Certain works of art or literature seem to acquire a sort of mystique after a while. It usually has less to do with their high quality, and more with some chain of events that has made them hard to find. Some comics-related works that spring to mind are Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary films El Topo and Holy Mountain, ‘60s sexy heroine comics like Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella or Guy Peelaert’s Pravda, and Roger Corman’s movie adaptation of the Fantastic Four. One undesirable result of this is the snowballing of related hype, which might result in huge disappointment once you experience said piece of art. If there is one work in graphic fiction that has truly attained immortality through a combination of cult credibility, the involvement of living legends, and rarity, it has to be Miracleman. Imagine the feelings of one fanboy, finally clutching his long-awaited collector’s copy of Miracleman, afraid to start reading it for fear of being let down, yet unable to hold back his smoldering anticipation: there I was, dear readers, about to tread another milestone in a long career of comics-reading, and scared of the outcome.
Miracleman. The very mention of the name should send tingles up your spine, unless you’ve been stranded in Siberia for the past decade or two and don’t know what the hell a Miracleman is (or you don’t read much comics, which basically amounts to the same thing). If you haven’t (been in Siberia, that is) you know it is Alan Moore’s first true masterpiece, his first deconstruction of the superhero genre. That said, there is a fat chance you haven’t read it, because Miracleman has been out of print for quite a while now, thanks to the meddling of one Todd McFarlane who bought the rights to the character from ailing publisher Eclipse, and a copyright lawsuit that also involves Mr. Neil Gaiman (who took over from Moore after 16 issues). The details of that story being too complex to describe in this article, I leave you to get acquainted with them here.
Due to the aforementioned legal battle, Miracleman is now only available as a used printing, and at colossal prices. Let me tell you I paid more for this book than I ever have for any other book. So naturally, the question would be: was it worth it?
I read book one of Miracleman in one sitting on a train trip. No sooner had I finished it, than I began to read it over again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so dumbfounded by a book. Probably not since Moore’s Watchmen. Yes, boys and girls, it’s that good.
Miracleman is the story of one Mike Moran, an average freelance journalist who is haunted by strange dreams and a word he knows he should remember but can’t. During one particularly messy assignment, he remembers the word and says it out loud, only to discover it that it turns him into Miracleman, the most powerful man alive, a superhero that has lingered in limbo for nearly twenty years. As he tries to piece back together his old memories, his reappearance seems to worry several parties, most of whom have been associated with this missing period of history. On the other hand, Moran and his wife have to come to terms with the problems of being a superhero in the real world, not the least of which is the unfavorable comparison between Moran and his alter-ego.
This complex synopsis is merely the setup for what is possibly the most Nietzschean retelling of superhero history ever (the connection with the German philosopher is explicitly made in the codename of the project that created Miracleman, “Zarathustra”). In Miracleman, Moore deftly reincorporates the candy-colored and far-fetched superhero myths of the fifties into grim, current reality. He explores the dilemma of a man faced with a part of himself beyond his ability to handle. Finally, he dissects the effect of a miracle on the lives of people who have to live with it. And he does it, with customary Moore skill, while making all of these people seem lifelike.
Since Miracleman was initially published in Britain’s Warrior magazine in the early 1980’s, it stuck to the British standard of eight-page chapters, which meant a lot of story had to be concentrated into few pages. The result is that the eighty-page Book One of Miracleman is more dense than many much longer US trade paperbacks. Such a feat would have been impossible had Moore’s contributing artists, Garry Leach and Alan Davis, not been masters of storytelling themselves. Leach’s work is brilliantly adapted to the first few chapters of the book, his ability to capture human emotions shining in scenes where the various characters come to grips with the sudden appearance of Miracleman in their lives, while his excellent use of light and shadow creates the mood of the story. Nearly midway, the art is taken over by Davis, still inexperienced and shaky when it comes to facial expressions, but already showing great command of pacing, depicting action and innovative panel layouts.
While the first Miracleman book is fairly self-contained, it is only part of the larger picture, and leaves enough loose ends to make you drool for the next books. While balking at the prospect of spending a few hundred bucks to get the complete run, I was turned on to the possibility of downloading electronic copies of the rare comics from the Internet by an article in Ninth Art . While comics professionals have the right to reap the rewards of their work, hegemonic big publishers, labels and studios act solely as a middleman with little added value besides guaranteeing exposure (in a perfect world good work would stand out on its own, but even in our imperfect world, aren’t the major players responsible for creating the marketing politics that make them indispensable if an artist wishes to reach a larger audience?) The case of Miracleman is a perfect argument for the legitimacy of piracy: the party blocking the release of this work is one that stands to gain from its publishing, and even more from the re-cycling of the character in various other stories and derivative media, but which never helped create any of it in the first place. Neither Moore nor his fellow artists stand to gain much from the reprinting of Miracleman, which quite frankly sucks. That such materialistic squabbling has led to this masterpiece being withheld from the comics-loving public is a disgrace. That the involved parties have not seen it fit to come to some sort of deal to get the work published as a service to the industry is even more shameful. And let me finally add that while I am currently enjoying the remainder of Moore’s Miracleman in digital form, I would be the first to order the printed books as soon as they’re available. End rant.
So, the final word is this: Miracleman, like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, is a cornerstone of modern superhero revisionism. But more than that, it is a worrying reminder that today, nearly two decades after these works were released, not much of interest has been added to the subject of “realistic” superheroes. So my advice is if you haven’t already experienced Miracleman, go out and find it, buy it, download it, whatever, then read it, cherish it, and expose those who merely re-write it every day!