Brian Bolland's cover to issue 2.1, and the paperback collection Bloody Hell In America. Clockwise from top left: Jack Frost, Lord Fanny, Boy, King Mob, Ragged Robin

The Invisibles

For those of you who haven't been paying attention to the articles on comics that've been appearing here, a brief summary. Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, is the greatest comic on the planet, because of its magnificent narrative drive, its understanding of character and its ability to mix drama, romance, low comedy, high philosophy and rampant ultra-violence within a single story. Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, is the third greatest comic on the planet, because like all the best science fiction it uses the framework of a future society to analyse our present one from an unexpected angle, and because in Spider Jerusalem it has one of the most intriguingly detailed leading characters of any comic out there.

And The Invisibles, by Grant Morrison and assorted artists, is the second greatest comic on the planet. Lots of reasons could be given here, but for now I'll just concentrate on the events of Thanksgiving Night 1995, when a large number of the comic's readers masturbated simultaneously to help improve the sales.

The Invisibles had been going as a comic for a year and a bit by this time. To summarise a tremendously complex plot, it's about a titanic struggle between the forces of Timeless Freedom and the forces of Eternal Control. It takes in every conspiracy theory ever created, and puts the blame for them all on one all-encompassing network of ultradimensional entities known as the Archons of the Outer Church, who basically control everything: governments, media, armies. The Invisibles are their enemies: working alone or in cells, they fight against the Universal Conspiracy as we spiral towards the Apocalypse (which according to the Mayan calendar will happen on December 22nd 2012, as any fule kno).

With all these elements, you'd think people would flock to this comic: particularly when it's created by acclaimed Glaswegian writer Grant Morrison, whose track record includes Doom Patrol, Animal Man and assorted bits and bobs for 2000 AD in its heyday. However, Morrison wasn't prepared to stop at a simple Goodies vs Baddies story. He wanted to show that this conspiracy was enormous and had been running since the beginning of time. Thus after a few issues of introduction to the main characters, issue 5 kicked off the first major adventure for the Invisibles, Arcadia. Within four issues Morrison wove together a staggeringly complex tale involving Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Marquis de Sade, a recreation of 120 Days Of Sodom, a 20th century San Francisco nightclub and the head of John The Baptist. Morrison's subsequently revealed that during these four issues, the comic's circulation dropped catastrophically and didn't recover, as casual readers ran away screaming from the sheer weight of ideas.

Something had to be done, or The Invisibles would be cancelled by publishers DC Comics before it got to its climax (which Morrison has always promised will "explain existence"). Readers came up with solutions ranging from "put more pussy in it" to "write a better comic", none of which were particularly useful. Morrison eventually decided that Sex Magick was the only way forward. In a letters page published early November 1995, he described the basic principles of constructing a sigil out of the letters of your heart's desire, and having it present in your mind at a moment when the conscious brain is otherwise occupied... for example, at the moment of orgasm. He then supplied a sigil based around a request for the sales of the comic to increase, and asked his readership to masturbate to it on the night of Thanksgiving.

Now, you could take this as being an example of the bizarre humour that Morrison is notorious for, or the last desperate hope of a writer who's losing readers hand over fist (thanks for that one, Mark). But the facts have to be taken seriously. Not only did the sales of The Invisibles subsequently recover to the extent that cancellation was no longer an option, but Morrison became so popular within DC Comics that they offered him the job of writing The Justice League Of America, one of DC's flagship superhero titles. You can say what you want about Morrison's magickal experiment, but it certainly seems to have been more than just a load of wank.

King Mob goes gun crazy, courtesy of artist Jill ThompsonSo what sort of comic inspires its readers to perform acts such as these? To quote Morrison himself, "this is the comic I've wanted to write all my life - a comic about everything: action, philosophy, paranoia, sex, magic, biography, travel, drugs, religions, UFO's..." Primarily, it's the story of a five person Invisibles cell, looking for a new recruit following the mysterious disappearance of colleague John O'Dreams. The unlikely candidate they latch on to is Dane McGowan, a snotty Scouse teenager first seen screaming "FUUUUUUUUUCK!" as he lobs a Molotov cocktail into the library of his school. (Tory MP George Galloway made a twat of himself prior to the publication of issue 1, by demanding that it be banned because of its language. He obviously didn't spot any of the other stuff.)

The first volume of the comic covered Dane's induction into the cell, under the code name of Jack Frost. Over 25 comics published in 1994-1996, we got a series of stories (with a wide variety of artists) about the team as a whole and the individuals within it. King Mob, super assassin, who in his spare time is a fictional character called Gideon Stargrave written by horror novelist Kirk Morrison (hey, I never said this was going to be easy): Lord Fanny, a Brazilian transvestite and shaman: Boy, a black female New Yorker who's in this for her own personal reasons of revenge (or, at least, that's what they want her to think...): and Ragged Robin, a witch who curiously claims to have been born in 1988, six years before the events in the book. A number of their key enemies are also introduced, notably Sir Miles Delacourt, who plans to place an Archon King on the throne of England following the failure of his plans to have Princess Diana bear one legitimately into the Royal Family. (This storyline first came to light in August 1995, and you can imagine Morrison's glee two years later when he found yet another apparent conspiracy he could stir into the mix.)

Volume two (22 issues, published 1997-1998) was comparatively focussed: the team decamped to America, and was drawn by two distinct art teams rather than a rotating series of artists. Surprisingly, Morrison followed some of his readers' advice: this volume certainly has more "pussy" in it (as King Mob and Ragged Robin become an item), and at first glance looks to be a "better" comic in that the initial issues were more straight-down-the-line action adventures than before. In fact, Morrison was simply starting off slowly to lure readers in, and quickly escalated it back to the level of extreme weirdness we'd come to know and love.

Additional Invisible characters came into play in this volume. Jolly Roger is a kind of lesbian version of King Mob, whose own Invisibles cell members are all killed off or captured in the raid on a military base that opens the volume: while Mason Lang is an American billionaire who's sponsoring a series of experiments into the paranormal. This leads to the splendid situation where Robin reveals that she's actually from the future, having travelled back in time from seconds before the 2012 apocalypse: Mason's team use the remains of her time machine to invent one for themselves and send her back there again. Unfortunately, Robin has the minor complication of being partially possessed by the spirit of evil sex dwarf Quimper, who is attempting to destroy the cell from within. Meanwhile, King Mob is having a crisis of faith regarding the effect all this killing is having on his karma, Boy is discovering that everything she knows about herself is a lie, and that Molotov-hurling Scouser Jack Frost is showing signs of becoming the future Buddha...

Chris Weston's vision of the Invisibles, from the final page of Volume 2. Jack, KM, Fanny and Jolly RogerConfused? Well, it's probably understandable. Part of the reason why The Invisibles has such a reputation for being incomprehensible is that this is an incredibly densely layered story, which has so far covered forty-seven 24-page comic books with another 12 still to go. Things which initially seem hard to understand become blindingly clear some ten or twenty issues later, although that isn't much of an incentive to read on when you've got to wait four to six weeks between issues. This would be an ideal series to have permanently available as a series of paperback collections, although surprisingly DC are dragging their heels on this. Three collections are available covering one third of Volume 1 (Say You Want A Revolution) and half of Volume 2 (Bloody Hell In America, Counting To None): if you want to read the rest of the first two volumes, you've got to buy another 26 individual comic books. Sort it out, DC.

The other thing that can scare off the casual reader is that Morrison has a moist hinge for the concept of the simultaneity of time: the idea that all past and future events exist concurrently with the present, and all that's required for us to move freely within time is a simple change in perception. (When the time machine is invented in the story, it turns out to run on a combination of Zen and origami.) As a result, the chronology within the saga can be a little, shall we say, fluid.

But in the end, despite all the wild metaphysical concepts and narrative fragmentation, this is at heart a story about a small group of people taking on the world, and Morrison uses the huge canvas offered by nearly 1,500 pages of comics to tell a spellbinding yarn. Every so often he throws in a detail that forces you to consider the story from yet another angle. There are hints that the whole battle between the Invisibles and the Archons is being staged for someone else's benefit. (A mysterious chess player appears in the story on a regular basis: he's always seen sitting to one side of the board, so he can move both sets of pieces.) It's also been suggested that the Invisibles are merely the natural antibodies produced by the Universe so that it can fight the virus of Control by itself. Most recently, to really mess things up, it seems to have been revealed that the whole thing could be happening inside Ragged Robin's head in 2005 with the aid of a virtual reality machine and some really big drugs. Or at least, that's what they want her to think...

And some of the twists the story takes are truly inspired. At one point, King Mob is being interrogated while under the influence of a drug that makes the brain interpret written words as if they were the actual objects they describe. During his escape one of his captors is also forced to take the drug, and is last seen on her knees in front of a World's Greatest Dad coffee mug weeping "...daddy?" Best of all is the issue Best Man Fall, which flashes back to King Mob's rescue of Jack from the Harmony House correctional institute in issue 1, which featured spectacular amounts of damage to property and security guards. Morrison brilliantly picks on one of the guards who appeared for all of two frames in this sequence before being killed, and devotes twenty-four pages to his life story. In the process, he shows us how easy it is for a child (who, it's hinted obliquely, could have been the new Buddha instead of Jack) to fall from grace.

At the time of writing, Volume 3 of The Invisibles is just kicking off. Twelve monthly issues throughout 1999, climaxing with that revelation of the meaning of existence some time in January 2000. As the volume opens, King Mob has gone into hiding and renounced violence, Boy has quit and returned to her family, Jolly Roger has joined the team, Jack is in training at the Invisibles Academy and Ragged Robin is simultaneously ten years old and somewhere in the future. This is issue 12. The next issue will be issue 11. You haven't much time left to decide which side you're on...

Morrison may be committed to telling the most complex story possible in the comics medium, but he's not stupid. The three volumes of The Invisibles can be read independently, as each starts with a summary of what's gone before. (You'll miss out on some of the subtleties, but can always go to the old paperback collections for some of the background.) So get in there now for the start of volume 3, and prepare to join the best-dressed conspiracy in this or the other universe. And when you do, spare a thought for that dedicated bunch of fans who participated in the great Sex Magick experiment of 1995. Was I one of them? Sorry, but there are some questions even I'm not prepared to go public on. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

DC Comics! Vertigo! Direct Currents! You know the official sites by now, surely. They've now also got message boards for discussion of DC's comics, now that they've replaced all the letters pages with adverts. (However, these are moderated by DC themselves: see rec.arts.comics.dc.vertigo below for a more anarchic alternative.)

The Bomb is the dog's bollocks when it comes to Invisibles fan sites. The best of the newsgroup discussions are combined into a series of annotations to every issue. There's also a series of articles on recurring characters and interesting speculation on the unresolved mysteries.

Barbelith used to be the best Invisibles fan site - and even had Grant Morrison's personal approval - but pressure of work has forced its owner to abandon updating it. It used to be the home of the comprehensive annotations now resident on The Bomb, and still has lots of other useful stuff, including links to a wide variety of Invisibles sites. Unfortunately, most of these links are now dead, presumably for the same reasons as Barbelith. Or, at least, that's what they want you to think...

The Invisibles Art Gallery, run by someone who used to be appealingly named Sixmonkey but now goes under the slightly more dull name of Rob, is a series of beautiful scans of the gorgeous pouting work that Sean Phillips and Brian Bolland have done on the covers of The Invisibles, plus loads of other related artwork.

Amazon.co.uk will sell you the Invisibles collections Say You Want A Revolution, Bloody Hell In America and Counting To None in their usual efficient on-line manner. If you're American, it may be better to go to amazon.com and get Revolution, Hell and Counting from there instead. Besides, the user reviews are better.

rec.arts.comics.dc.vertigo is a surprisingly arsehole-free newsgroup (surprising by newsgroup standards, anyway), dedicated to the discussion of Vertigo's adult comic range and all manner of tangentially related topics. It's a particularly interesting place to visit in the week or so following the publication of an Invisibles issue, as debate on its meaning rages back and forth. Transmetropolitan and Preacher fans will also get value for money here.

February 20th 1999

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