(The Invisibles) Hope: A Comic Interlude

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The hope of The Invisibles is a nihilistic criticism coupled with a very real understanding that any program or policy for social change is a re-articulation of the old problem with shiny new paint. Within this double-bind, the artists and author manage to sketch a vibrant world of brain rebellion in which we all can participate.

Maxwell Schnurer

In the second place, if you want to recruit people into a conspiracy, besides idealism and whatever other noble motives you might exploit in them, you would always exploit hope. You would exaggerate the size and power of the conspiracy, because most people want to join the winning side. Therefore, all assertions about the actual strength of the Illuminati should be regarded, a fortiori as suspect, like the voters’ polls released by candidates before elections.
-Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson,The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

I hope I’ll win the lottery. I hope the war in Iraq will end. I hope that people will change their minds about their ever-consuming need for consumption and stuff. But none of those things are likely to happen. Shea and Wilson are right, that in the end, hope is one of the thinnest of emotions. I don’t have much hope. Despite the fact that I’m an organizer who does a lot of work for animal rights, against sexualized violence and for community empowerment among other things, I’m not all that optimistic. I, like many activists, share a kind of depressed I-know-better-than-you attitude. It comes from the terrible knowledge of G.M.O.’s, nuclear waste, the end of oil, mad cow disease, water wars, endocrine disruptors, or a whole bunch of depressing things that in combination are most certainly going to kill humanity and most of the living things on the planet.

There are so few things that give me hope. Certainly few movies or television shows have moments of political insight, but they are usually clouded over by sexism, homophobia or capitalist recuperation. It is rare that I find something that really embodies the complex politics necessary to navigate the media-saturated modern world. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of hope through the poisonous haze of CNNFOXNEWSMSNBCETC – but any reasonable description of the real stakes of the human condition or the changes needed to make life on the planet sustainable is funneled into the most grotesque of token changes. Taking into account the systemic responses of capitalist mass media to any criticism means that thinkers either have to create media savvy (Crimethinc, Adbusters, etc) inspirational work or we need to seek inspiration from music, long walks on the beach and locally grown vegetables. What might be described as the sublime or even tangible experiences of our own lives. There might be a third option that emerges – the fantastic. Calls for chaos and abandonment of linear thought seem like another reasonable response to the perpetual injustices of this era.

We are familiar with fiction which undertakes to paint utopias, but recent fantastic fiction leans as heavily on dystopias as inspiration for change! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a recent novel by Susanna Clarke which describes the actions of English magicians. During a crucial moment the prominent magician Jonathan Strange chooses madness over reason opening himself to greater power by literally consuming the elixir of insanity. Although I certainly enjoyed the novel, it gave me greater pleasure to learn that the book was the Time Magazine book of the year and a New York Times best seller. It pleases me that millions of readers have cheered on magic. Even more that they cheered on madness. In this vein, the most maddening and inspiring artifact I have encountered recently has been a loping non-linear comic book series called The Invisibles.

The Invisibles is created by Grant Morrison and comes in the form of seven, three-hundred plus page graphic novels. I read them out of order and was still totally hooked. They star a collection of anarchist psychic super-heroes struggling against a conformist conspiracy bent of the obliteration of this world. I appreciate The Invisibles because it embodies a kind of pirate political philosophy that I find quite appealing. I could be wrong, but the books are utterly incapable of being recuperated by capitalist fiction. The narrative is too dissonant, the characters too offensive, and the ideas too dangerous. However, I have been wrong about recuperation of underground culture before. I swore that Motley Crüe would never sell out and I believed in Metallica. I even believed in Green Day at one point. In Gastman Rowland and Sattler’s book Freight Train Graffiti, they give a page to cover ZEPHYR’s 1984 Just Say No mural commissioned by Nancy Reagan’s condescending anti-drug campaign. And a few months ago a local underground Humboldt hip hop star gave me a street bike DVD, Urban Street Bike Warriors, that featured a few of his songs on the soundtrack. The opening scene takes the touring stunt motorcycle enthusiasts to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for a Memorial Day celebration for the troops. While the freedom-loving Humboldt hip hop flows, the camera pans over the razor wire behind which lies hundreds of illegally held torture victims who are unseen and unmentioned in the video.

Rebellion against the image makers is impossible – they would only broadcast the rebels and makes them stars. Instead consider the tactic of dissonant reflection – to take over the system of exchange and play with meaning – this kind of thinking might create the possibility for something new to emerge, for good or bad. It is in this tradition that the promise of Invisibles comes to fruition in a politics of un-building – they are critical terrorists bent on system-wide destruction. Aware that the politics of recuperation are so strong in this age that frontal political assault becomes so expected that it almost becomes a form of voting. Instead this is a time for unbuilding. Core among The Invisibles are a group of semi-anarchist unbuilders, Dane, the young incarnation of (perhaps) Buddha, King Mob, a hedonist assassin, and Lord Fanny, Brazilian transvestite shaman, and a dozen others are all engines of destruction challenging normalcy and encouraging alternative ways to see things. Despite the tendency to read comic books as distraction, The Invisibles offer up a strange kind of responsibility. In Volume Two of the graphic novels, Apocalipstic, young Dane MacGowan is tutored in mysticism by the half-dead Tom O’Bedlam who explains: “All this will be yours Dane. My earthly power. It’ll be yours to do with as you please. I’ll not need it where I’m headed. In the end I’ve only one true teaching for your, Dane, one simple word: disobedience.” Dane and the other invisibles fulfill O’Bedlam’s instructions, relentlessly refusing to create any viable alternative, instead relentlessly breaking down and re-articulating previous choices.

While it seems juvenile, the commitment to disobedience as a core philosophy is probably a more healthy response to the impulse to make the world right. In volume three, Entropy in the U.K., Dane reflects on his first encounter with extra terrestrials/higher power. As he is floating over images of human brutality (bombings, vivisection, starvation, chemical warfare) Dane cries out: “Is this hell? Am I inside you? What the fuck is this? It’s horrible . . . I can’t stand it . . . take it away.” The extraterrestrial voice replies that this is the world Dane has made and it challenges him to respond. Dane’s response is classic comic book leftism: “I’ll fix it!” But Dane is told to first fix himself in order for the world to follow. Among the progressives I know the impulse to act is chief among the strongest philosophies. We all have a desperate need to rush to fix the problems of which we are so terribly aware. In The Invisibles, the process to change takes a rather different path – the hero’s are rewarded for not-acting, even for actions which seem counter-productive. The problems in this world are our own making and we have the power to right those wrongs. The solution isn’t to act, but rather to understand why we have been programmed to act the way we do.

In volume six, Kissing Mister Quimper, King Mob, our psychic assassin and Ragged Robin, a writer from the future, are listening to billionaire industrialist Mason Lang, explain how to make change in the era of surveillance. He explains:

“Remember that time we were talking about how the British empire ruled the world with the strength of it’s naval and military capability? And that the brilliance of the American empire was to realize that land armies were obsolete? It’s all about movies, as I never seem to get sick of telling everybody I know. Don’t you feel like you’re observing your own life all the time as thought it was just a movie? As though you’re just somebody in the audience? And if you’re living in a movie, then it’s okay for cameras to be watching you all the time . . . Imagine the moment when they thought of a whole new way to control the world. With light. With the power of Illusion. Paparazzi killed princess Diana. The world’s first death by photography? What I’m saying is that the image rules the world. The hallucination has taken control. How do we take control of the hallucination?”

In the world described by Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard as embodied by Mason Lang, the translation of politics to the realm of fiction makes it necessary to challenge the impact of the illusions. Rather than “rebellion,” we are asking the ways to open up perception to enable people to see the ways they are enslaved. In the final volume of the series, King Mob and Mason Lang point out the importance of the series title: “What happens when you work in a fish factory? You eventually ignore the persistent bad smell, right? If you live by a busy highway, you stop hearing traffic noise eventually. Things become invisible to us when they’re . . . there all the time.” In Lang’s examples, the fish factory and the highway are negative elements – he is suggesting that we can learn to live in the terrible world that we have created, and that we numb ourselves to that which is screaming. Suggested by The Invisibles is that we might need is a pause – a kind of space in which to hear what we couldn’t quite make out before.

The resistance of The Invisibles is that of overdetermination – to wreck the value of symbols through overuse. Acknowledging the failure of language and pitching its worst elements against itself. In the universe of The Invisibles, the Christian curved symbol of the fish so common as a North American bumper ornament becomes re-explained as a promise of extra-terrestrial pornography. This kind of exaggerated fiction of comic books makes them a fertile space to make new meanings, to juxtapose contrary ideas with each other not to encourage a particular program or stance, but rather a relentless criticism. In The Invisibles, the villains mix over-the-top-evil with the mundane world we know every day. The same way that resistance is replaced with critical disdain, the traditional bad guys are positioned as the ultimate extensions of bureaucracy. In volume six, Sir Miles, a government leader and mason, and a modified-demon, discuss the child-management program, in which they kill children for a demon queen:

“We’re following the sacrifice of the nourishing mother with a corresponding activation of her opposite image. The bogey-lady is back. In the old country we called her Myra. She’ll be our di-antidote for a little while. Middle class parents are terrified of non-existent child-killers; soon we’ll have them so terrified they’ll gladly allow us to electronically tag all newborn infants. We are engineering a generation of sick, obese, passive consumers. Even the video games they obsessively play contain demoralizing subliminals. A weak-willed child is easy to manipulate using product hypnosis. Look at their clothing for instance. The new breed are simply mobile hoardings, advertising the multinational corporations which control their minds.”

Later in that volume, the enigmatic villain Mr. Quimper takes control of our hero’s nervous systems and explains that borg-like, they will be “fixed” of their dissonant philosophy. Although the rules of good and evil shift in The Invisibles, conformity emerges as the real enemy. It is here that imagination becomes colonized, sopped clean of curiosity and excitement. And at the same time disobedience is a heroic virtue because if offers a chance. Maybe this is just a juvenile value inversion, or some type of Nietzsche-esque,auto-critical, virus-style thinking, but either way, it gives me hope.

The hope of The Invisibles is a nihilistic criticism coupled with a very real understanding that any program or policy for social change is a re-articulation of the old problem with shiny new paint. Within this double-bind, the artists and author manage to sketch a vibrant world of brain rebellion in which we all can participate.

Maxwell Schnurer is a community organizer and Assistant Professor at Humboldt State University.


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