Perfection isn’t anything

Rereading Miracleman Book Four, by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham.

One of the more frequent criticisms of Before Watchmen, which this post isn’t about, is that the various mini-series cannot present anything new. Because they’re bound to be faithful to the original, because they’re prequels, and because the significant parts of each characters’ past have already been told, the room to tell an interesting story simply isn’t there. There can’t be an earlier clash of ideologies between Ozymandias and Manhattan because it would have been mentioned in the original text, so any encounter has to be a trivial one, at most casting shadows of the future. The picture has been drawn and mainly coloured in; all that’s left to do is add crabbed, baroque styling in the few blank spaces, like blacking in the marbling of a notebook cover.

It wasn’t a criticism of the prequels I placed high in the top ten of their sins – the non-involvement of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the irrefutable reason for them not to exist – but it was one I acknowledged. How can creativity not be stifled, when you’re not actually allowed to do anything with your characters? When the beginning and end of your story are already set in stone, what hope is there for the middle?

Book Four of Miracleman, the only one completed by Neil Gaiman, elegantly refutes that. Nothing of plot significance happens in The Golden Age. Whole chapters explore throwaway lines from #16 or fill in glaring gaps from the previous book. The stories are focused on minor characters, with the gods only making cameo appearances. It starts about seven months before the conclusion of Book Three, which I reckon was a mistake and it should have started six months after, and it concludes seven years later. Nothing in the direction of the world has changed in the interim. The only new information in the whole thing is the resurrection of a murdered minor character, and resurrections in comics aren’t usually a sign of groundbreaking writers forging ahead to new territory. (And the book was forced to be part of a companywide crossover, too…) If a writer had been ordered to tread water for six issues, to divert the readers while changing nothing like on that fill-in arc of The Authroity, if this whole book had been to fill the gap until Moore and Totleben came back, it could still look like this.

But it’s a superb piece of work, and because it makes a cohesive whole actually the best book of Miracleman. Gaiman’s genius was to recognise the flaws in his mentor’s work, to acknowledge that Book Three was rushed and weighed down by continuity and that the concepts crammed into the final issue, the breathless articulation of a new utopia, needed the space to expand. It also buys him time: you can’t do anything, plotwise, with a paradise. Happiness writes white. The only option is to introduce a serpent, to begin tearing heaven down, and to do that when it’s only just been built would be to reduce Moore’s vision to one more imaginary story, a brief deviation from the super-status quo. So Gaiman explores, over six comics containing a prologue and eight chapters, the world that was created. He expands on it, explores the shining corners of the Golden Age, and most importantly gives us the human perspective. The only ordinary people in Book Three were Mike and Liz Moran; one a suicide, one opting out of the new order. Gaiman is pulling a Watchmen with Miracleman by giving us the ground-level perspective of a world of superheroes, examining how everyday life buckles under the strain of the miraculous.

(Quick note about Marvelman vs Miracleman: in writing about these comics, I tended to refer to Marvelman for the first two books because it’s hard to discuss the character’s heritage when using a different name. But for this book the Miracleman name is the one that suits; it’s an era of the casually miraculous, where reality is being replaced by fiction. If it’s ever republished by Marvel Comics as Marvelman, there will be some slight dissonance with this volume.)

We begin with a prologue, a brief overview establishing the certainty of this new world, stating unambiguously that these are the best of times, no disagreement. It’s drawn in a monumental chiaroscuro style by Mark Buckingham, like Albert Speer’s architectural plans for the glorious ruins of the Third Reich, and leaves the reader in no doubt that the transformation of Earth has been a positive one. There’s no revisionism here; Gaiman isn’t about to reveal that though everything may look perfect from above, life in Miracleworld is actually life in a fascist dictatorship. It’s a restating of the protagonist’s internal monologue from the closing chapter of Book Three, a third-person confirmation that things are really that good and getting better.

Mark Buckingham, to talk about the art earlier than I usually do, excels himself here. Before this he’d pencilled a short run on Hellblazer, following the style of predecessor Richard Piers Rayner pretty closely. In this short series he works in a different style for every chapter, ranging from a pastiche of Leo Baxendale to a noise-distorted photorealism, and every one works beautifully. Gaiman had proved with Sandman that a single writer and multiple artists could create a unified work; Buckingham seems determined to replicate that on his own. The painted colour of Sam Parsons, who’d been with the series since the beginning and those painfully garish Chuck Beckum issues, evolved to suit the increasingly sophisticated art and meshes perfectly with the art here. D’Israeli takes over for the last two chapters, but Parsons’ skill should be acknowledged. Likewise the lettering by Wayne Truman, overlarge and awkwardly placed on Beckum’s art, does everything right in this book. Worth mentioning because I criticised both but there were clearly production problems for Book Two.

Every chapter in Book Four exists between the lines of Book Three. 4-1, presented in #17, comes from: “Sometimes, toy citizens clamber up here asking favours; this disease needs curing, that river moving. Sometimes I say yes. They wear helmets for the thin air; wear fear in damp crescents beneath their shirt-arms.” We follow, from his own first-person perspective in captions and art, one of these supplicants and his party. They enter Olympus at reception – and how do you get the receptionist’s job? What are the criteria? – and ascend a hybrid of a mountain, a museum, a home, a puzzle, a memorial. Buckingham gives us the action in page-high panels, the humans always dwarfed by the architecture of the divine, and uses an inking technique that allows faces and figures to emerge from angular lines, the surface almost the opposite of his usual curved brushwork. It’s reminiscent of Sienkiewicz inking someone else, something he does magnificently, and I love the style of this issue.

We’re in the head of our narrator, only probing the enigmas of his fellow climbers and the unknowable map of Olympus through his eyes. But there’s also a sense in which our narrator doesn’t matter. He’s probably the blankest, the least charismatic, of all the protagonists in this book. That’s to allow him to be the lens through which we experience this world for the first time. It’s also so we build up a sense of how commonplace he is, the prayer he climbs so far to offer one of the old world, not the new. We’re to use him to measure how human life has changed. As a first view of Miracleman for the series – his only actual appearance in costume in all these pages – it’s a bold one. We see him in a cruel aspect, accepting and refusing prayers without explanation. No explanation could matter. No justification is necessary. He listens to requests, fulfils or ignores them, and considers those who make them “funny little bubble-heads.”

Book Four Chapter Two springs from “visitations. To the chosen, to the faithful, to the hard and the aching…” Miraclewoman is the lover of the new age. She’s not a consort to its ruler; indeed, his ascension to power was the result of her scheming, Lady Macbeth without the blood. But she’s promiscuous like no Queen has ever been, a star of pornography and available for escort visits. No money changes hands. You just have to need it. Our narrator here is another blank man, but one who has willed himself that way to be closer to perfection. Flawlessness is his obsession and the reason he begins the story alone, an inland lighthouse-keeper in a sea of wind turbines. His story is a mythic one, a mortal chosen to be a lover of an immortal, but the only real love in it is larger than the story. He thinks he loves Miraclewoman after a hurricane hook-up – and I loved the 1987 hurricane being part of the story, the faithfulness to British life – and she loves him because she loves everyone. She sleeps with him, she comes back again and again, but it’s not a romance. Hers is the passion of the psychoanalyst for a patient, the need to understand and to heal the broken cogs in the human machine. Told in two-panel pages, largely in heavy blacks and stark shadows without hatching, only Miraclewoman is a beacon of perfectly-delineated poetry in a prosaic life.

The second story in #18, Chapter Three of Book Four, is a short that takes inspiration from British comics. Not superheroes, because they never took off in Britain. No, we British kids spent our childhoods reading about comedy grotesques, misers and snoops and bullies and the grossly fat entertaining us for years. The line for Trends is “Bates, in those awful hours of freedom that he spent before his end, made an impression, it would seem… The lookalikes are the worst. Each time afresh, they startle me.” In 12-panel pages we visit the hallowed lawless zone of any British school, the shadowed area behind the bike sheds where kids smoke and fuck and fight, announced by the sign: “THE SCHOOL ACCEPTS NO RESPONSIBILITY…” Here lurks a Bates, an outcast by choice, an adolescent acting out as a Satan worshipper. Drawn in a hybrid between Archie comics and British comics, Jackie and Greg argue about the philosophy of being a Bates, the antagonistic dream that perfection can never be. It’s a pure rebellion, a conceptual religion, a place for all those feelings that wither in the soft golden light of the miracle age. The rest of the class, grotesque as the Bash Street Kids, talks about commonplace miracles and four-colour fantasies before Jackie’s viciously casual insult and the exquisite slide of the art into realism, the transcendence of faith reaffirmed.

The fourth chapter, Andy Warhol in the underworld, is one of my favourite comics ever. As a teenager it ignited a passion for Warhol’s work. As an adult it’s impossible not to read it through those teenage eyes. It springs from not a single line, but a sequence: the introduction of Mors, the matter-of-fact resurrections (it’s best not to dwell on the magical nature of science in this series) of the recently dead, and the glimpsed, shaded and shade-filled, underworld. “Warhol’s here?’ ‘Eighteen of him. Of all my subjects, he seemed most delighted with an artificial body and suggested that I mass-produce it.” A Warhol is our narrator, but the subject of the story is split between him and Gargunza. Resurrected, impotent, an enigma. The link between the two is unknowability. Warhol has never known himself and fears there is no self there. Gargunza knows himself but cannot be known by others, cannot be comprehended by his children or the alien civilisation that co-parented them. The Golden Age, the world above, cannot be known by either of them. Can the dead live? Can Warhol become something other than the art machine he became, in life and afterlife? The art here is pyrotechnic in technical mastery. A narrative of glowing pastel on black is interrupted by full-page silkscreen compositions; the conversations between Warhol and Gargunza takes place over pages of faux-Warhol compositions, each different style taken from a phase of Warhol’s work. The artist’s voice is taken straight from his diaries, flat and wide-eyed and without guile, trivialities and depth given the same weight. Warhol, in the end, can learn and change. Gargunza is the one on infinite loop.

“Flaunting celestial tradition, she rejected a theology that failed to recognise all things as gods, and to this end suggested our eugenics programme, shipping frozen sperm to women who desired to rear a deity.” Chapter Five is the story of one such woman, and the closing of the lacunae of Winter, absent for the action in Book Three. Winter’s Tale is where she went, a children’s book drawn in exaggerated, hypercute, curves. She met the Qys and the Warpsmiths and the Lantiman of Sauk, who appeared in one of the solo Warpsmith stories, and she becomes more powerful than her father – would she be the natural leader of the Earth? Wouldn’t the Qys and the Warpsmiths go to her? – before coming home and making a snowman. Depicting all that sci-fi stuff as a bedtime story slips it past the reader, keeps this a story of Earth rather than a cosmic saga. But that easy brilliance is outshone by the framing story. Rachel is a filmmaker and mother to a Miracle Cuckoo. Superchildren haven’t done well in comics. They tend to get kidnapped, killed, aged into teenagehood, dumped in alternate dimensions or timelines to get raised. And Gaiman doesn’t quite manage to create a convincing prodigy here; Mist’s shifts between sophistication and innocence are jarring. But her mother, the woman with a cold place inside her that she thought a child would melt, is heatbreaking. This is parenthood: children grow before we are ready, we lose them in every moment we love them. The theme that develops, over these chapters, is of unhappiness that even the Golden Age cannot heal.

Chapters Six and Seven occupied a single comic. The latter bears the only fingerprints of commercial pressures, of outside influences on the storytelling, that so twisted the earlier books. Here they’re light, almost undetectable. Chapter Seven, to slip forward one, was the first Gaiman-Buckingham Miracleman story published in their crossover of all their titles, Total Eclipse. There’s one mention of a Total Eclipse. Otherwise it’s a ground level story of Jason, the kid Miracleman chilled with in the woods in Book Two, and of how he avoided the massacre of London while his friends didn’t. It’s competent and undistinguished, the only diverting thought being Kubrick with a Steadicam methodically recording the horror that the capital became, cutting it together for a new Shoah called Veneer.

Chapter Six doesn’t spring from a line in Book Three. It’s a Prisoner riff, retired spies dangerous to the new world not because of the secrets they know but because they expect there to be secrets. There are no secrets. Their refusal to believe in the new world, a lack of faith in authority that has become their core, endangers it. Plotters breed plots. It’s a neat tale, told in distorted, feedback-buzz until the end when Evelyn Cream turns up. An unnecessary resurrection that Gaiman gets away with because he’s laid the ground, anything possible in comics possible here.

And the last chapter brings all our characters together in London for Carnival, the Christmas of the new church remembering the day eight years ago when the Golden Age began. It closes the series nicely but, compared to what goes before, it’s ordinary. A spaceman, drug-addled Oracle of Delphi, who says mysterious and foreboding things to Miracleman, in his second physical appearance of the book, which presumably point to the Silver Age and Dark Age books that never happened and might never happen. The unique nature of this book, however, that insularity and lack of event, mean this isn’t a story truncated. It’s not an epilogue to Moore’s work, it’s far more than that, but it can be read as a piece with the others. It’s the hard work of revisionism – not just creating a new world in a few captions, actually explaining its mechanisms – but the writer is enjoying mapping Moore’s continent of imagination so much, and brings so much of his human touch with it, that it’s an easy joy to read.

A tour of the Fortress of Solitude, sex with Wonder Woman, the cult of the supervillain, life after death, the superprodigy at play with day-glo aliens; these are the things of comics. But instead of inventing bad superhumans to tear it all down, Gaiman luxuriates in his utopia even while his characters fail at it. The question asked here is: why is it so hard? Why doesn’t humanity dream of better? Everyone’s imagined themselves in the zombie apocalypse, constructing a fortress and surviving. Why don’t we imagine ourselves in a perfect, golden future instead? The end of the volume, the end of Carnival, is laid out in the first lines of the final chapter. A big party, with balloons. The balloons announce the arrival of anti-gravity. Imagine that. A three-day party ends with the news that everyone can fly now. Just imagine it, then wonder why you don’t more often.

Miracleman Book Four, by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham, published as Miracleman #17-#22 and in the collection Miracleman: The Golden Age, is out of print. 


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