When the great comics writer Alan Moore was an 11-year-old boy living in Northampton, England, he managed to acquire one of Ballantine Books’ ubiquitous mass-market reprints of Mad. This one included Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s Superman parody strip, “Superduperman!,” in which everything about Superman and his rival, Captain Marvel (Captain Marbles, in the sendup) is made a little more down to earth. When Superduperman’s alter ego, Clark Bent, tries to woo his coworker Lois Pain, he is coolly rebuffed; when he informs her that he’s actually an invincible superhero, she repeats her previous suggestion: get lost. Moore loved the strip and thought how funny it would be to write an English superhero, Marvelman, who had forgotten the magic word that, like Captain Marvel, turned him from a defenseless boy into a grown man who could fly and lift a lorry one-handed.
A decade later, when Moore began to write superhero comics of his own, he still liked the idea of injecting a measure of reality into the genre, but he no longer found it quite so funny. “It struck me that if you just turn the dial to the same degree in the other direction, by applying real life logic to a superhero, you could make something … that was quite startling, sort of dramatic and powerful,” Moore told interviewer George Khoury in the 2001 book Kimota! The Miracleman Companion. This, Moore said, was the seed of his take on Marvelman, a long-dormant character whom Moore revived in the British anthology Warrior in 1982. Moore would return to the idea of adding “real-life” logic to fanciful stories again and again, perhaps most successfully in his and Kevin O’Neill’s masterpiece, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a glorious pileup of literary references that recalls Mad’s anarchic heights. Marvelman himself was conceived in 1954 by writer Mick Anglo and a number of artists, notably Don Lawrence; that original Marvelman comic was a hasty relaunch of publisher L. Miller & Son’s unlicensed Captain Marvel comics with costumes and names legally distinct from Captain Marvel’s litigious owners, nd by the time the series crossed the pond going the other direction, Marvel Comics had similarly decided to threaten anybody publishing a comic book with the word Marvel on it with an eternity in courtroom purgatory, so the book became Miracleman stateside.
The legal snarl that kept Miracleman out of print for 20 years is sufficiently complicated to fill an entire book—Poisoned Chalice, by Pádraig Ó Méalóid—but suffice it to say that Marvel, which now holds the rights to one of Moore’s most influential early works, has spent years reissuing the comics monthly, then as a collection of hardcovers—both eye-wateringly expensive—and is only now, for the first time since the series’ completion in December 1989, collecting it as a single volume as the Miracleman Omnibus. Moore has had his name removed, but his voice is unmistakable.
Although it’s not as well-known outside comics circles as Moore’s Watchmen or V for Vendetta, Miracleman is the book that started all the trouble, the most straightforward in a loose thematic trilogy of at-first-familiar adventure comics that confront omnipotent superheroes with problems they are ill-equipped to solve. In adolescent sci-fi and fantasy comics and their adaptations, this is a much-imitated formula, and in the 1980s and ’90s it was nearly ubiquitous. It is impossible to imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the violent, grim Superman movies of Watchmen maladapter Zack Snyder without it. Where V’s hero lurks in the shadows and is fundamentally unknowable and Watchmen’s collection of bored, frightened burnouts are consumed by infighting, Miracleman’s title character wrestles not with fascist oppression or the shadow of nuclear armageddon but the very nature of power—how to wield it, who should wield it, and why. It’s the simplest book of the three; Watchmen, structurally speaking, is practically a hyperobject, and V is inextricably intertwined with British politics. Miracleman is also easily the most disturbing, in part because of Moore’s insistence on treating snickering provocations seriously as narrative grist. If he were real, wouldn’t it be sort of immoral for Superman not to just depose Margaret Thatcher? Superheroines getting tied up all the time is obviously a sex thing, right? If Superman ever got Lois pregnant, what would that put her through? These weren’t new questions—Nabokov was making light of Superman’s romantic struggles a full 40 years before the first Miracleman comic was published; Larry Niven published a frankly disgusting essay called “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” in smut magazine Knight along similar lines in 1969. But nobody had actually entertained these ideas in serious fiction. (If you think that superhero comics can never be serious fiction, go away.)
Moore is currently doing interviews for his new collection of short stories, Illuminations, the centerpiece of which is a hilarious and very mean tale—some have said too mean, but I disagree—called “What We Can Know About Thunderman,” about the effect of a character called Thunderman on an industry of arrested adolescent men who make comics about him. Moore has autopsied Superman himself many times. In “Thunderman,” he deconstructs the industry that sells superheroes by using its own myths against it—not the myths it manufactures, but the nasty stories that get repeated over drinks: about how Jack Kirby’s worst inker, Vince Colletta, was the son of a mafioso, or how the editor of Penthouse Comix leapt from the 45th floor of the Marriott Marquis Times Square. At the end of “Thunderman,” Moore answers the question What if Superman were real? for what seems to be the final time, and in a way that suggests the American need for big colorful omnipotent problem-solvers has led our country into its current mess. (The collection is really good, for what it’s worth. It has, among others, a charming story about a real estate agent who sells a house to Jesus).
In decades of homages and rip-offs—Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley’s Invincible, Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s Jupiter’s Legacy, Marvel’s Supreme Power and Sentry, David Yarovesky’s film Brightburn—no one ever wrung as much profundity from the question of how children’s superheroes would confront adult problems, or approached that question with such a firm sense of moral purpose. Moore’s imitators (and his detractors) often miss that his best stories are, like all great art, self-expression, and that he had lived an eventful life, even as a very young artist. He had experienced the British class system, suffered “the minor molestations” of a schoolteacher “at the age of eleven,” began raising two daughters, and watched the rise of the Thatcher administration threaten his nontraditional family. In Moore’s big, sweeping, slickly told story, Miracleman and his friends and enemies find themselves wrestling with class oppression, sexual predation, parenting, and politics. Moore’s frankness, coupled with his remarkable facility for the finer points of both the medium in general and superheroes in particular, have made him monstrously influential, on the order of Stephen Sondheim or Marcel Duchamp. But in their imitation by others, Moore’s stories came to be emblematic of a generalized grittifying of the superhero genre, his examination of trauma and sexuality reduced to shock and sleaze. (The imitators usually ignored his politics altogether.) “When I did things like Marvelman and Watchmen, they were critiques of the superhero genre. They were trying to show that any attempt to realize these figures in any kind of realistic context will always be grotesque and nightmarish,” Moore told GQ earlier this month. “But that doesn’t seem to be the message that people took from this. They seemed to think, uh, yeah, dark, depressing superheroes are, like, cool.” The darkening of an entire genre reflected a single man’s efforts to make the vestigial heroes of World War II better-equipped to deal with living a life like his own.
To read Miracleman now is to suddenly hear subtext as text and wonder how you missed it. The book starts with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (“Behold, I teach you the Superman: He is this lightning, he is this madness!”) and proceeds quickly to its first villain declaring to one would-be victim that he is going to succeed where “that stunted syphilitic” Hitler had failed. “Poor Adolph,” he muses. “He had no idea. The REAL era of the overman starts here.”
In the version Moore loved as a kid, Micky Moran was a little boy chosen by a supernatural astrophysicist as the lucky winner of superpowers he could call forth simply by saying “Kimota!” (read it backward), whereupon he would do battle with a mad scientist, the evil Doctor Gargunza. In Moore’s revision, Miracleman is the result of an experimental collaboration between the World War II–era British upper class and the Nazis—two groups who believed they were destined to produce the overman. Miracleman, Miraclewoman, and Kid and Young Miraclemen are all the pawns of the man we initially think is the mad scientist villain of their cartoon dreams, Emil Gargunza. Instead, Gargunza is a kind of anti-Einstein, born poor in Veracruz and brilliant and ruthless enough to ascend the Reich’s bureaucracy, where his mother’s death and his friendship with Martin Heidegger inspire him to seek immortality. In the middle of the second book, when Miracleman kills a number of Nazi soldiers hiding in South America, one of them recognizes what has happened. “Forty years we have waited for you, for the first of the blond gods that would replace us,” he says, stunned. “Overman. You have come at last.”
“Yes,” Miracleman responds, pushing his finger through the man’s chest and into his heart. “You can go now.”
The legacy of the Second World War hangs heavy still over superhero comics. Superman and Captain America were born during the bloodiest “great power” conflict in history, one whose atrocities have troubled our national dreams ever since. Those two characters became archetypes in the years that followed, and the bedrock of 80 years and counting of entertainment: entertainment for children, the adults those children became, and their own children and grandchildren. To Americans, World War II is often the good war, never mind our own internment camps or the obliteration of Hiroshima and much of Nagasaki. Captain America and Superman—one the product of military experiments, the other a more or less divine being, both utterly decent and pure—describe the American opinion of itself without much exaggeration.
Moore is British, born in 1953, the year sugar rationing ended and Stalin died. Coincidence, not duty or heroism, is the fuel that makes Miracleman run; the crashed alien spaceship that provides the technology for its grand arc was only in the vicinity of Earth to look for a naturally occurring superhero called a firedrake. When the firedrake finally shows up, in the 14th of 16 issues, he is a homeless Black man living in Detroit, his vast powers no help against the institutional forces that oppress him.
It’s often speculated (though never quite proved) that Superman began life as an intentional inversion of the Nazi ideal of a handsome blond Wagnerian demigod—a nebbishy writer with curly dark hair who can’t get a date but secretly has superpowers given to him by his ancestry, even though his homeland was destroyed long ago. What if, comics legends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seemed to ask, we had the overman on our side? Siegel and Shuster probably hadn’t read Nietzsche, but Siegel said in his memoirs that he was inspired by the 1930 sci-fi novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie, who had. Siegel had heard some criticism of Superman from people who felt his form of wish fulfillment wasn’t terribly healthy. “After Superman had been published a while, some critics said he was a one-man gestapo,” Siegel wrote. “I always intended Superman to be a force for good, to zoom in and aid people in distress with flashing fists and other super-powers.”
Miracleman takes this proposition to its logical conclusion. When Mike Moran, kidnapped as a child and experimented on by Nazi scientists, finally remembers his magic word and becomes the Übermensch, he looks at the world around him and feels no Supermanly compunction about usurping human agency to fixing this broken world. Aided by Miraclewoman and an all-powerful federation of extraterrestrial allies, he simply changes everything without consulting anyone, destroying all nuclear weapons and eliminating money, poverty, and global warming. At one point, Miracleman meets with England’s senior government officials to explain what will happen. “The world economy must be restructured, broken down into more manageable units,” he says. Margaret Thatcher interrupts. “No, no, no! This is all quite preposterous,” she harrumphs. “We can never allow this kind of interference with the market.” Miracleman stares back at her. “Allow?”
Miracleman is probably Moore’s least unified work, through no fault of his own. The series moved from a bankrupt U.K. sci-fi series (Warrior) to a soon-to-be bankrupt American comics publisher, Eclipse, in the middle of its run, and soon the length of its chapters, the artists drawing its panels, and its title were all very different. (Moore and the hand-picked writer who succeeded him, Neil Gaiman, adapted to the name “Miracleman” in interesting ways, and it no longer makes sense to change the title back, though there are some odd lettering choices in the early chapters.) The primary story is drawn by five different people—Gary Leach, Alan Davis, Chuck Beckum, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben—and even that accounting doesn’t include several minor episodes that read a bit like short stories set in the same world as the main sequence. All told, Moore wrote 348 pages of Miracleman that his publishers stretched out over seven years; when Eclipse picked up the book, they first reprinted the Warrior stories and then commissioned several leftover scripts obviously written for Davis but handled instead by the much greener Beckum. In between the first eight-page installment in Warrior in 1982 and the 32-page finale published by Eclipse in 1989, Moore wrote Watchmen with Dave Gibbons, V for Vendetta (also original serialized in Warrior) with David Lloyd, scores of short stories for the magazine 2000 AD, 44 issues of DC’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, and began work on From Hell with Eddie Campbell. The writer who finished Miracleman was the superior craftsman in every possible way to the writer who began it, and some of this is visible on rereading—by the finale, the dialogue is far more naturalistic and understated, and Moore is content to let artist John Totleben’s pictures speak for both of them in languid, hypnotic silent (or elliptically narrated) sequences. The thinly conceived terrorist encounter in the series’ first chapter seems a world away.
It’s remarkable how powerful the book remains in spite of its occasional unevenness. Moore is easily the medium’s most important just-writer (as opposed to writers who draw their own scripts, which Moore does very rarely), having demonstrated a complete grasp of its intricacies and potential almost from the beginning of his career. He is, in some sense, a composer, and the people working in comics who can match that formidable perfection are cartoonists themselves—no other writer really comes close. If you take a look at his scripts alongside his collaborators’ other comics, you can see how carefully and collaboratively he writes to his artists, suggesting compositions that fit into their body of work, intuiting things they might like to draw, and harmonizing with their own ideas.
It’s not fair to his extraordinarily gifted colleagues to say they’re merely his paintbrushes, but it’s a rare artist who doesn’t come away changed for the better from a collaboration with Moore, and while some of his partners are better-known, nowhere in his body of work is there a more fruitful working relationship than with John Totleben, often the inker on his Swamp Thing stories, who draws the climactic third story in Miracleman in a painstaking style reminiscent of classic pulp illustrator Virgil Finlay. Moore responds to Totleben’s graceful stippling and feathering by changing the grimy spy story of the Davis episodes into something lyrical and ruminative and often horrifying, and the liquid layouts and Ray Bradbury–esque flights of poetry in the pair’s final issue seem to draw together all the disparate parts from the preceding hodgepodge.
Far from the ooh-rah militarism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Moore and his collaborators make the case that we ought to care what happens to superheroes—indeed, ought to be made uncomfortable by their influence. Miracleman and his league of utopian dictators begin a eugenics program, allowing normal people to bear his superheroic children; he also provides overman or -woman bodies to the deserving, if they want them. Everyone gets whatever they want, within reason, as defined by one extraordinary person.
Eventually, Miracleman goes home to Mike Moran’s wife, to tell her about all the wonderful things he’s been doing to the world, and after he’s said his piece—and after an awkward exchange about how she won’t mind him fucking Miraclewoman once he grants her the body of an Überfrau, complete with enlightened brain—she tells him to leave and never come back. He’s made humanity perfect, and in doing so, he’s ended it. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We are invited to decide, or decline to decide, for ourselves.
That kind of ambiguity is distinctly missing in comics bearing Miracleman’s influence. Early issues of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn mimic the overwrought style of Moore’s captions for Totleben, as do a dozen other less-memorable knockoffs. (McFarlane hired Moore to write several Spawn stories; Moore wrote them as dark but fundamentally Mad-style humor comics. They’re very funny.) Geoff Johns’ reinventions of DC heroes like Green Lantern and The Flash owe just as much to Moore’s original superhero deconstruction. Where Moore saw a satisfying way for the superhero story to confront its uncomfortable origins, take a bow, and make room for something new, Johns and other young writers saw an opportunity to defibrillate the genre yet again. Johns’ work is often interesting, but his unauthorized and frankly unwanted Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, is a stain on the industry, both for its substitution of homage for inquiry and in its mistreatment of Moore and Gibbons, who have been on record deploring the idea since 1986.
Rereading Miracleman, as I’ve probably done seven or eight times in its various awkward forms, I’m struck again by how deeply felt it is, how earnestly Moore addresses the concerns of a mistreated lower-class child, and how specific that address remains. It’s a wonderful book. Marvel is finally publishing the remaining arc-and-a-half by Gaiman and artist Mark Buckingham, which is such good news my inner teenager can barely believe it, but the company also seems hellbent on making new Miracleman comics. They ought not to. Let Miracleman stand on its own the way Watchmen and V do, or let it stand next to a similar volume of the Gaiman stories, a long-lost double album by the Stones and the Beatles. It’s not a perfect comic, and it’s not the zenith of Moore’s astounding career, but it’s somehow both its own inimitable, personal story, and a standing rebuke to the deracinated, corporatized dreck that people made trying to imitate it. It ought to inspire, but it ought to inspire better work. Ultimately, the best imitation of personal art is personal art. Or, failing that, life.