Sunday, October 5, 2008

Comics Review: Miracleman, Alan Moore, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In the interview anthology The New Comics, published in 1988, Robert Fiore provided this assessment of Alan Moore's style:

The mainstream comics writer is something of an alchemist. His task is to make something worthwhile out of what can be very base material. The usual approach is to introduce elements from outside the genre. Alan Moore works differently. He will examine a genre and try to bring its best elements out of it, while staying, for the most part, within its conventions. For example, when given a comic about a swamp monster, rather than fight against the absurdities of such a concept, he tried to make the most intelligent swamp monster comic possible. He succeeds more often than not.

Fiore's description of Moore's approach as analytical is accurate, but he suggests that Moore's goal is to produce the Platonic ideal of a particular type of story. It's hard to go along with that. Moore tends to pull apart a concept and identify the various discourses and resonances that inform it. He then builds his stories through reconstructing the concept in ways that critique the old discourses and create new resonances. In Swamp Thing, for example, the main character as originally created was a scientist who had been transformed into a humanoid plant creature, and his goal was to turn himself back. Moore identified a discourse behind this concept as denial: the tendency to reject one's present circumstances in favor of clinging to a rosy view of the past. He then constructed a narrative that played off the emotional resonance of this by pulling the rug out from under it. It's an approach that informs most of his major work, and it may be why he's most comfortable working with reductive material, e.g. pastiche, pulp genre stories, and historical fiction. It's always easier to build off another's foundation than to create one's own.

This is not to denigrate Moore's achievements. With works like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, he essentially accomplished for the superhero comic what The Godfather did with the gangster film, or what Chinatown achieved with the private-detective genre. He dissected the hackneyed aspects of the material in order to find new resonances. Then, with extraordinary craftsmanship, he used those resonances to completely reimagine what he was working on. His best work is startlingly fresh and dynamic, and it's not hard to understand the acclaim and sustained sales interest that books like Watchmen have maintained for twenty years.

Moore's first effort in this vein was Miracleman. In the early 1980s, at the behest of editor Dez Skinn, Moore and illustrator Garry Leach took a moribund British knock-off of the American superhero Captain Marvel (of Shazam! fame), and used it to reimagine the idea of an omnipotent costumed character in the Superman mold. The initial premise of the story was that the character's alter ego, Mike Moran, was now middle-aged, and he had lost all memory of his life as Miracleman. This initially included the magic word he used to transform himself. Moore and Leach set things up with a gritty naturalism. The setting was contemporary--1982--London. Moran was a freelance journalist with a working wife, and their conversation revolved around financial anxieties. The initial villains were domestic political terrorists, essentially the Weathermen or Symbionese Liberation Army of the environmental movement. Despite the realist trappings, the initial episode plays out in the typical fashion of superhero stories: Moran encounters the terrorists at an anti-nuke rally outside a nuclear power plant, he remembers his magic word, and defeats the terrorists as Miracleman. A threat emerges to the established order, the hero confronts it, and the threat is contained.

Moore illustrates the basic reactionary discourse of the superhero genre with this opening episode, and then he turns around and explodes it. Miracleman may be a modest do-gooder in the Superman/Captain Marvel mold, but he does not function as a pacifying force in society. He's a disruptive, ultimately transformative element. The government sees him as a threat capable of incalculable destruction, and their first response to his reemergence is to destroy him as expeditiously as possible. They know his true origin, and that as Moran he's a normal human being. A special operative is sent to take him out. The irony is that they're perfectly justified in their fear, and that fear is horribly borne out.

Another discourse informing the superhero genre is that it's a response to a sense of personal and physical inadequacy. It's why the genre is especially popular among male teenagers: as adolescents, they're caught between being boys and men, and they're filled with anxiety over whether they are or will be physically and personally up to the role of being an adult. Many also feel frustrated and emotionally beaten down by their circumstances. The superhero is a powerful fantasy for this mindset: it's a character who transcends inadequacy to become a powerful, ultra-competent figure, and no one is capable of telling a superhero no.

Moore subverts this discourse with the character of Johnny Bates, a. k. a. Kid Miracleman, who was Miracleman's superpowered boy sidekick years earlier. But unlike Miracleman, he did not forget who he was, and he abandoned his human alter ego to grow to adulthood in his superhuman form. He has quietly used his powers to climb to the pinnacle of society. When Miracleman encounters him, he's the wealthy, glamorous owner of a major British electronics corporation. But he's thoroughly amoral and malevolent, and capable of casually murdering people in the most ghastly ways. He holds a grudge against the older hero for what he recalls as patronizing treatment decades earlier. Their battles ultimately destroy London, and the carnage is horrific. It's everything the government officials were terrified of and more. The imagery from Bates' final assault is chilling: human skins flapping on clotheslines; bodies impaled on the hands of Big Ben; a woman with her arms torn off wandering with her crying children through the debris. The most disturbing image sneaks up on one. Moore and the episode's illustrator, John Totleben, show a family screaming in terror in their car. One then notices that the skyscrapers in the background are shown from an extremely odd perspective, and one sees other cars hanging in midair at various angles. The full impact of the panel then hits one: Bates arbitrarily picked up those cars and flung them high into the air, one after the other. It's as unsettling an image as one will ever encounter, in comics or elsewhere. Unchecked will and absolute power--the heart of the superhero fantasy--are shown taken to their nightmarish extreme.

The violence in adventure fiction often has a glamour to it. Moore attempts to subvert its appeal with the imagery from London's devastation and elsewhere. He and the illustrators rub one's nose in the ugliness of violence from beginning to end. But as dramatic as it is, the violence is not what gives Moore's storytelling its power. His great contribution to comics was in demonstrating that intricate novelistic narratives were possible in the medium. His sense of characterization is superb; the story's principals are all strong, fully-realized personalities. Thanks to Moore's exceptional ear for dialogue, they all have distinct voices. Every scene is constructed in terms of narrative effect, and the various strands of the story are orchestrated into a larger whole. Moore is also astute enough to recognize the more immediate absurdities of the superhero genre, and he uses those for narrative purposes, too. He treats them as mysteries to be solved. He is such a strong storyteller that he can take ridiculous elements such as Miraclewoman, the mad scientist Dr. Gargunza, and even Miracledog, and make them seem satisfying and integral elements of the story he's telling.

Miracleman has its flaws. Moore's effects sometimes gets the better of his judgment. The most egregious instance occurs early on, when a lovemaking scene between Miracleman and his wife is crosscut with a jaguar hunt in the South American jungle; the wife's climax is juxtaposed with the moment the cat is killed. And for all of Moore's gifts, he cannot write effective descriptive prose in extended passages. He's particularly fond of pretentious similes such as, "Like a kite that has lost its war with the wind, I hang crucified upon the sky," or purple descriptions like "wind-driven clouds drag zebra skins of sunlight and shadow across the waking city." He fortunately relies on action and dialogue to propel the story; one who yields to the temptation of ignoring the prose captions may be better off. And perhaps Moore goes wrong by including an extended childbirth sequence, which has several views of the baby emerging from the mother's vagina. I don't object out of prudishness; the pacing is off, and it comes across as self-indulgent. It's also--no pun intended--belabored.

There are problems with consistency in the artwork. The first third or so is fine. There's no disruption when Garry Leach turns over the illustration duties to Alan Davis. Their styles are so interchangeable that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other picks up. The consistency problems become glaring in the middle section. Davis is replaced by Chuck Austen (credited as Chuck Beckum), and their work is not at all compatible. Austen's panels lack the skill of Davis's. The change in the figurework is extremely conspicuous: Austen's posed stiffness can't compare with Davis's fluid dynamism. The team of Rick Veitch and Rick Bryant is better, but the art still isn't on the level of Leach and Davis. It's hard to escape the feeling that Moore's scripts are being manhandled by less-than-capable talents. Leach and Davis's work is matched and exceeded only in the final third. John Totleben does remarkably skilled and detailed work, and its lush, dreamlike quality is perfectly appropriate to the fantastic, phantasmagoric direction the story takes.

The final third of Moore's Miracleman is its most impressive. He began with the idea of a superhero in the real world, and he develops it to a natural conclusion: this is a god in the real world. He resolves all the narrative questions he developed over the series, and Miracleman embraces destiny by accepting godhood and establishing himself as the world's ruler. It's not an easy path; his wife and his human identity (whose personality becomes increasingly separate) abandon him, and he must confront his dismay at the refusal of many to accept the utopia he brings. These final episodes are framed through Miracleman's recollections, and the birth of this new world order is presented with a remarkable sense of awe. The story ends on a pensive note, with Miracleman wistfully looking down on the planet's lights from his palace in the sky.

Miracleman is no longer commercially available through publishers or first-run book retail. It's sadly only available on the used-book and collectors' market. If one is looking to buy the three volumes discussed here on eBay or elsewhere, be prepared to spend a thousand dollars. Dez Skinn, the original editor, never properly acquired the rights. He assumed it was an orphaned copyright and trademark, and just commissioned new material. His arrangement with Moore and the illustrators was for them to keep the copyright for their specific episodes, and this arrangement was maintained by the U. S. publisher Eclipse, who thought they had purchased Skinn's share of the character rights. At least one bankruptcy and lawsuit later, all the episode copyrights and printer films reportedly now belong to Neil Gaiman<, who took over writing the series from Moore. But he can't do anything with them until the legal questions are resolved, which doesn't seem likely anytime soon. There are so many conflicting claims that no one knows who owns what with regard to the character's underlying copyright and trademark. One person recently recommended just publishing the books and see who files a lawsuit. Get the claimants deposed and settle things. This is a historically significant work in the comics field, and it's a shame the legal mess has turned it into a notoriously unavailable work of fan fiction. It deserves much better.

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