The Day After

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“See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

That’s the last line of the last page of the last issue of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s pop magic comic book master work. That final issue came out right around Y2K, but it’s set on the December solstice of what was then the freaky-sounding future year 2012. All this year, every time I heard somebody cracking wise about the Mayan Apocalypse, I thought, “Unless you’re an ancient Mayan, you’re stealing Grant Morrison’s bit.”

I bought and read every issue of The Invisibles as it came out from 1994 to 2000. It’s the only comic I’ve ever followed so religiously. It’s brilliant and fun and a bit of a mess and it meant the world to me. It worked its way into my life and rewired the way I saw things, which is pretty much what it was intended to do. Yes, it’s dated now, but so am I. I can’t be any more objective about it than I could be objective about my twenties. 

My first pointless argument with a stranger on the internet—you never forget your first time—was on an Invisibles fan site, and it was about whether or not the world was really going to end on December 21, 2012. The world of the comic book, that is. There’s much talk in The Invisibles about the End of Days, the Mayapocalypse, Glitterdammerung, you name it, but I figured all along that Grant was going to invoke the “As We Know It” clause—the end of the world wouldn’t be a literal end but just the dawning of a new age, an evolution to a some higher (read: more Grant Morrison-like) state of being. When an early issue featured a flash forward to the year 2051 or so, showing the young protagonist Dane McGowan dying of old age, I said this proved Dane’s world wouldn’t end in 2012. My internet interlocutor said this was a false vision sent by the comic’s demonic baddies to demoralize Dane. I’m not sure how demoralizing it is to be told you will die peacefully in bed at the age of eighty-three, but the Archons of the Outer Church work in mysterious ways.

And when it comes, I think you will agree that the difference between being crushed by the massive palm of the headless body of NUG-SHOHAB on the ruined plain of RAGNAROK versus dying alone in a hospital room with a television flickering images at you of a football player dancing with the stars is so small that it is not worth arguing over.

That’s John Hodgman in what has to be the year’s best apocalypse, That Is All. Now, Hodgman’s not stealing Morrison’s bit. He probably read all about the Mayan calendar back in 1979 in The People’s Almanac or The Book of Lists. Speaking of 1979, here’s Stephen King talking about the appeal of the apocalypse in Danse Macabre (I’ll admit it: King’s red-state apocalypse The Stand was almost as big a deal to me in high school as The Invisibles was to me in grad school):

Much of the compulsion I felt while writing The Stand obviously came from envisioning an entire entrenched societal process destroyed at a stroke. I felt a bit like Alexander, lifting his sword over the Gordian knot and growling, ‘Fuck untying it; I’ve got a better way.’ … In this frame of mind, the destruction of THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT became an actual relief. No more Ronald McDonald! No more Gong Show or Soap on TV—just soothing snow! No more terrorists! No more bullshit!

Pause for a moment to reflect that The Gong Show and Soap were once, apparently, arguments for the destruction of humanity. Today they’d be an improvement over many things on TV. (Come back, Chuck Barris, all is forgiven!) Setting that aside, who hasn’t felt like that, like the end of everything would be a kind of relief? Who hasn’t felt like that this week?

The lure of apocalypse is not just the thrill of destruction. It’s the dream of the blank slate. One stray comet, one deadly plague, one dolorous blow from the headless NUG-SHOHAB, and all our troubles will be over. Sure, the world will be a smoking ruin, but that term paper you have to write, those bills you have to pay, those intractable social problems that we just aren’t up to solving—they’ll all be made moot. Cosmic Do-Over. Tabula Rasa. Inbox Zero.

When I put this weblog in mothballs two years ago, I was feeling depressed about the internet, and all the ways in which it seemed to be falling short of what we’d hoped for it. I said it didn’t surprise and delight me any more. I still feel that way (see Anil Dash’s recent “The Web We Lost“), but I resist the urge to disown the optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s, no matter how naive or embarrassing it all seems in retrospect. That would let us all off the hook too easily for the things we didn’t accomplish. (For the record: the internet still surprises and delights me from time to time.)

Dreams of utopia and dreams of apocalypse are both ways of talking about the future—no, scratch that—they are ways of talking, if only obliquely, about a radically different present. In a society that seems to have given up trying to imagine anything much better than multinational capitalism, you need to sneak up on social criticism. Dress it up with rayguns or zombies. Set it in some freaky futuristic-sounding year like 2012.

That’s fine and all. But what are you supposed to do when the world doesn’t end? What do you do when the flying saucers don’t land, the Mayan star-demons don’t tear us to shreds, the Rapture comes and goes and God doesn’t take a single one of us? Or, what do you do when a revolutionary new technology rewires the world yet leaves all the power structures and patterns that predated it intact? How do you make your way and make a difference in a world that refuses to end, a world neither apocalypse nor utopia, a world where the slate will never come clean?

Toward the end of The Invisibles, one character tries to tell King Mob, the ass-kicking anarchist hero of the series, “Amid all the bangs and the drama and the grand passions, it’s kindness, and just ordinary goodness, that stands out in the end.” In fact, King Mob spends most of the comic shooting people, using time travel to hook up with women from different decades, and reminding everyone how cool he is. But Dane, resolutely unglamorous, saves the world just by being a good person. And the final issue finds Dane doing nothing more dramatic than giving comfort to a dying friend. I know which kind of heroism is more meaningful to me. This week especially.

The end of the Mayan calendar is not an apocalypse at all, of course. It’s just like Y2K–another big odometer rolling over. That can mean as much as or as little as you want it to. What’s the end-of-the-world equivalent of “think globally, act locally”? Think apocalyptically, act… ordinarily? Think as if the world is ending, act as if it isn’t.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Invisibles, but I dug out the final issue to write this post and I noticed one more thing I’d never seen before. The final issue is actually set on December 22, 2012. The day after the Mayapocalypse. Suck on that, fourteen-years-ago internet arguer.

The first line on the first page of the first issue of The Invisibles is:

And so we return and begin again.