When Words Collide

Wed, March 25th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: March 25th, 2009 at 5:50pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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DRAFTED INTO THE INVISIBLE ARMY

When I finished my book on Grant Morrison's early years -- well, his early, mostly-American, superhero years -- and started doing interviews about my analysis of Morrison's writing I was always asked, "what's next?"

And I assumed, back then in the now-distant days of 2007, that I'd continue my exploration of Morrison and complete a trilogy with "The Early Years," "The Psychedelic Years" (covering his work around the time of "JLA" and "The Invisibles"), and "The Millennial Years" (analyzing everything from "Marvel Boy" through "Batman" and whatever else he finished by the end of 2009 or so). So I told people about that plan, and it all sounded good, and in the Spring of 2007 I began the research on the inevitable next volume of Morrisonian analysis.

But then I hit a wall. An Invisible wall.

I decided, pretty early on in the research stage, that the only way to do justice to "Grant Morrison: The Psychedelic Years" was to pay close attention to the three volumes of "The Invisibles." "The Invisibles," without a doubt, was the keystone to that era of Morrison's writing -- perhaps the keystone to all of his writing. And the only way to fully understand "The Invisibles," I thought, was to immerse myself in the works of literature, art, and music which inspired Morrison's work on that series. So as I reread all the issues of "The Invisibles," I started making a list. A list of everything Morrison alluded to in the comic: from the Beatles to "Department S," from "The Prisoner" to Maya Deren, from Jerry Cornelius to the "I-Ching."

It became a massive list.

Three columns wide, on yellow legal paper, for pages and pages.

And then I started the immersion, watching everything Morrison watched, reading everything Morrison read, listening to everything Morrison listened to. I could have written an analysis of "The Invisibles" just by reading the comic and relying on Wikipedia, but I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do all the research the hard way. I wanted to know all the secrets "The Invisibles" had to teach. But, I soon realized, after reading too much Philip K. Dick and spending too much time trying to track down British tv shows from the Seventies, that in order to do what I set out to do I would practically have to become Grant Morrison. And I didn't want to do that. So I walked away from the project. I stacked up my research materials in my basement and turned to other things -- I devoted my time to a "Legion of Super-Heroes" book I was putting together; I started reading a wider array of comics; I began writing for "Back Issue" magazine and CBR.

I never lost interest in Morrison's current work, spending far too much time exploring his run on "Batman" and providing semi-sincere annotations, writing essays and articles on "All-Star Superman" and "Final Crisis." But I never really went back to "The Invisibles" again, even though I made refer to it vaguely in various things I have written in the past couple of years. For me, "The Invisibles" was a monolith of allusion so dense that I would have to lose myself to climb to its peak. It wasn't worth the trouble, I told myself.

But guess what I spent last weekend doing? Rereading all seven trade paperbacks of "The Invisibles."

"Rereading" is the wrong word in that context, because this was the first time I read the entire series in trades. I read it once when it was originally released in serialized, monthly format (with breaks between volumes, of course). I read the whole thing again in maybe 2001 or 2002. And then I read all the issues again in 2007. But this was the first time I read it straight through, without ads or letter columns. And I think that helped me to focus on the story itself, without thinking about all the extraneous information. It also helped that I flatly rejected reading "The Invisibles" as just part of a larger Morrisonian source-material text this time around. I just wanted to read what was on the page of the comic book series, without even thinking about the relationship between Jason King and Mister Six and John Byrne's drawings of Mastermind in "Uncanny X-Men."

And here's what I discovered, reading it quickly, with a self-adopted naiveté: "The Invisibles" is as complex as you want it to be.

When I wanted it to be densely packed with allusion and symbolic meaning (or, when I thought I wanted it that way) it was, and it was too overwhelming for me. Every allusion I found would trigger five more research-laden pathways, and it became a labyrinth from which I could never escape. Except by rejecting it entirely.

When I wanted it to just be a story about a group of rebels fighting against an oppressive order, that's what it became. Its simplicity was shocking, even when there were clearly elements that didn't quite fit into the overall picture. But at its core, "The Invisibles" takes Morrison's implicit interests and makes them explicit. The subtext of his other work becomes the surface text in "The Invisibles," and that makes the meaning far from hidden. It's right there, on every page, and it's not difficult to decipher. If that's all you want from it: a meaning.

HOW THE INVISIBLES MEANS

In "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" I trace the development of several themes and motifs throughout his superhero comics from the late 1980s and early 1990s. My argument in that book, such as it is, centers around the way Morrison patterns those themes and motifs. It's the recursion that matters, and the patterns that create meaning in everything from "Zenith" to "Arkham Asylum" to "Doom Patrol."

Those same patterns, emphasizing the same thematic concerns, are readily apparent throughout "The Invisibles." It's a text that's in constant dialogue with what Morrison has written before, but unlike "Final Crisis," which brings some of the same visual cues from the past to the present, "The Invisibles" creates a new visual iconography for Morrison's pet ideas.

Let's just take, for example, Morrison's use of the pop music motif in "Zenith." Zenith is, himself, a pop star while being a superhero. Morrison uses the character to explore the nexus of celebrity and the spoiled-brat archetype that's so common in the tabloids even today. Zenith, at the beginning of his own story (and even at the end, arguably) is a selfish character who isn't a particularly good superhero. But he's famous, and music -- or at least his fame from music -- is an important part of "Zenith." In "The Invisibles" the pop music motif takes on a religious, transcendental aspect almost immediately, with young Dan McGowan encountering a couple of lads from Liverpool in the same issue as King Mob summons the spirit of John Lennon. The motif is transformed for a new purpose, but it's a pattern that weaves though the text of "The Invisibles," with a rap star -- Jim Crow -- acting as one of the most powerful Invisibles of all.

The transformation of the pop music motif represents an overall maturity of vision throughout "The Invisibles." While many of the themes and motifs are the same as the ones seen in his pre-"Invisibles" work, Morrison's perspective on the themes and motifs seems to have changed. The petulance of the pop artist is replaced, in "The Invisibles," with the power of pop music itself. It's a small example, but its representative of the shift that "The Invisibles" represents in the overall scheme of Morrison's writing. It's a work about transformation, and it represents change itself. It's no surprise that iconography from the "I-Ching," the "Book of Changes" itself, is used on the cover of an early issue.

Like many of Morrison's works, "The Invisibles" asks the ontological question: what is the nature of being? Morrison explores that in "Animal Man" with Buddy Baker's encounters with the Implicate Order theory and the ultimate confrontation between Animal Man and a fictionalized Grant Morrison. The layers of reality in that series -- (1) Buddy Baker's life in the DCU, (2) Morrison's life as writer, (3) The unnamed "author" of Morrison's life -- something that might well be considered "God" -- imply a higher power which derives its entertainment from the suffering of the beings whose fates are in the hands of God. God is the writer in the metaphysical world of "Animal Man." That's a notion that reappears in "Final Crisis" with the existential battle taking place between blank page and the ink of the creator.

But in "The Invisibles" we're presented with a Manichean universe. Morrison doesn't seem to be using the fictional world in "The Invisibles" as a fictional world. It's analogous to our own, with a fictionalized representative of Morrison in the form of King Mob. (King Mob may not have originally been created to represent the author, but there's little doubt that Morrison and his creation became intertwined more and more closely as the series progressed, with Morrison suffering from some of the same fates that he was inflicting upon his comic book avatar.)

The Manichean philosophy of "The Invisibles" proposes two opposite but equal powers. The Invisible College (the beings who the individual cells of the Invisibles report to -- indirectly, at times) represent the forces of freedom and chaos, while the Outer Church (the monstrous beings who infect the world and work with agents like Mr. Quimper) represent order and blind compliance to doctrine. The universe as we know it -- as the characters in "The Invisibles" know it, is the small overlap between those two dualistic universes. On its surface, it's the battle of good (The Invisibles) vs. evil (representatives of the Outer Church) with the fate of the world at stake.

King Mob explains the relationship between the three universes with a kind of cosmic Venn diagram. The "vesica piscis," better known to Americans as "the Jesus fish" is a mere fragment of the overall diagram. If you extend the curved lines of the vesica piscis the result is two intersecting circles, each larger circle representing the Invisible College and the Outer Church, respectively, with our universe being the small sliver of overlap in between. Our universe, or the universe of "The Invisibles" would not exist without the duality inherent in that intersection of two competing philosophies.

Such a notion of duality, as represented by a motif of doubling, recurs throughout Morrison's early work: In "Zenith" as the parallel Earth duplicate of the protagonist sacrifices himself in a way Zenith never would; in "Arkham Asylum" with the duality between Batman and the Joker; in "Doom Patrol" with the forces of imposed order battling against the absurdity of Dadaism. Manichaeism abounds in the early works, with opposites eternally in conflict. The purity of the mind (or the soul) at odds with the physical corruption of the body.

And that seems to be the case in "The Invisibles" as well, with the Invisible College representing a kind of pure noumena (mind) and the Outer Church representing pure phenomena (body), and with each faction striving to bring its philosophy into being in our universe. Dane McGowan, under the nom-de-rebellion Jack Frost, seems to be set up as the messiah through which the Invisible College will manifest on Earth. And the hideous "Moonchild" will spawn an era of Outer Church dominance in our universe.

Such a structure, such an obvious and transparent fascination with duality, fits perfectly with what Morrison produced in his pre-"Invisibles" career.

But by the end of "The Invisibles" Volume 3, as Jack Frost devoured the Rex Mundi (the King Archon, the lord of the Outer Church) and everything seemed to lean toward a victory for the Invisible Church, we learn that the structure of the triplicate universe was not one of a Venn diagram, but one of two perfectly overlapping circles. The Barbelith itself -- the circle image -- was the proper diagram of the relationship between the Outer Chruch and the Invisible College. Both sides were ultimately revealed to be the same thing. Morrison's Manichaeism ends with monism. Everything is one. Everything is unified.

It's the same principle that lead to Superman and Ultraman being mashed together into the 4th dimensional Superman Suit in "Final Crisis." It's the same principle that lead to Lex Luthor's moment of transcendent vision at the end of "All-Star Superman," in which he sees the universe as it is and realizes that it's all part of a single cloth.

We are one, says "The Invisibles," and if you're just looking for meaning in that complex, imperfect work from Grant Morrison, that's what it means. If it means anything.

But if you want to read, watch, and listen to everything Morrison read, watched, and listened to in the process of creating "The Invisibles," I sure won't stand in your way.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

You can follow Tim on Twitter at gbfiremelon, too.

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TAGS:  when words collide, grant morrison, the invisibles

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