We’ve introduced Miracleman and discussed its first and second episodes, plus the first page of chapter three. We now continue our look at that third chapter of Alan Moore and Garry Leach’s Miracleman stories, which appeared in the legendary British magazine Warrior.
The phone’s for Mike Moran. Liz tells the person on the other end that he’s getting out of bed. There’s a flash, and Mike emerges from the bedroom, still smoking from the transformation.
He’s still wearing his clothes from chapter one. Curiously, he doesn’t react to what he remembers Miracleman doing. In fairness, he has a phone call to take. But at this point, Mike and Miracleman are still treated as if they’re essentially the same person. Despite the hints already laid about the difference between the two, Moore’s not ready to unravel the implications of this just yet – so Mike Moran returns, after becoming Miracleman for the first time, without any fanfare.
When Mike takes the phone, he identifies his interlocutor as “Johnny,” someone Mike thought to be dead. After he hangs up, he explains to Liz, “We’ve been invited to lunch by the president of Sunburst Cybernetics, a Mr. Jonathan Bates… / formerly Kid Miracleman.”
Over this dialogue, the story gives us a panel with the chapter’s title, accompanied by a smiling, innocent image of Kid Miracleman. But the story’s already taught us that such imagery is radically at odds with the tone of the story at hand, so it’s hard not to perceive something ominous in that smile.
Essentially, everything through this point (about one and a half pages into the six-page story) is a prologue, with the remainder focusing on what happens, when Mike and Liz meet John Bates. Let’s pause here to consider the chapter’s title, given in this panel, because it carries important implications for the project of Miracleman.
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” refers to the popular song of the American Civil War, sung by both sides to inspire hope about how their soldiers would return to be celebrated as heroes. Its lyrics are filled with promises of “joy” and “jubilee.” The happy intent of the song had often been subverted in the popular culture of the second half of the 20th century, especially after the Vietnam War.
It might seem odd that such an American song was used as a chapter title in a British comic strip. But the British punk band the Clash appropriated the song’s music, transforming it into 1978’s “English Civil War” (from the album Give ‘Em Enough Rope), which reflected fears for Britain’s future after the rise of far-right groups like the British National Front. Moore shared these fears, which received their fullest articulation in V for Vendetta, serialized in Warrior alongside Miracleman.
The Clash’s appropriation of a joyous Civil War tune, recast for dystopian present, also reflects the way Miracleman appropriates old Marvelman imagery. The smiling image of Kid Miracleman, like the song the title references, promises a happy reunion that won’t actually take place.
This is far more than a clever subversion, however. If we push the analogy, the old “innocent” super-hero model becomes analogous to propaganda, which “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” originally was. This has already been hinted at in Miracleman, which doesn’t so much darken the super-hero as expose the darkness implicit in the genre all along. Marvelman, like Superman and other super-heroes of the era, didn’t only reinforce the status quo by starring in episodic stories. These “heroes” were openly pro-establishment figures, happily working with the police and presenting Western society as untroubled – outside of these silly costumed radicals with criminal schemes. Any underside of that thin and happy veneer of Western society, such as poverty or racism, would never be depicted. These super-heroes could only appear to be champions of fairness because the world around him was so vastly out of touch with reality. They were propaganda for a corrupt and sick establishment, every bit as much as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was used to encourage soldiers to go on slaughtering one another in vast numbers.
But of course, super-heroes weren’t always such establishment figures. They became so in the 1950s, in response to alarmism from parents’ groups and demagogues, but the super-hero’s origins lay in the far more edgy pulps. Similarly, the pro-war “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” had stolen the melody of an older, anti-war Irish song, “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” which dates to the early 1820s. The Irish original had Johnny coming come crippled and blind. He couldn’t come “marching” home at all. The American song presented a smiling, sanitized version of homecoming, much like the sanitized super-heroes of the 1950s and ’60s depicted society. What the Clash and Miracleman were doing wasn’t so much subverting establishment norms as exposing the establishment’s subversion of truer, edgier, more realistic, and more meaningful art.
That’s important to keep in mind as we proceed, because this chapter subverts the happy image of the smiling Miracleman family far more than the previous two chapters.
We next see Mike and Liz outside the Sunburst Cybernetics skyscraper, a stylish, angled tower jutting like a knife into the sky. Mike’s happy to be seeing Miracleman’s kid sidekick, back from the dead – and rich no less. But Liz undercuts him, and she notes the stormy weather blowing papers through the tall panel that showcases the tower. “Rats,” she says. “Look at the sky. I thought today was going to be nice…”
Leach gives us a small panel showing storm clouds, over which Moore’s captions warn us: “The air is suddenly dry and heavy. The sky holds its breath… / It’s coming this way. And it’s a monster.” The “it” here is literally an approaching storm, but of course it’s figuratively a threat within the narrative.
Moore’s been slowly ratcheting up this ominous undercurrent to his presentation of the super-hero. This attention to the weather might at first seem to be a step too far into the overt, since weather expressing a story’s mood is not only a cliché but a case of the pathetic fallacy, of inhuman things being granted human attributes. It’s redeemed in part by Liz’s language, particularly her call to look up, which recalls both the dream of flying and the stormy weather of Miracleman’s final adventure in 1963. There’s an element of woman’s intuition here: Mike embraces Johnny’s return on its face, while Liz seems less enthusiastic and more attuned to the environment around them.
The stormy sky is still a cliché, but Liz’s observation of it reflects an underlying truth. Our reservations are often unconscious, especially when we want to believe in something that’s too good to be true. But the unconscious can latch onto objectively meaningless aspects of our environment, transforming them into signs and portents, as if trying to communicate to our conscious selves an underlying but ultimately inarticulate sense that something is amiss. To depict this process in a story fits perfectly with Moore’s earlier, sensual language, also tied to Liz. The body recognizes what the mind can’t yet.
Moore will return to – and somewhat explain – this weather as the story continues.
In the compressed pace of Miracleman’s serialization, we’re not shown Mike and Liz’s ascent through the building. Instead, we’re immediately given a wide panel, in which they emerge into Johnny’s top-floor office. It’s a large space with thoroughly contemporary architecture. Here, at the top of this building of sharp angles, those angles have become exaggerated. The walls all slope. In lieu of columns, structural supports slash through the room like knives, and Leach’s choice of angle emphasizes this effect. Even the room’s massive window is wedge-shaped.
This design is far more than simple architectural detail. It does make sense architecturally, and it’s a testament to Leach’s craftsmanship that we can locate this room, as it’s seen from outside, in his earlier, tall panel showing the skyscraper in full. But all these angles also communicate a sense of threat, recalling the shape of blades. If Miracleman is about unearthing the edges implicit in super-hero narratives, here is those edges’ abode. In their wedge shape, pointed up, we also see a reflection of Johnny’s singular focus, which will soon become apparent. Even before we’ve encountered his personality, his choice of architecture communicates it.
It’s also telling that Johnny has perched himself on the top floor of this high tower. Moore’s captions underline this: Johnny stands with “London sprawled submissively behind him. He smiles.”
When Mike and Johnny embrace, they do so by holding one another’s shoulders a bit awkwardly. It’s been a long time, after all. But also, Johnny’s now taller than Mike. Dressed in a business suit, in his perch of power, the contrast with Mike’s own working-class status couldn’t be clearer. Johnny stands tall and straight, while Mike looks like he’s bending a bit. “John, oh, Jesus,” Mike says.
Moore and Leach interrupt what should be a touching reunion to return to those storm clouds, which again get their own panel, which echoes in shape the one showing the characters’ awkward embrace.
“A girl brings them Blue Mountain coffee,” the caption notes, although this isn’t shown, presumably due to constraints of space. The three sit on Johnny’s beautiful couch, and it’s impossible not to note how perfectly Leach uses posture to echo Johnny’s power, relative to Liz and Mike. Johnny sits sideways, facing them directly, his right arm stretched over the couch, his hand resting behind Liz’s head. This is his space, and he owns it. Mike and Liz sit politely. Mike leans forward and holds his hands together nervously. Liz leans back, legs cross, face staring into space, withdrawn from this very male conversation. So much is being communicated, about class and gender and power, without words.
Moore writes that “they talk about all the strangeness in their lives,” invoking the sense of discussing the alien and absurd, as shown when Liz talked with Miracleman in chapter two. “They speak softly,” Moore adds.
Johnny now explains how he survived the explosion, on the night of 12 October 1963, some 18 years earlier. He recalls how he entered the hovering craft first and searched “for some kind of life.” He found none, “just snow drifting against grey steel.” Then he got a premonition. “Every nerve in my body was screaming for me to get out of there,” he recounts. And he did – enough that he survived the explosion.
“Like you,” Johnny tells Mike, “I woke up in hospital several days later, suffering from concussion and burns. But Johnny says that, unlike Mike, he “hadn’t lost [his] memory… [he]’d just lost [his] powers.” With his head hung down, Johnny recalls, with apparent pain: “For seven brief years I’d been something more than human. Then, all of a sudden the magic went away…” Not knowing that Mike survived the blast too, Johnny believed himself to be alone. “It was difficult,” he says, “to adjust at first to being an ordinary sixteen[-]year[-]old kid again. But I did. I had to.” He “discovered [he] was good with electronics” and started “a small business,” which eventually grew into Sunburst Cybernetics, which has “branches all over the globe.”
It’s a capitalist success story. A “real Horatio Alger story,” as the saying goes, referring to that writer’s up-from-poverty tales. The famous American dream, only set in England.
Johnny doesn’t fail to note how this story intersects with a super-hero narrative: “Ironic, isn’t it? To have lost one sort of power only to find another?”
Johnny excuses himself briefly, saying, “There’s some letters that need signing.” This allows Mike to confer with Liz in private. When he asks her what she thinks of Johnny, she tells him, “What do you think I think? I think he’s fascinating, magnetic[,] and quite sexy in a sinister sort of way.” This is very much the way she might talk about Miracleman, minus the “sinister,” which further links the super-hero’s power to that of the capitalist big-shot.
Mike appears less convinced. While Liz investigates a huge globe in the office, Mike appears nonchalant. When she asks Mike how Johnny’s changed, since Mike hasn’t seen Johnny since Johnny was 16, Mike puts his fingers to his chin and says, “He’s changed a lot.” Presumably, that’s because the young Johnny has become a confident capitalist, used to managing a corporate empire.
Notably, Mike and Liz have effectively switched roles since their approach to the tower, when Mike was enthusiastic and Liz seemed to have some instinctive sense of foreboding. She’s been hypnotized by Johnny’s power, a reaction that her dialogue explicitly makes sexual. Henry Kissinger famously explained how he got girls, despite his ugliness, by saying that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. We may wonder if Mike’s resistance to Johnny is part jealousy, because of Liz’s attraction. We may also wonder, with somewhat more force, whether Mike’s resistance is founded not in jealousy but in envy. After all, Johnny was once Mike’s sidekick and has succeeded financially, whereas Mike still struggles painfully. But of course, envy and sexual jealousy are closely tied, as this chapter makes clear enough: the former is often only the polite sublimation of the latter.
Johnny returns, and Moore writes, “His voice is soft and yet powerful, like the tread of a stalking tiger. / Uneasy, Mike Moran can hear it, prowling around the perimeter of their conversation.” This description of Johnny’s voice sounds like one of a businessman’s hypnotic, predatory confidence. But it’s now clear, because this caption is juxtaposed to another image of the oncoming storm, that Mike isn’t simply jealous or envious. He’s aware of something threatening – the same something those stormy clouds represent. Moore’s language suggests that something terrible has gone unsaid, yet has been hinted at in the conversation. It’s a marvelous instance of the idea that the events depicted contain ominous undercurrents – something Moore’s hinted at throughout the first two chapters, though never more obviously than he does now.
It’s still noonish, despite the dark and stormy sky. We know this because Johnny asks if Mike and Liz would like to take lunch. In response, Mike asks Liz if he can have a word with Johnny in private. Liz finds this puzzling but assumes it’s just “superhero talk.” Mike and Johnny excuse themselves, stepping onto the balcony, from which they overlook London, the storm brewing around them.
And that’s when the ball drops.
“John,” Mike says, “I listened to your story just now… rags to riches, redemption through honest toil. It’s a great story. / I really wanted to believe it, John.”
Mike says that he started doubting Johnny’s story halfway through and couldn’t stop. He continues,
I thought, “What if he didn’t lose his powers? What if he survived that blast that took out me and Dickey and was still Kid Miracleman?” / I tried to imagine what it would feel like… to be sixteen years old and the most powerful creature on the face of the planet… / …and to be answerable to no-one. You could do anything, John. You’d never need to turn back to dull, weak Johnny Bates ever again. / Oh, sure, you could take his name, his identity… but you could stay as Kid Miracleman forever. You could have it all… money, prestige, fame… / You could sever all your links with humanity. You could become remorseless, unstoppable… / …and totally corrupt. Is that it, John? You’re still Kid Miracleman, aren’t you? / I can tell by your voice, by the way you stand… You’re not human, John. I can feel it.
It’s a stunning monologue that completely explodes our understanding of the super-hero.
Mike’s version of events isn’t lacking in compassion. There’s no judgment here. Mike doesn’t assume that Johnny Bates was evil or had any fatal flaw. He’s only making a simple statement about how such immense super-powers would warp the mind of a sixteen-year-old. A normal, healthy sixteen-year-old. One freed from the supervision of older super-heroes – indeed, freed from the presence of any other super-powers whatsoever.
And of course, Mike Moran is right. Absolutely, indisputably right. If anything, he’s optimistic. A perfectly normal sixteen-year-old boy, raging with hormones, aware that he’s the only super-powered individual in the world, would likely be a horror far, far more overt than John Bates, businessman.
People who have conducted surveys asking people what they’d do with super-powers uniformly report one thing: no one – no one – ever says they’d use them to fight crime. They get a lot of petty answers, like using flight to avoid traffic, or using invisibility to listen to eavesdrop on friends or to steal clothes from stores. And these are the answers adults give.
They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What would happen to the mind of a sixteen-year-old – a perfectly normal sixteen-year-old – given absolute power?
With this monologue, years before Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, the young Alan Moore demolished the illusion that super-powers wouldn’t warp someone’s psychology, that super-heroes nobly turning to fighting crime was anything but the silliest of self-affirming fantasies.
Such fantasies may be charming, if one knows them to be silly. They may be depicted with spectacular artfulness. But they are false and must be called false. Because as inspiring as unrealistic, unfettered moral uprightness may be, few things are as damaging as getting people to hold themselves to unrealistic expectations, not only of their behavior but also of their desires.
We are all one magical thunderclap away from some really ugly shit.
We’ll conclude our look at chapter three next time.