Every so often, Grant Morrison reminds you he’s human. For all the drugs, surrealism, or chaos magic which are frequently invoked along with his name, Grant Morrison is a man who grew up in Scotland, has a family, and lives (to the best of my knowledge!) a normal life. And although it doesn’t come up particularly often in his comics works – particularly in something as ambitious as The Invisibles, which often feels like a life statement from a writer published ahead of time, only a very short while into his actual career – that background does sometimes drags itself back up into his work. Even a writer as carefully manic as Morrison can’t be about dadaism and meditation all the time, and it’s with a comic like The Invisibles #12 that you see some of his working class roots grow out into narrative. I want more of it.
The issue itself is one of those celebrated ones – it made our Top 100 Comics List, in fact – and it achieved that acclaim largely through it’s perceived non-linear storytelling. It tells the story of a working class man called Bobby, who goes from a dreaming, nervous child to a war-scarred veteran of the Falklands, and then into a miserable domestic abuser and washout. He ultimately signs up to become an armed guard, at which point he runs into one of the comic’s actual protagonists and is promptly shot through the face without much ceremony.
He lives, he dies, and as he dies he remembers elements of his life in scattered – but carefully arranged, and actually fairly linear – form. He thinks to being a child, being an adult, being a dad, being scared, being happy. He hits all the parts of his life which mattered to him, and the storytelling takes great pains to sew together all those elements into an authentic and true life, even as that life is cut short.
For all the exploration of that linear/non-linear sequential arrangement of Bobby’s memories, what’s as interesting is how clearly defined each of those memories are by themselves. Each segment is a whole piece, a slice of true life which stands by itself as well as being a snapshot of a short moment in history. In giving us a look at the life of a normal man who is drawn into the superviolent world of heroes and comics as a whole, what Morrison and artist Steve Parkhouse are offering is a distinctive working-class-hero story, a type of narrative which only works within and from a British mindset. “Best Man Fall” comes straight from the kitchen sink, and Bobby comes from a distinctive lineage of disgruntled young men, angrily lashing out at the world around them with a pint in hand. Forget superstring theory or occult magics as influences for Morrison: there’s as much of John Osborne in this issue as you’ll find anywhere in comics.
“Best Man Fall” offers kitchen sink dramatics in classic British style, looking at Bobby within the context of decades of “angry young men”. The story could sit between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Kes for it’s interest in offering a authentic and detailed portrayal of its lead character. There’s realism in each section, as Parkhouse depicts a British fireworks display as it would appear: the roman candle sat on a plank of wood on top of a brazier; rockets launched from within an old glass bottle. Cultural touchpoints scatter through the background in flashes: Live Aid appears on television; Bobby eats a pack of Seabrook crisps. Rather than exploring the mystifying spectacular, Best Man Falls acts true to life in as simple and bland a fashion as possible.
Even the superhero-y scene at the end where we see him die is portrayed more typically than it was when it first appeared in the very first issue of the series. There things were more colourful, and the pace ran a lot faster through each page. Here, there’s time taken to establish a scene, and establish a tone. Bobby banters with his team in a locker room as they do their showlaces up, quarrel about biscuits, and talk about the packed lunches their wives have made for them. Then he puts on his superhero helmet and races off to his death. It’s not shown in any kind of vivid fashion: this is a working-class story which doesn’t put on airs and graces despite the past and future issues of the series it’s sandwiched into.
What the comic format offers which no other format can really offer – not even theatre – is pace and time. The issue shifts back and forth in time in a fashion which wouldn’t work on the screen or stage, and it allows Parkhouse and Morrison to transition between shared memories. A repeated image which spurs the comic forwards is of a spade going down into the Earth. At one point it’s at the funeral for Bobby’s dad: at another, he’s digging a hole himself to bury his dead dog. Of course, he’s also been using that shovel to dig trenches in Argentina. The comic uses that motif frequently to show how the past continues to bury itself, even as the past unearths itself for both Bobby and the reader in the final remembered moments of life. It’s symbolic of the working-class life: a life spent toiling away with purpose, but no final reward. Bobby sacrificed his life for his country, and was promptly abandoned and forced into picking up security work which ultimately will kill him. His playfighting as a child ends up as something very real, and he never truly recovers from that realisation that societal trends have pushed him down a path he doesn’t actually want for himself.
Bobby’s anger comes from the way his life played out, and that included a pointed turn in the military as he enrols and then finds himself sent to the Falklands on Thatcher’s behalf. Being Northern, the mere mention of Maggie Thatcher brings up a lot of feelings for me, and you can sense that the same is true for Morrison. She doesn’t appear and any references to her are, like the comic structure itself, scattered but pointed. “Strong leadership” we hear, after we’ve already seen Bobby hit by shrapnel and sent to a hospital as a result of her war. Bobby presumably enrols into the military because of that ideal – he’s seen walking out with his papers on the same days newspaper boards declare “Tory Triumph” in the polls. That self-fulfilling prophecy lives within Bobby just as it has with countless angry Northern men before.
The tradition of the angry young man is well-established in British culture, but that culture rarely filters across into comics in the same way as it does film, theatre, or music. British writers and artists are no stranger to satire, clearly – have you met Warren Ellis or his many followers? – but their interests lie away from the common man and more typically at the everyman. There’s a difference there: the struggles of, say, Strontium Dog are not the problems of your dad whilst he hangs out at the pub after a long day of work. The typical, stereotypical career pathway for British comics creatives starts off with comics like The Beano – which, for all their all-ages anarchy, primarily offer working-class characters railing against the system. That “system” might be “dad” or “head teacher”, but it’s still in that old traditional mould of the underclass fighting back against whoever “the man” is perceived to be.
But after that, once readers and artists grow up, the shift (certainly at the time Morrison was establishing himself) was expected to be across to comics like 2000AD, which trade that fighting spirit for science fiction, fantasy, and larger social satire. The anger remains, but it’s encouraged to be aimed in a more refined, reflective, or hidden way. There’s so much to say about modern day British society, but the most long-running British comics feature characters like Judge Dredd, who are outwardly about American politics rather than our own. In the last decade there have been stories from British publishers like 2000AD which have working class leads: Cradlegrave would be a key example, a horror series on a council estate. But overall you can see a reluctance to tell stories about people in Britain – and especially those who are in the working class.
It feels like that’s in part because of pre-set privileges and prejudices which influence who gets to make comics to begin with, and in part because British comics are very much still trying to find distractions away from the country itself. Hence we get sci-fi and fantasy as our primary small-press and published output, alongside autobiography. But the fictional lives of people like Bobby don’t get seen anymore, and it’s a huge shame. Many will hail the structure and craft of “Best Man Fall” as why the issues succeeds so strongly: I’d argue instead that it’s because it hits that low-scale, high-impact tone of the angry young man in Britain so keenly, and falls so powerfully into creative tradition.
The Invisibles Vol. 1 #12 – Best Man Fall
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Steve Parkhouse
Coloured by Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by Annie Parkhouse and Clem Robins