Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Appreciation of "Miracleman" from which probably not enough has been removed

Comic fans are a lot like movie buffs, in that a favorite pastime among the faithful has always been to lord it over less fortunate or newer aficionados who have missed the narrow window of opportunity to take in some great artist's obscure masterwork. Witness Giorgio Moroder's colorized, synth-pop infused 1984 version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," for instance, or Disney's racially suspect "Song of the South," or "Let It Be," the documentary that accidentally chronicled the Beatles' self-destruction. None of these have had a commercial release in several decades, and all appear unlikely to achieve another one, thus the attendant snobbery that goes along with knowing all of the lyrics to "Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah" from their original context (bonus points for knowing where to say "Wha' is dat bluebird?").

For fans of highbrow superhero comics (who are something of a rarefied strain these days), the cream of the contraband crop has always been "Miracleman," Alan Moore's first and biggest reinvention of the big, planet-tossing superhero. There are others, certainly - "Watchmen" has more numerous interesting characters, his run on Rob Liefeld's "Supreme" (and, to a lesser extent, Moore's own sci-fi non-super-hero "Tom Strong") is funnier and leaves you feeling better, but "Miracleman" is possessed of a kind of demonic energy that Moore only really tapped at the beginning of his career - here and in his appropriately fertile tenure on DC's "Swamp Thing." "Sandman" writer and pop lit rock star Neil Gaiman followed Moore's 16-issue run with eight of his own, which to comics fans is a little like discovering that Paul McCartney and Radiohead cut an album together. Then Eclipse comics, the publisher, went bankrupt amid a nasty divorce between its two principals (one of whom claims the other absconded with the company's money), and the series was abruptly canceled until further notice at issue #24, in the middle of Gaiman's second arc, which promised to surpass the first, which in turn had surpassed Moore's three incredible stories.

Making matters worse, or more tantalizing, at any rate, issue #25 is actually penciled and inked, and Gaiman had roughed out the plot through the end of the interrupted second story and the one he had planned to follow it. The story, in other words, is finished, but untold. Every few years, somebody else digs up another scan or two of Mark Buckingham's pencils for #25 and posts it online (sometimes without captions), and fans who really, really want to know what happens die a little bit inside.

I have all of these comic books. I have been furtively obsessed with them since a former Dark Horse Comics editor named Jerry Prosser put his collection up for sale on an internet bookstore and sent them to me for what is now a pathetically small sum (the series' 24 issues grow more and more expensive to acquire as the passing years render fans surer and surer that the legal snarl around the rights to publish reprints and the final issues of the series will never be resolved).

I was not allowed to watch PG movies as a teenager or read Stephen King, but I was allowed to read comics, and since these were the best I could find, I learned everything about them there was to learn. I can tell you why the book's name was changed from "Marvelman" when Eclipse first bought the series from its British publisher (Marvel Comics threatened to sue, which is why Moore won't work for them), I can tell you where the series stops reprinting strips from the canceled "Warrior Magazine" stories (halfway through issue #6) and picks up where they left off, and I can tell you where the trade paperbacks differ from the original Eclipse singles (imaginary scientist Guntag Borghelm's surname is misprinted "Barghelt" in the paperback edition of the first book, "A Dream of Flying," a mistake carried over from the U.K. edition but, oddly, fixed by the editor of the comics series in the U.S.).

Moore's tenure on "Miracleman" runs about as 3/4 as many pages as "Watchmen," his most popular book by far, and it is at least as good, though the artwork varies considerably in quality throughout the series. Since it originally took the form of eight-page weekly installments of "Marvelman" in "Warrior" alongside Moore's own "V for Vendetta," the first two volumes are told in short chapters, which grow to sixteen pages with issue nine and culminate in a huge, gorgeous, almost unbearably purple story about the way Miracleman has changed the world in issue 16.

Conceptually, "Miracleman" starts off about the same as a lot of Moore's superhero stories: a man learns that his colorful past is a lie, is destroyed by the knowledge, and is reborn to face a harsher world more like the one in which the reader lives. Miracleman himself, it seems, is a balding, married, middle-aged guy named Mike Moran living in Cold War-era London, who gets terrible migraines until one day he remembers a magic word that transforms him into a nearly omnipotent superhero. In researching his past, he discovers a terrible secret: through a combination of brainwashing, genetic manipulation, and reverse-engineered alien technology, Mike and five other people were turned into superheroes and kept in a trance state where they were programmed with nonsensical memories by scientists anxious to keep them under control. All of his fondly remembered Golden-Age adventures, it seems, have been lies fed to him by bureaucrats and politicians jockeying for position in the arms race.This, frankly, is sort of depressing, and closely resembles Moore's reinvention of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson's horror comic "Swamp Thing" around the same time. What's surprising is where the story goes: equipped not merely with knowledge of his past, but with an understanding of the world acquired by living in impotent drugery as Mike, Miracleman and his newfound companion, Miraclewoman, decide to take over the world, ridding it of sickness, poverty and famine and finally doing battle with Miracleman's old sidekick, Johnny Bates (aka Kid Miracleman), realized horrifyingly as a psychopath with all the powers of Superman and all the restraint of the Jeffrey Dahmer. Complicating matters, his human form is a small, frightened child.

The villains here have considerably more going on than the heroes. Perhaps the most effective surprise in the series is the revelation that Miracleman's old nemesis from his fantasies, a mad scientist improbably named Dr. Emil Gargunza, isn't a fantasy at all, but his creator, who occasionally must personally look in on his fantasies in order to calibrate them correctly. Gargunza is terrifying in his totally understandable, human evil, born of a desire to live forever he probably shares with most of the book's readership. He's given a full chapter in which to explain himself to Liz Moran, Mike's wife, as she sits captive and pregnant with a daughter into whom Gargunza plans to transfer his consciousness, blotting out her own personality and giving him unlimited power. His biography is fascinating, and while his plans are hideous, they make a certain amount of sense.

Recently, Moore has said he doesn't like his work on the title; that he's become disenchanted with superheroes in general and finds this story ugly and depressing in particular. I suppose it is, in places, but that's not the tale's uniform tone by any means. You can feel, at times, Moore's desperation to let his hero solve all the world's problems, only to be confounded by its complications. Mike and his alter ego become more and more obviously different people; Miracleman's triumphant tryst with Miraclewoman sits poorly with Liz; Liz's daughter by Miracleman is superhuman, but her instantaneous power and brilliance rob her parents of the opportunity to raise her. Moore's writing has many great strengths, but perhaps the greatest is his ability to stare down every single implication of a fantastic situation, no matter how uncomfortable or sad. It's one of the things that makes him such a tremendous writer of horror, and yet you can feel in every increasingly poetic caption how much Moore wants to write about the triumph of the human spirit, only to be discover that his main character has ceased to be human at all.

The artwork reflects this transition; Garry Leach and Alan Davis illustrate the crowded early chapters of the story, in which Moore is telling a particularly complex and interesting British spy story with some wonderful science fiction elements. It's with issue nine that the tale really takes a strange turn; faced with a wife going into labor in the aftermath of his greatest battle to date, Miracleman delivers the child amidst some extremely frank artwork and moving, nearly rhapsodic poetry in the captions about the miracle of life. As soon as he's finished, and while he's triumphantly holding his baby aloft, the minutes-old newborn says "Ma-ma." Rick Veitch illustrates this issue and the one that follows, which are twice as long as previous chapters; it's a shame he didn't get a chance to ink his own work - one gets the sense of how well he would have fared, had he been allowed to settle into the role, but he never was.In the story that follows, "Olympus," a post-apotheosis Miracleman narrates from his fortress overlooking the newly perfect world and recounts how he got there. Each story is framed by a few pages of contemplation on Miracleman's part, and it's a relief, at times, to leave behind the verbally dense musings on superheroic ennui and just take in the dialogue between the characters, but the artwork is nearly perfect. It's by John Totleben, one of Moore's collaborators on "Swamp Thing," and the book represents Totleben's longest sustained effort - just under 100 pages. Totleben has Usher Syndrome type II, a degenerative eye disease that makes drawing a long and difficult process, but the resultant pages are so intricate that they resemble woodcuts or maybe Virgil Finlay pulp covers. They're incredibly beautiful, and they give the entire story a retroactive polish that not even the wordiest word balloon can take off.

As Moore works out his hero's thorny moral problems, Totleben invites us to marvel - excuse me, miracle - at the beauty of the world the Miracles have created. The hardest issue to find in this sequence is #15, in which Kid Miracleman returns and lays waste to London. In a lot of ways, it's the visual apex of this series, as hard as Totleben tries to outdo himself on the next issue. Somehow, all that beauty and altruism doesn't ring true without a super-terrorist to give it some balance, and when our hero has to weigh the morality of killing a child against the possibility of the Kid coming back, there's a sense that Moore is interested in more than simply Thatcher-era wish fulfillment (although the page in which Miracleman gives Thatcher an earful is a great one).
The publication of Moore's "Miracleman" stories covers nearly a decade; he wrote 43 issues of "Swamp Thing," a solid 200 pages of "Captain Britain" and all of "Watchmen" while he was wrestling with what God, essentially, should do. The final Moore/Totleben issue's final image, of Miracleman presiding over the unrecognizable utopia he's made of our world as he wonders whether he's done the right thing, practically defies another writer to continue the story. Neil Gaiman continued the story. He was Moore's personal choice for the gig, so it's not as though Moore thought his work was untouchable, but Gaiman was understandably cowed. The character who gives the series its title barely makes an appearance in issues 17 through 22, yet those remain the strongest of the run. They're a sequence of circular short stories, most of which describe the brief loops of experience or emotion that make up daily life in the new Golden Age (that's the Gaiman story's title, by the way - "The Golden Age"). One simply tracks the idle gossip between teenage schoolkids, two of whom - a girl whose father was killed by Bates, and an awkward outcast whose religion worships him - are flirting. Another is told by a man who climbs Olympus (the name of Miracleman's fortress) to "pray," literally to talk to a god and ask him to cure his daughter, injured in the destruction of London. Most begin and end with the same few lines, or with the same image; one contains a children's book that gently explains the brave new world of space monsters and superbeings in euphemisms and gentle exaggerations appropriate for kids - the punchline is that the person most comforted by the book is a mother ill at ease with the loneliness found in all this new freedom.

Maybe the best story in the whole run is "Notes from Underground," in which a shy Andy Warhol, whose body has been duplicated sixteen times at his request, befriends Dr. Gargunza, brought back from the dead for study by Miracleman's alien allies. Buckingham outdoes himself on story's artwork, using the gutters of the panels to suggest a multi-canvas silkscreen on one page, drawing in chalk on a silkscreen of his own throughout several others. It's funny, poignant and even moving, giving us a picture of everyday, humdrum activity in a world that taxed even its creator's prodigious gifts of description. "The Golden Age," in a word, makes us at home in a foreign country.The next installment, "The Silver Age," is truncated less than halfway through. It, too, deals with problems of adjustment to utopia, but in a less roundabout way: Miracleman brings back his second sidekick, Young Miracleman - a gay teenager smitten with his leader and ashamed to admit it. Where the story would have gone, only Gaiman knows.

It would be wonderful to read it someday, but Marvel Comics, for whatever reason, purchased the rights to the series in 2009 and hasn't managed to work out the legal troubles around the rights to the character's adventures under Moore and Gaiman's pens in the last two years, though it has reprinted Mick Anglo's old "Marvelman" strips from the 50's - the ones Moore retconned into fever dreams. They're a little boring, frankly, and they don't sell well, but they suggest that Marvel might be on some level serious about getting the story finished. That would probably have to be a labor of love; fewer and fewer people are interested in old-fashioned superhero comics, even as more and more people flock to movies based on them. In many ways, "Miracleman" is an elegy for the genre; a mile marker signalling the end of the line. A few other great superhero books followed, no doubt, but good pulp writers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis are drawn to more obviously to straightforward science fiction, Westerns, horror, or war stories - all the genres that superhero comics stifled in the 1950's and 60's after the Kefauver commission practically outlawed them. There's been a forceful anti-superhero movement among comics creators anxious to spread their wings, but the protest threatens to grow too large and cut too deep. For writers like Gaiman and Moore, who paved the way for the new guard, superheroes were the only way to make money, and so they wrote gorgeous, layered superhero stories. It would take a lot, I'm afraid, to preserve the really wonderful stories of what comics historians have termed "The Dark Age" from the tide of history - divine intervention, let's say. Some sort of little miracle.

No comments: