Having briefly introduced Miracleman, let’s begin looking at Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s earliest stories, which appeared in the legendary British magazine Warrior.
Chapter 1: “A Dream of Flying” (8 pages)
Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Garry Leach. Originally appeared, in black and white, in Warrior #1 (March 1982) as “Prologue: …A Dream of Flying.” Reprinted in color in Miracleman #1 (August 1985) as “Book One Chapter 2: 1982 Prologue,” although the title “…A Dream of Flying” was retained on the following page. Collected in Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying (Oct 1988) as “Chapter 1: …A Dream of Flying.”
In the 1980s, Alan Moore delighted in pushing how to tell comics narratives. Miracleman, while less aggressive than some of Moore’s other works, is no exception. Its first chapter begins in rather unorthodox fashion.
Despite the story’s short length of eight pages, Moore devotes its first page not to the main characters at all. Instead, it focuses on Steve and Trevor, whose only action is to talk while driving a truck at night. Moreover, despite its implications, their dialogue is rather pedestrian and conversational, more focused on personal revelations about these unimportant characters than in setting up later events.
Although we don’t know it yet, these men will soon become the story’s antagonists. Their dialogue reveals they plan to somehow sell plutonium and that the back of the truck contains additional men. Trevor apparently didn’t know about the plan until recently and says, “I thought we’d be selling arms to, like, the people.” Steve doesn’t seem to understand why Trevor would be upset over selling nuclear material and responds by recounting a dismissive anecdote about an American he met in Angola who saw a nuclear bomb detonation and loved it: “He said it was bloody fantastic! He said[,] ‘Steve, mine eyes have seen the glory.’” Steve laughs and adds, “He was a comedian… Nice chap. The Communists shot him. Shame really.” Trevor responds by meekly agreeing but thinking, “Christ. This guy’s a psycho!”
The scene is of little narrative importance, but it does set up many of Miracleman’s themes. In the 1970s, super-hero stories had begun occasionally addressing social ills such as racism and drug abuse, but they never seemed to occur in a real-world political context. The dialogue, however, immediately grounds Miracleman in a firm political context. Trevor comes off as a naïve liberal who swallowed rhetoric about “the people” and wound up roped into a terrorist operation. Steve, however, sounds like an unthinking conservative who can laugh at death and even nuclear war.
More than a simple political divide, however, the dialogue immediately grounds Miracleman in the context of the Cold War. Steve’s reference to Angola reveals that he served as a foreign soldier in the Angolan Civil War, which began in 1975 following Angola’s successful war for independence from Portugal. Angola became a flashpoint in the Civil War, as both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. intervened, supporting anti-Communist and Communist factions, respectively. The Civil War only formally ended in 2002, after an estimated half a million had been killed. The American who Steve laughingly quotes thus died on African soil, fighting in a largely forgotten war in which he had little stake.
Steve’s indifference to human suffering extends to nuclear war. He doesn’t seem to understand the existential nuclear terror that humanity had by then felt for decades. It may seem hard to believe in retrospect, but British conservatives at the time, emboldened by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, did make statements that seemed to invite global nuclear conflict with the Soviets. To the conservative mentality, anything less could seem like a sign of weakness.
Moore has always been quite politically aware and has never spoken of Thatcher in anything but the strongest of condemnations. Given creative freedom, Moore often injects political overtones into his work, and this was never more true than in the 1980s. V for Vendetta, running parallel to Marvelman in Warrior, took as its premise that nuclear war would wipe out most of the world yet leave Britain largely intact – and dominated by a fascistic government inspired by Thatcher’s model. The entire narrative of Watchmen labors under the fear of imminent nuclear war and even features the Comedian, a callous American soldier who recalls the one Steve mentions here.
But Miracleman begins in another unorthodox manner. Its language, while certainly not up to the heights Moore would achieve by his conclusion on the series, is highly literary. The chapter begins, “In the sodium-lit hour before dawn, the great trucks roll north. Some carry breakfast cereal and some carry ball-bearings. Some are empty… and some are not.” It’s a famous first line – and not only because Moore echoes it later. Its language is rather specific: it’s not merely night but the “hour before dawn,” and Moore imagines what disparate goods such trucks might carry. But it’s also extremely mundane, befitting the tone of the page’s conversation: even if we haven’t imagined what these trucks carry, we’ve probably driven at night past trucks like those. Of course, sometimes those trucks carry terrorists about to steal plutonium, and the fact that we could have passed such a truck is potentially horrifying. Still, there’s nothing “super” in this super-hero story, at least as first.
The “sodium-lit” nature of the hour provides the transition device to the next sequence. In the colored Eclipse version, the truck’s headlights have sloppily been colored yellow, while most of the page is bathed in purplish night. In fact, this sense of light continues throughout the page: it fills the truck’s windshield in the next panel, dancing like flames as if reflects against the glass, although this wasn’t colored separately in the Eclipse version, where the whole panel is purple. In the next panel, inside the truck’s cab, headlights are reflected in the side mirror. The next panel features both distant headlights and overhead streetlights. In neither of these panels in the Eclipse version are these lights colored separately, although they most clearly illustrate the artificial, “sodium-lit” nature of light at that hour.
As the truck sequence ends, we cut to Michael Moran, who is “screaming” and having a recurring nightmare. As we’re shown Moran, flashes of light surround his head (unfortunately colored, in the Eclipse version, like flesh instead of light). The silhouettes of the Miracleman Family seem to be flying off into the source of this light, off the invisible right edge of this panel. As we enter Mike Moran’s dream, we are thus entering this light.
The second page begins with a half-page montage of Moran’s dream. Suddenly, Moore’s poetry explodes, as he pulls us into the dream – which is the “Dream of Flying” from the chapter’s title, which in fact appears as part of the captioned dialogue. Mike Moran dreams that he is Miracleman.
The drama of the sequence, exploding with a large panel into super-heroic action, is accentuated by that mundane first page. But Moore sets himself an ambitious challenge here: he has to introduce the Miracleman Family for new readers, but he also has to introduce a specific episode in these characters’ lives: specifically, their final adventure.
This could easily lead the reader to feel that too much information is being conveyed at once, and Moore doesn’t totally avoid that feeling. Especially by later standards of comics storytelling, the page can feel cluttered with captions. Given the brilliant detail that Garry Leach brings to the work, it’s hard not to wish that the pair of creators opened this sequence up, taking two pages instead of one –which would have felt like even more like we’re exploding into Mike Moran’s dream. But at eight pages, story was already two pages longer than most strips in Warrior, and so we’re left to admire its economic use of space.
Moore chooses to do convey Moran’s dream entirely with captions, without a single word balloon. This could easily pull the reader out of the dream, because we read about what’s happening, rather than experiencing it. But Moore’s not tricking us into seeing this dream as if it were reality. Instead, the dream remains very much a dream. It’s seen and felt, but it’s always at a remove.
It’s also conveyed primarily through sensation. After a little literary showboating, the dream is first described with short sensory phrases:
There is no fear at first… only the eerie keening of the wind, the swirling, silent blizzard, and the cold, shart thrill of altitude…
This focus on sensory experience continues into Moore’s introduction of the Miracleman characters. None of them are every given a name, and only Miracleman himself is shown prominently. Instead, Moore simply tells us that “He is not alone,” as if we are realizing this, along with Moran. The other two Miracleman characters are only vaguely described, echoing the odd distance of dreams, in which colors can seem more crisp than identity.
In a key caption, Moore describes Moran’s joy at being Miracleman:
His power courses through his veins like molten silver. His muscles move with precise grace beneath his skin. He knows he is invincible…
Moore’s language here certainly underlines Moran’s dreamlike feeling of liberation. But despite the language of “grace,” the effect isn’t exactly the sense of innocent wonder, which critics of revisionism have accused it of draining from the super-hero. Rather, this is a mature description of the super-hero’s wonder, in which that wonder is linked to feeling powerful and invulnerable.
Let’s recall here that flying in dreams is said to represent sex. Whether true or not, as a strict interpretation of dreams, this connotation is certainly present here. Moran’s dream of being Miracleman is defined by a kind of seductive, effortless power – one that’s wonderful, yes, but representative of adult’s perception of being a flying, powerful super-hero. It’s innocent, in its own way, but it’s not at all the childish innocence of the old Marvelman comics (or their progenitor, the comics of Captain Marvel).
And that “grace” which Moran feels is defined by its “precis[ion].” It’s located in his “muscles.” This grace isn’t a Golden Age state of grace. Or at least, not a child’s perception of it. It’s the grace of a Leni Reifenstahl film, of her loving, glorious close-ups of Olympic athletes in the Nazi propaganda film Olympia (1938). It’s a fascistic bodily perfection, and it fits perfectly with Miracleman’s blond, blue-eyed Aryan looks.
This is how one might dream the übermench as feeling.
From here, Moore focuses the sequence on the team’s final adventure. There’s no more establishing of characters than this. All is lost to the sensation of the dream.
The Miracleman family encounters a “vast grey shape that floats in the churning white” of the snow. We only know it’s a spaceship from Leach’s illustration. It “hangs” in the air, “contemptuous of gravity.”
Here again, Moore’s language is a wondrous evocation of the fantastic that barely conceals the superiority that underlies this wonder. The ship doesn’t “defy” gravity; it’s “contemptuous” of it. By extension, these stories of the fantastic, of super-heroes and aliens, don’t defy the laws of physics and the universe as we know it; they’re contemptuous of them. Resentful, even. A dream of flying is quintessentially a dream of superiority, of rising above one’s fellow men. Its sense of liberation stems from feeling trapped in the laws of physics, which bind us to the earth and to the inevitability death. But this liberation isn’t shared; in our dreams, the world does not learn to fly, only us. And it’s a small step from escaping – effortlessly, contemptuously – the laws of physics and escaping the laws of men.
Moore’s language here isn’t always so evocative or meaningful. He compares the ship to a “massive bloated spider,” for example, which may be intended to describe the ship’s shape, with mechanical spires poking out of its undersides, like a spider’s legs. But when Moore’s language works, even at this early stage, it implies more about the super-hero than almost anything before or since.
In many ways, the rest of his work on Miracleman is an extrapolation, a teasing out, of this sequence and its implications.
The page concludes with the ship blowing up, wounding and possibly killing the Miracleman family. That’s it. But here again, the very simple idea is elevated into greatness by both the detail of Leach’s art and by Moore’s language.
The Miracleman family approaches the ship “like gaudy incautious moths,” which (along with the spider metaphor and other phrases) tell us something bad will happen. We’ve already been told, on the bottom of the previous page, that Moran’s had this dream before, a fact which will be repeated in his dialogue at the top of the next page. Telegraphing the dream’s events might seem a misstep, like Moore’s choice not to use word balloons. But Moore turns this too to his advantage, creating a sense of foreboding that makes us feel how Moran has had this dream before.
After the ship’s explosion, Moore reconnects the end of the dream with its beginning, by repeating how Moran, dreaming that he is Miracleman, “is screaming.” Moore often ties his stories’ beginnings and endings together, making them feel tied together, but he also does this for sequences within larger stories.
This motif of screaming also connects to the sequence’s real horror, which also hints at how the Miracleman family’s powers work. Accompanied by a haunting image of an open-mouthed, screaming, inverted superhuman, on fire and falling to earth, Moore writes that “a word forms on scorched lips… a dream-word with alien syllables…” The dream ends with “the sound of thunder,” which readers familiar with Marvelman could have guessed represented the lighting that transformed the characters’ human alter egos into widely smiling gods. But the chapter doesn’t show this transformation: it’s denied to us, leaving us to wonder what happened next.
As the third page begins, Mike Moran wakes. The transition device of light is used again, this time accompanied by the silhouette of falling bodies, so that the end of the dream reflects its beginning. But the way Leach draws the image, it looks as if the dream is physically exploding from Moran’s head, which is immersed in light.
Mike Moran wakes with a headache, and we soon see that he sees his life as little but. As he talks with his wife Liz (who’s shown to sleep nude, a sign of Warrior’s mature approach to comics for 1982), we learn that he’s a freelance journalist who feels emasculated by the fact that she earns more than him. The dialogue’s slightly stilted – this is still early Alan Moore – but it manages to get information across in a relatively natural way.
Of course, we’d be entirely right to point out that he’s lucky to have her – and that it’s his pride, not fear of homelessness, that’s at issue. Liz points out as much. But even if he’s an artist, his concerns are decidedly working-class. He’s no rich Bruce Wayne, nor a top-notch journalist like Clark Kent. He can’t afford to miss a job, at least in his mind, migraine or not. Best of all, we actually see him taking the train to work. Working-class hero, indeed.
During the trip, Moran’s haunted by his dreams. He’s told Liz, in hushed tiny lettering, that they don’t matter. He seems perplexed by them and feels that the key lies in “that damn word” – the “dream-word with alien syllables” that was on his “scorched lips.” Readers familiar with Marvelman know he’s not that much off-track, with his guesses of “kimono,” “komodo,” and “Krakatoa.”
As the story shifts to its fourth page, it continues the use of each page as a unit, jumping forward to Mike Moran, disoriented by his headache just as we readers are disoriented by the temporal leap. It’s a clever technique.
Moran is covering a protest at the Larksmere nuclear power plant, where he’s working with a bearded, flannel-wearing photographer named Paul.
Terrorists in ski masks with guns and rifles soon make their appearance, presumably including Steve and Trevor from page one. Super-hero origin stories often involve this sort of convenient threat, and it’s the one major way in which “A Dream of Flying” is conventional. Even so, these are hardly conventional terrorists. We’ve already seen, on page one, that they’re not terrorists at all: like the “terrorists” in the 1988 film Die Hard, they’re in it for the money. We jumps forward again to begin page five, we see them hold a press conference, using the gathered media to advertise that they have plutonium for sale to the “real” terrorists.
This shift, from page four to five, indicates the story’s halfway point, and it’s also the final time the story would use the page as a truly separate unit of narrative. From here on, while pages focus on different things, they continue directly from one another.
Mike Moran’s migraine gets worse, presumably from the stress, and he collapses. One of the masked gunmen warns him that “This sick act better not be a snow-job,” and this reminds him of the snow in his dream. As he’s taken through a door into another room, he looks up and sees lettering printed in reverse on the glass door: “Lakesmere Atomic Power Station, Authorized Personnel Only.” And “suddenly the word is there,” and it’s “as recognisable as destiny…”
He whispers his magic word “kimota” like a broken man, and he’s transformed with light and thunder. But cleverly, Leach doesn’t depict Miracleman, except as a white silhouette, drowned by light – much as light was used to transition into and out of Mike Moran’s dream.
By not showing us Miracleman, the story is freed to instead shift to the masked gunman who was next to Moran when he transformed. In past Marvelman (and Captain Marvel) stories, the lightning of the heroes’ transformations was never shown to have such real-world effects. It was simply an artistic device. Now, however, the gunman is smoking from the heat of the transformation and blinded by its light. It’s not clear whether he’s in physical pain, but he’s on the floor and crying out, in shock if not in suffering.
Then comes the kicker: his fellow masked gunman comes in and calls him Steve. The man on the floor is Steve, the gung-ho man from the first page, and the masked man who’s entered the room is the more socially-conscious Trevor.
A lot of people (including Patrick Meaney in Our Sentence is Up) rightly make a big deal out of “Best Man Fall,” the issue of The Invisibles (#12, Sept 1995) in which writer Grant Morrison focuses entirely on a faceless thug whom one of the series’s protagonists killed in the first issue. It’s a brilliant device, which emphasizes the humanity of everyone, even the carbon-copy antagonists who simply populate stories simply to prompt the hero into action. To grant one such interiority radically undermines the “us versus them” thinking, that allows the reader to enjoy these villains’ defeat or even death without ever seeing them as human beings.
But “A Dream of Flying” did this too, way back in early 1982. Even while limited to an eight-page story, Moore inscribed this kind of compassion into Miracleman from the beginning.
It’s Trevor who asks Miracleman who he is, prompting the hero to identify himself for the first time. “I remember now…” he says, the smoke and fire of his transformation all around him. (Leach later redrew this image for the cover of Eclipse’s Miracleman #1, one of the few times that series would use an image from the story as its cover.)
The name Miracleman means nothing to Trevor, who addresses Miracleman like he’s talking to a crazy. Trevor promises that, if Miracleman tells him “what you did to Steve,” Miracleman won’t be hurt. As he says this, Trevor pauses and stutters. He interjects the word “like,” marking his hesitation. If we hadn’t seen him on page one, we might guess that he’s a typical gunman and is hesitating from shock – but we know his heart’s not in this. He’s not a bad guy.
And so, when he demands that Miracleman “stay back,” talks tough, and fires, we pity him, even if only a little. He’s clearly scared, beneath that ski mask.
Of course, the bullets bounce off Miracleman, who smiles, much as Marvelman did in classic Marvelman stories. There, the smile was linked with those stories’ innocence, but it was also the result of Marvelman’s confident invulnerability. Only now, because of the tone of Mike Moran’s dream, we understand that, hidden in his smile is a confidence and a joy that has everything to do with his sense of power. It’s a smile, but it’s also a smirk. And the gunman –Trevor, from the opening page – reacts to it with sheer, understandable horror: “Oh Jesus, look at him!! I’m shooting him and he’s smiling!!!”
The power fantasy isn’t so much a dream of having immeasurable power as it is a dream of others’ weakness. Of having power over them. That’s implicit, in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s earliest published Superman stories, in which they could imagine having power over the bullies of the world, whether large or small. To be sure, power can be used for good or for ill, but even with the purest of intentions, it’s still a dream of superiority. The smiling super-hero, who can move mountains, is also a horror.
Miracleman claps his hands together, and the concussive shock knocks out the terrorists. We never find out what became of Steve and Trevor, nor the other gunmen shown. In the beginning of the next chapter, we’re told that they’re “in the hospital suffering from severe concussion,” and we’ll see Steve again in chapter six. But here, after the two would-be terrorists’ defeat, the captions ominously tell us that “then there is silence… / …deadly silence.” The word “deadly” is used here poetically, but Moore doesn’t pretend — or allow us to — that Miracleman’s “heroic” super-act doesn’t carry violent, even deadly implications. Even concussions are a very serious business for real-world brains – and Miracleman’s world is very real indeed. There’s a dark and deadly undercurrent to the violence here, just beneath the surface, for those willing to see.
Standing triumphant, Miracleman says ominously, “Eighteen years. Eighteen years, trapped in that old, tired body.” But he casts these thoughts aside, saying they don’t “matter,” exactly as Mike Moran said those dreams didn’t matter. And then he flies away, declaring that he’s “back!!”
It’s here that “A Dream of Flying” finally breaks from the tight, compressed panels that have defined it to this point. The story’s final page has only two panels, and the final, larger one is almost a splash page. It’s very much a traditional, celebratory super-hero pose, even with Garry Leach’s fabulous detail, with the Earth and the moon in the background, all emphasis upon the super-hero.
That panel’s also a departure from the rest of the story on a more basic, narrative level. Everything so far has been carefully controlled. Yet here, it’s not clear whether Miracleman has really immediately flown away from Earth and is actually shouting in the vacuum of outer space, or whether this is poetic license. Because it’s such a stereotypical shot of the super-hero, despite it glorious detail, that it’s easy to read as figurative, rather than literal. Indeed, given the panel’s use of sound in outer space, it’s impossible to read the panel as literal, given the story’s otherwise realistic tone.
It’s obviously intended to be a metatextual celebration of Marvelman, that lionized British super-hero, being published again after so many years. The captions underline this. The first, in a banner with curved edges, reads only “The beginning…” The second caption (removed from the Eclipse version) dedicates the story “to Mick Anglo and the original Marvelman team.”
That’s why the image has to be unrealistic: it’s a nod – and a heartfelt one, based on Alan Moore’s statements – to this character’s history. But that character wasn’t a realistic one at all. What Moore and Leach have done is not so much to revive Marvelman as to transform him through thunder and lightning every bit as damaging as that in the story itself. And so this final page is, almost by necessity, profoundly at odds, tonally, with the rest of the story.
It is often the final image, the final words, that most set how a reader remembers a tale. The list of stories that are remembered as ending happily, despite sympathetic characters dying or being left in dire circumstances, would dwarf what I have written here.
And indeed, “A Dream of Flying” could almost be read as a traditional super-hero origin. Structurally, it’s a remarkably familiar story: an unremarkable man, faced with melodramatic adversity, gains super-powers. Even the dream motif isn’t anti-traditional: after all, Mike Moran’s dreams come true. The villains are masked and faceless, the hero triumphant.
The reader could even be forgiven for failing to connect the first page with the masked villains, who are rather quickly dispatched and just as quickly forgotten. Only one instance of the name “Steve” recalls the first page, and those two sequences have a radically different tone: one mundane and real, the other dramatic and fantastic.
Except that, right underneath the surface, “A Dream of Flying” is a disturbing, revolutionary super-hero story. One that opens with the villains, granted their own identities and space, so that their later treatment, at the hands of the glorious super-hero, is undermined even before Mike Moran is introduced. More important, however, is the dream itself.
If the super-hero is a fantasy, a dream of flying, of super-powers and being liberated from gravity and other physical laws, what urges underlie this dream? Does not this dream of perfection, of muscled “grace,” carry in it a primal fetish for power, however disguised beneath a thin layer of colored spandex? If the spaceship in Mike Moran’s dream is “contemptuous of gravity,” what is Miracleman contemptuous of, when he quite understandably and realistically laments having been imprisoned in “that old, tired body?”
And is this not implicit in the super-hero?
In many ways, “A Dream of Flying” becomes an increasingly traditional super-hero story as it progresses – but it’s one that’s deconstructed itself before it begins.
That might be easy to read as a narrative failing, and there’s no doubt that, while “A Dream of Flying” is positively brimming with impossible-to-miss creative potential, it’s imperfect and – at least tonally – inconsistent.
And yet, there’s a sign, even here, that all of this is intended – and that the story’s shift towards the traditional is justified by more than a celebration of Marvelman’s return. This sign is buried in that ominous dream, in which the joy and grace of muscles and power gives way to explosion and death. The Miracleman family flies into this trap “like gaudy incautious moths.”
The reader is placed in much the same position.
In the words of the captions from the dream sequence, “Can’t they see? Don’t they know what happens next?”
What happens next, at least in its broad strokes, is what happens inevitably, given the introduction of a powerful super-hero into a world that even loosely resembles reality. Its perimeters have already been defined. All’s that’s left – again, at least in the broad strokes – is to watch the inevitable play out.
Drop a super-hero into the world and watch it deform.
“The beginning…” indeed.
Continue to chapter two.