Grant Morrison is a name even the most casual of comic readers have heard, but his influence expands far beyond the reaches of Superman’s cape or Wonder Woman’s lasso.
Hailing from Glasgow, he caught mainstream attention in 1989 with the release of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the darkest and most gothic nightmare Batman has ever been through. Written by Morrison and illustrated as a delirious, schizophrenic assault on the mind and soul by Dave McKean, it had Batman locked in the asylum (now run by the lunatics) left to wonder through its shadowy circles until his own mind starts to acclimatise. Which, as I’m sure you know, is essentially the set-up of the Arkham Asylum video game.
Morrison’s influence is felt far and wide across pop culture. He has a fantastic bibliography, from his work on X-Men for Marvel, to his further adventures with Batman, and his mythological takes on Superman and Wonder Woman for DC. But it’s his work with more obscure characters like Animal Man and the Doom Patrol, and with his own original stories that really show his unique style of writing at its weird and wonderful best. And the biggest of these behemoths, more magic ritual than comic, is The Invisibles.
Trying to sum up The Invisibles is an act of magic in itself, but here goes.
Imagine every conspiracy you’ve ever heard is true, and that the masterminds behind it are extra-dimensional demons. Those are the bad guys. Now imagine a secret squad of fashion-conscious occultist anarchists. Those are the good guys. Now imagine that the bad guys are a force of oppressive order and the good guys are a force of liberating chaos. Now imagine that it’s all very postmodern and that sometimes the story knows it’s a story, and that it breaks its own narrative again and again until you’ve no fucking clue what’s going on but you can’t stop reading and holy shit I think this comic just initiated me into a secret society and slipped me some sort of mild psychedelic and how much of this am I imagining and how much of it is an external consciousness and what the fuck is going on???
I could recite you the entire “plot” and not spoil a single thing because The Invisibles is something that needs to be read to understood.
The same way most great video games just can’t be appreciated passively and require you to have the controller in your hands for hours at a time to really work their magic, The Invisibles can not be consumed as anything but a comic. Things from how it ingeniously subverts its own panelling and guttering to express non-linear time and altered states of consciousness, to how it’s long serial format builds up an understanding of the world only to shatter it again and again (for example: by saying that it was all in one character’s head by the end of the arch, then undermining that by suggesting that it was actually real after all), creates a queasy, delirious sense of fictionality that frustrates and liberates in equal doses.
Remember the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2, where it got really weird and the Colonel seemed to be talking directly to you, telling you it was all a game? The Invisibles does something similar but keeps going where MGS2 ends. Opening up with Dane “Jack Frost” McGowen, a young Liverpool hooligan, getting sent to a correctional facility for torching his school, The Invisibles enter the scene and rescue him, introducing him to the world of conspiracy and magic. Asking you to suspend your disbelief as much as you can, the comic includes ritual magic, astral projection, 4-dimensional alien demons, global Illuminati style conspiracy, time travel, time travel with astral projection and 4D alien demons, and bizarre choices in fashion, all in the first arch.
That’s the first volume, and it only gets weirder from there. Because it’s not strictly a work of fiction…
The Invisibles themselves are comprised of, prior to Dane joining their ranks, Ragged Robin; a wild-haired psychic time traveller who wears doll-like makeup, Boy; a female ex-cop martial artist from New York city, Lord Fanny; a fabulous Brazilian tranny and Aztec witch, and King Mob; Grant Morrison himself, sort of. And this is where it REALLY gets weird.
Morrison conceived the comic in 1994 when, after years of dabbling with chaos magic, he took a trip to Kathmandu and was, in his own (pissed) words, “abducted by aliens” at his request. Said higher dimensional aliens gave him a visionary experience that explained the nature of reality and time, utterly changing his life forever and informing The Invisibles from chapter 2 onwards.
Much of the comic draws from his own attempts to explain away just what exactly happened to him, drawing on occult concepts, sci-fi, the paranormal, UFO lore, consciousness and psychedelic study, and a myriad of other fringe ideas. You’ll probably have to be at least a bit familiar with Terence McKenna, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Anton Wilson and Aleister Crowley to not be completely overwhelmed come the second volume.
The intent behind the comic was less about telling a story, and more about creating an experience. It served as a spell or “hyper-sigil” that would change the people who read it, plunging them into strange, synchronistic situations that, for lack of a better term, were magical.
Morrison himself was his own guinea pig. The King Mob character parallels both his own appearance (he began shaving his head bald to match) and his own real life experience. At one point in the comic, King Mob is captured by the conspiracy and psychically tortured, made to believe a flesh-eating bacteria is chewing away at his face.
Soon after writing, Grant was in the hospital with the same bacteria, writing himself better.
The Invisibles is something other than a piece of entertainment. Gearing up to the millennium, it laid out its hope for a new age and the salvation of humanity, laying its seeds in the minds of readers. The sprouts of those seeds can be found across pop culture.
The Matrix is perhaps the most famous example, addressing many of the same topics and having the same vague premise (anarchic “magicians” teach the newbie how to fight the oppressive forces of order in the reality they created). In the past, Morrison was justifiably bitter about it but warmed up to the first film more as time went on.
Likewise, True Detective makes outright homages to it, the most blatant being Cole’s rant on time being a flat circle. This particular line comes from a chapter dealing with Lord Fanny’s past and his/her first exposure to the non-linear world of magic and time travel, a theme repeatedly explored throughout the series. It references how a 4-dimensional (or higher) force or being might appear to us 3-dimensional mortals. Carl Sagan can explain it better than I can. It’s influence runs in the heart of True Detective, to the point that it wouldn’t exist without The Invisibles.
Beyond the screen, it also became a grand attractor for modern day magicians. Sites like Ultraculture are populated by fans of The Invisibles and Grant Morrison’s work, as it managed to take the old, dusty, overly spooky topic of occultism, or the hokey, escapist connotations of “magic”, and modernise them. “Pop-magic”, in earnest, designed for the modern human to take hold of and play with, for better or for worse.
Most importantly, The Invisibles plants it’s seeds in you, the reader. Almost like The King in Yellow, reading The Invisibles will guarantee that you’ll never be quite the same again. This comic will make your life stranger and stronger by the chapter, and possibly drive you a little bit mad.
The Invisibles, as with most of Morrison’s other cult comics, is an eclectic maelstrom of mind-expanding ideas that draws from non-euclidean corners at every turn. It’s hard to accurately trace it’s influences in a way that can be put into words. But they are most certainly there.
Even if you can’t see them.