Taking a quick detour from the Dork Awards to discuss a little sliver of funnybook history that saw print this week…
Miracleman Annual 1, by Grant Morrison, Joe Quesada, Pete Milligan, and Mike Allred
This book’s historic for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s the first new Miracleman material published since Marvel Comics got the rights ironed out and started reprinting the 80s run. It’s also the first Miracleman material not written by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman (discounting, of course, the original Marvelman stuff done by Mick Anglo and company in the 50s – a fine distinction, but one worth making, for reasons that I hope will become clear below). But also, and most entertainingly for me… The Miracleman Annual features the story that, if I’ve got my funnybook history straight, started the Alan Moore / Grant Morrison feud.
Here’s how this all went down, at least according to the two men in question:
In 1984, Morrison was contacted by Warrior publisher Dez Skinn to write a Kid Miracleman story. Being a hungry young author, Morrison jumped at the chance to write for the hottest strip in the UK. But something in the back of his mind bugged him about the deal, so he wrote to Alan Moore, just to make sure that Moore was okay with somebody else writing the strip. Unfortunately, Moore was not okay with that at all. Skinn hadn’t told Moore he was commissioning these other stories, and that understandably didn’t sit well with his author. Moore was part owner of the strip, after all, and this was a breach of their working agreement. So he flew off the handle a bit, and wrote Morrison back a letter filled with conspiracy and threatening overtones.
Or at least, that’s how Morrison took it. Moore may not have intended it to come off that way. But it’s impossible to know, because he doesn’t really remember writing the letter. He just remembers being royally pissed off about the whole thing. At any rate… The story never saw print, whether because Morrison didn’t turn it in, or because Moore squelched it, or because Warrior ceased publication before it became an issue, I don’t know. But the whole thing left Morrison with a pretty dim view of Moore. A view that, a few years later, lead him to take some potshots at Moore in an interview, which in turn pissed Moore off, and so on and so on, leading to their now very public feud.
Which brings us, at last, to the Miracleman Annual. Marvel Comics publisher (or whatever it is he does) Joe Quesada knew about the lost Grant Morrison Miracleman story, and (evidently not caring if Alan Moore liked it or not) contacted Morrison to see if he still had the script. He did, a publishing agreement was reached, and so, thirty years later, we finally get to read this thing. Was it worth the wait?
It’s certainly not Morrison’s best. Like the earliest chapters of Miracleman proper, it’s the work of a young writer still learning his craft. There are some nice touches in it, some good ideas. But there’s also some youthful pretensions, some bad habits he’d later outgrow. It’s also limited by the role it was intended to play. This wasn’t Morrison given free reign to invent. This was Morrison being asked to play in someone else’s sandbox, to fill in a gap of sorts in the story Moore was already telling. It’s short, too, intended initially to run six pages and extended here by Quesada (who also drew the story) to eleven. So there’s only so much he could do.
Taking all that into account, it’s pretty good. Morrison chose to focus on an early step in Johnny Bates’ journey from heroic youngster to disillusioned monster. It’s set in 1966, three years after the Miracleman Family was thought destroyed in a nuclear attack. Bates returns to the British seaside village where he crashed to Earth, to eliminate the only witness to his survival: an aging priest. Bates has been reading a lot in those three years, learning about the real world he’s woken up in and coming to grips with his role as the Ubermensch in a world of fragile humans. While he hasn’t sunk to the moral depths we see in Moore’s stories, he’s well on his way, and this is either his first or his last step to damnation.
It’s far from Earth-shattering stuff. It reveals nothing about Bates that we didn’t already know, or could at least infer, from Moore’s stories. Morrison handles the character pretty well, though, his dialogue reading in places like a bratty kid exulting in his first taste of freedom. Take this little speech he gives just before he kills the priest, for instance (Oh! SPOILER, I guess):
That scene also demonstrates my favorite dichotomy in Bates: his fear. Much as he brags about how he can do whatever he wants, he still feels the need to kill this guy. To get rid of the witness. The only person on Earth who could inform the military that he had survived, and thus send them after him again. So there he is: a god among men, forced to live in secret because he’s afraid that these human beings he’s so superior to will rise up and kill him. It’s ludicrous. Almost funny. As we see in the Moore stories, Bates has little or nothing to fear. But it’s that fear, as much as anything else, that drives him to depravity.
Moving on to more surface issues, this story finds Quesada doing something rather clever: he based the look of Bates on the young Grant Morrison.
There’s something pleasing about that on a meta-fictional level. Grant Morrison as Alan Moore’s petulant young Super-Satan is just too good an image to pass up, and I congratulate Quesada on thinking of it.
I should probably congratulate him on his art in general here. I’ve never been a huge fan of his over the years, but he really does do nice work. Parts of this story look very lush, and he’s chosen some effective staging. Interestingly, though, this issue’s behind-the-scenes backmatter reveals something surprising to me. They’ve reproduced Morrison’s script in total, alongside Quesada’s layouts and final pencils for every page. And I’ve got to say…
…I like his layouts better than his finished art. His staging and character posing are better, more dynamic, before he gets bogged down in detail. And he lays down some fine, uncluttered cartooning that I like quite a lot. Plus, look at his original choice for Bates’ expression in that final panel. That smile is cruelly perfect, a great bridge between the villain we know and the cheerful kid of the Fifties. It’s a great choice, but one that he tosses over in favor of a more funnybook-standard grimace in the finished art. Shoulda gone with his first impressions here, all the way around.
The second story in the Annual is entirely new, commissioned by Marvel for this comic. It’s from the X-Statix team of Pete Milligan and Mike Allred, who deliver a fun little tribute to the 1950s Marvelman stories with a tale about the super hero fantasies that Gargunza fed to the Miracleman Family while they slept. It’s whacky stuff, featuring an all-too-rare appearance of the hysterically-named Young Nastyman, and – best of all – a completely demented dolphin attack on the surface world! It’s silly and light weight, but…
…any story featuring dolphins sitting around a campfire is a-okay in my book!
Of course, just when you think this is beautifully-illustrated throw-away fluff, Milligan drives home his point. Miracleman starts questioning the reality of all this, wondering how, in all the chaos and destruction, there’s no bloodshed or death. It’s pretty much the same scene we get in Moore’s “Red King Syndrome,” but this is hardly a retread. Because unlike that scene, this questioning of reality isn’t treated as any sort of triumph. No, when Miracleman voices his concerns here, his partners look at him like he’s crazy. Who, after all, would prefer a world of blood and death over one where nobody really gets hurt?
Now, of course… You have to live in reality. And Gargunza’s wholesome fantasies weren’t sustainable. Hell, they weren’t even wholesome by the end of it. So in literal story terms, Moore was absolutely right. Better to face reality, and make it as good as you can. But in this particular comic, sitting next to a story loaded with so much meta-textual weight… It’s hard not to read that as a commentary on Alan Moore, Miracleman, and the long-lasting effect they had on comics as a whole. Were we maybe better off, or at least happier, when our spandex fantasies were free of death and destruction?
Well. I’m not so sure about that, personally. But it’s still a question I should probably leave my fellow readers to answer for themselves…