We’ve introduced Miracleman and discussed its first and second chapters, plus most of the third (part one, part two). We now conclude our look at this third chapter of Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s Miracleman stories, which appeared in the legendary British magazine Warrior.
Garry Leach’s art enhances Mike Moran’s monologue well, especially in the two panels on the bottom left of the chapter’s penultimate page, which form a single image. The splitting of single images into multiple panels was later popularized by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, where it was especially effective at showing characters, such as Harvey Dent / Two-Face, at odds with themselves. Here, it’s used to separate Mike Moran from Johnny, visually communicating the rift between them and underlining how one is human and one is not. The two panels are a masterpiece of realistic detail: Johnny’s face looks inhuman, flooded in shadow, and the detailed, stormy background adds to the tension of the moment, in which Mike Moran holds his hand out, palm upright, as if presenting a difficult truth – which he is.
It’s at this point that we have to discuss one of the chapter’s most distinctive qualities: it interrupts the narrative with several panels depicting either the stormy sky or the top of the Sunburst Cybernetics tower against that sky. This begins, as previously discussed, with two panels showing the stormy sky – first when Mike and Liz first approach the tower, and then echoing the shape of the panel in which Johnny and Mike embrace. Then, on page four, two separate panels depicting the top of the tower interrupt Johnny’s narration of his story. The transition between Mike’s private discussion with Liz and Mike stepping onto the balcony with Johnny is accomplished by not one but two additional such panels, at the bottom of page four and the top of page five. Two panels of the storm interrupt Mike’s monologue, and the final panel of the tower’s top occurs immediately following that monologue, on the top of the chapter’s final page.
It’s hard to say precisely why Moore and Leach use this technique, and it’s certainly unorthodox. It avoids forcing Leach to draw characters talking, which is rarely an artist’s fondest subject. The incredible detail Leach brought to the feature reportedly caused him to run late, and reproducing panels – especially in lieu of drawing talking figures, or characters moving onto a balcony – might well have seemed a viable way of completing this chapter for inclusion in Warrior #3. (Tellingly, Leach took the next issue off, trying to get back on schedule, and his next chapter would be his last as solo artist.)
But whatever the reason for this choice, it does produce certain effects within the story. For example, the repeated imagery of the top of Johnny’s tower emphasis his capitalist success. The technique also distances the reader from the events depicted, and this may be read as causing us to sympathize with Mike’s own distance, spurred by his suspicions about Johnny. This distance is also visually represented in the way that detailed image, of Mike talking to Johnny, is sliced into two panels, isolating the figures despite their spatial closeness.
And because these panels depict the coming storm, they also emphasize the ominous undercurrent to the story, which we’re all but told won’t end well. This echoes Mike’s own suspicions, much as these panels may be read as representing his emotional distance from Johnny. In addition, the depiction of Johnny’s narration of the Miracleman Family’s 1963 encounter, in the snow, occurs directly to the right of a tall panel of the storm, suggesting a connection between bad weather and fateful surprises.
As Mike delivers his monologue to Johnny, two panels depicting the stormy sky add eyes to this recurring image. In the first, the eyes simply float in the sky. In the second, they’re glaring with superhuman energy, and the clouds are parting, crackling with energy. Both are obviously symbolic, rather than literal, but their exact meaning isn’t clear – except to connect Johnny to the storm, a metaphor that has been fairly clear all along.
But as it turns out, that connection isn’t completely metaphorical. In the first panel of the final page, again depicting the top of the tower, the caption reads: “Dark clouds, scudding into his [Mike’s] mind, vast and smothering… and a tiger voice, soft in the juddering heart of the storm…”
In response to Mike’s accusatory monologue, Johnny coolly asserts that Mike’s “being paranoid. You see that, don’t you?” Mike responds, “I suppose you’re right. I… don’t know. So difficult to think, so hard to…” In the next panel, an exasperated Mike Moran asks, while Johnny stands ominously in shadow behind him, “are you doing something to my mind…?”
Johnny has some limited degree of mental powers, enough to cloud a human’s thought process – although this power had never been shown to be a trait in the old Marvelman stories. This is consistent with later issues, however.
It’s not entirely clear whether Johnny’s also manipulating or creating the storm. Perhaps Johnny’s been upset, knowing Mike will be visiting, and this has affected the environment. That seems likely, based on this chapter on its own terms. But there’s little indication of weather-influencing powers later in the series. It’s thus more likely, when considering Miracleman as a whole, that Mike only perceives the storm inside his mind because that mind is clouded and hurts.
Either way, this helps legitimizes the storm metaphor, which can otherwise seem a bit heavy-handed.
Granting previously unknown psychic powers to a member of the Miracleman Family might seem like a misjudgment on Moore’s part. But in fact, the corollary between the Miracleman Family’s powers and their minds would be a minor theme, not only in Moore’s work but also in Gaiman’s.
These psychic powers are the first powers evidenced by Johnny. They prove that Mike Moran is right: Johnny’s not Johnny at all, but rather Kid Miracleman.
He came home from the 1963 event not to a celebration, as in the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but with a psyche every bit as wounded as the protagonist is physically in that son’s Irish precursor.
But this is still a super-hero story, as well as a story told in a visual medium, and so a less ambiguous, more grandiose proof is warranted.
Liz Moran steps onto the balcony. This seems to distract Johnny for a moment. Moore’s language, in describing this, isn’t the best: “The clouds withdraw, uncertain, and for a moment the light of reason floods into his mind once more.” But this gives Mike a momentary chance, and he seizes it, pushing Johnny off the balcony.
This dramatic gesture seems a bit out-of-character for Mike Moran, who’s previously been shown as a downtrodden middle-class figure. But throughout the chapter, he seems remarkably confident, as if Miracleman’s return has revived him. He’s apparently lost the headaches that have plagued him, and he successfully sleuths out Johnny’s ruse. It’s only later that the distinction between the two will become problematic in interesting ways. For now, he’s rejuvenated.
Liz exclaims in alarm, essentially repeating what Mike has just done – a violation of the rule, in comics, that one shouldn’t describe what’s already been shown.
But of course, Johnny’s not dead. He’s hovering menacingly, right off the balcony, his body lit with lightning and energy, his tie whipping in the wind, as if he truly is part of the storm – an implication that the penultimate caption underlines, connecting the “fear” Mike and Liz feel with “the terrible hunger at the heart of the storm…”
It’s a suitably dramatic, visual revelation. But of course, it’s not really a great surprise. After all, we’ve already seen Johnny smash a desk, at the end of chapter two. That cliffhanger has effectively blown any surprise in this one. It’s therefore to Moore’s credit that, despite the unevenness of this chapter, he manages to infuse it with suspense.
And really, the revelation of chapter three isn’t that Johnny Bates is has been Kid Miracleman all along. Nor is it that he’s “evil” – that’s implicit not only in his smashing of the desk but in the storm metaphor. No, the real revelation comes in Mike’s monologue. It’s how the distortion in Johnny’s psychology would be an entirely normal reaction – and a radically more realistic portrayal of human psychology than previous super-hero stories.
That’s not to say that Mike is entirely right in his monologue. In fact, while a brilliant commentary on super-hero psychology, it’s not entirely consistent with how the Miracleman Family is depicted. We’ve already seen hints that the Miracleman Family and their alter egos are related but separate personalities. Given this, it’s not at all clear that Kid Miracleman would have a sixteen-year-old’s psychology, as Mike indicates. It’s reasonable to think that sixteen-year-old Johnny Bates would wish to live only as Kid Miracleman, but the key element to Kid Miracleman’s corruption isn’t Johnny’s age or psychology but Kid Miracleman’s – and the two are not necessarily the same.
Mike’s revelation also reads too much like Moore’s own thinking, transposed onto the character. His suspicions aren’t actually based on any evidence. Rather, he says only that “halfway through [Johnny’s story] I got this funny idea into my head. I thought ‘What if he’s lying?’” He continues in this same vein, saying, “I thought ‘What if he didn’t lose his powers?’” Everything flows from that. It’s a “what if?” thought experiment, which is very much a writer’s process and not at all how we would expect Mike Moran to think. It’s another way that Mike seems out of character in this chapter.
Mike’s “what if?” thoughts seem to be a case of intuition, and that’s something this chapters filled with. Liz has some remarkably intuitive dialogue, based on the weather, as she and Mike approach the tower. And in Kid Miracleman’s story, he escapes the blast in 1963 based solely on a bad feeling, which causes him to flee – and thus to survive. Intuition plays a heavy role in this chapter, including on the most basic level of plot, and that’s usually a characteristic of bad writing. Despite Moore’s obvious talent – and the way that he completely explodes super-hero psychology in this chapter – this is still an early, uneven work. The best thing one can say about Mike’s “what if?” thoughts is that, like Miracleman itself, it begins with something small that grows to deform everything around it.
The final revelation that Johnny has been Kid Miracleman all along does, however, explain certain elements of the chapter that may have been confusing at first. Even Johnny’s top-floor office is recast by the revelation that he’s Kid Miracleman. It’s always seemed elite and elitist, as emphasized by how Moore describes how Johnny stands with “London sprawled submissively behind him.” Now, however, we can see how the top floor is closer to the sky, in which the Miracleman Family flies – a power used to define them, in Mike’s dream of flying.
In the panel showing Mike and Johnny’s awkward embrace, Johnny towers over Mike. That’s not because Johnny’s grown up tall – it’s because he’s a super-hero, and Mike’s a mere mortal. Johnny’s confident smile there, much like Miracleman’s as he confronted the terrorists in chapter one, now looks superior and condescending, like he’s meeting a lower species. And even though Mike claims in his monologue that he became suspicious of Johnny later, his awkward stance and dialogue – “John, oh, Jesus” – suggests that he may have felt something amiss, coming into contact with this super-being.
There is, however, another problem here. We’ve already seen that Miracleman has a “sparkle effect” around him. If Leach applied this consistently, Johnny would have been exposed as Kid Miracleman from the start.
When Kid Miracleman sits down with Mike and Liz, the narration tells us that “they speak softly.” This seems at odds with Johnny’s confidence. In a conventional super-hero story, the hushed tone of the conversation would reflect the characters’ fear of being overheard, perhaps by the assistant who brought them coffee, out of a desire to protect their secret identities. Without knowing that Johnny is actually Kid Miracleman, we might guess that this hushed tone also reflects a kind of shared reverence for what Johnny’s about to narrate: the 1963 event that ended the Miracleman Family’s careers. But knowing that Johnny is Kid Miracleman enhances another possible reading: that this hushed tone is a reflection of how the Miracleman Family’s existence is part of a shadow history, unknown to the public. Kid Miracleman, despite his confidence and power, isn’t keen to transgress this boundary. Later stories hint that this was out of fear that whomever was behind the 1963 event would repeat it. Kid Miracleman has thus chosen to lay low, using his powers covertly to amass great wealth. His hushed tone thus takes on new meaning.
But the best realization, when carefully rereading the chapter with Johnny’s true identity in mind, is linguistic, typical of Moore’s strengths: the captions, offering third-person objective narration, never refer to Johnny as Johnny. On to top of page three, when Mike and Liz enter Kid Miracleman’s office, the narration begins, “His office.” Readers probably don’t notice, but it’s a wonderful touch – and another indication that we’re supposed to be paying attention to detail.
True, not all those details are controlled. We’ve seen missteps in other chapter (such as the way chapter one seems to retreat from the novel into a conventional super-hero story), but chapter three has more problems than the previous two. Fortunately, the idea expressed in Mike’s monologue, the sexual and sensual element of the first page, and making Kid Miracleman evil – way before this was fashionable in super-hero stories – all guaranteed that this chapter would become legendary.
More than the previous two chapters, these elements would cement Miracleman in the minds of its readers. Past chapters were smart and poetic, but this one was more obviously revolutionary.
And in splitting the Miracleman Family against itself, Moore echoes the American Civil War, setting for the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” as well as “English Civil War,” the Clash song that appropriated its music.
But there’s one other way in which this chapter is revolutionary, although it’s rarely been remarked upon: the correlation between super-powers and capitalist wealth. Of course, Kid Miracleman wasn’t the first super-person to be rich: that’s been a part of plenty of super-hero origins (both before and after Batman), and it’s not unknown for super-villains. But Miracleman takes this to new levels, and Kid Miracleman makes this overt when he says he’s “lost one sort of power only to find another.”
The previous two chapters hinted at way that morally upright super-heroes entail a kind of totalitarian urge (perhaps rooted in Protestant notions of the Elect) to believe that power and merit coincide. The opening of this chapter links that to sexual desire. By making Kid Miracleman a world-class businessman, Moore now links the power fantasy implicit in super-heroes to the capitalistic dream.
And then subverts it radically, making this capitalist a villain.
Of course, Moore wrote this chapter in the early 1980s, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan were busy extolling the virtues of extreme capitalism, turning businessmen into heroes. Where previously most people’s dreams of financial success were more modest, such as owning one’s home or retiring comfortably, excessive wealth was now dubbed a virtue, rather than something decadent. Now, people could openly dream of owning a worldwide corporation and sitting above it all, perhaps in the top floor of a corporate skyscraper, attended by coffee-providing assistants. The idea of noblesse oblige, that the wealthy had an obligation to society, was now systematically and consciously removed: wealth in any amount was now itself a social service, or so the story went, by stimulating the economy, creating jobs, and ensuring the superior and cheaper products get to consumers. At the same time these attributes were being touted as virtues, the face of wealth ironically began to change from that of millionaire industrialists, who produced goods, to Wall Street robber-barons, who used hostile takeovers to raid corporate pension funds.
Years after making the evil Kid Miracleman a businessman, Moore would address the same intersection of super-heroes and financial success with Watchmen’s Ozymandias, who lacked actual super-powers but was known as the world’s smartest man – and who reportedly deliberately stripped himself of all wealth, simply to prove that he could amass it again. And Ozymandias, like Kid Miracleman, turned out to be a villain too – albeit one acting in good conscience, unlike Kid Miracleman, who we’ll soon see is a purer shade of evil.
In 1986, DC Comics revamped Lex Luthor as an evil businessman, modeled after the villainous Kingpin of Marvel Comics, which Frank Miller had revitalized in his work on Daredevil, contemporary with Moore’s early Miracleman work. But the Kingpin, even under Miller, remained a gangster, despite being wealthy and living in a skyscraper. He wasn’t an entrepreneur, the way Superman’s arch-villain became.
The following year, 1987, saw the release of Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street, in which Gordon Gekko famously pronounced that greed was good, equivocating between the United States and an ailing corporation.
And in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho scandalized the literary world by graphically describing Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman’s fantasies of slaughtering girls, implying that the lack of mercy in high finance attracted sociopathic and sadistic personalities – something later, scientific studies would confirm.
Before it all, Miracleman made its corrupted super-hero a wealthy entrepreneur with a global empire and a top-floor office.
If Miracleman’s Johnny Bates came marching home deranged, his psychology distorted, the home he found was in global business.
Next time, continuing in the sequence in which the series was first published in Warrior, we’ll examine the only story that was never reprinted in America: a flash-forward from Warrior #4, set during the end of Alan Moore’s run!