Miracleman #4: The Backstory [Review]

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After reading Miracleman issue four, I think I can safely say that I’ve found where this series hits its stride. The first three issues were full of good ideas with occasionally questionable execution. Here, the ideas are perhaps more interesting, compelling, and engaging in ways that make me even more excited for future issues. As far as execution, I find that there are relatively few negative elements to point out.

Starting with the art, the book seems to have transferred from Garry Leach over to Alan Davis almost in its entirety. All four chapters in this issue that deal with Miracleman are drawn and inked by Davis, and Leach’s only contribution is what I’m calling a backup story featuring the Warpsmiths. I’m very glad that Davis is providing the primary covers for this series as it is both appropriate given that he produced the interior art and provides an interesting illustration of his growth as an artist. In previous issues, I remarked that I tended to prefer Leach’s art as it was more polished and compelling. That is still the case here but Davis is still producing great work which only seems to get better with each chapter. Comparing the cover to the interior art though, one can see how far Davis still had to come to attain his current mastery of the art form.

Still, Davis utilizes very interesting and compelling panel layouts, and his art supports the narrative beautifully. I particularly like the use of silhouetted forms placed in a recurring position on the page to represent the government officials commenting on Miracleman’s actions. He also is not shying away from challenging angles and is drawing faces with increasingly compelling expressiveness and realism. Miracleman’s knowing, almost patronizing glance at Evelyn Cream and Big Ben’s tearful visage are particular standouts. I find it odd though that the art in the fourth chapter, “Saturday Morning Pictures,” seems to take a significant jump forward in quality. Lines are more polished and clean while there is a subtlety of facial expression here that is quite impressive. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that this chapter was produced in 1984 whereas the preceding three were produced in or prior to July of 1983, a gap in time allowing for this apparent improvement in Davis’ skills. At any rate, I very much hope to see more from him as the series progresses.

miracleman-4-variantIn terms of any issues with the art, the only thing that confused me was the superhero Big Ben’s first appearance at the end of the first chapter, “Out of the Dark.” As is made apparent from his subsequent representations, he is a white gentleman with a somewhat broad face and indelicate features. When he first appears on-panel and in profile though, he looks as though he is a black man. I infer this from the set of his features and the coloring work which does give him a skin tone which is consistent with that racial/ethnic background and is darker than Miracleman’s. This is a minor point though and one which has little bearing on the rest of the book. Otherwise, I have nothing to complain about or criticize, either from Davis’ art or from the coloring work by Steve Oliff.

In terms of the story and writing, Moore has mercifully toned down and minimized his own third-person narrative captions. As noted in the review of previous issues, Moore is at his best when writing naturalistic dialogue whereas his narrative captions written from the point of view of the omniscient narrator tend to be full of overblown prose occasionally mixing metaphors. Here though, he seems content to let the art and the characters tell the story for the most part and even the questionable narrative captions are not offensively frustrating. I greatly appreciate that he chooses to provide first-person narration from the points of view of Miracleman, his wife Liz, and the superhuman Big Ben. Perhaps it is the fact that he is writing in the characters’ voices for these captions that prevents him from veering too far into the melodramatic.

I really only have one complain as far as Moore’s writing. The second chapter, “Inside Story,” starts with a page of agent Evelyn Cream, who happens to be a black man, making his way toward a rendezvous with Miracleman. This page is full of a narration by an unnamed third person or an aspect of Cream’s consciousness which seems to be questioning Cream’s allegiance to or deviation from his own racial identity. At least that is how it appears to me. I’m not entirely sure how else to take statements like, “you are practically white,” “and yet you follow this white loa[, spirit of Haitian voodoo],” and “these antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume.” I honestly have no idea what this has to do with the plot or what I’m supposed to make of it. Frankly, knowing that Moore is a white Brit, I’m actually made a bit uncomfortable when he starts making references to “juju,” “gris-gris,” and what I take to be a self-censored use of the “N word.” I’m not sure what qualifies Moore to comment on these subjects or how authentic his observations would be compared to those of someone who actually shared Cream’s implied racial/ethnic background and as such question their place in this narrative.

In terms of the plot and what the characters learn in this issue, there is quite a lot to cover, too much to fully summarize here. In the most general terms, Michael Moran was not shot to death by Evelyn Cream at the end of the last issue. Rather, he was tranquilized so that he and Cream could uncover the secrets of Miracleman’s creation. They make their way (with Moran in his Miracleman form) to a secret bunker, dispatching government agents, traps, bombs, and a superhuman named “Big Ben” on their way, Ben being a later and inferior yield of the Miracleman-creating Project Zarathustra. Inside the bunker, they discover secrets pertaining to Miracleman’s creation, the most pertinent points being that Miracleman’s memories of his past adventures were all artificially manufactured to resemble comic book stories and that Dr. Emil Gargunza was the mastermind behind his creation. Gargunza was Miracleman’s nemesis in the original Anglo Marvelman comics/Miracleman’s manufactured memories, which explains why this sets him off and causes him to destroy much of the bunker’s equipment. Miracleman and Cream then exit the bunker, leaving behind Big Ben and a mess.

miracleman-4-variant-2All of the revelations made about Miracleman’s past in this issue are extremely interesting and only increase my excitement for the rest of this series. While I have questions about the logic behind some of the choices made by the British government with respect to Project Zarathustra in terms of providing a somewhat plausible scenario for the creation of Miracleman within the world of this story, the explanation provided is both perfectly serviceable and allows for a great deal of remaining intrigue. I find myself hoping that Miracleman with track down Gargunza and find out why he scarpered with many of Project Zarathustra’s secrets. I also find myself hoping for a confrontation with Sir. Dennis Archer, the leader of Project Zarathustra. I am very interested to hear more about Big Ben and any other “heroes” that exist in this world as well.

Moore is weaving an extremely compelling story and world around Miracleman and project Zarathustra. In a way, the introduction of Big Ben seems to be a commentary on the state of the comic book superhero himself. Whereas Miracleman is a paragon of mental and physical perfection produced during the early 1950s, Big Ben is a less powerful and mentally aberrant product of the 1960s. In a way, this reflects the change in comic book characters from the planet-juggling and morally straightforward heroes of the Golden Age to the flawed and less powerful heroes that began to appear during comics’ Silver Age. Additionally, Big Ben’s preoccupation with the Soviets, programmed to think that Miracleman is a Soviet agent with the moniker “Major Molotov,” could be seen as a reflection of the trends in comics of the time as well.

Moore doesn’t shy away from knocking comics in general and their conventions in this series, which as I’ve said before makes me wonder why anyone is surprised when he does it now. His creation of Big Ben as a psychopath fixated on superhero-ing could be seen as commentary on contemporaneous superheroes. Additionally, characters refer to Big Ben’s “absurd sobriquet” and I’m sure would similarly comment on his appearance could they see him. In this issue alone, comics are also referred to as “juvenile” and contradictory, and when two individuals come to clean up Miracleman’s mess one of them is extremely critical of the footage of Miracleman’s “para-reality programming.” Thinking that they are films, he approaches them with skepticism and sarcasm.

Moving forward, perhaps the biggest question that I find myself with is why Project Zarathustra deemed that the Miracleman Family had to be killed. It doesn’t seem to be because they were too powerful as records seem to indicate that when creating Big Ben they were disappointed that they couldn’t replicate the abilities of the Miraclemen. Frankly, there has been no real reason given thus far and everything seems to suggest that they were successes within the parameters that the project set up for them. One could argue that the very idea of para-reality programming will make one’s subject inherently unstable as they are being uncoupled from reality, but that is a necessary element of this narrative in integrating Miracleman’s past publishing history as well as a process used in creating Big Ben. As such, it is unlikely that the results of this programming would be the reason for the Miracleman Family’s attempted destruction.

Plotwise, the only problem I have with this book is the timing of Miracleman’s wife Liz’s pregnancy. In the last issue, I don’t believe that she was “showing,” but here she looks to be about seven or eight months pregnant. Now the book doesn’t explicitly state how much time has passed between issue three and issue four but from the context clues I’m guessing that it has only been a day as Moran was shown at the beginning of this issue waking up from Cream’s tranquilizer. At most, I doubt he would have been tranquilized for more than a couple of days. Regardless, the page with Liz worrying about Moran’s absence and the pregnancy is very well-done and a welcome character moment. I only wonder if I’m supposed to believe that this pregnancy is being accelerated due to the baby being Miracleman’s. If that were the case, I doubt that Liz’s doctor would think that the pregnancy and baby were “normal” as Liz informs us he does.

Moving on to the back-up Warpsmiths story “Ghostdance,” I am once again left cold by these characters and their world. Garry Leach’s art is beautiful and I find it intriguing if nothing else, but I cannot bring myself to become invested in any of it. I don’t fault Marvel for including it as I would like to get as full a Miracleman and Warrior experience as possible, but there is something about the Warpsmiths that isn’t working for me on some level. Perhaps it is because there has never been a proper orientation into the world of the Warpsmiths and everything has to be gleaned from context or perhaps it is because they are so unrelatable. I would argue that it doesn’t help that their names are so odd as to be impossible to remember and keep track of. I honestly have no idea who “Phon Mooda” is in relation to “Hrrin Luli” and “Tenga Dril,” and I’m not even sure I’m meant to. These Warpsmith pieces are beautiful and poetic after a fashion and perhaps I do them a disservice by not simply letting their world wash over me as I suspect that was the intent of their creation, but personally I cannot say that I enjoy reading about them.

As for the back matter in this issue, the reader is once again treated to a variety of cover, advertising, and process/concept art. It is all welcome content, but I wonder I feel as though I would like a bit more. In the first issue, one was treated to prose about Marvelman/Miracleman’s creation as well as some quotes from Marvelman creator Mick Anglo. Part of me would like some more commentary material in this vein. The art is all well and good, but as we progress I wouldn’t mind reading about the importance of Moore’s Miracleman and the reactions to it at the time it was published. This isn’t a complaint exactly, but more a suggestion and hope for the future.

In summation, this is an excellent series and I’m happy to finally have the opportunity to read it. If anything, it has only been getting better as it progresses and I’m looking forward to reading more. Marvel is doing an excellent job of producing these books and I applaud their efforts. If you haven’t or aren’t reading Miracleman, you ought to be.