We’ve begun discussing chapter eight of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, illustrated by Alan Davis. Today, we continue our exploration of that chapter.
Compared with the flashback pages, the present-day ones are relatively straightforward. Each presents a different obstacle, increasing in apparent threat as the story continues, faced by Miracleman on his way to the Zarathustra bunker. Each of these obstacles is dispatched by the page’s end, with the exception of Big Ben on the final page.
The first page begins with a silent panel featuring the series and chapter titles. It’s sometimes said that the first image of a movie sets the tone for everything to follow, and that’s true here as well. The panel depicts the forest outside of the Zarathustra bunker, rendered by Alan Davis with a beautiful precision that echoes the detailed artwork of his predecessor, Garry Leach. The panel is dark, signaling that these events occur at night. Against this terrain of overlapping trees and foliage, we see a distant Miracleman in silhouette. While artistically pleasing in its own right, the panel also perfectly illustrates how Miracleman is coming “out of the dark,” thus representing in an image the chapter’s title and poetic refrain.
In the panel, Miracleman is implicitly coming “out of the dark” towards the reader. This carries with it a sense of threat to the reader, or at least his sensibilities. Perhaps our preconceptions of the super-hero will be dispatched as easily as the threats the Spookshow has placed in Miracleman’s path. We’ve certainly Miracleman’s capacity to do this in previous chapters. But because Miracleman is approaching us, coming “out of the dark” and presumably into the light, there’s also the promise here of getting a better look at him, of bringing him into focus and understanding him better. And that’s certainly what the end of Book One gives us. The story too is moving “out of the dark,” towards a revelatory conclusion that will let us see Miracleman better and differently than we have before.
Miracleman’s distant silhouette is dwarfed by the dark and vague landscape around him. This darkness is explicitly tied, within the chapter itself, to the Spookshow and the “dark” world of government secrets that it represents. Contained within that sliver defining his form is immense physical power, as we’ll see again in this chapter. But he still doesn’t know an awful lot, not only about his origins but about himself. In fact, he’s more “in the dark” about these matters than the reader. There’s a humility, with which we may identify, to his presentation here. What he doesn’t know dwarfs him, much as the literal darkness does in this panel. Illuminating this darkness will be the function of the remainder of Book One. The expansiveness of this darkness even helps foreshadow (so to speak) his reaction, when it’s all revealed at once.
As Miracleman walks out of this darkness and towards the reader, the first “out of the dark” captions contain some of the chapter’s finest writing. They identify Miracleman as “A burning man of power and perfect beauty.” In the next two panels, as he’s attacked, the captions add, “That, ultimately, is why they must kill him. / That, ultimately, is why they can’t…”
In literature, that which is beautiful is often depicted as fragile. The most traditional examples are flowers, which quickly wilt, or the beauty of a young woman, which in poetry is traditionally depicted as passing with equal speed. In Miracleman, beauty and threat are often equated. It’s fair to say that this stems from the pulp tradition, with its femme fatales, from which super-hero comics have frequently borrowed. But “power” and “perfect beauty” have rarely gone so well together as in Miracleman, where even the ugliness caused by of super-powers has some kind of imaginative, poetic, or fascistic purity.
This unorthodox combination beauty and power, the caption tells us, produces an equally contradictory reaction. One “must” eliminate a powerful threat, yet can fail to do so precisely for the same reason that threat must be eliminated. There’s a catch-22 at work here. For the reader who knows Miracleman’s origins, as revealed in the following chapters, there’s also the sense in these words of the tool, or the student, growing in consciousness and thus coming to represent a threat – by which point, the threat is too great to eliminate. This has particular resonance for Miracleman’s Cold War setting, in which the Soviet Union represented a powerful threat that many in the West felt needed removal, yet the cost of that removal was likely to be nuclear armageddon. The super-hero, like the atomic bomb, is a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle.
But all of this assumes that the reason “they must kill him” is that he’s powerful, and power is only one half of the equation we’ve just been offered. The other half is “perfect beauty.” By the grammar of the captions, it is this too that requires killing. Yes, his power makes him threatening, but so too does his perfection, his beauty.
And this is more than a question of simple jealousy. How do we understand humanity, with all its flaws, when juxtaposed to a superman that is not only superior but effortlessly, even beautifully so? How could we take pride in the titanic accomplishment of landing on the Moon, when it would be so easy for such a being? These are questions implicit in the super-hero genre, but they’re also theological questions, not so divorced from arguments about why an omnipotent God might grant humans free will – or even appear so absent. To a great extent, such questions will later come to occupy the series, especially as Moore builds to his climax and as Gaiman continues from it. That thematic development is hinted at here, in language that suggests a powerful, even instinctual human response to smash something so beautiful, so perfect that it devalues one’s life. Yes, Miracleman’s power is the obvious, physical threat, but his “perfect beauty” represents a far more existential one.
The threat Miracleman faces, on this first page, is described by the Spookshow as “two specialists,” located “near the perimeter” of the compound. Artistically, they’re depicted as two ninja, who jump and stab our hero. They represent no real threat, and Miracleman leaves them wounded in the darkness, one clutching a smoking hand, the other lying smoldering and apparently unconscious – or even dead.
In a nice mirroring of the first panel, Miracleman is again reduced to a silhouette, now walking away from us and into the darkness. Because the two ninja blended into that darkness and are left in it, the darkness of the forest at night is further symbolically tied to the Spookshow and its world of covert operations.
The impotence of this first threat is important, because it allows Moore to start small and build, over the course of the story. But this presents a logical problem. Why would the Spookshow think two ninja, wielding only knives, would stop Miracleman?
The Spookshow panel allows Moore to explain this, and the simple answer is, “They don’t.” Sir Dennis Archer says the two will mount “a surprise attack. Who knows? It might prove successful. Perhaps the monster needs to concentrate to maintain his invulnerability!” But prompted by another, faceless member of the Spookshow, Archer admits he doesn’t think it will work – and this dialogue, in caption form, is superimposed over the page’s final panel, in which Miracleman walks off, leaving the two ninja defeated in the foreground.
On this first page, then, the Spookshow panel serves to explain an important point. In a lesser writer’s hands, that’s all it would do. But Moore uses this same dialogue to suggest how impotent the Spookshow knows itself to be, in the wake of Miracleman’s power. Archer’s “Who knows?” is a particularly nice touch, instantly transforming the conversation from a matter-of-fact, even confident description of the situation. Those two words say more about how out of their depth the Spookshow is than any dialogue to come.
There’s even a whimsy to the expression (and to the exclamation mark that follows) that helps to characterize Archer, who we’ve previously seen as rather high-strung. This also deflates the tension of the plot a bit, adding a hint of levity to what is, at least for the Spookshow, a desperate situation. Why not throw ninjas at Superman?
Archer’s hypothesis, which even he doesn’t believe, about Miracleman needing to concentrate “to maintain his invulnerability” also suggests that the Spookshow doesn’t completely understand Miracleman’s powers. The final Spookshow panel addresses this a bit more directly, saying that the notes left about Miracleman were incomplete. This may feel – and is – a narrative contrivance, but it’s hardly a new one. After all, chapter five established that the government did not know the name of Miracleman’s alter ego – and without that fact, that chapter’s plot (and arguably the entire plot of Book One) would collapse. While such lack of information about Miracleman is certainly convenient, it’s an idea that’s previously been introduced ad is only elaborated upon in this chapter.
It also serves to make Sir Dennis Archer’s situation even more precarious that it otherwise would be, heightening the tension at precisely the moment that his whimsical tone works to disperse it.
Like “power” and “perfect beauty,” present and past, detailed Miracleman panels and silhouetted Spookshow ones, this is a chapter that achieves its poetic effects through opposition.
Continued next time.