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Eerie, Phosphorescent Grace: Another Look Back at Miracleman

Miracleman 2, by Alan Moore and Garry Leach Davis Miracleman 2 And we're back, with the retro review that's not a retro review: the 30-year-old-but-recently-reprinted Miracleman. We looked at issue one last week, and now we're moving on to the second. One difference between this run and the first American printing is where the story breaks fall. That doesn't matter, for the most part; the strip was originally published in short weekly installments, so as long as you're breaking at the end of one of those original chapters, you're hardly violating story flow. I bring it up only because this was one of the reasons I initially hesitated to buy the current reprints: the new Marvel issue one reprints one less chapter than the Eclipse issue one did, and costs a lot more. In retrospect, though, I think Marvel may have broken the story at a smarter place. The new first issue covers Miracleman's return, introduces his private life, and establishes his forgotten spandex past (albeit as an inherently silly memory that couldn't possibly have happened). It establishes the series' themes of godhood, as well, showing in no uncertain terms that meeting an actual super human would be a terrifying experience, even for those who love him. And it ends with the introduction of a shadowy figure who's not at all happy to find out that Miracleman is back. That's as solid a first-issue plot structure as you could hope for. It's almost cookie-cutter, in fact, and was almost as much so in 1982 as it is in 2014. I couldn't tell you who did it first (Roy Thomas, maybe? Jack Kirby?). But it works, and it shows that Alan Moore was beholden to what had come before him even as he was inventing new approaches. Another benefit of breaking the story at that point is that it allows issue two to open with a quieter moment, and build. It also highlights a nice bit of parallelism that I've never noticed before, and probably wouldn't have if they hadn't broken the story this way. Here's Miracleman in bed at the beginning of issue two: Leach Miracleman 2 Wake-Up Placid, happy, untroubled. Compare that to Mike when he woke up in the same bed just 24 hours earlier: Leach Miracleman 1 Wake Up Heh. Clearly, this is a man who's had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders. Or, at least, been given shoulders that can bear that weight more easily. They both sleep on their stomachs, too, a nice touch I had also missed before. The differences between Miracleman and Mike are important, but at this point they're pretty much the same guy. It's just that one of them can accidentally splinter a hardwood floor when he gets annoyed with his wife. Speaking of which... We left Liz Moran a bit frightened of this man who is somehow her husband and also some kind of god. She evidently gets over it pretty quick, though, because in-between chapters, they (ahem) retreat to their marital bed. The older Alan Moore would have probably devoted an entire issue to what it's like to have sex with a god (in fact, he sort of did in both Swamp Thing and Promethea). But the younger Moore left the details up to the readers' imaginations and instead picked things back up the morning after:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

And here we see the other side of Miracleman's godhood. He's not just a terrifying being that's clearly something other than human. He's wonderful, too, and his strangeness is elevating. Liz has to ground herself again after sleeping with him, as if returning from heaven. Moore's narration works well here: “his eerie, phosphorescent grace” is a great turn of phrase that conveys everything positive and negative about him. (I must say, though, that Liz Moran must have some kind of super powers of her own, if she's 36 and looks that good nekkid. Her breasts, at the very least, can obviously defy gravity...)

The phone call that brings Liz back down to Earth, ironically enough, is from the other surviving member of the Miracle Family: Johnny Bates, formerly known as Kid Miracleman. I wrote about Bates fairly extensively in my 25 Greatest Super-Bastards list, but this re-reading has given me a new appreciation for him, for one reason: his simplicity.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Ignore the narrative flourishes about the storm and the tiger. They don’t work that well, anyway, so ignore them, and just pay attention to what Mike’s saying. Basically, at least in this first appearance, Johnny Bates is evil… because he’s evil. There’s no troubled childhood here, or special trauma, or any other excuse for his bad behaviour. He’s a pure and simple, clear-cut example of the corrupting nature of power. And that’s it. He kills people because he can, and (as he tells us in a page or three) because he enjoys it.

That’s just so… refreshing. Even in 1982, we’d seen villains with complicated back stories and conflicted morality, villains with at least a little bit of depth. Chris Claremont, for example, had begun his fleshing-out of Magneto by that point, depicting him as a holocaust survivor who would use any means necessary to prevent the same thing from happening again. But with Kid Miracleman, Moore’s saying, “No. No, he’s just evil because, in reality, a 16-year-old kid with that kind of power and no adult supervision couldn’t help but turn bad.”

Questions arise from this characterization, of course. Why did he wait until Miracleman returned to go on a public rampage, and why does he think he can get away with it now? Moore doesn’t say, but I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out from context. I’ve said this before (see the above link), but it probably has a lot to do with almost having been killed by a nuke. If that’s what the powers that be did to him for helping people, lord knows what they’d do if he actually starting tearing shit up.

And I don’t think it’s so much that he thinks he can get away with it now, either. He tries to keep it on the down-low when he meets with the Morans, telling them he lost his powers. And then, after Mike figures out he’s lying…

Leach Miracleman 2 Mind

…he tries mind control! Because, yes, Kid Miracleman can CLOUD THE MINDS OF MORTAL MEN! This brings up a problem for Our Hero. Because, while Miracleman was the senior partner back in the Fifties, Bates now has 20 years under his belt, and he’s figured out all kinds of insane crap. It even shows in his “hero halo”:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Whereas Miracleman is all “eerie phosphorescent grace,” Bates is a full-on lightning-fueled nightmare! That’s an iconic image, one of the best in the series, and it got even better to me when I scanned it in and saw it all huge on my computer screen. I mean, here. Check out this close-up of Bates’ face in that panel (and click to embiggen that sucker, ’cause it’s MASSIVE):

Leach Miracleman 2 Bates Close

DUDE. Just the sheer malevolence Leach has managed to capture in that expression. And the raw, coruscating lines of the Bates-lighting! Guh! I’m in awe.

I’m also mightily impressed with colorist Steve Oliff’s work here. The lights in Bates’ eyes are a nice touch, as is that shade of red. Some of the effects work better at printed size, of course; the texture he’s laid in around the outline of Bates’ body looks more like graphite shading, and the patterns on his face smear into a nice deep nuanced shade of red.

Oliff’s caught some flack from other reviewers for all those textures, but I kinda like them. At printed size, they add to the grounded reality of Leach’s art. And blown up as they are above, they look like the old four-color printing process. In places, in fact, they look like pop art:

click to embiggen for full effect

click to embiggen for full Lichtenstein

At full size there, I notice something else I hadn’t paid much attention to before: I really dig the lettering. It’s got a flow and a shape to it, and I like how the lines are angled, as if they were done with a brush. Of course, having been done in 1982, they very well might have been. There’s a uniformity to the shape of the letters that tells me it wasn’t, though. For all I know, Marvel may have relettered the whole thing. In fact, looking back to my Eclipse copies, I think they did. The original lettering has a similar feel, but it’s not as consistent. It’s just a guess, but I think they might have actually created a font based on the old lettering. Huh. At the very least, they corrected the clumsy “Miracleman” paste-ins from the Eclipse printing, which is much-appreciated.

ANYway… We were talking about theme and stuff, weren’t we? Right. So if Miracleman is the good god, the benevolent-but-still-slightly-scary creature beyond human ken, Bates is his opposite number, the evil god, the I’m-not-fucking-kidding pants-wettingly terrifying monster. Or dragon, as Moore would have it at the beginning of the next chapter:

embiggening is to be had!

embiggening is to be had!

Heh. I’ve always loved that logo, but holy crap. It’s the kind of strange, idiosyncratic thing that really marks Miracleman as the just barely more than underground work it was on its original publication. It’s insanely funky, though, so I can’t help but love it. It helps sell the narration for me, at least, which is this incredibly heavy-handed crap that tries to pretty up the “previously in Miracleman” exposition by casting it in mythological terms.

You can see Moore feeling his way through the funnybook writing process here, and growing at a frankly incredible rate. On page one, he’s slogging through this crappy exposition, belaboring it across many panels, and muddying the flow of the writing by overlapping complicated narration with unconnected dialogue. But by page five, he side-steps that problem by switching it up and having the narration serve as a sort of call-and-response to the dialogue. That can also be clumsy, of course, and in this case it kind of is. It shows an awareness that something isn’t working, though, and a very quick course correction on material that, with its weekly release schedule, had to have been written fast.

In the midst of all that, though, there’s still a nice moment. Liz Moran has just seen her husband push his oldest friend off a balcony. She’s then confronted with an impossibility, and she asks the question any reasonable person would in a world where people don’t fly:

Leach Miracleman 2 Not Falling

That’s great stuff, the sort of wonder-building details we don’t get often enough in super hero fiction. These are amazing beings doing impossible things, and we need to be reminded of that every once in a while. That’s something Moore understood even at this early stage in his career, and even on a book whose stated mission was to make these characters “more real.” That dichotomy has fueled all of Moore’s genre writing, I think. Even his most sordid stuff still has a sense of wonder about it, and it’s neat to see that going all the way back to this book.

Of course, the nastiness is the other side of Miracleman‘s appeal. We see this a couple of pages later when Bates, just out of sheer spite, picks up a kid and throws him at a brick wall. Miracleman zooms in the for the rescue, of course, but the boy’s mother is not entirely thankful.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

For whatever reason, that scene has always stuck with me. Our Hero saves the innocent, but is still seen as a monster. That’s the lesson Bates learned from the bomb, I suppose, and at this point in the story it’s an open question as to whether Miracleman will deal with it any better in the long run. You suspect he will, of course. He’s the hero. But that queasy sense of doubt lingers over the book in a way it never did when the same sort of thing happened to Spider-Man. Again, we see Moore playing with familiar ideas but turning them in new directions.

That said, it’s also kind of funny just how old-school funnybooks Miracleman feels, reading it now. The thought balloons alone are jarring in 2014, not to mention how they’re used on that page above. Do we really need to be told that the kid is “heading towards that wall!” while Our Hero is zooming in for the save? It’s pretty clear in the artwork. And while the action is a bit muddier in the bottom tier of panels, is it really necessary to have Miracleman tell us that Bates has knocked him into the sky? It’s pretty obvious. That’s how funnybooks were written in 1982, though: writers routinely over-wrote to spackle over potential flaws in the art, whether they needed to or not. And though he swiftly starts to innovate on that front, too, in these early days we still see Moore working in that style.

Oh, and the sound effects!

THRAAAK

People still use sound effects, of course. Not saying that. But the ones here seem particularly meaty to me, so I just wanted to express my appreciation.

Anyway. The fight doesn’t end well for Miracleman, and the chapter closes with Bates triumphant. It’s quite a cliffhanger, but we don’t get the next chapter in this issue. No, instead Marvel has chosen to reprint a story that hasn’t seen the light of day since it originally appeared in Warrior in 1982. It’s the reason I bought this issue, but…

It probably should have stayed in the dark.

I can’t find reference to back me up now, but I seem to remember reading an interview with Moore in which he talked about this chapter, and why they chose not to include it in the Eclipse reprints. In brief, he just didn’t think it was very good (and he was correct). Also, it was sort of a fill-in story, tossed together quickly when a deadline couldn’t be met. It’s interesting, I suppose, as an historical document. It does have early artwork from Steve Dillon and Paul Neary, and it’s also the first time Alan Davis would draw the strip. So there’s that.

But holy crap it is not good. It involves time travel, and Miracleman fighting himself in the past for reasons that make no damn sense at all. The narration is even more belabored than in the main series, and the whole thing frankly feels like a first draft (due, I’m assuming, to it having been rushed out to meet a deadline). It does foreshadow the third act of Moore’s run on the book in a pretty major way, and it’s kind of impressive that he had planned that far ahead (or was at least able to make it all work later). But it’s too heavy-handed about it, and just flat-out doesn’t work.

So it’s nice for completists to have, I suppose. And at least now I know what the “missing chapter” was like. Also, if they hadn’t trotted it out for this edition, I might not have gained the appreciation I have for the nice restoration work they’re doing. So I suppose I can’t complain too much. It does bring this issue down a bit, though…

Grade: B+

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About Mark Brett (432 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/.

4 Comments on Eerie, Phosphorescent Grace: Another Look Back at Miracleman

  1. I’d never read Miracleman (I sidled away from comics in the late 70s and thought that most of the industry had lost its verve – apart from odd bits of phosphorescence); but I like your analysis and eye for detail (really! the lettering!) which tips me to thinking that there was still art and craft in the books which I had not appreciated. Nice.

    Like

    • Thanks! And, yeah. The Eighties produced a lot of very good comics, both in the mainstream and out. As with any decade, you’ve got to pick through the garbage to find the diamonds, of course. But there’s good stuff to be had, if you look.

      And, yeah. I know most people think of the lettering as invisible. I often do, myself. But I do love a good lettering job, even if I only notice it when my scanner’s blown it up far beyond what I could see with the naked eye…

      Like

  2. Matthew McKinnon // February 13, 2014 at 7:08 am // Reply

    Marvelman (as it was) was originally published in short monthly instalments, not weekly.

    Like

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