We’ve begun discussing the conclusion of Book One (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, illustrated by Alan Davis. Today, we continue our exploration of this historic chapter.
If Book One is characterized by its experiments with narrative and especially point of view, the final page of the book’s final chapter is no exception. Already, chapter ten has surprisingly used Archer’s report as its descriptive captions, and has jumped around chronologically both in the chapter’s story and in the videos watched by the characters within that story. It’s a highly complex and ambitious structure, especially unorthodox for a concluding chapter that has real narrative work to accomplish. Then the final page offers an epilogue, which uses two new points of view.
The epilogue focuses on Big Ben, and it juxtaposes his point of view with an objective one. The top three-fourths of the page is split into three rows of two panels each, with the panels on the left depicting Big Ben’s point of view and the panels on the right depicting objective reality. The difference between the two is so stark that it becomes clear that Big Ben has suffered a psychotic break. Before, he might have believed that he was a brave hero battling Soviet foes in a super-hero universe. Now, he’s apparently begun hallucinating as well, and is filtering his perceptions in a far more radical way.
It might seem unrealistic for Big Ben to hallucinate in this way, but it’s an indication of how desperate his brain is to retrieve its equilibrium. It may seem insane, but his brain is reaching out for sanity in a world that, from his perspective, has become insane and impossible to reconcile. Believing what he’s seen in the Zarathustra bunker involves rejecting everything he’s known. One reality has to die, and it’s no great shock that Big Ben’s mind, already conditioned to reject reality, chooses the least painful of the two realities to reject – even if this means filtering his perceptions as severely as we now see here.
In the page’s first panel, Big Ben narrates, “For a moment, Major Molotov had [sic] almost had me fooled with his devilish red propaganda.” From this, it’s clear that he’s fully rejected the reality he’s seen. He might not have reacted with physical violence, like Miracleman did, but Big Ben’s mind has reacted with a far deeper (and what ought to be a far more disturbing) kind of violence.
In Big Ben’s version of events, “Jack Ketch and Owlwoman, my colleagues from the Bulldog Brigade,” arrive. Big Ben narrates that the man whom he identifies as Jack Ketch “told me how the red rogue had used a brain beam to make me doubt my own identity.” Big Ben narrates that the woman (whom Big Ben identifies as Owlwoman), “brought an ultra-vest from her mountain fortress which would drain off the harmful mind-clouding radiation,” and we see this on Big Ben.
Big Ben’s version of events is self-serving, on a deeper level by allowing him to continue seeing himself as a super-hero but also on a more superficial level: he believes his actions served a purpose. “As they helped me towards the waiting Owlcar,” Big Ben narrates, “they told me that thanks to my delaying tactics they had been able to prevent Molotov escaping with the death ray.”
Meanwhile, the other side of the page presents the truth. Jack Ketch and Owlwoman are dressed not as super-heroes but as doctors in white coats. The man even has a stethoscope dangling out of his pocket. They’re not colorful heroes, battling equally colorful but ultimately harmless Communist rogues, in a world with death rays and brain beams. They’re bureaucrats, serving the British state and its secret, classified infrastructure.
Alan Davis excels here, drawing the two sides of the page so as to create visual parallels between reality and Big Ben’s hallucination. The female doctor’s large, circular glasses become the goggles in Owlwoman’s mask. Her lab coat becomes a cape. Her black vest morphs into one of the often inexplicable color patterns on her super-hero costume. Her circular belt buckle becomes a circular decoration on her torso. The male doctor’s stethoscope becomes a noose, dangling from Jack Ketch’s rope belt, recalling the somewhat darker pulp heroes that preceded super-heroes as well as the rather inexplicable super-hero accessories (like capes) that would more likely be liabilities in an actual fight.
If we wanted, we could see Jack Ketch and Owlwoman as representative of the Golden and Silver Ages of super-hero history. The male is dressed in something resembling actual clothing, rather than spandex. (His hood and noose accessory recall Hooded Justice, a Golden Age hero Moore and Gibbons invented for Watchmen.) Jack Ketch’s face is slightly frowning, and Big Ben narrates that he “smiled grimly” as he explained the “brain beam.” In all of these attributes, Jack Ketch seems to embody the Golden Age of super-heroes, which was a lot closer to the pulp vigilantes from super-heroes evolved.
Owlwoman, meanwhile, is a classic Silver Age pastiche. She’s dressed in spandex, with a long cape and goggles. Unlike Jack Ketch, she smiles throughout; it’s a warm smile that recalls the silly super-heroes of the 1950s and 1960s, when even Batman frequently grinned. Her super-hero identity is ordered around a central theme – owls. We’re told she has a “mountain fortress,” presumably decked out in line with her owl theme, and it’s implied that the fortress has lots of high-tech contraptions like the “ultra-vest” she brought for Big Ben. She even has an eccentric, streamlined vehicle called an Owlcar, which looks like it’s levitating slightly off the ground and doesn’t have any visible wheels. She’s a theme-based, brightly colored, smiling Silver Age super-heroine with copious gadgets, including vehicles and a themed headquarters.
And next to them is Big Ben, who represents the new, revisionist era that Miracleman was helping to usher into being. He pictures himself smiling nicely, but he’s actually sneering like a maniac. He’s not actually wearing an “ultra-vest” but a straightjacket. He’s psychotic, unglamorous, and broken down.
The two doctors have no illusions about Big Ben’s mental state. Like Big Ben’s superiors in the Zarathustra video, they see him as pathetic. As they approach, the male doctor cautions that Big Ben is “dangerous” – surely true, and it’s only Big Ben’s reassuring hallucination that keeps him from resisting his doctors with superhuman strength. As they fasten the straightjacket, the female doctor wants to make sure it’s “properly fastened” – which suggests they aren’t even aware of his strength, another indication of how their and Big Ben’s superiors don’t really care about any of them.
It’s in the final panel on the left side of the page that we finally hear someone express any real sympathy for Big Ben, who’s been treated even by the series itself as little more than a joke. It’s the female doctor who expresses this sympathy, perhaps playing into the idea that women (Margaret Thatcher aside) are more compassionate and able to empathize. Notably, she’s the only of the two doctors who’s actually named; the male doctor calls her Fiona, as they approach Big Ben, and this makes her feel more human when, at last, she’s the one to show any kind of sympathy for this manipulated, psychotic joke of a super-hero.
The two doctors approach the truck, in which they’ll cart Big Ben away. He’s in tow, straight-jacketed and leering. He’s all but drooling. And Fiona says, “Okay. Easy does it. Easy… / Come on[,] let’s get him fastened in and then let’s take the poor bastard home.”
It’s the tiniest verbal gesture, one which Big Ben can’t even hear, much less appreciate. These are words spoken in the context of a particular human being doing a job she’s been assigned to do. Like all of us, Fiona can’t escape her own perspective, and she’s not immune to the selfishness that inevitably goes along with this. She wants to get on with her task, even if she’s patient and willing to do it right. She can’t see objectively, and her compassion is colored by her own situation at the moment and by her own concern for her time.
But still, she expresses it. And while she’s looking down on Big Ben, by calling him a “poor bastard,” there’s no mocking or cruelty in her words. Big Ben’s a patient, and he’s suffering. It’s not Fiona’s job to fix this, nor does she think it is. It’s only her job to transport this man. But for once, someone notices Big Ben is suffering and has pity.
It’s a tiny moment. It’s not a super-hero melodramatically deciding to sacrifice himself, or to shed any personal concerns and stand for truth, justice, and the American Way – or for Queen and Country, as might be the case with Big Ben. Such nonsense, by the end of Book One, has been laid bare for what it is: material that may be inspiring but that’s based on manipulating the reader and avoiding the very real struggles we have to make, in order to overcome all of the particulars of our situations, of our needs and wants, if we want to do better.
Such narratives, in making morality seem easy, present no real path to it, nor to understanding ourselves and the world. Such melodrama presents an image of moral inspiration, but it’s paper-thin. And the only destination it can lead to, when the brief high of moral inspiration departs, is to hating ourselves for the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and what we think we should be – or between us and this unachievable “standard” of goodness, which isn’t standard at all and can only make us feel, in our quiet moments, as if we’re not really good.
No, there’s no heroism at the end of Book One. No heroic sacrifice to save the world. The closest we get to evil is Sir Dennis Archer, and he’s not confronted at all. Nor would doing so liberate Britain from anything Archer represents. Neither are Cream and Miracleman really good. Both are now killers. The battles in the final chapter of Book One are internal, whether in Miracleman’s rage or Big Ben’s retreat into psychosis.
The closest we get to heroism is here with Fiona, who alone communicates sympathy for Big Ben, while never breaking out of the context of doing her job as a cog in a machine that’s using her and which she probably can’t begin to fathom. No actions follow from her sympathy. They rarely follow in real life either. As a ray of hope, in a dark chapter with broken characters, Fiona’s sympathy for Big Ben may not be much. But it means everything to the story, in which even Moore’s seemed rather unsympathetic to this broken super-hero.
Here, perhaps, is the heroism of revisionism. It’s not some garish display. It’s found in characters. It’s found in the subtlety and sophistication of writing, which is able to communicate more than one thing at the same time (such as Fiona wanting to get on with her task and also having sympathy). And it’s found in realism, without which heroism is like a cardboard display, entertaining and perhaps even spurring inspirational sentiment but by definition incapable of actually inspiring. Real heroism operates in the real world, which isn’t defined by any mature person in terms of good guys and bad guys. Without understanding of the real world, including human nature and – yes – politics, heroism is nothing more than an abstracted idea, stripped of what lends it meaning. Real heroism exists in context. And it’s found in moments like these, with Fiona.
To be concluded.