Sunday, October 26, 2008

Comics Review: Miracleman: The Golden Age [Book 4], Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Miracleman was Alan Moore's first major work, and it features the basic approach to story material that defines his style. He identifies the central discourses that inform a concept, and he then reconstructs the concept in ways that critique the original discourses and offer new resonances. In Miracleman, he recognized that an aspect of a superhero's appeal is that such a character speaks to a desire for divine intervention. On some level, people hope for a god to resolve the conflicts and injustices of the world. Moore crafted the story's conclusion to play off this. He had Miracleman abandon all connection to his earthbound life and assume the role of a god. The character took over the world's reins of power, reordered human society, and brought about a utopia with no material or psychological wants. Moore had reimagined the concept of a superhero as divine agent probably about as much as it could be done. Neil Gaiman, his successor on the strip, appeared to have nowhere to go.

Gaiman's response to the challenge was probably the only reasonable one. He didn't try to build on Moore's ideas, and he certainly didn't rehash them. Miracleman: The Golden Age, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, takes an approach to Moore's material that is best described as tangential. It borrows the milieu Moore created, but the characters and story material are all but entirely Gaiman's. The book is a collection of sketches and short stories dealing with the lives of everyday people in Miracleman's utopian world, and unfortunately, most of it isn't very good.

There are some highlights. The best strip in the collection, "Spy Story," is told from the point of view of an erstwhile British spy whose mind is so caught up in the paranoia and suspicion of intrigue that it's driven her mad. It's a sharp, well-crafted piece that builds tension by creating a counterpoint between the reader's recognition of the character's irrationality and one's concern that her terror is justified. Gaiman develops the suspense to a fever pitch, and he resolves the story with a clever anticlimax. "Trends" is enjoyable as well, although it isn't so much a story as an entertaining scene of oneupmanship and flirtation among a group of teens. But the rest of the stories are quite dreary--one pointless study in alienation or self-absorption after another.

The major problem is Gaiman seems to think that once he's struck a tone his job is done. It's not enough for a story to be somber. Unless there's some dynamic at work in the narrative and the characterizations, it isn't going to carry much resonance or interest. Gaiman often tries to end the stories on an epiphanic note, but he lurches into the concluding insights about the characters and situations, and they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they're often quite banal, such as a woman finding solace in a children's-book fantasy while her family is falling apart, or an emotionally and intellectually vapid artist coming to the realization that a remarkably disagreeable acquaintance can't stand his company.

Gaiman tries his hand at a faux-confessional narrative in the poorly-titled "Screaming," but he can't make it work, largely because his protagonist isn't idiosyncratic enough to be engaging. The only narrative tension comes from the context: the main character relates parts of his life story to the girl he's just lost his virginity to. But he's quite oblivious to her, and Gaiman doesn't seem to realize how boorish he is. I kept waiting for the girl to get fed up with his self-absorption and leave. (I was disappointed.) Gaiman's relatively eccentric protagonists also don't work very well. The main character of "Skin Deep" is a recluse whose obsession with physical beauty blocks his ability to relate to women emotionally. One waits for him to set his attitude aside and learn to love--it's an obvious conclusion. But all he ends up doing is reconciling himself to a dull, loveless relationship with a physically plain woman. One doesn't know why one should care about this fellow, and I don't think Gaiman knows either. He doesn't bother to suitably craft his ideas.

The weaker examples of Gaiman's work here aren't entirely devoid of interest. He has a good ear for dialogue, and he knows how to pace a story effectively. He also has a good partner in illustrator Mark Buckingham, who often particularizes the styles in the stories. The look of "Trends," which recalls the work of Jaime Hernandez, is perfect for the piece, and the Xerox-abstracted photorealism of "Spy Story" heightens that strip's noirish, nightmarish tone. Buckingham's most compelling work is featured in "Notes from the Underground," where he makes dynamic use of a variety of artistic styles, including German Expressionist woodcuts and most spectacularly, the appropriation-repetition approach of Andy Warhol. He's a strong illustrator, and his versatility shines throughout.

The book's better aspects aside, though, I can't help but feel indifferent to this material being kept out of print for legal reasons. It's infuriating for Moore's Miracleman work to be forcibly consigned to the pit of the collector's market--it's an influential and landmark work in a major genre of popular narrative. But Gaiman's efforts are poorly developed for the most part, and even the stronger pieces are so irrelevant to the strip's core concepts that they feel like they've been shoehorned in. The legal mess involving Miracleman's ownership has kept a lot of interested readers from seeing this book, but at least they can take some consolation in that they're not missing much.

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