Last time, we began discussing the fourth chapter of Alan Moore’s Miracleman. This time, we conclude our look at that chapter.
(We’ve previously introduced Miracleman and discussed its first, second, and third chapters, as well as the interlude “The Yesterday Gambit.” Go read. Back so soon? You’re a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?)
For his part, Miracleman understands the stakes at least as well as Mike Moran. The very next panel, after Mike Moran speaks the magic word, is Miracleman dragging Kid Miracleman through the outer skyscraper wall, as seen from outside. In the next, the two come crashing to the earth below.
One can’t imagine that Miracleman’s ever behaved so aggressively before. To attack so violently and immediately would have been utterly out-of-sync with the old Miracleman Family’s innocent adventures. Perhaps Miracleman is fueled, in part, by a sense of betrayal – an ominous hint of how he’ll react at the end of Book One. But he almost certainly understands the threat Kid Miracleman poses – and that this is no time for the usual quips.
Implicitly, it’s a fight Kid Miracleman wants. Because he could have killed Miracleman at his weakest – when he was still Mike Moran. Instead, he hovered behind the anguished alter ego of his former super-powered friend, saying the things that will prompt this human to transform, so that Kid Miracleman may have the sport, after all these years, of fighting a god like himself.
He has reason to be confident. As he explains, while on the ground outside Sunburst Cybernetics, “You [Miracleman] were only a superhuman for nine years. I’ve been one for the past twenty five. I’m stronger. I can do things you wouldn’t believe…” This may be an allusion to the ambiguous mind-influencing ability and the connection with the weather that he demonstrated in the previous chapter.
Kid Miracleman blasts his former mentor in the face, and when we next see the hero, half his face is scarred, like it’s been in a fire.
Moore next invokes and subverts that old cliché of the genre: the civilian put at risk. A boy named Wayne, dressed to protect him from the storm, actually approaches Kid Miracleman. “It’s Superman!” he says. Speaking to his mom, he adds, “You said he wasn’t real!!” To Kid Miracleman, he says, “Hey! Are you Superman? I’m Wayne. I thought your film was great!”
It’s a horrific moment, one that paradoxically uses the innocent fantasy life of children to dramatize the villain as a real-world threat. But contained within this is a critique of the genre, as it’s typically practiced.
Remember, at the time Moore was writing, comics were still primarily regarded as a children’s medium. Superman, wonderful though his stories may be, has not prepared Wayne for the real world. In fact, he’s nurtured a dangerous naiveté. By presenting a rose-tinted world, as alien to our actual experience as Superman’s Krypton is to Earth, traditional super-hero stories have warped Wayne so much that he would gleefully approach a super-villain. After all, that villain appears to be winning, and Superman always wins.
This isn’t to say that fiction need be unrelentingly dark – surely, that’s a false dichotomy, and unrelenting darkness might be every bit as psychologically damaging as unrelenting light. Wayne need not fear every stranger to understand that there is danger in the world – and to have a realistic aversion to it.
And studies show that, in real life, boys like Wayne are statistically unlikely to encounter Kid Miracleman.
But through the tropes of the super-hero genre, unrealistic fictional portrayals with requisite happy endings have blinded – and therefore damaged – young Wayne. Complaints about sex or violence in Hollywood output, almost entirely without evidence of harm, seek to limit content to “protect” the impressionable. Yet this produces sheltered and immature psyches, shielded from such fundamental realities as human mortality. In a very real way, showing a human being shrugging off a serious fall is far more irresponsible and damaging to the psyche than any amount of sex or violence, when presented responsibly and realistically. It’s an unrealistic, distorted, and distorting view of the world found most in genre fiction, and it’s this tone, not any content per se, that truly warps impressionable minds.
Wayne’s speech and actions only look superficially like an easy jab at the traditional super-hero comics that Miracleman is upending. In fact, they’re the beginning of an ethical argument about the duties of fiction itself.
And what does Wayne’s mother do, as their son rushes towards an inhuman super-powered murderer? She calls out, but she seems to stand back, because as an adult, she understands the danger. This is a realistic story, in which not every mother unhesitatingly puts her own life at risk to protect her child.
If Wayne is the warped product of the traditional super-hero genre, his mother is part of the adult society that dispenses such pabulum. A society content to foster a naïve worldview, in which everything somehow turns out all right, whether due to God or Superman. But a society unwilling or unable to make this justify such naïveté by doing its damndest to actually make the world a better place.
Such an interpretation might seem to be overreaching. But it’s worth remembering that Miracleman is political, from the first page of its first chapter – and while less overt, just as much a response to Thatcher’s Britain as V for Vendetta. The two were not only concurrent but only pages apart.
Miracleman, on the ground with his face burned, can also only watch with horror as Wayne blithely asks Kid Miracleman, “Can you fly?”
“Why yes, Wayne,” Kid Miracleman responds. “I’m Superman. I can fly. Would you like to fly, Wayne?”
Miracleman’s horror is our own, as it dawns on him what’s about to happen.
Wayne stutters about his mom, as if trying to say he should get her permission, before flying.
“Come on, Wayne,” says Kid Miracleman. “Mum won’t mind. She knows you’re safe with Superman.”
The villain even intones Superman’s catch phrase, “Up, up, and away,” as he lifts the child into the air and then throws him at a nearby building.
It’s hard to imagine a fuller subversion of super-hero tropes. But for all its horror, it’s a subversion grounded in logic and reality. We like to imagine the super-power of flight the way it was presented in the 1978 Superman film, in which Lois Lane soared gracefully through the clouds with Superman, at once point aloft by a single super-powered, confident finger. But the reality of such powers, especially given the plethora of super-villains in the genre, is as likely to be children thrown at super-speed into skyscrapers.
That doesn’t actually happen here. It’s only a threat, a potential – at least, at this point. Miracleman catches the child and returns him to his mother.
In a nice touch, events happen so quickly that she’s still looking at Kid Miracleman while her own child sails past her at super-speed. She turns her head over a series of panels, only completing the turn as Miracleman is returning the boy safely.
But even here, as Miracleman heroically saves the innocent, the standard super-hero narrative is upturned. As the scarred Miracleman returns the child, he sputters, “He’s alright. I caught him. I think he might have broken a couple of ribs… The speed he was travelling, you see. I couldn’t… uh…” This is only the application of a modicum of real-world physics, in which a super-hero catching someone at super-speed would of course risk such injuries. In the art, Wayne appears to be unconscious, as he would be following such a rapid, mid-air turn – which would cause even trained fighter pilots to pass out. Here again, Moore uses basic logic to subvert the usual way in which superhuman flight is treated.
This may also be seen as Moore learning and as Miracleman coming into its own. At the end of chapter one (and in “The Yesterday Gambit,” the future interlude that ran in the previous issue of Warrior), Moore used sound and dialogue in outer space, a science-fiction trope in defiance of basic physics. In this chapter, Moore seems to be thinking more clearly about the project of placing a super-hero into a realistic world.
But Miracleman’s halting, apologetic dialogue is equally remarkable. His memories are of rose-tinted, innocent adventures, in which real-world physics had little place. And he doesn’t seem to know how to explain these physics to a terrified mother, who couldn’t possibly process them at such a moment.
It doesn’t help his situation that, like her son, she’s been conditioned by genre fiction not to expect such damage. Miracleman elevates its genre by exposing the reader’s lowered and illogical expectations, absorbed through crummy super-hero writing. But in its world, super-hero comics and movies are as rampant as they are in our own – and no smarter. Thus, the characters are in the reader’s position, imprisoned by inherited notions of how super-powers would work. This is as new to Wayne’s mother as it was to readers when Miracleman was first published. (One hopes that we, outside of the narrative, are able to follow more closely.)
This leads into another way the sequence subverts super-hero expectations. The mother, instead of thanking Miracleman, shouts at him, “Give him to me, you bloody monster!!” It’s an understandable and realistic reaction because, despite not intervening more aggressively, she’s clearly upset for her son. It’s equally understandable that, not used to real-life super-heroes, she’d at least momentarily lump her son’s savior in with the villain who threw her son at a building. But while understandable, her reaction is a far cry from the immediate affection Superman generally receives upon saving children.
(That’s not to say such a reaction doesn’t have precedent. It was, often enough, the reaction Marvel’s X-Men, seen as mutant freaks instead of super-heroes, received under their then-current writer, Chris Claremont. Claremont had transformed the X-Men into one of Marvel’s top-selling titles, largely by infusing a limited degree of realism, and he was a huge influence on Alan Moore, who saw what Claremont was doing and decided to push further.)
The mother may also be seen, however, as reacting to super-hero expectations. In conventional super-hero stories, the hero doesn’t return a child with broken ribs (and apparently unconscious). He also generally doesn’t have a melted face. Seen this way, we may even read her reaction as that of the wounded super-hero fan, upset with Miracleman and confusing its realism for something gratuitously dark and villainous. She clutches her beloved baby and strolls quickly away.
But the fight isn’t done, and Kid Miracleman knocks the hero high into the air. Garry Leach does a splendid job here, first depicting Miracleman streaking through the sky as seen from the ground, with a skyscraper at the top of the panel, rising towards the panel’s center, so that the image looks upside-down. The composition makes the reader feel disoriented, like he or she has also been punched and is reeling.
The next, larger panel shows a gloriously-rendered Miracleman, his limbs dangling oddly like he’s flailing amid the clouds. The normal perspective is here rotated roughly 135 degrees counter-clockwise, so that the facially scarred Miracleman appears to be inverted, the clouds on a kilter, and Kid Miracleman streaking down into the sky from the earth above.
It’s a stunning couple of panels that show the untapped visual possibilities of super-hero warfare. While this twisting of perspective reflects the effect of a punch and not a choice on Miracleman’s part, it reminds us that beings such as Miracleman, unbound by gravity, need not orient themselves to the ground, especially during a flying battle. (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan famously used a parallel observation about outer-space battle to great effect – an innovation sadly ignored by most science fiction since.)
Miracleman’s thought balloons echo the visuals, communicating how out-of-his-depth Miracleman is. He wants to take time to think, and his mind is racing with questions. By far the most interesting is, “Why has he grown up while Miracleman hasn’t aged?” But of course, in the midst of a superhuman fight, Miracleman doesn’t have this luxury. So he decides to buy time by hiding in a cloud, and he admits to himself that he’s scared – certainly not the response of a traditional super-hero, who appears absurdly brave in comparison.
Kid Miracleman hovers in the clouds, unable to see his enemy but undeterred. He calls out, mocking Miracleman: “Surely the big strong superhero isn’t scared of the little kid he used to push around and patronize?” It’s not clear how accurate Kid Miracleman’s recollection is, and the old Marvelman stories certainly didn’t read as if Marvelman was the kind of bully Kid Miracleman implies here. But they weren’t without a goody-two-shoes patronizing element, against which Kid Miracleman’s rebelled.
“I told you…” Kid Miracleman continues. “I’m stronger now. I can do things that you wouldn’t believe.” It’s the second reference this chapter to his powers having expanded, not merely increased. In the last chapter, we saw Kid Miracleman tied somehow to the growing violent storm around the Sunburst Cybernetics building, and that connection now returns, albeit with a bit less quasi-mystic symbolism.
Leach’s artwork again stands out here. Kid Miracleman, floating while still clad in his suit, is rendered in exquisite detail, and Leach uses a technique reminiscent of pointillism to depict the cloud Kid Miracleman is inside. Because this cloud overlaps the figure, Kid Miracleman has the appearance of being part of the cloud, echoing his intimate connection with the storm in the previous chapter. This effect also accentuates the villain’s white eyes, making them look like they’re glowing. Over this figure, Leach has added little bundled ribbons of electricity, looking almost like squiggly spiders of energy. Leach’s artwork in this one panel does more to dramatize Kid Miracleman’s connection to the weather than all of the foreboding captions of the previous chapter.
It’s appropriate, because the villain uses his powers to build electrical energy within the cloud, which is released as a thunderbolt, striking Miracleman, who begins to fall, revealing his location. It’s not entirely clear how a thunderbolt could have such an effect on Miracleman, even in his weakened condition, but it’s worth remembering that the thunderbolt has a special meaning for Miracleman as the accompaniment of his transformation – a tradition that goes back not only to Marvelman but to his ancestor Captain Marvel. We may therefore rationalize that this thunderbolt is extraordinary, charged somehow by Kid Miracleman’s powers, although there’s no indication of this in Moore’s (rather conventional) captions here.
Kid Miracleman grabs hold of his falling former mentor and races toward the ground. A tall panel, with London’s nighttime cityscape at bottom, shows the villain dragging Miracleman like a bolt, exceeding mach one, then mach two, then mach three.
A dazed Miracleman, reduced to a blur, mutters “J-Johnny…?” – like he’s only dimly aware of who’s doing this to him and is half-consciously recalling innocent times. The two hurdle earthward toward a couple buildings, which look like they sit on the Thames. They seem to be in disrepair, perhaps indicating that they are (conveniently) abandoned.
At the last moment, Kid Miracleman lets go and veers off. Miracleman explodes into the buildings, his speed increasing the force of the impact – another show of real-world physics.
Kid Miracleman, unscathed, surveys “the still-smouldering crater.” Leach provides an excellent depiction of the rubble, dripping from the storm that’s apparently still passing over London.
Here, Moore returns to the “dragon” metaphor he used at the chapter’s start, which helps to tie the chapter together and make it feel resolved: “His dragon eyes peer through the curtain of dust, searching for a sign of life, of survival…” Finding none, “He smiles a tiger smile…”
The final panel – the last one Leach would illustrate as the series’s solo artist – is of Kid Miracleman’s sinister, smiling face, his white eyes glinting, his teeth exposed like a predator. The captions read: “After a while he turns away to look at the city spread behind him… London, huddled against the stinging rain… / He wonders what to do next.”
It’s a stunning finale. The fight is over, and the series protagonist has lost.
More meaningfully, a horror has been unleashed upon the world. Miracleman’s return has made Kid Miracleman reveal his powers, and we have been made to understand that he is an inhuman, bestial thing – a dragon or a tiger, with no regard for human life. We’ve seen this, through his murder of his secretary Stephanie and his attempted murder of the child Wayne.
It would be easy to dismiss this chapter’s final captions as the kind of vague threat, limited to words, that characterizes many super-hero stories, which routinely describe threats to cities or even the world that predictably fail to materialize. And that is indeed how this story will play out. (That’s especially no surprise for those who read these chapters in Warrior, which ran “The Yesterday Gambit,” set in the future, just prior to this chapter – thus revealing that Miracleman would survive and Kid Miracleman would be stopped, at least for the time being.)
But for those aware of the climax to Alan Moore’s work on Miracleman, those final captions in this chapter, even referring to London, pack a much greater punch. What happens in Book Three is, implicitly, akin to what Kid Miracleman would have done here, had Miracleman been as dead as his opponent believed.
Moore’s Miracleman is far from perfect. But it’s amazing, largely due to his planning, how well it hangs together as a coherent whole.
Next time, chapter five.