INCURSION ONE: IN WHICH MY GIRLFRIEND AND I CONTACT THE SPIRIT WORLD AND GET OUR FIRST BRIEF GLIMPSE BEYOND THE VEIL.
“I… Perhaps He’s all three…”
—Sir Miles and Ms. Dwyer, 1995
INVISIBLES VOLUME 1, ISSUE 18
At this point in his interrogation of the leader of the terrorist cell incubating the future Buddha, Sir Miles is taking a severe ticking off from his kinky commanding officer, the were-bug, Ms. Dwyer. The man in question’s identity is still unconfirmed, and the future crushing of enemy forces, forces opposed to the mind-tyranny of the Outer Church, the secret rulers of the earth that Miles and Dwyer represent, hangs precariously in the balance, and if results aren’t forthcoming soon, well… Dwyer’s threatening her poor, beleaguered second in command with her tit. The problem is that whenever Miles barges his way into his captive’s mind to prise from him the details of his cell - its origins, structure and planned future insurrections - instead of being presented with a smooth self-history from which any relevant information can be plucked like paragraphs from a book, he’s met by a discontinuous jumble of conflicting narratives, a choose your own adventure set of identities that resist coherent interpretation: the hard facticity of the man in Room 101 pinned to his chair by electronic manacles, psychotropic drugs, and a gunshot wound, sharply contrasted with the hazy question of who said man actually is.
Of course Ms Dwyer expects answers, and so the script above resolves itself into an affirmation of Miles’ certainty that they’ve got the right man, the “King Mob” they’ve been looking for.
Which would be all very well if only Miles’ voice didn’t waver.
And if by this time, we, the readers, weren’t wavering on this point too.
Perhaps he’s all three.
Because in fiction characters aren’t bound by their pasts, they’re not fixed in place, and if their creator wills it they can be a violent super-ninja freedom fighter, a successful, totally harmless horror writer and a dimension hopping agent of Chaos simultaneously, their “true” self located only in whatever overlapping sites of meanings the reader cobbles together from each cover story, forever hidden in the gaps.
The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s hyper-sigilic magnum opus detailing the final phase of the primordial war between the forces of Order and Chaos, ended eleven years ago and with it an age of conspicuously politically motivated popular comic books, a trend beginning in the early eighties with the advent of 2000AD, which briefly flourished in the early nineties with comics like Crisis and Animal Man (another of Grant’s books) and was finally killed off by Mark Millar and his CNN-infused but ultimately apolitical Ultimates run, where the news leader of the day was employed as entertainment as opposed to the starting gun for real critique. I was obsessed with The Invisibles at the time, but as my twenties wore on and even Morrison began distancing himself from many of the book’s conclusions, as good as admitting in recent interviews to their retrospective naivety, I became aware of an increasing disconnect between myself and the book. Revolution is a young man’s game, isn’t it?
Cut to early November 2010, the Tories are in power again and the papers are screaming “RIOT!” I sit there drunk and incredulous as my girlfriend runs through a list of tactics the police employ in such situations. By the time I’m settling down to sleep that night, I’m utterly convinced by her argument that the police leave sacrificial vans in areas where they know protesters convene, the burnt-out, graffiti-scrawled husks that inevitably result on the front pages of the tabloids the next day “proof” of the kind of animals who go on these marches and the libidinal splurging these events are really about. Why have I always assumed the best? Because the Powers that Be are people too? Let’s face it, people can be shits. We live in a world where the right-wing press make up stories about homosexual teachers foisting their “agenda” on classrooms full of eight year old, we live in a world where Rupert Murdoch’s media boy is Dave Cameron’s right hand man, where Fox News tried, and arguably succeeded, in dragging a country to war… The phone-tapping scandal… Power and its abuse are real, conspiracies are real, and in the end isn’t it just expedient for the police to collude in making the protesters look bad? You don’t want the thing to catch on, do you? It would make the working day that much more difficult.
Somewhen in late ninety-one, a student tosses a molotov cocktail through his science block window, his triumphant cry, drowned out by the intervening two decades, slowly fading up again now.
But I can’t hear him yet.
Until the other day. I’m trawling through Found Objects, one of the many image aggregators I’m obsessed with, with the special lady friend rifling through and eventually settling down on my bed with a couple of my comics, when one of the posts triggers a memory, something to do with Alan Dunn’s House of Fun. And I start to wonder…
“Hey, this comic… It could be happening right now!”
What’s she talking about?
Suddenly everything falls into focus.
That afternoon I’d been idly mulling over the similarities between Found Objects and The Invisibles. The hauntological obsession with revenants of now defunct ideologies, aesthetics, and futurisms, from the covers of seventies sci-fi novels, to Tales of the Unexpected and Madame Tussaud’s, seemed to me loosely in line with the tone of the comic. The Invisibles drew upon a seething stew of pop-cultural detritus, bouncing in tone from pulp spy novel to the Ley Hunter’s companion often in the course of one panel, but more than that, than the merely post-modern, it was always interested in invoking the uncanniness always present in any truly hauntological text. But this alone wasn’t enough, just a surface similarity, and there was always the chance that the connections ran no deeper than that. After all, as well read as he appears to be, there was a good chance Morrison had never heard of hauntology when he wrote the comic. But Clare’s outburst (name changed to protect the innocent), quite coincidentally, synchronicitously, uncannily, reminded me of another hauntological component present in the work: the ghost of dissent.
And I decided to investigate further.
For those of us interested in ideas like hauntology, it’s not simply an exercise in identifying an aesthetic movement, but a way into the historical moment we’re living through. Very loosely speaking, it posits that as a result of living in a post-industrial, post-ideological society, people will turn increasingly to the past for authentic experience and that this disjuncture between now and then, coupled with the spooky moans of the unquiet spectres of inequality and exploitation, things we’ve never truly been able to put to rest, will result in the idea of revolution re-emerging again. Hauntology, however, isn’t an explicitly Marxist ideology, with its united worker’s front and overthrowing of the capitalist hegemony as inevitable byproducts of the historical process, in fact strictly speaking hauntology isn’t an ideology at all, but instead describes a world disrupted by incursions from beyond, by things both there and not there simultaneously. The crowded out Marxist readings of consensus reality, for instance, clanking the chains of the proletariat in the margins. Much has been said about hauntology in other media, but little has been said about hauntology in comics, including the one comic that directly concerns itself with the spirit of revolution. For shame.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this piece is because I feel The Invisibles has been somewhat misrepresented in other media. I’m sad to say I haven’t been able to get my hands on Patrick Meaney’s book yet, but I’ve got a copy of Anarchy for the Masses on my shelf. Flicking through it again for the first time in what must have been years, and largely because I was interested in the interview at the back, what immediately struck me was how at odds with the spirit of The Invisibles the book is. While the authors appear to recognize the comic encourages multiple interpretations, their bolt-holing together of detailed character biographies and time-lines, their frequent literalizations of potentially metaphoric and figurative elements, and their general insistence on uncovering the “truth” of what occurs, belies a desire to flatten everything out and turn the comic into something it defiantly isn’t. A story. (Although you must forgive me if I continue to refer to it as such for the duration of this essay. The word meta-text makes my girlfriend’s teeth hurt.) You can see them there, pulling their hair out, because if one could just unravel all the time travel nonsense, then….. Like the man in Room 101, The Invisibles is always half finished, and any solution to it necessarily contains a lacuna to be filled in by another solution and then anoth… You get the point. Morrison even states in the interview at the back that everyone saves the world — not everyone plays a hand in saving the world, but everyone, all the cell members, save the world. This isn’t possible in a world with one solution. There is no magic key that unlocks the text.
The reader can see the book scaling up in complexity as it progresses. We begin with a simple and straight aheadtale of good versus evil, which progresses by the closing chapter of volume two into the syncretic, quantum reality of Schroedinger’s Cats and then by the third volume collapses altogether. But it’s the comic’s final issue that really spells it out. Issue twelve of volume three sees a billion “solutions” bearing down on December the Twenty-Second, Two Thousand and Twelve simultaneously: The Invisibles is a super virtual reality video game from which, in order to “win,” the player, embedded in his avatar, must wake up; The Invisibles describes the process of a 4D entity as it struggles to be born; The Invisibles is John a Dreams’ flowering into Buddha-hood; or maybe the Invisibles don’t matter at all and it’s the nanites that transform everything and everyone into whatever happens next….
If hauntology is concerned with revealing the ghosts – the dormant meanings – haunting the text and finds its artistic correlate in half-finished, negative art, like Aerial Pink’s muddily allusive anti-pop and Burial’s assassinated seance-rave, then The Invisibles is the hauntological text par excellence. It is ghosted by as many different readings as you like, from straightforward interpretations of the action, to autobiography, to auto-critique. And it’s this quality, this re-imagining of reality as something pregnant with its own disruption, its own anti-mirror, this permanent recuperation, not some Sherlock Holmes style breaking down of the comics events (which holds some pleasures, yes, but is ultimately, gloriously futile if it refuses to recognize its own limits) which makes The Invisibles interesting, relevant and, perhaps, important.
So is if The Invisibles is hauntological, what does it contribute, if anything, to the body of work already identified as such? Why should we care?
“These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I dissected the time machine.”
A spooky surprise greeted me when I began rereading. Strangely enough, the first supernatural event to occur in The Invisibles, right there on page eleven, in book one of volume one, is a visitation by a ghost. It’s another dismal nothing-to-do evening in Liverpool and Dane, future Buddha and little shit, is kicking it by the Mersey having been turfed out of his flat. He’s understandably pretty pissed off, but he’s distracted mid-sulk by a conversation between two men taking place further down the riverbank. Dane doesn’t realize it at the time, but the men in question are Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon, and the subject of their conversation: whether or not Stu will stay on with their band or return to Sweden and his artist girlfriend, Astrid. For those even passingly familiar with Beatles’ history this conversation represents the point at which they became the band who would go on to take over the world, and later soundtrack the late sixties’ atmosphere of dissent. The comparisons between the Spectre of Marx and the spectre of John Lennon should be obvious here, and it’s very weird that Dane’s, and our, inaugural Invisibles’ experience should involve the invoking of this revolutionary from outside time.
As Elfayed, King Mob’s friend and teacher explains to him on the comic’s opening page: “And so we return to begin again. Khepra the sacred beetle goes down into darkness and rises again, bearing the sun in his mandibles.”
Then he hands him a mummified scarab.
The spirit of transformation is endlessly resurrected.
As its title suggests, The Invisibles is a comic concerned with the spaces in between spaces and the negative beings inhabiting them. The decisive events of the final phase of the war between the forces of Chaos and Order take place behind the scenes of the everyday, evidenced only by ‘reflected bomb light in far away windows’ and the ramblings of deranged conspiracy theorists ranting from their soapboxes in Hyde Park. This is the sidelined world of exploitation and the machinations of Capital and of permanent revolution. We feel its incursions as a spooky presence in our own lives, but for the most part it rarely finds form or substance – it is always insubstantial, as are the combatants on either side. It’s not part of the story we tell ourselves, not until there are casualties or by other means the veil is ripped wide.
Which of course is King Mob and his team’s job.
Although we meet some of these individuals early on, for the comic’s first five issues they’re a shadowy presence lurking in the background. Because of this, because they remain largely unseen but felt, the reader is left unsettled, anticipating their intrusion at any moment, like the thought of dissent always hovering behind the scenes of the everyday. Dane’s aimless frustration and dissatisfaction suggests a questing after the other, but what is interesting from a hauntological perspective is that this questing entails the other taking an interest in him. And when the moment is right, it strides through the walls of consent and hijacks his life. This is the way for all the characters in the story, as we shall see.
Early on in the narrative, as part of Dane’s initiation into the Invisible Order, he voyages down into the secret subway system beneath the city, there to imbibe a rare psychedelic drug, a blue mold, which, upon his return to the surface reveals to him an invisible London hiding in the brickwork. A London where black dirigible angels prowl the sky, Blake’s Urizen squats in the Thames and even the late night revelers promenading along the South Bank take on unearthly aspect – pale fairy girls wrapped in feather boas against the cold, pulling on pink – blue mold filled? – cigarettes. This is the city haunting the text of our own, a city of poetry, dreams, and derives, recuperating the workaday narrative of coffee shops and the daily commute.
But, as is made evident to Dane, there are other ghosts hidden in the text of the everyday too. Another reading contiguous to this one is that this is also a city, a world, where secret armies war for and against us. This is where they undertake their actions and where we are acted upon. And in the case of the Outer Church that means “Making us smooth between the ears and smooth between the legs”, transforming spirit into product, long before that product winds up shackled to a real world production line.
Although Dane has a guide on this journey, a perfect example of the unquiet spectre of inequality mentioned above, the homeless Invisible Tom o’ Bedlam, we never really feel as though these are things he’s being shown, but rather things that happen to him. Morrison employs the metaphor of alien abduction, which while drawing from a different mythological current than the ghost, in the comic shares many of the same motifs. There is the sense that Dane’s is life being invaded by these new revelations, that they come from another “planet” beyond our own. Spirit World or Sirius, in the end it’s all the same thing. And isn’t that often the way when we are finally confronted by the horrors wrought by inequality and injustice – the sweatshops, starvation and war – and our place in the production line: we experience it as a reality exploding grenade lobbed at us, not as something arrived at? It’s as if we do not possess it, instead it possesses us.
In the end, perhaps this image best illustrates my point. The Invisibles’ ID, the blank badge, embedded in Dane’s hand: a ghostly non-presence from a world outside his own, piercing his flesh and his soul. Dane’s looking for something more, but in the end that something more finds him first, visiting itself upon him.
While we don’t get to see every Invisible’s induction into the Order, those we do differ only according to the culture and symbol system each character inhabits. The fundamental qualities of the event are always the same. Like Dane, King Mob and Mason Lang are abducted by aliens, and Lord Fanny by ancient Aztec gods. Only Boy, the earthiest of the Invisibles, encounters the conspiracy on her own, street level terms. But the black helicopters and FBI spooks she collides with are just as alarming and paradigm annihilating as anything out of a M.R. James story, and in the end just as spectral.
Interestingly, this is a pattern shared by the Invisibles’ enemies also. Sir Miles, to all intents and purposes the human face of the Outer Church for much of the story, has a close encounter with this invisible world sometime in his early twenties and the horror of what he sees nearly causes him to lose his mind.
“Our reality…our entire frame of reference had become the breeding ground for a kind of bacterial civilization. A machine race of meaningless, ruthless efficiency… Endless ghettos… Atrocity camps… An empire of psychic army ants eating its way through the very foundation of things.”
INVISIBLES VOLUME THREE, ISSUE FOUR
What better metaphor for the mindless brutality of capital could there be? Miles’ is a world governed not by people, but by a blind, soul devouring machine, a machine of lethal purposelessness within which we are all only a cog, to be used until destruction and then replaced. The difference between the servants of the Outer Church and the Invisibles, then, is what they do with this revelation. Miles loses all hope and in the end embraces his role as a cog – perhaps with a chance of being upgraded to, I don’t know, a sprocket or something – whereas the Invisibles revolt.
Hauntology is deconstructivist. It has as one of its axioms the idea that if you look hard enough, the body of any text, whether or not it’s a book, a cultural movement or the man in Room 101, is implicit with its own disruption. A James Bond novel manifests as a completely male space, indeed a paradise, but it’s the very absence of a female presence within the text that, to paraphrase Ben Kenobi, only makes her presence stronger. Bond is haunted by the ghost of feminist critique, just as our predominantly white, male, heterosexual oriented society is haunted by the shadows of these states. The goal of the Invisibles, then, in the words of Cell 23 member, Oscar, is to ‘make the darkness visible’. This, we quickly come to realize, is in and of itself a revolutionary act and immediately places the individual communing with the spirit world out with her own. After that, one is left with the choice of either turning away in denial or pressing forward into this ghostly territory, but, its rules having been broken, the world as we know it is permanently undermined.
And so we venture forward with Dane, peeking behind the curtain…
“Harumagedon is coming but your time machine can take the faithful back into the Golden Age…! I Just wanted to escape Harumagedon, Takashi…”
“Your misunderstanding of the teachings shows that your karma is not good, boy. Have you not heard? Harumagedon is already here…. This is how the collapse appears to those condemned to live in it.”
INVISIBLES VOLUME 2, ISSUE 5
From the perspective of the ghost the world had already ended. Undead, it manifests only via decaying, zombie materials.
The Invisibles began just five years after the Berlin Wall fell and the American economist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the End of History, and the events of the comic play out against this backdrop of cultural implosion. But what does this look like? As I mentioned earlier, the comic’s mise-en-scene is constructed from inter-textual hyper-links, many of them connecting to the type of cultural remnants beloved by hauntologists. This jumbled up backdrop is spooked by sturdier stage sets from a time before the End of History, when the Western narrative had yet to be subsumed by postmodernism and forward momentum still existed. One of the (now) retro-futures The Invisibles incorporates, Terrence McKenna’s Time Wave Zero, imagines space-time undergoing a collapse into a four dimensional black hole, the rate of which can be measured by the degree of information present in our world. We start with a swirling cauldron of Doctor Who and Grange Hill references and end up with last night’s birthday drinks reproduced as Facebook updates and tagged photos, our present moment wheeling back in on itself, doubling and redoubling – a perpetual, inescapable NOW. We transform ourselves into spectators not participants – ghosts looking in at our own world. No wonder Derrida, hauntology’s originator, knew we’d be unhappy with this state of affairs - it’s an ontological itch that demands to be scratched.
Morrison seems to recognize that this unhappy state of endless referral is a precondition upon which the spectre of revolution depends if it is manifest, because this is the terrain upon which the Invisibles and the Outer Church conduct their war, the base for all their operations, and the place Dane, now rechristened Jack Frost, makes his home.
And loses himself in the process.
So we’ve described the Otherworld’s incursions and taken a brief look at the lay of the land, but that’s only the start of the story. One of the strangest qualities The Invisibles possesses is the jump it affords its readers and its characters, the movement from Here to There. The comic gives us the chance to experience reality from the perspective of the ghost, from Outside. And this is what really interests me about it, the insight it gives us into the mechanisms of the spirit realm and the behaviors of its denizens, something many traditional hauntological texts, which tell the story from the point of view of the haunted, barely touch upon.
At first this seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t the whole purpose of the ghost to unpick the seams of an immaculately constructed, seamless reality? Isn’t their very softness and unknowability the point? We want to unsettle the hard surfaces upon which Capitalist Realism depends, do we not? Well, yes, but there are different kinds of unknowability and like the map of the Phantom Zone hanging on the Fortress of Solitude’s wall in Morrison’s unused Superman pitch – another ghostly text – the attempt to delineate the shape of their unknowability, their un-structure, may prove useful. What happens when the characters are absorbed by the blank badge and become the ghosts that formerly terrorized them? What kind of entities exist beyond this gateway?
Because only by becoming free floating and ephemeral can one hope to navigate and articulate this disintegrating world, like King Mob in Room 101 – deconstructed and inconclusive, a hauntological text made flesh, which, when you peer closely enough at it, disappears from sight.
This is the kind of discorporeal non-body we’ll be examining in part two.
Next up we take a look at the un-atomic structure of ghosts, dyschronia, and the time machine, and what happens when a comic attacks you in a hotel lobby.
For now I withdraw in a rain of wailing cubes and move to attack my enemies in their future.