Recent Dorkiness

Like a Bolt Out of the Blue: Thirty Years and a Thousand Imitators Later, Miracleman Still Works

Miracleman 1, by Alan Moore and Garry Leach Miracleman I wasn't going to discuss Marvel's re-release of this series. I bought and read it back in the 80s (because I am old), and much as I think Marvel did a good thing using their corporate might to help iron out the copyrights and see to it that the right people got paid for their work... They're price gouging on these reprints. I know they've got to recoup the legal fees, but damn. Six bucks for issue one? That's more than six times what I paid for the first Eclipse issue, and with six fewer pages of the story, to boot. I realize that was almost 30 years ago, but holy crap. That's highway robbery! If they'd charged four, I'd have bought it happily (and I don't happily pay four bucks for very many comics). If I'd never read it before, I'd have gritted my teeth and paid up. But I have read it, and can read it again whenever I want. So at six dollars, I decided to give it a miss. The price dropped to five bucks for the second issue, and I wasn't gonna pay that, either, but... The bastards went and included a story that's never been reprinted before. It's not that I'm a completist, understand. If I miss a little side story to some series I'm following, I'm cool with it. But... This is Miracleman. THE revisionist super hero comic. These days, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns tend to get that label, and not undeservedly so. But those books are novels first and foremost, stand-alone books designed to make statements about the super hero genre. Miracleman is a different animal. It provided a blueprint for revisionist super heroes within the bounds of the on-going serialized spandex adventure strip, a blueprint that's been copied with varying degrees of success ever since. But I'm getting ahead of myself. If you're not familiar with the convoluted history of Miracleman / Marvelman, you can get a good run-down from The Source of All Knowledge, or incredibly long (but also incredibly interesting) coverage of same with “Poisoned Chalice,” a deeply researched history of the character and its controversies by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, serialized at the Beat. For our purposes here, though, all you need to know is that Marvelman was a Captain Marvel clone created to replace that strip in Britain when Fawcett Comics went out of business. Alan Moore and Garry Leach did a revisionist revival of the character in 1982, the first of what would eventually be many “real-world super hero” comics. When that strip came to America in 1985, the book's American publisher (Eclipse) changed the name to Miracleman in order to avoid any possible legal battles with industry giant Marvel Comics. Eclipse eventually folded, and the legal morass of its collapse took Miracleman out of print, where it's remained for something on the order of a quarter-century. But now Marvel, after many complicated legal maneuvers, has bought the character and come to an agreement to reprint the Alan Moore stories (which are still owned by he and the artists). If you want to understand why Moore has asked to have his name taken off the reprints, and why Marvel's crediting him as “The Original Writer,” you'll have to hit one of the links above. It's time to get on with the review.

So. As I said, these are incredibly good, incredibly influential funnybooks whose revisionist concepts have been copied again and again. But back in 1982, nobody had seen this sort of thing before. So this strip hit (no joke intended) like a bolt out of the blue. It opens with a brief scene involving the villains of the first chapter, a group of arms dealers preparing to steal some plutonium to sell on the black market, one of whom is a naïve revolutionary, an idealist who thought they’d be arming “the people” instead of dealing in nukes.

It’s just a little humanizing moment, but it demonstrates that Moore’s playing a slightly different game than we’re used to. The dialogue is very natural, lacking the heightened melodrama you usually got (and still get) in super hero comics. And it establishes a very grounded world of political nuance, where even nuclear terrorists can be painted in shades of gray. So when the all-too-human thieves come face-to-face with the genuinely superhuman later, you can’t help but feel a little bit bad for them.

That interaction of the real and the uncanny is Moore’s crowning achievement in the earliest chapters of Miracleman. He creates an utterly grounded, realistic world, populated by average-looking folks like Mike Moran (Our Hero), who has a mundane reporting job and who’s approaching middle age in a happy marriage that nevertheless has lingering issues (Mike’s old-fashioned enough to be bothered by the fact that he earns less than his wife, but he doesn’t like to talk about it). Things aren’t great, and you get the sense that Mike’s not terribly satisfied with his life, but no moreso than many men looking down the barrel of 40.

Except that Mike has dreams. Dreams of flying, and of fire. Dreams of death and a magic word that he can never… quite… remember…

Leach Miracleman 1 Kimota

Until he does. Then shit gets crazy.

I’m tempted to go off on a discussion of Miracleman as Mike Moran’s mid-life crisis (and I might yet as the series continues), but there’s not enough in this first issue to support that. Still. It’s there. Dreams of flying fulfilled, beautiful youthful body, glam rock super powers… Beats the hell out of a sports car.

But instead, I guess I’ll keep talking about that “real world meets the uncanny” thing. It permeates the early chapters, right down to the physical appearance of the title hero. Miracleman is always, without fail, presented as something other than human. That full-body halo is the first clue, putting him as it does in the other-worldly category of angels and faeries.

(Insert sparkly vampire joke here. Then shut up.)

It doesn’t stop with that, though. He has the slender, graceful build of a dancer rather than a body builder. Garry Leach doesn’t always capture that in the first chapter; his second splash drawing of the character is a bit thick-necked, in fact:

Leach Miracleman 1 Flight

But the slender build becomes more pronounced as the series moves along, and it serves as quite the disconnect from the character’s tremendous strength. It’s also quite a departure from the husky Captain Marvel, who traditionally was even bigger and beefier than the already-beefy Superman. The reason for Miracleman’s comparatively skinny physique can be found rooted in the series’ science fiction (rather than super-heroic) approach: Miracleman’s strength is due to energy manipulation rather than sheer muscle. Sheer muscle, in fact, couldn’t begin to explain the ridiculous shit he can do.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, it simply adds to the character’s otherness in the face of the very real world he lives in, and the very fragile human beings he faces. In the first chapter’s one bit of hysterical melodrama, we see what happens when an average guy with a gun meets a bullet-proof man:

Leach Miracleman 1 Bulletproof

“PIGS GET BARBECUED!!!” Heh. Way to turn that revolutionary slang into unintentionally funny spandex dialogue, Mr. Moore. That’s early 70s Denny O’Neil level stuff, right there. What can I say, folks? Even the Funnybook Shakespeare ain’t perfect.

In the wake of that line, in fact, the really interesting thing about this scene is hard to take seriously, as well. Because check out the gunman’s reaction to the bullets bouncing off Miracleman’s hide: he loses his mind like he’s just seen HP Lovecraft naked. It’s pretty over-wrought stuff, but it’s one of those over-the-top moments that, in reflection, I can totally buy.

Put yourself in his place, after all. You’re living in the real world. There are NOT bullet-proof men. You’re in a stressful situation that you’re already a little unsure of (the gunman is Trevor the anarcho-hippy from page one). You’ve just heard INDOOR LIGHTNING, and gone to investigate. You walk out to find your mate Steve ON FIRE, and a weird-looking Aryan übermensch in blue spandex standing ground zero in a HUGE INEXPLICABLE SCORCH MARK on the floor. You try to convince yourself that he’s just a government thug, but something about that doesn’t sound right even as it’s coming out of your mouth. So you yell something stupid, and when the bullets start BOUNCING OFF HIS FACE…

Well, I think I’d lose MY shit pretty bad, too.

And there’s the trick. Miracleman attempts to return the awe and wonder to the super hero concept by showing us what it might be like if one these guys actually showed up in the world we live in. But it’s not a gee-whiz-isn’t-that-great sort of awe and wonder so much as it is a WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON sort of awe and wonder. Miracleman is called a god more than once in Moore’s narration, and that’s how he’s writing him.

(An aside: Moore’s prose is a serious shade of dark purple here. It’s a technique he outgrew pretty quickly, but in the early Miracleman, he’s channeling Don McGregor far more than he’s channeling Denny O’Neil. I loved it as a college freshman, and some of it still works now. But not all. For me, this only adds to the charm of reading these books in 2014. Miracleman is a chance to watch comics’ greatest writer grow. And, of course, it’s still better than the mast majority of spandex comics out there, so…)

The terrifying god-like qualities of Miracleman are even brought home with his wife, Liz. After dealing with the nuke thieves and flying around a bit, he returns home and tells Liz all about his past and the amazing adventures he had back in the 50s. Her reaction? Laughter.

Leach Miracleman 1 Laughing

But that doesn’t last long. He scares her in that scene, just a little. As he’d have to. Faced with a being that powerful, even if he’s your husband of sixteen years, anyone would be scared. That fear is a theme we’ll return to again and again through these early issues, and it seems so funny once you get to know the character. Miracleman is a being of simple goodness, even moreso than Mike Moran (and I think Mike’s a better guy than most). His morality was formed in simple stories for children, and he remains true to that, more than anyone around him. He can be made angry, yes, but he means no more harm than… Well, than Captain Marvel himself.

Captain Marvel 19

And that’s just about it for issue one. We’ll cover issue two next week, and finally get to that previously unreprinted story that made me buy one of the Marvel issues in the first place. In the meantime, though, I did want to say a few words about the new printings vs the old ones. Much as I bitch about the price, Marvel really is doing a stellar job with these things. They’re providing background text pieces and reproductions of the original art, as well as running Golden Age Marvelman strips for historical context. And to be fair, it’s the extra pages these stories take up that are pushing the prices so high. The Marvel Miracleman 2, for instance, is 43 pages with no ads, and that’s not bad for five bucks.

Granted, the Golden Age Marvelman stories frankly aren’t very good, and I’d rather pay less for just the Alan Moore stuff. A cynical man might argue that this is the only way Marvel’s going to make any money at all on the Golden Age material they’ve purchased, so they’re cashing in while they can. And that cynical man might very well have a point. But in the interest of fairness… Marvel doesn’t often do anything to present comics in historical context, so this is kind of a nice package from that perspective.

They’re also doing very nice work on the reprints themselves, especially on the color work. These strips were originally printed in black and white. Eclipse added color for their American reprints, and those colors weren’t bad for the era. But Marvel’s having Steve Oliff go in and re-color the whole thing using modern techniques, and it’s beautiful work. I’ve posted art from both the Eclipse and Marvel versions above, but here’s a look at the difference side-by-side:

Miracleman Eclipse vs Marvel

click to embiggen

The decaying Eclipse newsprint robs the left-hand page of some of its vibrancy, but still. Oliff is doing stellar work here. He’s using a restrained palette that goes well with the realism of Leach’s art. He’s also not overdoing it on the gradients, or making any of it look too slick and shiny (a fault in so much modern comics coloring – if I see one more funnybook boob with a plastic sheen, I’ll scream).

If I have any complaints at all about the Marvel Miracleman 1 (apart from the price), it’s the Joe Quesada cover. They also released a variant, with the Garry Leach artwork from the first Eclipse issue that opens this post, and that’s much better. But Quesada’s… Sigh. I hate to dump on the guy, because he’s taken so much unfair shit in his tenure at Marvel. I generally like his artwork, and it’s not that his cover isn’t well-drawn. I just don’t think he gets the series at all. Here. To demonstrate what I’m talking about, let me show you the two Miracleman covers Quesada’s done, side-by-side. The one on the left is from the Marvelman Primer (which reprints Golden Age stories), and the other is his cover for Miracleman 1:

Quesada Marvelman Miracleman

So on the left, we’ve got friendly old Marvelman in his friendly old stories. And on the right, we’ve got menacing modern Miracleman in his menacing modern stories. But that’s not how this book works at all. It IS how this book’s many ham-fisted imitators work, though. In fact, it’s how about 90% of mainstream comics has worked for the quarter-century this book’s been out of print. Which, yes, means that I think Alan Moore’s right: 90% of mainstream comics is still doing a bad imitation of a book he wrote in 1982. And seeing this book wrapped in that aesthetic… kind of makes me sad.

I don’t want to end this review on a low note, though. Miracleman is one of the best super hero comics ever written, and, despite some flaws, it still holds up. This is well-worth a read and… much as it pains me to say so… well-worth the money if you don’t already have it.

Grade: A

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About Mark Brett (400 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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