Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Garry Leach and Alan Davis
British comics don’t really do superheroes.
Miracleman is one of the rare exceptions (and maybe helps to explain why).
There’s a whole lot that could be said about the history of Miracleman and all of the back-and-forths and dodgy dealings and etc. Yeah – originally he was called Marvelman. Yeah – there’s big almighty battles over who owns the character. And yeah – it’s weird that if you buy a copy of Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying it doesn’t have Alan Moore’s name anywhere on it (it just says “The Original Writer” which well – is one way of putting it I suppose).
(If you’re curious about all that stuff then I’d recommend a book called Poisoned Chalice by Pádraig Ó Méalóid (subtitle: “The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman (and Miracleman)” – “It’s a story of good versus evil, of heroes and villains, and of any number of acts of plagiarism and casual breaches of copyright. Wading into one of the strangest and thorniest knots of all of comics: the history of Marvel/Miracleman and still unsolved question of who owns this character. It’s a story that touches on many of the most remarkable personalities in the comics industry—Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Todd McFarlane, Joe Quesada and more”).
But you know – if you can get past all of the legalese and nefarious shenanigans etc there’s a pretty good comic book buried underneath (actually that might be selling it short a bit – but we’ll see I guess…).
Of course for old school comicheads such as myself the fact that it’s possible to do a Book Club about Miracleman is a bit of a miracle itself. Originally published in the early 1980s by Warrior magazine (alongside V for Vendetta and Axel Pressbutton) there were collected editions published in the early 1990s but there were basically worth their weight in gold (you can still buy them on ebay for like £100 each) so for most comic book fans such as myself Miracleman was this kinda legendary thing that us mere mortals could hear about but never actually get the chance to read.
That all changed in 2014 when – HOLY WOW – Marvel comics started republishing Miracleman and it was possible to go into any comic book shop / library and just find it sitting there on the shelves which was a weird experience to say the least. I’m trying to think of a helpful analogy but drawing a bit of a blank to be honest. It was this mythical thing that always existed beyond your reach and then – oh wow – it’s yours for only £14.99.
So. Ok. Let’s get down to it. Is it any good?
Well for anyone picking it up in the 21st Century and reading it right from the start the answer is definitely – no. (LOL).
I mean if you’re expecting greatness right from the start you’re going to be very disappointed. You can feel the straining in the prose to be be grand and impressive but it just feels a little bit… sixth form (sorry Alan). And the page layouts have this sort of amateurish quality to them. Like the drawings are good – but the way that work as comics (the way your eye moves from one place to the next) just feels kinda… clunky (Sorry Garry Leach. Sorry Alan Davis). But hey – the thing to keep in mind is that you’ve got to stick with it. The whole thing is basically a learning process. Comics back at this point were still in their infancy. Yeah – ok Superman had first appeared about 44 years ago but still at this point the idea that comics books (and a superhero comic book in particular) could be anything more than just something to keep children amused would have drawn amused mockery. In fact there’s a very good moment early on where Michael Moran tried to explain the Miracleman story to his wife and she can’t help but laugh in his face.
But please. Stick with it. It gets better. And evolves and matures in front of your eyes. Becoming more refined and sophisticated as it moves onwards and upwards.
I was going to write a pithy little line about how before he deconstructed superheroes with Watchmen Miracleman shows that Alan Moore knew how to construct them too. But that’s not true. If anything you could say that Miracleman deconstructs them even more. Which I guess gets back to the idea of why British comics don’t really do superheroes. I mean just to paint with the board brushstrokes – America is an uplifting, positive and hopeful place where the idea of individuals with magic abilities saving the world just makes a kind of obvious sense (“You’ll believe a man can fly? Why of course!”). Of course our country isn’t really like that. Our weather is much more grey and wet. We’re more miserable. More pessimistic. More cynical. Less likely to believe in fairy stories and pure-hearted heroes who can save us all. And well yeah Miracleman is basically the story of what happens when we get our grubby mitts on something – we start pointing out the imperfections, the things that don’t make sense and then stretch it and push it to the point where the whole thing snaps. Which you know – probably isn’t what you want for an uplifting story about power and heroism but does (eventually) make for a really well – miraculous comic book… (sorry. Couldn’t resist).
So, a few random thoughts about Miracleman/Marvelman, which I read in parts when it came out in Warrior magazine in glorious b&w.
Garry Leach’s artwork was insanely detailed and crisp, I remember being blown away by it. I gather that he was dropped in favour of Alan Davies because he couldn’t hit the deadlines, which isn’t surprising. Neither artist benefited much from having their artwork coloured in IMO.
The deconstruction of superheroes stuff feels pretty tired by now, but I remember how fresh it felt at the time. The one image that stands out as kind of revolutionary at the time, believe it or not, was the bad guy standing in mid air, radiating energy, while wearing a business suit rather than a spandex outfit. And he was pretty much standing still, no hyper-kinetic anything – he looked and moved more like an indie rock star than a superhero.
Fast forward a few years to Grant Morrison’s Zenith really playing up the rock star angle, and not just giving us a businessman, but an actual Tory MP.
Fast forward a few more years to the latest superhero blockbusters where skin-tight costumes have been abandoned entirely in favour or an urban/street look.
(Disclaimer, I’m just being silly here – that’s Alan Moore guest-starring in a rap video by slowthai, the guy in the anorak)
Alan Moore was obviously having a lot of fun playing with ideas, exploring the ramifications – Mike Moran’s wife Liz sleeping with Miracleman as well as her normal husband, Kid Miracleman quietly growing up and using his powers to get rich. And playing with the mechanics of it all too – why fly when you could float? And the big fight on book 3 or whichever one later that we aren’t meant to be discussing yet, where the warpsmiths use teleportation to materialise big heavy objects inside the bad guy rather than going for a traditional super-fist-fight. I really get a sense of him (Moore) enjoying himself as he made this up. And Big Ben – wasn’t he fun?
Structurally, I’m reminded of chapter 2, I think it is, of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, where he talks about writers and artists striving to reach the pinnacle of their medium, and ending up miles apart. Boy, there was some purple prose in this book. Combined with Garry Leach’s insanely detailed art, it isn’t exactly a recipe in how to make a comic flow. But it reads like someone who’s just given themselves permission to explore a little bit, and is having a good time falling flat mostly as they try things out. It was infectious, reading it.
I read somewhere that Gargunza was loosely based on Dr Sivana, which made me realise that this book shares a close link to the recent Shazam movie. They’re miles apart, and grown in completely different cultures, but both share a gleeful sense of fun, and both are a tonal mess.
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