Friday, July 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #199: Miracleman Vol. 1 by Moore, Leach, and Davis

Apparently, this book wasn't cursed after all, since it finally was re-published, despite the best efforts of Alan Moore and Todd McFarlane and bankruptcy laws and those old confusing comics contracts to bury it so deeply that it would never appear again. And it looks like the rest of the old Warrior/Eclipse series will be reprinted as well and maybe -- just maybe, if we're both lucky and good -- the long-promised Neil Gaiman/Mark Buckingham stories will finally appear as well.

You can find stories of its long journey through the combined underbellies of publishing and the law elsewhere -- Padraig O Mealoid's not-quite-complete serialized book Poisoned Chalice is the longest, most detailed, and best account -- but the important things to know are these: Miracleman was originally Marvelman. Marvelman existed because Captain Marvel (the original, the Big Red Cheese) existed, and because there still was a market for stories very much like Captain Marvel in the UK after DC's lawsuit shut down the original in the US. So it was an authentic property of the Golden and Silver Ages: made for a market, hacked out cheaply, that disappeared quickly when that market shifted. And then it came back, because of nostalgia and the arrogance of youth: young writers and editors and artists thinking they could take something childish and re-mould it into something serious.

They succeeded: the relaunched Marvelman stories were the first major revisionist superhero stories [1], the first to plumb the previously ignored Nietzschean depths of that word "superman." It's not overstating it to say that every revisionist superhero -- from The Boys to The Dark Knight Returns, from Watchmen to Kingdom Come -- descends directly from these Alan Moore stories. The Marvelman stories catapulted "The Original Writer" -- as he's credited here -- into superstar status, and helped Alan Davis get major work from DC as well. And then the series went through tumult and turmoil for nearly another decade, on both sides of the Atlantic, until one last calamity finally put it into the grave -- or so we thought.

But now Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying is out in a new spiffy hardcover from the biggest comics publisher in the world, collecting those stories written by Alan Moore (I will say his name several more times, whether or not he appreciates it) and mostly drawn by Garry Leach and Alan Davis. (There will be several other artists before the original run of Marvelman/Miracleman stories are done, some excellent and some less than excellent.) These are serial comics, just coming out of the '70s style and groping their way toward more novelistic forms, so this book doesn't have a real ending. But it does still pack a serious punch, even more than thirty years later.

It opens with a 1950s story (a new 1950s story, though, written by Moore and drawn by Leach and Davis in 1982) of the Miracleman Family -- adjectiveless, Young, and Kid; who ape the main Captain Marvel characters without that yucky girl -- battling invaders from the future, in their sunny and weightless way, in a world where all endings are swift and happy and where evil is always easily defeated by the clear forces of good. Then the main story begins: it's 1982, and Mike Moran is a struggling journalist on the edge of middle age, heading to a minor freelance assignment covering a protest at a nuclear-weapons site.

There, through an accident, he remembers who he was: Miracleman, a superhuman who changes from his weak mortal form by saying a single word. He foils, almost incidentally, an attack by a couple of local idiots attempting to steal plutonium to sell to the highest bidder. He remembers his origin, in which an superpowerful time traveler with a silly name gave him the word to protect the world -- and now he realizes it is a silly, thin story, only worthy of those childish 1950s stories.

And yet he has powers. And he remembers a bit of the day he and his two younger companions were lured into a death-trap. And then it turns out that one of those younger companions -- or a grown man with the same name -- is alive and well. And Miracleman's return is noted by a secretive government department, which puts into action a long-delayed plan they hoped never to use.

This was Moore's first big layers-of-the-onion story: he would do something similar with "The Anatomy Lesson" in Saga of the Swamp Thing soon afterward, but the Miracleman version is a purer, more direct frontal assault on the received superhero pieties of the day. Not all of the layers are peeled away by the end of this volume, of course -- Moore had a lot of story to tell, and a joy in telling it, both the wonders and the terrors.

This is an early 1980s story: it's full of captions and dialogue and small panels, in a style that may seem dated to an audience brought up on newer comics. But that also means it packs a tremendous amount of story into its few pages: the main story takes up barely half of this book, just 85 out of 176 pages. (The rest is taken up by a semi-apocryphal flashforward story, a two-part story about the alien Warpsmiths, who will enter the main story substantially later, and a lot of pages of Leach and Davis art. There are obviously no script pages, which a book like this would normally have, since they would require saying the Forbidden Name.)

A Dram of Flying is an important historical document, a major milestone in the flashy superhero story. It's also, still, a gripping and intensely told story of great power and great mysteries, about morality and eschatology and that essential Nietzschean abyss. It hits targets most superhero stories don't even realize exist, and does it with style and a crackling, apocalyptic energy. If you read superheroes and don't read Miracleman, there's something seriously wrong with you.

[1] With the possible exception of Frank Miller's Daredevil, which began slightly earlier, but was doing very different things.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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