On All-New Miracleman Annual #1

One of the oddities of Marvel finally reprinting Miracleman is the relative lack of interest it’s generated. We’re talking about a work regarded as being as important as Watchmen in super-hero comics history (and arguably even more important, since Miracleman began first). The disappearance of Miracleman was a massive hole in comics history, lamented perhaps more than any other out-of-print or incomplete comic series. Yet sales of Marvel’s new editions, while healthy, haven’t been chart-toppers.

What’s the culprit here? Marvel’s certainly done a great job of updating and standardizing the color and the lettering, as well as restoring the original art. And you can’t say that Marvel hasn’t promoted the series; Marvel’s advertising for Miracleman has been heavy, ambitious, and remarkably persistent. On the other hand, Marvel’s issues are bogged down by reprints of original art — which is great to me, as a Miracleman scholar, but perhaps not so much for a new reader who just wants to read the story for the first time. The monthly issues also feature reprints of old Marvelman stories, which might be seen as a celebration of the character’s long history (or a monetizing of the fact that Marvel purchased the character and those stories), but these aren’t of much interest to fans of the Alan Moore / Neil Gaiman series who don’t want to read black-and-white reprints of old super-hero comics. This backmatter has contributed to a hefty $5 per issue price tag, which is a lot if you only care about the 16-page story (the actual contents vary, of course).

All-New Miracleman Annual #1This may all seem off-topic, when it comes to All-New Miracleman Annual #1. But it’s important context, because All-New Miracleman Annual is the first issue Marvel’s published that contains new material. It really ought to be titled simply Miracleman Annual, and we may safely presume the “All-New” was added to highlight that this is new stuff. In fact, the issue contains the first new Miracleman stories in two decades.

More than that, the annual contains the long-lost, long-discussed story that Grant Morrison famously sent Dez Skinn, editor of Warrior, where Miracleman was initially serialized (in black-and-white and as Marvelman). Skinn liked the short, and it didn’t upset Alan Moore’s main narrative, which was effectively on hiatus (it’s a long story). But Moore exercised his right to veto another writer working with these characters. Of course, Moore went on to complete his story, whereupon he handed the series off to Neil Gaiman. Meanwhile, Morrison rose to prominence in American comics, and this “lost” Miracleman story became legendary. Even the details of these events took on a life of their own, with Moore and Morrison disputing them, and message boards filling with fans of both writers arguing not only over the details of what happened but which writer had been nice, mean, etc. during these events.

Sequart’s been part of this story. In interviews for Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, Grant Morrison revealed that he still had his original script, and he described its contents as largely consisting of Kid Miracleman talking with a priest — which was about as much as anyone ever knew about what the story contained. Before Marvel began its series, I urged them to get this unpublished story (which is really part of Miracleman’s history, at this point) and make it a reality. Marvel didn’t necessarily need my advice, but all of this is evidence of what a Big Deal this “lost” Morrison Miracleman story really is.

The ratio of words spent discussing and speculating on this story to words in Morrison’s original script for it is absurdly high. In other words, it’s historic. For Miracleman fans, the story is the earliest (and most speculated about) of all unproduced Miracleman stories (of which there are several). The story’s also taken on an alternate-history feeling, because if Moore had approved its printing, a young Morrison might have gone on to do more Miracleman stories, and we might even think of Miracleman as a product of the three most celebrated British comics writers to emerge in the 1980s: Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman. Comics history might have gone in a different direction; this was the chance for Moore and Morrison to collaborate, or at least work side by side. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been sustainable, but given the rancor and contention that’s followed, it’s fascinating to imagine. For Morrison fans, the story is also a lost and lamented early work by the author, which could be understood in the context of Morrison’s other early British work. And here too, it’s easy to wonder what might have been, had Morrison created a bunch of Miracleman tales, years before he began Zenith in 2000AD. No, comics history doesn’t really pivot on this short story; it shouldn’t be forced to carry that weight. But it was written at a pivotal time, by a pivotal creator, for a pivotal series, and even if there’s no alternate universe in which it saw print in its time, it’s easy to follow the implications of this failure forward through comics history.

So this lost Morrison story doesn’t carry the main Miracleman narrative forward, the way new Gaiman / Buckingham issues would. Maybe that’s what everyone’s waiting for. But this story’s publication is a huge deal. It’s also beautifully illustrated by Joe Quesada, whom Morrison himself reportedly chose. The issue also features a second new Miracleman story by Peter Milligan and Mike Allred, among the most respected talents in comics, especially when it comes to groundbreaking, intelligent, and offbeat mainstream comics work like Miracleman.

True, the annual is as expensive as the monthly issues, and it features the same sort of special features — although in this case, the pages include Morrison’s entire original script, seen here for the first time. The annual also doesn’t contain an old Marvelman reprint. I suppose the annual still feels padded, relative to a $3 publication containing only the two new stories. I suppose these choices make the annual feel like an expensive celebration of a couple new stories, which are inconsequential in terms of the ongoing narrative. Still, if getting Miracleman back into print with great production values is a Big Deal, this is a second Big Deal, on the way to the third Big Deal of Gaiman and Buckingham continuing their incomplete story.

Yet judging from reviews and online buzz, it doesn’t seem like All-New Miracleman Annual #1 has moved the meter. Most of the responses (such as this Comic Book Resources review) have been decidedly underwhelmed. Both Quesada and Allred’s art have been praised, but popular opinion seems to be that the stories fail to impress, pointing to a weakness in the writing.

(That CBR review, while well-written, even suggests that this perceived weakness illustrates how hard following Moore on the title was, and thus how good Gaiman’s work is. While I certainly agree with that glowing assessment of Gaiman and Buckingham’s Miracleman, the greater challenge there was writing stories set after the world became a kind of utopia, which most creators would have bungled. And I don’t think it’s entirely fair to compare two side stories, intended as such, to the larger but very different task of laying a new foundation for post-utopia narratives.)

So here’s my assessment of these two stories. Let’s deal with the second first, since it doesn’t have the historical baggage of Morrison’s story. Milligan and Allred’s story is a classic sort of side story, ostensibly set during the Miracleman Family’s time in Gargunza-induced fantasy world. Allred’s art is a natural fit to the carefree way that fantasy has been depicted. Milligan’s script jumps from one threat to another (including, charmingly, flying dolphins), with the Miracleman Family happily handling each in turn.

As the 10-page story nears its climax, Miracleman questions why no people have been hurt or killed in their adventures. In Moore’s stories (most prominently the two-part “The Red King Syndrome”), Miracleman’s always the one who doubts the fantasy into which the Miracleman Family has been placed. Ostensibly, he’s the most intelligent of the bunch (although it should be said that Moore consistently depicts Miraclewoman, who was separate from the core three members of the Family, as more intelligent still). Of course, Miracleman’s convinced to ignore his suspicions, and the story ends with the proverbial “camera” zooming in on Miracleman, during which Ben-Day dots are added, thus echoing the end of Moore’s prologue to the series and visually reinforcing that the reality in which the story is set is, in fact, fake.

Milligan and Allred’s tale might feel like an out-of-continuity story from the Miracleman: Apocrypha mini-series, but it’s actually more in tune with Moore’s own short side stories. No, the story’s not revolutionary, and it might feel like a retread of some of Moore’s stories, but it’s pretty well in sync with them. At 10 pages, the story might be a bit long for what it’s doing, especially compared to the concision of Moore’s work, but that owes more to the changing pace of English-language comics during the interim — as well as the obvious joy Milligan and Allred take with outrageously illogical ideas such as talking dolphins who make campfires.

Morrison and Quesada’s story also isn’t intended to be out-of-continuity. It’s a side story, but it depicts Kid Miracleman in 1966, three years after the Miracleman Family’s apparent destruction (a key moment in the in-continuity backstory Moore constructed). In Moore’s stories, Kid Miracleman’s transformation from an innocent, young, super-powered adventurer into a villain is never depicted. It’s only discussed. Mike Moran guesses that this would be how Kid Miracleman would have evolved, freed from constraints and Miracleman’s guiding influence, but it’s really speculation — even if the story strongly suggests that it’s right, and it’s hard not to hear Moore’s own voice in Moran’s words. “October Incident: 1966″ doesn’t depict this transformation either, but it does provide the first glimpse into Kid Miracleman’s “lost years.” And really, that’s all this kind of side story needed to do, had it been run in the pages of Warrior.

The story goes like this: in 1963, a priest saw Kid Miracleman crashing to Earth, following the explosion that “killed” the Miracleman Family. The story takes place three years later, in 1966, as the priest encounters Kid Miracleman, who mocks the priest and kills him. In part, that’s because the priest interprets what he saw in 1963 in Biblical terms, which Morrison merges with the way Moore’s early Miracleman stories referenced Kid Miracleman as a “dragon.” Apparently, Kid Miracleman’s transformation into a villain thus took place between 1963 and 1996, and he’s decided to kill this witness from three years earlier.

Morrison’s script is verbally very much in tune with Moore’s early Miracleman stories. Morrison echoes Moore’s caption-heavy style from those stories, and Morrison carefully borrows Moore’s language, such as “dragon” references. Some partisan extremists might claim this is Morrison stealing from Moore, but it’s clearly Morrison playing in Moore’s sandbox and trying to create a story that fits with what Moore’s done. And he does that remarkably well. It was a solid idea for a Warrior-style side story, and it syncs well with Moore’s Miracleman as it appeared there. Morrison also gets in a pretty great line — “Sometimes dreams come true. / Even the bad ones” — that evokes Moore’s dreaming motif, underlining how Kid Miracleman is Miracleman’s opposite. It’s a poetic idea Moore didn’t tease out much, and that’s basically what a side story like this is supposed to do.

Quesada’s art is especially beautiful here, and he loads Morrison’s script with references, dressing Kid Miracleman in a John Lennon outfit from the same period. That’s an interesting riff, evoking Morrison’s later The Invisibles, and the notes in the back of the annual briefly expand on the cultural and religious implications of this choice. Quesada also adds a panel evoking Hamlet, with the murdered priest’s skull playing Yorick.

The biggest problem with Morrison’s story comes neither from Morrison’s script (which had an unspecified length), nor from Quesada’s beautiful art. Rather, the problem is how Morrison’s script is adapted. Morrison’s story was written for Warrior, where it would likely have been about six pages long. But comics are more decompressed today, and Morrison’s lost script has become a Big Deal, which argues for an expanded page count. As a consequence, what probably would have been six pages is now 11, including no less than four splash pages. Quesada also adds several panels, essentially splitting single panels into multiple ones.

As a consequence, the first four panels of Morrison’s script are transformed into three entire pages, the first and third being splash pages. The first page establishes the setting, in which the priest walks along the shore. The second page features four panels of the priest on the beach. The third page is a splash page that cuts to Kid Miracleman watching the scene, with the story’s title taking up most of the page. All the art is beautiful, but it needn’t be three pages. Moreover, these three pages would work better as a single page, helping us to focus on the characters and get a feel for the setting, rather than jumping from one view to the next.

The next page has a different problem, in that three panels that flash back to 1963 have the same borders and tone as the present-day panels. True, it’s snowing in these flashback panels, and the character is wearing a scarf and a differently colored coat, but it’s the same character in the same setting, which hasn’t been as well-established as it might be because of the jumps from page to page. I confess that I didn’t notice the transition from rain to snow until rereading, odd as that might seem, and I wasn’t totally clear which panels were flashbacks at first. I was too busy trying to piece together what was going on.

All-New Miracleman Annual #1 page 5Kid Miracleman doesn’t appear until the top of page five. From there, the story picks up, and the added space, as well as Quesada’s added panels, do enhance the story. If there’s one splash page that deserves to be a splash page, it’s the one on which Kid Miracleman kills the priest.

But the story ends on a fourth splash page, which is just Kid Miracleman leaving. The caption tells us he’s heading to London, and the splash page adds so much drama and foreboding to the moment that we might well think of the climax to Moore’s story, in which Kid Miracleman levels much of London. But of course, that hadn’t been written when Morrison wrote this story, which takes place in 1966. Here, the very form of the splash page creates a sense of importance, which makes the foreboding nature of the final panel seem like it’s supposed to be really ominous, leading the reader to search for meaning that isn’t there.

As much as we all like giving stories (especially historic stories like this one) more space to shine (especially when the artwork is as beautiful as this), added space doesn’t always lend itself to clearer, better storytelling. My own impression is that the story would be much more effective, were the first three pages combined into a single page, and the last two pages also combined into one. At that point, the story would still run eight pages, including a single splash page — expanded from how it would likely have appeared in Warrior, but not so expanded as to create storytelling problems, or to feel overly padded.

I think this is at the heart of the lackluster reception to Marvel’s Miracleman, and this all-new annual in particular. To read reviews of this annual, you’d think some reviewers thought these were supposed to be something far more than a couple new side stories. I suspect that, were these stories run as back-ups in the main title (and ideally, Morrison’s story reduced to eight pages), readers would be far more inclined to see them as really cool bonus stories, rather than a couple very expensive side stories in which not too much happens.

Essentially, it’s an expectations game. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an elite, lavish representation of Miracleman, or of these two new stories. But it’s more a product for someone like me, who loves these notes and original art. For most readers, a $5 annual with 21 pages of new comics pages, consisting of two side stories, has the same problem as a $5 issue with 16 beautifully polished, reprinted comics pages.

I and many others felt like we were discovering Miracleman, and its brilliance seemed enhanced by pulpy printing standards rarely tolerated anymore. The new printing, while objectively superior, seems to trumpet itself, enhancing the pulpy raw edges of the actual material.

How would Watchmen perform and get reviewed, if each 32-page issue were $10 and included the original artwork and reprinted stories of the Charleton characters?

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