The following two pages describe the “para-reality programming process” and conclude the chapter’s central five pages. The video describes this as an “artificial reality,” although it corresponds better to what we’d today call virtual reality, except that it’s conducted while the subjects are unconscious, so that this virtual reality may also be seen as a form of dream manipulation.
Sedatives are used to cause the subject’s unconsciousness, and the resulting “dream world” is described as “pseudo-rational” and “juvenile.” It’s point is to explain the Miracleman Family’s “abhuman abilities” (a wonderful turn of phrase for the way it avoids the term “superhuman”) without reference to Zarathustra. To this end, “the creatures” have been made to believe that their powers come from “a semi-mystical being named ‘Guntag Borgheim.’”
It’s hard not to read a sarcastic tone in the phasing of the video’s narrator, despite his bureaucratic formality. The narrator seems to think that Guntag Borgheim is transparently ridiculous, although it seemed to satisfy British readers for years. Voicing a story with the same elements to Liz, Miracleman (in chapter two) had to admit it sounded “well… pretty unlikely.” Liz went further, saying it was all “so stupid!” And of course, she’s right. As Project Zarathustra knew full well. But Miracleman didn’t.
The accompanying image is the series’s first depiction of the “para-reality” process, which wasn’t actually shown during this chapter’s Big Ben’s page, despite its references to this same process. The image depicts Miracleman lying asleep in what looks like a dentist’s chair, with electrodes attached to him. He’s wearing a roughly spherical glass helmet that’s reminiscent of 1950s depictions of space helmets. Behind his head is one of the project’s circular screens, on which we see the fictional source for the Miracleman Family’s powers, Guntag Borgheim.
It’s a memorable and even iconic image. In part, this is owing to its repetition later in the series (especially in “The Red King Syndrome”). But there’s also something haunting in the panel’s particulars. The calm, sleeping form of Miracleman might recall nightmares of dentists taking advantage of their patients. It’s an image that seems to embody the idea of Miracleman’s immense power rendered helpless, which is kind of the point of Zarathustra. That power is signaled by two scientists, depicted behind a glass window in radiation suits, doubly protecting themselves. This portion of the image recalls scientists shielding themselves from atomic tests, which recalls the frequent analogy between Miracleman and the atomic bomb. Even the image of Guntag Borgheim seems to embody how Miracleman was deceived, since it’s perhaps the most representative element of the silliness and absurdity of Marvelman’s pre-Alan Moore stories.
The video’s narrator calls this device a “somatic-inducer couch” and explicitly says that this technology is “Visitor-derived.”
The video also states that this allows Zarathustra “to fully test” the Miracleman Family’s “responses and reactions with a totally safe[,] hallucinatory ‘dry run,’ rather like a flight simulator.” The meaning here seems to be that this programming, which we know Miracleman remembers as fact, isn’t simply to explain the Miracleman Family’s origins without reference to Zarathustra. It’s also to understand and perhaps train how the Miracleman Family acts.
In the next panel, we see a video image of Miracleman with a Robin Hood figure – a fairly preposterous team-up. Over this, the video narrator states:
Some of the fantasies we project contain deliberate contradictions, some contain events to stretch the subject’s credibilities to the fullest.
We are attempting to determine how our artificial belief-system will endure under stress.
This passage certainly underlines the ridiculousness of those old Marvelman tales. In fact, they’re so ridiculous that the only realistic explanation isn’t merely that they’re dreams but dreams deliberately designed to be preposterous.
The creators of those old Marvelman stories didn’t seem to think very much of their readers. They churned out some charming tales, but they also showed that they weren’t exactly trying very hard to create works of literary quality. In a parallel way, Zarathustra doesn’t seem to think very much of Miracleman, having fed him absurd stories to test just how bad they could be before his mind resisted.
It’s interesting to contrast this passage to the page prior, on which we learned that Big Ben’s programming left him unable to function rationally. We learned there that, as a result of his para-reality programming, Big Ben had trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Now, it seems that Zarathustra was pushing its superhuman subjects’ sense of reality during this earlier period, before its mastermind absconded with his notes to South America. But while it deliberately “stretch[ed] the subject’s credibilities to the fullest,” this didn’t result in the subject snapping, as was later the case with Big Ben.
The video’s narrator states that this programming has continued for “eight years” and dates this current “recording” to “January, 1962.” Chapter eight dated Miracleman’s creation to 1954, and this chapter dated its first two video sequences / pages, which depict the Miracleman Family, to 1954-1955. On the second of those two pages, we saw Kid Miracleman’s powers being tested in the “real” world. Apparently, however, this was a rare and early instance of the Miracleman Family being let out of Zarathustra’s confines, because we now learn that the Miracleman Family have lived “their entire existence” in “a computer-designed fantasy.”
This is a rather stunning revelation, and it depends on us not knowing how far Miracleman and Cream rewound the tape, after fast-forwarding too far. Realistically, it’s unlikely that anyone would create superhumans, which are said to make atomic weapons obsolete, only to steer those superhumans’ dreams for the following eight years. Within the story, however, this revelation follows upon the idea that Miracleman’s masters falsified his origin and included unrealistic elements, both to manipulate him. Now, the video reveals that he was kept like this for eight years – and that virtually everything he remembers, prior to the 1963 explosion, was a lie.
In his video sequence, Big Ben saw that others saw him was a joke. Here, Miracleman sees that his reality was a joke. If Big Ben was seen by his superiors as a laughingstock. But Miracleman’s entire world, at least as he remembers it, was one very long joke.
Unsurprisingly, Miracleman isn’t pleased. In the foreground of the page’s third panel, in which the video shows Miracleman with the Robin Hood figure, we see Miracleman cringing and seemingly turning away from the video. In the following panel, we see Miracleman facing away from the video display, his teeth clenched and his fists upturned and glowing. It’s a rather conventional pose in super-hero stories, despite its total artifice. It’s a weak artistic point in the story, and it undercuts the narrative because it makes us question whether it’s also exaggerated to have Miracleman literally turn entirely around to look away from the viewer. But seeing Miracleman turn away, over these two previous panels, sets up the final panel of the page.
There, Miracleman, teeth clenched, turns back to the video display while the video’s narrator introduces “the controller and originator of the Zarathustra project…”
To be continued.