Miracleman, Chapter 5, and the Brixton Riots

Last time, we began our examination of chapter five of Alan Moore’s Miracleman. Originally printed in Warrior #6 (Oct 1982), it concludes Miracleman’s fight with Kid Miracleman and marks the midpoint of Book One.

As Kid Miracleman lies recovering, Moore narrates that “The storm holds its breath,” again connecting the villain to the violent weather around the characters. It also gives the reader a dramatic pause, as if the reader is also holding his or her breath before these two otherworldly beings of unimaginable power begin their final fight.

And that’s exactly how Moore describes it, in a series of captions, as the two slam into one another, punching with both strength and fury.

Moore begins with his characteristic focus on the characters, but soon shifts into an ambitious attempt to describe how utterly alien these creatures are, from a human perspective:

They were friends once, these creatures of near unimaginable power. Now, horns locked, they fight to the death in the pounding rain.

There is passion here, but not human passion. There is fierce and desperate emotion, but not an emotion that we would recognize…

They are titans, and we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls.

We are only human.

We will never grasp their hopes, their despair. Never comprehend the blistering rage that informs each devastating blow…

We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts, never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred…

…and perhaps we will be the less for that.

from Miracleman, chapter 5, page 3While Moore strains to characterize the two combatants as super-humans, he also likens them to animals. They fight “horns locked,” and they are exalted for having depths of emotion, such “blistering rage,” that seem beyond the human more for their purity or their depth than for any subtlety or nuance of flavor. Still, this portrait of the superhuman is remarkable for suggesting that the superhuman feels so different from humans as to have an alien set of emotions, unfathomable to mortals.

Moore does hint at such subtlety with the phrase “their almost sexual hatred,” which hints at the passionate, even obsessive relationship between many super-heroes and their arch-villains. But it also suggests how Miracleman and Kid Miracleman are the only two members of their species – that, while opposed, they have far more in common than either does with humanity.

It’s not clear precisely why we humans might “be the less” for not understanding these superhuman emotions. Superficially, this says only that it would be better to know such emotions. But another possible reading is more physical than spiritual: that failing to understand these emotions, attached to beings of immense physical power, is dangerous. We’ll see this danger play out, both at the end of Book One and at the end of Book Three.

As Miracleman and Kid Miracleman fight, a police car rolls up to the scene, and the two policemen inside respond to what they’re seeing. “I think this is what they call a close encounter,” says one, processing what he’s seeing through the fictional constructs of his day. In an earlier age, the reference might have been religious, such as to angels.

The policemen quickly abandon any question of approaching the combatants. Says one officer: “I’m getting on to H.Q. They might be paying me to handle Brixton but I’m buggered if they’re paying me to handle this…” To see police officers abandoning their duty only underlines the otherworldly threat of these two superhumans. But here again, Moore’s social consciousness comes through.

It’s worth addressing this reference in some detail, because it illuminates Moore’s political views at the time (which are too often dismissed as merely anti-Thatcher opinion) and places Miracleman into a specific historical context.

Brixton, in the south of greater metropolitan London, has long featured a multi-ethnic, immigrant community. It was bombed in World War II, leading to a massive housing crisis. In 1981, with the U.K. in recession, Brixton was hit especially hard, particularly in its large African-Carribean community, which was plagued by high unemployment and crime, as well as poor living conditions, including housing. Brixon’s unemployment was at 13%, but was 25.4% for minorities and an estimated 55% among young blacks.

In January 1981, a house fire in nearby New Cross killed 13 young blacks, gathered to celebrate two birthdays. The fire was widely believed to be arson, and far-right racist groups, such as the National Front, had been active in the area. Police seemed shockingly indifferent, and the inadequacy of the investigation led to charges that the police were covering up the crime, or at least sympathetic with it. (Subsequent inquests have failed to find evidence of arson, although criticized the police investigation.)

In response, a protest march was held on 2 March, during which police cut the march in two (at Blackfriars Bridge) to disrupt it, leading to some limited skirmishes. The right-wing newspaper The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch (famous in the U.S. for owning Fox News), covered the march under the headline “Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London,” and its article highlighted the limited instances of violence over the 17-mile march and failed to even mention the police action that had spurred these instances. The Evening Standard ran a photo of a policeman with a bloody face.

At the beginning of April 1981, police began Operation Swamp 81, deploying plainclothes officers in Brixton, who used the so-called “sus law” to stop and search people who looked “suspicious.” The law stemmed from the Vagrancy Act of 1824 and allowed not only such searches but arrests based solely on intent to commit any arrestable offense. Its racial overtones had already led to the House of Commons, in 1980, to hold hearings about it. In Brixon, around 1000 people were searched and 82 arrested, merely in the first few days of April. Locals, especially of African descent, felt that they were under siege in their own neighborhood.

On 10 April, a policeman spotted and chased a black youth named Michael Bailey, who was suffering from a four-inch stab wound and may have initially been running from his assailants. When Bailey was finally stopped, a crowd gathered. As time passed without Bailey receiving treatment or transport to a hospital, the crowd tried to intervene and clashed with police. Police eventually got Bailey to a hospital, but rumors circulated that police had left Bailey to die, taken no action, or even inflicted his wounds themselves.

Police responded by increasing foot patrols and continued their policy of searching and arresting locals. By the afternoon of 11 April, angry people had taken to the streets, confronting police with bricks. Brixton soon erupted into a full-scale riot, including looting and, later that evening, the burning of buildings. Police converged from across London, forming walls with large plastic shields to clear the street. They were confronted by bricks, bottles, and gasoline bombs. Police cars were burned. Fire trucks were turned back by people occupying the street. Police found their equipment inadequate and their shields non-fireproof.

By 9:30 that night, over 1000 policemen were in the streets. By early the next morning, that number had risen to over 2500, and large groups of police patrolled the street unchallenged.

299 policemen were reported injured, along with at least 65 civilians. 56 police vehicles had been damaged or destroyed, along with 61 civilian vehicles. 28 buildings had been burned and 117 others damaged or looted. Police had made 82 arrests.

Hundreds of residents uninvolved in the riots had been trapped in their homes by both rioters and police. Fire trucks had refused to enter the area until the early morning.

On 13 April, Margaret Thatcher angrily dismissed claims that racism and unemployment played any part in the riot. She said that “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened.” She called claims that police had provoked the riots “nonsense” and “appalling.” She rejected calls for increased investment in inner cities, saying “Money cannot buy either trust or racial harmony.”

The logic apparently being that no amount of injustice or violence, on the part of the authorities, could ever justify it being returned, nor any law being broken. Any attempt to address underlying injustices would be denigrated by Thatcher as justifying illegality. (Of course, it was possible to be appalled by conditions in Brixton and also disapprove of the riots, a view likely held by many Brixon residents, who had been hurt by both.)

In July 1981, similar riots broke out in at least four other locations, including London’s western Southall district. In Liverpool alone, 150 buildings were burned and 781 policemen injured. Brixton rioted again on 10 July. Smaller incidents occurred in at least ten other places. Almost all suffered from racial tension, but every single one occurred in areas of especially high unemployment. Violence and arson by right-wing groups also escalated during this period.

During these, police used tear gas, a chemical weapon normally used in warfare. It was the first time tear gas had ever been used on the soil of the British mainland.

Despite Thatcher’s statements, the sus law was repealed on 27 August when a new criminal code went into effect.

A public inquiry into the April 1981 Brixton riots, headed by Lord Scarman, was published on 25 November of that year. The Scarman Report found that police had used their “stop and search” powers indiscriminately against blacks. It concluded that “complex political, social and economic factors” had spurred a “disposition towards violent protest.” It made recommendations to tackle racial disadvantage and inner-city blight, which were not implemented.

In 1985, riots again broke out in Brixon after police shot a black woman after entering her house looking for her son. While Brixton became increasingly gentrified in the 1990s, protests continued, spurred in part by the death of several young black men while in police custody. One such death helped spark riots again in 1995.

In 1999, a neo-Nazi used a nail bomb in Brixton to injure around 50 people, targeting blacks. He also set off two other bombs in the London area, targeting Asians and a bar frequented by gays.

Living standards in Brixton have improved, largely due to gentrification. But in January 2008, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and a defender of Margaret Thatcher, announced his support for a new sus law. He became Prime Minister in 2010. A version of the sus laws, using the standard of “reasonable suspicion,” remains legal in the United States.

When Moore wrote this chapter of Miracleman, the 1981 Brixton riots and the summer that followed, in which Britain seemed to be tearing itself apart at the seams, were only a year old. Thatcher, who had responded to conditions there so callously, was still Prime Minister.

The police who complain about Brixton probably intend their words only to represent that they serve in a high-crime neighborhood. That’s certainly the way most readers interpret it, especially today and in America. And it’s not like the policemen make any racial slurs, while they’re watching Miracleman and Kid Miracleman punch each other in the streets. Superficially, it’s a conventional scene in super-hero fiction: the scene when the police want no part of the super-villain battle, a scene usually played for laughs (and to explain the absence of police, so the focus can remain on the super-powered slugfest).

But with the word “Brixton” – and without rubbing readers’ face in it – Moore invokes a historical context which Warrior’s readers would not have missed.

The policemen’s decision not to intervene, while understandable in the wake of fighting superhumans, parallels police indifference in the wake of real-world violence and injustice to the residents of Brixton.

It’s hard to see their lack of action here as cowardly. But it’s worth remembering that, when facing poor minority residents instead of foreign superhumans, the Brixton police were more than content to use their power to stop, search, and harass a thousand innocents.

This doesn’t mean the policemen here are “bad guys.” But they’re not necessarily “good guys” either.

They’re part of a system filled with shades of grey. These same officers could have been implementing the sus laws a year prior – or trying to break up a peaceful march. Equally, they could have been fighting rioters throwing petrol bombs, scared for their lives.

In other words, “we are only human.”

And this conflicted state, in which matters are complex and always colored by politics and race and socio-economics, contrasts sharply with the purity of emotion with which Moore characterizes the superhuman combatants.

As we’ve already seen and will see again, Miracleman reveals how part of the appeal of superheroes is their sense of purity, embodied in Miracleman’s own blue-eyed, blond-haired racial ideal. Super-hero stories tend to feature very clear demarcations between good and evil – and the current story is no exception, with Kid Miracleman arguably about as close to outright evil as any super-villain. But even when Moore’s using such a demarcation, he doesn’t let us forget that this isn’t the human condition. And that this is part of its appeal.

Even in the midst of a super-hero battle, Moore doesn’t fail to depict the world surrounding his super-people as a real one. But he does so with a light brush, never beating the reader over the head with his politics, leaving readers and critics to unpack what lay implicit.

Continued next time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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