First Impressions – MIRACLEMAN #1

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From the heights of the Golden Age to the depths of the Bronze and Dark ages, comes a hero with two names, two origins, and a history more confusing than Hawkman. The grandfather of all deconstructive superhero stories is back in print, thanks to Marvel Comics. Yes, it’s Marvelman, or as he’s more commonly called, MIRACLEMAN. And a new generation of readers can enjoy the ride from the beginning…and beyond the end!

MIRACLEMAN isn’t just a reprint. It’s a continuation! Kimota!

Okay…explaining Miracleman….

Well, it starts way back in the Golden Age of Comics. Fawcett Publication produced a little superhero called Captain Marvel. His backstory was of a little boy named Billy Batson who obtained the ability to turn into an adult Captain Marvel thanks to a magic word provided by the wizard Shazam. He was the world’s mightiest mortal, and because of his nature as a child who turned into a superhero, Captain Marvel sold like mad. At one time the Big Red Cheese was the most popular superhero ever. Yes, more popular than Superman. So much more popular than Superman that DC took Fawcett to court over copyright infringement, because of how Captain Marvel could be construed as a ripoff of the Man of Steel. Which he was. The court battles raged until the fifties, when superheroes began to lose popularity across the board. Fawcett settled the case by canceling Captain Marvel’s comics, ending that chapter of comics history for a time.

But while that event went on to create the great Captain Marvel mess once the Silver Age began, there’s another side effect of the settlement. This one in England.

Europe has a different history to comics production than the US, many of its profits in the early days resulting from reprints of American works published on a weekly basis rather than monthly. Enter Len Miller, a London-based publisher who held the license to reprint the Captain Marvel comics. When the back issues of Captain Marvel ran out, Miller faced the possibility of having no product to sell. So a young writer/artist named Mick Anglo was brought in to create a new character to fill the void. That new character was Marvelman.

Well, new character is a bit charitable. Marvelman and his supporting cast were straight expies of the Captain Marvel characters. But legally, it was different enough to count.

Marvelman’s deal was basically a science fiction repaint of Captain Marvel’s: young lad working a media job, powerful being meeting him, word of power (namely “Kimota”; Atomic spelled backwards but with a ‘K’), and transforming into an invincible flying superhero. He also had similar transforming sidekicks, Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman. And of course, like Captain Marvel’s Sivana, Marvelman had a mad scientist nemesis named Doctor Gargunza. All in all, Marvelman was a massive success that bridged the gap between the Golden and Silver Ages in England. His series and spinoffs lasted from 1954 to 1963.

And then the property just sat around for a while. Until it was picked up by a company called Warrior. Then Alan Moore got involved.

No I’m serious. Alan Moore got in on this action. Yes, that Alan Moore.

Forward in the early eighties, and a young Alan Moore was hired to resurrect the Marvelman franchise. So within the pages of Warrior – an anthology series – readers were reintroduced to Marvelman. A darker, edgier Marvelman. This was a number of years before Moore would work for DC Comics and produce his most famous work, Watchmen. Like Watchmen, Moore used his creative freedom to straight up deconstruct the old comic property, recontextualizing his adventures for a modern age and showing just how the world would react to a superhuman present.

Roughly a third of the way into Moore’s run, however, Warrior folded. Thankfully, Eclipse Comics bought up the rights and allowed Moore to continue his work. They even reprinted the first few Warrior installments in a single issue. Except then the series hit another snag. Marvel Comics, understandably concerned for their brand, asked the name be changed. Or maybe they threatened legal action and were in fact super pissed; sources are conflicting on the matter. Regardless, with the change of publisher came a change in name: from Marvelman to Miracleman. It’s this name I’ll refer to the franchise as overall for simplicity’s sake.

After sixteen issues, Moore left series and writing duties were picked up by another young writer…named Neil Gaiman. Yes, that Neil Gaiman. The Miracleman saga reads like a who’s who of famous writers and artists. In addition to Moore and Gaiman, artists like Alan Davis, Steve Bisette, Rick Veitch, and Chuck Austin all worked on the Warrior and Eclipse era series.

Gaiman for his part planned a trilogy of story arcs, but only managed to finish one before Eclipse folded, ending the series. And from there, the story of Miracleman shifts from one of…well…story, and one of legalize and rights issues. For years following the cancellation of Miracleman, the rights to the character remained in question. Here’s another celebrity guest star to add to the pile: Spawn creator Todd McFarlane bought up the rights to the Eclipse characters, which he claimed included Miracleman. I say he claimed, because a massive number of court battles erupted between McFarlane and Neil Gaiman over said rights (as well as the rights to other characters McFarlane claimed). A lot of it also had to do with the idea of individual people owning “percentages” of the rights, an idea that was popular during the early nineties, especially at Image Comics.

Between the court battles and McFarlane’s creating of a Miracleman-like character in statue form to possibly use in his works (long story not worth getting into), it looked like the issue would never be solved, and the old series never be allowed a reprint in the meantime.

That is, until recently. Turns out Todd McFarlane did not own Miracleman. Rick Anglo did. Remember him from several paragraphs up? Since he created the character, the courts decided definitively that he was the owner. The aging comic man sold his rights to Marvel Comics shortly before his passing, and with Neil Gaiman back on board, the old series is finally being reprinted.

And that, my friends and readers, finally brings us up to MIRACLEMAN #1.

The issue contains a few bits from multiple sources. Primarily, there’s the first two Warrior installments, as well as the updated story in the style of the old comics created in 1985 that I think was meant to preface the Eclipse reprint of the Warrior stuff. After that run on sentence, there’s also three select Marvelman stories included in MIRACLEMAN #1, still called Marvelman because Marvel owns the license now. Thank Shazam for rights transfers that make things LESS confusing rather than more.

Speaking of rights and more, Alan Moore remains uncredited. Though I think he more or less washed his hands of the Miracleman business long ago, and is more than used to the big two publishers screwing him over.

To to summarize the plot, MIRACLEMAN #1 introduces us to Micheal Moran, an aging freelance journalist struggling to get by with his wife. He is also plagued by nightmares. Visions of flying, snow, and atomic death. But when terrorists hold up the nuclear plant Micheal is investigating, he is finally reminded of that special word he could never remember: Kimota. When he speaks the word, he transforms into Miracleman, finally remembering his past as a superhero. But how can adventures in crime fighting possibly be so silly? With their kid sidekicks, atomic keywords, space physicists, gecko monsters, mad scientists, and Young Nastyman (arch rival and nemesis to Wonder boy)? And has he left all his old enemies behind? Or are there individuals who want nothing more for Miracleman to remain dead?

Well I know all that already. The perils of assuming it’s okay to read spoilers about a comic that, up until recently, no one thought would ever come back. Oops.

As stated before, MIRACLEMAN as published now is both a reprint and a continuation of the old series. For now readers will be treated to one of the earliest deconstructionist takes on superhero comics. But there’s only so many issues in the series published. That’s where good old Neil Gaiman comes in. The creator of The Sandman and other works has long voiced a desire to return to the work he helped build and finally finish the three act storyline he planned way back in the eighties. How much the new material will adhere to Gaiman’s original designs and how much will reflect the writer’s growth over time, none can say.

But given what I’ve seen here, it’ll be worth waiting to find out. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore are of course required to read this series, as are fans of deconstruction. Personally I’ve mostly had my fill of deconstruction, valuing reconstruction more heavily these days. But this is comic book history, and deserves to be read. It’s a kind of narrative guide to superhero fiction between the Golden and Dark Ages. And I assure potential readers they’ll never read something quite like it. MIRACLEMAN #1 comes highly recommended.

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