Comic Book Review – Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying (2014)

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Before inspired stories like Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Tom Strong solidified Alan Moore as arguably the best comic book writer of his generation, two important early works of his – Miracleman (formerly Marvelman in the UK) and V For Vendetta – were seminal works in establishing his reputation. Back in the early ’80s, I had never come across anything like Miracleman, it was so unlike any other comic I’d been collecting up to that point. Alan Moore created these impactful stories that were dark and subversive and up-ended the superhero mythos. I wasn’t around in the early ’60s and so had missed out on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creating their brand. So, for me, Miracleman was THE gamechanger; the start of the British invasion into mainstream American comics which completely transformed the industry in the mid-80s.

Here’s a bit of backstory: Back in the 1940s DC (then National Comics) sued Fawcett Comics, believing that Fawcett’s flagship superhero, Captain Marvel, was a knockoff of Superman. Fawcett ended up discontinuing the Captain Marvel title in the 1950s. This also resulted in the termination of Captain Marvel reprints in the UK. In 1954 Mick Anglo created a British counterpart to Captain Marvel, named Marvelman, to fill in the gap. The Marvelman comic book had a lengthy nine-year run, ending in 1963, at which point the world forgot him. Until Alan Moore came along and resurrected the character.

Mick Anglo didn’t even try to be covert about his mimicking of Captain Marvel. Like the Big Red Cheese, young journalist Micky Moran invokes a magic word to transform himself into a near invincible superhero. Marvelman would also have sidekicks, Dicky Dauntless (a.k.a. Young Marvelman) and Johnny Bates (a.k.a. Kid Marvelman). His nemesis, Dr. Gargunza, was very reminiscent of Dr. Sivana. The Marvelman family’s exploits would be fairly innocuous and standard to superhero storytelling circa the 1950’s.

In 1982, in a UK anthology comic book magazine titled Warrior, Alan Moore presented a worn down, middle-aged Mike Moran, freelance journalist and chronic victim of bizarre dreams and excruciating migraines. Moran had been grasping for years at things beyond his ken, seeking a forgotten word, dreaming of flight. The revelation comes when Moran is endangered during the terrorist take-over of a nuclear facility. It’s when he reacquires that one word which is the key harmonic to the universe. And he returns to godhood. It’s a basic superhero set-up. But it’s only the start. Alan Moore is about to shake up the establishment in earthquake proportions.

So, before Watchmen was even created, Moore had already redefined the superhero genre, had already had his way with the grim post-modern deconstruction of the superhero character. It’s a given that Marvel Comics’ mutantdom is universally feared by ordinary humans. And Spider-man has a running love/hate relationship with the public. Moore, however, made the public’s dread of superheroes a palpable, logical thing. Alan Moore gave us the real ramifications of super beings walking in our midst. It’s scary stuff.

I remember my excitement at Moore’s inaugural story arc. It had elements of sublime horror that foreshadowed Moore’s stint at Swamp Thing. The story unfolds with an escalating sense of dread and oppressiveness. It’s adult storytelling that firmly shies away from kiddish tropes. In light of this, it’s hard not to snicker at that astrophysicist with the inside track on the key harmonic to the universe (so crucial to Marvelman’s 1950’s origin). The main villain of Moore’s first arc is straight up terrifying including the life this villain has been leading while Mike has been trapped in this near-amnesiac state. Moore also introduces a disturbing triangle amongst Moran, his wife Liz, and Miracleman. The wedge-driving question surfaces as to whether Moran and his alter ego are the same person after all.

We also learn of the Spookshow, a branch of the British Air Force Intelligence that is perhaps intimately tied to the Miracleman family. As a nod to the cheesy comic book tropes he’d been subverting, Moore introduces Big Ben, the bowler-hatted Man with No Time for Crime. Big Ben, on the surface, seems a fun if flaky character. But the plot digs deeper and lays bare his tragic underpinnings.

The artists are Garry Leach and Alan Davis, and their contributions to visualising the story are as instrumental as Moore in conveying that sense of realism; Leach and Davis draw characters that look like real people. Miracleman isn’t musclebound, isn’t ever caught in familiar over-the-top heroic poses. The naturalness of his gestures and movements captures how effortless it is for him to do these amazing things and gives you an inkling, without beating you over the head, of how powerful he truly is. The spectacular action beats are staged seamlessly in convincing low-keyed backdrops, and this allows you to buy into the improbable. I do prefer Leach’s work by a smidge. His stuff is more gritty, plants you more solidly in reality. Davis’ is more stylish. Word is that Davis took over from Leach because Leach was such a perfectionist he was jeopardizing the comic’s scheduling release.

How’s this for irony? Marvelman became Miracleman, thanks to Marvel Comics getting antsy and crying name infringement. But at the 2009 San Diego ComicCon, Marvel announced that it had purchased the rights to Marvelman. I’d been in an extended sulk over all the infighting within the industry that cast Miracleman in decades of legal limbo, but that’s done now. Even though I own Eclipse’s 1990 trade (also titled Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying), I’m happy to own this Marvel trade, as well. Mainly, because it’s a promise to you and me that this series will continue on and that Neil Gaiman, now unmuzzled, can finally finish off the story he started with his run on the book. This volume from Marvel Comics reprints Miracleman issues #1-4, (which in turn reprinted stories from Warrior #1-11). New contents include 3 or 4 back-up stories. “The Yesterday Gambit” (originally published in Warrior #4) features a temporal leap forward with Miracleman and a Warpsmith. “Cold War, Cold Warrior” (Warrior #9-10) and “Ghost Dance” (A1 #1) feature the Warpsmiths – an aloof, cosmic, peacekeeping, teleporting alien species – who would figure much later in Miracleman’s Olympus arc. I can’t remember if “Saturday Morning Pictures” – originally used in Quality’s Marvelman Special #1 – was included in Eclipse’s 1990 trade. It’s in this one, though, and acts as a coda to Moore’s “A Dream of Flying” arc. In this story, cleaning personnel tidy up the ruins of the Project Zarathustra bunker and end up viewing video tapes about the Miracleman family. It’s essentially a framing device that Quality’s Marvelman Special #1 used to reprint material from Mick Anglo’s original run.

This is easily one of the best comic books I’ve ever read, and is one of the reasons why I fell in love with not only the medium but the stories inside.

5 out of 5 stars

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