Having introduced Miracleman and discussed its first, second, and third chapters, as well as the interlude “The Yesterday Gambit,” we now turn to chapter four of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, in which the hero has his first super-human fight.
Chapter 4: “Dragons” (6 pages)
Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Garry Leach. Originally appeared, in black and white, in Warrior #5 (Sept 1982) as “Dragons” (without any book or chapter designation). This title was followed by this quotation, cited as coming from the Book of Changes: “Dragons fight in the meadow. Their blood is black and yellow.” Reprinted in color, with an added title page, in Miracleman #2 (Oct 1985) as “Book One Chapter 5: Dragons” (without the quotation). Collected, with an altered title page, in Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying (Oct 1988) as “Chapter 4: Dragons” (still without the quotation). These added title pages are not included in the story’s page count, above.
“Dragons” opens with another image of the Sunburst Cybernetics skyscraper. Over the first few panels, the captions recap the Miracleman Family story. They call the old Miracleman Family villains “monsters and dragons.” When recounting Young Miracleman’s death, the caption reads, “One up to the dragons” (meaning, “score one for the dragons”). When recounting Miracleman’s rebirth, the caption states that “it wasn’t until today that he remembered about the dragons…” When recounting Kid Miracleman’s story, the captions state: “Without the other two heroes to bother him, he could do whatever he liked… / He grew up. He grew up into a dragon.”
It’s a recap only necessary in serialization, although Moore does manage to use the repeated word “dragon” to underline Kid Miracleman’s transformation from hero to villain. The word further characterizes Kid Miracleman as something inhuman and evil – something that must be slain.
In the original, black-and-white version, these captions terminate in a panel that depicts the chapter’s title in the shape of a dragon, with a quotation from the I Ching (a.k.a. the Book of Changes) in a scroll beneath. It’s a lavish, classy touch.
The panel was eliminated in the colored, Eclipse version and replaced with a silent depiction of the storm clouds overhead (as seen in the previous chapter).
The Eclipse version includes the chapter title on a new title page, created by enlarging the chapter’s final panel and writing “Dragons” underneath. (The original artwork, in which “Dragons” is stylized to look like an actual dragon, isn’t used, nor is the quotation on a scroll.)
No other chapter (in this or any other Miracleman book) received a title page in this fashion.
Alongside these captions, Mike and Liz react to Kid Miracleman, whom Mike (at the end of chapter three) pushed over the side of the balcony. There, Liz reacted by yelling out in horror at what Mike was doing, ending by screaming, “Oh my God!!” Here, she continues: “M-Mike[,] he isn’t falling! Why, Mike? / Why isn’t he falling??”
It’s a wonderful touch. And far more effective material than the captions (which exist only to recap and justify the chapter’s title).
In most super-hero stories, even ones that play at being realistic, characters rarely give more than lip service to how surprising super-heroes are. Quickly, however, they embrace without question the reality of super-powers. This probably is due to the fact that these stories’ creators, working in a genre that dominates (at least American) comics, have adopted the tropes of this genre to such an extent that those tropes have become unconscious. That’s not at all the case here.
Remember that Liz, although she’s had sex with Miracleman, hasn’t seen him do more than sparkle and tear a hole in her floor. She hasn’t seen him fly, let alone gone flying with him. Miracleman’s story involved flight, but hearing and seeing are two very different things.
Beyond this, the way she puts her repeated question to Mike is both brilliant and haunting. She isn’t concerned that this hovering man may possess super-strength, as the heroes that Miracleman told her about did. Nor is she concerned about this hovering man possessing heat vision, or any other offensive capability – the concerns which might come to mind for those initiated into the genre, including this chapter’s readers. In fact, she isn’t even concerned about flight. She’s merely concerned that this hovering figure isn’t falling.
It is the suspension of the rules of physics that most immediately stuns Liz Moran – and quite rightly so. This strikes her so strongly that she repeats herself, as if in shock. It is the most realistic, human reaction possible – and one that lets us see the genre with new eyes.
But it’s also the most superficial. Liz sees only what’s in front of her eyes – that a man “isn’t falling!” She cannot get past this to consider the implications – that this man may possess other powers unimaginable to her, and thus pose an equally unfathomable threat.
Lest the reader be inclined to laugh at her too strongly, her position is also that of the reader. Those familiar with the genre may well see the super-powered threat, but they’ve probably never seriously considered the implications of such powers – or such a threat. This, Miracleman will teach – very much letting readers see the super-hero with new eyes, exactly as Liz does here.
Mike Moran, of course, sees the super-villain’s threat, and he tells her to run. Oddly, this positions Mike Moran, despite having a super-hero as his alter ego, as the audience identification figure – at least for readers familiar with the genre and thus with the villain’s threat.
Still, there’s a desperation to Mike’s words: “Get out, Liz. Get out of the building. Get out the area! Now, Liz!!” It’s a far cry from conventional super-hero stories, in which such warnings seem far more assured, far more composed, even in the face of dire odds. Mike Moran understands the implications of Kid Miracleman’s powers better than the reader.
Liz listens and runs. A hovering Kid Miracleman, now inside the building, hovers and delivers what, in a lesser story, would sound like a stereotypical threat: that after he’s “finished killing [her] husband,” he’ll come for her.
As Liz flees, another woman is approaching: Stephanie, Johnny Bates’s secretary. She did not appear in the preceding chapter, although a caption there told us “a girl brings them Blue Mountain coffee.” She’s now returning with more coffee, only to find Liz rushing away and her boss hovering in the air.
She drops the tray with coffee, and her boss hovers over to her, lifting her into the air. “You dropped the coffee, Stephanie,” he says.
And he blasts her own eyes with his, melting her face, which is caught momentarily in a terrified, open-mouthed scream.
Besides being dramatic and horrific and stunning in its execution, Stephanie’s death accomplishes two things for the story. First, she’s a clear stand-in for Liz. In fact, the captions preceding her death remind us that Liz “is only human” and that this “is not enough… / when gods cry amidst the thunder” – “the thunder” being, ostensibly, a reference to the storm outside, with which Kid Miracleman is somehow connected. But of course, these captions could equally apply to Stephanie, to whom they’re juxtaposed in panels depicting the scene after Liz has fled.
This risks making Stephanie seem disposable – which, of course, she is, from a narrative standpoint. But much as the first page of chapter one characterized the otherwise faceless terrorists who would quickly fall when Miracleman returned, Moore here gives Stephanie, in death, a caption that characterizes her as a real and particular person, using brief, staccato sentences: “Her name is Stephanie. She likes Adam and the Ants. Her boyfriend’s name is Brian. She collects wedgewood. Her insides have turned to water. She is only human.”
It’s a brilliant caption, and it lets the reader understand that Stephanie is not disposable, not limited to her narrative function. No, she’s idiosyncratic and unique and loved, and she is no more because of a villain’s whims.
And this is the second thing her death accomplishes: it makes Kid Miracleman a villain. Oh, we’ve been told that he’s gone evil, and he’s certainly been made ominous. But now we’ve witnessed him murder –murder someone who’s face we haven’t seen, except in her moment of death, yet understand to have been a full person and anything but faceless. This, Kid Miracleman has done casually, even effortlessly – thus demonstrating not only his callousness but his how fragile humans are before his power.
The rest of the page underlines these two points.
Above and below an image of Stephanie’s charred remains of a face, Moore gives us another stunning couple of captions. They begin, above the image, obviously enough: “He [Mike Moran] looks at the charred and pulverized thing that had met the gaze of the dragon. He wants to vomit. / And he thinks, ‘That could have been Liz.’” Moore scores points here by returning to the dragon motif, as well as describing a blast from one set of eyes into another as meeting this monster’s gaze – thus underlining how, in the encounter between human and super-human, the human is destroyed almost as a function of the super-human’s power. But Moore’s already done the work of making it clear that Stephanie is a stand-in for Liz, and he risks telling us what we already know.
Yet in the captions below the image, Moore uses this same obviousness to overturn expectations: “He looks at the tiger-smile and the dragon eyes of the thing that had once been a boy called Johnny Bates. He wants to vomit. / And he thinks, ‘That could have been me!”
It’s a stunning reversal, one that’s true to human nature by focusing on the self. The death of Stephanie is tragic in its own right, as Moore’s made us to understand. Yet at this moment of stress, Mike Moran can only see her as a reflection of Liz. This reaction is natural and unsurprising. Yet Mike Moran then, just as naturally but in a way all too rare in fiction, turns to thoughts of himself.
We should not be inclined to condemn him for it. It is no less normal than a witness to death or carnage thinking he or she is glad not to be the victim. It is at the root of survivor’s guilt. And it goes to the root of the gulf between self and other that compassion and empathy seek to bridge.
Here, however, Mike Moran’s selfish thought is even more radical because he identifies not with the victim but, as a super-human himself, with the perpetrator. In this thought of Mike’s, we are given to understand that, as unfathomably evil as Kid Miracleman may now be, there was nothing intrinsically evil in Johnny Bates. No sinister glimmer, in the corner of his adventuring eye, might have suggested that this brightly colored hero contained a special germ of evil within. No, all that corrupted Kid Miracleman was the extent of his unchallenged power, which alone could warp a normal personality in such a way. He is a man for whom all limits have been removed, and that is enough. Had Mike Moran been the sole apparent survivor in 1963, he would have been warped the same way.
What is remarkable isn’t really this claim. It’s that Mike Moran knows it. That he could, even kneeling over the “charred and pulverized” remains of Stephanie, have enough empathy for Kid Miracleman to know that, had things happened differently, it could have been Miracleman who killed her.
It’s a radical statement, for a genre usually defined by black-and-white morality. Despite the absolute evil of Kid Miracleman, the ethics in Miracleman are entirely situational.
In this recognition, Mike Moran is at his most selfish – thinking of himself over a woman’s brutally murdered corpse, while his wife is still in jeopardy. But paradoxically, he is also at his most empathetic.
Of course, the shocking way this panel’s captions conclude is enhanced by the parallelism between the captions above the image and those below. Both Stephanie and Kid Miracleman are called a “thing,” and both these phrases use the word “dragon.” Both these captions end with the phrase “He wants to vomit,” followed by a caption in which only the final word (and the emphasis) is changed. This parallelism is further reinforced by the captions’ placement, one set above and the other below the image, with each set’s final sentence set off as its own paragraph.
But this parallelism is all a trick, a misdirection, because despite its poetics, the first observation is perfectly mundane and obvious from the context. So when the reader gets to the final line, in which only the final word is changed, its radical implications come as even more of a surprise.
An anguished Mike Moran asks Kid Miracleman “why?” And Kid Miracleman responds in a way that again echoes the two narrative points of Stephanie’s death: his villainy (“Just to show you that I don’t mind doing that sort of thing. / In fact, I quite enjoy it.”) and his threat to Liz (“That’s what I’m going to do to your wife.”).
When Mike Moran speaks his magic word to transform into Miracleman, it’s not a moment of triumph. His head is still slightly bowed, eyes closed, and his word balloon doesn’t read “Kimota!” but “…Kimota.”
Oh, there’ll be a super-powered fight. One even excelling those found in conventional super-hero stories. But for all the high-stakes action, this isn’t something to be relished. For all its fireworks, it is a sad and dire thing, over which hangs the death of this innocent, who liked Adam and the Ants, had a boyfriend named Brian, and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Concluded next time.
Another fine article, Julian. I liked your observation about ‘… Kimota.’ I missed that and it’s amazing the difference the lack of “!” makes.
Much obliged! I know I’m long-winded, but it’s because I love this stuff and have thought about it so much!