Invisible Republic is celebrating its first TPB release this week, collecting issues #1-5, and this is the perfect opportunity to catch up with this fascinating and intelligent science fiction comic.
While ostensibly a science fiction story, this is not one of those “robots, spaceships and lasers” books, nor is it some sort of roly-poly work of high metaphor such as ODY-C. Like some of the great “hard” science fiction, Invisible Republic is concerned with real-life and down to earth matters such as politics, moral choices and the nature of how we construct and remember history. In the course of my writing about it here on Sequart, I’ve compared it favourably with such works as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, or even non-fiction works such as Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. But this isn’t an overly “heavy” book, dealing with history in the abstract and lofty ideas. There’s still plenty of tension, action and two very appealing central characters, with a third, fascinating personality yet to emerge from the narrative. It’s everything an intelligent, discerning science fiction reader could want.
It is, despite all my genre provisos, set hundreds of years in the future, on another planet, namely “Avalon”. The wonderful thing is that Avalon is just different enough from earth (in its seafood, for example) that we accept it as a science fiction metaphor, but otherwise it’s firmly within our understanding. This isn’t gloriously poetic science fiction such as another great book, 8House: Arclight, but rather celebrates a grim reality. Things aren’t good on Avalon, and social harmony is enforced by an authoritarian police force. Lots of ordinary people, including two cousins, Arthur McBride and Maia Reveron, are forced into indentured servitude on large scale agricultural operations. When we first meet Arthur and Maia, they’re trying to escape their fate, and create a new one. Arthur himself seems much more committed to the cause, but Maia, a less worldly and more cautious type, has reservations.
We’ve all met someone like Arthur McBride. Stubborn, willful, focused and almost humourless in their pursuit of moral justice. He’s the sort who would suck the air out of a party by giving a long speech about something serious, right after your team wins the big game and you just want to drink beer. We admire these sorts, in a way, for their conviction, but they’re generally not much fun as friends. Maia admires her cousin in these early issues for having the bravery to step out of line, although she’s cautious about where this action might take them. She’s a much more sympathetic character, although as the story unfolds, her motivations and her perspective becomes more of a central question to the reliability of the entire narrative.
Maia and Arthur are catching crabs on a rocky shore when the authorities catch up with them. And it’s here, in a seemingly trivial place, at a seemingly trivial moment, that history takes a pivot. The way in which these characters come into conflict with the authorities is a wonderful example of how history does indeed often come down to random events and small actions. Later in the book, creators Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko offer insights into how still images capture history’s turning points in a similar way. The point seems to be that history relies more on characters than actions. Things turn out the way they do because of who Arthur and Maia are, rather than what they do specifically. There’s a destiny in store for both of these characters, and that destiny is driven by how they react to situations that many before, and many since, have faced. They are both swept up into some of the most important history of the era.
The story is told in two parallel timelines: one featuring Arthur and Maia, and another set 42 years later, after which the government, referred to as the “Malory Regime” has fallen, and an investigative journalist named Croger Babb is searching for the key to understanding that fallen government. The object of his search is the “Reveron Diary”, that is, Maia’s diary of the early days with Arthur. Because, as it turns out, Arthur became the absolute ruler of the planet and the leader of the Malory regime. An example of the great narrative richness of this book is that we have yet to be told who “Malory” was or how that name fits into the great scheme of things. But there’s no doubt that Arthur became a Stalin, or at least Lenin-type character, and his government has recently fallen, sending Avalon into social and economic collapse. When we see Babb in the “present day”, neither he, nor his world, seem to be doing very well, surrounded by urban decay and populated by shady characters, operating in an informational underworld not unlike the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And Babb isn’t the only one interested in Maia’s diary. It’s the battle over control of her memories that forms the main narrative arc of these first five issues.
The question that returns over and over in this first story arc is, what are the people in the “present day” really fighting over? The Malory regime has fallen – we’re told this in the preamble to every issue after #2. So, they’re not fighting to maintain or restore a government. The fight seems more about the creation of collective memory, of exposing certain elements of the past, rather than fixing and bringing social justice to the present. Babb himself is something of a disgraced journalist, who was portrayed in a very famous movie, which adds another layer of irony. There’s a disconnect between the real, struggling journalist, barely hanging on to his life and his career, and his public image. This allows the metaphor of history to play out on a number of levels, as the real conflict here is over memory and history. Who gets to tell the story? And what story will they tell? Rarely has a comic, or any other kind of book, dealt so centrally with the act of storytelling itself.
Eventually, the story comes down to the character of Maia Reveron. We get hints of her importance in the “present day” timeline (there’s a place called “Reveron Square”, for example, in the big city) but as we see her in the flashbacks, illustrated episodes from her diary, she comes across as a rather innocent soul straight off the farm, trying to make her way in the big world. Her famous and powerful cousin is seen only through her eyes, which again raises questions about the nature of history and the reliability of certain narrators. By the end of the arc, however, our curiosity is amped up significantly for the next arc, bringing up very intriguing and important issues that I wouldn’t dare spoil here.
The art, by Gabriel Hardman with colours by Jordan Boyd, serves the purposes of this book perfectly. Mostly leaning towards realism, which is what this sort of story needs, Hardman and Boyd deftly differentiate between the two timelines with the use of colour and subtle design differences. Babb himself is only beginning to emerge as a character, but the way he’s drawn – feral, frightened and the quintessential “writer type”- tells us all we need to know about his place in the world. The sequences set in the past are often wonderfully drawn, and Arthur’s stooped intensity contrasts wonderfully with the (it must be said) beautiful Maia, with her flowing red hair and open face. Humanity seems to surround her, and as much as someone’s aura can be captured in a comics illustration, she embodies all the warmth, and all the fear, one could possibly imagine. She’s an extremely sympathetic character, which of course makes sense, given that we see the past through her eyes, and her eyes only. In the next arc, we may see her in a different light, but this is still a great example of the power of comics to conflate image and text to create subtle shades of meaning.
There’s never been a better time than this week to catch up with Invisible Republic, and be drawn into its thoughtful and tantalizing orbit. Fans of hard science fiction and great comics storytelling will not be disappointed.