The second page of chapter nine focuses on Big Ben, whose mentality seems to be a combination of Cold War stereotypes and super-hero clichés. The two blend together so well that it’s hard not to recall that super-heroes flourished during this historical period, often distinguished by a childlike view of the world as one of good and evil, black and white. It’s no coincidence that this fits so well with super-hero tropes, or that the super-hero spoke to readers whose brains had already been softened by jingoistic nationalism.
To Big Ben, Major Molotov is a “super-Commie” and a “Marxist madman.” Why must Major Molotov, like so many political foes, be called a “madman?” This isn’t a medical diagnosis. It’s a slur, to which Big Ben reflexively reverts. And we see on this page how it prevents Big Ben from seeing the truth, or even inquiring into it.
We learn that Sir Dennis Archer has told Big Ben that Miracleman is named “Major Molotov,” thereby explaining the “MM” on the hero’s chest. Major Molotov’s mission, according to Sir Dennis Archer, is to steal “the plans for our new Zarathustra death-ray.”
Big Ben doesn’t seem to realize that this implies his own government is building a death ray, which would seem to suggest that government’s as evil as the Soviets. If it’s fair game for one side to create a death ray, it’s certainly fair game for the other side to try to steal it; both sides can easily rationalize such actions as defending their own population and security. But even this obvious level of moral consideration is too much for Big Ben, who need not see the obvious implications. Indeed, he can’t because his mind is polluted with thoughts of good and evil, in which the government building the death ray is good and the one trying to steal it is evil.
Miracleman stands still and appears more befuddled than threatened by Big Ben. But Big Ben, like conventional super-heroes, refuses to give up. When his punches don’t work, he picks up a boulder and throws it to no more effect.
What exactly is his plan? Because of the captions, we know: he expects to discover this super-villain’s weakness. Big Ben recalls when the villain named Menace “had kidnapped Doc’s beautiful assistant Valerie” and would have killed her if Big Ben hadn’t discovered “that the brute was vulnerable to common tap water.” It’s the perfect example of a vulnerability, stated in a way that emphasizes the irony of a powerful villain defeated so easily. Vulnerability to water recalls the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Super-hero fans might laugh, but such silly vulnerabilities were once routine parts of super-hero stories. Green Lantern Alan Scott was vulnerable to wood, and the retooled Green Lantern that debuted in the 1960s was vulnerable to the color yellow. Superman’s vulnerability to Kryptonite made no more sense; why would portions of an alien’s destroyed planet hurt him again? (Even this ignoring all the absurd colors of Kryptonite, which could have any effect the writers wanted.)
Big Ben’s mentality might be shockingly stupid, but it illustrates the shocking stupidity of so many super-hero stories, often produced by men who had little understanding of good writing and marketed to children by companies with no concern for art or those children’s welfare. This isn’t to say that those old super-hero stories didn’t have charm or reflect certain psychological insights. But the super-hero genre wasn’t derided solely out of prejudice. They were also often of poor quality. And while the worldview they presented might not have spurred children to a life of crime (as Dr. Fredric Wertham claimed), it did and does promote an arrested and simplistic mentality, in which the good guys win as if by some unspoken law of the universe – perhaps imposed by some benevolent God, rather than brought into existence by the struggle of men lacking any super-power but a willingness to build a finer world.
Big Ben exemplifies this mentality. He need not examine his secret handlers, nor their presumption of righteousness. He need not recognize that he cannot defeat Miracleman through punches. Indeed, Big Ben sees no need to talk with Miracleman at all. Why would he, if he sees Miracleman as a “Marxist madman?” Influenced by his experiences with super-villain after super-villain, the colorful names of which he lists off, Big Ben believes he only has to keep striking, to never give up. He’ll find Major Molotov’s weakness eventually, for he is good and the universe watches over and rewards the good.
It’s easy to laugh at Big Ben. He represents the status quo of the super-hero genre, before stories such as Miracleman infused that genre with a previously unparalleled dose of realism and intelligence. Moore rigs the deck here, presenting Big Ben as little more than a satire. Moore also presents his predecessors in a simplistic manner, which helps accentuate Moore’s own achievement. Elsewhere, Moore and even Miracleman would acknowledge the charm and wonder inherent in the best of these old super-hero stories, even if they did rely on illogical clichés – and even those can be written poetically, in the hands of a good writer, and thus redeemed. But it’s common for vital, new works of art to position themselves strongly against their predecessors, and in reaching beyond those predecessors to simplify or even to misunderstand them.
But there’s another reason why we might not want to laugh too hard at Big Ben. Miracleman might be shockingly different from the silly super-hero stories Big Ben embodies. But it’s still a super-hero story. And we’re inclined to read its protagonist as a hero, despite his morally questionable deeds. If we read Big Ben as the bad guy with a warped worldview, we’re actually mimicking the dichotomous thinking of Big Ben himself.
Among all of Big Ben’s absurd captions about how Miracleman is an evil Bolshevik is a line about how he had “so brutally dispatched a score of our finest tommies.” It’s a jingoistic phrase, echoing those used during the Falklands War to cynically prop up Thatcher’s government through patriotic invocations. But beneath it is the truth that Miracleman has dispassionately slaughtered soldiers he need not have. We tend not to notice this because, while those soldiers are largely faceless, Miracleman is the protagonist, and we identify with him. We internalize his goals as our goals, and the human beings whose bodies oppose him are mere obstacles to be dispatched.
Big Ben may be a joke. And the insight into his mentality, on this page, may be a satire of the super-hero genre, at least before revisionism. But Miracleman (and Miracleman) isn’t free from the underlying dynamics, in which stories (whether of super-heroes or national superpowers) are defined in terms of good guys and bad guys. If Big Ben inoculates us against the problematic aspects of the super-hero genre, he also inoculates us against seeing Miracleman himself as any sort of unproblematic hero.
The world isn’t black and white, even if the original Warrior stories were. And if we replace one object of hero-worship for another, we haven’t escaped the underlying problem at all. We may even consider Miracleman as a whole to be a meditation on this dynamic. The text is a moral structure that the reader must negotiate, intellectually, in order to go beyond Moore’s generic innovations into a new mentality.
Whatever else Big Ben may be, he’s not altogether other from ourselves. And it’s in this overlap, at times present on the page and at times only implicit, that we might move from laughter into the difficult work of interrogating our own thoughts and patterns.
To be continued.