So! After a rejuvenating, if unannounced, vacation, we’re back, and–
Hold on there, big guy! Calm down! I know I’ve fallen behind a bit on my Miracleman retro reviews, but that’s no reason to shout. Because, hey! Look!
Miracleman 6-8, by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, and Chuck Austen
I’m back on the case! We’ve had three issues of this book ship in two months, and I’m feeling like a slacker. Granted, double-shipping a five-dollar comic might not be the best idea financially. I already know plenty of people (well, okay, two or three) who are trade-waiting on this book because of that cover price, and putting two of the things out in a month isn’t going to make them any more likely to take the single-issue plunge. It nearly made me abandon the book, too, even though I’ve really been digging the re-read. Of course, when the first hardcover collection came out, and it was 30 bucks for four issues… The five-dollar singles didn’t look quite so bad.
(Of course, the fact that Amazon can sell the thing for half that does make one wonder if Marvel’s losing money there or price-gouging everywhere else…)
As long as I’m criticizing the hardcover, though… It’s not a very nice package. I mean, if I’m paying 30 bucks for 115 pages of story backed up with 60 pages of sketches and pin-ups, I’d at least like a dust jacket, which this book does not have. It does have an Alan Davis cover, but while Davis’ work is always nice to look at…
…this piece is a bit generic. And while the monthly book has shown a nice knack for graphic design (a knack mostly cribbed from the 1980s Eclipse release, granted), the back cover of this thing is, frankly, kinda butt-ugly:
But enough about the fershlugginer hardcover. I came here to talk about the three most recent issues, so let’s get to work on that.
More than anything, these issues represent a transitional period for the series. In them, we see the last of the original Warrior material, the first stories written for Eclipse, and the debut of the series’ most notorious artist, Chuck Austen. Austen’s history in comics is a rocky one, and he didn’t get off to a good start here. Following artists as talented as Garry Leach and Alan Davis would be tough for anyone, granted, but Austen was particularly not up to the task. His work on the book’s not awful, by any stretch, but it’s also not particularly good. There’s a nice clean line to it, but at times it’s too clean. This is never more apparent than in the death of Evelyn Cream:
Heh. That may be the cleanest decapitation I’ve ever seen. The guillotine didn’t sever heads with such pristine precision. Bottom line, Austen was a poor choice. His work is competent, but stiff. It never sings, and this is a story that kind of calls for singing. But he may have been the best Eclipse had at the time; I remember feeling at the time like he was sort of a rising star at the company. So the choice was no doubt well-intentioned, even if the results were wanting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Austen doesn’t show up til halfway through issue seven, and we’ve got quite a bit of story to cover before that. Which… Yes. The story. That’s as strong as ever, and continues to show both the strengths and weaknesses of the young Alan Moore. These issues focus mostly on the relationship (such as it is) between Miracleman and his mad scientist arch-enemy/creator, Dr. Emil Gargunza. John Ridgway pops in to illustrate a flashback chapter about a particularly outre fantasy Gargunza fed the sleeping Miracle Family when their advanced brains started to dream their way out from under his mind control software. Panicked, Gargunza runs a manual over-ride and ad-libs a dream sequence to get things back under control…
Heh. Interesting that he jumps to sex. Gargunza’s cold scientific detachment is concealing something rather more… heated, it seems. (Remember that. It’ll be important later.) But the reaction of Our Heroes is just as interesting. I’m especially impressed with how efficiently Moore’s developing Young Miracleman here. That “who wants to hit them?” line is a great throw-away gag, but it also establishes YM as a red-blooded example of British teen boyhood. (That’ll be important later, too.)
Maybe most interesting, though, is Miracleman’s reaction. I may have mined it for yucks earlier, but I really am kind of fascinated by it. He senses the trap, of course, but in the context of the rest of the series, you’ve gotta wonder how much he understands that the sexual content was just not right for the boy’s comic world he’s been living in. It doesn’t help, of course, that Gargunza’s own sexual fantasies are bleeding in here. It’s not all butterfly women and Indian princesses, after all. There’s a chick in a bondage mask sidling up to Miracleman, and… What the hell’s going on here?
Un. Wholesome. If Undead Trilobyte Woman doesn’t set off the alarm bells, I’m not sure what would.
(An aside: I love that Ridgway draws Kid Miracleman with dot eyes. That’s exactly how he was drawn in the old comics, and it’s a great detail for an artist with as realistic a style as Ridgway to have thrown in. It should be jarring, but it’s not, and that (once you notice it) makes for an even more surreal effect.)
Moving on from fantasy, we move into memory, as we get the Secret Origin of Dr. Gargunza. This is, for my money, Alan Davis’ finest moment on the strip. Called upon to illustrate something not just uncanny or godlike, but essentially un-Earthly, he delivers this pointillist masterpiece:
This is the Qys ship that gives Gargunza the body-swapping technology he uses to create Our Heroes, and Davis’ rendering of it makes it seem both more and less real than everything around it, like an incursion perhaps from a higher dimensional plane, or at least something OTHER, something beyond human ken. When I talk about the art singing on this book, this is precisely the sort of thing I’m talking about. In fact… I said this was Davis’ best moment on Miracleman. But honestly, I think it’s my favorite Alan Davis work, period. He’s a classic funnybook artist with a smooth line, rock-solid basics, and a talent for psychedelia that rivals even guys like Jim Starlin. But this is the only occasion I can think of when I look at a Davis page and genuinely feel like I’m looking at something from beyond. That’s the sort of artistic experience I most crave, and he delivers it here in spades.
The picture above is a reproduction of Davis’ original art, something that every issue of these reprints has had, but which I haven’t discussed much before now. That’s mostly because I haven’t felt like any of these pages was all that interesting. But here, that’s far from true. The color work (good as it may be) takes something away from this piece:
The delicacy of the pencil shading gets lost in the color, as does the way the fine dot-work defines the shape of the ship without solid lines. There’s just no comparison, for my money, and I wish colorist Steve Oliff had taken a far lighter hand with it. So, for once, I’m glad they gave us the page again in the back matter.
We see the inside of the ship next, and that’s another fine sequence that reinforces my feeling that the ship is something beyond:
HP Lovecraft’s influence on Alan Moore is obvious, and this alien other that induces seizure and nausea in humans feels right out of the Lovecraft playbook. But I’m seeing another big influence here that may strike a bit closer to home:
British sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit. It’s a film about the discovery of an alien spacecraft in the earth beneath London, a spacecraft that induces strange reactions in the people who find it, and which houses a malevolent alien consciousness responsible for demonic legend. The Qys pilot isn’t quite the insectoid monster of that film, but his horned appearance certainly brings it to mind. And Moore, always a student of genre, couldn’t help but to have seen it. Not saying that it’s derivative, mind you. Just an interesting tip of the hat.
This origin, by the way, was absolutely mind-blowing when it came out. By the time I read it, I’d already seen Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing, so I was well on-board for the “everything you know is a lie” reboot. But this came first, and it’s marvelous stuff. It draws on the spirit of the character’s original origin story (vast pseudo-science rendered as near-magic), maintains the sense of wonder while injecting a nasty dose of reality, and draws a direct link between the hero and his arch-enemy that makes the whole thing more dramatically satisfying. It’s the blueprint for every character revamp since, up to and including the much-lauded Marvel Movie Universe.
Too many of its imitators have missed the “maintaining the wonder” aspects of the work, of course, and the “nasty realities” they inject too often do nothing to enhance the dramatic potential of the original. That’s how imitation always goes, of course. The surface gets copied, and the underlying quality does not. But the next time somebody asks you why Miracleman is better than, say, The New 52… That’s a good place to start.
But moving right along…
Miracleman’s inevitable confrontation with Gargunza is a nice play on the themes of godhood that Moore’s been exploring in the series. We’ve seen Our Hero slip increasingly into the Johnny Bates mode of staying in the miracle-body, his rage at his wife’s kidnapping sparking fear and unease, and that pays off in the ease with which he takes out Garguna’s men.
Then Moore turns that all on its head as Gargunza uses a post-hypnotic over-ride to turn the god back into the man, and sics Miracledog on him. I’ve always kind of liked Miracledog. He’s a perversely fun twist on the old “super-pet” idea: a monstrous dog with the same powers as Miracleman. Which, oh my god, would not be a good idea at ALL. Especially not if he’s loyal to your arch-enemy…
Anyway, Our Hero finds a solution to the problem as Mike Moran. This is a particularly interesting point in the story, if you’ve been following along: Moran is given a taste of what normal humans experience when they face him, and his response is bewilderment and terror. It’s Moran’s heroism and ingenuity that’s at the base of Miracleman’s, of course, so it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that he rises to the challenge. I’m not so sure that’s the lesson he takes from the experience, of course, but we’ll get there as the story continues.
Eventually, Moran turns back into Miracleman for the final confrontation. Chuck Austen has come onto the strip by this point, however, and it’s here that we really see the problem with his work: he strikes entirely the wrong tone. As you can see above, Alan Davis rendered Miracleman’s initial assault on Gargunza’s South American stronghold with a sort of cold fury, a godlike alien remove. But when Austen illustrates his second assault…
…well, that’s just creepy. It’s the smile. Our Hero’s been through some pretty savage shit in the jungle, granted, and the guys whose heads he’s pulping there are satisfyingly hateful Nazis (a far cry from the at least partially-sympathetic terrorists of issue one)… But, dude. DUDE. It just strikes the wrong tone. It makes Miracleman seem cruel, rather than righteously angry, and that’s an important balancing act the story’s pulling at this point. We need to be afraid that he’s going to turn out like Bates, but he doesn’t need to actually go there. And that expression, which he wears throughout this scene, pushes him over the line.
Granted, it’s pretty much exactly the same mistake many of the modern artists who’ve provided alternate covers for this reprint run have made. They go for the furrowed brow and malevolent grin, missing the character’s essential impassiveness completely. But it’s that godlike remove, that benevolent nobility inherent in him, that makes him hero and not anti-hero. It’s the difference between the Alan Moore school and the Frank Miller. I like both (at least, in the hands of the their originators), but you can’t cross them up. The results are, well… Wrong.
Does it ruin the story? Not really, no. Moore’s writing keeps it all together. And by the time Miracleman is kissing Gargunza goodbye in the stratosphere…
…the story’s equilibrium has been reestablished.
Whew. Lots of ground covered here today, and I haven’t taken time for much overview. So let’s do a bit of that now. I’m not sure how many of the scripts here were written before Warrior went belly-up, and how many were written for Eclipse. But the heavy narration drops out of things almost entirely by issue eight. Not completely, mind you. There’s still a bit of it in the stuff with Miracledog, including an attempt at parallel narration in the confrontation between it and Moran that’s not entirely successful. Granted, that technique (where you have two different narrative threads running at the same time) seldom does work, unless the two play off each other pretty closely.
Moore gets a lot better at that later in his career; Watchmen is full of stuff like it, for instance, but that book’s obsession with crystalline structural technique is what honed Moore’s writing into the surgical instrument it often is today. Here, he’s not so hot at it. But, as we’ve noted before, even the Funnybook Shakespeare had to start somewhere. And reading Miracleman is a great way to see how he grew.