We’ve previously introduced Miracleman and discussed chapters one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight, as well as the interlude “The Yesterday Gambit.” We now continue this critical examination with chapter nine (written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Alan Davis) of this celebrated but long-unavailable series which originally appeared in the British magazine Warrior.
Chapter 9: “Inside Story”
Writer: Alan Moore. Art: Alan Davis. Originally appeared, in black and white, in Warrior #10 (Apr-May 1983) as “Inside Story” (without any book or chapter designation). Reprinted in color in Miracleman #3 (Nov 1985) as “Inside Story” (without any book or chapter designation, despite Eclipse otherwise adding them). Collected in Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying (Oct 1988) as “Inside Story” (still without any book or chapter designation).
The penultimate chapter of Book One is structurally divided into two parts: the first four pages and the final three.
The first four pages are each focused on a single character, who narrates that page’s captions: in order, these characters are Evelyn Cream, Big Ben, Liz Moran, and Miracleman. Although all four pages have a lot of captions, there’s only a single word balloon, and that’s on the fourth page. Miracleman’s battle with Big Ben occurs during these pages, and it’s won on the fourth page.
We’ve seen how Moore frequently uses pages as units, giving them a unique identity in one way or another. Focusing each page on a single character’s point of view continues this trend. This may also be seen as pushing the comic-book form, since the technique relies upon the juxtaposition of captions to imagery. Shifting perspectives in this way in certainly an unorthodox technique, especially during a super-hero fight scene.
Within the larger story of Book One, this technique allows Moore to pause a bit, giving us one last glimpse into these characters’ psyches, before moving into Book One’s conclusion. This is especially important for Evelyn Cream and Big Ben, because their pages represent the most interiority the story has granted them to date. In the case of Big Ben, we’d have almost no insight into his thinking without this page, so it’s pretty important.
But while all of this is unorthodox and a demonstration of the kind of rethinking of the comic-book form that Moore was bringing to his serialized narratives at the time (including V for Vendetta), it’s the strangest way of choosing to depict the fight with Big Ben.
Consider how differently this fight unfolds from the one with Kid Miracleman. Book One is divided into two halves, and each have one super-hero battle near their conclusion. Although the terrorists of chapter one and Evelyn Cream may be classified as additional villains, Kid Miracleman and Big Ben are the only super-powered villains faced by Miracleman in Book One. Both fights are even set up three chapters into their respective halves, with two chapters left to go in those halves. Yet the fight with Kid Miracleman gets almost two complete chapters devoted to it, while the fight with Big Ben gets… four pages. And of those four pages, only two (those devoted to Big Ben and Miracleman) actually depict the fight. Evelyn Cream’s page is related, but Liz Moran’s page focuses on a character who’s not only elsewhere but entirely unaware of the fight.
But even on the two pages that depict the fight, the captions are focused on depicting a character’s point of view. If the medium of comics is understood to be a combination of words and pictures, the written part of this equation works against the visuals. It’s as if the chapter offers a visual shorthand for imagining a super-hero fight, rather than focusing on the fight itself.
This kind of focus, on different characters’ points of view, makes perfect sense for a chapter (like chapter six) that represents a pause in the larger action, but it’s decidedly bizarre for a story’s climactic super-hero fight.
Of course, it’s not much of a fight. The only reason it lasts four pages is because Miracleman is humoring Big Ben – as Miracleman’s own page makes clear. Structurally, Big Ben might be the story’s climactic super-hero battle. But in the way this battle’s depicted, he’s nothing of the sort. In fact, he’s a joke.
Already, Miracleman has upturned or interrogated plenty of super-hero conventions. But nothing else has been remotely so shocking as this.
The fight with Kid Miracleman demonstrated the thoughtless and illogical way super-heroes are traditionally depicted, and it accomplishes this so decisively that it’s impossible, afterwards, to look at those super-hero conventions as anything but what they are. But the fight itself remains thoroughly entertaining. Moore takes pains to raise the emotional stakes by dramatizing the threat to Liz, how out of his depth Miracleman is, and what a powerful evil Kid Miracleman represents. It might well be the smartest super-hero fight ever committed to paper at the time, but it might also be the most thrilling. Its intelligence only augments the drama. That super-hero fights should be knock-down, drag-out, high-stakes affairs is the one convention the Kid Miracleman fight doesn’t subvert.
But if there’s one convention of super-hero narratives, it’s that the biggest fight is reserved for the climax. Everyone the super-hero beats until then is merely a warm-up for the climactic battle. In fact, this pattern isn’t even limited to the super-hero genre, although that genre often heightens this final battle to world-threatening (or even universe-threatening) stakes. That’s why it’s called a climax: it’s the highest point of drama. Character-focused scenes may follow, but they take place in the metaphorical afterglow.
Here, what ought to be the climactic super-hero fight is won in a few pages, and it’s won the second Miracleman decides to win it.
It’s the most severe subversion of the super-hero narrative yet.
In a story that’s so focused on brining unparalleled realism to the super-hero genre, we may see this newest subversion as itself realistic. After all, life rarely proceeds through the pattern of rising action that’s so common in fiction. There’s no reason why someone can’t defeat a big threat, only to face a smaller one.
We may also see this subversion as part of a larger shift, in Miracleman, towards subtler and more interior concerns. In a genre defined by muscle-bound characters fighting, Miracleman is remarkably concerned with the social and psychological ramifications of super-powers. Even when Moore poetically invokes a character’s profound levels of physical power, the emphasis is usually upon the psychological effects of this power. The conflict with Big Ben is only the climax if one assumes that a super-hero climax has to be a super-powered fight. Book One’s real climax is the resolution of the mystery of Miracleman’s origins. Big Ben is only the final obstacle on Miracleman’s road to this revelation.
The cliffhanger ending to the previous chapter is a feign. It only seems to set up Big Ben as another super-powered foe, likely to be the subject of a climactic fight. In fact, Miracleman dispatches Big Ben as easily as he did the other obstacles on the way to the Zarathustra bunker.
The real conflict, at the climax of Book One, isn’t external but internal. In a traditional narrative, the bunker would simply be Miracleman’s goal. Like rescuing a damsel in distress, this goal would exist simply to justify the conflict necessary to reach it. Here, that relationship is inverted, and the obstacles put in Miracleman’s path dramatize the importance of the bunker and the knowledge it represents.
If we’re stuck in the mentality that a super-hero story’s climax ought to be the biggest fight, Book One’s climax occurs halfway through and the whole book’s lopsided. But that’s only true if we’re looking at external conflict. If we’re looking at internal conflict, nothing comes close to chapter ten.
Of course, while all of this describes Book One as it actually exists, this says nothing of Moore’s intentions. Moore was clearly building towards the revelations at the end of Book One, but that doesn’t mean he planned Book One all along as having two halves, the first with a classic external conflict and the second with a subversive internal one.
In fact, it’s not clear precisely when Moore decided to break the story into “books.” Within the story itself, there’s no indication of this until the final page of the following chapter, which in its original printing in Warrior ended with the caption “End of Book One.” There’s no reason why chapter five couldn’t have ended with the same note, outside of the result being a very short book. It’s likely that Moore simply moved through the Kid Miracleman climax, then built towards the Big Ben / Zarathustra climax, without thinking about how this would affect the structure of what became Book One. Supporting this, Book Two has a slower, more relaxed pace, reflecting that Moore was by then thinking of his continuing narrative in terms of books.
Even taking this into account, Moore likely knew as he went into what became Book One’s climax that it would be exactly that, so his decision not to use Big Ben in a climactic fight was still a conscious one. However, we can also understand this decision as reflecting a desire not to repeat what he had already done with Kid Miracleman. He probably didn’t intend that as the halfway point of Book One, but having already written it and subsequently decided to wrap up Book One, it didn’t make sense to repeat himself. So the radically unorthodox structure of Book One was likely as much an accident as anything.
That doesn’t mean that this structure doesn’t exist, however, nor that it isn’t the product of Moore’s own choices. It may not have been planned all along, but lots of continuing stories wind up taking a shape that wasn’t intended from the outset. Accident plays as big a role in literary innovation as in any other kind.
But there’s another reason why Moore didn’t choose to build Big Ben into a climactic villain to rival Kid Miracleman: his heart wasn’t in it. As we’ve already discussed, Moore only included Big Ben at the request of his editor Dez Skinn, who was also Big Ben’s creator. For whatever reasons, Moore certainly doesn’t seem to have much love for the character, whom he transformed into a drooling psychotic. In contrast, Moore had seen for himself the possibilities of making Kid Miracleman a villain, and Moore’s passion for this idea is clear in his writing.
And while Moore didn’t intend from the start to divide his work into “books,” he did intend to have Kid Miracleman return. Turning Big Ben, a much less interesting character, into a threat to rival Kid Miracleman didn’t only risk repetition. It could also have upset Moore’s larger plans.
So rather than provide a run-of-the-mill super-powered fight, Moore wisely dispatches with the threat of Big Ben quickly and moves into what really interests him – and what’s a whole lot more novel: the revelations represented by the Zarathustra bunker.
The result is a book that’s highly unconventional in its structure. It’s a structure with fascinating implications, arguing that the real drama of super-hero stories is internal – an idea that runs throughout Miracleman.
But for Book One’s detractors, there’s no more serious failing than that the climax everyone remembers most – the Kid Miracleman fight – occurs halfway through. It feels unbalanced. This might have been the best option, once Moore decided to break the story into books. And it’s certainly preferable to a needlessly extended super-battle that would have left the book feeling unbalanced anyway, since it couldn’t have trumped the Kid Miracleman fight.
If we acknowledge that Moore’s intentions aren’t relevant, when examining the positive effects of Book One’s unconventional structure, we must also acknowledge that the circumstances that produced this imbalance, while interesting to ponder, don’t remove that imbalance. It’s the book’s most serious flaw. And while it may have been inevitable, the moment Book One continued after the Kid Miracleman battle, it’s in this chapter that this inevitable imbalance actually occurs.
To be continued.