Glasgow writer Grant Morrison's comic-book The Invisibles was the defining fiction of the Nineties. While the alleged big guns of British literature have either claimed the present is impossible to write about (Ackroyd, Faulks) or proven it beyond their means (Amis the hardest trier, Barnes at the back of the class), Morrison has danced the length of the cutting-edge: the film The Matrix is one recent, clumsy riff on The Invisibles' themes and imagery. His secret is an instinctive grasp of popular culture, where more established names treat it as a trial. The Beatles, punk and surreal superhero comics formed his imagination, fired it along unfamiliar routes, from Michael Moorcock to Guy Debord, Howard Brenton to Nic Roeg. The Invisibles accordingly filters Nineties culture through its pages, inscribing Britpop and liquid nanotechnology, Diana's death and Planet Hollywood's bombing.
Morrison's familiarity with techniques of sampling, and a punk-like penchant for outrageous claims, has led to accusations that he's a plagiarist, a charlatan. But rather than simply manipulate pop culture - the prerogative of all Nineties artists - he's deconstructed its filling of our waking thoughts, to try and remove its grip. A believer in the magical properties of fiction, Morrison intends The Invisibles as a spell, of the sort that woke Sleeping Beauty, and razed a choking forest. Like too few contemporary authors, he wants to change his readers' lives.
The serial nature of comic-books (published in monthly instalments before later collection) would prove a mixed blessing to this populist project. The Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution, the first volume (of three) centred on an anti-social Liverpool teenager's initiation into the titular secret society of subversives. His social-realist shell - let down by parents, let down by school, left to literally play with the traffic as a joyrider - is movingly cracked by an immersion in wonder on the banks of the Thames. He then joined the Invisibles' cool, killer leader King Mob in anarchist battle against agents of cosmic control.
But this narrative was immediately complicated by a discussion of the nature of anarchy and rebellion, a chronologically cut-up debate between Byron, Shelley, and Sade - who was forced into his own foul allegory of total freedom, 120 Days of Sodom, then deposited at a Nineties San Francisco S&M rave, to reconsider his "world without limits". Against a background of the Terror's guillotine-sliced necks, tumbrils piled high with heads ("Caesarian birth of a better world"), revolution and Utopia, Shelley concluded, must be an inner process - suiting a comic that answers the question "Which side are you on ?" with a MÃ¶bius strip.
Volume 1 went on to revisit and dismantle its initial scenes, unpacking the thwarted life of a guard casually shot by King Mob in three panels 200 pages earlier, revealing the shattered promise of a man who finishes as a wife-beating thug. It mplies a Chinese box behind each subsequent panel, morally unbalancing later violence, rippling uncertainty through every turning page. Packed in, too, were scenes of visual sensation: the shrivelled head of John the Baptist spouting Dead or Alive lyrics, a demon wearing a dead man's face in a park, offering ice-cream to children; a suckling one-eyed baby in a post-nuclear desert.
The volume finished in visions of pure sickness, explained when Morrison himself collapsed and almost died while writing them - an extreme demonstration, perhaps, of the literary magic he meant to invoke. Functioning in a commercial, monthly medium, though, his suffering was almost for nothing. The Invisibles had overestimated its audience's taste for undiluted philosophy, and faced cancellation. And so, for Volume 2, he changed tack, in a manner more familiar to studio test screenings than literature, to write "the Hollywood version".
What at first seemed a sad dilution in fact focused his subversive intent. Flick through Kissing Mr Quimper and two prior collections (Bloody Hell in America and Counting to None, which, together, make up Volume 2), and you'll see carnage on a scale Schwarzenegger would condemn, a hyper-real action movie: red seas of blood and blown-off brain at the feet of our team of rebel "heroes"; so much "cool" killing they choke. "Feels like murder every time," says one. "Doesn't it feel like murder ?" Fed to bursting point, like Morrison and many of us, on fantasised mayhem, James Bond to Baader-Meinhof, The Prisoner to Patty Hearst, she can't find her way out from the movie, can't know how anything feels. "Corporate viral technology", a character terms it, the underlying conformist structures of mass media-informed thought. Morrison runs this programme to its end, makes Bond-worshipping King Mob kick down doors till he hits a brick wall.
Midway through this debugging of his characters, from within a comic reconstructed to give the appearance and excitement of the action-packed illusion it partially condemns, he reaches metatextual climax: in pages printed in negatives, he detourns the Invisibles (the Situationist technique of over-writing characters' speech balloons with their subliminal, reactionary meaning). The Invisibles requests readers to resist it.
Even Morrison is then washed clean this way. The possibility that what we're reading was written by a time-travelling member of the Invisibles as a young woman in 2012, so infatuated with the Nineties comic The Invisibles that she wished it to be true until she made it so, half-erases his authorship and frees us from conforming to him, also. By the volume's end, switching on a TV, even picking up a book (or comic) seems a counter-revolutionary act. After reading it for a few hours I honestly resented such distractions, reacquainted myself with silence. This is fiction which denies its own solutions, encourages us to find our own thoughts, if we can: to bomb the Planet Hollywood in our heads.
If this sounds at all dry, The Invisibles' remaining major theme, the seeming acceleration of time as we crash through the millennium, reveals a work drenched in emotion. The hackneyed notion of time travel is tied to a more audacious concept: that God was dragged into His own Creation by the rupture of the atom bomb's explosion and captured, God's creation, Timespace, reflected on its caged surface, allowing a softening between past, present and future. The 20th century's increasing tempo was this stunned God regaining consciousness. In this temporal flux, we see lives bittersweet with permanent nostalgia, looped dÃ©jÃ vu - longing for spoiled childhoods, lost loves, wounds media won't patch.
Morrison's work has always drawn on his own childhood, the wonder woken by early reading, personal totems gleaned from cot-bound dreams. Scenes in which he contrasts his wounded, waking God with individuals smothering their own hidden hurts with TV and alcohol, when a simple human touch, or a memory of it, is what they need, may be his comic's most profound attempt at returning that early potential, reconnecting its readers to love, to what it terms "uncut heart".
Exploring such themes scrapes the surface of The Invisibles' 1,300 pages. I've ignored, for instance, the sometimes outstanding work of its artists, and its mutable versions of sex, class and race. Its incomplete collection in book form (the last two-thirds of Volume 1 and Volume 3 are missing) may be frustrating for new readers. But even reading it in truncated form, you'll feel the last decade tumbling by: understand its language, as spoken by a native.Reuse content