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“The Image Rules the World”: Focalization, Hallucinations and Metalepsis in The Invisibles

By Tommi Kakko and Mervi Miettinen

Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles is a notoriously complex comic. It involves a large cast of characters who are all heroes of their own interconnected storylines. To complicate matters further, it takes readers into hallucinatory worlds without providing a reassuring zero level of reality against which it would be possible to reorient oneself whenever one is overtaken by the peculiar ontological vertigo produced by the story. Two conceptual tools borrowed from narratology, focalization and metalepsis, are helpful in grasping what happens in the course of its swirling storylines. Although new typologies and variations are still being debated, the terms are well established and, once they are familiar to readers, they become useful tools with which to discuss Morrison’s interwoven narratives. After defining the terms, we will discuss examples of their interlinked use.

Focalization in The Invisibles takes advantage of possibilities only available to the medium of comics. The device is normally understood as the means by which authors create the point of view of narrators and characters for readers to interpret. The term focalization was coined by Gérard Genette in order to avoid the visual connotations of the virtually synonymous term “point of view” (Genette, Narrative Discourse 189). It includes the various ways in which authors represent how the events of a given story are experienced. There are three basic types of focalization in relation to different types of narrators: zero, internal, and external. The first of these corresponds to what is known as the omniscient narrator whose voice is not experiential in the same way as is that of his or her characters. Internal focalization corresponds to the conventional reliable narrator who has access to the thoughts of characters. External focalization corresponds to a narrator who is restricted to reporting the events of the story and the utterances of characters. That is, zero focalization means no one perspective is privileged, internal focalization lets the reader see the world of the story through the eyes of individual characters or focalizers, while external focalization maintains an air of objective description.

Metalepsis is a slightly more complicated term, but broadly speaking it involves the interplay between the realms of fiction and reality. This is often achieved by drawing the reader’s attention to the means of representation, the medium of the story. Stories may have many levels of narration embedded in them, so instead of using the tricky notions of fiction and reality, it is often preferable to talk about movement between the diegetic levels of a narrative—diegesis (telling) has been juxtaposed with mimesis (showing) since Platonic philosophy and Aristotelian poetics. Diegetic levels can be divided into the extradiegetic, diegetic, and the metadiegetic levels. The extradiegetic may be seen as the level where a narrator who is not part of the action of the story exists—an omniscient narrator, for example, rarely takes part in the story he or she is telling. The diegetic level may be seen as the level of the story itself where characters interact, events in the plot occur, and so on. The metadiegetic level of a narrative involves stories within stories. Metalepsis as a narrative technique may involve characters discussing the ways in which they are represented by the author in a given medium, breaking the fourth wall, addressing the fictitious status of other characters and themselves, or subverting the conventions of representation in other ways which lead to the diegetic levels becoming blurred or crossed.

Further distinctions are possible (cf. Fludernik, D. Cohn). Genette has termed metalepses that concern the author the “metalepsis of the author” (Genette, Métalepse). In this special case, metalepses may be either descending or ascending. When the author or narrator descends into his or her story and acts as one of the characters, one speaks of a descending metalepsis. When a character of a story moves diegetically from one story into a higher one—to communicate with the narrator of the story for example—one speaks of an ascending metalepsis. Alice Bell and Jan Alber, among others, have added to this scheme the horizontal metalepsis where characters move from the world of one story to another apparently without crossing the descending or ascending vertical diegetic levels. Even in the case of horizontal metalepses, one has to assume that characters have some power of vertical diegetic movement in order to cross over from one storyworld to another. In terms of the effect metalepsis has on storylines, Marie-Laure Ryan has divided metalepses into rhetorical and ontological ones. Whereas a rhetorical metalepsis appears only as a quick nod to the reader who thereby recognizes the diegetic levels at play, an ontological metalepsis has a more devastating effect on the narratives in question and the storyworlds involved are irrevocably entangled.

The basic idea of metaleptic rhetorical trickery should be familiar to modern readers since the diegetic movement denoted by the term is a staple of postmodernism. It is used to break the spell of fictionality, as a defamiliarization or alienation effect, to create metafictional tension, as a plot device, or even to present philosophical arguments in fiction. In her analysis of the use of metalepsis in Morrison’s Animal Man and Alan Moore’s Tom Strong, Karin Kukkonen (“Metalepsis in Comics and Graphic Novels” 213) notes that although the device is not uncommon in comics, “a coherent account of the various forms of metalepsis in comics” linked to the general discussion of metalepsis in narratology is still lacking. This is surprising, because comics are in some ways an ideal medium for metaleptic narratives and, as Kukkonen points out, metalepses and metareferences have been common in comics since the medium’s inception. To state the obvious, comics benefit in this regard from the use of images and words, two media which can be used in conjunction to create metaleptic effects. Images may be used in various ways to indicate in which of the storyworlds events take place. The same can be said about focalization, because focalization in comics can show readers what characters see and how they see the world they inhabit at any given moment. Kai Mikkonen (“Presenting Minds in Graphic Narratives” 310) has pointed out that comic narration often deploys internal focalization in a way where the shifting angles of vision guide the reader to adopt a particular character’s point of view and literally to see through the character’s eyes.

The Invisibles is a work that uses metaleptic devices as essential elements of the story and therefore they can be seen virtually everywhere. The presence of metalepsis in Morrison’s psychedelic story is theoretically interesting precisely because it appears to interact with focalization in order to take readers in and out of storyworlds. This applies, for example, to the climactic final question of The Invisibles: “Which side are you on?” Drawing attention to the medium and the singular reading experience turns the tables on readers. The question tries to shatter the illusion of the comic and in doing so reminds readers that they are looking into a maze of narratives that call for interpretation and analysis. In this sense, problems of interpretation are integral to the structure of the story. Reading such a dense narrative with the help of the tools outlined above offers an interesting exercise. As with any exercise of this nature, however, one can also learn a lot about the nature of one’s tools from the materials to which they are applied. In what follows, we will look at focalization and metalepsis, respectively, in a number of storylines in The Invisibles. We also include a brief digression into the psychedelic ideas about the nature of time and space they are used to represent.

Five Finger Focalization

The Invisibles employs zero and external focalization and deliberately juxtaposes them with internal focalization, thereby creating contrasts in narration that propel the story forward and create ontological uncertainty. This kind of heterodiegetic narration where the narrator describes the events through the consciousness of various characters is also deployed to great effect. In many episodes of the work, reality itself appears to shift around the leading character and the phenomenological is realized into the objectively real around them. Space and time shift in radical ways, objects are conjured up by the power of the mind, and characters are transported into parallel dimensions. The relationship between reality and representation is compromised in ways which are disorienting and fascinating. The world of The Invisibles is a hallucinatory world where shamanic superheroes have the power to bend it to their wills. The use of focalization plays a key part in making reality appear infinitely malleable. It also demands flexibility from readers interpreting the work.

The power to create reality through hallucinations, however, is one that can also be used against the protagonists. One example of focalization complicated by hallucinatory experiences can be seen in book three (Entropy in the U.K.) as King Mob is held captive and questioned in Room 101. Injected with Key 17, a drug that causes him to be “unable to tell the difference between the word describing an object and the object itself” (37), King Mob’s internal focalization no longer shows the reader the perceivable reality of the comic book world but what the character experiences as the drug begins to affect him. An entire page is dedicated to King Mob’s internal focalization where the reader, positioned as King Mob, witnesses the severed fingers presumably cut from King Mob’s hands. However, the next page shifts focus away from King Mob, showing that what he saw as fingers were actually nothing more than pieces of paper with the word “finger” written on them. Language becomes identical with the objects King Mob perceives or, alternatively, it creates the objects which readers see as images through King Mob’s eyes. The radical shift from one perspective to the other acts as a sign that one is dealing with a focalizer who is unsure of what is real and what is not.

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The interrogation scene introduces a focalizing visual element to the familiar Orwellian mind-control trope that truly allows the reader to see what the character sees. The reader, however, is in a privileged position at this point. Sir Miles first shows King Mob four fingers (62-3), which he correctly sees as such, as does the reader. He then shows King Mob a paper that says “five fingers”, but this text is what the reader also sees, indicating that though this image is from King Mob’s perspective, it is not focalized through him. One sees, as it were, through King Mob’s unaltered state into the actual world of the comic while the protagonist’s terror clearly indicates that he remains under the influence. The scene is surprisingly candid. In two subsequent panels, the reader first sees Sir Miles holding up five fingers, juxtaposed with an extreme close-up image of King Mob’s wide eye, clearly indicating a connection between focalization and visual perception. Sir Miles addresses King Mob, saying “[w]hat you see depends entirely upon the words you have to describe what you see” (63), putting into words the complex challenge of studying graphic narratives: that words are always needed to analyze and explain the images that are studied.

Yet, as the panels make this shift to internal focalization (35), it also immediately offers the reader clues that this particular focalization might be significantly more subjective than any previous point of view focalizations. The focalized panels gain an increasingly red hue as they progress, marking them separate from King Mob’s previous internal focalizations. As Mikkonen (“Subjectivity and Style in Graphic Narratives” 102) has noted, these kinds of changes in a comic’s visual style not only accentuate the character’s mental experience, but they can also indicate that an image is a “subjective mental image”, such as a dream or a fantasy—or, as in this case, a hallucination. The focalization appears to gain in strength when hallucinations replace the simple subjective view of the world. The red coloring adds to the hallucinatory quality of the perception, but it also signals to the reader that what is being presented in the panels is not an objective or even simply a subjective representation. The experience is hallucinatory and as far away from objectivity as one can get. Interestingly, when the comic returns to the hallucinations induced by Key 17 (Entropy in the U.K. 62-3), the panel with the five fingers no longer has the red shade that would mark it as a hallucination. It indicates yet another transition, this time to a hallucinatory world made frighteningly real.

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As the red panels are revealed to indicate King Mob’s subjective hallucinations, they nevertheless continue to focalize through him as he is shown a mirror with the note “diseased face” attached to it by Sir Miles. Before King Mob has read the note, the panel focalized through him shows a note taped onto the surface of the mirror. Readers are not actually shown the mirror image that King Mob presumably sees, but the panel is sharply focused only on Sir Miles’s face and only contains King Mob’s verbal horror of his hallucinatory vision, his own disfigured face. Much like a few dozen pages later, when King Mob finally attacks Sir Miles, the presumably horrifying event is left unvisualized, undescribed, beyond description. The variations in focalization that comprise the scene can be disorienting, but at the same time, the comic, as it were, teaches readers to read certain variations in focalization as clues as to how to interpret the events. The red hue shows King Mob struggling against his torturer, the image of the eye shows the realization that he is powerless to resist, and the untinted hallucination indicates that the battle against the drug has been lost. The slide into a world of linguistic hallucinations is thus executed by using contrasting visual focalizations that eventually take readers from objective reality into a world where reality and hallucinations become one.

This is just one of several instances where the comic challenges the reader with its use of focalization and hallucinations. The key battle in the comic between King Mob and his interrogator, a battle where one tries to break into the mind of the other, continues with embedded panels that are presumably the subjective memories of the two characters. The scene shows a unique way of representing consciousness as the pages depict the mind of King Mob, a vast and chaotic full page of tiny details interlaced with black-and-white photographs that appear to represent past memories (Entropy in the U.K. 57). The mind, or consciousness, is depicted as a physical location that can be forcefully invaded as an avatar of Sir Miles walks across King Mob’s mind, literally threatening to break down the actual walls erected to keep intruders away from his private secrets.

The notion of fictional mind construction gains a whole new layer of meaning as the comic visualizes the mind as an actual construction with literal walls. Distinct from the norm of verbal representation, a graphic representation of a narrative mind relies predominantly on images with very limited access to verbalized thought, something that Mikkonen (“Presenting Minds in Graphic Narratives” 302, 305-6) has identified as a challenge in terms of comics scholarship. While in verbal narratives reported thought and speech may be indistinguishable, graphic narratives make verbal scenic description redundant by immediately showing the reader the scene using images. The literal constructedness of the fictional mind is given even more of a twist as the comic reveals that the entire mind of King Mob is, indeed, an elaborate mind trap meant to catch telepathic intruders (Entropy in the U.K. 69). The trick is also played on the readers, making King Mob’s trap a kind of mischievous example of embedded focalization. The images readers have understood as being representations of King Mob’s mind are revealed to be mere edifices erected to trap Sir Miles and, perhaps, the reader as well.

King Mob’s interrogation is an interesting example of the ways in which focalization may be used as a narrative device in comics. Typical of the story as a whole, the means by which the effect is generated leave readers puzzled as to which perspective, if any, can be read as a representation of objective reality and which is merely a hallucinatory episode of one of the characters. This is perhaps due to the fact that before King Mob’s mind trap is sprung, readers have learned to read the various shifts in focalization as helpful indicators of his state of mind. When it is revealed that King Mob had other plans all along, these shifts are revealed as a ruse intended to trap Sir Miles. In other words, the world seen through King Mob’s eyes did not provide a total immersion into his perspective on the world of the comic. Rather, it appears that he had more control over his actions than was previously indicated. The rules of interpretation that readers previously learned in order to interpret the scene are therefore unreliable and, in the end, readers finally learn that such rules are open to revision as soon as they are learned.

Metalepsis and Time

The use of focalization to produce metaleptic effects is often discarded for more straightforward metalepses. Characters such as Jack address the reader, for example, in a clear use of metalepsis of the author. King Mob himself is a self-confessed avatar of the author Grant Morrison: “King Mob was the action lead. He was shaven headed, my age, and he’d made his money as a writer. … I intended to blend my life, my appearance, my world with his until I could no longer tell us apart” (Morrison, Supergods 258-9). The character with his bald head and leather attire not only visually resembles Morrison, but within the storyworld of The Invisibles, King Mob’s civilian alter ego is tentatively identified as that of “Kirk Morrison”, a science-fiction author. Though the character does not at any point become “Grant Morrison”, the underlined similarity between the character and its author implies a metaleptic relationship which constantly reminds the reader that there is an outside extradiegetic reality from where the story is told (cf. Kukkonen, “Metalepsis and Popular Culture: An Introduction” 5-6). By stressing the similarities between the fictional character and the author, the comic also makes explicit its status as fiction. The same effect can be achieved by referring to the medium explicitly. Kukkonen (“Metalepsis and Popular Culture: An Introduction” 3) states that in transmedial discourses such as comics, metalepsis occurs when the production context of the comic is made present—something of this sort takes place at the very end of The Invisibles as the image is magnified and the construction of the panel becomes visible.

A work of fiction may announce its status as fiction for dramatic effect in a way that does not influence the storyline by using rhetorical metalepses. The ontological metalepses of The Invisibles are more subversive as they are woven into its narrative structure. While the “basic function of metalepsis remains a crossing of the border between the fictional world and (a representation of) the real world” (Kukkonen “Metalepsis and Popular Culture: An Introduction” 6), it is also possible for metalepsis to take place within a single fictional universe through the use of mise en abyme, of storyworlds within storyworlds. This definition of metalepsis is apparently advocated by Werner Wolf, who claims that metalepsis is “usually intentional paradoxical transgression of, or confusion between, (onto-)logically distinct (sub)worlds and/or levels that exist, or are referred to, within representations of possible worlds” (Wolf 91; quoted in Kukkonen “Metalepsis and Popular Culture: An Introduction” 10). This is what takes place in book three. King Mob’s mind is perceived first by the reader as a space invaded by Sir Miles and it is subsequently revealed to be an elaborate construction meant to ensnare any intruder. It becomes a world within a world, a construction created by King Mob that both Sir Miles and readers read as real within the comic’s fictional universe until the narrative immersion is broken as the world is revealed as false.

Stories may contain worlds within worlds, but they may also have worlds, if you will, without worlds. As shown above, what is of interest in King Mob’s interrogation scene and his mind trap is not the creation of subworlds but the occluded world that frames its creation. Its occlusion reveals another perhaps obvious fact about comics in relation to their potential for metalepsis. Gardner (“Storylines”) claims that comics are by nature material artifacts that do not let the reader forget their nature as such. Unlike film and written literature that allow viewers to immerse themselves into them and forget the time and effort that went into making them, comics remind readers of their production context with each drawn line. This is not to say that all comics are metaleptic by nature all the time. As seen above, “immersiveness” can take different forms in comics depending on the narrative conventions it uses. Much like focalization, metalepsis in comics appears to be a matter of relative contrast rather than simple materiality. As with all media, there are limitations to representation in comics. In the case of metalepsis in comics, the temporal sequence that both restricts and creates a story is essential.

Kukkonen (“Metalepsis in Comics and Graphic Novels” 54) points out that the measure of time in comics is “notoriously difficult to pin down.” Sometimes two panels repeating the same image indicate length, sometimes the same effect is achieved with one elongated panel, sometimes the amount of text and detail dictate the time the panel contains. Many comics theorists, such as Scott McCloud and Thierry Groensteen, have addressed the issue of time in comics through sequences. Though there is no automatic “relationship of narrative order” between two juxtaposed images, Groensteen (105-7) claims that comic book panels nevertheless function so that the reader is “naturally inclined to credit narration to the sequence.” According to Groensteen (110-111), the meaning of a comics panel is gained retroactively by both the preceding and the following panel, its signification constructed only by the reader, who interprets the differences between panels temporally. Indeed, it is the reader who is given the primary role in creating a coherent narrative out of a sequence of panels in a comic, because for “the comics reader, the fact of presupposing that there is a meaning necessarily leads him to search for the way that the panel that he ‘reads’ is linked to the others, and how he re-reads it in light of others” (113).1

In The Invisibles, time becomes a central theme. As events are not located linearly, the comic relies on another strategy in order to represent a fractured or even fractal conception of time and to challenge the reader’s temporal interpretations. Characters from different times may appear within the same panel, as when Dane witnesses John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe on the streets of Liverpool (Say You Want a Revolution 17), or when Tom and Dane see a couple from the 1920s in their 1990s London (Say You Want a Revolution 88; and again from the other perspective in Counting to None 138). Juxtaposed panels and sequences move from the past to the present as well as to the future, often (but not nearly always) indicated by captions that place the event at an exact time point: “Liverpool: December 22nd, 2012 8 am” (Entropy in the U.K. 157). At other times, these indications are very vague: “in the beginning … ” (207).

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Book two (Apocalipstick) intricately weaves together two seemingly separate time points as Lord Fanny experiences her initiation into the magic of her/his foremothers both as a 12-year-old and as an adult. Preparing one of the comic’s key claims regarding the nature of time, the comic suggests that the initiation takes place in the now, in the past, and on both occasions. Comics narration enables the depiction of time as simultaneous by having the panels shift between the past and the present; the various visual and textual cues, such as the special speech balloon that continues to appear from panel to panel (Apocalipstick 129), or the way the adult Lord Fanny is suddenly placed in the panels instead of her younger incarnation, indicating that they are one and the same. The latter occurs just as her/his totem protector, the butterfly, says: “All times are the same times. The initiation of a sorcerer reveals this” (133). The butterfly reveals the truth about time to Lord Fanny and the reader, since this is apparently how time works in The Invisibles.

In the finale of The InvisiblesThe Invisible Kingdom, the sequential temporality of comics narration itself is challenged through the unusual use of the “polymorphic panel”. According to Neil Cohn (131), the polymorphic panel shows “a single entity repeated in multiple positions of an action while remaining in a single encapsulated frame.” The polymorphic panels “allow for duration that is not attached to any sense of spatial progression” (N. Cohn 132). The norm, Groensteen’s sequential reading, can be circumvented in this manner by what Patrick Meaney (251-4) identifies as Morrison’s “timeworm” method of representing mastery over time. Indeed, in a polymorphic panel, time never stops as there is no starting or ending point—the image does not present a temporally bound event, but the “durative concept” (N. Cohn 133) of an idea. An example of a polymorphic panel emerges at the final pages of The Invisibles as time’s simultaneity is depicted by enclosing multiple iterations of the same character in a single panel (The Invisible Kingdom 254). As Robin appears in the panel, she is shadowed by innumerable previous iterations of herself, indicating her movement towards the reader. However, these iterations are all within a single panel, relying on the polymorphic panel that stresses the “AllNOW” where everything exists (283-4).

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Several other examples could be cited, but it seems clear that what frames the often confusing metalepses of The Invisibles is a theory of time according to which all events in the comic appear to be happening simultaneously. The claim goes against the nature of the medium which has to rely essentially on sequential representation. The shamanic visions focalized through certain characters who can see through time are given more credence by the fact that one of the main subplots involves the theory and practice of time travel. The subplot elevates the rhetorical visionary metalepses into ontological metalepses when it becomes clear that characters who are able to see the structure of the story unfolding before their eyes are actually witnessing something much more concrete than mere subjective visions.

Time Travel and Simultaneity

Meaney notes in his detailed study of The Invisibles that the “omni-temporal viewpoint” (Meaney 10) seen in Morrison’s work is the result of the author’s own psychedelic experiences. Meaney also notes that The Invisibles owes a debt to the writings of Terence McKenna, who is mentioned several times in the story as a psychedelic prophet whose theories and writings on shamanic drug culture are venerated by several of the characters. He wrote a number of books on the subject, some of them in collaboration with his brother Dennis, and many of his lectures are circulated online. His early career as an ethnobotanist is told in True Hallucinations.2 The story involves a group of young explorers who enter the Amazon in search of a hallucinogenic drug related to DMT, a drug also mentioned in The Invisibles. Later, McKenna’s fascinating reports of his experiments with DMT would include descriptions of strange hallucinatory creatures who would, without fail, present themselves to him inside a bizarre enclosed space, a world unto itself created by the ingestion of the drug. One of the more shocking tricks played on McKenna by these creatures would involve conjuring up objects using only the power of language. The “self-transforming machine elves” (McKenna, The Archaic Revival 16) would attempt to teach this skill to McKenna, who at times succeeded in following their example.

McKenna’s descriptions are absurd and McKenna was very conscious of their absurdity. He nevertheless insisted on the veracity of his private experiences. In his drugged states, language appeared to have the power to create objects in the space created by the DMT experience. Images, in turn, influenced what he saw during his hallucinations. In True Hallucinations, for example, McKenna witnesses a flying saucer above the Amazon and is shocked to discover that it is identical to a photographed saucer from his childhood that was later proven to be a hoax. During the interrogation, King Mob’s experiences are guided by written, and patently false, words. In light of McKenna’s writings, the world of The Invisibles seems like an exaggerated version of the world opened up by the fantastic possibilities inherent in the psychedelic experience. One can create objects with language, move through parallel dimensions, inhabit the mind of another, bring back objects from hallucinatory worlds, and so on. Key 17 may induce hypnotic suggestion, but King Mob is also able to create a whole ersatz world using his skills as a shamanic conjurer, not unlike the author’s abilities to create worlds of his own through his art. The analogy is suggested by the way The Invisibles tells its story and, we would argue, it is metaleptic.

McKenna’s drug experiences described in True Hallucinations also inspired a theory of time. His theory is presented in The Invisible Landscape, an odd mixture of eastern philosophy, psychedelia, and apocalyptic theories based on the I-Ching. His hyperbolic rhetoric sounds strikingly familiar to readers of The Invisibles:

Quantum theory gives a view of the underlying substructure of reality that is quite consistent with the holographically structured metaphysical models of Leibniz and Whitehead. … [I]n a holographic monadology not only does each part mirror the whole but the whole (or any fragment thereof) mirrors each part; thus, we would expect relativistic effects on all levels, from the quantum to the cosmic. … We can see that while relativity would operate in each monad, and in the universe as monad, the extensive continuum of potentiality would exist outside of space-time in a fifth Einsteinian dimension. … [T]he continuum itself, underlying the configurations of three dimensions, would exhibit the quality of simultaneity, as, in some sense, the holographic matrix of potentiality would make all times “simultaneous.” (McKenna, The Invisible Landscape 54-5)

Instead of a wild theory, the simultaneity of time becomes practice in The Invisibles. Lord Fanny’s initiation presents it in shamanic terms. The less mystical Takashi, the scientist responsible for building the time machine operated by Ragged Robin, lectures extensively on his theories of time travel. Although he substitutes Leibnizian monadology and mysticism with mathematical models, there is an obvious affinity to McKenna:

Think of timespace as a multidimensional self-perfecting system in which everything that has ever, or will ever occur, occurs simultaneously. I believe timespace is a kind of object, a geometrical supersolid. I believe it may even be a type of hologram in which energy and matter themselves are byproducts of the overlapping of two higher systems … Think of it this way: Where is the past? Where is the future? Undeniably, they exist, but why can’t you point to them? The only way to do that is to jump “up” from the surface of timespace and see all of history and all our tomorrows as the single object I believe it is. (Counting to None 22)

Thanks to futuristic technologies that are paradoxically rooted in ancient origami, Takashi is able to create a machine that actually “jumps” above time. In narratological terms, the time machine is able to enter the extradiegetic level of the comic narrative and treat the plot as a single object. The situation is paradoxical, but the story itself makes sense if all the events are assumed to be occurring simultaneously. Visions of the future, for example, can be understood as reflections of events that are occurring at the same time with the present—as memories from the future. Focalization, however, is almost impossible when the focalizer is catapulted above time. Ragged Robin’s time travel ordeal is depicted as a series of fracturing panels. Only later is she able to overcome the strangeness of the experience, and she appears to be in control of her faculties in the polymorphic panel noted above.

Once again, the analogy between the world of the comic book and art is stated explicitly. This time, the role of language in time travel technology is emphasized: “Time is a reiterating program fed into a gigantic fluid structure. The actual substance of time can, apparently, be manipulated using a binding agent. In our case, language” (Kissing Mister Quimper 174). How language acts as a binding agent for time is unclear, but it is again portrayed as a serious threat to the protagonists when their mission to infiltrate the compound of their enemy fails. In Counting to None (214), the heroes face the threat of an incomprehensible super language. Shadowy figures observing them from a control room mock them: “We have the keys to a wider world you have not been educated to comprehend. … We have words and concepts for things you aren’t even able to imagine.” To which King Mob replies: “Shit. How do we fight words?” In Kissing Mister Quimper (103) Mr. Lang is more optimistic about images: “The image rules the world. The hallucination has taken control. How do we take control of the hallucination?” Words seem to be unruly in comparison, as they are in King Mob’s interrogation scene. Control over words and images is crucial to the characters of The Invisibles because it entails the control of the world which they inhabit. In this world, controlling language, words and images, is a way of controlling time and space. The characters appear to be aware of metalepsis as a kind of technological or shamanic superpower that grants them access to the extradiegetic which, in turn, provides a vantage point normally occupied by the creator of their reality.

Thus, metalepsis is not only a tool used to tell the story. It is very much a part of the story as a whole. The characters pursue knowledge of the extradiegetic using mystical shamanic techniques as well as technological innovations that can lift them above the diegetic. They are, like King Mob, able to create realities within realities, stories within stories, but rising above the plot requires either a shamanic initiation, which brings them knowledge of a reality above their reality in visions, or fantastic time travel technology. The characters are able to travel through time using drugs and meditation, but only Ragged Robin is able to rise above the diegetic level and gain a fuller perspective on their storyworld. The fact that the characters are, despite everything, fictional characters trapped within the story is made clear by the fact that focalization is impossible when their reality breaks down. Consciousness of the extradiegetic is its own reward and Jack Frost’s final puckish smile that closes the story appears to mock their awareness of the obvious fact that the mere knowledge of their fictive nature is not enough to lift them out of the story entirely. There exists yet another world without their world, Jack seems to say, but the sublime barrier between him and the reader remains impenetrable.

Expanding Metalepsis

Granting characters the power to create reality through focalization is part of the thoroughly metaleptic universe of The Invisibles. The simultaneity of psychedelic time, an idea discussed by authors like McKenna, acts as a framing device that enables the various feats performed by the group in their work, whatever that work is exactly. As seen in King Mob’s interrogation scene, Morrison is very good at leading the reader through variations in focalization and, what is more impressive, he manages to add a satisfying punchline to those variations. Focalization can be analyzed in terms of the techniques of storytelling, but explanations of metalepsis as a series of narrative gestures seem incomplete without a broader perspective. This is true especially of comics, a medium that relies on sequential images to tell its story. In conclusion, we would like to suggest a way of approaching metalepsis that is based on a much older conception of the device, namely that of Renaissance rhetoric. On the surface, this earlier version of the theory of metalepsis has little to do with the modern figure, but it does seem to have the same effect on readers.

Brian Cummings examines metalepsis as a historical figure in his essay “Metalepsis: The Boundaries of Metaphor.” He begins with the technical definition given by rhetoricians, but then develops it toward a more general understanding which shows that metalepsis also tells readers something essential about figurative language. In the narrow sense, metalepsis was defined by rhetoricians as a special figure of transference. What was special about it was its fragmented nature as a figure: “[M]etalepsis was a term that was used to describe a process of transition, doubling, or ellipsis in figuration, of replacing a figure with another figure, and of missing out the figure in between in order to create a figure that stretches the sense or which fetches things from far off” (219). English rhetoricians like George Puttenham called it the farfet, a figure where the substitution of words is related to a metaphor, but, unlike in a metaphor, the relationship between what is being actually referred to and its figurative substitute is not completely clear to readers. Naturally, substitutions of this nature raise the question of how figurative language can transfer meaning in the first place. In other words, metalepsis, even in the sense it was used by Renaissance rhetoricians, draws attention to the medium and points out something about the way in which language works. It does so by leaving gaps in the supposed chain of figurality on which the transference of meaning relies. It is “a miniature language game” (222) of metaphoricity that must be solved by readers, although success is not always guaranteed.

The broader implications of metalepsis as a special figure of transference can be found in the very gaps it creates in figuration. In Cummings’s reading of Renaissance rhetoricians, especially Erasmus’s De copia, metalepsis takes its place in a series of figures related to metaphor (synecdoche, metonymy) that are organized by Erasmus to explain how figurative language is possible:

The peculiar power of metalepsis in Renaissance theory is precisely that it leaves certain steps in the exchange invisible. It makes space for imagination, for language as fiction and fantasy. In this figure we do not know how we have got to where we are, as if we have been transported by an unseen mechanism. … By leaving out the intervening metaphor, metalepsis sets figuration into a self-replicating chain. (230)

Thus, metalepsis may be seen as “a way of understanding a wider phenomenon in figuration” (231) rather than just another figure. It is, in a sense, a gateway to fiction and creative interpretation. In its narrow or technical sense, Renaissance metalepsis is very different from the kinds of devices used in The Invisibles. Intentional confusion between the diegetic levels of narration or the pointing out of the material aspects of the medium do not seem immediately compatible with a farfetched metaphor. What they do have in common is a call to the reader to question what is being presented to them and how. In The Invisibles, the question is articulated at the climax of the story: “Which side are you on?” The question, in this context, asks what the reader thinks his or her role is in the story when the medium is made transparent and the characters confess to their awareness of their ontological status. The reader becomes the focalizer who participates in the story and looks into the world of fiction and, surprisingly, the world of fiction looks right back at the reader.

Worlds of fiction are thus quite literally opened up by metalepsis whether one approaches the trope from the perspective of Renaissance rhetoric or postclassical narratology. Kukkonen’s surprise at the fact that metalepsis has not been discussed much in relation to comics may be explainable by a too narrow focus on medium-centered rhetorical metalepses like the use of the gutter. Perhaps what is needed is a broader and deeper conception of metalepsis that is tied to the uses of focalization. This is possible if one sees metalepsis as a narrative strategy that uses other narrative and rhetorical devices as tools to achieve the desired effect. Studying The Invisibles suggests that by pairing the analyses of works that involve ontological metalepses with the study of focalization, a way of gaining a deeper understanding of metalepsis in comics is possible. It may not be possible to fully reconcile metalepses in narratology with those of Renaissance rhetoric, but Cummings’s idea of metalepsis as a gap in figuration that creates space for further figuration is suitable for comics as well. Last but not least, it seems that expanding the notion of metalepsis in this manner provides an informative way of reading, interpreting, and mapping out Morrison’s psychedelic vision. Reading it using the narratological and rhetorical tools outlined above does not diminish its spellbinding effect. On the contrary, these tools provide keys to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the worlds Morrison has created.


[1] Of course, as Groensteen also reminds us, this kind of “progressive construction of meaning” is not unique to comics narration, and can be read in terms of Iser’s “basic hermeneutic structure of reading” as the sequential nature of the panels “does not lead to fulfillment of expectations as it does to their ongoing modification” (Groensteen 114).

[2] McKenna’s subtitle for True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise, is a nod to Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s earlier work The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages of the Life of a Pythagorean. Ludlow was inspired to write his account after reading Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. For a literary history of autobiographical accounts of drug experiences see Emperors of Dreams by Mike Jay .

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