Mon
Nov 14 2011 3:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: Marvelman/Miracleman, Part 3

Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the third installment.

This post brings us to the end of “Book Two” of Miracleman, as Chuck Beckum gives way to Rick Veitch and the Gargunza confrontation reaches its conclusion. We also get the first appearance of an “Attention Parents” warning label, but not because of sex, or violence, or extreme language.

As always, I’ll refer to the comic by the title Miracleman, but the character inside is Marvelman. For ever and ever, contrary to what Eclipse Comics would have you believe.

 

Miracleman #7 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)

Alan Moore’s script on this issue is still saddled with the problematic art of Chuck Beckum, but Beckum adds more heavily-spotted blacks this time around, and the visuals are far less incompetent than they were on his first attempts at the character last issue. Beckum himself, in his later identity as Chuck Austen, commented on that stylistic shift in an interview in George Khoury’s Kimota!: The Miracleman Companion: “The only note I ever got from Alan,” says Austen/Beckum, “was that he said, ‘In England I’m used to more blacks, more shadows.’ That was the one and only note he gave me and actually you could see the difference in the artwork.”

It definitely looks better, but nowhere near the quality of the previous (or later) Marvelman artists. Fortunately for readers, Beckum’s gone by the end of the next issue, and the next issue doesn’t even matter at all – you’ll see why when I get to issue #8.

When Marvel Comics acquired the rights to the Marvelman character and previous stories (or whatever it is that they acquired a few years back – it’s pretty clear that the legal issues were more tangled than they realized since we haven’t seen any announcements of their reprints of this Alan Moore stuff or announcements about new stories with the character), rumors flew around that Marvel was considering bringing in artists to redraw all or part of the Alan Moore Marvelman saga. While I am generally 100% opposed to that kind of George Lucas past-meddling, I don’t think redrawing the Beckum chapters would necessarily be a terrible idea. Even as someone who loves the Marvelman stories, and finds them consistently entertaining during this reread, it is a minor tragedy that the climax and final confrontation between the protagonist and his creator/antagonist is the weakest-looking part of the story.

From the plot side of things, Moore gives us the return of Marvelman in this issue, as the post-hypnotic trigger wears off just in time for Marvelman to smash a few heads together and poke one of Gargunza’s minions through the heart. As Mike Moran, he’d already suffered the loss of his fingers at the bite of the Marveldog grasshopper monster, before using the magic trigger word against the beast, and then clubbing the puppy to death with a rock.

Violence in this issue. Lots of it.

And that includes the final minutes of Dr. Emil Gargunza, a man who doesn’t last long once Marvelman bursts into his room. A quickly-crushed larynx, the inability to trigger Marvelman’s forced transformation back into Mike Moran, and a quick zip up into the atmosphere and Gargunza is soon dispatched. Hurled earthward, Gargunza, reduced to a twisted-bone and flame meteorite, is no match for the god-like superhuman he helped create.

The promise of the opening chapters of Marvelman are not fulfilled in this final confrontation, which basically plays out like an action movie with a few ironic twists. It’s the hero regaining his powers at just the right moment, smashing his way toward the archvillain, and then getting his revenge. It’s a traditional approach by Alan Moore to a story that had seemed to aspire to so much more. Minus a few touches of Moore-ish wit (Marvelman kisses Gargunza on the lips before throwing him toward Earth, and as he falls, the caption boxes – reflecting Marvelman’s internal monologue – show a recitation of “Star Light, Star Bright”), this section of the Marvelman saga is really quite pedestrian.

Luckily, Moore continued the series and explored the question of “now what?” And everything becomes a whole lot more interesting with the traditional superheroics and revenge story out of the way.

 

Miracleman #8 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)

They don’t get interesting here, though, because issue #8 is one of those comics you just don’t see anymore: the unexpected reprint issue. Deadline problems, plus a flooding at Eclipse Comics HQ, and we get a couple Mick Anglo Marvelman stories from the 1950s instead of the continuation of Alan Moore’s longform story.

No Moore to be found here, and the framing story written by Eclipse editor Cat Yronwode gives us the last appearance of Chuck Beckum on Marvelman art. His stay was brief, and we are grateful.

 

Miracleman #9 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)

Rick Veitch! A baby!

This is the only comic in history with a surgeon-general-style warning box on the cover reading “ATTENTION PARENTS: This issue contains graphic scenes of childbirth.” A bizarre warning, but when you read what’s inside, you can see that the warning is not unwarranted. It is graphic. But so is childbirth, and that’s the point.

Within the first few pages (pre-childbirth) incoming artist Rick Veitch proves his merit as a Marvelman artist. By this point, he had already worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, and Veitch took over the scripting on that series when Alan Moore stepped away from DC. That occurred about a year after this issue of Miracleman hit the stands, so it’s still in the future as far as this reread is concerned, I suppose. But when you’re dealing with a reread of a series that started in the early 1980s and then began appearing in reprints in the mid-1980s, only to later continue the story where it left off, well, the whole timeline of who worked on what when can be confusing. Or confusing to explain at least.

So I’ll stop trying.

Let’s get back to talking about this particular comic, which is basically one whole issue showing Liz Moran going into labor, giving birth to the daughter of Marvelman. The only cut away from that sequence that we get is a two-page scene with two strangers going to visit the young, and severely internally conflicted, Johnny Bates. That bit is called foreshadowing, and even though Marvelman satisfied his vengeance toward Gargunza a couple of issues back, the lingering presence of Kid Marvelman sets up plenty of excitement for the future. Did I say excitement? I meant terror.

Speaking of terror, let’s discuss childbirth.

For such an amazing event – and if I may interject a little personal commentary for a minute, let me say that I was present at the birth of both of my children, and it was the most beautiful, horrifying, anxiety-ridden, wonderful thing in the world – childbirth is a messy process. Moore and Veitch do not skimp on providing the visual details of the event in this issue. I certainly have never read a comic that goes into such clinical detail about the birth of a child. We see it all here, and that’s the kind of realism that this series has a reputation for, even if the realism comes slamming home after a few issues of stiff superhero artifice.

Really, though, when you’re talking about applying a mode of realism to the superhero genre, this issue – even more so than the more famous first few Marvelman chapters – is the pinnacle. The realism is both shocking and profound, and yet the realism of the childbirth is still placed within the context of a god-like being helping a human female bring life into this world, while the narrative contrasts the birth of this child with insert panels and captions drawing a direct parallel to the “birth” of Marvelman in Gargunza’s lab.

Moore can’t help his tendency toward poetic irony, but it works well here.

And then, the newborn baby, only seconds old, says, “ma-ma.”

Kids these days. They grow up so fast.

Also: yes this is still a horror comic. Talking newborns is a horror genre unto itself.

 

Miracleman #10 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)

Rick Veitch cometh, and after this issue, he goeth. His former Kubert School classmate – and Swamp Thing collaborator – John Totleben provides the inks for this issue, and Totleben takes over full art for the rest of Alan Moore’s run beginning next issue.

This one is the official end of the self-proclaimed “Book Two,” though, and it’s a weird, lumpy, disconcerting issue that’s part epilogue to the childbirth sequence and part prologue for what is to come in the final act of Moore’s extended story.

Structurally, this issue is more elliptical than most of the Marvelman episodes, with two distinctly alien beings (though in human form) traveling through the detritus of past Marvelman scenes and commenting enigmatically to one another, while Mike and Liz Moran deal with their rapidly-growing child. It’s a terrifying sitcom of new parenthood contrasted with alien strangeness.

The two alien beings say stuff to each other like, “Has your intelligence penetrated the underspace?” and “I trust you’ll not examine my REHR’s more exotic wardrobe. Once, near Antares we copulated as whale-molluscs, amidst the churning methane.”

Yup. That’s the dialogue.

The strange diction and syntax of the two humanoid aliens soon provides clues (although sometimes difficult to decipher ones) about their main focus. They are looking for “the five cuckoos,” the god-like beings of the Marvelman family. Presumably, Moore applies the term cuckoos in reference to the parasitic breeding habits of the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in the nests of others, just as the superbeings share the consciousness of the humans they link to.

So, to clarify: the five “cuckoos” would be (1) Marvelman, now a dad, (2) Young Marvelman, deceased before Moore’s story even begins, (3) Kid Marvelman, still trapped in “underspace” because young, crazy Johnny Bates won’t let him back into the world, (4) Marveldog, trapped in “underspace” because his puppy form was battered to death by Marvelman, and (5) a female member of the Marvelman family. A “Marvelwoman” who we see evidence of in this story, but haven’t yet met.

The alien beings seem to want to “contain” the Marvelman Family, as if they were creatures who had escaped from a menagerie. Which is kind of what they are. Even if they manifest as magical superheroes in the reality of the comic.

Meanwhile, hijinx ensue with young Winter Moran (for that’s the baby’s name), and because Liz asked Marvelman to change back into her husband, the family struggles with the reality of two human beings (one of them with two missing fingers, thanks to the previous encounter with Marveldog) raising a superhuman child. I’m surprised Ron Howard hasn’t made a completely mediocre movie with that premise yet. Moore fares just fine with the material.

And with that, and an off-panel transformation of the two aliens into something with scary footprints, “Book Two” reaches its close, and so does Miracleman #10. And Rick Veitch rides off into the Marvelman sunset, where he will follow in Alan Moore’s own footprints on Swamp Thing, before quitting the book over censorship issues. But that’s another story.

 

NEXT TIME: Marvelman/Miracleman, Part 4 – The Final Alan Moore Issues!


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

11 comments
rob mcCathy
1. roblewmac
it seems this came with a warning even in the U.S.! SeVen years after John Byrne wrote the MUCH grosser "radioactive stillbirth in Fantastic Four! That got code apporval?!
Jeff R.
2. Jeff R.
Hm. Now, obviously, that coocoo count is wrong, because (to limit myself to forshadowing in parts we've already gotten to), both Rebbeck _AND_ Lear came later. So I wonder which one doesn't really count.

Also, I forgot (when I was mentioning other missing peices last time) to mention the 3D Special, which was more Anglo Reprints, but with a framing sequence that was actually Moore this time, in which we see a fused skeleton that is probably relevant to this question.
David Goldfarb
3. David_Goldfarb
My guess is that Rebbeck counts and the dog does not.

It was somewhere around here that a young Kurt Busiek tried to integrate Miracleman into the Eclipse superhero universe, by making references in his series The Liberty Project. Moore of course completely ignored this (quite likely he never even knew about it) and went his own way, so that when Eclipse had a crossover series they had to resort to interdimensional travel to bring Miracleman in.
Jeff R.
4. Jeff R.
On the art, I don't dislike Chuck Beckum's art nearly as much as our rereader does, but I really, really don't like the inconsistency in Book 2. So I'm down with a new artist re-drawing the whole thing. Or (ideally), Rick Veitch redrawing 4-7 and 10..
Jeff R.
5. Dalton Chad Everett
You've inspired me to dig out my old copies of these Eclipse issues. Great stuff, and its a shame so few people have had a chance to enjoy them.
Eli Bishop
6. EliBishop
In the splash page with all the unused bodies floating in non-space, I presume some of the crazy alien ones have got to be references to other comics; anyone know if that's so?

Tim: I can't be alone in thinking that the puppy-smashing scene was horribly, inappropriately funny. And I'm a dog person!! There's something about the way Beckum drew Moran's desperate snarling face as he attacks this tiny dog off-panel-- it's one of his more effective drawings. I really wonder if Moore already had the ending of the big conflict in Book 3 in mind when he wrote that scene, because that made me feel MUCH worse about laughing at the puppy.
Sol Foster
7. colomon
I have no idea where my copies of Books One and Two are, so I have to rely on this refresher course and old memories, but given that:

"The promise of the opening chapters of Marvelman are not fulfilled in this final confrontation, which basically plays out like an action movie with a few ironic twists." When you get right down to it, doesn't this describe all of Books One and Two? If you strip out the Alan Moore magic, the plots are dead simple, bordering on cliche, even.

Argh, can't wait until it's time to discuss Book Three, which I just reread today. This book is such a weird combination of brilliant and frustrating. Though now I'm wondering if it reads better assuming the conclusion is supposed to be horror, too...
Eli Bishop
8. EliBishop
colomon:
A familiar superhero from kids' comics emerging in the modern world to find out that his past was a lie, and that his cute sidekick is a monster; a man and his wife coping with his godlike alter ego who may or may not be a separate person; military science creating weapons of genocidal potential out of fictional characters... these may seem like "bordering on cliché" now, or trivial "ironic twists", but that's largely because other fantasy fiction in the last 25 years has touched on the same themes, and a lot of that was either by Alan Moore or by people blatantly influenced by him.

But I guess it depends on how you define "plot." If you just write out a synopsis of the events that happen, and leave out all of the backstory and the ideas and the effect of the various revelations on the reader, then yeah, it's not that complicated; most of it takes place in a pretty short time frame (if you don't count the 8 months or so when the Morans are just hanging out doing nothing in between books 1 and 2). But that seems to me like an unnecessarily reductive way to sum up a story; "plot" in that sense isn't the only thing that makes a book interesting. I agree that the series is pretty uneven, but I don't think that means it needs a more convoluted narrative.
Sol Foster
9. colomon
Eli, I'm particularly thinking of the plot of issue two here, if I'm remembering it correctly. (I thought there was more comment on this on the first MM blog post here, but rereading it I see there wasn't.) Two superhumans have a big fight and neither is powerful enough to defeat the other, but eventually one is tricked into saying the word that renders him powerless. (Apologies if that's a bit off, as I said, it's been at least a decade since I've read books one and two.)

That plot summary describes dozens, maybe hundreds of Golden Age superhero books. Come to think of it, the "tricked into saying the word that renders him powerless" bit goes back at least as far as the Brothers Grimm. What makes MM different is the 1) the quality of Moore's handling of the medium (superb even this early) and 2) the shear viciousness of everything.

Likewise, I don't know if anyone had ever done the "superhero's past is fake" thing in comics before MM. But the fake past idea is certainly a theme science fiction hit on well before MM. Philip K Dick, anyone?

I don't want to jump ahead of the posts too far, but reread the big fight in London from Book Three and try to focus on what is happening in the fight rather than how it is being presented. I submit that the actual details of the fight are terrible, but the presentation so phenomenal the issue is never-the-less a classic.
Eli Bishop
10. EliBishop
colomon: Well yeah, if you define "plot" as "the fight scenes, and the simplest possible description of the premise," then there's not much to it.
Jeff R.
11. T.
I recently read this whole run for the first time. I don't hate Beckum/Austin's run as much as you do. I do agree it suffers in comparison to what preceded and followed it though, and in that context ends up looking worse than it should by contrast, but on its own I found it decent enough and at times even quite good. It's just that when it gets put next to Leach, Veitch, Davis, Buckingham and Totlebein it's simply no contest.

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