The Art of Miracleman: Olympus—Praising John Totleben

Seldom is it said that the artwork of an Alan Moore comic is “better” than the writing. Usually an artist on an Alan Moore work is praised for their phenomenal art, but the main focus is usually on Moore’s writing. It is a shame that is unavoidable in some forms of artistic collaborations that one creative voice overshadows another. Almost any actor’s performance in a Quentin Tarantino film is not as greatly discussed as Tarantino’s unique voice both in direction and in writing. That being said Moore’s once lost and now available masterpiece Miracleman: Olympus is perhaps the best example of a work by Moore in which the art is vastly more fascinating than the writing. This is not meant to be a slight to Moore’s writing in Miracleman: Olympus which is one of Moore’s strongest works. But the work of Miracleman: Olympus transcends a gripping sequential narrative into a masterpiece in the comics medium because of the gorgeous artwork of John Totleben. Totleben’s artwork is not only the best art in Moore’s Marvelman (renamed Miracleman due to legal threats by Marvel) but some of the greatest art in American comics.
Artwork is the heart of any strong story in the comics medium. High quality art is able to elevate a story into a classic. Mark Millar’s grounded superhero-epic The Ultimates would not be as exciting and impactful without the fantastic photo-realistic/blockbuster artwork of Bryan Hitch. Alan Moore’s poetic narration is fantastic, but the mythically-grand science-fiction story would not resonate as well with readers were it not for the evocative page layouts and sublime characters drawn by Totleben. The lack of publication of Moore’s Marvelman was unjust as it is a genuine masterpiece in the superhero genre. But the more horrendous crime was that Totleben’s art in Act 3: Olympus was not easily available to the general public. Thankfully, Marvel has been able to make the book available to the public and the work has been beautifully re-colored to match higher quality paper.

In terms of artistic style the first act of Marvelman, A Dream of Flying, had Garry Leach bring as much photo-realism to the work. The intent by Moore was to place a superhero or more appropriately a god in the ordinary world of man. The perspective of A Dream of Flying was from Michael Moran, where the world of the superheroes is a bizarre dream made real. The attention to realism is effective in the narrative intent of the first act. As the series progressed and Leach left the book, artist Alan Davis began to bring more androgynous qualities to Marvelman and included more of the “Tinkerbell” effect to show Marvelman’s greater separation from the mundane world.

Totleben took Davis’ approach to drawing Marvelman and has the character frequently be partially cloaked in shadow to emphasize the perfection and god-like nature of the character. Looking at Totleben’s rendering of Marvelman and any member of the Marvelman family and one instantly can see that the characters are not human whatsoever. Instead, the characters are akin to living statues, with flawless skin and enigmatic expressions that seem removed from the common expressions on man. The opening double-page spread of Chapter III: Hermes has Marvelman lying in a lush garden in tribute to the fallen Aza Chorn. The images of Marvelman in the framing narrative of Olympus are all the most sublime of Totleben’s work and it is in these sequences that Marvelman seems to be in the natural and logical place for the god. In contrast the sublime rendering of Marvelman by Totleben makes him a magnificent anachronism to the everyday world of London. Every moment Marvelman is brought back to the ordinary world he is fascinating while the world around him is drawn to be dull and uninteresting. When Liz Moran leaves her husband she sadly remarks, “Even sleeping with you, it feels wrong. Like bestiality. Like I’m an animal and you’re…oh I don’t know…a higher species.” While the lines are tragic, Totleben’s depiction of Marvelman makes Liz Moran’s words seem logical. Liz Moran is a beautiful, ordinary human, and Marvelman simply is not human.

Part of the brilliance of Totleben’s artwork comes from his evocative usage of page layouts. To compliment the dull and ordinary world of Liz Moran are simple page layouts of 6-9 panels. In contrast the page layouts of Marvelman’s world are often free of panel borders and fill the entire page. Whether the situations are violent or erotic, sequences with the gods are much more complex and visually interesting. Moore’s tragedy of a man losing his humanity in his ascension to godhood is visually represented in a breathtaking sequence of comparative page layouts. In Chapter III: Hermes, Marvelwoman then is able to propose a peace agreement between the Qys and the Warpsmiths over Earth. With this agreement Totleben has a multi-colored palette and an evocative layouts of rectangles and circles to demonstrate the broadening world of ideas and possibilities in Marvelman’s new home. Following this beautiful page of experimentation is a simple page of a man and woman in a house in a nine-panel grid. Liz cannot handle the gods living in her ordinary world. The simplicity of layout is demonstrative of how simple and almost pitiful humanity is to the eyes of the gods. Totleben’s layouts become more experimental with each chapter in Olympus. With Chapter IV: Pantheon, Totleben begins to include the events of the frame narrative inter-spliced with the events of the main story. Marvelman dances in the frame of almost every page of Chapter IV while Marvelman meets new comrades in a visually experimental manner and loses his wife and child in a simple layout. By the concluding chapter so much of Marvelman’s life is depicted in double-page spreads, that defy traditional layouts. Whereas when Marvelman is speaking with pitiful Liz Moran, the layout is so simple and the panels are so small, that only Marvelman is visible in the foreground, with Liz a fragile figure of the background.

Miracleman: Olympus is a succinct and complete summation of the superhero myth. Totleben is able to captures the quintessential aspects of the superhero myth. The magnificent bright and imaginative aspects of the superhero are seen in the utopia frame sequences with lush gardens, and a magnificent fortress that makes the Fortress of Solitude seem humble in comparison. But the rarely acknowledged aspect of superheroes is the violence. All conflict depicted in superhero comics is violent and is almost always resolved through violent means. Alan Moore, felt compelled to demonstrate that if ever the superheroes existed in the real world their battles would be devastating to all around. Totleben’s talent as a horror artist is displayed at its most shockingly grotesque and vivid in the infamous Chapter V: Nemesis. The wicked super-being Kid Marvelman is freed from his prison inside his other body, Johnny Bates. Totleben includes in every panel of the chapter all the raw and real consequences of violence. Humans are shown across every panel of the chapter dead or maimed, with raw destruction all around London. Any battle with super-powered beings would not likely be in an empty area, and much like war civilian and massive property damage would occur. The haunting imagery by Totleben demonstrates the true horror of war or any violent confrontation. There is no sense of victory or heroism by the end of the conflict, only trauma and terror. For better or worse, Totleben’s demonstration of the realistic consequences of superhero battles would resonate in the collective consciousness of all working in the superhero genre. Works such as The Ultimates, The Boys and mainstream superhero films The Man of Steel and The Avengers could not ignore that any superhero battle had massive collateral damage and major risk of civilian death.

John Totleben is one of the greatest artists in the comics medium. While he is mostly celebrated as a brilliant inker, his talent with full pencils should not be ignored. Totleben’s artwork in Miracleman: Olympus is one of the premier exemplars of the entire superhero genre. Totleben singlehandedly captured everything magnificent and horrific about the superman. Through Totleben magnificent vision, one can see the price that humanity must pay for gods to walk amongst us.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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