When Words Collide

Mon, September 14th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: September 14th, 2009 at 3:23pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

TALKING INVISIBLES: PATRICK MEANEY'S MULTIMEDIA EMPIRE

"Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison's The Invisibles" by Patrick Meaney

I tend to be known as a "Morrison guy," and that's fair, considering that I spent the better part of a year researching and writing a book about him. And whenever I write about Morrison in this column, readers flock to it. But even though I've written a column about Morrison's most personal work -- "The Invisibles" -- I'm certainly not an expert on that multi-volume series. The guy who you want to talk to about King Mob, Dane, Fanny, Boy, Robin and the rest, well, that guy is Patrick Meaney.

I happen to know Patrick pretty well, and I spent a little time this summer helping him with a film project he was working on in San Diego, but this month Patrick has something else on his mind: his book on Morrison's "Invisibles" is in the September Previews, and in anticipation of it hitting the comic shops, he wanted to talk about Morrison, "The Invisibles," and anything else that struck our fancy.

So here's Patrick, telling us a bit about "Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison's The Invisibles" and me making fun of him before getting down to business:

Tim Callahan: So you have a book coming out, and I know all about it because I read an advance copy and wrote the afterword to it. That means that it's endorsed by me, so did you guys put a giant "Endorsed by the Famous Tim Callahan of Comic Book Resources Fame" sticker on the cover? Because you totally should have.

Patrick Meaney: I believe there's a foil embossed 1:1,000 hologram variant cover out there with your endorsement sticker on there. Make sure your retailer orders enough copies to get that one! On the regular cover, your name is only as big as Grant Morrison's, so I guess that will have to do.

TC: Nice. Can't wait to get the royalties on that action. In all seriousness, though, you do have a book coming out, and it's in Diamond Previews this month, so we should probably talk about that. What were you thinking, exactly, writing a book about "The Invisibles"? Don't you know that the series doesn't make any sense?

PM: That obtuseness certainly is the reputation, and I know the series has stumped even a lot of serious Morrison fans who got stuff like "Final Crisis" or "Seven Soldiers." I think just reading "The Invisibles" isn't quite enough to understand it, you've got to think about it, and in some respects, "live" it to fully understand it. That's what separates it from Morrison's other work, it's designed consciously as a hypersigil, a work of fiction that doubles as an act of magic, and to get into it, you've got to surrender to that spell.

So, the first time I read it, I was wrapped up in it completely and thought about it extensively, all on a quest to make sense of it. A few years later, I was going to reread it again, and I decided to blog each issue as I went through, as a way of engaging with it in a new way. Flash forward a few months and I'm talking to you at the Sequart booth at New York Comic-Con, and we're talking about the followup to your "Grant Morrison: The Early Years," and your thoughts on "The Invisibles."

TC: Yeah, when my Morrison book debuted -- this was before it was available in stores or even online, when it was just 30 preview copies at the New York Comic-Con -- Richard Bensam bought a copy and he told me about this guy. This guy who turned out to be you, who had written all this stuff about "The Invisibles" online. Richard was raving about how you were one of the few people who actually "got it." Who actually put the whole thing in his brain and wrote about it in a holistic way, yet analyzed it closely as well.

I met you the following year, and we talked about your thoughts on "The Invisibles" a bit, but I really didn't completely see your approach until I read the proof copy of "Our Sentence is Up." I remember when I did talk to you, one of the things I said was that I had such a hard time keeping the entirety of "The Invisibles" in my head thoroughly enough to find all the connections between the issues. I could obviously decode the bigger symbols, and many of Morrison's common themes and motifs from his earlier work reappeared throughout "The Invisibles," but there was something about the work that was discordant to me. The pieces seemed like pieces, and not parts of a puzzle that offered anything in terms of a satisfying overall picture.

How did you manage to pull the discordant parts of "The Invisibles" together and find the connections from Volume 1 through Volume 3? What were some of the keys that helped you unlock the deeper mysteries?

PM: I've read the series four or five times at this point, and the more you read it, the more you get past the seeming disconnect in styles between the various volumes, and start to see how singular the work actually is. It's certainly one of the most intimidating series to go into, I remember before I even read it hearing you could read it backwards and crazy stuff like that. I don't think that's quite true, there is a very clear narrative and character progression, which is intertwined with the exploration of Morrison's own personal philosophy, which is largely drawn from Morrison's "abduction" in Kathmandu, an experience which happened shortly after he started writing the series.

So, the first thing to do is to understand the core philosophical points that underlie the series, which really quickly are: all of humanity, all life on Earth, is part of one single organism when seen from outside time, so war and interpersonal conflict are all just growing pains on our journey to become aware of this fact, which is what Morrison calls entering the supercontext. Once you've got that philosophy as a touchstone, it's a lot easier to understand the way that seemingly random elements, like the Byron and Shelley stuff in the early issues, or the many cover personalities of Division X fit into a larger whole. Understanding that philosophy gives you the framework through which to view the series. What can make it so confusing is that Morrison writes the whole series like we've already read it, so particularly in the infamously confusing second arc, 'Arcadia,' he's dealing extensively with concepts that won't be comprehensible until the last couple of issues of the series.

One of the things that helped me understand the series best was thinking about how Morrison uses the comic itself as a way to convey his view of the world. On our first read, we're all seeing things in a linear way, unaware of what will happen in the characters' future. On rereading, we're able to see things like Morrison did during the abduction, we can travel in time by flipping to different pages of the book, aware that it's all one continuum, where every action builds on what's already happened to bring us closer to the supercontext. We are to the people in the comic what a theoretical higher level being would be to us.

What makes the work so difficult for some people is that, like Moore's "Promethea," The Invisibles is both an adventure/action story and a philosophical work. So, there are narrative and character payoffs, but in some cases, the payoffs are philosophical, and if you don't engage with Morrison's philosophy, a lot of the payoffs can feel underwhelming. I don't think you have to agree with all of Morrison's ideas to understand or enjoy the work, but I think you do have to at least think about them, and not just reject the idea of an "abduction" outright. That philosophy is the core that unites the discordance you discussed, and I won't deny that the art is wildly varied and inconsistent, particularly early on, which can make it tough to "settle in" to the story.

TC: Let's skip the art discussion, even though I realize it is important to talk about how the visual contributions affect the meaning of the work, but for now, let's stick with two points you raised. (1) The comparison to Moore's "Promethea." And (2) the abduction thing.

I know you're not implying that "The Invisibles" is like "Promethea" thematically, though I think there are some similarities, but you're implying that they are using the comic book medium, and the Romantic "super-hero" genre (even if "The Invisibles" aren't traditional super-heroes) to convey philosophical meaning. Yet "Promethea" seems to be an essay, ultimately, in comic book form, in which Moore expouses his religious philosophy -- and describes the history and meaning of magic -- as its primary purpose. It's not a hero story disguising a polemic. It's a polemic with hero illustrations and an abandoned attempt at a plot. Morrison is much less direct with his discourse in "The Invisibles," so what's the connection between them?

And why can't someone reject the alien abduction story outright? What if someone -- a straw man reader -- says, "no, he was NOT abducted by aliens," is that person incapable of understanding "The Invisibles"? And what do you make of Morrison's own account of the abduction, especially since he was quite passionate about the event for years -- and anyone who's seen him speak about it at the Disinformation conference can attest to his passion -- yet in recent years, he's seemed to indicate that the experience was more metaphorical than literal. How do you process all of that?

PM: I'm sure that neither Moore nor Morrison would be happy to have someone position them as rivals once again, but I think both works sum up both their creators' philosophy and are exemplary of the differences between them. The philosophical message of both works is at its core the same, that all time is one, and that humanity is destined to evolve to a more peaceful, together world, and both build to an "apocalypse" that is in reality the end of the world we know and the passage into something different and better. Talking about the end of "The Invisibles," Morrison said that he wanted to leave things open at the end, but if he had to guess what the world post supercontext might look like, it would probably be something like what Moore showed in the second to last issue of "Promethea." (I could pull an exact quote on this, it's in the video footage) I think that on one level, "The Invisibles" is just as much Morrison exploring his philosophy as Moore is in "Promethea."

But, the central difference between the two has always been that Moore is all about control and exactness, when he got into magic, he researched the entirety of magic history, and writes a perfectly constructed, gorgeous book that sets out a very specific view of magical history. Morrison has always been more about chaos, so rather than the consistently brilliant panel construction of J. H. Williams III, he's got fifteen or twenty artists drawing the book, jumping through styles and approaches in a way that feels at times totally random. Morrison's work has a spark of invention that Moore's doesn't, and I think that explains why people don't see Morrison's work as an "essay" in the way they view Moore's, since his philosophy isn't the set of rules and ideas that Moore's is, it's constantly evolving and changing. And, I think more than with Moore, Morrison feels free to throw in the pop cultural things he loves as well, when you've got Crowley and Osiris on the page, it feels like a lecture, when you've got John Lennon filling the same purpose, the magic feels more like just another element thrown in there.

Morrison does a better job of balancing the philosophy and the story, never lapsing into the kind of extended lecture that we get mid-Promethea, primarily because his philosophy is all about inventing your own kind of magic. You don't need to know about Mercury, you can worship The Flash. But, both works on some level are about exploring their creator's respective philosophies, and at the core, those philosophies are virtually identical. If "The Invisibles" had come out after "Promethea," I think you'd have a lot of people saying that Morrison ripped off Moore's philosophical ideas. Ultimately, Morrison has less of a dividing line between his serious, philosophical work and his pop comics, so even when he's talking philosophy, it doesn't feel like a lecture.

As for rejecting the abduction story, I think you can still enjoy the comic on the pure surface level of a fun action story about five people battling an oppressive force, and I think a lot of people do. Not everyone's going to go out and read background material on the series and find out that Morrison was abducted, or that he saw King Mob as an avatar of himself. But, I think not knowing that stuff is what can lead to the confused responses, or the sort of lukewarm feelings that many people who enjoy Morrison's other work have towards the work. I think in the case of "The Invisibles," the more you put into it, the more you get out. And, writing the book, I was forced to really think about little things that confused me and I would normally gloss over, but on this go through, I thought about and was able to understand in the context of the larger work.

And, I think Morrison still considers the abduction experience key to his philosophy, but he's presenting it in a slightly different way than the hyperbolic Disinfo speech. His present day thoughts on the abduction and the legacy of the series are covered in the interview I did with him for the book, but the quick response is that, as Batmite says in "Batman RIP," "Imagination is the fifth dimension," so whether he was abducted or he just imagined it, it's something that he perceived to happen, and there is no difference between perception and reality, it changed his world and therefore it happened. So, I think he's saying that at this point, he sees no difference between a literal and metaphorical experience. He never claimed to have been taken up by a UFO or anything, it was always a mental thing. His whole approach to magic has changed in the 2000s, he's not doing spells or sigils anymore, it's more about exploring things in the work.

TC: Your book ends with a massive Morrison interview, right? I haven't seen that part yet. But what else is in "Our Sentence is Up" and why should CBR readers be interested in it?

PM: Yup, the interview is about 45 pages and covers extensively the genesis of the series, anecdotes from the 90s, and perhaps most importantly, a lot of Morrison's feelings about the series in retrospect, and how the world we've living in compares to the future he imagined in "The Invisibles." I heard a lot of stories from him I'd never heard before, and he clarified a lot of the things that I was unclear about while writing the early drafts of the book.

I know that there's already a book about "The Invisibles" out there and what makes "Our Sentence is Up" different is that it's much more analytical, it's more about the themes and concepts of the series than simply pointing out that John Lennon was a musician from a band called The Beatles and obvious stuff like that. It's about looking at the work as a whole, and seeing how each individual piece fits into the overall composition of the work.

And, it's also about the series in the context of the world we've been living in since 2000. The book ended nearly ten years ago, but I'd argue that it's more relevant than ever, and something like the "War on Terror," in which George Bush and company used fictional weapons of mass destruction as the excuse to create a real war that can never end is exactly the kind of thing that archons do in the book. In a world where the definition of reality becomes more and more subjective, "The Invisibles" becomes more and more important.

So, hopefully the book will be an accessible and readable guide to all the concepts and themes of the series that makes it clear why it's still relevant today. On top of that, we've got the Morrison interview, and your afterword, bringing it to a total of 372 pages of quality analysis.

TC: Do you think writing the book has changed you? Have you been transformed by Morrison's philosophy? Or did that happen when you read "The Invisibles" the first time? Or second time, or third time?

PM: The first read through of the book, and my subsequent attempts to comprehend it all, had a massive impact on the way I perceived the world, and a lot of that did come out of Morrison's philosophy. I was equally interested in the surface level of the book, the stylish characters and action sequences, as I was in the philosophical stuff, and I spent months after first reading it reading anything I could about the series online and trying to process it all. By the end of it, I saw "The Invisibles" as the greatest work of fiction of all time.

Writing the book was a way to recapture that mentality and look at the series in a fresh way, and see if it lived up to the reputation I'd built for it in my head, which may sound hyperbolic, but something's got to be the greatest. And, after deconstructing it and spending months and months with it again, I think it does stand up. And, I don't know that I'd be in filmmaking now if I hadn't read the series, it made me feel like I had to take that path.

TC: Right -- in your day job you're a filmmaker, and you're working on a couple of comic book related-documentaries right now. I've seen you in action first hand as you ingloriously put me to work holding a boom mic during Jill Thompson's interview in San Diego this summer. Don't you know how big of a deal I am? Did the foil-embossed cover sticker not hint that you should be bowing at my feet, not sticking a boom in my hands just because one of your producers had to run off to some CW panel???

Anyway, what can you tell me about this one documentary you're doing -- the one on this Grant Morrison guy?

PM: Well, after doing the book, I was planning on doing an interview with Morrison, and I figured, I might as well film it, maybe for web content and just to make it easier to transcribe. Then, I was like, well, why not just do a full documentary, we pitched Grant the idea, he was up for it, and now it's happening. So, I went out to LA in April and shot many hours of interview with Grant, some of which made up the interview in the book. But, the documentary covers his entire career and entire life, from the early British work right through Final Crisis and the Batman run.

Then, as you mentioned, we went out to San Diego and interviewed about 25 people, including Grant's collaborators like Cameron Stewart, Chris Weston, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Jill Thompson, and even some guy named Tim Callahan about their thoughts on Grant's work, and their experience with him. So, it should be a pretty exhaustive, career spanning project. It's Grant's story in his own words, and more. We're hoping to debut the film in San Diego next year and have it for sale shortly thereafter. There's a lot of great material to sort through, things I had never heard Grant talk about, as well as some looks inside his famous notebooks of ideas. So, I can pretty much guarantee that even the biggest Morrison fan will get something new out of it. You can check out the trailer already.

TC: This is COMIC Book Resources, not Pimp-Your-Documentary Book Resources. You do like comics, right?

PM: Not at all, I'm just in this for the crazy royalties. Didn't "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" just pay for your fourth hot tub?

TC: That's almost true. It's a Fourth-DIMENSIONAL hot tub, so I haven't figured out how to install it yet, and the instructions are in Scottish.

"Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison's The Invisibles" is available from Diamond Previews, order code SEP091084.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) 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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, the invisibles, patrick meaney, grant morrison

When Words Collide Home | When Words Collide Archives

When Words Collide

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.