I’m smoking a cigarette, looking out my back window at a large tree. It has a sturdy trunk and many limbs, each with their own spindly branches sprouting from it. Most of these branches terminate in leaves, some in berries. Others are withered, at the end of their lives, not hardy enough for winter. Pigeons, a robin, and what looks like a blue tit are fluttering around, feeding. Maybe on the fruits of the tree itself, but more likely on the tiny insect life sustained by that fruit. A relatively small, three-dimensional ecosystem, existing in a seemingly invisible dimension of time. Invisible except by the effects of living in that dimension. Leaves fall, wings flap – things happen.
And I sit, smoking, watching it unfold like a massive demigod, high above it all.
What separates me from all of this is the words forming in my head, the connections I’m making, metaphors forming, projecting myself forward in time by beginning to write this article in my head. Imagining.
In short, imagination is the fifth dimension.
This isn’t a new conceit, but one that’s been discussed many times before, but what we’re discussing here is Bat-mite – an absurd 2-dimensional creation “living” in a 3-dimensional space and representing a 5-dimensional being – and, more specifically, from the words given to him by the writer Grant Morrison. That quote – “Imagination is the 5th dimension” – serves to sum up one of the central concerns of his entire career. What is the fifth dimension, and why is it important?
As a psychonaut and magician, Morrison is on a journey to understand the world around him and his place in it in a better way. He’s spent much of his life being influenced by the art of people around him and synthesising that – reading, writing, drawing, thinking. He practises magic – the art and science of causing changes in reality according to Will – an important subject I’ll return to. And he’s experienced psychedelic visions by experimenting with drugs, gaining information from the place of no objects that exists in the interior world of the mind. These elements come together as they have for countless other explorers to form an unshakeable realisation that the world is bigger, more complex than we perceive it to be with ordinary vision.
At the root, a recognition that if, perhaps, linear time and entropy isn’t as straightforward as it seems then maybe we can be freed from the seemingly unstoppable and uni-directional onslaught of fate. Maybe we can move more easily in the dimensional manifold we find ourselves growing in, and better enact free will.
Back to the tree.
Its roots, trunk and branches serve as a basic but satisfying metaphor for a cosmology. Time as we perceive it is linear – we go from birth to death in one 4-dimensional direction. Yet all axes in spacetime have two directions, forwards and back. And if those four dimensions are real, what might a fifth be? Increasingly, scientists are exploring the notion of a multiversal reality – one in which the idea of linear time as we know it fords along a branching series of possibilities. If the tree is a universe, the branches are multiversal probabilities. If the tree is a person, the branches are all the probabilistic directions that flow from it – all the potential choices one can make, flowing out from a root origin or cause. For this theory to remain elegant, we can’t have an infinite number of universes stacked one on top of the other, or side by side; instead they exist together in some superposition, or folded through a dimensional manifold. Which means that at every point in spacetime, probabilities are branching off in a fifth dimension, the vertical dimension of time, also known by scientists as imaginary time. And imagining that dimension can become something of an obsession for those who encounter the notion. Morrison in particular has spent a considerable amount of time doing just that in his comic book work.
What would it be like to see the fifth dimension, or to move freely around in it? How could one affect the fourth dimension? And what is it about comics that makes it an ideal metaphor for an exploration of that in our world?
In ‘The Invisibles’, John A Dreams, an erstwhile member of King Mob’s cell, is revealed to have pulled on a crumpled timesuit and disappeared off the game board of reality. The timesuit itself is effectively a bizarre cross-section of a 5 dimensional being fallen into solid 3-D space. It looks alien and non-euclidean to our eyes, because we’ve never had the ability to step outside our own dimensional constraints. The Invisibles explains, in a manner that is complex and which requires the initiation of the preceding volumes to understand, what this timesuit is and, this being a magical or imaginative, and not scientific approach, we are given two answers.
The first, an imaginative attempt to explain a potentially literal phenomenon, is that the timesuit is a cross-section of the time caterpillar that makes up one whole human life, as viewed from a higher dimension. If one could step orthogonally “up” into five-dimensional space and look “down” at another person, one would no longer see a successive series of 3-dimensional moments flickering into movement, but instead one long, slithering beast emerging from its mother, undulating as it grows, diminishing into death. A human worm, pink and fleshy, a patchwork of clothing here and there shifting around on a 3-D plane. It’s hard to accept that notion on the first few readings of The Invisibles, let alone in a short paragraph in a blog post by one of its readers, but nonetheless, the book does initiate one into that logic – once you wrap your head around it, it feels neat.
This theme is further magnified in the book – the Roswell Incident is revealed to be a six-dimensional being, a cross-section of the entirety of five-dimensional spacetime, fallen into its own creation.
Which leads us to the second, more metaphorical vehicle for explaining the complex cosmological dimensionality Morrison espouses. This one went long-misunderstood by many readers – perhaps surprisingly given the ontological leaps required to understand the first. When John A Dreams pulls on the timesuit, he disappears because he moves a level up. The level “up”, the dimension above the narrative dimensional manifold of the comic, becomes literal, the comic becoming again a collection of 2-D planes/pages in a 3-D bulk/saddle stitched book in our dimension. John becomes the readership. This notion is explained by the term “fiction suit”. This is the time suit as seen from our perspective – the characters in The Invisibles are suits we wear in which to appreciate the fictions Morrison has created for us, and importantly, vehicles by which the writer can also enter the fiction, a larger dimensional being stepping “down” into his creation.
When John A Dreams jumps from one character to another, he’s doing nothing of the sort. The individual John A Dreams personality no longer exists. The one doing the jumping is the reader, the writer putting the John A Dreams words in other characters’ mouths. Morrison takes us to a metafictional level where he presents us with the reality that we are connected to the lower dimensions of the comic, the page as physical interface, imagination as the fuel. Once this is revealed in the book, Jack Frost, the “future Buddha” is freed from the constraints of his universe to engage us directly, as he does on the final page. This direct engagement of the audience by a character is very different from Morrison’s previous work on ‘Animal Man’ (the book where these metafictional concepts first took hold) because, whereas Animal Man has the realisation that he is trapped in a fiction, eventually begging for his freedom in a Gnostic encounter with Morrison as the Creator, Jack instead challenges the reader, telling us, not the other characters, that “our sentence is up”.
This is a reality-shattering moment – what’s going on here that a comic book character can attempt to liberate us from the prison of limited awareness we find ourselves in? That question is one that Morrison began to answer by moving out of creator-owned fiction and back into the mainstream superhero genre. Through JLA, Batman, Final Crisis, All Star Superman and finally into Multiversity and Pax Americana, Morrison has been exploring what superheroes can do for us. He’s since explained that in detail in his autobiography/history of superheroes book, ‘Supergods’, but concisely, it’s that the superhero is an idea, and one which has power to show us the best of ourselves. Tracking correlations between politics/popular culture and the various ages of the superhero, Morrison explains that not only do superhero trends follow wider ones, but that they can also be seen to influence wider society. Beyond that though, Morrison shapes a potent narrative that asks a bigger question – what is the true nature of our existence if the creation can shape the creator as easily as the reverse? That’s a complicated question, and one that’s tricky to answer based solely on his work.
We reach the point where the manifold curves back around on itself and delivers us to magic.
Morrison made much in the past about his magical exploration. Listening to him describe his Kathmandu “alien abduction” experience is well worth it for a deeper understanding of his relationship with magic. That in quotes reduction of the experience is an easy soundbite, but Morrison himself believes no such thing – while he never questions the validity of the experience, he makes no attempts to define it, or to say, this is what definitely happened. To paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, he believes in nothing, and that is a quality shared by many magicians. They access cultural, religious and spiritual technologies, whether through ritual or psychedelics, or whatever means are available – but rather than becoming defined by the trappings of this or that dogma or organisation, they use them, and shed them. The authentic experience is important to the development of the magician, as it enables him/her to evolve and, importantly, to shed the constraints of the ego-scaffolding society has so far provided them, but it’s not important to say for definite that these results come from psychology, a genuine experience of supernatural or otherworldly beings, or something as yet undiscovered, waiting in the quantum foam. Following those thoughts into belief just re-constrains the magician, and undoes the work completed up to that point. Let’s say, it’s important to remain flexible and adaptable in order to carry out true magic.
That being the case, if The Invisibles was a (relatively) direct exploration and unpacking of Morrison’s magical experiences in his youth, why has magic all but disappeared from his work as a direct narrative device? Where has it gone?
It’s my speculation that the magic in his books has become effectively re-occulted, hidden, become invisible – hiding in the gutters. Neophyte magicians don the garb of their predecessors, whether that’s the hoary robes of the crusty old Western Esoteric Tradition, or the more considered pose of the chaos magicians, or what have you – they revel in the “secret” nature of their work, and becoming part of a world effectively misunderstood by the vast majority of their fellow meat-bags and pink robots. Yet it’s worn like a badge of pride – hardly hidden, or occult. It’s a pose – and one which itself gets in the way of true magic. As Morrison himself boldly realised in comic form, in order to do true magic, one must become invisible. But in order to get there, one must also often go through a period of being overt – saying, this is me now, this is mine, and it’s separate from all the other constructs you’ve tried to provide me with before. This is burning down the school, beating up the teacher, running away from home, doing drugs, getting in with a ‘bad crowd’ of occult superspies who dick around in bondage gear and wear costumes like it’s Halloween all year round. Yet even Frosty Jack had to transcend the limitations of the context provided for him by his fellow Invisibles. He had to outgrow them, learning from King Mob’s own revelations about the nature of the real enemy, Ragged Robin’s comprehension of herself as already being a 5-dimensional being who’d inserted herself into the Invisibles story some years hence in their future, then travelled to the past to actualise that.
He had to be bigger than all of that at the end, and he drops all pretence of even being the “future Buddha”, as we see him dressed in fairly non-descript jeans and t-shirt, cradling his broken pal Gaz and helping him to cross the veil of death, before confidently, masterfully, walking towards us and delivering the true message of enlightenment. That act may as well have summed up Morrison The Writer’s relationship with magic at the time. From there he was transformed from a counter-cultural, Disinfo-storming obvious magician into something bigger. Out came the white suit, and on with the shades, transmogrifying from King Mob, with all his outmoded systems of belief, into John A’ Dreams – a fiction suit with which to engage the world.
Yet the magic didn’t disappear from his books at all – returning to the superhero genre with an unmatched fervour and imagination, channelling Kirby-era madness, shackling it to modern reality, but overcoming “Dark Age” conceits, Morrison used this beautiful idea as the vessel for his continued exploration. Looked at from the right angle, all of Morrison’s DC output is The Invisibles writ large: Superman defeats Darkseid with a song, not a punch; Batman doesn’t die, he’s scattered through time, the Outer Church become The Gentry of Multiversity, tainting the multiverse with a haunted comic.
Just because there’s capes and colours on display here, we shouldn’t think Morrison abandoned his earlier explorations by “selling out” with superheroes – he took them to a more potent genre, one already teeming with ideas, and made his DC work one long hypersigil which appears to be culminating now in Multiversity. “Seven Soldiers” is holographic, you know? Haven’t you seen it shimmer in your hands? It has more dimensions than the ones we can see. Morrison changed his own garb, slipped into the superhero costume, one influencing the other in a Moebius-strip-shaped game. And like all of the best magical literature, most of us aren’t aware of it. It’s no longer the preserve of the counter-culture, those of us who go seeking this stuff, who’re already on the path. We have The Invisibles. Those of us not on the path, though, are being slowly worked upon, our consciousness shaped and raised by degrees through contact with the virulent thought-forms at play in the world of superheroes – imagination empowers us, hope endures, we can be better.
Putting it another way, Grant Morrison has become the secret identity of another being entirely, the human face of a magician who has not only explored the furthest dimensions in his work, but also gone there, becoming multiversal and multidimensional, slipping through the gutters into the Bleed. There’s Grant Morrison, mild-mannered comic book rock star, and then there’s Grant Morrison, the work – the idea, the aspect that has worked out how to escape the constraints of the physical body, donned the timesuit and leapt up off the board, in an act of utterly visible and completely occulted magic that few saw coming. And in the best traditions of his forebears, his work acts as an instructional manual for any of us who want to follow him on that journey.
All it takes is a little imagination.