One rule before I start: I'm trying to stay away from the extremely good annotations on Barbelith.com, for the simple reason that, if I started cribbing from them, I don't think I could stop (and it would call the whole point of this exercise into question).
At the same time, I want to reiterate that I am in no way an authority on Morrison or his work. Where this approaches insight, I'm certain I've pulled it from people who are. This is just my attempt, in my words, to try to understand why I love this book.
Synopsis: Young Liverpudlian Dane McGowan is in a state of rebellion against his teachers, his school, and his life. He's also seeing things - ghosts of the past, spirits of... something else. He eventually attempts to burn down his school, brutally attacking a teacher who earlier tried to reach out to him in the process. He is sentenced to serve time at a brutal reform school.
Meanwhile, the anarchist/terrorist/hero King Mob consults friends and associates for portents about his attempts to recruit Dane into his organization, The Invisibles, going so far as to commune with the spirit of John Lennon for insight.
The reform school is run by a Mr. Gelt, who wears black, eye-concealing glasses, and is obsessed with instilling conformity in his charges. Dane's friend, Gaz, is taken by Gelt, and is shortly after revealed to have been brainwashed. Gelt is shown to be agent of the shadowy extradimensional entities known as the Outer Church. Their representative, the King-in-Chains, demands Dane be brought to him, so that the Invisibles cannot get him.
The night he is brought to the school, Dane sneaks from his room and discovers that the school is castrating the boys sent there as part of the brainwashing program. Gelt attempts to subdue him, but before he can, he is attacked by King Mob, now decked out in his crazy battle helmet. KM kills several security guards (along with Gelt himself) and then burns the school to the ground. He drives Dane to London and then, when the boy declares he doesn't want to join The Invisibles, suddenly disappears, leaving Dane in the city... alone.
And right out the gate, we're playing with time, hinting that all of this has happened before and will happen again. "And so we return and begin again."
The speaker is Elfayed. He's an interesting guy - an old friend of our main man King Mob - the bald guy in the chair - and a key member of the larger Invisibles organization, but he'll only intersect with our main cast a few times. His attitude here - that the mystical is all well and good, but that common sense is just as, if even more, important, is going to be an important one to hold on to as things get stranger and stranger from here on out.
As to what he's saying, Khepri/Khepra is the sacred beetle god who pushes the sun across the sky in Egyptian mythology, like a dung beetle pushes his ball of crap. He's a symbol of transformation, unsurprisingly, of growth and change. New life growing out of manure. Filthy, but necessary. Which is presumably why Elfayed finds the idea of mummifying a scarab so amusing - unnatural, desperate preservation of something symbolizing change and rebirth.
Meet Dane McGowan. Reader surrogate. Rebel. Potential Buddha. Protagonist - although that designation will get slippier and slippier the further into this we get.
But really, all you need to know about him right now is this page, triumphant, one fist in the air, a molotov in the other, shouting FUCK at the world.
And burning books. Burning down a whole library, in fact. Dane's not just striking out blindly, here, and not just at something he knew would burn. He's attacking received knowledge, all the facts and data that's being shoved into his head daily by a school he's too smart for.
Or he just wanted to see something burn, I don't know. But the graffiti says it all: King Mob's been here before. Nothing new.
More apocalyptic, fiery imagery from our hero. Burning away the world. Well, that's the only way a new one can grow, right?
Dane feels like he's seen that graffiti before? Almost like a story you read a long time ago and just picked back up for the first time.
Our introduction to Ms. Edith Manning, seen here near the end of her days. Edith's long life runs all around and through the history of our story (as she hints with her comments about knowing King Mob in 1924). Some of the first people we see in this story are the people it's already chewed up and ruined in some way or another - Edith here, and the Tom KM asks her to contact, especially.
This is also our first good look at King Mob, aka Gideon. Charming, manipulative, morbidly funny, driven and willing to sacrifice. Shamanistic James Bond. Loving his own, badass image.
But back to Edith. The Invisibles is, among other things, a time travel story. And Edith is one of our great time travellers. Not in the exciting, clocks-spinning-in-the-wrong-direction, calendar-pages-flipping-off-walls sense. Edith took the slow route, 95 years of it, from birth to now. Is it any wonder she's tired? Is it any wonder she doesn't want to be involved any more?
And note the reference to John-A-Dreams. What exactly happened to him, and where he is now, is going to be something we'll be revisiting more than once here.
Back to school! Big Malkie wants to talk about how revolutions get killed, strangled, turned into new authorities, but Dane just wants to leave a mark on the world.
Malkie is the kind face of authority for this issue (we'll be meeting the less kind faces later on). He's the carrot, encouraging intelligence, nurturing young minds, curtailing violent rebellion. He's also incredibly condescending, telling Dane not to become "another blank, brutalized face, drinking beer in front of the telly." But he's clearly out of touch, and he's doomed to fail - if those kind of appeals to his better nature and intellectual vanity appealed to Dane, he wouldn't really be Dane.
Speaking of blank, brutalized faces, Mrs. McGowan gives a pretty good example here, doesn't she? She's almost a caricature of a bad mother, kicking the kid out on the street so she can have a date. In a lot of ways, Dane's whole life is caricature - the young rebel who doesn't know what he's trying to rebel against. In his mother's mirror, they're both twisted, ugly, mindless things.
This would be a stock story... except King Mob's shadow looms here, too.
p10 - 12
As Shakespeare would put it, "Enter ghost." And what ghost could haunt Liverpool more appropriately than John Lennon? Not the later, established Lennon, the instigator, the assassin's target. The young man seen here, chatting with Stu Sutcliffe, is on the verge of becoming John Lennon. In fact, what Dane's seeing (and really, it's less a haunting and more seeing time out of order - if those are even different things) is the moment before the revolution. One of these two men is about to fundamentally alter the way people think... but for now, he's just shooting the shit with his friend.
Another haunting, of a more sinister type. Jack Frost, speaking German, laughing mirthlessly. It translates as something like "good earthly method" and "strong owner". The dead at 22 and 40 are Sutcliffe and Lennon.
"The Reverse of the Moon." We'll keep coming back to this. What's hidden behind the moon? It's always been there, and we've only ever seen half of it. What's been hidden from us for all that time? If I'm translating this right, it's the inner world, the emotional world. Seelisches land.
But Dane's not ready to play yet.
It's probably worth pointing out that Jack looks a bit like an elf or fairy here. The Fair Folk, inexplicable by human standards, cold and distant - at least from our point of view.
So what do you do when you're seeing ghosts and being menaced by something that looks like a demon? Lash out!
Dane's still just a kid. He wants to get laid, he wants to drink, and he wants to show that he's smarter than everyone around him. So why not steal a car? Why not disconnect a system from the world, pull out it's protectors/antibodies/car alarms, and then start it back up - this time in your control?
And then take it joy-riding. His mates wish they could score some Ecstasy so they could strip the reality out of the situation - make it feel like a video game. Pretty sure Dane is already doing just fine on that score, though, as he weaves through the lines and the rules of traffic.
"We can do anything we want with it. They should just be glad we didn't wreck it." Why shouldn't he? He took control of the system. It's his.
And here we are, back at school. Dane can't seem to get away from this place, can he? He's an ambitious young man, and he can see the channels the world wants to push him into. Time to fight back.
And here's a couple of pages for those who were worried this wasn't going to get suitably weird.
Although it won't be clear for a few pages, King Mob is summoning John Lennon - not the physical spirit or man, but the idea of him, the pop god, to grant him a little insight. What that translates as is some psychedelic imagery, and something that reads like The Hero's Journey as built from Beatles' lyrics.
KM invokes Ganesh here, the remover of obstacles, the god of beginnings. So it's as much Morrison calling out to him at the start of this project as it is King Mob asking for help as he begins his ritual.
It's the last part of the second page that interests me (besides the wonderfully trippy artwork, anyway). At this level, we're moving back and forth between narration and god-speech, between the voice in King Mob's head and the Voice in his head, but I think this is where the prophecy proper starts, because it flows from "let me take you down" (after visiting an oracle?) through the grave (he is not dying) into rebirth, into an apple - knowledge/temptation. That's a concise way of describing what Dane's got ahead of him.
I'm honestly not sure about the sincerity of Malkie's entreaties here. He's pleading for rationality, civility, but he's also begging Dane to stay within the system. By claiming to understand his frustration, he's drawing a box around him, ensuring him that what he's feeling is normal, natural.
But (and here I am dipping into spoiler territory) Malkie's not just Malkie, is he? He's an Invisible, presumably sent to keep an eye on Dane. So is he really trying to reach out to the boy, take a non-violent tack to his recruitment? Or is the kind-hearted teacher a goad, prodding the kid toward the violent escape of the Invisibles?
The judge here labels Dane's acts as "far beyond the limits of what might be regarded as legitimate youthful rebellion against authority." Well, no shit, yerhonner. Wasn't that the point? It's normal for bad boys to talk back to the teacher and nick a car and maybe even start a fire. That's within the lines. But beating the shit out of a teacher and trying to blow up the school? That's where Dane McGowan wants to be.
The judge is a lovely piece of authoritarian snobbery. An aristocrat through and through, and in The Invisibles "aristocrat" might as well be "bad guy." There's also the first hint here that the the government, the system is a full part of this conflict - they may not know EXACTLY what's happening at Harmony House, but they like the results they're getting, clearly.
Not much to say here, except to note that this is certainly not the last time we'll be seeing Miss Dwyer, and that this is a world where not seeing people's eyes - not seeing how they perceive the world, that is - is usually a bad, bad sign.
Loath as we may be to admit it, Mr. Gelt has a point here. It's Dane's individuality that makes him attack the world. If we were all as desperate to fight conformity as he is, we'd be a world on fire, constantly kicking at the people around us.
Of course, Mr. Gelt, with his eyeless face and his creepily meaningful name, may be going a tad far. He thinks there's a war going on, between good and evil, order and chaos. So that's how our bad guys think, in violent, stark dualities. Presumably our heroes won't think like them.
"It's not the government, it's your country. Anyway, I'd be fighting for money." That Gaz doesn't realize those three things are all just one thing is the difference between him and Dane.
And man, do I love those cards the boys are playing with. YES NO YES NO YES NO. Good/Bad, Order/Chaos. With us/Against us. US/THEM. I wonder what the rules are. I'm guessing there's not a lot of room for critical decision making.
As Ragged Robin (hi, Robin!) so kindly informs us, the Moon is another initiation symbol. It's also the internal landscape, emotional battles, magical thinking. Seelisches land.
God, is there anything better than King Mob's costume? There's a line in Morrison's The Filth about how the secret interdimensional super-garbagemen who work for The Hand dress the way they do (crazily-colored fetish outfits) because it tickles people's Freudian issues and makes them ignore them. Can't help thinking that's what KM is doing too. I mean, why dress like that, except that it weirds out his enemies and makes him feel powerful?
Robin also namechecks the other members of the cell, Boy and Lord Fanny. More on them, of course, later.
And that last line is King Mob in a nutshell. It might actually be The Invisible in a nutshell, too.
"You know, when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and find myself living in a '60s spy series. Funny how things turn out."
Virtual reality? Yep! Although I'm not sure Gelt is referring to the chaps in the goggles so much as he is to everyone in the world. Although those goggles are plugged right into the eye. Around here, when you control how people perceive, you control the people.
And here we meet our first archon, The King-in-Chains. The archons do their job wonderfully, because their job is to look scary and reflect your own hates and fears back into your head (after all, he said snarkily, they do style themselves as a church). And again, it talks in absolutes - because what is sin if not absolute?
And of course, the face is a giant vertical slit full of light, in a story about young boys being brainwashed by cutting off their dicks. So it's got subtlety going for it, too.
Well, they certainly fixed Gaz, didn't they? (Tee-hee, "fixed," I'm so clever.) And now he's talking in the simplest of dualities, too.
Oh, so that's why he's named Gelt!
Okay, I'm being silly, but the book started it, with the room full of balls-in-jars. But (and maybe this is a male thing), it's got that visceral horror to it, too. I almost feel like my Freudian issues are being poked, so that I won't look too closely.
And honestly, I'm not exactly sure what's in those jars. Testes, certainly, but testes don't scream when you drop them. I didn't notice that, somehow, the first few times I read this - looking away with a cringe, I guess - but there's something horrifying about how the scream wraps itself around Dane.
Gelt's talking about mummifying living things here, shades of our conversation with Elfayed back on page one. Taking a living thing and preserving it, draining it of life, rendering it immobile and safe.
So it's a good thing King Mob is here! Bam! Pow! Feed on this, fat boy!
Dropping one-liners, dressed like a weirdo, shooting dudes in the dick! Take that, irony! This is a crazy action spy story, so it's a good thing these faceless goons are here so that our hero can blow them away! And the last thing they'll see is his eyeless face staring down at him, and the last thing they'll hear is his witty one-liner. After all, they picked their side. It's us against them, right?
So, Dane McGowan kicks the crap out of his teacher and tries to burn down his school. So he gets sent to Harmony House, where Our Hero, King Mob shoots the headmaster in the head with another witty line, then burns down the school, then writes his name on it.
Harmony House needed to burn, of course. But there's a hint there that we're just seeing a boy's angry rebellion writ large. Turned toward justice, maybe. But still immature.
Maybe I'm tipping my hand - and the comic's - but King Mob is a trick being played on you. This super-competent, super-violent badass dude... who's killing people. Murdering. Declaring people as "Us" or "Them" just as clearly as the Outer Church does. "He's not Gaz anymore - forget him." We've been conditioned to accept this, because that's how spy stories work.
But "The Young Rebel Who Burnt The World" is just a story Dane's telling himself. And "The Headmaster Who Got Rid of Sin and Made Everyone Act Right" was a story Gelt told himself. So who's to say "The Invisibles, A Spy Story Starring King Mob" isn't just another story he's telling himself? When people control how you perceive, they control you.
Gelt has been turned, of course, into a beetle. Rebirth, resurrection, continuing cycles.
And then Dane steps on him, without even noticing or thinking about it. Cycle's getting broken, folks.
But even when he's been rescued by a mysterious action hero in an awesome hat, Dane McGowan's not much of a joiner. The counter-culture is just the part of the culture where the party in opposition lives, right? They're still a party. And frankly, if he was willing to join, he wouldn't be ready, for exactly that reason. Because the Invisibles aren't just the counter-culture - a safe outlet for frustrations, Big Malkie style - the Invisibles are a revolution.
Hell, the poor kid hasn't even been to the Underworld yet.
Next time: Down and Out in Heaven and Hell.