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 second installment.
Last time I pointed out the brilliance of the first few issues of Miracleman, even with all that gaudy color slapped on top of Garry Leach and Alan Davis’s awfully nice black-and-white artwork. Also, I’m going to continue to refer to Miracleman as “Marvelman” as I discuss the final few chapters of the Warrior-era reprints and we transition into the original material published by Eclipse.
Seriously, he’s Marvelman, contrary to what it says on the cover. Curl up in a fetal position inside your sensory deprivation tank. Everything will be all right.
Miracleman #4 (Eclipse Comics, 1985)
I neglected to mention an important plot point when I was discussing the first three issues of this series. Liz Moran, wife of Mike Moran (aka Marvelman), is now quite pregnant. Not by her husband, but by her husband’s superhuman counterpart. And since the series establishes that, while in Marvelman form, Moran’s consciousness is actually piloting an alien, god-like superbeing, that means that Liz has been impregnated with some seriously powerful extraterrestrial DNA. Her pregnancy looms over everything that happens in this issue, and the ones that follow.
The first story in this issue, “Catgames,” is a bit clumsier than Moore and Davis’s previous efforts. The art is a bit stiff, and it sets up a cliché-ridden parallel between Marvelman and a jaguar. The hero is the “big game” for Emil Gargunza, get it? Yeah, it’s heavy-handed in a way that Moore had avoided in the previous installments, most of which were non-stop surprises and narrative high-wire acts.
This one does have a little bit of terror inside Johnny Bates’s mindscape, but that doesn’t redeem the flatness of the rest of this opening chapter. It’s a perfunctory installment, setting up the Marvelman/Gargunza confrontation.
The following chapter is even worse, with a plot contrivance – Marvelman takes some time to talk to a kid in the woods, and show off his powers – just convenient enough to get the hero out of the way so his wife can be kidnapped. A more generous reader might reflect on this sequence and see Moore’s commenting on the traditional role of the female love interest as eternal victim. But after the impressive feats of the first three issues, this fourth issue of the reprint series is just one misfire after another. I’m always loathe to concern myself with biographical details when I’m reading or rereading a text, but I can’t help but think that these Marvelman installments were produced by an Alan Moore who had quickly overextended himself by working on four simultaneous serials (Marvelman, V for Vendetta, Captain Britain, and Skizz) and a bunch of short stories only a few months after kicking off this phase of his career.
This isn’t his best Marvelman stuff, though the issue does end with two high points. The first one is the final scene between Gargunza and Liz Moran, in which we see his truly sinister intentions: using the “Marvelbaby” as the vehicle for his own consciousness. Unsettling, indeed. And the second high point is the inclusion of a Marvelman Family interlude, drawn by John Ridgway, where we flash back to the time when Marvelman, Young Marvelman, and Kid Marvelman were still hooked up to machines in Gargunza’s bunker, dreaming of themselves as superheroes. Their dreamworld manifestations of their physical imprisonment and victimization leads to some haunting moments.
Moore redeems the issue in the end. Which is good, because when readers go through the trouble of tracking down these long out-of-print issues, they don’t want Moore at his worst. They don’t want to see that until the mid-1990s at least.
Miracleman #5 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)
By issue #5 Moore has slipped off the comfortable blanket of superhero narrative, and the true nature of the Marvelman horror story begins to come into focus. And it is a horror story, with its mounting tension, it’s inevitable – but delayed – violence, and with a fetus looking up at us through the pages of the comic book.
That’s an image you’ll not soon forget, and Moore and Davis pace that scene perfectly to conclude the first chapter of this issue.
Throughout issue #5, we basically get the Emil Gargunza story, and while he’s no sympathetic character, Moore does humanize his villain by showing what led him to his scientific pursuits, and what made him become the man who could torture a bunch of young men and boys and play around with alien technology for the sake of his own curiosity.
A lot of the particular plot details rehash some of the things we’ve learned – in abbreviated form – in previous chapters, but we get a new perspective on it here and it helps to crystallize the narrative and make it more satisfyingly comprehensible. Marvelman, at least for the first handful of Eclipse reprint issues, is a dense story, made more visually packed because the magazine-size artwork is rescaled to fit the smaller comic book page. So when information in the series becomes a bit recursive, that’s not a problem at all. It helps to keep the reader on track. And it works.
This issue concludes with a follow-up to the previous issue’s “Marvelman Family” flashback, again drawn by John Ridgway, whose delicate crosshatching adds a ragged but airy quality to the tale. Thematically, it provides a doubling-down on the Gargunza-as-puppet-master scheme, and we see the subconsciousness of the “dreaming” Marvelman adapt to his real-life situation by folding the scientist Gargunza into his superhero world as his arch-villain. Gargunza, in the bunker with the slumbering superhumans, closes out the issue with a look for panic on his face. He has now become part of the fictional story he has implanted on his human lab rats. And that’s a dangerous place to be.
It’s a horror story, remember?
Miracleman #6 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)
When Alan Moore and Alan Davis walked away from Warrior with issue #21, a few months before the magazine folded, they not only left the readers with a cliffhanger, they left the readers with a cliffhanger that was also the climax of the Marvelman/Gargunza confrontation.
Luckily, Moore was able to continue the story in America, at Eclipse Comics, so readers only had to wait a year or so to see its resolution.
The downside is that Alan Davis didn’t join him for the concluding chapters, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The final Warrior chapter begins this issue, and Moore doesn’t give us a Marvelman vs. Gargunza slugfest. This isn’t Superman vs. Luthor or Captain Marvel vs. Sivana, which, in either case, would have led to punches thrown and laser robots and something hovering and probably big machines and science. Instead, in this superhero-comic-that’s-really-a-horror-comic, we get a verbal killswitch and a transformation. “Kimota!” was no magic word, just a triggering mechanism for the consciousness shift. Gargunza has his own trigger to undo the transformation. To turn Marvelman into a wrinkled, tank-top-sporting, paunchy Mike Moran.
“Abraxas,” he says. And that’s the end of Marvelman.
“Steppenwolf,” he says. And that’s where Gargunza’s puppy turns into a gigantic green quadruped.
A quick aside for fans of annotation: the word “Abraxas” alludes to a Gnostic concept of a higher god. “Steppenwolf” is likely a reference to Herman Hesse’s novel about identify, metaphysics, and magic, or maybe it’s just a shout-out to the “Born to be Wild” guys. That Gargunza would step outside the God/Devil duality (or the superhero/supervillain duality) and provide an anticlimax to the confrontation by summoning Abraxas, even symbolically, is fitting, and shows a playful Moore having some fun with superhero comic book conventions. The Hesse thing is likely just a joke. Though a magic carpet ride is not out of the question.
And that’s where the original Marvelman serial leaves us, but within this very issue, the story continues, with new art, new comic-book-sized layouts, and new bubbly word balloons that can’t help but make the Eclipse material look more like a parody of Marvelman than an actual Marvelman story.
It doesn’t help that Moore’s artist for the new material is one Mr. Chuck Beckum, a young artist who lacked the capacity to live up to any subtlety necessary for Moore’s script and lacked the drawing chops to compete with the Garry Leaches and the Alan Davises who preceded him. Beckum, later in life, became known as Chuck Asten, and carved himself a brief but memorable career as a comic book writer, on titles like Uncanny X-Men and Action Comics, before being driven out of comics by angry message board fans.
That last sentence might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not too far off from the accepted story of his departure from comics. I don’t know what really happened, or what caused him to walk away from the industry later in life, but I do know that as a Marvelman artist – and I suppose I really should call the character Miracleman for this new stuff, but I refuse – Chuck Beckum is pretty terrible.
His sins, on the page, enumerated: (1) his characters have dead eyes, a real weakness in a story that’s an attempt to add human dimensions to a horrific superhero story; (2) his “Miracledog” is less an imposing alien monstrosity and more a lumpy-carapaced giant grasshopper. It does some bad stuff later in the story, but it looks mostly goofy throughout; (3) Evelyn Cream, as drawn by Alan Davis, had personality and a flabby, fleshy substance to contrast with his indimidating confidence. Beckum draws him with jagged abs and a square jaw, as if he’s never even seen Davis’s version or is incapable of drawing anyone who isn’t a weird, musclebound action figure. Gah, it’s atrocious; (4) the tragic death of Cream, who has developed into quite a sympathetic character by this point, is structured by Moore in a too-clever-by-half kind of way involving a close-up fake-out, but Beckum totally botches it anyway, making the decapitated character look even more ridiculous than he should.
John Ridgway draws a nice silent Young Miracleman story as a back-up feature in this issue, but, then, what’s this? A pin-up by Chuck Beckum. Well, that doesn’t look half bad. I wonder if that’s the kind of thing that landed him the job. Maybe his work isn’t so abominable after all. Let me flip back a few pages and…
Oh, it’s really bad.
So much for this Alan Moore masterpiece. So much for the fans who read Warrior through issue #21, found an unfinished story, and then waited in eager anticipation for…this.
The lens of history tells us that Beckum didn’t last long on the Miracleman series. Soon we’ll get proper artists Rick Veitch and John Totleben and Alan Moore’s first major comics work will get a decent ending. We know this to be true.
But issue #6, and Chuck Beckum, they must stand as one of the most crushing disappointments in the history of the universe. Is that too strong? It is Alan Moore. It is Marvelman. They demand hyperbole.
NEXT TIME: Marvelman/Miracleman Part 3 – Veitch, Totleben, and More Moore