4 years, 11 months ago
That I’d have to deal with Grant Morrison before tackling Lawrence Miles in full is obvious. They are, of course, constantly compared. But exactly why is actually a bit tricky. Miles, at least, has been a bit grumpy about this in interviews, snarking, “Oh, that's right. Start suggesting links between my books and the work of Grant Morrison, why don't you? It's not like I've heard that before.” And yet there’s not an obvious point of similarity besides a (largely undeserved) reputation for being complex and full of ideas. And yet the comparison is irresistible. Even before I’d gotten around to reading any of Miles’s books I knew, implicitly, that the point where I dealt with Interference was also when I was going to deal with Grant Morrison. Something about them seems inexorable and impossible to disentangle. And having worked my way through quite a lot of Lawrence Miles now, the connection seems at once more obscure and more straightforward. The fact of the matter is that there is little particularly Morrisonesque about Miles’s work beyond the fact that both of them are a bit mad and cerebral.
So, the big Grant Morrison post, in which we look at his work. Except, as I’ve already noted, that’s a monstrous rabbit hole. I don’t want to derail this blog into a meticulous study of Grant Morrison. But equally, he is an important influence on sci-fi media, and it’s impossible not to deal with him. So let’s look, with fantastic superficiality, at Morrison’s magnum opus, namely The Invisibles. The Invisibles is a comic series published from 1994 to the start of 2000 in which Morrison depicts a magical war between the Invisibles, punk anarchist magicians, and the Outer Church, paragons of order and conformity. It’s a philosophically dense and convoluted work - in no way incoherent, but undoubtedly difficult. The book is also notoriously semi-autobiographical; Morrison loves to boast about how he based most of The Invisibles on his own life experience as a practicing chaos magician, and about how the book in turn changed his life, with things he wrote taking place in his life. Which sets up what it is, but not what it’s like.
To be honest, for the most part, The Invisibles is a bit of a mess. Individual moments of splendor stick out, but the book is adept at self-sabotage and when it doesn’t take itself out in a spectacular own goal DC Comics/Vertigo are usually right behind it and ready to clean up. The crowning dishonor are issues 4-2 of the third series, which was published as a countdown to the millennium starting with issue #12 and ending with #1. Aside from overshooting due to delays and finishing six months past the millennium, the big climactic storyline in issues 4-2 were done as an artists’ jam of most of the artists to have worked on the series previously, along with a few others. Unfortunately the end result was sloppy, with several artists failing to follow directions and several more failing to be given them such that the actual plot and exposition of the series’ entire cosmology was hopelessly unclear. Even with key pages redrawn by Cameron Stewart the issue is a mess, and it’s a mess that falls at a deeply inopportune moment for the series at large. The result is a series that doesn’t quite live up to its own potential. Which is oddly fitting for a capsule introduction to chaos magic.
So. Chaos Magic. The typical start date of chaos magic as an occult system and worldview is 1976, in a meeting between Peter J. Carroll and Ray Sherwin, but if you want to give it a date of public appearance you’d have to pick 1978 and the publication of Liber Null. It’s important to sort out what was going on here, and this requires flipping back in our playbook a bit because we haven’t actually dealt seriously with the evolution of modern occultism since about The Daemons. The signposts for this blog being what they are, Chaos Magic was invented in the Tom Baker era right around the transition from Hinchcliffe to Williams. It is, at least in its basic form, occultism’s reaction to punk. Where previous magical approaches focused on reinventing or subverting existing structures and traditions, chaos magic’s basic attitude was “fuck it.” Its core belief is that magic is simply the exertion of will upon reality, and that the trappings of magic are just there to shape what one believes in and thus what one can will. The core chaos magic belief is that of “consensus reality,” the default order of things that persists because we all believe it to be so, and the chaos magician’s basic tactic and maneuver is to defy consensus reality by imposing their own beliefs on the world, often changing their beliefs to fit the circumstances.
While Chaos Magic may have kicked off in the late 1970s, however, it rose to prominence in the 1980s and particularly the 1990s. The Invisibles is often credited with this, but the claim is problematic in a couple of directions. First of all, The Invisibles was the mass cultural explosion of a trend that was progressing successfully through the magical community already. To pick only one example, White Wolf Publishing put out the roleplaying game Mage: The Ascension in 1993, a year before The Invisibles started publication, and is drenched in Chaos Magic theories and approaches. Indeed, given the extent to which Grant Morrison enjoys pointing out that The Matrix clearly nicked ideas from The Invisibles, it’s telling how much of the basic structure of a secret war over the nature of reality where one side is punk and sexy and the other represents ossified order is prefigured by Mage.
I am not, of course, claiming that Grant Morrison nicked The Invisibles from White Wolf. In practice the stuff they share is intensively generic, as is the stuff The Invisibles shares with The Matrix, all of it being variations on the same British children’s fantasy tradition that Doctor Who hails from as well. It is barely interesting to list off stories in which secret wars over the nature of reality cropped up before 1994, but for the sake of thoroughness, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, and Madeline L’Engle all did them. The primary “innovation” of Mage, The Invisibles, and The Matrix is the porting of the structure to an overtly adult milieu. Falling out of the world with latex and drugs can hardly be called a searing innovation.
Which isn’t a criticism by any measure. It’s just that the basic premise of The Invisibles is in no way the most interesting thing about it, and was indeed part of a general tendency in sci-fi/fantasy media to embrace structures like that in the era, and, more to the point, ideologies like that. What’s notable about The Invisibles isn’t its existence but its magnitude - it’s the exploration of this chaos magic ideology that goes on the longest and at the most detail. But in terms of its basic tone, it’s strictly what was in the air at the time.
It’s always worth paying attention to what’s in the air with occultism, though, as it tends to be deliciously indicative of its times. As the 1960s peaked occultism was starting to become very interested in the possibilities of the bad trip and the netherworld, even as new age hippies seemed to reign supreme in the larger culture. In the early 1970s pop occultism was studiously exploring the spaces left by science’s decline as an all-encompassing ideology. And in the 1990s, as the punk-inflected realm of chaos magic hit its creative peak, we get something else.
The problem with Grant Morrison in general, and The Invisibles is certainly among the works guilty of it, is that Morrison’s sense of the anarchic is fundamentally shallow. If one wants to identify the fundamental difference between Moore and Morrison it is that Moore ultimately decided that his principles were incompatible with a career of working for multinational corporations with disquieting histories of how they treat their creators. Morrison, on the other hand, can’t bring himself to abandon the world of major corporate comics, nor, increasingly to stop offering up apologias for the treatment of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. For all his anarchism, everything about Morrison’s career demonstrates a near-obsessive focus on the basic phenomenon of fame. Morrison wants to be a rock star (indeed, he didn’t pick up comics until his music career decisively failed to pan out), and has always positioned himself near the center of popular culture. Whereas Alan Moore, however close to massive popular he ever gets, ultimately wants to live in Northampton and be left more or less alone.
And this is ultimately what sends his approach off the rails. To quote from “Pop Magic!,” his essay on the nature of magic, “before you set out to destroy ‘the System,’ however, first remember that we made it and in our own interests… For every McDonald’s you blow up, ‘they’ will build two. Instead of slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock… What if ‘The System’ isn’t our enemy after all? What if instead it’s our playground?” Which all sounds very nice, but in practice, as Grant Morrison’s career has demonstrated, working your way up through the ranks in an effort to subvert the very existence of corporations is much like the old adage about the man who set out to conquer China and discovered when he had finished that he had become Chinese.
But there’s a more fundamental problem that gets at the nature of chaos magic as a worldview. It is, ultimately, a worldview based on a radical individualism. In one regard it seems the perfect counterpart to the sort of hedonism implied by The Scarlet Empress, but there is far more to it. Central to chaos magic is the idea of imposing one’s will upon the world. However much one rejigs it to be about changes in perception and internal consciousness, the crux of it is still an immensely practical sort of magic that’s focused heavily on the idea that it is, in fact, possible to alter the world through the exertion of one’s will. It’s magic with a single-minded goal of doing things.
Which is to say that in hindsight chaos magic fits perfectly into the narrative of the nineties that has in hindsight proved so disastrous: the “third way” liberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair that took for granted that it was possible to achieve meaningful social justice while fawning obsequiously at the feet of the most powerful people in the world. While it is largely a given that any attempt at radical reform of political institutions will swiftly be watered down and compromised, the triangulating leftism of the 1990s made the somewhat astonishing decision to sell our the possibility of major social change as its opening gambit, foreclosing on the possibility of revolution first and trying to bring one about second. In hindsight we can look at the consequences of the neoliberal consensus - a massively expanded wealth gap, a financial sector that can crash the global economy on the back of what is in practice little more than a terribly complex version of video poker and see no significant regulation in exchange, and all that good stuff.
No, of course Grant Morrison didn’t cause the financial crash. But as a form of radicalism, the one he spells out is fundamentally and irretrievably complicit in it. Chaos magic is magic for libertarians. It sprung up, unsurprisingly, in the late nineties because it was a flavor particularly suitable for the techno-libertarians who disproportionately dominated the early Internet. And it was, in hindsight, a complete and utter bust. It’s just another flavor of the Heinlein-style science fiction that animated Babylon 5 and space opera in general. It amounts to Robert Heinlein in fetish gear, which is mostly just redundant.
This is not, however, to say that The Invisibles is without merit. A complete dissection of it is, of course, a matter for those million words. But let’s pick one good bit to look at briefly. The single best moment of The Invisibles is also the one that most straightforwardly links up with Doctor Who, namely issue #12, a one-shot called “Best Man Fall,” which goes back and tells the life story of a previously featureless guard who was casually killed by King Mob in an earlier issue. Illustrated by Steve Parkhouse to boot, it’s the point where The Invisibles most thoroughly considers the human scale of its big magical war. Its implicit message is terribly clever, precisely because nobody reading The Invisibles gave a second thought to poor Bobby Murray when he got gunned down. The genre conventions of The Invisibles push the reader towards accepting that sometimes people get casually shot dead for the sake of a dramatic fight scene, and so Morrison’s decision to go and flesh him out into a character we can sympathize with violates all the rules of the genre, but it does it in a way that is a significant commentary on the nature of those rules and the problematic assumptions within them. Since we’re not making any effort to hide things over the next few posts, let’s note that this is the basic playbook for Dead Romance, the novel that swiftly refutes at least most of the criticisms of Lawrence Miles’s writing.
But this is a good moment that ends up revealing the fundamental problem with The Invisibles. Because the issue is an outlier. Morrison has said in interviews that he considers the real point of The Invisibles to be all the genuinely emotional stuff going on in the background, behind the giant war. And he’s right, in many ways, that that’s the better material. But implicit in this observation is the real criticism: that the loud and often barely coherent philosophy and sense of the epic is constantly allowed to drown out the human moments. And, worse, this seems ideological. For all that Morrison knows he’s supposed to care about the little people, and for all that he wants individualized revolutions, he can’t bring himself to break off from the oppressive social order he decries.
Blake famously said of Milton that he was of the devil’s party and didn’t know it. This, in many ways, describes Morrison’s anarchic spirit in reverse. For all that Morrison wants to be of the devil’s party, he’s not. He’s invested in the ability of the system to make a few people into bald punk sex gods, and, more to the point, with getting to be one of them himself. Morrison boasted that The Invisibles was designed as a hyper-sigil to bring about a fundamental shift in human awareness. It’s tempting, after blazing past both eschatological events he obsessed over, to suggest that he missed. But perhaps the more unnerving possibility is that he succeeded in creating a world where rebellion is superficial and exists entirely as a defined and accounted for reaction to the prevailing social order - a world in which every bit of rebellion and radicalism has already been recuperated by the spectacle, and where anarchy is just another brand.
Which, in an odd and not entirely self-evident way, brings us around to Lawrence Miles.
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