We’ve previously begun discussion of chapter six of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, which originally appeared in the classic British magazine Warrior. We continue that discussion today.
Page three begins with the word “reflections,” and it focuses on Johnny Bates, who won’t be seen again until Book Two.
Because this page doesn’t add to either main plot, it’s easy to imagine that it might have been cut in order to save space. The page isn’t important to the rest of Book One, but it helps tie up loose ends left from the book’s first half. Without this page, we’d only have a single caption (in the previous chapter) to explain what happened to Johnny Bates after the fight. We’d be unable to picture (much less feel) his situation, and we’d probably feel like Bates dropped out of the narrative too abruptly. As a result, while Bates disappears from the main narrative, we remain aware that he’s out there and can imagine his situation.
The page begins with an excellent close-up of a doctor examining Bates – although we don’t yet see the patient until the next panel. The artwork’s quite good, and the panel’s use of perspective literally puts us in Bates’s position. Before a single word, the page has encouraged us to identify with the formerly murderous character.
Despite Bates having spoken at the end of in the previous chapter, he appears to have become catatonic. The doctors’ dialogue strongly implies that, at the very least, Bates never speaks.
It’s not clear why Bates should have changed in this way. There, Bates first seemed lucid, begging for his life. By the time Miracleman left with Liz, Bates had been reduced to muttering and staring off – with an expression (and even head posture) very similar to his expression on this page. His initial lucidity seems to have been a temporary but ebbing state, in which he was aware of his actions as Kid Miracleman but before the full weight of them pushed his psyche inside itself.
But while this could be clearer, Moore’s dialogue here also displays a remarkable attention to the often overlooked details that really sell a story, especially a fantastic one. One of the two doctors recounts how, when Bates arrived, he had in his pocket “Two three-penny bits dated 1958 and 1960. And a set of bubble-gum cards issued in 1963.” The doctors seem to regard this as part of the patient’s status as a medical mystery, but we know the story that has produced these mysterious clues.
There is a sense of contingency and historical accident at work here. One can easily imagine Johnny Bates in 1963, having no concern for the detritus in his pockets, unaware that they would become important pieces of evidence almost two decades later. Such details are often the stuff of science-fiction stories, particularly tales of accidental and often unfortunate time travelers, such as once appeared on TV’s The Twilight Zone. But Moore’s adaptation of this technique to the super-hero lends the technique increased weight, because the young Johnny Bates isn’t simply a “man out of time.” He’s not been displaced in time so much as replaced, and he’s haunted by the memory he shares with his replacement.
That’s not to say that these seemingly random items lack meaning. The threepence was a coin worth an 80th of a British pound and ceased to be legal tender in 1971, when British currency was decimalized. As such, those “two three-penny bits” in Bates’s pockets are a relic from a previous era. This wasn’t a lot of money, even in 1963. It was enough to buy a comic book or some “bubble-gum cards” like the ones also in Bates’s pockets. This suggests that Bates was a normal, working-class kid with the tastes to match. The content of his pockets recall an earlier era, in which comics were seen as disposable kids’ fare like “bubble-gum cards.” These contents thus reflect this earlier, more “innocent” era of comics history, which contrasts with Miracleman’s own, somewhat more high-art agenda.
On this chapter’s first page, Archer’s internal monologue triggered a flashback to 1963. On this page, the doctors’ dialogue leads into a depiction of what’s happening inside Bates’s head. Against a black background with shattered edges, various images of Kid Miracleman harass Johnny Bates’s mental picture of himself, which still possesses the ability to speak. These images, although sequential, lack panel borders, producing something of a jumbled, collage effect that may be seen as echoing Bates’s mental state.
Such a literalization of a character’s mind is usually associated with less sophisticated stories, and it’s hard to do well. It also leads to questions in the reader, such as whether we’re meant to see this as Bates’s imagination or whether the Kid Miracleman seen here is literally the same person who comes out when Bates transforms. If he is, how is this possible – and why does Mike Moran not have the same internal dialogue with Miracleman? Although Moore will reuse this device for Bates, Miracleman never provides an answer to these questions. Although this Kid Miracleman in Johnny’s mind will later be shown scheming to deceive Johnny, there’s little reason to think that he’s anything more than a projection of Johnny’s own subconscious – especially given how anything else would be inconsistent with how the rest of the Miracleman Family is portrayed.
This actually makes these sequences far more psychologically resonant and complicate dramatically our portrait of Johnny Bates. Because in some ways, the division between Johnny Bates and Kid Miracleman is the subject of these sequences.
Here, Kid Miracleman does little more than berate a sniveling, curled-up Johnny. He bullies Johnny, calling him “a snot-nosed little pratt” and “a cowardly little puddle of puke” and “snotty little virgin.”
These phrases belittle Johnny, but they’re also assertions of power on the part of Kid Miracleman. If Johnny is pathetic, Kid Miracleman is strong and confident. If Johnny is “cowardly,” Kid Miracleman has nothing to fear. And if Johnny is a “virgin,” Kid Miracleman isn’t.
That’s worth noting, because there’s been no indication that Kid Miracleman was sexually active, during his 20-year reign from 1963 to 1982. He doesn’t seem intimidated by his secretary, who brings him coffee, but he doesn’t seem attracted to her either. At least, not directly. But it’s hard to miss that there’s something sexual to the way that he kills her, lifting her in the air with their faces close together, as he invades her body with his heat vision and leaves her a smoldering husk. Kid Miracleman is a murderer, like many super-villains, but there’s a sexual edge to his sadism.
And of course, we’ve already seen that the Miracleman Family isn’t immune from sexual desire. Why, the very first time Miracleman meets Liz, they have sex.
So while the text isn’t clear on this point, Kid Miracleman’s “virgin” comment strongly suggests that the villain has had sex during the nearly 20 years in which he was living a charmed life, masquerading as a wealthy human being. We can also guess that this sex was at least tinged by Kid Miracleman’s sadism and sense of his own privilege.
And this means that young Johnny would remember those sexual encounters. Despite being a boy at an age at which he’s aware of his own attraction to women but still completely intimidated and confused by them, as well as his own body and his feelings.
We’ve discussed already (especially with regards to the beginning of chapter three) how the fantasy of super-power is bound up with human sexuality.
This sequence may be read as an example of the victim of bullying internalizing his bully’s messages – so much so that he’s able to reconstruct them, and choose the words that will hurt the most even better than his bully.
That’s not to say that Kid Miracleman hasn’t bullied Johnny into feeling this way. He simply hasn’t done so physically, because the two by definition cannot be present at the same time.
But we know that Kid Miracleman feels that he was bullied by the older members of the Miracleman Family. He says as much, when he’s pursuing Miracleman into the clouds, where he taunts Miracleman for being “scared of the little kid he used to push around and patronise.”
And we know that the Miracleman Family cannot help but feel superior to their human alter egos. Why, even Miracleman, when he first returns, complains of “eighteen years, trapped in that old, tired body” before he catches himself. That’s not so far from what Kid Miracleman says here about being “trapped in this puny little pre-pubescent body.”
A portrait is emerging of Kid Miracleman as someone who felt (or was made to feel) lesser than the other two members of the Miracleman Family – and who, eager to enjoy his own power in their absence, didn’t once contemplate turning back into little Johnny Bates. Why would he? In the quest for power, his child alter ego was a liability that could be cast aside.
If Mike Moran seems pathetic to Miracleman, imagine how Johnny Bates seems to Kid Miracleman.
So while Johnny may well be imagining his own tormentor, he’s not making up that tormentor’s attitude. Rather, he probably knows Kid Miracleman’s contempt for Johnny’s powerlessness all too well.
This gets us into the sequence’s other strain. Because besides belittling Bates, Kid Miracleman also asserts that the two are not so psychologically separate as Bates would like to think.
Of course, it’s easy to believe. Bates and Kid Miracleman are certainly separate entities physically.
But Bates may well have the sneaking suspicion that this isn’t the case psychologically – that their minds overlap more than simply being able to recall what the other’s done.
That’s certainly implicit, in Mike Moran’s psychoanalyzing of Kid Miracleman in chapter four. He sees Kid Miracleman – not just Johnny Bates – as a boy who hadn’t yet learned adult restraint in 1963. His entire analysis of how Kid Miracleman wouldn’t change back and would instead rile in his power is predicated upon the two alter egos having at least a similar psychology.
Thus, in Bates’s mind, in which he’s not catatonic, he asserts his own innocence. “I shouldn’t be in here,” he says. “I didn’t do anything…” But there’s an element of self-justification to Johnny’s words, despite how sympathetic we may find him. He understandably wants to resume his old life, despite the carnage caused by his other self. But this goes along with an assertion of absolute guiltlessness.
Kid Miracleman, whether a projection or not, calls Bates on exactly this. “You are me,” he tells the boy.
“B-but I wouldn’t hurt people,” a cowering Johnny stutters. “I wouldn’t kill people. It was you who did that.”
Johnny’s language here might sound reasonable, but it’s really all about his own moral superiority. By asserting a total dichotomy between himself and Kid Miracleman, between “I” and “you,” Johnny’s able to see one party as wholly guilty and the other as wholly innocent – not only of murder but from even the desire to kill.
In response, Kid Miracleman says that “little Johnny Bates” only “wouldn’t kill” because he’s a coward. “But once little Johnny Bates finds the magic word that puts him beyond punishment, why, he doesn’t mind killing people at all.”
Here, Kid Miracleman echoes one of the oldest arguments about morality: whether it’s an intrinsic good or fear of repercussions that spurs moral behavior. It’s the question pondered in one way or another by much of literature, perhaps most famously by A Clockwork Orange (both the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess and the 1971 film by Stanley Kubrick). Kid Miracleman argues that Johnny Bates’s cherished moral superiority is only the product of cowardice, and he cites himself as evidence.
Whether that’s good evidence or not depends on the how much the two alter egos actually share. It’s possible that self-loathing Johnny Bates simply suspects he’s to blame, and he imagines Kid Miracleman voicing this argument inside his head. On the other hand, even if Johnny Bates isn’t Kid Miracleman in any meaningful way, he shares Kid Miracleman’s memories, so it could be offered that he’s living vicariously through them.
And it’s worth noting that this idea – of moral culpability shared between alter egos who seem to be different people – isn’t new, nor even limited to the super-hero genre. It’s there in one of the most influential works of literature of all time, Robert Louis Stephenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There, Dr. Henry Jekyll lives a proper repressed Victorian life, whereas Edward Hyde is violent and remorseless. While one person isn’t physically replaced by the other, there are physical differences between them: Hyde is smaller and younger. There’s even a sexual component to Hyde’s nightly adventures, which Stephenson says are lustful, although he doesn’t show them any more than Moore does. Over time, Hyde becomes increasingly dominant, to the point that Dr. Jekyll has to take the transformative potion to remain himself and eventually commits suicide, much as Kid Miracleman ruled for almost 20 years. Of course, there are differences between the two stories: Dr. Jekyll is older than his alter ego, not a boy, and he’s more sociable too, whereas Kid Miracleman is shown to have a hypnotic power over others that helped him in business. But the whole idea behind Stephenson’s novella is that Hyde represents a less repressed version of desires that already lay within Dr. Jekyll – an idea reinforced by Dr. Jekyll’s parting note, in which he admits to feeling like a charlatan and says he doesn’t hate Hyde, whom Dr. Jekyll calls a “genuine man.” Here, Kid Miracleman challenges his child version of Dr. Jekyll with this same idea.
All of this is rather profound and complicated material, but the page ends in a far more conventional manner, as Kid Miracleman warns that Miracleman had “better hope I stay in here forever.” Super-hero readers are familiar with villains who, although defeated, vow to return for revenge. But those familiar with Moore’s conclusion to Miracleman – something that, in the story’s original publication in Warrior, was already hinted at in “The Yesterday Gambit” – know that the form this revenge takes and its consequences will be anything but conventional.
The page ends on this ominous note, accompanied by another panel depicting the catatonic Johnny Bates, in the same position in which he was shown earlier on the page. His expression is also unchanged – not only from earlier this page but from the end of the previous chapter. He has a frown so extreme that it seems to distort his face.
With this, Moore returns to the page’s beginning, which encouraged us to identify with Bates. In his frown, we understand the pain of his situation. Even if Kid Miracleman did play out Bates’s unconscious desires, it’s hard to fault him for them. They are not so uncommon. It’s just that most boys who dream of callously exercising great power can’t transform with a magic word into someone who can and will do so.
There is a sense here that Johnny, despite his psychological pain, is single-handedly holding back a demon capable of profound damage, when it would be far easier to end his pain by letting the demon loose.
That is, perhaps, a heroism greater than Miracleman’s. It’s one that’s only heightened by Johnny’s young age. And the fact that the world knows nothing of his sacrifice.
That the demon he might unleash might be acting on his own unconscious desires does not lessen his pain, nor his nobility.
To be continued.