Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Invisibles, Volume 1: Say You Want A Revolution Review (Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell)

I know, I know, I’m late to the party on this one! The first volume of The Invisibles came out 20 years ago and I’m just now getting around to reading it – all I can say is: Batman. But anyway, I’m here now and glad to have finally read such a talked-about book and discovering that it’s really good! 

The first Invisibles book introduces us to our hero Dane McGowan, an angry working class teenager from Liverpool who spends his evenings vandalising property while his single mother entertains her latest boyfriend in their council flat. After an attempt at burning down his school, he’s sent to a re-education centre called Harmony House, a nightmarish facility which tries to reprogram Dane’s nonconformist behaviour through lobotomy and castration. That is until he’s rescued by King Mob, the leader of a group of magicians called The Invisibles, who inducts him into his ragtag team of rebels and tells him about their secret war against The Outer Church. 

Usually with books you can look at the many elements that influenced it and say that this part is inspired by this and this other part is inspired by that and so on; with The Invisibles Volume 1, a comic that came out in the early 90s, you can do the opposite. There are numerous scenes that would be used a few years later in the 1999 film The Matrix and the general spirit of the book - nihilistic anarchy and anti-consumerist - could be seen as the foundation of another highly influential 1999 film, Fight Club. 

As Morrison himself has said, a really good piece of art captures a mood, and The Invisibles captures the mood of the end of the 20th century – the fight for individuality, the value of identity, and the anticipation and desire of a new century bringing about a new world. In some ways, considering the time, The Invisibles could be a reaction to the excessive consumerism of the 80s, being the search for substance and meaning and casting aside the superficial dross that makes up modern society; looked at another way, it’s a great story – either way, it’s undeniably a really good piece of art! 

One thing that struck me the most about this book is its massive impact it must’ve had on the Wachowskis when they were coming up with The Matrix. Dane is basically Neo, whose antisocial behaviour brings him to the attention of King Mob (Morpheus) and The Outer Church (the Agents of the Matrix). He’s given the choice of enlightenment from King Mob, of discovering the real world, or becoming another drone. King Mob sees in Dane the potential of someone powerful, someone who can greatly help their fight against The Outer Church. Later on, he’s told to open his mind by leaping off of a building – sound familiar? Then there’s the astral projection scene where their bodies stay in one place while their spirits go elsewhere, like plugging in to the Matrix. 

The Invisibles’ influence goes beyond The Matrix though. Dane is rescued from the Harmony House authoritarian monsters by King Mob, a scene that would be replicated in China Mieville’s first novel, King Rat. The Harmony House terrors look like Charles Burns’ creations from X’Ed Out and The Hive, matching the tone of surreal paranoia as well. 

But The Invisibles also incorporates a lot of popular elements into its story too. Dane’s abandoned on the streets of London by King Mob but is soon picked up by a seemingly raving mad homeless man called Tom O’Bedlam, the Obi-Wan to Dane’s Luke, who teaches him about the true reality. There are also some brilliant historical scenes like a young John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe talking about Stu leaving the band, just before The Beatles became big; Lord Byron and Percy Shelley discussing their work and its purpose; and an entire storyline set during the French Revolution, all of which wouldn’t be out of place in Gaiman’s Sandman comics. 

It wouldn’t be an influential comic if it weren’t a fun read and it absolutely is. The story starts off normally, albeit disturbingly, with Dane’s troubling life and slowly becomes weirder with Dane watching Lennon/Sutcliffe’s ghosts, to going to the nightmarish Harmony House, to meeting King Mob, it’s built up masterfully so that the reader becomes more and more interested in what the comic is and where it’s headed. The comic is sprinkled throughout with wonderful characters like Tom O’Bedlam, the murderous fox-hunting toffs, and of course the rest of the Invisibles. 

It’s a comic that would go on to cement Morrison’s reputation for abstract, crazy comics, especially those scenes where Dane goes for a bike ride and apropos of nothing, sees a planet hovering above him, and the many references to sigils and chaos magik that Morrison himself practices. That said, it’s much more accessible than you think and though it’s a wild ride, it’s totally understandable (for the most part!). 

But this idea of whacky Morrison stories is a bit too dismissive. Critics of Morrison’s work might say a book like The Invisibles talks a big game about big ideas and big plans for humanity and society but it doesn’t really offer anything substantial – it’s pseudo-intellectual at its core. To which I say its inspiring message of instilling in the reader a belief in change, of unrealised and boundless potential in everyone, an unrelenting, sometimes euphoric, hope is real. 

Whatever things Morrison talks about in The Invisibles, mixing in spiritualism and magik, philosophy and art, the impression it leaves on the reader is undeniable and real. That’s the power of this book – not necessarily of specific ideas ( that we’ve heard before thanks to its proliferation through other works of art), but of the idea of the idea, is a remarkably powerful one. It urges you think about yourself and your world around you and through this direction lies its meaning. It sounds new-agey and as intellectually flimsy as a self-help book, but it’s far more complex as no self-help book is ever this engrossing or clever. There is something real here and its power on the reader and the culture at large is proof of that. 

The reason it’s not a full five perfect read is that I felt the French Revolution story arc and the Tom O’Bedlam speechifying went on a bit too long. They were fine in themselves but felt a little stretched. A small issue but there it is. 

The first volume of The Invisibles is a fast-paced fantasy thriller with a cast of eccentric, colourful characters with a story that spans space and time coated with layers and layers of mysterious sub-story. It’s exciting and enjoyable, fun and funny, and frequently tickles the brain as you’re reading it in a way few comics do. It’s as fresh as it must’ve seemed 20 years ago brimming with energy and hope – I really liked it and look forward to the rest of the series! If you’re a Morrison fan and you haven’t read it, definitely check it out today.

The Invisibles Vol 1: Say You Want A Revolution


  1. Oh Noel, Tom O' Bedlam and the 120 Days of Sodom parody are some of my favourite bits. Once you've read the whole thing pick up Seuqart's Our Sentence is Up, you'll look at what you've read in a totally different light.

  2. Scratch that, read the whole thing and make up your own mind on what you thought it meant, it'll be the gift that keeps on giving, my friend...

    *offers blank pin badge*