When Words Collide

Mon, August 3rd, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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MARVELMAN PART ONE: BEHOLD THE SUPERMAN

Marvelman from a more innocent age

Early in the lifespan of WHEN WORDS COLLIDE, I wrote a column called "Sixteen Steps Toward a Superhero Canon" in which I outlined the four major eras of superhero comic book history by selecting four representative issues from each period. It's as informative and arbitrary as any other comic book canon, but I stand by what I wrote back then. And it's important to remember that column this week, because the San Diego Comic-Con turned everyone's gaze toward a book featured on that list. A little comic known as "Miracleman."

"Miracleman," known originally as "Marvelman" when it was serialized in "Warrior Magazine," is, of course, the subject of the biggest comic book announcement to come out of San Diego this year. Miracleman will be back, it seems, under his proper Marvelman name and under the Marvel Comics banner.

But I'm not here to talk about the tangled legal history of the character, or to talk about what Marvel may or may not do with the property.

I'm here to talk about why "Marvelman" is such a big deal, beyond its forbidden-fruit status. I want to look closely at how "Marvelman" birthed the Modern Age of comics, and what Alan Moore and Garry Leach's revisionist superhero work did to the comic book landscape. "Marvelman" changed everything, forever.

To begin, let's quickly establish the context. If we were to oversimplify, and that's what we're going to do right now, we might say that the four major eras of superhero comic books can be divided into the Golden Age (the innocent, optimistic, militaristic, simplistic comics of the 1930s-1950s), the Silver Age (the innocent, hyperbolic, dynamic, scientific comics of the 1960s), the Bronze Age (the somewhat innocent, more realistic, caustic, and derivative comics of the 1970s and early 1980s), and the Modern Age (the bombastic, supposedly realistic, ironic, character-focused comics of the mid 1980s through today).

Perhaps a new era is dawning in the early 21st century or perhaps not, and maybe those four eras above are delineated far too simplistically, but there's little doubt that something drastically changed in the early 1980s. Something happened to superhero comics that was as drastic, if not more so, then the Julie Schwartz-helmed relaunch of the Flash in "Showcase" #4. And though the mid-1980s triple-threat of "Watchmen," "Dark Knight Returns," and "Maus" catapulted the ethos of modern comics to a much wider audience, it was a British black and white magazine -- an anthology -- that really kicked off the Modern Age.

Marvelman reborn in "Warrior"

"Warrior" #1, published in the winter of 1982, featured strips that you've probably never heard of: "The Spiral Path," "The Legend of Prester John," "Father Shandor, Demon Stalker," "Laser Eraser & Pressbutton." But it also featured the first installment of "V for Vendetta" and, more importantly, the first chapter of Alan Moore and Garry Leach's "Marvelman."

"V for Vendetta" is an impressive story, but as good as it is -- and it's good enough to warrant a big-budget movie adaptation and an upcoming Absolute Edition, so people seem to like it -- it didn't change the face of comics.

"Marvelman" did.

Before "Marvelman," you had guys like Denny O'Neal, Neal Adams, and Steve Gerber playing around with notions of realism and irony in superhero comics, but their comics were always trapped in a kind of stunted adolescence. They created some great stories, don't get me wrong, but they were bound by the rules of the corporate structure in which they worked. Speedy could become a heroin addict and the Defenders could fight urban despair and racism, but the characters inevitably bounced back in line with the status quo. And though the character actions and plot point may have pushed the boundaries, the Bronze Age creators -- even the great ones -- never really changed the way superhero comics were told. Neal Adams comics may have looked different, but the narratives were structured in roughly the same way as they had been for decades. At the end of the day, Green Lantern and Green Arrow still punched alien menaces, and Nighthawk and Valkyrie still punched oddball supervillains.

"A Dream of Flying," the eight-page "Marvelman" story from "Warrior" #1 promised something different.

HEROISM, REVISIONISM, DECONSTRUCTION

The first installment of "Marvelman" was barely a superhero story at all. It didn't look like one, and though a costumed "hero" appeared by the end of that first installment, it didn't feel like one. The tone was different, the narrative approach was different. Alan Moore and Garry Leach had created a drastically original take on a classic British character who nothing more than a bland, whitebread version of the already bland and whitebread Captain Marvel.

(Short version: Marvelman was created in response to the loss of Captain Marvel reprints by publisher L. Miller & Sons. But like Captain Marvel, Marvelman had a "family," and his powers were basically the same. He did lack a cape, though, and royal blue replaced noble scarlet in the costume.)

Moore and Leach's revisionist approach to the character was revolutionary. They challenged the notion of an earlier, more innocently heroic age by juxtaposing dreams of superpowers with the "real life" events of life in the age of nuclear anxiety. It wasn't just that the age of heroes was over, it was that the age of heroes seemed like a childish dream in a world faced with terrorism and paranoia.

"I'm back!" - a cheer or a threat?

After an epigraph taken from Nietzsche -- one which describes the "superman" as "this lightning," "this madness" -- the first Marvelman story opens with the hauling of nuclear arms on a barren roadway juxtaposed with the nightmare of Michael Moran. "It's a dream of snow and of fireballs. A dream of death and numbing vertigo… a dream of flying," reads the Moore-penned caption. Crouched in the air, the image of Marvelman in Moran's dream is no saintly overman. He is a tangled, lithe knot of muscles -- the background a densely packed web of machinery and smoke. And the dream ends with fire and thunder, as Garry Leach's bold chiaroscuro rendering turns this superhero character into a refugee from an issue of "Creepy" magazine.

By the end of the first chapter, Michael Moran has remembered his magic word -- Kimota (atomic, spelled backwards, sort of) -- and has turned into Marvelman for real. It's a more slender depiction than we're used to seeing in the post-steroidal 21st century, but even in the early-1980s Garry Leach's version of Marvelman was unique. With the physique of an acrobat, Marvelman stands arrogantly against the terrorists who fire their worthless bullets at him. There's no hand-on-the-hips defiance, just the casual look of superiority as he says calmly, "That's right. I'm not human."

In a pre-modern comic, a superhero with great strength might slam his hands together and unleash a concussive wave which would send the bad guys into a wall, or knock them unconscious. Marvelman's hands explode in a burst of light in the penultimate page of the story, and the shockwave seems to kill the terrorists instantly. "And then there is silence," read the caption, "deathly silence."

When Leach finally gives us Marvelman in a "heroic" pose in the story's final panel, it's one of Marvelman flying high above the planet, fist in the air shouting, "I'm Marvelman…I'm back!!"

It's more of a warning then a celebration.

And thus the Modern Age was born.

Kid Marvelman corrupted

Had "Marvelman" ended after that single eight-page installment, it still might have had the a great impact on the future of superhero comics. The style and tone and savage irony of that opening story might have been enough to change everything forever. But "Marvelman" was just getting started, and it ran for twenty more issues of "Warrior" magazine, even before the story reached its end. But in those first two years of Alan Moore "Marvelman" stories (a young Alan Davis replaced Garry Leach relatively early on), he defined the essence of the Modern Age in greater detail. The repowered Marvelman spent several installments in a kind of domestic melodrama, trying to reconnect with his wife -- their relationship irrevocably altered by his superhuman state. And the only punches thrown during those early stories were the ones shown in flashback, as Marvelman recounted some of his more ridiculous exploits, not to brag about the good old days, but to contrast the absurdity of his past adventures with the grim reality of the present.

And to add to the irony, the only villain Marvelman had left to fight was his former sidekick: Kid Marvelman, now a corrupted adult. If the trifecta of "Watchmen," "Dark Knight Returns," and "Maus" represent the loss of innocence in the comic book world, then that loss of innocence was at the forefront of the very plot of "Marvelman." Kid Marvelman, Johnny Bates, was no wayward ward like Speedy from the "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" comics. As written by Alan Moore, Bates was pure evil, a deeply tainted man who unleashed terror and destruction. He was the what Golden and Silver Age comics had grown up to become, the very symbol of the Modern Age, with only the reluctant, uncertain, imperfect Marvelman to stop him.

Moore played with other conventions of superhero comics as well, bringing Marvelman's Dr. Sivana analogue, Dr. Emil Gargunza, as a deranged scientist working with the government to create superhumans. In the Modern Age, the mad scientist doesn't rage against the government in a bid for world domination, he is the government, ruining lives and meddling in forces beyond his control.

But that's where Alan Moore's "Marvelman" run stops, at least as published in "Warrior." The strip was picked up by Eclipse Comics a year later and renamed "Miracleman" because of potential lawsuits from a little company called Marvel Comics. (The threats of such lawsuits being one of the central factors in the strips disappearance from "Warrior" in 1984.)

I plan to talk a whole lot more about the transition to Eclipse Comics and the collaborations between Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben that brought Moore's "Miracleman" to a close. And I'll discuss that stuff next week, but there's a little something that I want to throw on the table before moving on. A little something called "Super-Folks."

ROBERT MAYER WUZ HERE

The original cover of "Super-Folks"
Not everyone has been so quick to crown Alan Moore as the father of the Modern Era of superhero comics. Nearly 20 years ago, another prominent comic book writer (though not nearly as prominent then as he is now) wrote a column taking a few shots at Moore's legacy. Even by 1990, it was pretty apparent to everyone that Alan Moore had changed the landscape of comics forever, and at a time when everyone was trying to be the next big thing by doing their own versions of a bad Alan Moore impression, this writer announced to the world that the sun did not, in fact, rise and set on the brain of Alan Moore. He did it in issue #111 of the British comics magazine "Speakeasy," and he did it without specifically mentioning Alan Moore by name. But there's no doubt who he was referring to.

And the writer of that column? Grant Morrison.

Morrison's regular "Speakeasy" column, "Drivel," which ran for a few years just after the beginning of his American comic book career (the "Animal Man"/"Doom Patrol" era), featured his thoughts on a wide variety of topics, as well as updates on his career. In the "Drivel" installment from "Speakeasy" #111, Morrison writes -- in a section titled, "Cor, What a Coincidence!" -- about his recent read of Robert Mayer's 1977 novel, "Super-Folks."

"And what a read it was!" exclaims Morrison. "It starts off with this brilliant quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, right? 'Behold I teach you the Superman: he is this lightning he is this madness!' Then it really gets going!" Morrison continues:

It's all about this middle-aged man who used to be a superhero like Superman. There's a weird conspiracy involving various oddly named corporate subsidies. There's a simmering plot to murder the Superman guy and unleash unknown horrors on the world. There's another middle-aged character in a rest home, who's vowed never again to say the magic word that transforms him into Captain Mantra. There's a corrupted and demonic Captain Mantra Junior and loads of other stuff about what it would be like if superheroes were actually real. In the end, the villain turns out to be a fifth-dimensional imp called Pxyzsyzgy, who has decided to be totally evil instead of mischievous.

Then Morrison adds, "Let me tell you, it's a book I can only describe as visionary, and you must also believe me when I say it would make a great comic." "Or even three great comics," he adds, before writing, "If only I'd read this book in 1978, I might have made something of my life and avoided all this pompous, pretentious Batman nonsense that's made me a laughing-stock the world over."

In the span of a few paragraphs, Morrison implies that Alan Moore stole the plots for "Marvelman," "Watchmen," and "Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" from Robert Mayer's relatively obscure novel. And he pokes a bit of fun at fan reception to his own work in the process.

Morrison ends that month's "Drivel" with an admittance that he's "over-indulged in the lowest form of wit" and that "it's time to turn over a new leaf." "Or is it?" he asks in the column's final line.

It's certainly a terse and savage takedown of Moore, challenging the originality of three of his most well-regarded stories, and implying that everything Moore gets credit for achieving can be found in a single novel by an author that nobody talks about.

Yet, does it matter? Even if the spark of many of Alan Moore's comic book ideas originated in "Super-Folks," does that diminish Alan Moore's influence on the Modern Age of comics? Not at all. Though Robert Mayer's book features plenty of similarities to Moore's early-to-mid-1980s work, as Morrison so succinctly points out, the general tone of "Super-Folks" is quite different from anything Moore has written. It may have plot similarities, but "Super-Folks" doesn't feel like a precursor to Moore. And even if it did, Moore's comics radically changed the way readers thought about comics, and radically changed the way creators tried to write comics in the decades that followed. Mayer's book came in went in the late 1970s and had no impact at all, except the impact it must have had it on a youngish Alan Moore.

Eclipse reprint
Honestly, if we were to say that a comic book's impact diminishes in proportion to how much it was influenced by other forms of media, then we wouldn't have a lot of comics to talk about. How much of the early "Batman" comics were taken directly from its pulp precursors or black and white films of the 1920s and 1930s? Is the Joker a less important character because he is a direct homage to "The Man Who Laughs?" Is Superman less of a cultural institution because it was based in part on Philip Wylie's "Gladiator?"

I don't think so. And I don't think it's Moore's use of plot threads from Mayer's novel that heralded the Modern Age. It's the way those things were used, along with hundreds of other stylistic details that made Alan Moore's "Marvelman" read unlike anything else comic readers had ever seen. Mayer may have sparked the Modern Age, but Alan Moore gave it a voice. He gave it its style.

Next week: "Miracleman" at Eclipse. Babies and Violence. Life and Death. And the final issues of the series that launched book Modernity.

Special thanks to comic scribe Jai Nitz for showing the strength of his Morrison-fu by sending me a copy of the "Speakeasy" #111 column just in time for me to include Morrison's exact words in this week's WHEN WORDS COLLIDE!

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

TAGS:  marvelman, miracleman, alan moore, grant morrison, super-folks

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