Miracleman: Anthem for a Forgotten Superhero

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OK, forgotten’s probably putting it too strongly. But listen: when I was growing up in the 1980s (cue Grandpa Simpson voice) we didn’t have the Interweb. So when I started reading Alan Moore I read him in almost total isolation — it was my brother who hooked me up, but apart from him I didn’t really have any perspective on Moore’s work. So up until I came of age and underwent the rites of manhood I didn’t realize that Watchmen was supposed to be Moore’s masterpiece. Or V for Vendetta or any of that stuff. I always thought Moore’s greatest creation — and therefore the greatest graphic novel ever written — was Miracleman. And funnily enough I still think that.

Now I’m not going to lecture Miracleman fans about how great Miracleman is, because what’s the point? But with all the fuss of over V and Watchmen, you don’t hear much about old MM. Search for Miracleman on Amazon, and rank by ‘bestselling,’ and you have to go through 5 pages before you get to the first actual Miracleman title.

Miracleman 101. Miracleman is kind of like Space Ghost — he was originally a straight-up pulp hero before Moore got ahold of him and darkened him up. (In fact he was a knockoff of Captain Marvel — he was even named Marvelman in the U.K. till the lawyers got involved.) Moore rewrote Miracleman as a book about an ordinary guy with a wife and a job who has dreams that he’s a superhero. Soon he figures out that the dreams are real: he used to be a superhero, but he had his mind wiped. Gradually, incredulously, he rediscovers his powers (the usual: flight, speed, strength, resistance to damage — he’s basically Superman). The key is that this is happening in a world where there are no other superheroes — the whole idea is ridiculous. No one can believe it’s happening. As a psychologically naturalistic portrait of what it would like to get powers, there’s nothing remotely like it. It’s so fresh and raw, reading it is like reading the first superhero story ever written. Or maybe the last.

And that’s just the setup. Every issue that follows is just as wrenching — the explanation of Miracleman’s origin, the dark series of reversals, the false identities, the mad scientist, the hideous fate of Miracleman’s old sidekick, Kid Marvelman, who turns evil and commits unspeakable atrocities…every convention of pulp superheroics gets turned inside out, and it turns out their insides were full of hideous darkness. The only thing I can compare it to is The Venture Brothers, but played as tragedy, not comedy.

And then Neil Gaiman took over the book. Yeah, that Neil Gaiman. And his run is as brilliant as Moore’s, but in a completely different way — it’s like you’re watching Bach and Mozart improvise a fugue together. Eventually Miracleman takes over the entire planet and establishes a utopian dictatorship powered by near-omnipotent alien technology, where life is just a surreal game rendered practically meaningless by the perfection of everything. And there are lots of clones of Andy Warhol.

And that’s where the story got left hanging. Miracleman was the principal asset of Eclipse Comics when it went bankrupt in 1994. He was bought by Todd ‘Spawn’ McFarlane for $40,000 and immediately got frozen like carbonite into an epic lawsuit between McFarlane and Gaiman and others that continues to this day. Legend has it that there are actual Miracleman stories written and laid out that cannot be printed till the lawyers shut up. I guess the upside is, we’ll probably never have to sit through a lousy Miracleman movie starring Jude Law.

I don’t know how hard it is to get copies of Miracleman these days. But if you can get one, do. Start with A Dream of Flying. Then keep going till you can’t go any further.