When Words Collide

Mon, August 10th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: August 10th, 2009 at 3:05pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Send This to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.

MARVELMAN PART TWO: MIRACLEMAN ASCENDANT

"Miracleman" #9 - Be Warned

Last week, I provided a bit of aesthetic context and analysis of Alan Moore's savagely early-Modern Warrior strip, the much-talked-about "Marvelman." And I threw in that bit about Grant Morrison's implications of plagiarism for some added spice. For a bit of a reminder that even Moore's most unassailable works are, well, as assailable as anything else.

No Morrison this week, though. Just Alan Moore and Eclipse Comics, turning "Marvelman" into "Miracleman" and taking Chuck Austen on the ride of his life before making comics unlike any that had ever been seen before.

Once Eclipse wrapped up the "Warrior" reprints in issue #6 of "Miracleman," American artist Chuck Beckum was brought on board to work on new pages for Book Two of the Marvelman/Miracleman saga. (I'll just go ahead and refer to the character and the comic as "Miracleman" for the rest of this column, because that's what it was called under Eclipse, but Alan Moore apparently always thought of the character by his original name.) If we go by the divisions used in the long-out-of-print collected editions, Book One comprised the material reprinted in "Miracleman" #1-3, Book Two comprised issue #4-10, Book Three completed the Alan Moore run with issues #11-16, and Book Four would be the still-incomplete Neil Gaiman take on the character, which ran from "Miracleman" #17-24.

Aesthetically, there's a clear division between the end of the "Warrior" run and the beginning of the Eclipse era, so it seems peculiar to lump the end of the former with the beginning of the latter in Book Two, but it makes sense in terms of plot structure. The monstrous Miracledog and the sinister Gargunza aren't defeated until issue #7 (brutally so), thus tying up most of the large plot threads left over from the original run. So perhaps it might even make more sense to lump everything up until that point into what we might call Book One, and since issue #8 is nothing more than a reprint issue of old Mick Anglo stories, Book Two probably should comprise only issues #9-10. After all, those two Rick Veitch issues take a startlingly different approach to the superhero material than what had come before, and they act as a bridge for the transcendent irony of the John Totleben-illustrated Book Three.

Does any of this classification matter? Not really, but it's important to note a few things:

(1) The Chuck Beckum pages in issues #6-7 are stiff and overly simplistic -- nowhere near the quality of the "Miracleman" work that had come before or after. Chuck Beckum would go on to have a middling career as a comic book artist throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, but he really made a splash in the early 2000s, writing under his new name, Chuck Austen, where he scripted many of the flagship Marvel and DC superhero comics before leaving comics completely after a barrage of harsh internet criticism. Beckum/Austen, a young artist at the time of his "Miracleman" assignment, was not seasoned enough to handle the tone of the series properly. His contributions to the story seriously diminish the power of the early Eclipse run.

(2) The new Eclipse material started coming out in 1986, and though I don't know exactly when Moore wrote the scripts for the new stuff, in between the time he reimagined the character in "Warrior" #1 the launch of the original Eclipse material, he'd worked extensively on "Captain Britain" and "Swamp Thing," told a few "Green Arrow" and "Green Lantern Corps" tales, and written perhaps the best Superman story in recent history with "Superman Annual #11," "For the Man Who Has Everything." So he not only had a tremendous amount of different kinds of superhero experience by the time of the Eclipse "Miracleman" run, but he was only months away from the launch of "Watchmen." Moore packed plenty of superhero celebration and deconstruction into a those few years in the early-to-mid 1980s.

Veitch draws the Messiah-Man

(3) The two Veitch-illustrated "Miracleman" issues, #9-10, seem to indicate a drastic tonal shift and a recognition by Moore that if he were to continue telling "Miracleman" stories he needed to take them to a different level. He'd already begun to bring his ironic take on superheroes into the American mainstream at DC, and continuing "Miracleman" in a similar vein might have seemed like self-parody.

The comic that sparked the Modern Era didn't feel quite as Modern by 1986, but "Miracleman" #9 pushed the boundaries of the era once again.

The cover for that issue featured the first-ever (to my knowledge) surgeon general's warning. At least, it looked like the same kind of surgeon general warning you'd see on a pack of cigarettes: a simple rectangle -- black letters on a field of white -- with the words, "ATTENTION PARENTS: This issues contains graphic scenes of childbirth."

John Totleben's beatific image of Miracleman holding his child on the cover starkly contrasts with the clinical imagery by Veitch on the interior pages. And, make no mistake, issue #9 isn't a superhero story in which a character rushes home just in time to see the birth of his child. It isn't a wonderful moment of joy. It's childbirth in its raw, realistic state. Certainly a first for superhero comics, and in all my years of reading, I've never seen anything like it since.

The story begins with Liz Moran's contractions, and the arrival of her husband -- no, not her husband, for her husband's physical form swaps places with that of Miracleman, and its his messianic form which visits her, bathing her in divine light. Instead of carrying Liz in his arms, and finding a distant (but safe) place for her to give birth, he has her climb into a truck which he whisks through the sky, until finding a suitable place and balancing it atop a rock outcropping. The truck is a practical, if undignified, solution to the transportation problem. But it shows Moore continually striving for the Modern "reality" of the situation, even if he's telling a story about the birth of a superhuman.

Miraclewoman Resplendent

The birth is explicitly rendered by Veitch. We get the full vaginal view of the crowning, the emerging head, the wrinkled little girl dripping in blood and amniotic fluid as she's pulled from between her mother's legs. "Removing my glove," Miracleman narrates, "I snip the umbilical cord with my thumbnail and knot it into a navel." It's what childbirth looks like, matter-of-factly presented to the reader in the midst of this uncommon superhero comic book. It's Moore and Veitch's most direct, most explicit attempt at injecting realism into the genre. And it's undermined in the final two panels of the issue, after Miracleman has just narrated, "We are together again and al the dragons are slain. Our world is safe, and sane, and silent."

The minutes-old infant utters her first words: "ma-ma."

The dawn of the new generation of superhumans is thus ushered in, and with the birth of this child in issue #9 -- a little girl who soon takes the name "Winter" -- Alan Moore shifts the focus of "Miracleman" from the question, "what if superheroes existed in reality?" to "what would superheroes do to reality?"

So after a bit of a transitional issue in #10, John Totleben comes aboard with issue #11 and what has become known as the "Olympus" arc -- aka Book Three -- begins.

Book Three opens in 1987, matching the publication date of issue #11 but not the chronology of the previous narrative. Everything since the events of "Warrior" #1 had happened back-to-back. The birth of Winter was a mere nine months after Miracleman first reappeared, and all of the struggle against Kid Marvelman and Dr. Gargunza happened during that same window of time. All in 1982.

Is there a precedent for a comic book series jumping forward five years between issues? If so, I don't know of it. And what Moore does in issue #11 is show Miracleman at his apotheosis. In his crystalline, silver palace, sitting on his throne, he inscribes the story of the missing years on pages made of steel.

Ultraviolence in "Miracleman" #15

Totleben, who'd worked with Moore on "Swamp Thing," mostly as the embellisher on Steve Bissette's pencils, but also as an exquisite cover artist and penciller in his own right (who can forget the lush Gotham City in "Swamp Thing" #53?), was the ideal collaborator for the "Olympus" of "Miracleman" Book Three. No other comic book artist in history can match Totleben's wispy, dreamlike brush strokes, and the delicate stippling on the newly arrived Miraclewoman create an aura of unreality.

If Garry Leach was perfect for placing Marvelman in a horrifyingly real context, and he was, and if Rick Veitch was perfect at bringing the bloody details of childbirth to the page, and he was, then John Totleben is the perfect illustrator for the ascendant splendor -- and gruesome violence -- of Alan Moore's farewell to superheroes.

Because there's no doubt that "Miracleman" Book Three -- culminating in 1989's issue #16 -- is Moore's final word on superheroes. He takes them to their logical conclusion. They become gods of the Earth. And then he walks away from them.

But before I get to that, let me run though some highlights from Book Three. As Miracleman recounts the five missing years, and we learn what happened to lead to his god-like status, we meet the Miraclewoman I mentioned above, a female analogue to Miracleman, and one worthy of his companionship. Moore gives Miraclewoman a suitable backstory -- genetically engineered by Dr. Gargunza, Miraclewoman dreamed her comic book past, hooked up to Gargunza's machines, violated by him physically as she was mentally off in another, more innocent, realm -- and her arrival signifies the end of Mike Moran's life. Liz Moran leaves him, knowing that she can never compete with Miraclewoman, and even young Winter, barely a toddler but with the mind of a goddess, departs for faraway galaxies.

Miracleman turns into Mike Moran one last time, in issue #14, as he strips off his human clothes and buries them under a pile of rocks, leaving an epitaph for himself on white-lined paper before turning back into Miracleman for eternity. The superhero as "real" human from "Warrior" #1 now becomes the being of pure transcendence. His glittering form floats into the sky.

The short, unhappy life of Kid Miracleman

The word "superhero" doesn't even apply anymore. By Book Three, Miracleman is done outwitting bad guys and punching criminals. He's as much of a superhero as Apollo, or Zeus, and those are his models -- Moore's models -- for his behavior in Book Three.

With one major exception: Johnny Bates, Kid Miracleman.

Kid Miracleman, the last remaining vestige of Miracleman's old superhero life, comes back once again to terrorize London. To terrorize the world. "Miracleman" #15, which features the incredibly gruesome, horrific showdown between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman, is the single issue of this series that I highlighted as part of my Sixteen Steps Toward a Superhero Canon" essay. Remarking about this issue I wrote, "It would be a lie to say that the Modern Era sprouted from the corpse of Miracleman, because Miracleman is still very much a part of every major superhero comic that followed. 'Miracleman,' especially issue #15, is the Modern comic every other superhero book now aspires to, for good or bad."

"Miracleman" #15 features the ultimate superhero/supervillain showdown. We're talking depravity on the level of Goya and Bosch here. Flayed skins hang from clothes lines, hands and feet fall from the sky, heads can be seen impaled on lamp posts. And Kid Miracleman's defeat comes with the help of an alien with teleportation powers and the quiet mercy of Miracleman himself. It's as if Moore says to the reader, "is this what you want? You want to see violence in your superhero comics? Well, this is what it looks like."

It's horrifying and tragic. And it's the event that leads to the creation of a new Olympus in which the superheroes can live, for as Miracleman narrates at the end of issue #15, "In all the history of Earth, there's never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones."

And in the end, after the heroes -- the gods -- have taken up residence on this new Olympus, their ornate city perching high above London, Miraclemen narrates the final words of Alan Moore's run: "Sometimes I think of Liz. Sometimes I wonder why she turned my offer down; wonder why anyone should not wish to be perfect in a perfect world. Sometimes I wonder why that bothers me, and sometimes…sometimes I just wonder."

The End of an Era -- "Miracleman" #16

Such is the irony of "Miracleman," such is the underlying cosmic irony of Alan Moore's writing: even when the hero has it all -- even when godhood is attained -- there's still that bit of unhappiness, that hint of imperfection. The logical end of the superhero is super-fascism, where a single will dominates. And yet what does such dominance achieve? Nothing but a sense that something is missing. A sense that there must be something more. That's a feeling even a superhuman cannot shake.

After "Miracleman" #16, Moore didn't write a serious superhero story again. He dabbled in the Image universe for a while -- doing an issue of "Spawn," the completely tongue-in-cheek "1963," the for-the-paycheck runs on "Violator" and "WildC.A.T.S." -- and he did the Weisinger-era Superman pastiche in "Supreme" and a variant on superheroes-as-cops in "Top 10," but his last word on the Modern Age of superhero comics can be found in his final "Miracleman" arc. He jumpstarted the era with the character's reemergence in "Warrior" #1 and put a premature end to it only seven years later. He tried to, anyway. The era continues marching along, decades after the last word has been said.

Even "Miracleman" continued, passed along to Moore's hand-picked successor: Neil Gaiman.

Next Week: Neil Gaiman's "Miracleman"!

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) 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

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, alan moore, miracleman, rick veicht, john totleben

When Words Collide Home | When Words Collide Archives

 
When Words Collide