The Invisibles Isn’t Very Good

(This one has been in the queue for a while, and I figure I should get this out before the TV show starts up and everyone starts in with their retrospectives.)

Just finished The Invisibles in its nice fat trade paperback editions, and, well, perhaps you had to be there.

I mean, I’m reading this comic out of context. It’s twenty years on, and the world is a very different place than it was in 1999. I’m reading it in four big collected volumes, rather than in individual issues that I waited for with baited breath, with all the reading lists and letter columns and live forums to discuss the book as it came out. I’m thirty five, and not sixteen and encountering these concepts for the very first time. I’d read bits and pieces over the years, but this was the first time I actually sat down and read the whole thing, covers to covers, every word, every panel.

And, really, this book simply isn’t very good, is it?

Like, on a structural level, parts of it are clever, I suppose. There’s some inter-cutting, some interesting character design, and, as always, Morrison is very good at describing horrific things, but, there’s really very little of substance to the book if you know what the words he’s using mean.

nextwave - special bear

Take “homeopathic” for instance. This means “Water”. It’s a garbage term. It’s pseudoscience that’s been widely discredited, exposed as a fraud, can be demonstrably shown to contain nothing of value, and is basically just a load of crock. People knew better a hundred years ago. And yet, I’m supposed to be wow’d by the idea of a homeopathic computer injection time machine. That… That doesn’t actually mean anything. That’s just words strung together to sound clever. For all it’s purpose in the narrative, Morrison could have just written “time machine” and the text would be no different. They’re cool sounding, but ultimately meaningless adjectives.

Or “holographic”. There was a big to do over the idea that our world was simply the holographic reflection of a 4D space on a black hole or some such something; it doesn’t actually matter. The point is that there’s an actual scientific idea, which is really quite interesting/boring (depending on how much you like math) when investigated thoroughly, and then there’s the whole “We’re just living in a simulation” thing that Morrison wants us to think he’s clever for using, because Magick-Science, and it… Again, it just doesn’t hang together. It’s lousy dialogue that sounds like it’s saying something, but doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t advance the plot. It doesn’t establish characterization in a positive way.

All this sort of thing does is tell me that our heroes are easily duped morons of the sort taken by frauds like Wakefield, Geller, and Trudeau. People who don’t bother to think critically. I’ve read about Jacques Benveniste’s faked water memory experiments and Masaru Emoto’s weird emotional water, you know, the kind of experiments that no one else can get to work, or that prove you can transmit data over a phone line? I know all about the faked Lovecraft magic stuff, because I hung out with Lovecraft scholar Dan Harms for years back in school… You know who’s big into this stuff? Gwyneth Paltrow. She sells magical healing vagina stones for $75 a pop. Rich white women in their 40s eat this shit up.

And blah blah blah consensual reality 4th Dimensional time dislocation transwarps the universal reality inoculation against the Eldritch demonic forces herd mentality onto the unawakened masses of proletariat Johnsons masters thesis to expand the consciousness of the beyond uniforce hundred handed men thinking hundred brained thoughts beyond what you find in your cereal box reality expand the system to smash the systems of rebelled rebellion and establish a new context for brand new youth exchange of idea space system world machine ghostsNextwave - Number noneSee? It’s easy. It takes about five minutes to throw down a bunch of meaningless words and let the reader put them together.

next wave - city

This would be fine if Morrison had something to say. If there was a grander point to the narrative than “We’re all in this together” and “Love one another” and “Stop war so we can go explore space” and “Support corporate overlords, not the government”. But when there’s so little to the story and so little to the characters, it’s difficult to not be let down when it all builds up to shonen anime style “Aha! See, you thought you were behind me, but actually, I am behind you!”, but, you know, psychic and magickal.

nextwave - forbush

That sounds too mean, let me try again: there’s a fascinating book by G.I. Gurdjieff called Beezlebub’s Tales to his Grandson. It’s written in a particularly difficult to read style, with deliberately long sentences and confusing paragraph structure, to force the reader to pay attention to the substance of the work. It’s a classic of mystical literature, and one that’s rightly held as one of the foundational texts of the Fourth Way towards enlightenment. Unfortunately for the book, you can skip right past it to the much more readable Meetings with Remarkable Men and Life is Real Only Then, When I Am. BTthG doesn’t contain any special insights that aren’t in the latter two books: Man is “asleep”, and only through conscious effort to pay attention to his surroundings can he be “awake”, the modern world isn’t very suited to the sort of lifestyle necessary to maintain this sort of conscious effort, and you should probably have sex with me, the author, because I am the most amazing man who ever lived. Pretty easy takeaways that you don’t need to slog through 900 pages of the Devil on a spaceship to understand.


The Invisibles is much the same. There are some cool action sequences, but we’re scolded for enjoying violence. There are some interesting art pieces, but we’re scolded for enjoying media. There are some interesting framing devices and timing sequences, but we’re scolded for not paying attention to the moral. There are some cool characters… Wait, no, there aren’t. All of the protagonists are complete shit. We have a young terrorist who we’re supposed to feel bad for when he gets arrested for burning down a library, we have Grant Morrison the super assassin, we have time travelling Amanda Palmer, we have Lady Homicide: Life on the Streets as interpreted by a rich Scottish man, we have every rather offensive trans cliche possible… And I suppose the ending of “They were really all on the same side as the bad guys” is an ending, but not the uplifting and amazing one that Morrison seems to think it is.

You’ve probably noticed by now that the images in the text portion of this post are from the last arc of Nextwave, not The Invisibles. That’s how easy it is to parody this sort of self-serious, over the top, Yay Psuedopopscience-magick! style of writing.

nextwave - hero

If the book is bringing you pleasure, fantastic. But is it the book itself, or is it the fan community that has emerged from it? The little bits of the narrative that are alright? The ideas that you took and ran with, well beyond anything that was put down on the page?

I’m fully willing to admit that maybe it’s just me. Maybe there’s another book I need to read to understand it all and love it. But that doesn’t say much about the work as a standalone work, does it? I shouldn’t be yawning and wondering when I’m going to get to the good bits when a book is already mostly over, and then saying “Oh, that’s all?” when I finish it. It was The Filth spread out far longer than thirteen issues. It was From Hell, but in the hands of a lesser writer and a rotating cast of artists of varying quality.

Maybe I’ll try again in another decade and see if I find anything different that time around.

Apocalypse and Revelation: the Televisualization of Movies

X-Men: Apocalypse is a hot mess of a film, with some lovely action sequences, some well done CGI, fairly good acting, good make-up and costuming, and an overstuffed plot that has a few too many twists and characters to make its nearly 2 1/2 hour run time feel worth it. Compounding the strangeness is that I haven’t seen Days of Future Past, nor First Class, and the older X-Men films are memories from a decade ago. This isn’t the fault of the film, which is explicitly billed as the third entry in the franchise, but which also makes a number of concessions to newer viewers via flashbacks and expository dialogue; it’s entirely my own.

There are some needless sequences. The one that stands out most prominently is the kidnapping by Colonel Stryker and the bit in the Weapon X facility, a half-hour detour that is eventually just a transparent excuse to have a Hugh Jackman cameo. It’s a nice shout out to Barry Windsor-Smith’s iconic run, and a naked Jackman is rarely a bad thing to have in a film, but just as easy would have been to excise that entire part. Nicholas Hoult already showed off his fancy new plane to Jennifer Lawrence. They could get in that and go straight to Cairo.

In fact, it was difficult to get a bead on who was supposed to be the protagonist. The only people with character arcs are Oscar Isaac (who comes back to hate the modern world, tries to destroy it, and fails), Michael Fassbender (who comes back to the public world after the death of his family, tries to destroy it, and  has a change of heart), and Evan Peters (who comes out of hiding to look for his father, finds him, and then decides not to tell him the truth). Everyone else is either static, or only hits partway towards a change, without resolution. The movie itself is made with a sequel in mind.

And this is an interesting thing. It felt more like watching a few episodes of a television show, albeit one with a much much larger budget than usual, spliced together, than a feature film. Detours like the Weapon X one make sense if it were just an episode of a program. You wouldn’t need to keep cutting back to Oscar Isaac to remind you of why the characters need to hurry.

This makes perfect sense from a financial standpoint: movies are very expensive to make, and therefore if one can get a franchise going, the odds of getting another film made are even better. This leads to an automatic draw at the box office, easier branding, easier promotion, etc. etc. However, it comes at the expense of an actually satisfying film experience. The questions that are posed by the film have to be interesting ones, and far too often, they simply aren’t. There’s a limited number of twists and turns that an audience will accept, and because there are so many competing franchises, and due to the internet’s obsessive theorizing and analyzing of any given piece of media, the answers are inevitably unsatisfying.

Time was, you could leave things open ended, and that was alright. The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t delve deeply into Spade and Archer’s relationship. The film famously doesn’t even get into the real mystery of the falcon itself; such a thing is beside the point of the story. These are left to the imagination of the viewer. And yet it could have easily been developed into a franchise — in fact there was an Adventures of Sam Spade radio serial that ran from 1946-1951. But constant call backs and references to the past were not the point.

Such things make sense for the finale of a TV season. The ongoing subplots can be resolved, everything can be wrapped up, the villain who has been directing things can be defeated, and so on. One goes in nowadays knowing that it is the culmination of a build up of 12 or 25 or whatever previous episodes. But when the call backs become the point, when the plot is an excuse to make references that the long term fans will pick up on, then you’ve insured that you will not be successful. You’ve turned your product into something insular and incestuous, doubly so if it is full of things that can only be found by becoming involved in the internet fandoms. Assuming that your viewers have seen the previous films in the franchise is acceptable. Assuming that they’ve seen them ten times is not.

Which winds us back to Apocalypse. I wasn’t lost at all, because I’ve read almost all the X-Men comics produced from 1963-1993. It was simple to say “Oh, that’s (so and so)” based on casual details or “Oh, they’re doing (that plot)” based on things I recognized. And unlike some, I don’t mind seeing details change; if I wanted to see the same story again, I’d just fish my comics out of the longbox and reread them. I want something mixed up and served differently. Make it unfamiliar enough that I can’t guess exactly what’s going to happen next. Tell new stories with the old characters — I don’t care if it contradicts issue 213 where Wolverine missed Shadowcat’s birthday because he was held up in traffic, not because the subway was stopped due to a track malfunction. There is joy in recognition, but it’s much sweeter to not predict where a story is going.

What some people want, judging from their reactions, is much closer to the original video animations (OVAs) released to tie in with popular manga in the 80s and 90s. The idea was that when a series reached a certain level, the company would commission two episodes of a cartoon, adapting two popular stories from the comic, and sell it direct to video at a terribly expensive mark-up, and Japanese fan culture being what it is, they would sell well enough to make it worthwhile. Nowadays they simply adapt their entire series into a half or full season, with perhaps an OVA to serve as a capstone, but then things are different from how they were thirty years ago. I can understand the appeal of seeing the book in color and motion, with voice acting and sound effects. People enjoy different things. But is it too much to ask that some effort be put in as well?