Having briefly introduced Miracleman and discussed its first episode, let’s turn to the second of Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s earliest stories, which appeared in the legendary British magazine Warrior.
Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Garry Leach. Originally appeared, in black and white, in Warrior #2 (Apr 1982) without a title (only the Marvelman logo appeared). Reprinted in color in Miracleman #1 (Aug 1985), simply as “Book One Chapter 3.” Collected in Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying (Oct 1988) as “Chapter 2: Legend.”
There’s a gap between chapters one and two that most readers fail to notice. When we left Miracleman, he’s flying off after his rebirth, and it looks as if he even flies into outer space. Yet when chapter two begins, it’s already night in England.
We’re left to assume that this is a nod to Miracleman having flown around for a bit, celebrating that he’s been released at last. But this is actually a very crucial time period. We’re only offered the slightest hint of Miracleman’s thoughts, upon returning, and so his earliest hours of new life are strangely hidden to us. Even if he flew around the Earth or watched it from space, it would have been fascinating to watch him do so, as well as being privy to his thoughts about how humanity has changed. Yet we don’t get this.
While subtle, the effect is to distance us from Miracleman, since we’ve been excluded from his thoughts and movements during this key period. This echoes how the first chapter carried ominous overtones, which could be easily ignored in favor of superficial super-hero tropes. After all, it’s not uncommon to jump forward in time this way. Yet we’ve already seen that Miracleman doesn’t seem fond of Mike Moran, and he seems to have a certain air of superiority towards humanity in general. It would thus have been fascinating to have shown his thoughts, looking down on an Earth from space – an Earth that, on its dark side, has far more lights than he would remember.
Moore probably felt, given space constraints, that he wanted to get directly into the story – and we’ve already seen signs, in chapter one, of this same urge to compressed storytelling. But whatever his intentions, the effect is that we’re not shown key moments that might have helped us to understand Miracleman better, especially his take on humanity. The result is that, like the end of chapter one, the story permits us to continue reading as if this is a much more conventional super-hero story than it really is. And as if Miracleman is more conventional and noble too.
For the moment, the story allows us to wallow in traditional super-hero expectations. Miracleman doesn’t explode them from the start, in the way this missing sequence might. It does so only implicitly, planting logical bombs that prohibit the narrative from playing out conventionally. And by avoiding the direct route, Miracleman proceeds by slowly deconstructing our expectations, stripping them away one by one, in a way we can follow. It’s a much more subversive technique, because it allows the reader to internalize this deconstruction step by step, so that there’s no going back.
As chapter two begins, the television is reporting the events at the nuclear power plant. The terrorists’ injuries are reported, without explanation. Witness accounts of “a man-like object rising into the sky” are dismissed as likely being the result of “mass hysteria brought on by the tense nature of the situation.”
It’s an entirely realistic depiction of how a super-hero’s emergence might be interpreted. It’s not a depiction that was entirely unprecedented within the super-hero genre, but it was certainly less conventional than the way super-hero stories traditionally follow the character’s debut with media coverage, announcing without hesitation that super-heroes are real. Of course, Miracleman didn’t debut in a crowded city, which allows most super-hero stories to conveniently ignore the disbelief with which the public at large would likely greet reports of a real-life super-hero. But Miracleman’s debut, in which he defeated terrorists, was no less public than many super-heroes’ debuts.
This public disbelief also sets the tone for the remainder of Moore’s work on the series. Conventional super-hero stories focus on heroes and villains fighting in public, their existence known to all. Moore’s Miracleman will instead take place largely in the hushed world of conspiracies that lies behind the history we know and accept. It’s not until the end of Moore’s work that the world of super-heroes and aliens becomes indisputable reality, and then it happens with the deadly inevitability of the Manhattan Project, in which the world awoke suddenly and forever to the reality of the Atomic Age.
But there’s also Moore’s language to consider. Even while the reader might still be operating under conventional super-hero narrative expectations, the TV reports Miracleman as a “man-like object.” Like Moore’s later Dr. Manhattan, Miracleman’s not human. For now, that’s only hinted at, only suggested. But Miracleman’s struggle with his humanity will become, in some sense, the defining question of the series.
And then there’s the idea that Miracleman, even in his first appearance, is written off as “mass hysteria.” The presence of the super-hero will inevitably cause “mass hysteria.” We don’t know that yet, but it’s a lesson Moore will soon teach us – a trajectory that’s telegraphed here. At its best, Miracleman has this sense of inevitability, as if it drops a stone into a pond, and everything that follows is merely the ripples.
The TV is in the Moran home, where Liz is sleeping. (Perhaps this is the reason the scene is set at night, though that doesn’t change the implications of that choice.) Liz wakes, sensing a presence and believing it to be Mike. But as she turns to see Miracleman, she’s startled. “Oh my God!” she exclaims. “I don’t know what you want but my husband will be back at any moment!”
She thinks he’s an intruder. Liz’s first reaction to Miracleman, to the super-hero star of the series, is fear.
It’s a startlingly new sequence, although of course it’s also completely logical. There’s no reason to think that she would immediately recognize her husband. In fact, given Miracleman’s transformation, there’s no reason to think Miracleman is her husband.
It’s easy to read Miracleman as harmless here. This is his house, after all, and he’s kneeling over his wife, watching her sleep. Perhaps he’s contemplating his new powers and seeing the woman he loves literally with new eyes.
But as we’ll soon learn, he’s not Mike Moran – not exactly, anyway. Neither was Captain Marvel the same person as Billy Batson. And if we see Miracleman as a separate person, even partially, it becomes very creepy that he’s kneeling in Mike Moran’s house, watching his sleeping wife.
And remember: Miracleman didn’t rush straight back to his wife, after gaining his super-powers. Wherever he flew, whatever he did, his first instinct wasn’t to share his powers with his wife. Night has fallen; that’s why Liz is asleep. He does want to share what’s happened with her, but it’s more of an afterthought than it might first seem.
Liz’s primary reaction may be fear. But it’s mixed with something else. The narration tells us, even as she’s protesting: “He looks like a god. The words dry up, turning to ash in her mouth.” He’s sparkling, and smiling that same smile he had while he was being shot. There’s something divine about him, perhaps in his confidence, that shrivels Liz’s own, even as she’s insisting that this intruder leaves.
Miracleman assures her that he is Mike Moran, and she recognizes him, ostensibly by his mannerisms – the subtle things one can’t disguise. Convinced, she embraces him, and Moore returns to poetic description of his godlike nature: “He holds her. And his touch is as frictionless as mercury. The restrained power in his arms makes her feel like glass.” Moore’s describing godlike power here, but there’s an indisputable eroticism to his words – one that will inform the narrative, going forward.
In the midst of her feeling “like glass” before this god, Miracleman volunteers to “make some coffee.” The narration comments on the contrast between this quotidian detail and the god before her: “‘I’ll make some coffee.’ The words are so mundane, so reassuringly normal. Yet he looks like a god.”
Revisionism, including Miracleman, is sometimes accused of denigrating the super-hero. But in this sequence, nothing could be further from the truth. Moore’s elevating the super-hero to godlike status, pointing out that people would probably be in awe of someone like Superman. It’s said that people who meet the President of the United States, no matter how much they plan to tell him hard truths, wither the same way Liz did here. One can’t elevate the super-hero to godlike status while pretending people would be perfectly at ease around such a god – that’s simply illogical, bad writing.
At the same time, Moore also puts this god into a quotidian situation, represented by the narrative detail of his making coffee. This hardly debases the godlike super-hero, but it does place him into a real-world context. Superman had talked to Lois Lane before, but he’d never made her coffee.
And Miracleman tells her his story.
A 14-year-old Mickey Moran, in 1954, encounters Guntag Borghelm, who gives Moran the magic word “Kimota!”, which transforms him into Miracleman. It’s a familiar story to fans of Marvelman, like Moore himself. Because Marvelman was based on Captain Marvel, it’s also a story familiar to U.S. super-hero fans. That Borghelm, said to be an “astro-physicist,” can so easily substitute for Captain Marvel’s wizard Shazam indicates how easily science fiction and magic may be interchanged in shoddy pulp fiction. Wizard, astro-physicist – it doesn’t matter. He’s just a contrivance of the plot, to get the hero off and running.
Only here, the story knows it. No sooner have we been treated to a conventional image of a smiling Miracleman battling monsters than the story is interrupted… by Liz Moran laughing.
“I’m sorry, Mike… but it’s such a bloody stupid story!”
And she’s right. Of course she’s right.
“Can’t you see it?” she asks him. “An ‘astro physicist’ pops up and tells you the ‘key harmonic of the universe’… which just happens to turn you into a muscle-bound man in a blue leotard?”
There’s no going back to somnambulistic super-heroes after that.
It might at first seem contradictory that Liz Moran, who’s been so enraptured by Miracleman, would challenge him in this way. But that only underlines exactly how stupid this origin story is. And it is. Even in the room with the President of the United States, or standing before a god, it would be hard not to laugh at someone taking such thoughtless juvenilia as gospel truth.
Consider what it would be like, to stand before a god and hear him babble such inanities about his own origin.
Even Miracleman has to admit that, “saying it out loud like that, it does sound… well… pretty unlikely.” But he’s being charitable with his words. Because, of course, this is his life, as he understands it.
When Miracleman begins his story, he acknowledges that it “will sound unbelievable.” It’s a conventional caveat in super-hero and sci-fi stories, but what follows is almost never treated as if it really were unbelievable. Instead, “this will sound unbelievable” is used by writers as a way of justifying the unbelievable. The stupid. Not so here. At last, we have a super-hero whose unbelievable origins are treated as exactly that.
This is how Mary Jane would react, if Peter Parker really confessed that he got his powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider. Or Bruce Banner that he’d been blasted by gamma radiation. Or Superman, that he came from another planet, where people happened to look just like humans. The stories these origins allow may be fun, but the origins themselves are too dumb for words.
This is something every writer knows, and it’s one reason writers have attempted so frequently to retell those origins in more convincing ways: those stories need redeeming, because they simply don’t hold up to higher standards of literary storytelling, which generally demand that a story be either openly absurdist or realistic.
Miracleman continues, recounting how he was joined by Young Miracleman, whose alter ego was named Dicky Dauntless. Liz can’t help but laugh again. When he gets to the 1956 introduction of Kid Miracleman, a.k.a. Johnny Bates, she interrupts mockingly, and by now, he’s frustrated: “Liz, please! This may, damn it… this does sound silly in 1982, but in the fifties it made perfect sense. This is how I remember it. This is how it happened.”
Except, of course, Marvelman didn’t make “perfect sense” in the 1950s. Not to adults, anyway. It made sense to children. Adults were busy enjoying literature with more realistic sensibilities, that had begun to question the basic assumptions of society in ways that would flower into the counter-culture of the 1960s. These same adults saw 1950s super-hero comics as disposable silliness, and they were largely right. For all of those comics’ wonder and the deeper issues that later critics have found, they were largely cynical efforts to get boys to part with the change in their pockets. And they were intentionally, even systematically devoid of deeper political or social meanings, at a time when many adults were already questioning whether they had won World War II only to reap cookie-cutters suburbs, where the fresh paint and trimmed grass hid suicidal depression, as the specter of nuclear annihilation seemed increasingly likely. The “perfect sense” to which Miracleman refers is only that superficial layer, which was all that children were supposed to ever see. It was a lie, every bit as malicious as the notion that one could be saved by Soviet nuclear bombs by imitating a cartoon turtle who knew how to “duck and cover.” That was, of course, all the adults ever wanted children to do.
Miracleman isn’t exposing the stupidity of those old stories here. The world already knew that. It was a big reason why comics weren’t accorded respect as a narrative art.
No, Miracleman is redeeming them here. It’s acknowledging the stupidity everyone knows already, then showing that super-hero stories could be more. Exactly as the best and brightest of children always do, Miracleman is showing that there was something vital and worthwhile at the core of those childish affections, something that might survive to be recast into a story for the minds of adults.
This isn’t actually at odds at all with that final, celebratory page of chapter one. It’s simply acknowledging an indisputable reality – the silliness of those old stories – while salvaging their core and birthing it into the world of real literature.
The child wakes into adulthood. The very smart child figures out how to take his toys with him.
And there’s such love poured into these panels, even as their silly content is being deconstructed. Miracleman recounts the Miracleman Family’s silly adversaries, such as Young Nastyman and their arch-enemy, Doctor Gargunza, a “freakish dwarf genius.” Garry Leach’s art would fit alongside the very best of the 1950s and 1960s, and even Moore’s dialogue betrays his affection for what he now knows to be irredeemably childish: “Time and time again we thwarted his [Gargunza’s] insane plans and jailed him. But somehow he always came back… / And yet he never did anything really evil… / It was almost as if we were all playing a game. A game which neither side took entirely seriously.”
Here, Moore has imagined precisely how an adult mind would recall actually living through such stories. They’re not dismissed. They still have power, even if only in his memory. He cannot see how Gargunza only returned “time and time again” because he was a popular villain that could be used to sell comics to children. Even his own actions seem somewhat alien to Miracleman, as if he knew all along that Gargunza posed no real risk and everything would work out – exactly how Marvelman, like most super-heroes of the era, acted in those old tales. No one but a lover of those stories could imagine this, and it is the highest justice one could give them: to birth them into the world of sophisticated literature.
Liz, being an intelligent woman, points out the obvious problem with Miracleman’s story. In a lovely touch, she calls him “Mike,” not Miracleman, and asks, “if there had really been a Miracleman in the fifties, wouldn’t I have heard about him??”
Of course he’d say that. Of course he’d feel that way. These are his memories, after all.
It’s a moment that has far more in common with the science fiction of Philip K. Dick than with super-hero stories of the past.
And here again is that horror, which we saw in the terrorists, firing at a smiling Miracleman.
If super-heroes are gods, what do we know about when gods get angry?
As melodramatic super-hero gestures go, tearing up a wood floor is pretty low on the list. Still, it’s a perfect metaphor for the underside of power. Power, whether in the super-hero or in real-life leaders, is seductive. But power is also attached to people, and people are emotional beings – beings who can be capricious, or angry when mocked. To invest one’s self in power, fictive or real, is also to invest in the persons holding that power. And real people are rarely as restrained, rarely as perfect, as Superman.
What, then, does a perfectly moral Superman teach us? The myth of moral perfection is probably inherently and dangerously repressive: without the ability to be tempted, moral triumph has no meaning; without failures, neither does success. But combining this myth of moral perfection with great power is inherently a totalitarian fantasy, obscuring the fact that those with power are flawed and imperfect beings much like us.
This is an illusion the Greeks did not permit themselves, in their tales of gods and heroes, and it’s very much to their credit.
It’s an illusion that’s not permitted, in a sequence in which Miracleman can, in perfectly understandable frustration, tear up the floor and frighten the wife he’s held minutes before.
A cowed Liz lets Miracleman continue, and he recounts the end of the Miracleman Family in 1963 – the year Marvelman ceased publication. Like Captain America falling into ice or the Justice Society disbanding, this is a retroactive addition to the original Marvelman stories – the ending those original episodic and disposable stories couldn’t care to provide, since there was no profit in doing so.
In this case, the new ending to those original stories is the dream that has haunted Mike Moran – now recounted by Miracleman, who can remember it properly. The Miracleman Family approaches an alien spacecraft, which then explodes. The figure that fell in Moran’s dream, flickering as if in a strobe effect, is now identified as Young Miracleman. That flickering is apparently a side effect of the transformation that so effortlessly turned humans into the members of the Miracleman Family: Miracleman describes the falling form as “two bodies crushed into one. And he was screaming. I couldn’t hear him, but he was screaming.”
The tone of the sequence is very much that of the death of innocence, and Miracleman’s clearly traumatized by its memory. He even identifies the falling body as “Dicky. Dicky with the stupid name.” In so doing, Moore turns the tables on us, taking a signifier for silliness and using it instead as a signifier for innocence. There is such love in that, as well as poetry.
Miracleman recognizes how this was a violent rupture from his earlier, silly stories. “It wasn’t a game anymore,” he says. Moore doesn’t pretend his ending to those original stories is tonally consistent. That’s to his credit: those other retroactive endings weren’t tonally consistent either, although their creators rarely acknowledged as much within the works themselves, creating an odd feeling of disjuncture. Here, that disjuncture is placed within the narrative itself, and Miracleman clearly longs for his own innocent days. Leach portrays this perfectly, with Miracleman burying his head in his folded hands, looking like a damaged – if not broken – man.
With this, we’ve almost caught up with the present. Miracleman recounts that he woke “two months later” as Mike Moran. “I’d been found in the Suffolk marshes with terrible burns and most of my bones broken.” He resumed his life as Mike Moran, but without any memory of having been Miracleman.
There’s a metaphor here, in Mike Moran awaking in a hospital. It’s an experience with which many can identify: that odd feeling of dislocation, waking in an ambulance or a hospital, unable to remember precisely how one got there. Such experiences are rarely seen in genre stories, and even more rarely shown to produce lasting psychological trauma. But in Mike Moran rehabilitating himself, without Miracleman, we also have a metaphor for the child, who gives up silly super-hero comics. His life since has not been exceptional. Only now, as an adult, has the super-hero has returned, his world newly adult and realistic. This too is part of the super-hero’s rehabilitation.
Miracleman then promises to recount his return. We don’t need to hear it, having already seen it.
What’s far more telling here, as with the way this chapter begins, is what’s omitted.
Miracleman doesn’t say that he met and married Liz, which we know from the second page of this chapter took place “sixteen years” ago, or in 1966, just three years after he awoke with most of his bones broken and no explanation as to why.
Miracleman doesn’t say that he doesn’t regret marrying her, or that she’s the one thing he feels redeemed this time – a time he’s already said represented an 18-year imprisonment “in that old, tired body.”
It’s a telling omission. And an ominous one, despite the intimacy of the conversation and the coffee.
The story ends with a more obviously ominous sequence, setting up the next chapter. “In a darkened office, not too far away,” the TV news now has a photograph of Miracleman flying away from the nuclear power plant – a photo taken by Mike Moran’s photographer and alluded to in the TV news that begins the chapter. The news remains incredulous, however, and debates whether the image represents “a human figure” or “a hurtling fragment of debris.”
Watching this is a mysterious businessman in a suit. He recognizes Miracleman, and he’s not happy that Miracleman has returned. He smashes his desk, much as Miracleman ripped up Liz Moran’s floor.
It’s a good cliffhanger, lessened only by its formulaic melodrama. Miracleman’s not the only super-powered individual in this realistic world, although this man’s surprising identity wouldn’t be revealed until the following chapter.