Anarchy for the Masses is essential reading for fans of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Its best feature is its organization: one “chapter” of discussion for each issue of Morrison’s 3-volume opus from the 1990s. This approach means all 59 issues (plus assorted extras) are covered in detail.
The Invisibles was a millennial fever dream that was meant to (but didn’t quite) culminate in 1999 with all that Y2K anxiety (even though the real end/rebirth/apocalypse that concerns the title characters is always coming, and finally does come in the last issue, in 2012). While the story has some now-dated elements, Morrison reminds us in one interview that The Invisibles was bringing up a lot of subcultural ideas before those subcultures went mainstream, as many of them have in the 21st century.
This book may not be as crucial for regular visitors of Barbelith.com, or for Morrison fans who already have every one of his copious online interviews committed to memory. However, I’m not that extreme. What I have is every issue of the series, access to all the trades, memories of my enthusiastic participation in the “Wankathon” of 1995, and recollections of several of the online interviews I’ve read.
I also bring my personal interpretation of the Invisibles as the X-men of Anarchy to the topic. Yep, for me, it goes like this: Boy is Wolverine, King Mob is Cyclops, Fanny is Storm, Robin is Jean Grey, and Dane is Iceman (but really all the New Mutants rolled into one).
That connection between the Invisibles and the X-Men is why it was so cool when Jiminez ended up illustrating New X-men during Morrison’s run on that title. It was already familiar, already predicted with his excellent issues of The Invisibles where all of the witches and mages and techno-assassins of Division X and all the other cells struck their blows against the conformity and repression of the Outer Church.
When the original issues were coming out, we had little idea if they’d catch on, or even if the series would be completed. It all seemed quite tenuous, and we only learned tantalizing bits and pieces about these bizarre new characters with each unfolding issue. Grant was pushing the boundaries of what Vertigo could be, and many interviews in the volume attest to the drop-off in interest during the Arcadia arc (illustrated by Jill Thompson) in the first troubled year.
The authors, Patrick Neighly and Kereth Cowe-Spigai, have gathered relevant commentary for the series as it evolved, to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of the issues in production. We hear from many of the artists: Phil Bond, Chris Weston, Steve Yeowell (who set the tone in the initial issues, but hated drawing Robin), Warren Pleece, Sean Phillips, Jill Thompson, and Phil Jiminez. Vertigo editors Stuart Moore, Karen Berger, and Shelly Roeberg either pipe in or are mentioned. Questions about issues of censorship and authorial freedom are examined, esoteric elements are explained or referenced, and each cover is analyzed.
Morrison’s interviews discuss frankly his illness that struck during the writing of the second volume, and the challenge to his artists of script pages that came slowly, one by one (if at all) for several months.
Drugs and altered states of consciousness, which were frequently plot points of the series, were also major players in Morrison’s personal life. In fact, The Invisibles is the story where art and life merged the most for Morrison, with characters and locales directly reflecting autobiographical elements. The entire series serves as a bildungsroman centered on Dane. As such, it is an initiation ritual that reflects Morrison’s own self-initiation into the realms of the magickal.
He admits that the series isn’t ultimately a vehicle for the characters. Instead, the characters are the vehicles for the philosophies they introduce. The books themselves are alternately sigils, magic spells, and tools for creating real Invisibles of the readers.
At some point, most of the artists mention Morrison’s own drawing ability, explaining why they enjoy working with his scripts. While he gives them freedom and room for interpretation in his directions, his very strong and clear visualizations for every character (usually in the form of detailed character sketches, which may or may not be shown to the artist as a reference) make many choices very clear for the artists. Though these characters were all fully formed visually from the first issue, that didn’t stop them from evolving as their (and Morrison’s) life experiences occurred.
King Mob is a man of a few casual and chic styles under his razor-wired headdress. Boy starts out as a hip-hop fly girl, but that’s just a phase that hides the policewoman she was, and the mother she will eventually become. Scruffy Dane is never going to be a sharp-dressed man (unless he’s faking it), but he is a compassionate friend. Robin goes from ragamuffin clown to leather dominatrix while the real woman resides somewhere behind her many masks. And Fanny . . . well, of course, Fanny has a look for every occasion, be it Dolly Parton pigtails, Japanese geisha gown, or provocative streetwalker glitter.
Each issue gets two reviews (one from each of the books’ authors, and since they don’t always agree there’s a dialectical charge to some of the analysis that keeps things lively). Even better is the side bar of panel-by-panel annotations. There’s even a complex footnote system, so a reference like “22.214.171.124” is a direction to consult vol. 2, issue 12, page 11, panel 3.
While the authors’ art analysis is generally rich, they sometime miss the forest for the trees. Much praise is given Chris Weston for his Magic Mirror depiction (something Jill Thompson really designed back in volume one), but there’s little discussion of his unbelievably detailed and haunted Philadelphia church (which appears to be made of pieces of several actual Gothic cathedrals at once) or of his stunning sci-fi architecture of the Dulce conspiracy complex, which the teammates invade twice at great risk to their lives.
If you’re like me, this compendium of facts will send you running to your back issues (or the trades, which are all back in print). It’s surprising to learn some of the artists’ preferences. Robin seems the least favorite of several due to all those curly ringlets (which only Jiminez seems to enjoy drawing). King Mob is surprisingly unpopular as well--Jiminez especially finds him an uber-violent, uber-macho cliché, and many of the other artists get tired of all his piercings. Fanny is popular for the costuming opportunities she affords. By far, it is Boy and Dane who emerge as the most sympathetic, human, and expressive characters.
Many important plot elements were obscured by the bizarre choice to feature a mix of series and new artists over three issues during a crucial point in volume three. The crowning of the Lovecraftian anti-King by Sir Miles (and a rather mute Queen Elizabeth II) in a dark ceremony in a desecrated church full of manifesting Archons (aspects of the diseased proto-universe birthing itself into ours during an eclipse) was a plot climax foreshadowed since the first volume. The setpiece in the church featured nearly every major character, with final fates for several. While something of a “series greatest hits” was intended with the artists' jam, the result, unfortunately, was that characters and locales changed jarringly from page to page--making crucial developments and long-desired explanations difficult if not impossible to follow.
While John Ridgeway is appreciated for his realism and Weston is celebrated for the same reason, the Pander Bros. aren’t recognized at all by Neighly and Cowe-Spigai--who actually seem a bit out of the loop as far as other comics go (Did they ONLY read The Invisibles? Not even any other Vertigo?).
There are scathing put-downs of Ashley Wood’s work in the jam issues of the final volume. If you can, compare Wood’s rendering of Satan’s discussion with Dane at this crucial climax of the series in the original issue 3.2.12-14 to the same pages in the trade, which have been redrawn by Cameron Stewart.
Stewart’s version is certainly much prettier, brighter and more colorful. However, I’m afraid it still makes very little sense as the devil’s explanation is the apotheosis of esoteric. For me, the action sequences have always superseded the talking sequences in The Invisibles (because, remember, it’s just the fanciest, smartest X-men ever to me). Not having shared all of Morrison’s mind-altering experiences, I’ll take his word for it on the rest, and continue my own apprehensive countdown to 2012.
All the annotations, footnotes, analyses, and comments add up to exploring just who these Invisibles were (including all the minor characters and cameos, especially those from other sects than our group of five), and they also point up some inconsistencies in the series. The Invisibles was a comprehensive project for Morrison, kind of the intuitive practice run that was made up as he went along, he admits, for the even more programmatic (yet flexible) Seven Soldiers series he would later achieve for DC. It’s on a spectrum in his Vertigo works between the surrealist Doom Patrol and the Filth’s extreme meta-textuality.
Morrison also provides his own insights into the characters. We learn that Robin is both Crazy Jane and Jill Thompson; that Morrison isn’t King Mob, they just resemble each other; and that Boy’s race was more an issue in writing the character for his audience than for Morrison himself. The final interview is long, thorough, free-ranging, and full of wild ideas--very reflective of the Grant Morrison it would take to write a work like this.
The useful tome ends with a character summary of each of the major figures, an encyclopedia of entries that performs the (somewhat strange, but very welcome) function of presenting all of their fractured stories as traditional linear narratives--which means all the variations of John-A-Dreams (John, Jack Flint, Mr. Quimper) get their own entries.
John is the personification of the view espoused in the series of time as eternity--of all time periods existing at once. This simultaneity allows the character to live successive experiences in different guises at the same time. It also allows Robin to see herself as an adult on a family trip, and explains how she has technology and abilities not yet invented when she joins King Mob’s cell.
These deep looks into character recuperate a lot of what may have been lost in the storytelling or art, offering a consistency to Jolly Roger’s rather inscrutable and gruff persona (and even a sort of reasoning for her grim fate); bringing the multi-faceted wonder of the ever-changeable Mr. Six into focus; and offering key insights into the true subversions of Jim Crow.
Above all, despite the evil the character does, Neighly and Cowe-Spigai’s summary of Miles Delacourt’s tale reveals it to be a tragic one that could have been averted at any of several points where he seeks enlightenment but settles for ignorance. They do the same for his victim Beryl who, aside from being more a background figure in everyone else’s story, turns out to have lived a life quite as wild as Edith’s.
As Neighly and Cowe-Spigai say in their introduction, this volume is not meant to be comprehensive or conclusive. A work like The Invisibles wasn’t designed to be defined or pinned down. Thus, this book is two people’s take on a multi-faceted work that was meant to be read in any order, explored at any time, and used in a variety of ways as a transformative experience for the audience it created. For those still pondering the mysteries of Morrison’s unending game, this guide offers signposts along the route to Barbelith.
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