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The historical significance of ‘Miracleman’

Miracleman1

Miracleman #1

Marvel on Tuesday released the first preview of its remastered Miracleman #1, dividing fans with its modern coloring. Some of the comments come from newer comics readers still wondering what the big deal is about this series; surely, the “mehs” are already being prepared for the issue’s Jan. 15. debut.

Despite the updated coloring, it probably isn’t fair or even realistic to hold the series up against contemporary comics, despite Miracleman‘s significant influence on a good deal of them. Instead, it’s best to view these stories in the context of the times, which makes it easier to see why Miracleman (or Marvelman, if you prefer) is the natural stepping stone to Watchmen, and established many of the themes Alan Moore and many creators that followed him would explore in subsequent works up through the present day.

Among the relatively few fans who have read these stories, Miracleman is often held in the same regard as seminal works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Both of those revered miniseries debuted in 1986 and caused a seismic shift in how superhero comics, and mainstream comics in general, were created and received. It’s worth noting then that a good amount of what Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns later touched upon and accomplished had been done four years earlier with Marvelman. If it weren’t for the legendary rights quagmire that prevented those stories from being reprinted, Miracleman would almost surely be just as celebrated and commercially successful as its successors.

The character, then called Marvelman, was created in 1953 by Mick Anglo to replace the original Captain Marvel, whose title was discontinued because of DC Comics’ famous lawsuit against Fawcett Comics. The U.K. reprints were popular, so to try to hold on to that readership, L. Miller & Son asked Anglo to come up with a replacement for the superhero. For about 10 years, Anglo successfully riffed on the classic Captain Marvel style with his own fun Marvelman stories and created his own universe.

Flash forward about 20 years, when publisher Dez Skinn wished to reprint the classic Marvelman stories. To build interest, he decided to release new stories for then-modern audiences. As a former Marvel UK editor, Skinn went through his contacts to find the right creators for his new publishing company Quality Communications, and its indie comics anthology Warrior. Enter artist Garry Leach, art director at Quality, who recommended newcomer Alan Moore, who had mostly worked on standalone stories for Doctor Who Magazine and 2000AD. Moore and Leach’s version of Marvelman debuted in 1982 in the black-and-white Warrior #1, which also included the first installment of Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. The magazine had limited distribution outside of the United Kingdom, which helped add to the mystique of Marvelman for North American superhero fans right from the start, building anticipation when Eclipse published a colorized version renamed Miracleman starting in 1985.

Moore’s radical reworking of the character’s origin and the world in which he existed was a surprising disconnect from the character’s sunshiny Golden Age past. We soon discover there’s a reason only Marvelman remembers his comic book origins, as Moore’s stories zoom out and reveal a new reality. Although the term “retcon” often has a negative connotation, in Moore’s adept hands, it becomes a revelation, opening up the character to new stories (American readers first experienced that with Moore’s classic Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 in 1984).

Transforming a character is something Moore excels in. Like a blues or folk musician from the 1930s, he borrows and mixes lyrics and melodies, which evolve to create something new. From taking an historical-fiction version of Jack the Ripper for his and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell to the Charlton Comics heroes becoming the cast of Watchmen to the pulp and literary sources that informed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill, Moore loves to take familiar diamonds and shift them in the light, revealing new surfaces. Few find as many nuances, but his success in doing this indirectly freed up a lot of creators to inject new life into tired properties. Frank Miller brought forward the pulp noir aspects of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Green Lantern was saved from his villain legacy by Geoff Johns and Ethan van Sciver in Green Lantern: Rebirth. Spider-Man returned to basics in “Brand New Day.” There are countless others. He wasn’t the first to bring a character back, but the way he handled it was much more progressive than any before, demonstrating that readers could handle big changes to the core of the character if the story was good enough.

These Miracleman stories also initiated the deconstruction of the superhero genre. Miracleman’s wife continually calls out the absurdity of superhero conventions. She’s the voice of the real world, and the story teeters on whether the real world will give in to the fantasy or if fantasy will give in to the real world. How many promotional blurbs for superhero comics have you read that start with some variation on “What if superheroes were real?” — usually followed with an explanation that this one will really blow your mind. From Mark Millar’s Kick Ass to Mark Millar’s Wanted to every other new superhero property over the past few decades, they’ve tried to find a new angle on Moore’s theme. Miracleman’s powers are explained as some version of telekinesis instead of super-strength and flight, something that would be used again by John Byrne for his 1986 reboot of Superman.

The real world also intrudes with the result of property damage, injury and death caused by fantastic superhero battles. That really was a massive shift in 1982. Superheroes always saved everyone; even if there was property damage, buildings were empty, everyone gets out of the way in time, and all is OK at the end of the day. More times than not, bystanders were played for comedic effect or to provide exposition. Miracleman’s attempts to save people were resulting in broken bones. The laws of physics from his comic book origins weren’t working in the”‘real world”: London was burned to the ground; an epic superhero slugfest was actually a disaster. Future stories picked up on this concept, probably most significantly in Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority, and last year’s Man of Steel film, but instead of Moore’s ironic ineffectiveness of superheroes, they usually got caught up in the spectacle and bombast of the action. Moore’s use of superheroes to point out the silliness and ineffectiveness of superheroes is probably one of the themes most frequently missed by those influenced by his work. From creating more damage to botched attempts at controlling the world to save it, this motif most famously appears again in Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Between those two works, Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme mini-series also explored this, as did Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come and, again, The Authority.

Despite Moore’s cynical message about superheroes, he and artists Leach and, later, Alan Davis, choreographed some amazing fight scenes, despite the startling violence. While there had been some classic battles in the past, this raised the bar considerably. I can’t help but think that the climactic battle in the famous “Death of Superman” story was inspired by some of the fight scenes in Miracleman. Once the Eclipse series reached the end of Moore’s run, Neil Gaiman took over the series. In the final issue published, the fight scene illustrated by Mark Buckingham was later heavily referenced in The Matrix Revolutions.

Miracleman was also known for containing controversial elements. Most frequently this was in the form of brutal violence, but this was also the first use of rape in a Moore comic; there’s also an explicit depiction of birth. These kinds of no-holds-barred visualizations were mostly unheard of in mainstream comics of the time, and Moore’s use suggested it could be done to serve the story. Legions of comics have tried to use increasingly explicit depictions of sex, violence and gore throughout the ’90s to now for better or worse.

Most comics in the early ’80s were still pretty bright, happy and somewhat simplistic. Miracleman quickly showed they could be different. As with Watchmen, the example proved to be a template that produced flawed duplicates but that doesn’t take away how different it really was for the time. Come January, we’ll see if it holds up to a modern reading after 30 years. But even if it doesn’t, it deserves its place alongside the major superhero canon.

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Comments

25 Comments

Actually it was Garry Leach’s fight scene between Marvelman and Johnny Bates that the Wachowski’s used as a template for their final showdown between Neo and Smith, even framing particular panels.

I can’t imagine a statement that is more likely to get John Byrne’s panties in a bunch than your suggestion that he borrowed from Alan Moore in his Superman reboot.

I was really young when this came out, but actually owned issue #1 by accident. I saw the parallel between MM and original Cap. Marvel/SHAZAM when I read…since I read every single comic compilation I could get my hands on at the time…but I must admit, it’s modern significance was lost on me…the themes a bit more mature than Spider-Man…and I was obviously more intrigued by the brief nudity than anything. :) I’d like to get my hands on a new copy to see what I was missing out on the first time. Just wanted to say in hipster fashion: I was there!! :D

No wonder I don’t like most of Moore’s stories–I don’t like ironic deconstruction, and I don’t like superheroes being ineffective. Sure, at the end of the day, they’re still human, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t not strive to be the best they can be.

I still have the original run of Marvelman in Warrior. The US reprints didn’t do the excellent artwork any favours; cramped into the US comics format and coloured – when it was was intended as A4 black-and-white, and remains far superior in that form. Funny now that people are complaining about the re-colourisation of the original colourisation …

Yer,

I have the original run of Marvelman in Warrior, too.

Are we lucky bastards or what?

Good man Corey, I reckon you are in he the right track entirely, Mike Moran knew the difference between right and wrong. But being a big old alien bastard, nobody quite got the Qys poliics that took over in Moore’s last couple of issues.

I actually own those original Eclipse TRDPBKs and after having re-read it about 7 Years ago I say that it holds up quite nicely. But then again, I’m not one of those who feel that shameless imitations somehow defile or debase the integrity of the original product. The third volume was drawn by JOHN TOTLEBEN and that alone makes it worth re-reading!

“I can’t imagine a statement that is more likely to get John Byrne’s panties in a bunch than your suggestion that he borrowed from Alan Moore in his Superman reboot.”

John Byrne borrowed from John Byrne in the Superman reboot. In Fantastic Four # 250 cover dated Jan. 83, Byrne had The Gladiator uprooting the Baxter Building with Reed thinking that his powers must be telekinetic basedas the structure should have crumbled under its own weight.

FF # 250 would have been on the stands in October 1982, which mean Byrne probably wrote it 2 to 3 months before in July or August 1982. Did Byrne have an early copy of Warrior magazine handy in July 1982 ??

I agree with Dale on this. Byrne borrowed from himself, i.e., his depiction of Gladiator, when he revamped Superman. I suspect that Byrne had long thought about the impossibility of lifting huge buildings/most large objects without having them crumble and the telekinesis explanation was the best one at hand. In Byrne’s Superman, however, Superman still possesses fantastic physical strength, but the telekinesis helps him hold objects together and also makes it easier for him to fly with large objects.

Re: Moore and the “ineffectiveness” of superheroes: I’m not sure I would entirely agree. In Moore’s universe, superheroes were not what they were widely thought to be, but they were certainly consequential. Miracleman’s (and his allies) battle with Jonathan Banks (I think that was KM’s name) ends up redefining the entire planet. Superhumans are out of the bag and they take over. They are, in fact, far more consequential than they are ever envisioned to be in the mainstream comics, where they are simply supporters of the status quo.

One other point about the Byrne thing: one of his earliest and most memorable work is with Jim Shooter on the Avengers. In that series, he draws the Avengers first battle with super-souped up Count Nefaria, who throws over a number of buildings in much this impossible way. I wonder if Byrne was bothered by that and began to formulate his idea of how to get around this problem after that experience. Just speculation on my part.

I read the whole series on HTML comics before they went under and after i was done i remember thinking “My God. I’ve just read the greatest Superhero story ever” Reading absolutely blew me away and although I’ve stopped being a fan of Alan Moore,I absolutely intend to pick this up for my collection.

Byrne is occasionally bothered by real-world science and sees the need to “fix” it in the comics. This was pretty evident in his Spider-Man revamp. He thought it was improbable that two people (Peter Parker and Otto Octavius) would both be affected by radioactive incidents, so he had both of them affected by the same one. Later, he didn’t like that someone with Ock’s physique could, say, hold up a truck with his tentacles and not be crushed, so he added cybernetics to Ock’s arms and legs.

This is stuff that never bothered anybody before Byrne spotted it. Me, I was always happy with “a wizard did it” type explanations.

Its really just an ok read, the issues after 15are complete garbage, tottally unreadable, it just aquired a large hype because it was unavailable. It sold terrible when it came out, and will sell terrible niw also. Its jusy really not that great

Bronze Age Baby-68

December 11, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Looking forward/backward to next year.

I was lucky enough to be buying the Eclipse issues as they were published, and have gone back for a re-read or two over the years. I still think it holds up – especially the Moore run – and still take that breath before diving into the stack.

This appealed to me much in the same way Moore’s Swamp thing did… with our main characters discovering they aren’t what/whom they thought they were.

I am very much looking forward to the new treatment, and the back material. I’m actually glad Marvel is double-shipping the first month and hope new readers will be patient and able to appreciate the greater work as it’s released over the next 2-3 years.

Great write up.

For those who haven’t yet read Miracleman many, many years ago:

Just wait until you read an issue reprinted from MM #15 (Alan Moore’s next to last issue he wrote of this realistic character) which (despite all those recent/current “violent” comic books of any kind), this issue alone comic industry proclaimed to be most violent and disturbed ever published.

And I’m happy to say that I’m one of the lucky bastards owning this copy from Eclipse which all MM were published in the 1990s. All of these books are currently out of print until now.

Also, I’m truly hoping that Marvel would have the balls not to edit it in any manner and recolor it better.

For more information regarding MM #15, check these links…

http://majorspoilers.com/2010/10/10/retro-review-miracleman-15-november-1988/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvelman (under “Name change to Miracleman).

Cheers!

Just re-reading my MM now. I can’t wait to see the birthing scene in all its restored glory. Printed by Marvel/Disney.

For anyone who is interested, there is a really good series up on Comicsbeat.com called Poisoned Chalice, which goes into the history in forensic amounts of detail. Also interestingly, there is input via interviews and, in some cases, comments in the comments section from people actually involved.

I can’t help thinking that Byrne is to be blamed for his perception of borrowing from others. The Next Men, for example, borrowed the idea of having lives that were manufactured dreams from Moore’s Miracle Man. And, his reboot of the Doom Patrol had them fight a group of villains called the De-Evolutionaries. I guess in that, he hoped none of us read Zot, where the hero fought villains with that exact name and modus operendi.

I`ve said the same Corey has over the years.I`ve seen posts by younger fans that didn`t think MM or even The Dark Knight Returns were so special or even boring.Moore and Miller have created the template for modern comics writing.Morrison,Gaiman and Millar wouldn`t exist without their pioneering work but without historical context and knowing what comics were before Moore and Miller,they won`t get it. It`s like a modern jazz listener hearing Charlie Parker for the first time and not hearing what came before him.So many people have based their music on what he created that it may not seem as groundbreaking as it actually was.
Personally, I`ll be at the LCS on dayone even though it`s 35 miles away. I`ve got the entire Eclipse run and most of the Warrior issues and still want the new printings.They are just that good.

@Jacksonwma, I’m always surprised when I hear someone call Citizen Kane “Overrated.” Usually it’s someone with no sense of history or filmmaking.

Yeah, i can’t wait to get this. I wonder what Marvel’s plans are concerning the character…knowing they will reprint what it already out, plus let Gaiman finish the story…I am interested to know if they plan on assimilating MM into the Marvel Universe…well, whatever that is now.

Great to see someone online give this brilliant series the credit it truly deserves. I have all the original Warrior stuff and it’s been my favorite superhero story of all time ever since. It really bugs me that people who have never read the story will now think much less of its groundbreaking stuff because they were not around and reading comics in 1982. The key thing about this story is that it blew away every other comic at the time. No one had ever done superheroes like this or as good as this before. I for one can’t wait for the re-colored version as the Eclipse colours were terrible. The original black and white Garry Leach artwork is some of the greatest artwork ever done in my opinion.

I can’t believe the Brand New Day mention. I can’t believe it’s in the same paragraph with TDKR & B:YO

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