Miracleman Book Three: Olympus
Written by Alan Moore
Art by John Totleben
Ah yes. The point where Alan Moore breaks superhero comics.
In a world that made more sense everything that came after this would have changed. At the risk of being impossibly general the way that most genres work is that people keep messing with them and pushing the boundaries until there comes a point where they snap. Someone discovers an upper limit. They fatally undermine the inbaked unchecked assumptions. They expose the underside to the light. And then after that nothing is the same. That’s why traditionally genres rise and fall in popularity. Each genre only contains a finite space in which to move. And there’s only so far you can go before there’s nothing left.
The big draw / main point of Olympus is about taking the idea of a superpowered superhero and then pushing that idea all the way to the very end. It’s a young Alan Moore saying: Yeah ok – we’ve done all of the typical superhero stuff like it’s a kids cartoon but what happens if we turn the volume all the way to maximum? What if there was a superhero vs supervillain showdown that actually went all in on the destruction and devastation? I mean when The Avengers have a fight in the middle of New York it’s basically just a fun day out right? And then afterwards they all go out for shawarma and everything’s fine. But in Miracleman it’s basically the most horrific thing you could ever possibly imagine. Like an acid nightmare vomited into life. And of course as you read it beyond the effects of the story itself it makes you realise how phony and curtailed this particular scenario normally is. A bit like watching a black and white war movie from the 50s and then watching Saving Private Ryan. The fact that often the best stories are about ruining the stories that came before. And showing you all the lies that they told you. And then – hopefully – showing you a new type of truth. Something that makes more sense.
Why doesn’t Superman spend all his time fighting bad guys? Why doesn’t he use his superpowers to make the world a better place? Is… definitely a question that I’ve heard a lot over the years. And you know mostly my response is to say well obviously that person doesn’t understand the genre expectations and how that’s not really the type of Superman story that people want to read.
And then here’s Alan Moore in the way back in the 80s saying: fuck that.
Olympus shows you what happens when someone with superpowers does decide to make the world a better place. And the experience is – an experience. Like someone has stepped off the page in terms of what’s allowed and found themselves in a new place altogether. And reading it is – I don’t know – like somekind of strange and brilliant terrible awful dream. Oh. Ok. So this is what happens when someone declares themselves God and makes the whole world into something better.
And yes yes ok. I’ll admit that the prose is.. how to say it? Slightly overwrought? Probably one of the most self-consciously literary things I’ve read in a comic? (Example picked completely at random: “There was Halvah on his breath, even above the Ether. Blood drums pounded in my ears like all the pistons of the world. Outside the car where coloured stains of light would bloom and fade upon the widescreen.”). But hell obviously young Alan was trying to do something Serious and Grown-up in a way that just hadn’t really been done before (least of all within a Superhero Comic). And yeah it does mean that making your way through the book is a little slower than you might be used to. But damnit. Maybe that’s just the price you have to pay for quality?
When you’re the first you have to work out how it’s all done by yourself.
Anyway. That’s my take.
What do you think?
I just want to shout out to John Totleben’s contribution to this book. His artwork is very strange, and unique. The draughtsmanship is often slightly off, especially with human figures, and the inking is incredibly detailed, while still looking very hand-drawn, almost wonky. I gather he’s painstakingly slow, and also that he has some form of tunnel vision, and is legally registered as blind. His drawings are unconventionally beautiful, and unmistakable.
He’s a really odd choice for this book (unlike Swamp Thing, which really suited his style). Miracleman book 3 leans really heavily into the sci-fi elements – conceptual weird brain-bending sci-fi, not the Star Wars variety, and it might have benefitted from a snazzier artist with super-fluid linework and more polish. But he pulls it off well enough, it works.
Theatre has no problem using the same script to make different productions. (I’ve heard there’s a guy called Shakespeare who gets a lot of work). And I’ve always kind of wondered why comics don’t do the same thing. That is – why don’t artists take a script and make a brand new comic out of it? I mean – it would be cool and interesting right? (And a really good way to make a name for yourself if you’re an artist just starting out). I don’t imagine it would be that hard to get your hands on a comic book script nowadays right? There’s quite a few “deluxe” editions where they print the script at the back of the book (Although I have no idea why – I’ve never read them lol). And plus well yeah as a consumer I’ve gotta say it would be totally fascinating to read a comic interpreted by a whole different artist. What would Watchmen be like if it was drawn by someone other than Dave Gibbons? I seem to remember Grant Morrison bitching about how Dave McKean didn’t draw Arkham Asylum in the way that he wanted and left out some of the important details (?). So you know – what would it look like if it were drawn by someone who was less… Dave McKeany?
And yeah speaking personally I would love to see a Miracleman that had the same artist throughout just to give it a better sense of consistency. I’m not quite sure who I’d nominate (the first name to spring to mind is Chris Weston but then that’s probably just because I love Chris Weston lol) but there’s definitely parts of the series which feel like they could do with a do-over. How to say it? Sometimes it doesn’t quite feel you’re reading the actual comic as it should be. Instead it kinda feels like you’re reading a cheap facsimile (if that makes sense?).
(Oooh – I do like the hands in the tree. Maybe that’s where Grant Morrison got the hands for heads people in Zenith?)
Saying that – I do like John Totleben’s stuff. I agree with Dave that he’s a much better fit for Swamp Thing but he still manages to bring a sense of the epic to proceedings. Especially with all the nightmarish big battle stuff. There’s this kinda cool classical feeling in how he draws and the way he frames stuff that sometimes makes it feel like it should be on a stained glass window or something.
That’s a nice idea, reinterpreting comic scripts. To sate the obvious, it’s all down to copyright. Doesn’t apply to shakespeare because he’s been dead long enough (even though the length of copyright has increased stupidly over the last century, they haven’t caught up with him yet!). But if I wanted to do a modern take on a shakespeare play that made use of music by Abba, say, I’d still need to pay royalties on the music. Daftest case I remember hearing about was the recent Sherlock Holmes-based TV series about his daughter, which wasn’t approved by the estate, and could only draw on source material from the earlier written works because some are still in copyright but others aren’t.
There’s been several comic book adaptations of Shakespeare too – Oscar Zarate did a quite good one (Othello, IIRC), and one of my kids had a weird mange version of Macbeth where MacDuff had four arms.
A non-Dave McKean Arkham Asylum would be interesting. I gather that Brendan McCarthy was originally lined up to do it. It’d require someone special, to avoid suffering the fate on non-Bill-Sienkiewicz versions of the Demon Bear from New Mutants.
Non-Sienkiewicz (Carmine Infantino, I think?):
aaand that was totally off-topic. Yeah, Miracleman book 3
Alan Davis was a great choice as a “sci-fi” artist for Miracleman, his bendy curvy lines really suited it. Barry Windsor Smith (at his Weapon-X stage) might have been interesting. Moebius – now that’d be something! How about Geof Darrow? Christian Ward?
PS: I seriously doubt that Grant Morrison got the head/hand people idea from that tree, probably more likely from early twentieth century surrealists like Magritte. The whole “he stole it from Alan Moore” circus has quite enough petrol poured on it already 🙂
Mixing together various bits of my earlier email – what would Miracleman book 3 illustrated by Magritte look like? Any other major 20th century artists who could do a decent job? Shapeshifting Qys by Salvador Dali? Futurist warpsmiths? A bit of Van Gogh for that line when his daughter asks why he decided to keep the sky the same colour.
This post was created by our Book Club email list.
If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Book Club” to here.