Miracleman, Chapter 10:

The Secret Origin of Big Ben

We’ve begun discussing the conclusion of Book One (parts 1, 2, 34, and 5) of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, illustrated by Alan Davis. Today, we continue our exploration of this chapter.

(If you’re new, start with the introduction. Or you can jump to chapter onetwothreefourfive, six, seven, eight, nine, or the interlude “The Yesterday Gambit.”)

Page five concerns a different portion of the video. Archer’s report conjectures that Miracleman and Cream “presumably overwound the tape,” meaning that they fast-forwarded too far. As a result, the next sequence they view dates to 1968 (a considerable jump forward).

The same caption that establishes this refers to the previous footage as having come from “1954-55.” This corresponds with chapter eight, which dated Miracleman’s creation to 1954, and to chapter two, in which Miracleman told Liz he met “astro-physicist” Guntag Borghelm in 1954. It does, however, make the previous page’s description of atomic development problematic.

Archer’s report states that Cream and Miracleman began viewing this footage at 3:43am. At this point, the chapter’s central five pages have passed two events established on the first page. First, Big Ben awoke at 3:35am and headed back into the bunker. He was presumably already inside when Sir Dennis Archer, along with other governmental agents, arrived at 3:40am but did not go inside. While the reader may not immediately notice these two facts, the first will become apparent as the page proceeds.

As spelled out by this video sequence, the situation at Project Zarathustra in 1968 is very different from the earlier sequences. The video states that “the project’s originator vanished five years ago [and] he took many of his findings with him.” This recalls Cream’s narration, in chapter six, that the name of Miracleman’s alter ego “vanished with the project’s mysterious founder when he fled to South America.” We now can date this event to 1963, the same year the Miracleman Family was destroyed.

The video notes that Zarathustra didn’t end with its originator’s departure. But this continuation was a pale comparison, “owing to the gaps in our technical knowledge.” The pale result of this pale continuation was Big Ben.

We see the muscle-bound Big Ben flexing at a custom-designed machine, over which the video explains that he’s both “strong and highly resistant to damage,” but at “nowhere near” the levels of the Miracleman Family. We’re also told that “he can fly” – a power he hasn’t yet exhibited.

from Miracleman, chapter 10, page 5 (Warrior version)Big Ben’s “greatest fault,” however, is that he’s mentally “unbalanced.” This is “due to our limited understanding of the para-reality programming,” something that’s been referenced before but won’t be explained until the following page. As a result of Big Ben’s unhinged mental state, he’s actually more “suggestible” to Zarathustra’s programming, but the video states that his mental state “limits his effectiveness against a rational opponent.”

Being mentally “unbalanced” can mean many things. Here, it would seem that this is meant to indicate that Big Ben lacks an firm grasp on reality. Essentially, he’s been programmed with so many lies that he’s no longer able to discern what’s real. And we have seen the limited “effectiveness” referenced, when Big Ben battled Miracleman and repeated similar tactics over and over, convinced he’d discover some hidden weakness.

The video’s narration doesn’t tease this out as much as one might like; the only point readers need to take is that Big Ben is mentally flawed. But what Moore’s set up here has fascinating implications.

Convincing someone of things that go against the basic notions of reality is a tricky business. Perhaps it’s all well and good to convince Big Ben that Miracleman is the Soviet “Major Molotov,” in order to motivate Big Ben to confront Miracleman. But when Big Ben’s reality is so defined by super-heroes that he believes he’ll win no matter what, he’s not a very good tactician.

To draw a parallel, it’s one thing to convince someone that he got his powers through a benevolent wizard. It’s quite another to twist that person’s view of reality to such a degree that he lives in a super-hero fantasy world in which aliens might arrive and turn off gravity at any time. Super-powers might defy physics, but the super-hero needs to expect physics to reliably be in operation in order to fight effectively. Otherwise, super-powers are useless.

It’s easy to see how it might be advantageous to get someone to believe something that’s not true. But if you push this too far, there are practical negative consequences.

This isn’t simply an abstract argument confined to super-heroes. We can easily see it in practice in the real world. If you convince someone that you are the representative of a deity (a super-powered being), you’ll likely yield rewards, whether measured financially or by the larger field of status. If that deity is said to listen to its followers, your parishioner might feel loved or special, and this could yield positive benefits for that individual, both psychologically and in his behavior, since many people respond more easily to outside dictates about how to live their lives than to the hard work of figuring this out for themselves. As this parishioner’s lot improves, the representative of this deity gets another benefit: feeling that he is helping someone. Unfortunately, this apparently beneficial lie collapses if that parishioner gets sick and, convinced of his special relationship with this deity, thinks that prayer will solve his health problems – or even hesitates to take adequate action, believing the universe an ordered place that accords with some divine plan, inexplicable to human minds. When this parishioner (or his children) die unnecessarily, his para-reality programming may be said to have gone too far, much as Big Ben’s has.

It’s fun to read a good and entertaining story with “para-reality programming.” But it’s better when such stories have a lot to say about the real world, if we’re willing to look. And Miracleman has consistently fallen into this superior category of fiction.

This same point, about pushing false realities too far, also has implications for the super-hero genre. Within the narrative, Big Ben is a “real” super-hero who’s crippled by believing that he’s living in a super-hero world, in which fights are won by discovering weaknesses rather than by practical tactics. In order for him to be effective, Project Zarathustra has to convince him of unreasonable things about himself and his origins. But it also has to keep the world around him more or less real, or else his powers are useless.

In the same way, super-hero stories involve unrealistic elements, most inevitably so with regard to the super-hero’s origins. Super-powers don’t exist in the real world, and they don’t obey physics as we understand them, so some suspension of disbelief is always going to be required. But if the world around the superhuman is equally fantastical, his super-powers lose all meaning. Super-powers are defined in contrast with normal powers, and they’re not so special in a world in which anything can happen, no matter how much it defies logic or physics.

Of course, super-hero stories are rarely so controlled, and the old Marvelman stories, which are filled with wizards and aliens and the like, are a perfect example. But they’re little more than fantasy stories, at best entertaining fables starring powerful fantasy characters in a world that only dimly resembles our own. What human sacrifice or scientific achievement can mean anything, in a world as uncontrolled as that? If anything can happen, no matter how much it defies logic, nothing has any meaning – beyond, perhaps, entertaining but disposable fun.

In virtually every genre, the works accorded the highest literary merit are controlled. For a murder mystery to work, readers have to have faith that aliens, who have never been seen before, won’t arrive in the final act and be revealed as the murderers. For a story involving magic to work, readers have to know what the rules of this magic are (and which characters are capable of what), because otherwise someone could simply pull out a time-travelling wand in the final act and undo everything. Revisionism sought to elevate the super-hero genre by applying this same narrative control to a genre that had, in a manner associated with the lowest and most disposable children’s literature, avoided such control.

To accomplish this, revisionism (particularly Miracleman and Watchmen) sought to keep the world around the super-hero in control, realistic, and recognizable. In this way, unrealistic elements could be limited to the super-hero’s origins, and the super-hero could actually be explored, including his effects upon society and the larger world. Despite the darkness involved, often inevitably, in such depictions, the goal wasn’t to denigrate the super-hero. It was, paradoxically, to elevate him – both literarily and by making him (arguably for the first time) truly super, relative to the world around him. In fact, one could argue that, if the super-hero’s world is filled with similarly fantastic elements, the super-hero isn’t really a “super-hero” at all. The super-hero works better, not worse, when juxtaposed to and studied against a realistic world.

And this is exactly parallel to the problem in Big Ben’s “para-reality programming.” He sees the world in fundamentally unrealistic terms, and it renders him ineffective, even cartoonish. In the same way, when super-hero stories see the world in fundamentally unrealistic terms, the super-hero suffers and is diminished.

from Miracleman #3, chapter 10, page 5

To be continued.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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2 Comments

  1. Brett Harris says:

    Great analogy for the “para-reality programming” of Big Ben ! Indeed, the real world consequences of the analogy you cite are seen regularly not only when a “parishoner” puts their belief in a god, but also when people put their faith in conspiracy theories and/or ideas from celebrities, as in the “case” many parents have against vaccines. Some of these parents are willing to put their faith in the “arguments” put forward by semi-celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and not have their children vaccinated, with the result those children are at risk of being struck down with debilitating illnesses.

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