One of the eternal questions debated on many a playground is if you could pick one superpower, which one would it be and why? Odds are that a lot of the responses are going to be the old standards of flying, running fast, or becoming invisible.
The becoming invisible portion is the basis for one of the building blocks of the science-fiction genre in H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Odds are that even if you haven’t read it, you’re aware of the basic outline of the story thanks to multiple pop-culture retellings or uses of the character over the years.
For this year’s Vintage SciFi Month, I decided that I’d take a look at the foundational novel in the genre and see if it holds up.
Since it was included as part of my Audible subscription, I decided to take advantage of it and began listening. And immediately found myself not really looking forward to going back to it. The story of a scientist who invents a serum that allows him to become invisible and then becomes a raging ball of id just never quite connected with me this time around. Doing a bit of research, I found that Wells initially serialized the story, which then put into the Doctor Who frame of mind of figuring out where the cliffhangers all were. And maybe the story would have worked better unfolding in weekly or monthly installments. But I’m honestly not so sure.
A large chunk of the first quarter is centered around a mysterious stranger who shows up in a small village and basically takes over an inn. Back to Doctor Who, it reminds me of Dalek stories from the classic series in which the word “Dalek” is part of the titles but they don’t show up until the cliffhanger ending of part one. It’s not a huge reveal or surprise if the villain is mentioned right there in the title. The first quarter of the book is spent waiting for the rest of the cast to figure out that the title character is, indeed, invisible. (It does make me wonder if this was originally serialized similarly to the infamous “The Night Gwen Stacey Died” issue of The Amazing Spider-Man with the title appearing on the last panel to not give away the big reveal.
Once the Invisible Man is outed, you’d think things would pick up. But, it never really does. We finally hear the name of our titular focus (Griffin) and we get the backstory on how he became invisible. And then, Griffin decides that because he’s invisible, the laws of society don’t apply to him and we’ll go on a reign of terror. Seems he’s been thrown out of a department store of the time for staying overnight and stealing their clothes. And he just can’t quite seem to stop stealing from people or terrorizing everyone.
Look, I get it that he has to run around naked in order to be fully invisible and that it’s winter. But, you know, that’s a bit of a lack of planning on his part or not fully thinking through his plan. I get the feeling that Griffin wasn’t exactly a real winner even before he became invisible and allowed his id to run free. Flashbacks and running into an old colleague reveal that, perhaps, he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a persecution complex long before the serum rendered him invisible.
I kept expecting Wells to try and make us feel something for Griffin as a bit of a tragic figure with the desperate search for a serum to reverse his condition. But, again, he goes on a reign of terror, which kind of drains a lot of the potential sympathy for the character.
It was while reading/listening to The Invisible Man, that I stumbled across a graphic novel adaptation of the story in my local library. So, I decided to give that a try to see just if and how it might hold up or compare to the original text.
In some ways, it reminded me of the Power Records of my youth. For those of you not old enough to recall, Power Records took pop-culture stories and transformed them into read-along records complete with a comic book (in some cases). There’s a whole other blog post simmering in my mind about the differences between the ones created for Marvel and DC characters…..but that’s another post for another time.
In many ways, the graphic novel The Invisible Man made me feel like how the story would be adapted as a comic book by middle school boys. Because, most middle school boys if you asked them what’s the one thing they’d do if they became invisible was, odds are it would be sneaking into the girls’ locker room. The graphic novel includes a bit of gratuitous nudity because, of course, the maid at the inn sleeps sans clothing (in the dead of winter mind you) and leaves her door unlocked so Griffin can sneak in and ogle her while sleeping.
Yes, it’s one panel but it really underscores what a terrible person Griffin is, to begin with.
So, while I can see how Wells helped create the SF genre, I can’t help but feel like he’s been eclipsed a bit by those who built upon that foundation. Wells does attempt to come up with a scientific explanation for Griffin’s serum and how it works, but it’s more along the lines of why Gene Roddenberry invented the transporter (ease of telling the story) than because it could someday become a reality. And yet, the story of The Invisible Man is a pervasive one — it even got a really good movie based on the concept last year. It’s one that is part of the very fabric of literature and pop-culture – -and not just the SF genre, I’d argue.
But I can’t say that the original story is necessarily much to write home about. It’s worth a visit, but I can’t help but think that others have done more with the concept than Wells did here.