Miracleman/Marvelman and the American Superhero
One of the great inventions of the American literary tradition is the comic book superhero. Serving as a symbol for the American Dream, superheroes represent that which the nation of America strives to be and often fails to. Emphasizing the elements of self-sacrifice, responsibility in the face of great power, and a militant proclivity for the hero’s perceived good, superheroes are a staple of American culture and have only increased in prominence since their introduction. While the superhero tradition was invented in America, authors and artists from multiple countries have contributed to the superhero lexicon. One of the most notable is British comic book writer Alan Moore. The author of landmark titles such as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Moore is one of the most celebrated comic book writers of all time. One of his first projects writing an established character was Eclipse Comics’ Marvelman which was published in “Warrior” magazine alongside V for Vendetta. Comic books have a distinctive publishing format that produces interesting results. Due to its serialized nature, comic books often go out of print for a number of reasons. The typical reason for this is simply a lack of demand for issues causing the publisher to cease production and distribution. However, in the case of Marvelman, the issue was one of copywrite infringement and intellectual property theft. Due to three different instances of alleged copywrite infringement, the title was unavailable for decades while a legal battle occurred and saw a reprinted version only in 2014. Despite being written by a British author, the deconstruction of the American superhero genre and the lawsuits surrounding it makes this a crucial American graphic novel.
There are three eras of this title, the first of which is L. Miller & Son’s original publication of Marvelman. Written and created by writer Mick Anglo, the original publication essentially served as a pastiche for DC Comics’ superhero Shazam. Shazam was a child who was given the power to transform into a fully-grown superhero with the powers of flight, super strength, and invulnerability simply by saying the phrase “Shazam” out loud. Marvelman was given the same powers by an astrophysicist but instead says the word “kimota, “atomic” backwards, to active his abilities. While no legal complaints were filed against the publisher, low sales caused L. Miller & Son to file for bankruptcy. The second era came when Alan Moore revamped the series in Eclipse Comics’ “Warrior” anthology in 1982. This is a dark take on the American superhero that deconstructs it from its roots. Moore left the series because of creative differences, but Marvel Comics saw the title as potentially confusing for consumers and asked publisher Eclipse to change the title for later reprints. Eclipse reprinted the individual issues fully colorized, under the banner of Miracleman. Neil Gaiman then wrote three more issues before this publisher also filed for bankruptcy. Founder of Image Comics Todd MacFarlane claimed ownership to Miracleman after purchasing all of Eclipse’s intellectual property in 1996, but Gaiman took him to court proving that the original writer Mick Anglo still owned the rights to the character. Marvel Comics purchased the rights to the title and character in 2009 ushering in the third era of Miracleman. Marvel republished the individual issues in 2014, still under the banner of Miracleman, and subsequently published the first ever available collected editions. However, Moore requested his name be removed from the title for an undisclosed reason and all credit goes to “The Original Writer.” The prominence of bankruptcy and lawsuits in this book’s publishing history is a reflection of the American concepts it deconstructs.
There are four versions of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, of which only two are currently in print, coinciding with the three different publishing eras of the title. The original 1982 version printed in the “Warrior” anthology titled Marvelman has been out of print since its release. Eclipse republished these titles in full sized, colorized issues in 1985 which has since also gone out of print. While these versions are no longer being produced, it is possible to purchase used versions online for a significant price. Currently, the primary way to attain this text is through Marvel Comics’ trade paperbacks that were first published in 2014 and are restocked regularly. There is also the option to collect the reprinted single issues also published in 2014. It is possible to track these down but the price has appreciated since its 2014 publication. The original issues of “Warrior” have been out of print for over thirty years and are highly valued comics both in rarity and price. They have not been reprinted due to copywrite issues with the original title being Marvelman and are not easily obtainable. This resulted in the story being essentially unattainable for decades leaving one of the first deconstructions of the American superhero in obscurity.
The only versions in print today are the individual issues reprinted by Marvel comics starting in 2014 and their subsequent trade paperbacks. While the individual issues are no longer printed, they are still available at most comic stores and online retailers. These issues are also available in digital form through Marvel’s designated online service and various other comic book applications and websites. The trade version is the highest quality, most affordable option on the market today. There is a table of contents in the trade version but the individual issues stand as separate chapters. There are introductions written by other notable comic book writers at the beginning of each trade. Each issue of Miracleman reissues one of the original Mick Anglo Marvelman runs from the 1950s in its appendix. The composition of the trade and issues vary greatly in paper quality, binding, and annotations. The individual issues are printed on high quality paper but are thinner and easier to damage than the trade versions. The trades are also available in paperback and hardcover. The hardcover version protects the comic better but the paperback emulates the feel of an individual issue more effectively.
This complex publication history involving lawsuits, and the sparse information available about the process, gives the title a uniquely American history. Despite originally being published in the United Kingdom and exclusively written by English authors, the lawsuits were being carried out in American court. While little is known about the lawsuit due to the legal liability associated with discussing it, the rights eventually fell into the hands of American publisher Marvel Comics who reprinted the newly coined Miracleman stories in the US. However, the complex legal situation surrounding the title alone does not make it American literature. The primary reason for it being so is the book’s content. Moore took the character of Miracleman, a pastiche of DC Comics’ Shazam, and used the opportunity to break down the conventions of the American superhero by highlighting the hypocrisy of these figures and portraying what the world’s realistic response would be to these superpowered beings existing. The primary conventions being deconstructed are the comic book world’s blind acceptance of superheroes, the concept of an alter ego being literalized, and the medium of the comic book being the home of the superhero.
The story begins with Mike Moran waking up from a dream of flying. He has this dream frequently but thinks little of it until he is witness to a plutonium robbery later that day. He then utters the word “kimota” and becomes Miracleman for the first time in eighteen years. The first instance of the postmodern deconstruction of this hero comes when Miracleman is trying to explain his origins to his wife. The hammy comic book tropes of the 1950’s make her laugh with disbelief and Miracleman is forced to dispute this. This is the first instance in the book of Moore addressing the ridiculous elements of the superhero archetype including the corny nature of origin stories, costuming, and super powers.
(The Original Writer 27).
He then discovers his old partner Johnny Bates, who transforms into Kid Miracleman by saying the phrase “Miracleman”, is still alive. However, when he goes to visit him he realizes that Kid Miracleman never transformed back into Johnny Bates after the accident that cause Mike to lose his memory and has been feigning humanity since. They engage in a violent battle in which Kid Miracleman attempts to kill an innocent child. This literalization of the super hero alter ego is a recurring theme in the book. Kid Miracleman was able to overtake Johnny Bates’ will and, after realizing the significance of his power over humanity, used it to take over the business world. However, the return of Miracleman prompts him to fully give into this evil as he begins wreaking havoc on the world and the humans he sees as beneath him.
(The Original Writer 38).
This fear of superpowered individuals is another deconstruction of the superhero that Moore is addressing. In a realistic setting, humans would fear and revile superhumans despite their intentions. In Moore’s vision, there is essentially no difference between superheroes and supervillains. Although Miracleman saves the child, he breaks the kid’s ribs in the process causing the mother to hate and fear him as much as Kid Miracleman. She sees the Miraclemen as the same despite their intentions because the superhero nature is fundamentally different from human’s. They are a new species that, while appearing human, are in fact superior to the point where humans have no chance against them once they decide to cause harm.
(The Original Writer 39).
After a brutal fight, Kid Miracleman is about to kill Miracleman when he inadvertently changes back into Johnny Bates. While Kid Miracleman has been aging, Bates is still a 13-year-old who is terrified and remorseful about the actions of Kid Miracleman. The concept of alter egos literally being alternate people is another way Moore deconstructs the superhero. Although Kid Miracleman and Bates share a body, Moore makes the distinction between the two. This is highly unusual as most heroes who transform into a superhero in the comic tradition share the same consciousness. Moore also introduces the element of separate aging as Bates is the same age he was when Kid Miracleman took over and Kid Miracleman has aged 18 years. This further contributes to the literal separation of human and superhuman consciousnesses.
(The Original Writer 47).
This question is addressed frequently throughout the comic. Once Bates is institutionalized he has recurring internal debates with Kid Miracleman about whether he was responsible for the death and destruction his super powered ego inflicted.
(The Original Writer 51).
Moran also faces this question as he does not transform into Miracleman for two months. When he does, his face is largely healed from the burns he sustained during his fight with Kid Miracleman indicating that there is separate physical development in the alter ego post-transformation causing Mike to wonder where Miracleman goes when he transforms. This separation of body and consciousness is solidified as a theme in the comic when Liz reveals that she is pregnant with Miracleman’s baby, but not Mike’s.
(The Original Writer 54).
This begins to torture Mike as he and Liz have been trying to get pregnant for years but it only takes one night with Miracleman for that to happen. He expresses his feelings of inadequacy to Miracleman which is a fascinating look at the superhero alter ego that literalizes the difference between man and hero. Despite retaining all memories of both consciousnesses, he is not the same person. He is not the same species. Miracleman’s cognitive and physical abilities surpass Mike’s causing him to question his worth.
(The Original Writer 60).
The introduction of the character “Big Ben” juxtaposes the American superhero embodied by Miracleman with a stereotypically English one. He fights Miracleman with a patriotic fervor that makes him feel absolutely justified in doing so. However, Miracleman stops him with minimal effort which leads him to the secret base Big Ben was created in. Moore having an English character be the catalyst for Miracleman uncovering his undesirable origins reflects the reality of Moore, an English writer, being the one to uncover the undesirable elements of the American superhero.
(The Original Writer 70)
While there he leans the truth about the creation of the Miraclemen. Essentially, the Miraclemen were created in a lab and had their beings fused with orphaned humans like Mike and Johnny. They were then programmed with their own backstories and personalities that they lived out in a simulation to please their creator. Book One ends with the revelation that Dr. Emil Gargunza programmed them with the corny backstories of comic book characters in order to manipulate them using prescribed American literary traditions.
(The Original Writer 84)
This ending is where the book becomes meta and falls into the postmodern tradition. By establishing Miracleman’s backstory as a deliberately fabricated comic book origin story, Moore solidifies the commentary he has been making that the comic book tradition is unrealistic and can be expanded upon to more appropriately represent reality. The acknowledgment of the comics’ medium ties together the reflexive elements Moore had been crafting in the beginning of the book. Having literalized the alter-ego and comic book origin story, Miracleman is a post-modern deconstruction of the American superhero that makes commentary on the society it was born out of by contrasting the superhero tradition with the society the book was written in. Miracleman is angered by this revelation and destroys his creator’s lab foreshadowing the eventual cancellation of the title.
Alan Moore is one of the great postmodern writers in any medium and Miracleman/Marvelman was his first foray into applying this tactic to the superhero genre. This book clearly refined his style which paved the way for his magnum opus Watchmen, a novel which was widely read and changed the comic book medium permanently. By exposing the ridiculous elements of the comic book tradition through the creation of a realistic take on the genre, Moore criticized the elements of American culture that manifested itself in these tropes. This commentary, in addition to the complicated legal battle surrounding the title, give Miracleman/Marvelman a uniquely American quality. Both the content of the book and its complex publication history make Miracleman/Marvelman a quintessential piece of American literature.
Moore, Alan. Miracleman Book 1: A Dream of Flying. New York, Marvel Comics, 2014.