The character of Miracleman, known originally as Marvelman before lawsuits were a going concern, was relaunched in 1982 by writer Alan Moore in the pages of British comics magazine Warrior before being picked up by American publisher Eclipse. Moore would conclude his run in the final month of the ‘80s. It is important to note that when Moore began his work on Miracleman he was a relative unknown and then he proceeded to reshape the broader world of comics with his work on such titles as Swamp Thing and Watchmen. Though it may not be considered his definitive work, Miracleman served as the whetstone on which Moore sharpened his skills as a writer.
Now, the thing about Moore’s work on Miracleman is that it’s all one big magic trick; a beautiful one at that. I first encountered it when Grant Morrison employed it in his run on Batman. The author shows you one thing, transforms it into another right before you, and he then brings it all the way back around to where it started. It’s such a fantastic trick that Moore even recycled it, at least partially, in Swamp Thing. And it so happens that the three book structure that Moore divided his run into fit the format of the magic trick perfectly.
First in Book One: A Dream of Flying, Moore takes the pre-existing character of Mike Moran, Miracleman, and reintroduces him to readers as a typical superhero character with amazing powers and a secret identity. Readers acclimate to the sillier aspects of the character with his magic word of transformation, his bright costume, and his stories of teaming up with young sidekicks to fight mad scientists in the ‘50s. It’s made easier to absorb all of this information because Moore has the character of Liz Moran, Mike’s wife, laughing at the absurdity of it all while her husband asserts that his memories are true. This attitude continues into a meta explanation for the absence of Miracleman since his book was discontinued in 1963 with that being made the year of a catastrophic event that gave him amnesia.Then comes the second part, Book Two: The Red King Syndrome, in which Moore pulls the rug out from under the readers. The reveal technically comes at the end of act one but the effects reverberate and are expanded upon further here. Those silly stories of Miracleman, Kid Miracleman, and Young Miracleman fighting monsters and evil scientist that he just spent the entire last book convincing you were totally plausible? They never happened. All of the Miracleman canon as initially created by writer/artist Mick Anglo has been recast as a series of false memories. Mike Moran and his friends were never granted amazing powers by a space wizard, they were experimented on by a Nazi scientist employed by their government after an alien life-form crash landed on Earth. The superhero identity, costumes, and the stories were designed merely to placate the minds of the children so that they would not wake and wreak havoc with their powers. What was a superhero story has become more grounded science-fiction with concepts of good and evil replaced by pragmatism and savagery. What struck me about this was that, as previously stated, I saw Grant Morrison use this trick on Batman in order to rationalize all of the sillier aspects of the character’s history. The retcon narrative takes what existed before and tells readers, “No, that didn’t happen. Here’s what actually happened and has always been happening.” This may have been one of the earliest uses of the narrative retcon in order to completely rewrite the history of a character in the realm of superhero comics. A more famous example would be Moore’s revelation about the origins of DC character Swamp Thing, published two years after the Miracleman retcon.
Moore also takes this opportunity during the “turn” of this magic trick to play problem solver. Miracleman was intentionally created as a wholesale rip-off of Captain Marvel because the British publisher could no longer continue to publish those stories. Everything from the Miracleman family to the scientist villain and the word of transformation were lifted from Captain Marvel. Looking to remove the character from a history of near-plagiarism, Moore came up with the explanation that the scientist working on Mike Moran was inspired by Captain Marvel comics to introduce elements of the superhero genre into his false memories. Miracleman was derivative but, as Moore would further pronounce in the final act of his story, all mythology is.It is in Book Three: Olympus that Moore brings the story full-circle. After presenting the concept of the superhero in the first act and the deconstructing it in the second act, he reconstructs it for the finale. In the final act, Miracleman and other super-powered beings make their presence known to the world and then proceed to change it completely. Money is abolished, eugenics programs produce powered offspring, and there are churches that revere the super-powered beings as gods. And, in a brilliant note, Miracleman and his cohorts intentionally take upon themselves the archetype of gods. They begin the story as superheroes, are revealed to be sci-fi experiments, and then choose to become gods. And what is a superhero if not in some way a god?
The characters of Mike Moran and Miracleman are almost as fascinating as the narrative that the book is structured under. Mike Moran is portrayed as an average man approaching middle-age before Miracleman is reborn. However, the lead-up to the first transformation into his superhero persona is played for horror as he’s plagued by dreams of his exploits and violent headaches (shades of Nexus?) as he hurtles toward his destination. When he “transforms” into Miracleman, the presence of an unnaturally tall and slender man in a tight costume as initially rendered by artist Garry Leach is unnerving. He stands out in the art and the coloring from everyone and everything else in the book. Other characters are put-off by the aura that Miracleman exudes and government agencies are horrified of his near limitless powers because the arrival of this super-man has just rendered all of human achievement utterly insignificant.
As the story develops, Mike Moran is distanced from Miracleman by the reveal that, while they share memories and some personality traits, they aren’t actually the same person. Miracleman is stronger, faster, smarter, and even a better lover than Mike. It’s Miracleman that impregnates Mike’s wife Liz after the two of them had spent a considerable amount of time trying. Heck, not even Mike Moran is free from feeling insignificant next to him and, as the book progresses, he plays less and less of a part in it. Mike finds himself alienated from both himself and the rest of the world as Miracleman continues to accept and grow into his role as a new God. Memorably, the character makes his last appearance climbing to the top of a mountain, burying his clothes, and transforming into Miracleman as an act of suicide.
For being the central figure of the book, the actual character of Miracleman is not strongly defined. He’s characterized more through how people react to him while his inner workings remain relatively unknowable until the third act becomes more introspective. In that third act as Miracleman accepts his role as the new God of Earth, he finds himself weighed down by his fondness for his own sense of humanity. His daughter Winter, developing into a hyper-intelligent and powerful being in a matter of days, leaves him as an infant to journey through space as he mourns his inability to experience the more human form of fatherhood. With her gone, that’s one less anchor keeping him grounded. Miracleman loses another anchor when his wife Liz leaves him and rejects his offer of being reborn in a body similar to his. She knows that becoming like him means leaving behind humanity while he still thinks of it as a mentality that he can cling to as his power and consciousness continue to expand. Alan Moore leaves the character and the book on a melancholy note as Miracleman wonders why Liz rejected his offer, her motives and thinking as alien to him as he is to her.
The retcon narrative and the god-like protagonist (no doubt a template for Moore’s reinvention of Captain Atom as Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen) are certainly the best legacy that this run of Miracleman left on the landscape of superhero comics but they aren’t the only thing passed on. With the introduction of the character of Miraclewoman into the book, Moore includes the villainous scientist of Doctor Gargunza having raped her multiple times while she was under his thrall as well as other instances of both sexual and otherwise graphic violence in the book’s final act. The book has been heralded as a mature reinvention of the superhero genre but it is my fear that, as is unfortunately the case with many great works, imitators may have taken the wrong lessons from it. For instance, the inclusion of rape and graphic violence has often been used erroneously as short-hand for certain stories to be labeled as mature. I would consider the addition of a retcon in DC miniseries Identity Crisis that included the rape of a character as a poor attempt to make a story more realistic or mature.
Due to a series of legal disputes over ownership, Alan Moore’s initial work on Miracleman, as well as the follow-up by writer Neil Gaiman, was kept from being reprinted for almost two decades and this led to many people labeling it as a great “lost work.” Marvel Comics currently owns the rights to the character and has been republishing Alan Moore’s run with updated coloring since the January of 2014. To think, a superhero graduating from the small-press to join one of the publishers that it no-doubt influenced. What a neat magic trick.