Having reached the halfway point of Book One, let’s pause and consider the influence of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix saga on the way Moore presents his own hero-turned-villain, Kid Miracleman.
(We’ve previously introduced Miracleman and discussed its first, second, third, fourth, and fifth chapters, as well as the interlude “The Yesterday Gambit.” Read those first if you don’t want spoilers.)
Kid Miracleman’s story in Book One shows clear influences of the Dark Phoenix saga, which had reached its dramatic conclusion just two years prior. That story appeared in the monthly comic X-Men, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne. Claremont had injected the titular team with a new level of characterization, and he was a clear influence on the young Alan Moore. Claremont’s formula proved tremendously popular – no story more so than the Dark Phoenix saga, which riveted comics readers at the time and has since become one of the most famous super-hero comics stories in history.
Like Kid Miracleman, Phoenix was a hero gone bad. Her alter ego, Jean Grey, had been one of the five original X-Men.
The transformation of both heroes toward villainy began with traumatic incidents. For Phoenix, this came at the hands of the villain Mastermind, who mind-controlled Phoenix to believe she was his lover; when freed from his control, this trauma released the mental barriers that were restraining her power, and she renamed herself Dark Phoenix (X-Men #132-134, April-June 1980). Kid Miracleman’s villainy starts with the 1963 incident (at the hands of a yet-unrevealed villain).
In both cases, this corruption is linked to great power – so much so that the corruption may be seen as a side effect of that power, echoing the maxim that “power corrupts.” Dark Phoenix’s super-powers include telekinesis and other mental powers, along with manifestations of flame – ostensibly very different than Kid Miracleman’s Superman-like powers. But in the years since the 1963 incident, Kid Miracleman has developed additional powers, representing the character’s untapped potential – an idea intimately tied with the Dark Phoenix story. In Kid Miracleman’s case, these additional powers seem to include some kind of link to the weather, not unlike the X-Men’s Storm and vaguely similar to how Dark Phoenix’s powers manifest themselves through flame, another natural phenomenon. Moore also gives Kid Miracleman some limited mind-control, perhaps a holdover from his influence by the Dark Phoenix saga.
In both stories, the revelation of the corrupted hero immediately leads to wide-scale carnage, dramatizing his or her threat. In Dark Phoenix’s case, she heads into outer space and consumes a sun for energy, causing it to go nova and kill the billions inhabiting in its solar system (X-Men #135, June 1980). In Kid Miracleman’s case, the damage is far more local – to London and its environs – but is presented in a similarly awe-inspiring manner.
Of course, both villains are opposed by his or her friends and teammates – a crucial ingredient to the stories’ drama. And in both cases, the villain is defeated.
Finally, both stories establish that the hero isn’t fully corrupted – or is internally at war with his or her corrupted persona. After the X-Men subdue Dark Phoenix, Jean Grey’s personality resurfaces, and she spends the remainder of the story struggling for control with her Dark Phoenix personality. (Later stories would take this further, establishing that Dark Phoenix was actually a separate, cosmic being who had possessed Jean Grey.) Similarly, at the end of chapter five, Johnny Bates seems appalled and traumatized by his actions as Kid Miracleman, repeatedly insisting the person who did this wasn’t him.
The Dark Phoenix story, still new at the time Moore wrote the early chapters of Miracleman, arguably still remains the model for the “super-hero gone bad” story. It’s certainly the most famous and celebrated instance of this story type. So it’s not surprising that Moore would borrow from the Dark Phoenix story to tell his own “super-hero gone bad” tale, appearing a mere two years later. And no one disputes that Claremont’s X-Men influenced early Alan Moore – he acknowledged Claremont in interviews at the time.
What’s far more illuminating are the differences between the two stories. Each may be seen as an improvement made by Moore in the context of the creative freedom Warrior allowed. These changes shed light on Moore’s creative process and this thinking about the super-hero, at this stage of his career. And exploring them helps to show how Claremont’s influence worked – which can often be hard to grasp, given that Moore’s work tonally seems so different from Claremont’s.
First, the increased timespan of Kid Miracleman’s corruption lets Moore characterize this process very differently. Phoenix’s famous corruption, as it originally appeared, represents instead a special case of a character “snapping” in response to extreme personal trauma. This is certainly tied to the mental discipline required to keep her mental powers in check, but her corruption doesn’t represent a deeper challenge to super-heroic formula, even to those super-heroes with mental powers. It’s limited to her specific character.
If Kid Miracleman “snaps,” it’s only upon seeing Mike Moran and Miracleman again. He’s already been corrupted. Moreover, that corruption is depicted as a natural psychological process, implying that anyone in his place would have been similarly corrupted. It’s certainly specific to Kid Miracleman, in that he’s in Miracleman’s shadow. But there’s no talk of him having gone mad. Thus, his corruption represents a far deeper challenge to our understanding of super-hero psychology.
Dark Phoenix turns evil. Kid Miracleman does too, but he does so over time, as part of a psychological progression as natural as water wearing down rocks. As a consequence, while Miracleman still has good guys and bad guys, the line between the two is greatly eroded. He’s not a special case, nor a “bad egg,” but a demonstration of how unchallenged power itself corrupts.
As a result, Moore doesn’t simply tell a story of a specific super-hero gone bad. He does that, but he uses these specifics to make more universal points – ones that make us see super-powers, if not all power, differently. It’s the difference between an exciting action movie and one that, while still exciting, changes how we perceive the entire action genre.
Second, Moore eschews the interstellar scope of Dark Phoenix’s violence, telling a story on a much smaller scale as a result. But detonating an alien star and killing a previously unestablished alien civilization, while dramatic, is very safe from a narrative standpoint: it doesn’t upset the status quo of the series. In fact, Claremont had originally intended Phoenix merely to be depowered at the end (rather than dying), and she would have continued appearing in the series. It was only Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, who insisted that her crime of global genocide warranted a more severe punishment – because, of course, the Marvel Universe was a place where the good guys won and evil was punished. If Claremont had anticipated Shooter’s reaction, he probably wouldn’t have had Dark Phoenix destroy that alien civilization in the first place. So while revelatory Dark Phoenix seemed at the time, it seems increasingly safe and conventional in retrospect.
Moore manages to make Kid Miracleman’s deeds, while of a much smaller scale, no less dramatic. The human brain can barely only dimly violence on such a scale, at which tragedy becomes less emotional and more a statistic. Our brains also care less for tragedy the further it is from our own kin, which is why we tend to care less when thousands are killed half the world away than when a dozen strangers are killed in our own region. And a distant star and a previously unseen alien civilization is pretty foreign. London, however, is very close – especially for Warrior’s initial readers, for whom real-life violence in Brixton was still fresh in the memory.
Moore’s lesser scope is not a deficit to his story. It’s more of an asset, indicating Moore’s understanding of how narrative works emotionally. And suggesting Moore’s willingness to upset his fictional world’s status quo – something not permitted in the Marvel Universe in which the X-Men story took place.
Third, Moore’s conclusion is very different. In Dark Phoenix’s story, the X-Men subdue her, only to have extraterrestrials intervene (in response to her star-destroying actions). Jean Grey subsequently battles with the Dark Phoenix personality for control. Her teammates are unable to bring themselves to kill her, despite knowing the (world-destroying) stakes. After regaining control, Jean commits suicide, nobly sacrificing herself for the greater good.
Coincidentally, Moore’s story ends as Claremont originally intended his to end: with the hero-turned-villain “permanently” depowered.
Of course, it’s not completely fair to compare Kid Miracleman’s initial arc with the whole of the Dark Phoenix saga. Moore had, in the future interlude “The Yesterday Gambit” (which ran in Warrior #4), already telegraphed his plans to bring Kid Miracleman back, so Kid Miracleman’s first appearance was always intended to be part of a greater “saga.” But Claremont almost certainly would have brought Dark Phoenix back as well. And by the time Moore brought Kid Miracleman back, the Alan Moore who did so was no longer the early Alan Moore, strongly influenced by Claremont and writing so close to the Dark Phoenix saga’s publication. That later Alan Moore had evolved greatly, producing several of the most celebrated super-hero stories ever and distancing himself from Claremont’s influence. Only the outline he had planned remained.
But while this initial Kid Miracleman arc uses Claremont’s intended ending, it strikes a completely different tone. In Claremont’s story, there are good guys and bad guys. And good guys don’t kill their own teammates, even when the cosmos is at stake. That’s not really Claremont’s fault: this cartoon morality was enforced from the top down, as the editorial interference with his intended conclusion demonstrates. Super-hero comics were still primarily for kids, and the shadow of Fredric Wertham and accusations of comic-book immorality still loomed fairly large.
Moore’s story is set in a completely different universe, both literally and morally. It’s an adult, realistic universe. In which, once Kid Miracleman is vulnerable, the battered Miracleman immediately realizes he must kill his former sidekick – and fast, before Kid Miracleman reemerges.
It is impossible to imagine the X-Men reacting similarly: for them to move to kill Jean, the moment she regains control.
True, Kid Miracleman’s days as Miracleman’s sidekick were almost two decades past, whereas Jean Grey was a current member of her team. But the stakes with Jean were an order of magnitude greater – and with them her teammates’ ethical obligation to end her.
Jean’s noble sacrifice puts a tight moral bow on the whole story – one that’s utterly absent in Moore’s realistic world of moral consequence.
Moore doesn’t even make his corrupted hero’s struggle with the darkness within a central element of the story. Such plots are, after all, rather clichéd, and they feel like they’re milked for all they’re worth in the Dark Phoenix saga. Instead, Moore displaces this revelation to the ending, offering it as a twist.
It’s a twist that’s underlined by the fact that Johnny Bates is a traumatized child, blameless in comparison to the adult Jean Grey. The pathos of his situation can then be conveyed in a single image of a sniveling, shell-shocked kid.
That’s not to say that Johnny Bates truly is blameless. Mike Moran’s explanation of Kid Miracleman’s corruption relies upon the villain’s childlike psyche. So although Johnny Bates may be technically blameless, we know that he would have made similar decisions, in Kid Miracleman’s place. This helps Moore avoid leaving the reader feeling cheated.
Once Johnny Bates is revealed, Miracleman still doesn’t treat him in the way the X-Men might. Miracleman spares the boy’s life but leaves him for the authorities. Miracleman isn’t a psychological expert, nor does he have access to the resources of the X-Men. In the Dark Phoenix saga, the X-Men might have ultimately been largely impotent – unable to stop the Dark Phoenix person from reemerging but also unable to kill Jean. But it’s Miracleman alone who recognizes his own impotence.
Thus, while Moore borrows from Claremont’s famous story, the changes he makes reflect structural weaknesses in the original. Moore identifies those weakness and fixes them, presenting his own corrupted hero but set in a realistic, recognizable world, freed from corporate expectations and editorial control.
As a result, Moore’s able to infuse his story with real-world morality and greater emotional resonance. And he’s able to use the story to upset the status quo – not only of his own series but of the super-hero genre in general.
Next time, Alan Moore’s Miracleman, chapter six.