The careless and foggy continuum

Rereading Marvelman Book Two by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Chuck Beckum, Rick Veitch, John Ridgway, and Rick Bryant.

Remember that scene, close to the end of Book Two of V for Vendetta, where Evey enters the Shadow Gallery and realises where she’s been all along? The first full-page splash, simple and stunning, in a comic of cramped quarters and tight perspectives? The impact it had?

Well, for those of us reading the series when it was originally published in Warrior, that was a cliffhanger that took four years to resolve. It wasn’t until issue seven of the DC series that we found out how Evey had got there. Four years. That’s a long wait. I’ve complained about it ever since to people who read the series as it should be read in its collected form and had to wait no longer than it takes to turn a page. They’ve been completely unsympathetic, and that’s how it should be. I bring it up not because I expect anyone, a lifetime on, to feel my pain but to point out that, unless you knew that cliffhanger lasted four years, you’d never guess. Values follows seamlessly from The Verdict. The hiatus is absolutely invisible.

If you tried the same trick on a Marvelman reader, asking them to point at the spot in Book Two where the series took a break for a few years, they’d guess unerringly and instantly. Could it be the point between chapters seven and eight, where the art changes from polished and confident to inept and incompetent? From a chiaroscuro comic with colouring to something as incongruously bright outlined with the black strokes of a kids’ TV cartoon? Even the lettering seems to take a leap backward to the amateurish block caps of underground comics, filling far too much of every panel though mercifully covering some of the art.

There are three pencillers in this one volume; first Alan Davies, providing beautiful lines and a stippled alien spacecraft in the service of a largely pedestrian story. The second, Chuck Beckum, who takes over after the Miracledog cliffhanger, is famously bad. Dean Mullaney of Eclipse, Miracleman’s publishers, and Dez Skinn of Quality, Warrior’s publishers, both say that he was Alan Moore’s choice. Modelling sheets and pin-ups printed in the back of the Miracleman series show an excellent draughtsman whose use of blacks wasn’t unlike Alan Davis. The artist who turned up for three eight-page chapters of the series, however, was someone who couldn’t draw faces consistently, who made flesh look like plastic and Marveldog look like an action figure, whose storytelling seemed both cramped and cut off by the confines of the page. The best that can be said is that he followed the scripts closely. But scenes that should be shocking, like Marvelman’s splash page killing of two henchmen which looks like a possessed Action Man banging two fellow dolls together, are just laughable.

He was succeeded – at short notice? – by Rick Veitch, already a Moore collaborator from the Swamp Thing days. I’ve wondered, if Marvel ever get their reprints of this material cleared to go, whether they’d have a new artist come in and redraw the Beckum chapters. The surprise, rereading it, was that they should do the same for Veitch’s chapters because they aren’t much better. The storytelling’s good because Veitch knows how to put panels together, but the faces are at times shockingly distorted and the general ugliness of the whole thing doesn’t fit with the tone at all. This is meant to be the calm after the storm, the purity of Marvelman’s nativity after the violence of the fight, but the only scenes Veitch really manages to sell are the Qys agents in the grimy English park. The long childbirth sequence should be serene, an unlikely lake of calm after the torrent of preceding events. Instead the panels showing the birth seem to come from an exceptionally explicit EC comic, while the accompanying flashbacks are simply confusing because of the gulf between their twisted misrepresentations and the first time we saw them. I spent a month lauding Veitch’s run on Swamp Thing. I’m a fan of his work. It doesn’t appear he was paired with sympathetic inkers for either of his two 16-page chapters. It’s very possible they were produced in a rush when he was doing other work. Those are excuses. But his art contributes to the failure of this second book.

There’s also the issue of inconsistency. When V For Vendetta came back, I wondered if it would keep to the format from Warrior: eight-page chapters, each titled with a word beginning with V, etcetera. It did, and it’s one of the things that make it an successful complete work. The majority of this book is the same, but the final two chapters go up to 16 pages – Nativity seems to be two chapters cut together, the break simply erased – and it makes it uneven. The first half of the book rushes into action, the end takes its time. Plus there’s the two-part Marvelman Family story which was probably written to run concurrently with the regular episodes, something you can do in anthology comics, and which provides vital background on Gargunza and his manipulations of Marvelman. They need to be included in this volume but there’s no obvious place for them.

It’s remarkable that Moore’s experiments in comics storytelling have made him the one writer of comics that a wider public knows anything about. There are comics being published every month that take none of the risks Moore and his collaborators did, that are without doubt simpler in conception and execution, that in theory should be more accessible to the inexperienced comics reader. But techniques that are impressively tricky on the page and have proved intimidatingly difficult for anyone to reproduce have always been accompanied by a commitment to holding the reader’s hand.

Compare, for example, Watchmen’s storytelling to that to the work of the Hernandez brothers in Love & Rockets. Xaime flits between places, between characters, between eras, with no more announcement than a gutter between panels. Utterly unselfconscious, completely natural, it nonetheless requires a close reading of the narrative and a mental map of the characters to properly enjoy. Or Beto’s work, unspooling narratives that bounce through years or stories which involve the whole village of Palomar as if they were no more complicated than his one-page gag strips. Not to mention the genre shifts of both, throwing in Penny’s surreal antics and Fortunato into otherwise grounded stories. These are, certainly, comics that a wider audience can understand and take to their hearts, but spring one on someone who’s new to comics and you’ll find them frequently befuddled.

In contrast Moore’s formalism, the rules he sets himself in his experiments, are so rigidly adhered to that no matter how unusual the content – Promethea #32’s schooling in modern magic is the best example – there are bright red threads there to be followed. The Black Freighter stuff in Watchmen, a Greek chorus which comments on the symbolic story that’s unfolding behind all these superpeople, is always presented in the same format: dipping into Marooned a panel at a time, always with a line of dialogue from the real world over the top, always with an overt link in that dialogue making it absolutely clear how the parallel narrative of the Black Freighter comic is reflecting the real world. The experimentation comes with rules and a guidebook so the readers can marvel at how clever comics are to be doing all this multi-level stuff without ever feeling lost.

Moore’s formalism’s also a great way for a writer who isn’t an artist to exercise control over the visual elements of his work. If you’re scripting nine-panel grids then you’re compelling a certain kind of storytelling; no pin-up pages, few unsettling angles, a succession of linear moments. It’s one of the reason Moore’s work is so consistent. The rules are agreed with the artist beforehand and they’re kept to. That doesn’t work for every artist. Sienkiewicz ran screaming from Big Numbers for that and other reasons, as opposed to his work on Elektra Assassin where Miller rewrote the script as the pages came in. But it holds the work together. Even in Moore’s initial Supreme run, where artists changed every issue, the structure of flashbacks kept that first 12-issue arc consistent enough to be read as a whole.

Marvelman is the rare Moore work that’s not consistent. The beginning of Moore’s run is far removed from its final pages. The writing changes, the art changes, the format changes, the publisher changes, the sensibility changes, the audience changes. The name of the series and the name of the title character both change. The reasons for all this turbulence were legal, were to do with switching publishers and continents and the years that took to happen. They’re impossible to separate from the fucked-up business practices of the comics industry. But they left Marvelman as a complete work that very visibly changes direction halfway through, and halfway through is halfway through this second volume. Lacklustre in the first half, it never really recovers from the shock of Beckum’s appalling art. It’s a bridging volume between the revisionist primer of the first book and the elegant artistry of the third.

What happens in Book Two? Gargunza, Marvelman’s archenemy in his fake life and his creator in real life, kidnaps the pregnant Liz Moran and takes her to the fabled lost valley of the ex-Nazis in South America. Marvelman and Evelyn Cream follow. Marveldog gets beaten by Mike Moran, in the second big superfight to be settled with a magic word, but not before Cream gets decapitated. Marvelbaby is born, and a couple of black-clad alien agents stalk around getting ready for the next volume. The highlights: Gargunza’s two-chapter explanation of his origins, which takes us into territory we’re not used to exploring in superhero comics and contain one of the first examples of Moore’s use of symbolic allusion, a panel on every page shadowing the exploration of the crashed spaceship with a moth going too close to the flames. Cream’s final understanding of the journey he’s been on, the compulsion behind his conscious plans and his recurring dreams, provides him with a poetic end. Gargunza’s own death, that final stratospheric kiss. The Marvelman Family two-parter, with John Ridgway’s wood-carved art. Moore’s writing, which is beginning to stretch itself out in the quieter chapters and is realising how much it can do.

But those moments are outweighed by the mundane stuff of superhero ultraviolence and mild peril. The Marveldog trick, a ludicrous enemy from comics for children made terrifying in the light of realism, worked better in Book One with Kid Marvelman. Like that enemy, Gargunza’s defeated at almost the first time of asking. Moore’s understanding, as he writes, that his adolescent imagining of a realistic superhero was only one step closer to something that could reasonably be called realism and is updating his vision as he writes it. Book Two ends as a superhero comic; a clever one, that had worked hard on updating the tropes and archetypes of the medium, but a superhero comic nonetheless. Book Three is not.

Marvelman Book Two by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Chuck Beckum, Rick Veitch, John Ridgway, and Rick Bryant was published in Warrior #13-#21 and Miracleman #4-#7 and #9-#10. It is not currently in print. 

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