!]

"And so we return and begin again."

Round of applause for Zach for an excellent series! Read Zach's full Invisibles review series at the link. See you next week for a Halloween treat -- and more collection news as it breaks!
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  1. I wouldn't recommend The Invisibles to someone who hasn't already developed a tolerance to Morrison's weirdness by reading his more mainstream work, but I absolutely agree it doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

    The thing is, much of The Invisibles feels like propaganda, as if Morrison is trying to sell us on his peculiar view of the universe, and some readers have a hard time keeping their distance from the text and enjoying it as pure entertainment.

    However, you don't have to buy into everything Morrison says in order to enjoy his books and appreciate his craft. Most writers don't even try to make something as complex and meaningful as The Invisibles, and the way Morrison pulls it off is awe-inspiring.

    Thanks for your reviews, Zach, and I hope you review more comics sometime.

  2. Thanks for the series of reviews. Invisibles has always been the Morrison series where everything clicked for me, despite its way-frayed edges and weird thematic rejiggers.

    Hoping for the Deluxe treatment as well.