Smashing the hubris of grand space opera against the neonoir of political investigative journalism, it’s only a matter of time until we make the leap to Shakespeare.
Invisible Republic #1Publisher: Image
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Gabriel Hardman, Corinna Bechko
Publication date: 2015-03
Invisible Republic is a big story. You can tell that just by looking at the cover. But look long enough and you’ll see not only the book’s ambitious and epic scope, but it’s depth.
Put it down to the magnificent tango between artist (and Invisible Republic co-creator and co-author) Gabriel Hardman and the absorbingly muted palette of colorist Jordan Boyd. Just by its art alone, Invisible Republic develops a powerful drama, every bit equal to it’s story’s narrative ambition.
To set the stage it’s the year 2843, and we’re led to the small almost nothing moon of Avalon. Almost nothing, except for the simple fact that Avalon is the galactic capital of an empire that spans countless solar systems. It’s not a happy time for the Malory Regime, said galactic empire (one of many), as the regime its has just crumbled. The social situation is bleak and the economy is more or less blasted.
It’s a story we know very well. Imagine the Weimar before WWII, or Vietnam during the war, or Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism, or downtown Baghdad in the days after Mission Accomplished. Hardman and Boyd don’t give us a vision of a city precariously hanging on to a vast expansive of desert that threatens to engulf it, its edges already frayed by an encroaching limitlessness. Nor do they give us the air heavy with moisture, a jungle poised to swallow up a heavy weather town, really an enclave of French colonial buildings. Instead what we find is something more akin to the inner bleak of Communist Eastern Europe.
The buildings are not pretty, and even Boyd’s heavy colors and Hardman’s heavy inks seem to echo this sentiment. Enter into this world, Croger Babb. Less an intrepid political foreign correspondent, Croger Babb is something of a failed reporter, failed writer. It’s not Babb’s first time in a politically blasted landscape like this. And in this story where everything is spot on, even the mood of the other foreign correspondents in the local watering hole, Croger Babb struggles against his own past failures. As much as anything this story is a story of Croger Babb’s redemption, that comes as a result of the secret he uncovers.
The mocking tone that other foreign correspondents meet Croger Babb with is not a result of Hardman and Boyd’s artistic collaboration. It fits perfectly into this blasted, hopeless environment, but it doesn’t come from this environment. The success of this taunting is a result of Hardman’s authorial collaboration with his co-writer (and wife) Corinna Bechko.
Because of its location, the little moon of Avalon has held incredible geopolitical significance, in that it was a useful base in the era before Faster Than Light travel. And for whatever reason (a reason explored over the course of this ongoing series), a local Strong Man of History arose and installed himself as the head of despotic political machinery. But that time has come and gone. And Croger Babb, and the other correspondents who call him “novelist” and are content in writing nothing but political process stories and stock stories, find themselves crawling through the wreckage of said despot’s now ruined regime. Arthur McBride, said despot, and his Malory Regime are now at an end. And even members of the foreign press want nothing more than a little libation while they cynically mock the people of Avalon as changing status from victims of authoritarian rule to becoming victims of a free market economy.
But this is not enough for Croger Babb. And neither is it enough for the team of Hardman and Bechko. Invisible Republic, as suggested before, is a big story, far bigger than just having it’s main character poke around a new kind of poverty being grandfathered in, and have him go home. A chance encounter with a homeless person on the street, and the discovery of memoir of a woman once close to Arthur McBride, but subsequently deleted from history, stirs Croger Babb’s journalistic instincts. And that’s where the story of Invisible Republic begins in earnest. With Croger Babb desperately needing to uncover the true story of Maia Reveron, Arthur McBride’s cousin, who witnessed his rise to power, and then found herself simply deleted from the official record.
But you don’t need to dive into the story to realize how ambitious a project Invisible Republic is. That’s something you can glean just from the first issue’s cover. There’s a kineticism to the cover, it’s more than a single image, it’s a vast story. Thousands of spaceships explode from a planet’s surface, and in the top left hand corner, a brutal man, hunched over and ready to strike, stands beneath a sky filled with those same ships.
But that’s the impact of the cover, not its actual detail. It’s probably only a half dozen spaceships that jet off from the planet’s surface. But the three-dimensional expansiveness of the vista leads you to multiply that number in your mind by thousands. Look carefully at the design of the spaceships. They’re not the peaceful space-faring terrariums housing entire biospheres in serene poly-glass metamaterial spheres that fit in with the grand voyager science fiction we've seen in the wake of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. These are sleek, swift, space-faring warships. They’re the scifi equivalent of Viking longships, and no starlight can penetrate their hulls. These are exactly the kinds of ships that show up on the horizon, only to have scores of warriors emerge from their guts and pillage and decimate entire civilizations.
Look carefully at the man hunched over on the cover, and the he part the protects, or is it part the way conceals? There’s an inner anger motivating him, no doubt, Hardman’s thick line work demonstrates how very much of this story will be motivated by an anger without end.
Spend enough time with the cover, and you will, there’s not only expansiveness of storyline, but depth of detail in each image, and you begin to animate it. This isn’t a cover in the ordinary sense of things. This isn’t a single image meant to grab you and lure you in. These are multiple images, and spread out over the compacted space of a single comicbook cover, these separate images begin to take on, collectively, the impact of the opening credits of a TV show.
Spend enough time with Croger Babb in present-day Avalon where the Malory Regime is being dismantled as much by the formerly oppressed as by the current victors, and you’ll get a visceral sense of the despair of the day. Linger on the pages during the flashback, where Arthur McBride and Maia Reveron first land on Avalon, on that rocky beach where living is near impossible, and you’ll hunch in terror when you see a bright, sunshiny tale about two hipsters making their kooky way in a harsh world (think Two Broke Girls) unexpectedly but also seamlessly transition into the inner human horror of Lord of the Flies.
Invisible Republic is a big story, no doubt about that. Think in terms of smashing together something with the seedy, neon, gritty elegance of something like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner with something with the terse weight and drama of a political thriller like Alan Parker’s All the President’s Men. And if you can hold the panorama of those two very different kind of cinematic achievements in your mind, then you’ll get to grips with the ambitious scope of Invisible Republic, and you’ll realize, it’s only a matter of time before you make the leap to Shakespeare.
Like the infinite reaches of space Invisible Republic convinces us it’s actually set against Shakespeare’s body of work. It seems endless, and easily enough encompasses every possible configuration of human emotion and human psychology. But that’s the art and the hoy of Shakespeare, and it’s easily also the art of Invisible Republic; that both seem larger than they actually are. So you’d expect to find something in Shakespeare that would overlap with the ambitious scope of Invisible Republic. Particularly since Invisible Republic walks an almost traditional path for a Shakespearean drama—the rise, fall and comeuppance of a Strong Man of history. When you’re thinking about Arthur McBride, think about Macbeth, Richard III, even a “nice guy” Shakespearean protagonist like Henry the V. They’re all men whose ambition is played out by hundreds of loyal followers, on stages as big as the entire world.
As you’d expect there’s something to be found in Shakespeare, something eerily prescient of Invisible Republic, and yet, something that, and this is the eerie part, references the invisible. Two quotes, one from Hamlet and a second from The Tempest. “Witness this army of such mass and charge / Led by a delicate and tender prince / Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d," Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, a Prince of Denmark, “Makes mouths at the invisible event / Exposing what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death, and danger dare / Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake."
It’s from Act IV, scene iv. Hamlet’s just on his way to England, he’s just murdered, by accident no less, Claudius’s chief of staff, Polonius. This is the very last thing Hamlet will see before he leaves Denmark, and what he doesn’t know? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his wolf-in-sheep’s-clothes friends who’re conducting him to the ship bound for England, are empowered by the King to execute Hamlet. It’s dark times for Hamlet, but all he can think of is how a chance encounter with the armies of Fortinbras, heir apparent to the Throne of Norway, and it’s commander-in-chief, reflect on Hamlet’s on indecision to kill Claudius.
He’s a runt of a man, and yet he leads armies, Hamlet observes of Fortinbras. And he leads an army of thousands to their death, to fight over a meaningless piece of land that no one, not even its current occupiers of Poland, want. All leading Hamlet to one of the most poetic framings of the idiocy and barbarism of war logic. “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake." If you’re really a great man, to transpose Shakespeare, you don’t move only when there’s a noble and great cause moving you, you make a move for a slight as a piece of straw in the breeze, when your honor’s touched. Keep that in mind and thing of the angry drunk beating up the wind in the parking lot outside the neighborhood watering hole. Or when you think of any little warlord from Medellin to East Africa. Or when you think of Arthur McBride in that moment he transitions from the kooky hipster charm of a setting that mirrors a show like Two Broke Girls, to the horror of a story like Lord of the Flies.
He’s a runt of a man, Hamlet observes, but he “makes mouths at the invisible event”, or taunts death, we might say. This is the outer story of Invisible Republic, of an army marching outwards, under the flags of a dictator, proclaiming a false and cheap greatness as if it were the most rare stuff in the cosmos. It’s the story of Arthur McBride wresting control of an already war-torn moon, and remaking it into the basis of an intergalactic empire.
“Go make thyself like a nymph o' th' sea; be subject / To no sight but thine and mine, invisible,” Shakespeare writes for Prospero, instructing the fae Ariel in The Tempest, Act I, scene ii, “To every eyeball else. Go take this shape / And hither come in 't. Go, hence with diligence!”
It’s far more insidious than the Hamlet invisible quote. Prospero is far more insidious than the meditative Hamlet. This quote comes at the point where Ariel, the faerie spirit in Prospero’s service, exits the scene to go spy on the wrecked ship whose sailors might make landfall on Prospero’s island. “Make yourself invisible, disguise yourself as a sea nymph,” comes at the end of a negotiation. But read those lines Prospero speaks to Ariel, and it’s hard not to trace out the psychological manipulations of an abusive spouse. “You’re nothing without me,” Prospero says, “You were trapped and I freed you, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll trap you again.”
Shakespeare’s comedies are always far darker, psychologically, than his dramas. It’s fine to want to wrestle down the witches in the Scottish Play, but the real human evil comes up in Twelfth Night. Why? Pretty much because the comedies mirror the real world. Not at the level of content (because really, the Queen of the Faeries isn’t going to fall in love with a donkey, even if she did exist), but at the level of social relations and interaction.
It’s hard to take Shakespeare seriously as anything other than art these days, especially in America, especially after the Nixon Administration and the Watergate scandal. Hard to see Shakespeare as social commentary the way he was read centuries before. (And especially hard since literary references with “Arthur” and “Malory” point us in an entirely different direction of Mort d’Arthur). But what Hardman and Bechko are able to achieve is a re-immersion in the inner workings of Shakespeare’s Strong Man of History style of storytelling by giving us a Strong Man story that plays out with the Strong Man missing; before and after his rise to power. It’s a sublime gambit, and it creates the greatest of expectations. Expectations easily met, and already passed by the series’s debut issue.
All images from Invisible Republic #1 by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko (2015)