Everybody talks about Miracleman, but few have read it. Far more people know of Miracleman’s importance than understand why it occupies such a crucial role in the history of super-hero comics. This article endeavors to answer that question.
As of this writing, the series has been out of print for a decade and a half, with little hope of it returning. Yet Miracleman’s protracted exile into legal limbo has been good for his reputation. Year after year, his absence is lamented in trade publications. The collected editions often sell for hundreds of dollars, when even available. Miracleman’s creators, despite their more recent high-profile work, are routinely asked about the series’s return. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but this is ridiculous.
It’s all the more flooring to remember that Miracleman began life as a short, black-and-white feature in a British anthology magazine. Its publication was troubled, including a change of name and publisher, several legal disputes, and multiple, lengthy delays in publication. The series never had a mainstream publisher, its first publisher abandoned it for legal reasons, and its second publisher went bankrupt, sending the series into an expanding web of frustrating legal intricacies. So why all the fuss?
Part of the explanation, surely, rests with the series’s two significant writers: Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Moore has been consistently lionized, from the mid-1980s to today, as the greatest writer in the medium. Gaiman not only brought comics into mainstream literary respectability with The Sandman but went on to be a best-selling novelist. Gaiman, seen as Moore’s protégé, succeeded the master on Miracleman due to that very relationship. No other single series boasts sustained runs by both men. This would, surely, be enough to ensure that Miracleman, under normal circumstances, would be in print forever. Far lesser works by both authors have been repackaged endlessly.
The timing of both men’s contributions is also a key factor. Each produced Miracleman during his comics heyday. The list of extended 1980s super-hero works by Moore includes just two items: Watchmen and Miracleman. (Swamp Thing, an extended work, did include super-heroes but was a horror title. Despite this, some of its super-hero scenes have proven to be touchstones for critics and creators alike.) Gaiman never really had an extended super-hero work during his years on The Sandman: his incomplete Miracleman is it. (The closest runner-up would be Black Orchid, but that was a mini-series and neither an extended run on a title nor, to some, in the super-hero genre.) Given this timing, it’s no surprise that both men’s work reflects their concerns at the very height of their careers: the very concerns for which they are most famous.
Moore was busy deconstructing the super-hero genre throughout the 1980s. After laboring on various DC titles, Moore’s 1986-1987 Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight, revolutionized the way super-hero stories were told. This movement was termed “revisionism” for its tendency to radically revise characters, often retroactively, but the term stuck for the whole wave of startlingly new super-hero work, even when the characters featured were new. After all, it was the genre, more than any single character, that these men were revising. Revisionism wasn’t just an idle experiment: it was a movement oriented around, above all else, making the super-hero genre artistically respectable.
This meant telling more structurally advanced stories, such as ones interweaving flashbacks and multiple points of view. Moore excelled at this, daring to venture into poetic captions on Swamp Thing before effortlessly blending high-art allusions with popular ones in Watchmen, as if asserting that comics should be placed alongside other great media. This turn towards high art even applied to issues’ covers, which abandoned melodramatic scenes of peril and moved decidedly towards minimalism. Issues were printed on better paper and ads were omitted. Covers, inside covers, and back covers were made to play with the main narrative in new ways or made newly minimal and thematic.
Revisionism also meant telling more mature stories, set in more violent and morally complex worlds than ever before. Gone were unproblematic stories of good guys fighting bad guys, whose motives were thin excuses to do evil. Watchmen’s villain is an admirable hero who kills a crazy but also admirable hero, everyone’s got psycho-sexual issues, and no one’s clearly in the right. In Miller’s Dark Knight, Batman is an old sadist with a death wish who might be corrupting a teenaged girl, but he seems sane in an insane world.
(Revisionism has since been much criticized for its violence, but it’s worth remembering that the movement occurred in the wake of Vietnam, the continued Cold War with its nuclear threat, and the rise of terrorism in the Western consciousness. In the face of such real-world horrors, the bloodless super-hero fare of the time could feel offensive. Watchmen points this out through the horror Rorschach encounters, as well as invoking Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was really stabbed to death in Queens while people watched without calling the police. Both Watchmen and Dark Knight include either fear of nuclear war or actual nuclear war.)
Most importantly, however, revisionism sought to render the super-hero realistic. High art demanded realism, and the silliness of super-heroes had to go. With this elevated burden of proof, revisionists sought newly convincing ways of explaining characters’ powers and origins. The old explanations, like radioactive meteorites, now seemed too silly for words. So too did how no one had questioned these elements. Revisionists began seriously asking how super-powers would affect someone psychologically. In Watchmen, the only super-powered hero becomes utterly disaffected, more fascinated with quarks than human lives. Revisionism went so far as to examine how the presence of super-powered heroes would alter society and human history. Arguably, the primary question of revisionism was “how would super-heroes work in the real world?”
Any given revisionist work might not qualify in all these respects, any all such works weigh their concerns differently then others. After all, revisionism was an artistic movement, less a prescription and more a collection of works by creators who responded to one another. The full history of that movement has never been written. As a result, fans and scholars alike often treat revisionism as less of a movement than as a series of precursors and successors to Watchmen and Dark Knight, with several major works getting little or no attention.
Moore’s work on Miracleman is an enthralling part of the story of revisionism because it had two stages, dividing his run in half. The first half was written in the early 1980s, at the beginning of the movement, years before revisionism would gain mainstream acceptance with works like Watchmen. Despite this, Moore’s early Miracleman is the most fully revisionist work that he would produce until Watchmen. All the requirements of revisionism are there, so much so that it might even be a more revisionist work than Miller’s Dark Knight. Despite being printed only in a British anthology magazine, Moore’s early Miracleman profoundly influenced other revisionist works. It sometimes seems that, while not many copies were circulated (particularly in America), everyone who bought a copy went on to create comics themselves that bore its influence.
In the conventional narrative, Moore, in the wake of Watchmen, became increasingly disinterested with super-heroes. His attempt to push super-heroes into realism had gone about as far as such an effort could, and he found that he was more interested in telling stories of real people with real psychologies, minus the super-powers. In essence, he had pushed the super-hero so far into realism that the super-hero dropped out. While published after Watchmen, his 1988 graphic novella, Batman: The Killing Joke, had been written some two years before. Frustrated with DC Comics over several issues, he walked away not only from the company but from super-heroes altogether. When he returned to the genre, in 1993, he publicly stated that he had rediscovered his love for super-heroes and had come to see the realism of revisionism as a mistake. Essentially, he had come to believe that it wasn’t the super-hero who should drop out of realism but realism that should drop out of the super-hero.
While true, this conventional narrative ignores the fact that Moore’s last statement on realism in super-hero stories wasn’t Watchmen or The Killing Joke at all: it was Miracleman. The second half of Moore’s Miracleman work was published from 1986-1989, and it is his final few issues for which this half is known. In other words, due to the vagaries of the series’s publication, Moore’s Miracleman not only begins his revisionist phase but ends it as well, straddling Swamp Thing, his Superman work, Watchmen, and The Killing Joke. While Moore had conceived of his ending for Miracleman earlier, his conclusion was far more than a recapitulation of his past revisionist work. If he had given up on super-heroes, it’s not to be seen in his final issues. In fact, they offer a very different answer to how super-heroes would affect the “real” world, one indispensable not only to understanding Moore’s career but to revisionism itself. While capping off Moore’s revisionism, his conclusion to Miracleman also looks forward to later trends in the genre, including the move towards the political begun, largely, with Warren Ellis and Mark Millar’s The Authority. It is also profoundly moving and literary. His final issue is a farewell letter to the super-hero, and it is a love letter, reaching higher literary beauty than any past revisionist work — and perhaps any other super-hero issue ever.
Moore had promised Gaiman the job as his successor on Miracleman when Gaiman was still trying to break into comics. Due to the title’s many delays, Gaiman was already working at DC by the time he took over Miracleman. In fact, he wrote his Miracleman work alongside the first half of The Sandman. (At the rate his Miracleman work was being published, it probably would have continued to appear until The Sandman’s conclusion, if not later.) The Sandman was, in its own way, a revisionist work: after all, it reinvented an established super-hero character (the Sandman) and mixed him with hosts of DC’s defunt horror titles (such as Cain and Abel). The early issues of that series featured super-hero guest appearances (later the source of some complaints), and even offered a new explanation for the previous Sandman’s origin. Despite this, as well as some early (and quite successful) forays into the horror genre, The Sandman eventually found its genre: fantasy, with a bit of history thrown in. Importantly, it never lost revisionism’s yearning towards high art, and Gaiman turned revisionism’s poetic turns and literary allusions into whole stories unto themselves. This, more than anything else, was responsible for the series’s mainstream attention, which did wonders for the literary respect accorded the medium.
In contrast with Moore’s, Gaiman’s Miracleman work is not remotely as influential. It does, however, display the same high literary tendencies as The Sandman. Moore had painted the series into a corner as few writers ever have, leaving his successor a seemingly impossible task. Gaiman responded with a series of shorter stories set in the same world, exploring not so much the super-hero as the culture around him that deforms due to his presence. Gaiman has never been the fastest comics writer, and he clearly benefited from the time those delays allowed him, finding new layers to story after story. They are as literary as Moore’s work but subtler, moving the reader in far quieter ways than super-hero stories almost ever do. Gaiman’s Miracleman pushes revisionism in new, literary, culture-focused directions, ones not less successful for being atypical.
Gaiman’s stories are also filled with stylistic panache, a new take on revisionism’s high art formal concerns. In this, his success on the title was greatly aided by artist Mark Buckingham. One of the few major problems with Moore’s Miracleman was the repeatedly changing artists, particularly at the beginning of his second half. Buckingham illustrated every page of Miracleman that Gaiman wrote, yet his stylistic diversity allowed the stories’ artwork to fit their content better than a team of artists could. As a result, much of Gaiman’s Miracleman is a joy simply to look at, and this helps to slow down the eye, letting the mind contemplate the stories’ multiple layers.
Ultimately, Gaiman and Buckingham weren’t able to complete their work on the series, which ended one issue shy of their projected halfway point. That one issue had been written and penciled, however, and pages have appeared occasionally, both online and in print. Gaiman has been tight-lipped about where the story was heading, though the overall arc of the remainder of his run is clear enough. We can only guess how it might have been received, but being an unfinished masterpiece hasn’t hurt Miracleman’s status any.
All of which brings me to the final reason why Miracleman is still so fondly remembered after so many years of absence. Yes, it represents major work by major creators. Yes, it also represents work of immense importance for the history of the super-hero genre. But it is also, while not without flaws, astoundingly good. Its failings have no parallel in Watchmen, and it lacks that work’s tight consistency. But its heights are highs Watchmen cannot touch.
It’s that good. It’s that important. This is your guide to understanding why.
Next time, we’ll begin looking at Alan Moore’s first book.