Miracleman 3, by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, and Garry Leach
In contrast to its opponent, “subtle” is not a word I’d use to describe this comic. Here we’re dealing with Young Alan Moore, a talented writer well-worth reading, but one who’s still learning his craft, and who still has some bad habits to get out of his system.
One of those habits is The Mission Statement. This is the book of an Angry Young Man, a writer who’s got a point to make and who’s going to make damn sure his readers know what it is. There’s stuff to like in it, but it’s heavy-handed, and the prose gets pretty ripely purple at times. I mean… Here. Check this page out:
Whoo! That’s pretty freakin’ metal right there. Artsy prog-metal, mind you. But metal nonetheless. It’s great fun to read, and there are some nice poetic moments in it, too. I like the “moment of crystalline silence,” especially. But, also…
Holy crap could you spell things out any more obviously? If you didn’t get the point (like, if you maybe didn’t read it), Moore’s trying to tell us here that the super-humans are so different and INTENSE that we can’t possibly understand them. Actually, scratch that. He’s not just telling us. He’s battering us about the head and neck with the idea. It’s his major theme in the series to this point, so he wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. Well, mission accomplished!
But there’s a problem with it. Alongside that, Young Moore is also trying to delve into the psychology of the supermen, to show us what it might be like to be one of them. So while he’s telling us that they’re creatures of unfathomable emotions, he’s simultaneously making their motivations pretty damn clear. Miracleman’s fighting to save his wife from a madman who’s already promised to kill her, for instance, and Bates is a power-tripping megalomaniac cutting loose after years of a demeaning masquerade as a normal human being. Hell, the very passage that tells us we can’t understand the intensity of their emotions actually does a pretty good job of explaining that intensity: no hatred, after all, burns hotter than that of a broken friendship.
Which… yeah. YEAH. That’s sharp. That some good character writing. So why’s he hitting us over the head with the other thing? Because it’s an important mindset to establish for where the story goes next, and he let himself get trapped in-between his own themes. Again, it’s his inexperience showing.
But to his credit, he moves past that almost immediately. The writing in this issue’s second chapter is better, and then he opens the third with something really interesting:
Yeah, I know. More super-poetry. But this is not only better-written poetry than that first piece, it also serves a story purpose. Because a page or two later, the human Mike Moran talks about what it’s like to go from being a 42-year-old average joe to being something beyond human ken:
And, suddenly, all that purple prose becomes not the striving of a young writer trying to say something important, but the the poetical viewpoint of a god. (Insert joke about Moore’s ego here.) It’s a one-two punch that just freaking works. In three pages, we see Young Moore make a quantum leap as a writer, and improve the stuff he’s already written in the process.
So that’s Miracleman. A book that starts out a little shaky, but pulls off a strange alchemy in the third act to save the day.
And that brings us to the central question of any Funnybook Battle: WHO WINS?
On a purely technical level, it’s a no-contest. Old Alan Moore is a vastly superior writer to Young Alan Moore. He’s got complete control of his script, and he makes it look easy to weave theme into action. He’s also far better at working with his artists, turning the reigns of the storytelling over to Kevin O’Neill in a way that Young Moore never really does for Alan Davis and Garry Leach.
That’s not to downplay the effectiveness of the Miracleman artwork, understand. Any comic drawn by Davis and Leach is a joy to look at. I like all three of the artists here, actually, to the point that I’m not sure I could pick a winner on this front. O’Neill is expressive and profane…
…while Davis and Leach have a smooth dramatic style that the fanboy in me eats up like candy.
Both styles have their merits. Just as the varying styles of Young Moore and Old Moore do. But I think I’m starting to feel my way to a decision. In Roses of Berlin, we see a very relaxed writer having some fun while remaining intellectually interesting. But… well… Isn’t this book (and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in general) sort of just… Miracleman all over again? Seriously. It’s Alan Moore taking preexisting characters and telling new stories with them that in some way modernize, change, or make them more adult. He doesn’t have a point to prove with it anymore, because he won that particular fictional battle ages ago. But it’s really the same process. Isn’t it?
I mean, he’s still good at it. And I obviously still enjoy reading it. I enjoy reading Moore’s version of it far more than I do just about anybody else’s, in fact. But it’s the same thing. The same thing he’s been doing since 1982. So it’s not particularly fresh anymore.
On Miracleman, however, it is fresh. It’s damn fresh. So fresh it’s still freaking bleeding. I said earlier that it’s the work of an Angry Young Man, but you know what? I LOVE the work of Angry Young Men. This doesn’t come up a lot here on the nerd farm because, well… It’s a nerd farm. But I was a punk rock kid. And I remain, largely, a punk rock kid. Gimme low-fi, baby. Gimme DIY. Gimme idiosyncratic work from people who don’t entirely know what they’re doing, but whose enthusiasm gives their craziness a vitality that’s lacking in the work of old pros. That’s what Miracleman has that carries it over the rough spots.
Is it enough to beat Roses of Berlin? Maybe not. But Miracleman has something else going for it, too: the conclusion of the fight between Miracleman and Johnny Bates. Because that is a stroke of genius. Right up the last couple of pages, that fight’s going pretty much as you’d expect. Bates seems to be winning. Our Hero’s down for the count. So now it’s time for the inevitable comeback.
But, no. That’s not what happens. He tries, certainly. But Bates is too powerful, obscenely powerful, and so he proceeds to beat the complete shit out of Our Hero. This breaks the script pretty roundly. I remember thinking, during my first read of this back in the 80s, that something pretty messed up might be about to happen. We’d had all the build-up, after all. All the flowery language and in-your-face bluster that this was NOT your average spandex comic, goddammit, and you’d better fucking believe it. So what happens? Well… After all that careful building of a realistic new model for the super hero… Bates goes down like Mr. Mxyzptlk.
Just fantastic. What a goofy, awful, hackneyed way to end a story! But it works. It’s perfect, in fact. Just when you think you’re reading something that’s about jettisoning all that weird fantasy kid stuff from the super hero comic… it’s that weird fantasy kid stuff that saves the day. And, of course, the mental breakdown of the real Johnny Bates is just horrifying enough to remind you that you’re still dealing with the same story you were reading one page prior. It’s a genius ending, a knock-out punch.
Which I guess means it’s decision time. Who wins? Miracleman, or Roses of Berlin?
Both are fine comics. Grade A comics. Among the best you’ll read this month. And Roses of Berlin would undoubtedly win on points. But in this case, on this day… For its enthusiasm and an inventive twist ending that’s still striking 30 years later…
Miracleman takes it by Knock Out.
Ring the bell!