The Classics: 'The Invisibles'

Invisibles Classics

The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

A bald, leather-clad horror novelist who’s also a deadly assassin, now grown weary of killing. A redheaded witch sent back from the future with nanomachines in her blood. A transvestite Brazilian shaman known for facing down Aztec gods. A former NYPD officer still grieving for her kidnapped brother. And a foul-mouthed Liverpudlian truant who just might be the next Buddha. Five freedom fighters trying to prevent an apocalypse scheduled for December 22, 2012.

Trying to summarize the plot of 'The Invisibles' is a losing proposition

That’s the basic setup for Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In the early 1990s the Scottish comics writer was on a roll, having penned the revamped Animal Man and Doom Patrol series, and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, among the most critically revered graphic novels of all time. Given the opportunity to do a creator-owned series for DC’s fledgling Vertigo imprint, he delivered a three-volume, 1500-page, densely allusive epic referencing everything from the Marquis de Sade to H.P. Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs to Philip K. Dick, esoteric Christianity to Zoroastrianism. It’s the closest you can get to spending a few days lost in Morrison’s head, where Morrissey lyrics bump up against Terence McKenna’s 2012 theories. The resulting disorientation is part of the book's appeal.

Trying to summarize the plot of The Invisibles is a losing proposition; Morrison claims much of the story came to him after a metaphysical experience in Kathmandu. He decided to incorporate his experience (which he sometimes likens to an alien abduction by beings outside three-dimensional space) into the story. The book, then, would become a delivery system for esoteric knowledge, a spell designed to change readers for the better. Probably the best way to think of it is as an elaborate initiation ritual.

Within the comic, it’s young Dane McGowan undergoing an initiation. A teenager in Liverpool, he’s smart and troubled, lashing out at society through petty vandalism — picture Alex from A Clockwork Orange. But he also may be the key to the next age of humanity. He’s thus the target of the Outer Church, who hope to usher in an era of absolute slavery. But he’s also recruited by King Mob, Ragged Robin, Lord Fanny, and Boy, members of the Invisible College, a long-standing secret society warring with the Outer Church.

If it were just another story about a Chosen One saving the world, there’d be little reason to call it a classic

So far, so Matrix. (That movie did tread some, ahem, remarkably similar ground.) And if The Invisibles were just another story about a Chosen One saving the world from the Bad Guys, there’d be little reason to call it a classic. Morrison takes the binary story of Good versus Evil and recasts it as something much more complex; asked to describe just who’s fighting who and what side he’s on, one character comments, "How many sides does spaghetti have?" No one survives the battle unchanged.

"How many sides does spaghetti have?"

As the story progresses, the nature of the battle changes. Perhaps the most affecting single issue in the series follows a prison guard from childhood to his death at the hands of King Mob. Previously an anonymous figure, an unmourned victim of cool ultraviolence, he becomes relatably human. And his murder, multiplied thousands of times over the assassin's career, casts a shadow on King Mob’s supposed heroism. Which side are the Invisibles really on?

Morrison even refuses standard end-of-the-world tropes in which the good guys thwart doomsday, thus preserving the status quo. I won’t spoil the ending other than to note that change is inevitable, and in Morrison’s story the "villains" are the people too afraid to realize that. They need to be rescued, not defeated. And when that day — December 22, 2012 — comes ‘round at last, they will be. Don’t be afraid, The Invisibles says. We’ve met the apocalypse, and it’s us.

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