We’ve looked at chapter five of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, examined it in the context of the 1981 Brixton riots, and carried through to Kid Miracleman’s defeat. We now conclude our look at this chapter, originally printed in Warrior #6 (Oct 1982), and finally reach the midpoint of Book One.
Miracleman’s passivity isn’t all that makes him exceptional. In a stunning sequence, a bleeding, battered Miracleman gets to his feet amid the rubble and the smoke left in the wake of the fight. His fists are clenched, his eyes cast in shadow. And he thinks, “No choice. Got to kill him. Got to kill him before he has a chance to say it again and change back.”
It’s not at all how super-heroes are “supposed” to act. But of course, Miracleman’s right.
He can’t hope to defeat Kid Miracleman in a fight. He’s lost twice already. In the process, significant portions of Brixton have been turned into a war zone – all over again, for those who recall the riots of the previous year, or for how Brixton looked after the German bombs.
At stake isn’t simply Miracleman’s life. Nor Liz Moran’s. It’s what would happen to the world.
All that separates the world from looking like this area of Brixton is a single magic world.
We’re used to super-heroes being noble. We’re used to super-heroes refusing to kill, even when their villains are mass murderers or have powers that could threaten the world. Super-hero morality is largely still stuck at the level of swashbuckling adventurers who let their villains pick up their fallen rapiers.
But when that rapier is super-powered, the world looks like Brixton after the Blitz.
It’s one thing to fill stories will colorful villains and pseudo-scientific devices that could destroy the world. That’s abstract. It’s easy.
That may be enjoyable, but it’s fundamentally infantile. It has nothing to teach us, except the depths of our own escapism and thinly acknowledged fetishes. If anything, those stories distorts us, infantilizing us, allowing us to believe in good guys and bad guys, that the world is more or less a good place, and that justice happens automatically.
It’s quite another thing to show what super-powers would really mean – and the damage they can inflict, not simply on the damsel in distress or the heroic adventurer but on the world.
This isn’t a game. This isn’t a smiling, four-color adventure, in which moral questions are easy and the threats are safely compartmentalized.
Nor is this gratuitously dark, entertaining us with its violence and amorality. Miracleman doesn’t arrive at his decision to kill casually.
No, this is the super-hero as we’d never seen one before. In a real world. With real morality.
And in this world, it is morally incumbent upon Miracleman to kill Kid Miracleman. To seize this opportunity to kill this monster while that monster is vulnerable.
No, that’s not noble. It’s not heroic, as we’ve been taught to define heroism.
But it is heroic in the real world. In the same way that someone who shoots a gunman on a rampage is heroic.
In the real world, moral questions are not resolved without remainders. Even Nazis had families.
And so Miracleman, fist raised and ready to strike with deadly, superhuman force, lumbers towards Bates, seen in silhouette from behind.
And the silhouette mutters, “D-don’t hit me. I didn’t d-do it. It was him. It wuh-was him… / Not me. / I couldn’t suh-stop him. It was him, Miracleman…”
Super-hero stories are filled with boastful villains who, when defeated, suddenly beg for mercy and claim innocence. So this dialogue isn’t, by itself, so exceptional. Partly because of this, we’re probably not likely to be sympathetic to this murdering villain, now begging for his life.
But the next panel changes everything. Reversing the metaphorical camera 180 degrees, it shows us Johnny Bates, who is little more than a sniveling boy.
He looks up at Miracleman, who towers over him. Only Miracleman’s leg and fist make it into the frame. They are bloody, his costume tattered, but darkly shaded, drawing our eyes towards Bates’s face. Bates looks up into Miracleman’s eyes – into the eyes of the superhuman who intends to kill him. But because of the panel’s composition, Miracleman’s fist is positioned over Bates’s face and enlarged by being closer to the proverbial camera – thus perfectly representing the violence Miracleman wields, a plaintive Bates staring pathetically up at it.
And Bates, who ended the last panel with “It was him, Miracleman,” now whimpers, “Not me. Not me.”
Miracleman’s decision not to kill Bates isn’t solely based on that child’s youth, nor his stuttering words, nor his frightened, dejected appearance. No, Miracleman understands the stakes involved too well to be swayed solely by these concerns.
Instead, Miracleman has noticed that Bates just said the word “Miracleman” and didn’t transform. “He hasn’t assumed his human form for eighteen years,” he thinks in the next panel, which prominently depicts Miracleman’s still horrifically scarred face. “It’s as if the power build-up behind that thunderflash has… burned him out somehow.”
So yes, Miracleman spares the child. But the story doesn’t retreat here into soppy sentimentality. Instead, it presumes Miracleman intelligent and observant enough to realize that Bates seems to have lost the ability to transform into Kid Miracleman. Miracleman’s explanation for this might not be totally convincing – but it doesn’t have to be, because it’s only his conjecture.
Liz runs over to Miracleman, who she still calls Mike. After expressing sympathy for her face, she says, “Where’s… who’s that?” With those three words, Moore conveys both her surprise over Kid Miracleman’s disappearance and over this child’s sudden presence. She’s not yet connected the two, nor should she be expected to – having been blown backwards and not seen the transformation.
This lets Miracleman deliver a final bit of exposition: “It’s Jonathan Bates, former head of Sunburst Cybernetics. It’s him, Liz.” He soon adds, “He was thirteen when he decided to remain a superhuman forever, Liz. He’s picking up where he left off…”
“Horrible” is all Liz says in return.
Miracleman than flies Liz away, apparently to avoid dealing with police. It’s another conventional trope of super-hero stories. But here again, Moore subverts it. “It’ll be cold and wet but I can carry you…” Miracleman says.
It’s the first time Miracleman has flown Liz anywhere, and it’s a far cry from Superman flying Lois, in the film Wayne, the boy, referenced last chapter. It occurs in the context of tragedy, not celebration. Instead of representing the majesty of super-powers, the flight occurs after a demonstration of the brutal consequences of super-powers, not only on civilians and infrastructure but upon their alter egos. But Moore also at least attempts to infuse a semblance of real-world physics, having Miracleman point out that Liz will be “cold and wet” – not only from the storm but perhaps also from the wind at such heights.
Of course, this escape means abandoning Johnny Bates. “We can’t do anything for him,” Miracleman tells Liz. And so, in the final panel of the main narrative, they “just leave him,” in Miracleman’s own words. The panel mostly focuses on Bates, as Miracleman and Liz streak upwards. He’s a sad and whimpering mess, still muttering “Not me…”
Because this thirteen year-old can remember everything Kid Miracleman did. Not only what the villain’s done, in the previous two chapters, but in the previous eighteen years – which seem to be all catching up with him at once.
It’s the opposite of when Miracleman said, near the end of chapter one, “Eighteen years, trapped in that old, tired body.” Miracleman was freed. If thirteen-year-old Johnny Bates spent eighteen years trapped in a body, it was a villainous, powerful one that did unimaginably awful things. And he is very much not freed.
That panel ends with a caption, informing us that an “ambulance [will be] called for the unidentified juvenile shock victim found at the heart of the battle zone…” To the outside world, he’s only a boy, traumatized by the events that day in Brixton – as surely many other boys were, however less severely.
The next chapter will give Johnny Bates a single page, updating us on his status.
In the meantime, the caption that informs us that Johnny Bates was picked up by an ambulance leads into the captions in the chapter’s otherwise silent final two panels.
Like the government phone calls during the fight, these panels set up the story that will occupy the series beginning with the following chapter.
Those earlier phone calls ended with Sir Dennis Archer, who ordered that a “Mr. Cream” be sent for. These two panels introduce that Mr. Cream, described in their first caption as “a black man in a white suit.” Presumably, this is why he’s called Mr. Cream.
He answers the phone, but it doesn’t appear as if he says anything back.
It’s not clear whether Sir Dennis Archer is on the other end or simply someone working for Archer.
What is clear is that Mr. Cream likes what he hears, because he smiles.
As he does, we see that he has sapphires for teeth.
He’s clearly a new villain. The final caption even calls him “the Devil”: the chapter’s final sentence is “The Devil is smiling, and his smile is a terrible blue…”
The technique of introducing a villain in a chapter’s final panels was previously used at the end of chapter two, in which we saw Kid Miracleman – not yet identified as such – smash a desk in response to Miracleman’s return. This instance isn’t as effective, partly because the technique’s been used before. Also, while Kid Miracleman was introduced with a display of super-powers, we don’t know much about Mr. Cream – except that he works for the British government, is eccentric, and is evil. The eccentric details are enough to leave us curious about such an odd figure, but not much more than that.
In fact, he rather seems like a James Bond villain, from what we’ve seen so far. He seems to belong to the world of eccentric spies more than the world of super-heroes. Given that he works for the government (and where the story’s headed), the Bond overtones are almost certainly deliberate.
But Mr. Cream is also a potentially racist Bond villain. After all, he’s a black man in a flashy outfit with an over-the-top grill. One who’s called “the Devil,” perpetuating the link between darkness or blackness and evil.
Moore even describes Mr. Cream’s smile in a way normally reserved for animals: “he smiles, lips drawing back to reveal not teeth… / …but brilliant, gleaming sapphires.” The emphasis on musculature, on lips pulling back to reveal threatening teeth, dramatizes the revelation of those teeth, the one on which Moore chooses to end the chapter. And the language conveys the idea that Mr. Cream is a predator – and thus a new threat to Miracleman. But when such a depiction just happens to be applied to the first black character, the racial overtones become pretty uncomfortable.
Similarly, it’s unfortunate that, of all the tools in Moore’s poetic arsenal, he chooses to describe this character almost entirely through the use of color: he’s “a black man in a white suit” whose teeth are “a terrible blue.”
This doesn’t mean that Alan Moore’s a racist. He’s clearly established himself, both in his work and in his interviews, as concerned with minorities – and with the disenfranchised generally. But that doesn’t mean that he, especially at this stage of his career, is fully aware or in control of the potentially racist overtones of Mr. Cream.
These overtones will continue to be a part of the character, going forward. Moore will in some ways redeem the character and in other ways fail to do so. But it’s worth noting that they’re already present in the two panels introducing the character who will steer the action in Book One’s second half.