Why didn’t we realise what they were doing to our lives?
Rereading Marvelman/Miracleman Book One by Alan Moore, Garry Leach and Alan Davis.
Writing about the early days of Swamp Thing was writing about a vanished world, where readers chose their comics by rifling through the sheaf on the shelves of their local newsagent, where fill-in issues appeared as regularly as annuals and any comic more than a few months old was lost to the backrooms of second-hand bookshops or the spread of magazines on a market stall. Warrior comes from a world even more vanished than that, an unchronicled bonfire of newsprint with only a handful of survivors and the rumours of their customs and rituals. And Marvelman comes from a world so thoroughly eradicated that, amateur UK comics archaeologist that I’ve been my whole life, I’ve never even seen any traces of it.
Accurately recalling what the American comics scene was like in the mid-80s, putting the context in place, is one thing. Accurately recalling what the British comics scene was like in the early 80s is much harder. None of them survive: Hotspur, Eagle, Battle, Action, Battle Action, Roy of the Rovers. Starlord and Tornado are only remembered for the collisions with 2000AD that only parts of them survived. 2000AD itself remains, a freakish anomaly that’s become part of the furniture in UK newsagents like fellow travellers Viz and Private Eye, and it still follows the traditional format of those British comics: weekly, anthology, action.
They didn’t really deal in heroes. As long as the male protagonists had some spur to violence, they’d do. So there were thieves, kid vigilantes, soldiers, spies, alien monsters, murdering computers, super-terrorists, adventurers. Forty years after the Second World War, Krauts were still dying with an AAAAARGH! and Japs were dying with an AAAIIIEEE! The first couple of years of 2000AD contain, despite its pitch as the sci-fi comic, a typical line-up: a Bionic Man rip-off, a cockney guerrilla, colonial spacefarer Dan Dare, a hard-done-by sports team. The characters which have defined the comic’s long history didn’t quite fit in at the time. (Though Flesh is the defining early 2000AD idea for me; dinosaurs vs future cowboys, with the gore turned up to ten.) And 2000AD, like the rest, was printed on the lowest possible grade of paper in black and white with a colour centre-spread and a colour cover. Production values were more like America’s Golden Age than the Silver Age, and consequently the comics as actual physical objects have barely survived. They weren’t meant to survive. They were meant to be posted through the door by the newsagent and used to light the fire the following week.
Warrior, where Alan Moore first wrote Miracleman as Marvelman, was a black and white anthology comic. But it was monthly rather than weekly and had a glossy cover with painted colour. The production inside was classier too, with whiter paper and crisper printing , without the ragged edges that the other comics had. Finally, and very unusually, it wasn’t aimed at kids. 2000AD still targeted the 10-year-olds when Madness were recording singles about Dredd; it knew there was an older audience, but it did nothing to connect with them. Warrior was aimed at that older audience, maybe not adults but teenagers and students, right from the start. That meant tits but no swearwords, violence and horror but few consequences. While it’s hard to say strips were written for an adult audience – who exactly were Madman or Father Shandor meant to appeal to? – they weren’t written down to an audience of children. There was the expectation that the readers had moved beyond Battle and were looking for something with more substance.
Tthe lead strip of this new comic, however, came from an era of publication even more thoroughly eradicated than the black-and-white anthology comic would soon be. Marvelman, a Captain Marvel knock-off from the 1950s, apparently has a publication history, but I’ve been neck-deep in British comics since the 1980s and I’ve never seen an actual issue of the comics he and Young Marvelman starred in for hundreds of issues. When Alan Moore was 15 and found an old annual at a seaside shop, presumably in 1968 or 1969 when the decade was in full swing and Dr Strange was hitting big with hippies, Marvelman was already almost lost. Pádraig Ó Méalóid, who’s done more research into who owns the character than anyone, has to minutely examine reprints for clues. I won’t get into the legal situation surrounding Marvelman because I’d never get out of it. Suffice to say that for readers of Warrior and of Eclipse’s Miracleman meeting the hero was exactly analogous to Marvelman’s first meeting with his wife Liz; he says he’s been around for ages, but we’ve never heard of him.
I was pleasantly surprised, rereading Book One, to find that it gets good halfway through. My memory had arbitrarily assigned the point at which Moore’s writing improves, and those portentous third-person captions drop off the page, to the end of Book One. Actually it begins to improve immediately after the big fight with Kid Marvelman. Until then, though, it’s bad in a way few would associate with Moore. There’s a stage early in the work of every artist where he or she writes a sentence or plays a tune or paints a picture that seems genuine to them, that seems to be a proper song just like the ones they hear on the radio. In fact what they’ve done is pastiche what they’ve heard, what they’ve read; subconsciously emulated it to give their own amateurish efforts legitimacy. That’s how the first six chapters of Marvelman read. Alan Moore’s voice is there, but it’s been put through a Steve Englehart filter to make these comics seem more like proper comics, the kind the writer reads. Fragments of the prose style that would characterise Swamp Thing poke through from the very first caption’s “sodium-lit hour before dawn,” but they’re overwhelmed by the tin ear for dialogue that brings us lines like “Nukes are really heavy, know what I mean?” and the leaden thought balloon “Christ, this guy’s a psycho!” The plot of that first chapter holds about as much water as a Silver Age Superman comic, too: terrorists are hijacking plutonium from a nuclear power station and holding a press conference about it? Four of them, armed with tommy guns? Worst of all is line about pigs getting barbecued that a) isn’t apposite because the guy using it isn’t holding a flamethrower and b) sounds like a line from a Freak Brothers comic, hippy satire glaringly out of place in a supposedly serious context.
For a while in the 80s, while Alan Moore fever raged through comics, Miracleman was considered one of a trinity of discrete works along with Watchmen and V For Vendetta. It’s been absent for so long that I’ve no idea what reputation it has now. When Marvel announced they’d got rights to the character there was excitement, so presumably there’s an audience for Moore’s great lost work. I wonder what that audience will make of it, because most people haven’t seen Moore early in his career when he was just learning to write. I remember reading a couple of stories written for UK Star Wars comics and being shocked at how inexpert and ordinary they were. For the legendary Miracleman, which will probably be back to being called Marvelman if it’s ever republished, to begin so clunkily could surprise the readers who’ve waited for so long.
The Miracleman run from Eclipse begins with a story from the old days to put the character into context, to introduce him to us as a Golden Age superhero before we meet him in the modern age. The original issues didn’t have that. The précis of his background given to Liz Moran, those two pages, were all most of Warrior’s readers knew about the guy. His hundreds of pages of superheroics had to be taken on faith. Liz plays the adolescent reader of comics, mocking the childish fantasies of the Golden Age from a position of assumed sophistication, but the emotional journey she takes over six pages is tortuous and requires regular reinforcement from the omniscient narrator.
The technique begins with the very first word of the next chapter: “ATTRITION”. Every page but one of the chapter is headlined with a noun, allowing Moore to intercut between deflating superhero science and advancing the plot for the second half of book one, in which Marvelman discovers his true origins. After this interlude, self-consiously marked as such, we’re back to the rush; our protagonist is ensnared by Evelyn Cream, updated on the latest set of antagonists, goes through a number of trials of strength, and finally discovers who he really is and why all that Guntag Borghelm stuff’s been treated so lightly, why the readers have been encouraged to ask so many questions.
Through all of this the writing has been improving, becoming more Moore. The formalism which has marked out so many of his comics since, the creation of storytelling structures, begins here. So too does the poetic prose, Marvelman “like a kite that has lost its war with the wind,” contrasting with Mike Moran, who “feels stupid. All my life I’ve felt stupid.” The repeated use of “out of the dark,” as precursor to action sequences in which the hero is the still, invulnerable point against which violence beats itself while in flashback the same phrase is explored as a metaphor, and in a bar of white across each darkened page the antagonists provide silhouetted exposition. The rotating internal monologues of the next chapter, the first in which the authorial third-person captions are nowhere to be seen. And by the final page of the first book, where the parallel narratives of Big Ben’s last moments in the comic are seen from inside and outside his derangement, Moore’s developing the visual signature that appears on virtually every page of Watchmen.
The art doesn’t need to go on any such journey. Beginning with Garry Leach, and switching seamlessly to Alan Davis in the middle of the MM-KM slugfest, it defines the brand of realism that soon every comic was struggling for. Realism eventually came to mean detail, to mean cross-hatching on heroic jawlines, but here it means backgrounds with actual buildings in rather than sketchy boxes, well-observed anatomy, supporting characters with consistent appearances, faces and bodies that show emotion. Davis’ art is more cartoony in its smoothness than Leach’s obsessively-worked perfection (that page-height panel where Marvelman flies out of the power station through the roof? I happen to know that his upper body was drawn on a separate piece of paper, pasted on) but both share the same grounded sensibility. If they’re going to draw something fantastic – a car wrecking itself against a superhuman, an alien skeleton – then they do the work around it, drawing lampposts and chairs and stairs enough to earn it.
Moore’s writing develops page by page, and astonishingly fast. But his plot, the one he dreamed up as a 15-year-old in Great Yarmouth, is there from the start. The superhero, that ridiculous construct of children’s entertainment, is birthed into a world like our own and made to look at himself in a mirror. He’s forced to admit to his own stupidity, to fall prey to petty jealousies and unhappinesses like the rest of us. His reward is a new origin more fitting to the world he’s in, a validation which allows him to continue his existence.
Marvelman/Miracleman is the ur-text of revisionism. It’s got it all; a past that’s a dream, a superhero created in a government experiment, absolute power corrupting innocence absolutely. Its value, now, is almost entirely historical: this is the comic that got there first. Every subsequent superhero who saw chunks of pseudo-scientific dialogue thrown at his powers, who found himself fighting his kid partner turned to evil, whose origin was exposed as a filthy lie by the government propagandists who intended him to be a living weapon. Even if they didn’t, even if their creators came up with those ideas entirely independently, they all started here. This is where the Dark Age began.
Marvelman Book One by Alan Moore, Garry Leach and Alan Davis was originally published in Warrior #1-#12, and republished in Miracleman #1-#3. It is not currently in print.