Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Issue Five: Arcadia Part One: Bloody Poetry

The Invisibles
Vol. 1
Issue 5

"Arcadia Part One: Bloody Poetry"

King Mob is in Indonesia, having received new orders for his cell. He watches a traditional wayang puppet show, makes a dedication to the god Ganesh, and then sets out for London via a "shortcut" that takes him through an alternate universe where the Berlin Wall has been rebuilt and the countryside is devastated by war. He spends time with a young mother and her baby, deformed by chemicals released during the fighting, before setting off for London.

Scenes also show the romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley debating on the relative merits of cynicism and idealism. Byron believes that people are driven by base urges and easily controlled, while Shelley asserts that it is the poet's duty to find a higher world and lead people to it. To illustrate his point, Byron takes Shelley to a madhouse where a member of the Invisibles (which the two poets are also revealed to be) has gone mad in the pursuit of such a "perfect world."

Dane McGowan trains in hand-to-hand combat with cell member Boy, who tells him that he was recruited because the cell had recently lost a member. When Dane points out the difficulty of deciding whose side anyone is on in the current conflict (including their own), Boy grimly agrees.

The creature called Orlando speaks to a man in a park, declaring himself to be the Aztec god Xipe Totec. He kills and flays the man, and then, wearing his skin, approaches the man's children.

That night, the cell is gathered for dinner as they wait for King Mob to return. Dane continues to ask questions about the organization, and is told that the group tends to work on its own, although they have worked with someone named "Big Jim Crow" who operates out of Haiti. King Mob arrives and reveals the group's orders: They are to travel back in time to retrieve a member of the order and return him to the present.

King Mob also shows the group a postcard he received. It is of Nicolas Poussin's painting "Et in Arcadia ego" (also discussed by Byron and Shelley), depicting a group of shepherd in an idyllic landscape dominated by a tomb that reads, in Greek, "And in Arcadia, I" as a reminder that death exists everywhere. The card is signed Xipe Totec as a taunting warning from Orlando.

The group drives to a seemingly abandoned windmill, where they begin a ritual to thrust their psychic presences backwards in time to the French Revolution, where their target awaits.

All right friends, initiation is over. It's time for the training wheels to come off.

The first four issues of The Invisibles are told almost entirely from the perspective of Dane McGowan, which is useful, because Dane knows as little about this world as we do. And they were about his education, which meant that he (and we) were getting things explained to us as we went along. The explanations might not always make sense, but they were there. It was a small-scale (okay, actually huge, super-important scale, but humor me) story of one person struggling toward enlightenment.

Well, all that bullshit is over. If Down and Out in Heaven and Hell was about how you prepare yourself to be an extradimensionally attuned warrior magician, Arcadia is about the breakneck, confusing, dangerous experience of actually being one. It's vast in scope, and there is no time for hand-holding. When King Mob tells you we're relocating someone on the spacetime super-sphere, or going surfing on the ontic highway, you're expected to work out what's going on for yourself (and be quick, because Orlando is still coming).

Happily, there's still a little breathing room at the start of this one, as King Mob makes his way back to London through all the myriad ways. So let's get started. (This issue jumps between a lot of different perspectives, so for the sake of clarity, I've given each its own section).

So you're chained up in this cave, right? And there's a light behind you, shining on objects. But you can't turn your head to see any of them. All you can see is the shadow the things cast. So you convince yourself that the shadows are the objects, even as you see them blend together and take on new forms. The shadows are your reality, and they're mutable.

King Mob watches a shadow play, somewhere in Indonesia (I have no idea how he got there from last issue - presumably he's on his way back from getting orders at the Academy). And his companion tells him, speaking of the puppeteer: "His job is to make us laugh and cry. Very clever man. The dalang is more than a puppeteer. His skill makes us believe that we see a war between two great armies, but there is no war. There is only the dalang." Maybe I'm over-emphasizing this point, but it's laid out right there in the text, folks. We are not at war. We're just seeing shadows on the wall.

Percy and George

My first few times through the series, I had a lot of trouble with the scenes between Byron and Shelley; they seemed tangential, distracting from the action. But reading them now, I see that they are, essentially a mission statement. We've seen what The Invisibles aren't, the things they oppose, with our trips to Harmony House and our glimpse of The Hunt. But so far, they've only acted in destructive capacities (Killing people and explosions? Fucking brilliant, mate!).

Byron and Shelley are talking about what the Invisibles hope to create - with Shelley as the idealist, dreaming in the sky, and Byron as the cynic, trying to keep things grounded. And without these arguments, The Invisibles is just a story about rebellion, instead of revolution. If Byron is right, and the poets are going to rot in their graves without ever moving the human spirit, we might as well just burn everything down, McGowan-style.

The airy ship of dreams
But idealism is dangerous, too. When we push ourselves to dream impossible new structures for society, reality, we leave ourselves open to being crushed by the task. Our minds can wander so far afield that they can be sidetracked and never return, like the Invisible that Shelley and Byron visit at the asylum.

(Side note: I think this is the first time The Invisible College is referred to by its full name. It's worth noting that the Invisibles style themselves as a place of learning and collaboration, while the Outer Church names itself after a hierarchical, instructive structure)

And he's obsessed with shadows, too, with light and darkness. Like our friend in the cave, he's bound by chains he cannot see.

"Can it be the same hand which plays both white notes and black? My skill is gone. Black wars with white. Keys like chessman." As a dalang, the madman is failing, lost in the illusion of shadows.

"Boy." That's a stupid fucking name for a girl, anyhow.
I've always loved that line, I don't know why. It's a confused kid, getting his ass kicked by a girl, saying a dumb thing, but it's also kind of true, which, knowing the Invisibles, is probably the point.

So let's talk about Boy a bit, as she trains Dane (in a sequence that starts with more shadows fighting on the wall). In the group's current elemental symbolism, she's earth, stability. She's the Elfayed here, the one whose job it is to call bullshit when things get too weird or metaphysical. She answers questions with straight answers, and she teaches Dane that, as great as psychic powers and magic tricks are, survival means you also need yoga, and how to throw a punch. She's the argument that being Invisible isn't just castles in the sky and weirdos in fetish suits. It's normal people getting pushed around for too long and fighting back. And because of that, she's also the one most likely to become skeptical of the cause, when things become too convoluted or confused.

It can be easy to dismiss her as "the boring one," but she's also the one willing to relate to Dane on a personal, human-to-human level, talking about home (in the mystical, Narnia-like world of New York!), and the one who reminds him that part of not going crazy is keeping a sense of humor. Is it any wonder he fancies her?

Gandhi, from that film
While earth seems a good fit for the practical Boy, (and water a good one for Lord Fanny, who lives in boundary conditions and liminal spaces), I'm not surprised that King Mob, as he'll mention in a few issues, isn't really comfortable in the air, "leadership," role. It's not that he's a bad leader, as into his spy-badass role as he is. It's that he seems so much happier when he's out on his own, as a tourist.

We start with another meeting with Ganesh, and a quick reminder that, for KM, gods, whether they be pop musicians or elephants, are just concepts to be adopted and used, not concrete entities.

And then we take a strange jaunt into one of King Mob's shortcuts, into a world where World War III was a reality, where children are born with one beautiful blue eye, where the Berlin Wall is back and bigger than ever. Gideon's attitude here is interesting - at no point does he express pity for the people he meets here. He treats the baby like any baby, he is kind but he doesn't wring his hands about the horrible things that have happened. This is a King Mob I could really like, a walker in strange and distant lands who realizes that, no matter what has been done to them, people are just people.

Meanwhile, back in London, we get our first glimpse of the ominous Orlando - in the flesh, as it were.

Orlando, as he tells his victim, is from "the place of the unfleshed." It's not just that he's inherently fleshless - he's not just a creature of shadow - but that he's "un"- fleshed. I read that as a loss of flesh, a shadow that has had the object that cast it stripped away. Information without context, and desperate to reclaim it.

And there's something so creepy about the way he opens his arms to his victims, and the way they seem to walk willingly into his embrace.

Space-time Supersphere
And now the gang's all here, and it's time for the mission: Psychic time travel to the French revolution while being stalked by an unfleshed serial killer with a knife fetish. Boo-yah!

Why a windmill? The only guesses I can offer is that it's an intersection of two circles, one rotating around the other like a prayer wheel (like a mandala). And then, once more, we're looking at the shadow wall. And just because the shadows aren't real, doesn't mean we can't use them. They're as real as the man reading the news on the telly. Feel the shadows, interact with the shadows, step into the shadows. Travel backwards along the shadows... and step back out just in time to see a Frenchman getting his head chopped off.

Next time: Mysteries of the Guillotine

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