The view from Olympus

Rereading Miracleman Book Three by Alan Moore and John Totleben.

Marvelman and V for Vendetta were once part of the same universe. Well, in point of fact they never were by any objective yardstick: they never crossed over, they never interacted through any other shared events or characters, one is thirty years older than the other, and I don’t think their creators ever thought of them as even contiguous. But back in Warrior, where Moore’s revisionist Marvelman was first published, editor and publisher Dez Skinn wanted everyone from V to Laser Eraser and Pressbutton to share a timeline and it was asserted, in editorial pieces, that they did. (Mikel Midnight tried to piece it together here.) We readers had no reason not to believe it.

Reconciling the idea with the published works seems an impossible task. Miracleman ends by striving toward Utopia, the dream of the perfect world closer every day. V, set perhaps a decade later, is a dystopia arisen from nuclear war. I mention this thankfully long-forgotten piece of commercial vs creative idiocy only to illustrate the strange pressures shaping the first two books of the series, and because it means there’s at least one of those pressures that doesn’t have to be explained on the page in Book Three.

Once regarded as part of a trilogy of Moore masterworks, along with V and Watchmen, the series is now better known for being a lost masterpiece than it is for being a masterpiece. And it is, in this final book, a masterpiece. The high style developed in Swamp Thing, the clarity of the lush, descriptive prose of Miracleman’s thoughts, reaches its apotheosis here. This book, the 120 pages of Book Three: Olympus, is why there’s a long-running legal battle for ownership of the character. This is what makes it worth it. John Totleben’s art, dynamic and detailed and classical, befitting the volume’s theme, is faultless. The plot is revisionism par excellence, Superman Red and Superman Blue taken intelligently to a logical extreme. The other two books do little more than provide context for this one. They’re not on the same level. But they sure try hard to drag it down.

Olympus spends pages, pages and pages, on continuity loose ends, odd new characters, retcons. It’s a minefield of exposition and info-dumps. We meet Miraclewoman, Young Nastyman, the Qys and their Kingqueen, the Warpsmiths, and the Firedrake for the first time. We find out about two alien races, Gargunza’s secret experiment, Miracleman’s undersea hero hangout, the fates of Liz Moran and Mike Moran and Winter and Big Ben and everyone else. The information comes in torrents. And this is an extremely wordy comic, especially with Miracleman’s rococo narration. And while that, and the framing sequences, are a wonderful way of making the journey of this story believable they take up at least three pages of every sixteen-page chapter. The book is groaning at the seams.

How many books of Marvelman had Moore planned? There seems room for at least five. Books one and two as published, then a third book about the Qys and the Warpsmiths, a fourth with Young Nastyman and Miraclewoman, and a final book about the defeat of Kid Marvelman and the creation of a utopia. Entirely my speculation, shuffle it around as you like. But instead everything’s crammed into one book. Young Nastyman, the same silly-name-evil-dude trick pulled with Kid Marvelman and Marveldog, gets it roughest; a subplot who could have been big lives and dies in voiceover flashback. Huey Moon, the Firedrake, doesn’t get much more screen time: introduced on a double-page spread, a short moment in the spotlight in the big battle with the adversary, a panel in the final issue. Aza Chorn, the Warpsmith, gets more action but also gets killed. The compression gives them lives like mayflies.

If I’m suggesting that Alan Moore drastically revised his plans for this series, compressed three books into one book, then why didn’t he make more radical changes? Why leave the entirely superfluous Firedrake in at all? Why write in Young Nastyman only to write him out a few pages later? Compression of the story is understandable – Moore had matured as a writer, his work was reaching a more defined and more mature audience, he didn’t have to and probably didn’t want to write all the slugfests – but why this dogged fidelity to his original plan? Because this is comics, of course, and because the past has been published. Young Nastyman had to stay in there because of a single mention in the Alan Davis chapters of Book Two; Gargunza, talking about Rebbeck and Lear. And everything else had to unfold according to plan because of an unfortunate story called The Yesterday Gambit.

Ten pages long, published in Warrior #4, intended for a summer special, interrupting a series only 24 pages old, (and available here) the whole thing is pretty much a disaster. Written in the arch, third-person captions of Moore’s early work and drawn by Steve Dillon, Paul Neary and Alan Davis, it’s a flashforward to 1985 – three years in the comic’s future. A future Marvelman with changed costume, along with a samurai-looking alien called Warpsmith, arrive at an undersea citadel called Silence. In need of power to beat whoever it is they’re fleeing, they go for a fight with the Marvelman Family in the 60s and with the newly reborn Marvelman in 1982, then return to face Kid Marvelman, his costume entirely black, and an ambiguous ending.

I believe certain Image comics did this; jumped forward to #27 (or similar) and then returned to their regular numbering, a slice of the future known and the storytelling tension in discovering how it will come out. I don’t know if any of them actually covered the issues in between and kept the promise. I doubt many of them did, given the track record of the company at that time and the constant changes of titles and personnel. Marvelman suffered the same problem. The only permanent link between Book One and Book Three was Alan Moore, and he’d improved so much that he was hardly the same writer. Yet, though The Yesterday Gambit was never republished, he felt a fidelity to the scraps of the future it told. He includes a vision of it in the penultimate chapter, recapped in a page and presented next to competing visions and mythologies. Silence and the Firedrake are brought into the story only to keep the contract made with the reader. It’s kept in continuity.

One last note on continuity and the publishing history of the comic: there’s a supplement to Book Three. 24 pages of Warpsmith stories, a two-parter and a stand-alone, all by Moore and Garry Leach. The first is, to my memory, somewhat overwrought and pits Aza Chorn against a Qys agent. The second is a trans-universal orgy of mourning and runs slightly deeper. The first ran in Warrior concurrently with Marvelman, the second was printed in A1 #1 a few years later. They’re roughly of the quality of the first two books. I mention them because they contribute to the mythology; the readers were aware of Aza Chorn before his appearance in Book Three. He arrived weighted with the significance of that flash of independence, a character who had his own past and future and wasn’t just support to the lead. Without that context, the revelation of his death which frames the episode in which he makes his second appearance in the series doesn’t mean much and Miracleman’s mooning around the memorial garden seems a bit queeny. Would those stories be reproduced as part of a Marvelman collection? Are they necessary to the arc, or just diverting curios? Gaiman mentions the Warpsmiths in his run. Were they going to play a significant part in The Silver Age or The Dark Age? They’re owned by Moore and Leach, I think, perhaps the only legally unambiguous player in the whole house of cards.

So the third volume, unlike the first two, appears to require a lot of context. From where I’m standing the reader new to Marvelman would emerge from Book Three confused about the fast-forward pace of the story, the puzzling asides and the dead-end characters, the contrast in style between the different books, wondering what they were missing. But where I’m standing is the wrong place. The first book of Sandman – the first two books, at least – contain so many references to the DC universe of the time that I, schooled in their context, can’t help feeling new readers would need annotations. Yet Sandman has millions of readers who know nothing about the Giffen Justice League or John Constantine and don’t feel the need for help. I fell hard for Ambush Bug while getting one joke in every five. Readers who don’t know the context often don’t mind at all.

And, of course, Alan Moore’s holding your hand the whole time. Formal structure comes crashing back, rigid and obvious. The framing sequences set in Miracleman’s world, a god leading the benighted into perfection, are a golden cage around the narrative. The mystery of Olympus is unfolded, chapter by chapter, until the final slow zoom. The pantheon of this new era are introduced, one per chapter, each chapter named after its subject’s analogue in Greek worship. It’s a blindingly simple device, a headline blazing the significance of the new characters and the old. Miraclewoman is Venus: so as we’re meeting her, we’re told that she has become the lover to the hero, to the world. Kid Miracleman is bleak Nemesis, the knife in the heart of the old reality that can only be healed by the new. Only the important ones get this treatment. The Firedrake never gets a Hephaestus chapter.
The art and the prose team beautifully. The text embodies its metaphor; the new Earth is a quantum leap beyond the old, and the delivery is a quantum leap beyond the first two books. Totleben draws whole pages in one infinitely intricate, casual, poised, hatched brushstroke. Miracleman and Miraclewoman become perfectly androgynous, statues of delicate light. Even the squalor of Johnny’s beatings and rape is classical, mythic in its torment. And Moore’s first-person captions, dazzling and limpid, show us the past and present through a holy being’s eyes. “My history is locked within the still life of my coiled flesh, and if I move it all comes spilling out.”

The first three chapters are, though delivered with epic finesse, almost mundane in event. There’s a fight in a park which Miracleman loses – and actually he loses every fight with equal opponents in the whole three books, he only ever wins through the efforts of others and magic words – and the appearance of Miraclewoman for the first time, a stippled movie goddess on the page. There’s her origin, contracted into seven pressurised pages . There’s a visit to an alien world, the return home and Liz Moran’s departure. And even doing all that in 16-page chapters, Moore drops in a line explaining how the costume changes, like it’s a line he’s had planned in his head for 13 years and can’t resist using, a jarring throwback in a completely different work. (Really, who cared? It’s not like the Miracle Family’s powers were properly defined.)

Chapter Four is the montage chapter. It shifts Liz Moran, Mike Moran and Winter Moran-Miracleman off the stage, introduces the Firedrake and Silence, and in a scene of absolute horror, returns the adversary to active service. Every moving part in his return is tragic; Johnny can’t be expected to take any more, the boys he kills deserve their deaths at that moment, but there is no possibility of restraint. I’m sure I had no idea what KM would do in the following issue, back when I was reading it in comics. (Well, apart from what I knew from The Yesterday Gambit, I guess.) But his rampage through London, his one-man holocaust, seems inevitable and inexorable. The gore of Chapter Five made it notorious for a while, and it certainly seems to be one of those moments from Moore’s first adolescent vision of the series. What would a villain really do without restraint? One without any nobility, without any masterplan for the world, one who is straight out of his mind? Kill, kill, kill; it’s not a subtle answer, if this was posed as a writing problem, but it was new to comics. At the time there had been nothing like this. No villain, however black-hearted, did much in the way of murdering on camera. Property was destroyed but it was assumed to have been evacuated first. The Hulk’s rampages were said, requesting the reader not to think too hard, to be bloodless. I’m sure there were bloody corners of the Big Two and various independents, but this was an old-school superhero, a 50s guy fighting an 80s horror. It was ground-breaking. Miracleman #15 used to be the most valuable comic I owned, though I imagine it’s worth a lot less than it was, because of the apocalypse of atrocity within. (Though I never understood why everyone wasn’t buying it. This was post-Watchmen, Alan Moore was a hot property, how did it become rare?)

After that there’s the final chapter, as long as a third of the first book, which explores the flip-side of the revisionist coin: if an evil superhuman, without artificial moral restraints on the narrative, slaughters half of London then what would a good superhero do? Why did Superman spend the 1950s appearing at charity concerts and playing tricks on his friends when men were dying in Korea, in Vietnam, in Kenya? With great power comes great responsibility, we’re told. Miracleman and gang take their responsibilities seriously. Human conflict can be ended. Arbitrary political or economic systems causing suffering and loss of life can be shut down. As the most powerful beings on their planet, and the founders of a new species, they have a responsibility to do so.

Even in 34 pages there’s too much to do. Events are elided, huge shifts in the world given a panel, a caption. The key to the chapter is the unification of form and content; finally, the world has caught up with Miracleman’s elegant, alien descriptions of it. The opening monologue, printed on the inside cover of the original issue, jolts the reader into reverse by making a book-burning beautiful, a conceptual act of understanding by the lower beings our narrator has dedicated his life to. The mundane acts of taking over the UK’s government and disarming the United Nations transpire in nine-panel grids, in sepia tone, in grainy blow-up texture. Like colour making the black-and-white war years impossibly distant, the past as a superseded technology. We skip through the end of famine, the end of money, the end of crime while Olympus is being built and see it half-constructed before the consummation of this new world takes place in the skies, Miracleman and Miraclewoman getting their superfreak on. Again, a touchstone of revisionism and a perennial question for comics readers: why wouldn’t Superman and Wonder Woman get it on? Who else could measure up, for each of them? Here, the obvious first couple of Earth become the first couple.

The Warpsmiths, the Firedrake, Miracledog and even Big Ben get their place in the pantheon; the latter a Dez Skinn character inserted into the first book at Dez Skinn’s insistence, but still given a wrap-up here. Winter comes back, as unwritable a character as any superhero offspring has ever been, and we’re shown that even the dead have their place in this new firmament. The only unsettling note in a symphony of triumph is Liz Moran, boxed in by white light, her face hidden, refusing to be a part of it. She doesn’t want to be a superhuman. She doesn’t want a part in the new order. Her life transformed by the birth of it, she survives as a witness to what used to be. Even Miracleman’s stratospheric musings are haunted by her and her refusal, the nagging sense that something crucial to humanity’s apotheosis has been neglected and left behind.

The final shot of Olympus, the crowning glory erected on a foundation of bones, the house of gods that will grow until it covers every inch of the planet, every person a resident and a god, closes the series. It’s a piece with Moore’s current works, in a sense, the same philosophy: we create fictions that we follow to a better world. Here, the fictions became flesh, Gargunza translating them from the comics page to reality, and they very physically dragged us into their world.

Consider this the third of a trilogy of limited series by Alan Moore, along with Watchmen and V for Vendetta, all asking the same question. How can superheroes save the world? V does it by example. Adrian Veidt does it by brute force. Miracleman does it by mixing both, by coming to terms with his superiority and bestowing it on others. Neither V or Veidt trusted those they were trying to save; they kept their actions, even their deaths, secret. Miracleman – and Miraclewoman, the prime mover in most of this – presented themselves as a fait accompli. They accepted their godhood. Frank Miller once said, of that the two works that defined the graphic novel revolution, that Watchmen was the autopsy and Dark Knight was the brass-band funeral. Miracleman is the eulogy, the story of the superhero so exquisitely delivered that it raises the audience to that level. However phrased, though, the superhero is dead. Where do you go from here?

Miracleman #11-#16 by Alan Moore and John Totleben, reprinted as Miracleman Book Three: Olympus, are out of print.

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  1. […] Book Three of Miracleman, Alan Moore used the framing device of Miracleman pondering the legends of his transformed world […]

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